Arcane Game Lore

Never split the party!

Perception Checks and Other “Secret” Rolls

Note: This post was supposed to go up on Wednesday but for some reason the site was having issues and not letting me save the post or upload images.  Everything seems to be figured out now.  Sorry about the delay.

I was listening to episode 234 of the Gamerstable podcast which was about tension and mood. In the course of their discussion, they were talking about perception rolls and other knowledge type rolls and who should be rolling them and the effect that had on mood and immersion in the game.  I want to talk a little about making those kinds of rolls.

Two camps

When you hear discussions on this topic, it usually falls into two different groups which can roughly be described as “Players roll” and “GMs roll” with discussions of the pros and cons of each.  There is sort of a third camp, “No roll”, but to me that falls under the GMs roll category, i.e. the GM decides what happens. To run through them quickly, as I see it, the relative merits of each option are:

Players Roll


  • Player involvement – the characters are rolling to determine the success or failure of the character
  • Less data for the GM to track – the GM doesn’t have to keep track of the character’s skills/abilities to determine if the roll was a success or not.  The player make the roll and informs success or failure, and possibly by how much depending on the system.


  • Player’s know something is up – if you call for a roll, they know there is information to be had so if they fail, they’ll probably do something to keep trying.
  • May require prompting – players may not always think to make a roll when it is appropriate or when their characters should logically do so.

GMs Roll


  • Checks made any time – the GM can simply roll and let the players know if they noticed anything or keep quiet if they don’t
  • Results are hidden = more realism – since they didn’t know the roll was made, or even if they asked for the roll, they don’t know the metagame result of the die roll and have to assume that whatever information the GM provides is what their character knows or thinks they know and are not sure about the actual accuracy


  • Lack of player agency – if the GM is making the rolls, the players may feel that they are not in complete control of their character or that the GM is “forcing” certain results or interactions on them (also known as “railroading” to use a loaded term).
  • More work for GM – the GM has to be aware of all the relevant player stats if there are to be serendipitous checks without the players knowing.  If the players ask for the check, the GM can always ask for the relevant attribute or skill.
  • Trust issues – There has to be a lot of trust of the GM by the players for this to work.  This is partially related to the player agency issue as well.  The players have to trust that the GM is not forcing things on them and is playing it straight.

What I do

I’m definitely in the “players roll” camp.  I like to roll the dice as do my players and I want to let them.   So how do I mitigate the metagaming negatives of this method?  Well, I employ a variety of techniques.

Roll Early and Often

The first thing I do is call for and allow lots of checks.  Often the result is “you don’t notice anything”, usually because there isn’t anything to notice  (or in the case of knowledge based skills, “you don’t remember anything”).  Some may argue that this slows down game play especially if we’re stopping at every point along the path to make perception rolls.  However, I’ve found that it doesn’t really hinder all that much and the players learn the appropriate time to make the checks.  I’d rather have them asking for them a little too often than having to prompt them for them.

Related to this, although maybe not the often part, is that I will sometimes have rolls cover a longer period of time.  Thus they make one roll for their watch or for an hour of travel down the road.  I can then adjust the success or failure based on that roll and the difficulty of what comes up.

Everybody gets something

A forest scene that is clear on the left but gets progressively blurrier as you move to the right of the imageThis option was actually mentioned in the podcast and is the one I use the most.  Here I treat success and failure more as a quality of perceived information check than strictly success/failure.  If something is happening, or is in the location, everyone is going to know, the die roll simply informs how quickly they notice, and the amount of detail initially perceived.  And for perception checks, it also may inform action bonuses or who gets to react first. i.e. those that make the check can react while the others are surprised or confused.

Successes get details.  Failures get vague generalities that may or may not be completely correct.  There is always a kernel of something in the response.  The greater the failure, the smaller the kernel.  Or maybe that I describe the general scene for everyone, failed check or not, and then pass those that succeeded (or succeeded the best) a note with more details that it is then their job to share with the rest of the party or react to.  The basic idea is that there is information to be provided, the quality depends on the skill roll.

No Re-rolls

For these types of checks, I’m pretty particular that you can’t retry.  You get one chance and have to work with what you discover (or don’t).  If circumstances change, a new roll may be warranted and I’ll allow it. But if they just keep doing the same thing, the roll stands.

Why did they fail?

The other thing I like to do, especially with knowledge type checks is narrate the reason for the failure.  Maybe they failed a lore check but are from a different country so they knowledge doesn’t apply to the local area.  Maybe they were distracted by the cat nuzzling their leg and didn’t see the bandit jump out of the alley way. Or something else.  Failure is a lot easier to take when there is a story associated with it.

Unknown modifiers

The other thing I like to do is ask not only if they succeeded or failed, but by how much.  Typically everything has a modifier known only to the GM as to it’s difficulty or how it modifies the die roll.  The just because the player thinks they succeeded or failed doesn’t necessary mean they did.  This goes back to the trust issue with the GM rolling but as long as you’re consistent and honest about it, it works out.

Multiple checks, one roll

I especially use this one for knowledge checks but also for perceptions.  This one typically comes up with games that are more skills based like RuneQuest.  Here I have the players make a roll and tell me which knowledge or lore skills they succeeded at.  And then I provide them information based on what worked and what didn’t or maybe still a “no information” result if none of their skills applied.  This kind of falls in with the something for everyone idea.  Everyone will typically succeed at something and you can point out different aspects of the scene or information to the different players depending on what they succeeded at.

Wrapping Up

No technique is perfect and even though I’m in the players roll camp, sometimes the implications of knowing the metagame aspects still warrant me as the GM making the roll and I will.  However, by employing a variety of techniques, you can minimize the metagame impact of the players knowing if they succeeded or failed and keep the game flowing and interesting.

What do you do about perception and “secret” checks in your games?  Do you like one method over the other?  Other ideas that would work?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Salt Lake Comic Con 2015

I had the opportunity to spend three days last week at the Salt Lake Comic Con.  Most of the time I had this guy staring over my shoulder.

A picture of me with a model of King Kong

Harley Quinn taking out King Kong with her hammer.Luckily I have a friend with a big mallet and she came and took care of him for me  (That’s my daughter).

I was primarily there to work at the Harold B. Lee Library‘s booth (that’s the library I work at as the Physical & Mathematical Sciences Librarian).  Somehow along the way I got drafted to manage the booth and keep and eye on it during the con.  If you’re wondering why we had a large King Kong model (which was made over the two weeks before Comic Con by some BYU students), it is because the HBLL has the largest archive collection of King Kong memorabilia in the world including the papers, scrapbooks, and photographs of King Kong’s creator, Merian C. Cooper.

While the final attendance numbers for the Con aren’t in yet, the number is expected to be over 120,000 and they did set the world record for the number of people dressed like a comic book character with 1784 people showing up for the attempt.  And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of everyone who was dressed up.  If I had to guess, I’d say it was close to 40-50% of the attendees were in some sort of costume.

It was quite packed, especially on Saturday and we had close to 6,000 people visit our booth over the three days of the Con.  We were averaging a person every 20 seconds the first two days and on Saturday that became about 1 every 1o seconds.  Luckily they would come in groups so we actually had time to talk to them.

This was the first Comic Con (or any game or comic related con) I’ve ever attended.  I’ve been to some large meetings but they were academic in nature and I’ve been to the Life, the Universe, and Everything symposium a couple of times but that is much smaller and focused on writing.  At some level the con was a bit overwhelming but at the same time, it is exactly what I expected.

I had a lot of fun and it was great to talk to people about the resources that the library had that would appeal to the Comic Con crowd.  There was a lot of “I never knew the library had that kind of stuff” type comments.  Which was the point of the booth.  We were there to showcase our collections and show that the library has resources that would interest anyone.  The main problem is often finding what you’re interested in.  We have over 10 million items in our collection and discovering what is there is not always as easy as it should be.

People watching was probably the best part.  It was fun to see all the different costumes and the way people would interact.  And the spontaneous photo shoots as someone would walk up to someone else in costume and ask to take their picture or take a picture with them.  My daughter was tickled pink that she got asked six times for a photograph by completely random strangers in the one day she was there.

The other really cool thing about the con was the number of kids.  There were lots and lots of them and almost all of them were dressed up to one extent or another.  It was also fun to watch their reaction to King Kong.  Many of them were quite fine or even excited to take a picture with the model while others were like “Nope, not going near that big scary monster”.  And it didn’t matter the age.  Although those under about 3 were much more likely to not want to have anything to do with it.  The students did a great job in making him look pretty scary.

The vendor booths were interesting but in the end held little that I was really interested in, although some of the Star Wars mashup images were very tempting.  But that’s probably because I’m a simple guy with simple tastes and didn’t really need anything there.

I did get to attend a few of the panels, mostly ones on writing, and they were quite good and gave me some good ideas to think about when I’m working on my writing (which I need to do more of).  The panels at the con covered a huge range of topics and interests and I know I only scratched the surface.

There was gaming at the con as both D&D Adventures and Pathfinder Adventure League had sessions going the whole time along with a local gaming store sponsoring a bunch of board game tables with lots of different games to try out.  Unfortunately I never had enough free time to try any of these out.

Would I go back?  If the library does a booth again next year, definitely.  If I’m going on my own dime? Maybe.  It was fun and I could spend more time in the panels and maybe even try some of the games.  I briefly looked into running a game at the con but in the end didn’t which was good because I wouldn’t have had time.  On the other hand, there wasn’t a lot that really appealed to me and I wouldn’t be heart-broken if I missed it.  It was fun but not “Oh my goodness, I have to go back” kind of fun.  I think I’d get a lot more out of a game focused con.  The problem is those aren’t local and take a little more effort (and cash) to attend.

How about you?  Did you attended a Comic Con this year?  Were you at the Salt Lake Comic Con?  What was your experience and impressions for any con you attended?  Let us know in the comments below.

Designing Out Loud – Structure Points

This post was inspired by my friend Wade Wilson who is working on a game system of his own.  It’s still a little disjointed since I’m still stewing over these ideas and will refine them in future posts but I wanted to get the initial ideas out to begin with.  It’s also kind of short and later in the week than my usual posts because I’ve been trying to get everything ready as I’ll be managing a boot at the Salt Lake Comic Con today through Saturday.

Some options

The topic at hand is structure points or damage to inanimate objects.  There are a couple of ways to go on this.  Wade is leaning toward a minor/major/totaled system.  Based on the damage rolled and the armor/damage reduction of the object you get one of the three results (with a no damage result as well).  What that means for the object depends on what it is.

I’m leaning much more towards structure points, basically hit points for objects.  I think that for me it is just conceptually easier to assign a hit point value to objects.  They could also have an armor value or just have heavily armored objects have more structure points.  The you can just treat objects like to do characters and subtract the rolled damage from their structure point total.  You don’t have to look things  up an a different table or do any other calculations.  The damage is simply applied.  There is probably a little more bookkeeping during play to track this but it’s not really that much more.  To my mind at least, this creates a single system for everything, not something different for characters/creatures and objects.

System Damage

The question is what to do about damage to internal systems of more complicated objects such as computers, robots, and vehicles. Although this could apply to things like weapons, screens, scanners, and such as well.

One option is to simply ignore it.  Everything has a structure point value and it works until you exceed that value in damage and then it doesn’t work anymore.  This is obviously the simplest way to do it but is not really realistic.

The minor/major/totaled system has the advantage that you can assign various penalties to the various levels but this could be done with structure points as well, by assigning thresholds.  Maybe under 25% is not penalty, over 25% is a minor penalty, and over 70% is a major penalty.  Or if you wanted you could apply more thresholds for more effects.  This is a pretty coarse system and you might have different effects for different types of objects or just a skill modifier based on the amount of damage.

The most realistic option is to have some sort of damage table.  However this would have to be customized  at least to the type of object if not for specific objects themselves.  And you need a way to decide if damage should be rolled on this table or not.

Penetrating Damage

One way to do this is to assign objects a penetration value. This could  be based on the type of material it is made of or the armor the object has, and maybe its bulk or mass.  Then the rule would be that if the damage from any single shot exceeded the penetration value, the damage got to the interior of the object and affected an internal system and you would roll on the table.  A non-penetrating hit would still reduce the overall structure points of the object but would not damage a “critical” component.

This would obviously require more work up front when designing the object although there would be basic guidelines that would allow you to make a quick judgement call during play if needed.

More to come

There is obviously much more that needs to be thought out about this and it needs to be balanced for playability and such but these are definitely ideas to ponder and start thinking about.  What is your favorite way of handling damage to objects and equipment?  What do you think works the best? Let me know in the comments below.

Creating Starmaps – part 2

So a couple of weeks ago I posted my initial foray in to writing a program to generate random star maps.  In that post I had figured out how to actually create the image file and draw the symbols.  Now it’s time to create the actual systems randomly and get them drawn on the map.

Number of systems

The program starts out with a few parameters set.  Right now this is coded into the program but eventually I’ll allow the user to specify them when the program is run.  These parameters include the size of the map (in light years in the x, y, and z directions) and the stellar density (which is currently in units of star systems per cubic light year).

By default, I’ve been using an x, y, z size of 44,24,25, which is the same as the hex maps I made by hand.   For a stellar density, I’ve been using 0.004 or 4 systems per 1000 cubic light years.  This is basically the stellar density in the vicinity of the Sum.  Although as I’m writing this, I think that is the density for the total number of stars, not the total number of systems.  But that’s not really that important.  All it really means is that I end up with a few more stars which is just the same as being in a slightly denser stellar region.

Based on the size of the region and the density, the program computes the number of star systems that should be generated.  These particular settings give me 106 star systems per map.

Stellar Muliplicity

a 4 star systemThe next step is to determine the number of star in each system.  I used the data in a paper by Tokovinin (2008) to compute the relative number of multiple star systems and generate the random tables to be used by the program.  The data is a decade old at this point but there don’t seem to be any more recent studies that I found in my relatively quick search.  In any case, this makes a good approximation that is fine for my intended purposes

Based on Tokovinin’s data, the resulting fraction of systems come out as follows:

  • 56% Single stars
  • 36% Double stars
  • 4.5% Triple Stars
  • 1.2% Quadruple Stars
  • 0.2% Quintuple Stars
  • 0.1% 6-10 stars

The program will generate up to a 10 star system but that literally has a 1 in a million chance of happening.  I’ve never actually had more than a six star system be generated yet without forcing the code to make larger star systems.

Spectral Types

a Hertzsprung-Russel diagram showing the relationship between the different spectral typesThe next step was for every star to generate its spectral type.  This is how hot and big it is and is also related to its age.  For example the Sun is a G2V star.

I actually created the random dice table for this bit for an earlier project that I worked on back in 2008.  I have a document that I created in December of that year that has all the probability tables in it.  It’s a little old at this point and probably needs to be updated but it forms a good starting point for getting the program running.

The tables generate all types of main sequence stars, as well as white dwarfs, brown dwarfs, giants, supergiants, neutron stars, and black holes.  All of which are generated at probabilities based on data take from scholarly papers on stellar surveys that were published in the 2007-2008 time frame.  There have been some new papers published that I need to review and update my probabilities from but that’s a project for later once the program is working and will only have minor effect on the map (probably producing more brown dwarfs).

For the purposes of the tables I generated, it only specifies the base spectral type (O, B, A, F, G, etc.) and doesn’t add in the numerical bit.  I have the data to do that and will do so at some point (like when I update the tables) but this is a good start.

Most stars are going to be M and K dwarfs on the main sequence.  They account for 81% of all stars in the sky.  G stars like our sun make up another 3%.  In my tables, brown dwarfs are 8%, F stars are 2%, white dwarfs are 5%, and all other stars (O, B, & A stars, giants and supergiants, black holes, and neutron stars) make up the remaining 1%.

The spectral types are generated completely randomly and there is no influence based on the other stars in the system.  There probably should be, but that too is a refinement for a later date that I haven’t looked into yet.  There are papers on the topic, I just haven’t read any of them.

Map Placement

No that we have all the stars, and the symbols for them, it’s time to put them on the map.

Single stars are easy.  Just plop them down in the center of their map grid location.  The fun comes when you have a multiple star system.  Binary stars are pretty easy too.  Although you need to account for the fact that the star symbols aren’t all the same size.  But when you get to 3, 4, 5, or more stars in the system, things can get a little dicey.

It turns out I worked this out a little bit by trial and error.  Typically I’d put the stars at the vertices of a n-sided polygon (i.e. triangle, square, hexagon, etc)  and then tweak the positions to something that looked okay.  In some of the cases, I’d use a smaller polygon and put one or more of the stars in the center of the system.  In each case, the program stores a list of offsets from the center of the system for where to draw each star when you have a multiple star system.

badExample1For systems with stars all the same size, this worked out pretty well.  However, when there are stars of different sizes, there were complications.  Large stars would almost completely cover smaller stars (see image at right), smaller stars would be floating off by themselves and be separate from the system, etc.

I solved this with two modifications.  First I assigned each spectral type a weight based on it’s color (bluer before redder) and it size (large before small).  I then sorted the stars based on this weight and drew the bigger, bluer stars first and ending with the small red ones.  This solved the big stars obscuring small stars issue.

Five star system drawn as described in text, there is a large K star, 3 small M stars, and a smaller brown dwarfThe second thing I did was adjust the position offsets based on the size of the stars.  Thus large stars would be shifted more off center than smaller ones.  This kept the smaller stars from floating off the cluster representing the star system.  The image to the right shows a quintuple system drawn with this new algorithm (it also has a label for the height above the map plane, more on that shortly).

Another problem was that with the different scales for the shifts, the star systems were no longer centered in the grid box (as you can see in the last image).  Again, this I handled by trail and error and created a heuristic that would shift the entire system based on the number and sizes of the stars in that particular system.  It’s not perfect but it’s pretty close.  It’s possible to calculate the exact size and center it if I decide to do so.

Z-axis Label

The next thing was to label the height of the star above or below the plane of the map.  This was done by simply putting the z coordinate on the map to the lower right of the system symbol with all positive values have a plus sign printed with them.

Multiple Systems at the Same Grid Point

One last issue is that it is possible for star systems to have the same (x, y) coordinate on the map but with different z coordinates. (It’s also possible to have the same x, y, and z coordinate but that hasn’t happened yet.  I should probably check for it though.)  When this happens the star systems are drawn on top of each other and you can’t really see whichever one is drawn first.

Two systems in the same grid location, on is shifted down to the left and the other up to the rightTo compensate for this, I again set up a series of offsets that simply moved each system to a different part of the grid square.  I’ve never had more than two systems in the same square but the program can handle up to four.  I’ll need to tweak this a bit for a hex grid instead of a square one but not by much.  An example can be seen to the right.  In this case it is a single and a double M star system but it even works for the larger systems as well.

Current Status

So that’s where the program currently stands.  Here is a full map generated with the current algorithm:

Full Star map

Next up is connecting the larger star systems with lines showing their distances, creating a hex grid option instead of just the Cartesian grid, and printing out a text file with all the star system information.

Are there any other features you’d like to see?  Problems with the map above that I missed?  Comments or suggestions.  Let me know in the comment section below.

A Cursed Ring – RPG Blog Carnival

RPG blog carnival logoThe topic for this month’s RPG Blog Carnival is curses and cursed items.  The carnival this month is being hosted by Johnn Four at Role Playing Tips.  When I read the topic, I immediately knew I had to share the story of my first character as a new player in a new gaming group and his glorious (or more likely ignoble) death due to a cursed item.

The year was 1988, I was a junior in high school, and had just been invited to join a regular gaming group that met each Saturday.  They were playing a home-brewed version of RuneQuest, 3rd ed., a system I’d never played before but quickly fell in love with.  The GM was an older gentleman (late 30′s at the time, that’s old when you’re in high school) who ran the game at his home and who had been developing the world and running games in it since he was in junior high (and for those keeping score, that was before D&D came out).  But that doesn’t really have anything to do with the story.

Since I was a new player and had never played this system before, my first character was a simple fighter.  Sword, shield, armor, and bash things over the head.  It was a good way to get started and figure out some of the game mechanics.  I joined in just as the group was launching their final assault on some ruin or other.  I don’t even remember what it was.  Over the course of three sessions, battles ensued, the bad guys were vanquished, and we retired back to the inn that was our base of operations at the moment with the loot and other fruits of our labors.  Among which were 63 magical rings.

Two gold ringsThe wizards in the group were able to identify many of the rings, some of which were useful but most of which would be considered cursed in that they did things that as PC’s we didn’t what happening.  Some of the rings were things they had seen before and some contained enchantments that they could identify the nature of and make a good guess as to what it did.  However, there were about a dozen of the rings that had everyone stumped and they all seemed to be the same thing.

We could determine that the rings drew a little power from the wearer, and that they used come sort of communication spell, but beyond that their exact purpose was unknown.  So like all good adventurers, we decided to try one on.  After all, among the loot were half a dozen “remove curse” spell scrolls.  (They were actually a spell called “Cancel Arcane” that simply short circuits and destroys whatever magical effect they are cast on but it’s the same effect.  Remember this is a home-brew system with a home-brewed magic system.)

I should also point out here that in this world there are three different genetic types for humans.  The first is just your normal run of the mill human.  Standard in every way and could use the standard magic systems from RuneQuest.  The second was a genetic strain that was predisposed to the use of magic that could use the more advanced home-brewed magic systems.  The third was a genetic strain that has had the ability to use any type of magic (besides divine) bred out of them (long backstory related to the history of the game world there) and had a somewhat higher resistance to  magical effects.  In the post Harry Potter world, we call them muggles.  My character was of this third variety.

So naturally, I figured I’d try the ring on.  I’m resistant to magical effects and if I had to do something to actually activate it, it wouldn’t happen since I can’t.   I’ll admit that I wasn’t too attached to this character.  It was my first character in the game system and I’m partial to playing wizards anyway so I was willing to take a few risks that I normally wouldn’t.  Which was a good thing as we’ll soon see.

The wizards are all staring at me intently (using their Sense Aura skill to watch for magical effects) and I slip on the ring.  Nothing happens.  Well, it looks like a non-magical person like myself can’t use it or activate it.  So I try to take the ring off.  Nope.  I can’t remove it.  There is still nothing happening so they don’t want to use one of the scrolls just yet (they were pretty powerful and were the “nuclear” option).  One of the wizards knew the Cancel Arcane spell and tried casting it on the ring but it must not have been powerful enough because nothing happened and I still couldn’t remove the ring.

xenomorph alien from the movie alien

Imagine two of these popping out of nowhere right next to you (image by who-stole-MY-name on Deviant Art, click image to visit page).  It turns out that “battle demons” in this world are actually based on the xenomorphs from Alien.

It’s been about a minute of game time since I put the ring on and it suddenly gets a bit more crowded in the private conference room we were meeting in as two battle demons materialized in the room right next to me.  Well at least we now seem to know what the ring does (Summoning is a communication spell).

Needless to say things got a little crazy.  I dived out of the way and made for my sword and shield in the corner of the room while the battle demons engaged two other members of the group.  After grabbing my weapons, I actually had the presence of mind to remember that I was still wearing the ring.  Thinking that it might give me some control over the things it had just summoned, I tried commanding them to stop attacking.  It didn’t work.  I didn’t speak battle demon and they didn’t seem to speak my language so there was no response other than one of them turned to attack me.

I missed my first attack but managed to parry the creature’s attack with my shield.  The next round saw me landing a solid blow and discovering a nasty characteristic of these beasties.  Their blood is an acid and my favorite broadsword was starting to dissolve in my hand.  My next blow was a lucky strike (a critical hit) that kills the creature I was fighting but my sword broke in the process.  And guess what, it’s been another minute and two more appear, again right next to me.

About this time I’m thinking it would be good for one of those remove curse scrolls but the wizards are being a little hard pressed by the battle demons and are in no condition to work on that right now.  I grab my backup weapon, a long sword, and wade in.  At this point someone realizes that any magically enhanced blade seems to be immune to the acid effect.  Those with spells that can do that are frantically enchanting everyone’s weapons while those of us who can’t are fending of the creatures.  Which is good because our weapon supply was rapidly diminishing.

The battle raged on for a couple more minutes.  At some point I found myself up on the conference table in the center of the room laying into any demon I can reach.  Plus it put the newly arriving ones up where they could be targeted by the wizards.  I had killed four of the creatures and wounded a fifth when one of them landed a fatal blow, crushing my skull.  There were only two more of the creatures left at this point (in all 8 battle demons were summoned) and no new creatures appeared.  Killing the wearer of the ring successfully stops the enchantment from working.  And they never did have to use one of those scrolls.

The rest of the group finished off the remaining creatures but there was nothing they could do for my poor character.  At least he got to go out in a blaze of glory, even if the need was self inflicted.  The clean up was quite extensive and a good chunk of our coin went to the owner of the inn for repairs (One of the wizards was quite liberal in his use of the flare spell – think mini fireball – not to mention all the acid blood over everything.)

In the end, they stowed those ring away but didn’t destroy them.  You never know when it might be useful to summon an army of battle demons into a fight, especially if you can find a way to control them or at least direct them against your enemy.

So that’s how my first ever RuneQuest character died, after just three and a half sessions, killed by creatures he summoned by putting on a cursed ring.  Do you have a good cursed items or story related to one? Join in with this month’s blog carnival and share your experiences.


Creating Starmaps

I’ve mentioned the community designed Spacer RPG in a previous post.  In that G+ community, the call went out for building star maps for the game.  As an astronomer, I wanted to take a stab at creating a “realistic” map, by which I mean something built on actual stellar statistics and such.  I had most of the data I needed already as I had started working on a related project several years ago.  Some of the exact numbers may be off due to new discoveries but not by much.

I had a lot of fun making up some sample maps.  I created four to start with.  You can see the maps and the full descriptions on the related G+ posts, but the maps were

  1. 2D with a stellar density similar to that near the sun – light year scale
  2. 2D with a higher stellar density – light year scale
  3. 2D with a stellar density similar to that near the sun – parsec scale
  4. 3D with a stellar density similar to that near the sun – light year scale

Here’s that 4th one:

3D star map. Space volume is 44x24x25 light years. Each star is labeled with its height above or below the plane of the map. (click on image to go to original post to see full resolution version)

At this point I was just simulating the proper stellar multiplicity – the correct number of single and multiple systems.  There is no information here about the type of star or anything of that nature.  As was suggested in the community, it would look even better if there were symbols for the stars that represented their spectral types.

I had the data to generate that so I whipped up a list of random numbers and assigned broad spectral types to each of the stars (O,B, A, etc, not going down to the G2, G3, G4, etc. level)  My generation tables included all stellar types in the appropriate proportions.  Which of course means that most of the stars here are going to cool M dwarfs as that this the most abundant stellar type but that there would be a smattering of larger stars as well.

Of course to represent the different star types on the map, I’d need different symbols.  The one I’d been using I just kind of created out of whole cloth and it is a little intense.  The question was what should I do to differentiate the spectral types, what colors should I use, and what should the symbols look like?  After looking at a couple of options, I decided I’d try to go with something that was close to the actual color of the star.  So I started with this page that lists all the RGB colors of every spectral type of star.  In addition to providing the data, he provides the references for his data sources as well as how the colors were derived.

I took the color from that page to be the central color of the star and then added a darker edge and an even darker halo around the star to make the symbol for each of the spectral types.  In addition, I made the M star, brown dwarf, and white dwarf symbols half the size of the other stars. (Neutron stars and black holes would have been 75% if any had shown up and giants would have been 50% larger).  I then connected up the star systems that contained F, G, or K stars (the ones most likely to actually have habitable planets).  The resulting map looked like this:

Same map but with spectral types and distances added. (click on image to go to original G+ post with more details.)

The numbers on the lines connecting the stars represent the distances between them (in light years).  The third dimension definitely adds some interesting features.

Image of Sun with sunspots. (click on image for source and a page on limb darkening)

I wasn’t completely happy with the star symbols on this map as I felt they were a bit too fuzzy and wanted to try to make them more distinct.  The look I was going for was something like the image of the sun to the right where you have limb darkening as you move to the edge of the star.  Plus I wanted a corona or glow around the star’s image as well.

So I went back to the drawing board and looked at my stellar symbols yet again.  I realized that simply by swapping the darker color I was using for the coronal glow with the lighter color I was using for the rim of the star, and playing with the gradient effect I was using, I could get a much more defined image.  So I made up a chart showing all the old and new stellar images and posted it to the community for comments.

Each of the old and new symbols plus some binary systems with the new symbols. (clicking on image takes you to the original post)

These symbols were much less blurry but I may still need to tweak the central color as there is sort of a concentric circle effect on the bluer stars.  These are actually twice as big as they would appear on an actual images so maybe it’s not quite so bad.  It’s something to keep in mind as I go forward.

As someone commented in the post on this image, there was still some fuzziness in the binary images and not as good a distinction between the stars as could be desired.  I looked at a couple of ways to make them more distinct and first thought of layering a dark ring under the star (as the edges are semi transparent) but that didn’t work at all.  In the end I found that putting an opaque black disk under the star worked really well as you can see in the image below.  It had no effect on the image when the star was by itself (or the back star in a multiple) but when place on top of another star in a multiple system you got a nice separation plus the limb darkening effect I was looking for.

A pair G star, a single G star, and a G and M binary pair using the new star symbols

Okay, so things are looking good.  But at this point I’ve been doing all of this by hand (with the exception of rolling the random numbers, that would have been a lot of dice) and I got to thinking.  I’m a programmer.  I’m an astronomer.  I should be able to write something that would generate all of these star systems and draw out the map completely automatically.

The trouble was I know very little about writing graphics files.  I made my first maps in Gimp and had just used a combination of brush strokes of various diameters to create the originals symbols.  The new symbols were created in Inkscape and were SVG files (that I then imported into Gimp to make map 5).  I knew that SVG files were really just code but I didn’t know much beyond that.  So I started looking into how they were created and how to make images and it turned out that it wasn’t as hard as I had feared it might be.  Especially since I could make an image in Inkscape, save it, and open it up in a text editor to play with and see how it all fit together.

At that point I started playing around with the SVG file for the G star to see if I could manipulate it properly by hand.  I made a few mistakes but finally figured it out and boiled it down to the essentials I would need in a program to make the images.  In fact, that last image above with the binaries was actually an SVG image file that I created by hand.  Google wouldn’t let me upload the SVG so I converted it to a PNG in Gimp but the file was created completely by hand.

The next step was to write a program to create the star field.  My current prototyping language of choice is Python so that’s were I started.  I banged out a few functions to create the SVG code needed for a single star image based on its spectral type, wrote some functions to write out the final SVG file and then threw in some random position generation and hardcoded spectral types, plus a bit of logic for positioning the stars when in binary systems and I ended up with this image:

Computer generated  star field

Everything is on a simple Cartesian grid, there’s no background, no grid lines, and no connecting lines or labels but I got over the first hurdle of figuring out how to draw single and multiple star systems.  And since it’s written out as an SVG file. I can open it up in an editing program like Inkscape or Illustrator and tweak it by hand as needed.

So that’s were it stands right now.  I’ll be continuing to develop this over the coming weeks to add the full generation process including determining the position of the star systems, the number of stars in each system and the spectral types of the stars.  I’m planning on having the option for Cartesian and hex grids. I’ll also need to work on the positioning of the individual symbols in multiple star systems.  After that I’ll look a ways to determine which connections to draw between stars as well as drawing the connections and labeling them as well as labeling the height above and below the map plane.

Do you have any thoughts or comments on the process?  An suggestions for ways to improve the symbols?  Would you be interested in having a program like this for you to use?  What features would you like it to have if you did?  Let me know in the comments below.

Designing Out Loud – Skill System – Skill List

Okay, now that we’ve talked about the skill resolution mechanic and skill improvement costs, it’s time to start looking at the skills themselves.  As I mentioned in the previous post, this system will have broad skills divided into even broader skill categories.

The Skills

This week’s post will just be the skill categories and the skills they contain.  Each skill will be listed in the category that it most likely applies to.  However, with a good justification, some skills may be available through different skill categories.  In the places where I’ve thought of them, I’ll mention it.  In play if a player can justify why a skill should fall under their skill category, the referee should give it a serious consideration and allow it.  So let’s dive in.

Agent with trenchcoat, briefcase, and gunAgent Skill Category

These skills are about activities that are often on the wrong side of established laws or customs.  They cover activities such as espionage, theft, coercion, and other deceptions.

  • Detective – Covers activities related to gathering and connecting information  like listening for and spotting clues, surveillance, searching, gathering information, reading facial expressions and body language, etc.
  • Persuasion – Covers any activity trying to convince others to do something that you want whether it is against their will or not such as bribery, charm, intimidation, cons, etc.
  • Stealth – Covers activities related to moving silently and unobserved such as hiding, concealment, shadowing a target, etc.  This skill may also be gained through the Scout skill category.
  • Thievery – Covers activities related to acquiring others property such as lock-picking, forgery, slight of hand, pick-pocketing, etc.  It also applies to knowing where to dispose of such ill gotten gains safely.

Female artist working at desk.Artisan Skill Category

This skill category covers all types of artistic endeavors, including creation, interpretation, and evaluation of the various expression forms.  Those who specialize in this area have an easier time learning a musical instrument, putting on a show, giving a speech, or creating things whether it be written, a sculpture, a painting, a song, or some other form of creative, artistic expression.  This category includes the following skills, although as a Referee, if you want the skills to be more specialized, feel free to adapt them for your campaign by adding more.

  • Composition – Covers the various forms of writing whether it be poetry, prose, screenplays, music, or something else.
  • Performance – Covers all forms of acting as well as singing, dancing, and public speaking
  • Sculpture – Covers sculpting in various media as well as areas such as pottery, woodworking, leatherwork, and metalwork.
  • Visual Art – Covers the visual media such as painting, drawing, photography, and holography

Language Skill Category

Someone with the Language skill category as their primary or a secondary category has the gift of tongues and learns and masters languages easily.  Each language (or maybe language group) in your game is a separate skill.  All characters are assumed to have a level 5 skill in their native language as well as a level 4 skill in the common tongue if one exists in your campaign.  The various skill levels represent varying levels of language mastery as give below:

  • Level 1 – Memorized phrases, can reads a few words.  Allows for limited/halted conversations
  • Level 2 – Slightly better conversation with greater vocabulary and limited reading/writing capability
  • Level 3 – Basic fluency but possibly with a strong accent.  Able to read and write the language
  • Level 4 – Full fluency and literacy in the language
  • Level 5 – Ability to detect, pick up, and imitate local dialects.  This is the level of a native speaker raised speaking the language and anyone who achieves this level in a language can be mistaken for a native speaker.
  • Level 6 – Academic scholarship – This level is reserved for those who have dedicated much effort to understanding the history and entomology of the language and its subtle and obscure corners.

The exact skill list for this category depends on the campaign but should include at least one skill for each alien race (including humans) and a common language.  If playing a single species campaign (e.g. just humans) the Referee may assign skills for specific language groups (Slavic, Germanic, Romantic, Asian, etc) or even individual languages if that suits the style of the campaign.

soldier with body armor and laser rifleMilitary Skill Category

This category covers all of the martial arts from unarmed combat through pistols and rifles and on up to starship weaponry.  Characters with these skills are effective at acquiring and eliminating their targets.  These skills include the use and maintenance of the weapons they cover.  This category contains the following skills:

  • Archaic weapons- Covers older weapons like bows, crossbows, atlatls, ballistas, and even trebuchets.
  • Demolitions – Covers the use of explosives as well as setting, detecting, and deactivating charges
  • Energy weapons – Covers weapons that emit a beam of energy such as lasers, electrostunners, and sonic weapons
  • Melee weapons – Covers any type of melee weapon from brass knuckles to swords to clubs to morning stars.
  • Projectile weapons – Covers any weapon that fires a physical projectile such as regular guns, gyrojet weapons, rocket launchers, and needler weapons.
  • Starship weapons – covers the operation and firing of starship based weapons whether energy or projectile based.  (Note: if the referee desires they may split this into two skills for the two weapon types).
  • Thrown weapons – Covers all weapons thrown by hand such as grenades, knives, javelins, and spears
  • Unarmed combat – Covers any combat using just a creature’s natural limbs without using additional weapons

Pilot with helmetPilot Skill Category

This category covers the operation of vehicles, both civilian and military, in stressful for dangerous situations.  Characters with good pilot skills can maneuver their vehicles through confined areas, across dangerous or treacherous terrain, and quickly recover if control is lost.  Each skill in this category covers a different type of craft:

  • Air – Covers any fixed or rotary winged aircraft such as helicopters, air planes, air cars, jets and blimps
  • Ground – Covers any vehicle that moves via direct contact with the ground such as cars, trucks, motorcycles, and tanks.
  • Hover – Covers any vehicles that move on a cushion of air such as hovercycles, hovercars, etc.  These vehicles may or may not be able to move across water.
  • Water – Covers any water going vessels such as boats, ships, or submarines
  • Systemship – This covers any short range or in-system spacecraft that do not have FTL capability such as shuttles, inter planetary vessels, or fighters.
  • Starships – Covers any spacecraft large or small that is capable of FTL travel

A midevial scholar surrounded by notes, books, and globesScholar Skill Category

This category covers skills about knowledge, whether “scholarly” or not.  Scholars are good at making connections between different areas and ideas and using that information to assist them in whatever situation they may find themselves in.  The skills is this category cover both basic knowledge of a subject (i.e. roll to see if you know the information) and the ability to do research in the topic to discover the information (i.e. roll to see if you can find/discover/research the data).  The scholarly skills in this category are:

  • Architecture – Covers the design, construction, and history of buildings and other structures
  • Economics – Covers anything to do with financial matters, markets, industry, etc.
  • History – Covers knowledge of the past, whether people, places, or events
  • Law – Covers the legal systems in use and how to work with existing laws and law enforcement agencies and the judicial systems
  • Literature – Covers knowledge of authors and their works both past and present
  • Philosophy/Theology – covers knowledge of the various religions and philosophies in the game
  • Politics – Covers the understanding of politics and bureaucracies both government and corporate, large and small
  • Pop Culture – Covers a knowledge of current events, people, and places
  • Xenotechnology (Species) – Covers knowledge of the technology of a single alien species. See full description under the Technology skill category

Doctor holding a vialScience Skill Category

This category covers all the sciences, both physical and biological.  Someone with this skill category has an analytical mind and is good at reasoning out problems and puzzles.  Scientists develop hypotheses, design tests, and prove theories in an attempt to understand and control the world around them.  Skills in this category include:

  • Earth Sciences – This covers items related to land, water and air sciences such as geology, chemistry, and meteorology.
  • Life Sciences – This covers things like biology, zoology, and other living things including eco-systems and the things that impact them.
  • Medical – Covers all aspects of medicine from basic first aid, to treating diseases and poisons, to major surgery.  As an optional variation, the Referee could require this skill to be species specific, i.e a Medical (Human) skill being need to work on humans and a Medical (Klingon) skill being needed to treat a klingon.
  • Psyco-Social – Covers the study of the mind, the psyche and and things like hypnosis and the unconscious mind
  • Space Sciences – This covers the sciences related to outer space and includes astrogation, space physics, and astronomy.
  • Xenotechnology (Species) – Covers knowledge of the technology of a single alien species. See full description under the Technology skill category

Note:  The skills here are very broad.  This is for ease of play.  For a more realistic handling of these types of skills, the referee could have individual skills for each science or application.  For example the Space Sciences skill could be divided into Physics, Astronomy, and Astrogation as skills that have to be learned independently.  This is more realistic but makes skill advancement harder and creates more skills that have to be adjudicated during the game.

Woman with backpack overlooking a mountain valleyScout Skill Category

This category covers the skills of an outdoorsman or someone skilled at working in and with nature.  A good scout can live off the land and survive adversity given the necessary resources (or time to find them).  The skills in this category include:

  • Animal Handling – Covers the care, training, and use of animals
  • Athletics – Covers such things as climbing, running, jumping, etc
  • Mariner – Covers such things as swimming, diving, operating terrestrial water craft, and navigating on water ways, including rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans.
  • Navigation – Covers all aspects of terrestrial navigation, cartography, etc.
  • Stealth – Covers activities related to moving silently and unobserved such as hiding, concealment, shadowing a target, etc.  This skill may also be gained through the Agent skill category.
  • Survival – Covers the ability to live of the land, find/create shelter, hunting, tracking, etc.

Engineers in clean suits standing around a piece of space technologyTechnology Skill Category

This final category covers all technical skills from basic machinery up through starship drives and everything in between.  Characters with this skill category are good with their hands and like to tinker and build stuff.  They can repair existing items and keep the running or make new things as needed.  The skills in this category include:

  • Architecture – Covers the design, construction, and history of buildings and other structures (e.g. bridges, railways, radio towers, etc) and includes civil engineering.
  • Computers – Covers all aspects of computer use from building them to programming them to repairing them and also includes how to create and circumvent computer security measures
  • Robotics – Covers all aspects of working with robots including repair, programming, and modification
  • Starship Engineer – Covers all aspects of spacecraft engineering from designing ships to building them to keeping them running and an understanding of all systems on the ship.
  • Technician – Covers all basic mechanical and electrical skills both for machines and vehicles.
  • Xenotechnology (Species) -  his skill represents studying the alien culture and understanding how it works in relation to how it creates and operates it machinery and is designed to help overcome the -20% alien technology penalty. This skill only goes up to level 2, and is harder to earn than would be normal, costing one extra XP to earn level 1 and two extra XP to earn level 2. The skill must be learned for each race individually but each level overcomes 10% of the penalty applied to using alien technology. Thus if a human had a Level 1 Xenotechnology (Klingon), when using technology specifically designed for klingons, that would normally carry a -20% modifier, he only suffers a -10%. If he raised his skill to level 2, the penalty would be removed. This skill would not apply to any technology designed for any of the other races.

Final Thoughts

Whew, that was a long post with a lot of information.  This system is very heavily influenced by a skill system that Bill Logan developed as an optional skill system for the Star Frontiers game which was published in the A Skilled Frontier article in issue 9 of Star Frontiersman magazine.  Many of the names you see here are the same since there just isn’t anything better to call them and the categories are very similar.  I’ve made some changes to some of the skills and where they fall based on what I think works better but the parallels are very strong.

These skills are not necessarily exhaustive.  Referees and players are encouraged to develop additional skills in the specified categories that apply to their games as needed.  There will probably be some tweaking to this as we move along but I thing this sets a good skill foundation for the game.

What do you thing of this skill system?  Too broad, to specific? Overly complicated? or just right?  Let me know in the comments below.

3D Modeling – A Big Print

So at work we got a new 3D printer (It’s an Ultimaker 2 Extended or if you want the Amazon page).  I happily volunteered to test it out and put it through its paces.  And I have to say, this is one very nice 3D printer.  However, like all printers, it is not without its share of problems.

As part of testing we wanted to do some “torture tests” and run some large, long prints.  The first of these turned out to be something for one of the library patrons.  He was printing a large nose cone for a model rocket that was just over 3 inches in diameter and 8 inches tall.  Now our current printer can print that but it has to be on its side (build area is 10″ wide by 6″ deep by 6″ tall) which for this particular shape is less than desirable as you get supports running up the side that mar the surface.  That wasn’t working so we decided to try it on the new printer, which can print it straight up since its build area is 8″w x 8″d x 12″ tall.  The print took almost 17 hours at 0.2mm resolution and worked perfectly.  Although it looked like an 80mm artillery shell when it was done and we’re not supposed to print weapons :) .

A Big Ship

So after that it was time to try a 0.1 mm resolution test.  The goal was to print something both wide and tall and with some surface features and details that would require supports and a long print time.  I had just the thing.  I grabbed Jay’s Assault Scout model that I described printing and painting in an earlier post.  Instead of printing it 4″ tall, I scaled the model up to 12″, the full height of the printer.  This made the wing span 10.2″ which is just under the 11.3″ diagonal size of the print area.  This print would fill the bed both horizontally and vertically, a perfect test.

Setting the resolution to 0.1 mm per layer gave me an estimated 42.5 hours to complete the print.  One of the reasons for the long test is that our older printer has a tendency to clog up on longer prints (even at 0.2 mm resolution) and we don’t even print at 0.1 mm resolution on that printer anymore because it clogs even on small prints.  This would be a great test.  I started the print on Friday morning so I could watch it get started and make sure everything seemed to be running okay but then let it run over the weekend.  After a couple of hours it looked like this:

The first 15mm of the printed Assault Scout

Printing at about layer 150

At this point it is just starting to print the back side of the fuselage in the middle.  The back side of the engines are done and the wings are connected to the engines are just starting to connect to the fuselage.

I even grabbed a quick video of the printing.  The quality isn’t that great as I was just holding my phone in my hand. This is real time and it is printing just one of the 3000 layers in the model.  You also get to listen to the sound of the printer, which has been my constant companion for the last few weeks as I’ve been putting it through it’s paces.  This is one of the layers that takes longer to print as there are a lot of features on that level but it gives you an idea of the process.

I snapped this picture just before I left to go home for the weekend:

A bit further on in the print.

Printing layer 195

Here we’ve moved up a bit further in the print and it is just finishing up with the printing of all the details on the back of the fuselage.  At this point all there really is to print is the infill (10%) and the outer surface of the model and each layer will go much faster.   It took about 6 hours to get to this point and we’ve only printed 195 of 3000 layers but they were the most complicated layers in the print.

I almost came in on Saturday and took a look to see how it was going (it would finish sometime late Saturday night/early Sunday morning) but even though I was on campus, I didn’t have time to run over to my office in the library and peek. (I was helping my wife get her night’s observing set up on the campus observatory.)

When I got to work Monday morning, this was the sight I was greeted with:

The fully completed Assault Scout Model still sitting on the printer.

The completed print

What a beautiful sight!  As you can see it pretty much fills the print volume.  When I picked it up off the print bed, I was surprised at how light it was.  (It weighed in at 170 grams or 6 oz).  For some reason, I was expecting a little more weight to it.

The print was almost perfect.  If you look closely at the image, there is a lighter color line running across the print right at the level of the top of the wing where it connects to the engines.  For some reason, about 15 layers here suffered an under extrusion problem (not enough plastic flowing through the nozzle).  That would have happened some time around Saturday morning during the print process.  I’m not sure if it is a problem with the slicing (the code that drives the printer) or a filament issue.  The only way to be sure would be to print another one and see if the exact same thing happens.  The good news is it recovered and to some extent the print quality above that point is actually better than below it.

Other than that one little section of under extrusion, which I’ll need to do something to fill in the small holes before I paint this, the print is amazing.  The surface is really really smooth and the surface details came out nice and clean.  Additionally, because the print was so large, some of the details, especially on the back of the ship, showed up much better than they did on the smaller 4″ model.  Speaking of which, here are the two models side by side:

The smaller painted Assault Scout model next to the newly printed large one. The larger print is 3 times taller and wider than the smaller one.

The smaller painted Assault Scout model next to the newly printed large one.  I haven’t yet removed the printing supports.

I can’t wait to get this big one painted.  I’ll be sure to post pictures when I do but that may not be for a while.  As a Tom Verreault pointed out, this one is almost big enough to be to scale with the character miniatures.  Which of course got me thinking about how to actually print one that is to the right scale.  But that’s a later project.

One last picture.  Here is what the back of the ship looks like with all the supports removed.

A view of the back of the ship showing the full detail of the model

The back of the ship

There is some clean-up still needed as all of the support material didn’t come off cleanly.  So far this has just been cleaned up with the pliers on my Leatherman tool and my fingers.  The little bits of features that you see running upper left to bottom right are residual support material.  Plus the first few layers right about the supports don’t print fully and I’ll want to sand them down for maximum quality.

Thoughts on 3D Printing

If there is anything I’ve learned about 3D printing over the past few weeks while testing out this printer is that it is definitely not yet to the “fire and forget” stage.  There is still a long way to go.  You need to know your printer, how 3D printing works, and be willing to tweak and play with settings and even your models if you want the best possible outcomes.

Every printer is different.  There are things that printed just fine on the older printer that I’ve had to work a bit to get to print on the new one and vice versa.  Another difference is the slicer used to prepare the models for printing.  I’ve noticed that subtle surface features are not as pronounced with this new printer as they were with the old one.  The two use different software to make the printer files and it seems that the older printer’s software would do something that would make surface features more pronounced.  This is something beyond your control and you just have to design for it.

In the end, there is really no substitute for practice and hands-on experience.  Make a model, print it, see what works and what doesn’t, make changes, and do it again.  If you’ve got a single printer you’re working with, you can optimize your prints for that printer.  In a way, that’s what I’ve done as all of my prints have been made for the older printer we have here at the library.  Seeing how this new printer handles those same files has given me some more ideas on what to do for models I make in the future.

The other thing to remember is that the settings that work for one model may not be good at all on another or even on the same model at a different print resolution.  You really need to look at the model, what your goals are for the print and what settings will allow you to print that successfully based on the characteristics of your printer.

3D printing has a bright future ahead of it.  The technology continues to improve and the costs continue to come down.  But right now it is definitely a hobbyist’s area that takes a certain level of dedication and commitment to if you really want to do it right and create and print models of the highest quality.

Have you done any 3D printing?  Any success stories or failures you want to share?  Let us know in the comments below.


On-line resources

Hopefully this will be the last of the off schedule posts.  I just finished the final project for my class this week and a have a couple weeks before the next one starts.  I had originally planned to continue with the skill mechanics discussion in my “Designing Out Loud” series but that post is taking longer to write up than I expected.  So today, I thought I’d give a shout out to some of the blogs and podcasts I follow for gaming inspiration and ideas.  This list is by no means exhaustive but these resources are great and you should check them out if you’re not already following them.


  • Campaign Mastery – This blog is full of great times for GMs looking to build and run campaigns.  The archives go back to 2008 and every article is gold.
  • Role-playing Tips – A weekly newsletter of tips and ideas for players and GMs.
  • Delta’s D&D Hotspot – A technical look at items related primarily to early editions of D&D but also occasional love for my favorite game Star Frontiers
  • Dyson’s Dodecahedron (formerly A Character for Every Game) – Amazing maps by Dyson Logos.  All are free for personal use and many are now free for commercial use thanks to his Patreon campaign
  • Explore: Beneath & Beyond – A blog exploring game design and mechanics details that is at least partially spawned by Star Frontiers.


  • Ken & Robin Talk About Stuff – Game designers and writers, Ken and Robin talk about just about anything.  Each podcast typically has four segments (called huts) were they delve into details about specific topics related to gaming, movies, food, and other items and how to use them as background or hooks in your games.
  • Fear the Boot – A general RPG podcast covering a variety of topics.
  • Saving the Game – Another general RPG podcast that starts each episode with a scripture.  They have an amazing Virtues and Vices series in their archive covering the seven deadly sins and seven virtues and how those ideas relate to gaming.
  • The Gameable Podcast (formerly known as the Gameable Disney Podcast) – A podcast reviewing all the full length Disney (and now Pixar) movies looking at how the can be used for gaming inspiration.  I learned about just recently and am still months behind on going through their archive.


Hopefully some of those blogs and podcasts will be of interest to you and help you improve your game whether it is generating ideas, being a better player, or becoming a better GM.  Do you have a favorite on-line RPG resources.  Let us know about it in the comments below.

Designing Out Loud – Skill System – Basic Mechanics

Okay, I seem to be running a bit late this week as well due to fallout from the camping trip (I developed a kidney stone the night we got back.  I don’t recommend this to anyone).  But better late than never.

My involvement with the experiment to create the SPACER RPG as a community via polls that I posted about two weeks ago has gotten me back to thinking about my game design and what I want to do.  So we’re back to our Designing Out Loud series this week to talk about the basic mechanics of the skill system.

I’ve gone back and forth on this several times trying to decide exactly how I want to do the skills but in the end I think that for now, I’ve decided to go with the broader skill definitions based somewhat directly on the character’s ability scores.  So let’s dive in and see what we have.

Skill Resolution Mechanic

Every skill will have the same basic mechanic.  You roll d100 and try to roll under the target number for the skill.  That target number will be determined by:

TN = 1/2 × relevant Ability Score + 10% × skill level + modifiers

The relevant ability score will depend on the skill being used.  For example, most weapons skills, especially weapons skills, will depend on your Dexterity ability although some melee weapons might call for using your Strength score.  A computer skill check might be based on your Intelligence while a scouting skill my rely on your Wisdom score.  And since the skills are fairly broad covering a range of actions, maybe the same skill in a slightly different situation will base off a different ability score.  It will be up to the referee and the player to decide which ability score is directly applicable.

Each level of skill will grant the character an increase of 10% in their skill chance.  Thus at lower levels the majority of success will come from their raw natural talent but at higher levels their skills and training will contribute more and more to their chance of success.

Finally modifiers can be applied to make the chance of success harder or easier based on situational modifiers.  Some of these may be defined in the skills (e.g. a negative modifier based on weapon ranges or computer levels) and some may simply be situational and assigned by the referee (e.g. blowing sand is making tracking your quarry across the desert slightly more difficult).


I’m still up in the air about this one.  On one hand I like the specificity of sub-skills.  It calls out specific actions and you can apply predetermined modifiers based on the action being attempted.

On the other hand, that may be to restricting.  It’s much easier if you just have a computer skill as opposed to a computer skill that allows you to do x, y, and z things.  What if you want to do w?  What skill (or sub-skill) covers that and what is the chance of success?  I can’t think of everything and there are sure to be things that players will want to do that I didn’t think of a skill/sub-skill for.

So for now, no sub-skills.  Instead of a computer skill with sub-skills like ‘defeat security’, ‘repair computer’, etc, we’ll just have a computer skill and when a player wants to do something related to computers, the referee will give an appropriate modifier to the basic resolution mechanic described above.

Skill Categories

Every skill will belong to a broader category.  For example the military skill area will include all the weapon skills, the technical skill area will cover things like computers, robotics, spaceship engineer, technician, and other related skills.  There will be a variety of skill categories.  The exact number and content is the subject of a later post but I’m looking at something like 8-10 categories.

At character creation each character will select one category to be their Primary Skill Category (PSC).  This represents the area where they have a high natural talent or disposition toward and want to focus their training.  In addition they will select two Secondary Skill Categories (SSC).  These also represent areas that they have an interest or ability in but to a lesser extent than their PSC.  All the other skill categories will be considered Tertiary Skill Categories (TSC) for that character.  A character can acquire and improve any skill be skills in the character’s PSC will be the easiest to increase, skills in their SSCs will be a bit harder, and skills that fall into their TSCs will be the hardest to improve.

These categories are used to define what is important and relevant to the character concept and what the player desires the character to excel as.  Maybe you envision your character as a hacker who likes to paint and is a gun enthusiast.  You pick the Tech PSC, with Military and Artisan as your SSCs.  On the other hand, maybe you want to be a roboticist that works with cybernetics and tries to keep abreast of all the relevant laws.  In that case you might have Tech as your PSC but have Bio-science and Scholar as your SSCs.

Improving Skills

Skills will be improved by spending experience points (XP).  The number of XP required to improve a skill will depend on the level of skill desired and which of the skill categories (PSC, SSC, or TSC) the skill falls into the for the character.  Basically there will be some multiplier times the desired skill level with the multiplier depending on the skill category.

As a working value, I’m looking at making the multipliers 3, 4 and 6 for PSC, SSC, and TSC skills respectively.  This means that if the skill in in your Primary Skill Category, getting level 1 will cost you 3 XP, level 2 will cost you and additional 6 XP, level 3 and additional 9 XP and so forth.  On the other hand, levels 1, 2, and 3 of a skill in one of your SSCs would cost 4, 8, and 12 XP respectively while a skill in one of your TSCs would cost 6, 12, and 18 XP for the same levels.

I haven’t decided on a maximum level yet but it will be probably be 6 unless I change the skill progression cost.  With the system described above,  Once you’ve hit level 3 in a TSC skill, you might be better off improving your ability scores (something I have talked about yet).  That assumes that you can trade 1 XP for 1 ability point.  For TSC, level 4 costs you 24 XP and gives you a +10% but you could get that same +10% by spending 20 XP on the relevant ability score.  For SSC skill, that point comes at level 5, and for PSC skills it comes at level 6.  This breaks down somewhat because different ability scores can apply in different situations but for the most part each skill will be based on a single ability score.

Now, if the cost of increasing ability scores is different than 1-to-1, this will change the balance a little as well.  That is something I’ll need to look at going forward.

Coming up

In the next Designing Out Loud article, I’ll be looking at the actual skills and skill categories.  If there is a skill you think is relevant to a sci-fi game, let me know and I’ll be sure to include it in the final list.

What do you think of this basic system?  Is it too simplistic, to complicated, not enough information?  Any other thought or things I should be considering when building the skills system?  Let me know in the comments below.