Today’s topic is about liches. You know, those fun undead guys who performed some ritual and damned themselves to eternal unlife in search of a goal. Probably to learn the truths of the multiverse, or to get revenge. For starers here’s how Wikipedia defines a lich.
“In fantasy fiction, a lich (/ˈlɪtʃ/;cognate to Dutchlijk, GermanLeiche, Norselík and Swedishlik all meaning “corpse”) is a type of undead creature. Often such a creature is the result of a transformation, as a powerful magician or king striving for eternal life uses spells or rituals to bind his intellect to his phylactery and thereby achieve a form of immortality. Liches are depicted as being clearly cadaverous, bodies desiccated or completely skeletal. Liches are often depicted as holding power over hordes of lesser undead creatures, using them as soldiers and servants.”
It’s a decent definition, hitting all the familiar tropes we are familiar with as consumers of fantasy fiction. My favorite thing as a Game-Master is the ability to take familiar tropes and add twists or additions to them to make them my own, or remixing if you are trying to be hip. So with that said here’s some facts about my particular brand of liches.
Liches get Stitches
#1 – Liches don’t always appear as weird ugly corpses with fabulous robes.
Any living thing that has sentience has the capacity to be a lich, either through intelligent study of the lost arts of necromancy, or an unhappy arcane accident. I enjoy the idea of the more unusual races attaining lichdom, making throwaway foes like goblins into a fearsome terror. Also I envision them having them be able to control all of their internal body functions by will alone, they could appear as human as any of us providing they expended their magical resources to do so.
#2 – Liches can be of any alignment, even good.
I never really enjoyed the prescriptive interpretation of alignment so liches can be anything. They have all kinds of motives, and their “alignment” reflects their intentions and philosophy. Perhaps the lich has noble reasons for needing immortality. Or if they did not intend to become a lich, they seek a method to reverse it instead. They might even serve as local sages and seen as a force of wisdom and guidance for the community, like a baelnorn from the Greyhawk DnD setting. Despite this they -did- or are a weird undead wizard, so at -best- their outlook is of pragmatism.
#3 – Anything can be a phylactery.
If we’re sticking with the idea that liches must have a phylactery, then we don’t need to have it be just a precious gem, nor must we have it be hidden in a trope-filled place. Liches are cunning, hyper-intelligent and are immortal (as far as old age goes.) As such they’d probably hide their precious phylacteries right underneath the noses of the PC’s, in a public place or in the royal crown of the King.
#4 – Liches are Timeless and probably have strange powers.
Liches can’t die from normal means, so a viable strategy for killing troublemakers is just let Time do it for them. As such when liches make their presence known or meddle in affairs directly it means their issue is more systemic or with a group of individuals and not one in particular.
They also probably have weird ways in sustaining themselves outside of the origination of them becoming a lich, or some funky behavior that makes them more interesting as a villain or NPC. I always subscribed to the idea that magic is magical and isn’t exact science.
So let’s make a Lich.
I’m a huge fan of random tables, and rolling on them. They’re a good way to organize and brainstorm ideas, trying to fill out and come up with entries into broad categories instead of trying to linearly come up with things out of thing air. We’re gonna roll on this table I come up with and see what we get.
So I rolled a 13(The sword hilt of a long dead hero), 9(coffin in a crowded graveyard), 6(Myconid), 1(Invasion), 5(Neutral), 9(A horrific smell), 7(Ascended to religious leadership), 3 (Absorbs the memories/quirks/abilities of the souls it consumes).
Inductive creativity is a term I heard just the other day and it perfectly describes the process. We’re going to take all these numbers we have rolled and use them as anchor points, filling in the gaps between to help us tell a story about this NPC.
His phylactery is the sword of a long dead hero, HIS sword to be exact. He used to be a hero of legend centuries ago. A holy man of The Pantheon, a brave and noble leader of men. Now all that is left of that is a memory and the hilt of this sword, buried in the mass graveyard of the warriors who perished in that bloody conflict. Upon his death he was blessed by the clergyman of his faith and bestowed with the gifts of undeath, so that he may exact vengeance and Their Will. With the ability to harness the memories and emotions of those souls unfortunate enough to cross his path, using them as a prism to focus his power and his hatred. The plan is to bring about the destruction of the Empire. Uniformed men, loyal men, dynastic men are the targets. He bears no ill intent towards average citizens, merchants, passers-by. As long as they stay out of the way of his unholy crusade to put an end to the dynasty that threw his life away. He also happens to be a fungus-man and smells so horrid no living creature with a nose can stand to be near him.
Okay so those last two didn’t fit the theme that well so we could reroll or just choose new ones that fit better. Even so the rolls gave us a lot of details which helped fill in the blanks. A lot of worldbuilding and sandbox design works this way, but the method can be used to apply to anything, even NPC generation. Most of these concepts/categories could be used to fit any kind of villain. I encourage you to roll up your own lich here and try to connect the dots.
For starters let me get one thing out of the way. I had a great time playing Shadowrun, it helped me produce some memorable gaming moments and I had a blast portraying my NPC’s and the unique setting and there are mechanics in the game which I think are of value and help drive play in fun ways (ex: The equipment and contacts systems.). I will be the first to admit that I have very little patience for slow, crunchy, “tactical” combat and so some of my criticisms you should take with a grain of salt. Even If you love the game and think its flawless, more power to you. But even if hyper-simulation is your thing when it comes to tabletop games, there’s still got to be some better and more effective ways to go about it.
9/10 people agree, this editing is terrible.
The game goes through the introduction of the various concepts of Shadowrun and cyberpunk in general, VR simulation, globalization, etc. Mega corporations form the main antagonists of the Shadowrun world. Sure there are other foes like street gangs, bug spirits, crime syndicates and potentially governments. But the zaibatsus dwarf them all in scope and in ability. It’s a lot of fluff that precedes the actual real mechanics of the game, which isn’t a problem in concept but rather in execution.
The trouble is that there’s so much of it to plow through and much of the information isn’t useful to either player or GM at this stage of the book. Now most reference points I have to other RPG books for comparison is mostly fantasy games (F20) which is perhaps unfair due to the ubiquitous of Dungeons and Dragons in the hobby. Everyone knows Dungeons and Dragons, so informing the players in these games is less necessary since we’re already familiar with the common tropes. Even so if you are buying this game then that assumes you’ve either a) Liked the games concepts and setting or you are already a cyberpunk fan and this is the biggest product on the market for it, (this is me) b) Played the video games and thought the same thing, or c) You were roped into doing this and you don’t really care about it either way, just get to the part where I can decide what cool guns I get to shoot people with.
Putting so much fluff front loaded onto the book is just poor design, most people want to crack the book open and start reading about the things they’ll actually be doing on a moment to moment basis. You all hear those horror stories about the GM who starts a campaign off by giving you his 50 page word document about all the intricate details of his pet creation and rambles on in the first session for an hour before the players get a word in.This is a little like that. Much of how I feel about the fluff of a game and its presentation can be found better explained and written here.
The rest of the editing and layouts gaffs are too numerous to name, but mainly it has to do with the consistent flipping back and forth in order to get the procedures for how to properly resolve mechanics, sometimes over a hundred pages to get the full explanation of how something should work. Things other games take seconds to resolve.
Even hardcore Shadowrun fans have to admit that the Character generation method in the core book is dumpster-tier, and even Catalyst Games revamped it with different options in their Run Faster splat. First the book outlines what it calls character concepts (or archetypes). The Face (talky guy), Spell-caster (mage or shaman), Decker (the hacker), Technomancer (what? Someone who..uses hacker-spells. Or something, I still don’t know), Rigger (Drone guy/the driver) and Street Samurai (Shooty McStabby).
The system then introduces the concept of the Priority System. Essentially you choose various aspects of your character and then choose on a scale of A through E (best to least) how much of the thing you have or how good you are at it. Without getting into the step by step details of how this process works, I’ll summarize it with this. It takes a long fucking time to generate characters by hand and it doesn’t even give you all the unique customization you would want out of game that presents itself like this. Hell, even using chargen assistance programs like HeroLabthe process can take forever, especially for newcomers.
Now this really isn’t a huge problem in itself, lots of very good games have very long and detailed customization. For instance Burning Wheel chargen is very detailed, it explains everything your character was from birth to the exact moment of the first session, including where they fit into the setting of the game, their skills, knowledge and motivations. With Shadowrun it takes two hours to find out how strong you are, what things you own and how good you are at using those things, and whether or not you’re addicted to drugs. In the game’s defense they did remedy this a bit with Run Fasterby introducing Sum to Ten and a Life-path system. But oddly enough the game seems sort of stuck in the past and reminding me a lot of 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons. Lots of splatbooks, lots of little modifiers to add up whenever any action is taken. The overall design of the game actually feels very old and lots of more modern systems have realized that its better to have 1+2+3 = 6 rather than make the player do 12+7-2+1-2+1-5-6 = 6. Why make us make those extra steps to arrive at the number 6. Speaking of steps..
Actions, or why does this take forever?
Let’s get into my biggest pet peeve with this game which is that actions take way too much effort and time to resolve, particularly combat. I’ll go through the steps of actually shooting a person without any goofy modifiers thrown in at first. Keep in mind Shadowrun is a dice pool game of d6’s, and rolling a 5 or 6 is considered a hit (or success), which breaks down to about ⅓ chance to roll a hit on any given die. Here is a some-what min-maxed PC shooting at a Professional Rating 1 (in the fiction, a sort of experienced street thug, or low level security.)
PC- Roll the Attacking pool. Combat Skill + It’s governing attribute. For example Long Arms 4 (dice) and Agility of 6, so total of 10 dice.
NPC Thug- The defender rolls his defense pool, usually Reaction + Intuition attributes. which are 3 and 3 respectively, total of 6 dice.
If the PC’s hits are greater or equal to the NPC’s: the attack succeeds, if the NPC’s are greater: it misses. Additionally keep track of the net hits (Attacker Hits minus Defender hits.)
Assuming the attack succeeds, the defender then rolls its Soak test against the damage value of the weapon (this is an integer, NOT a dice pool) . His Body attribute + his armor (value is in number of dice.). For example rolling a Body of 4 and armor of 9, so 13 dice and gets 4 hits.
The defender then takes the DV (Damage Value) of the weapon and subtracts his Soak test hits from it, taking that much damage.
Now that is the simplest version of the action, now let’s take into account how it plays with all of the rules in place, all of the modifiers for recoil, environmental conditions, cyber-ware, traits and everything else. Part of this is adapted from a Cheat sheet I found on one of the Shadowrun community forums. AP = Armor Penetration, DV = Damage Value. Both values are integers not dice pools.
Choose the weapon and ammo you want to use, and
note their DV and AP.
Choose a fire mode that you want to use.
Add your Agility Attribute to your pool.
Add the correct weapon skill to your pool.
Add the bonus for laser sight or smart-link to your pool.
Subtract any Wound Modifiers from your pool.
Subtract the number of rounds fired this Phase from the Progressive Recoil Compensation total. If this number is below zero, that’s your recoil modifier. If the recoil modifier is less than zero, subtract it from your pool.
Roll your pool dice, note your hits.
If your attack is from a shotgun, tell the gamemaster; the defender loses defense pool.
The defender rolls defense pool and subtracts their hits from your hits. If your net hits are zero or less, stop now.
Add your net hits to your weapon + ammo DV; this is your modified DV. If this number is greater than the defender’s armor (modified by your weapon AP), it causes Physical damage, otherwise it causes Stun damage.
Tell the gamemaster your final modified DV. The defender will attempt to resist the horrible damage you have just caused
Did you get all that? Now do that every round with every PC. Got 5 PC’s? Get ready for an average of 13 steps per player or 65 steps per round of combat, not counting extra steps for accounting for the traits of the characters or environmental modifiers. Also not counting the actions the NPC’s will take. Nor the fact that decker’s and magicians who are in Astral/Cyber space use their own rule set ups and different attributes to attack as well as defenders rolling different abilities. Oh, and don’t forget to keep track of glitches, which is where on your dice roll over half of them are 1’s. On every roll. Don’t forget! (I forgot a lot.)
Also keep in mind that the core book itself does not explain these steps in simple terms, it uses paragraphs and entire pages to explain 1 or 2 of these steps.You can see how slowly the combat and actions in general resolve and why a single combat in this game can take hours, especially for newcomers. Of course I myself had the lucky privilege of having the very first action taken by a PC was throwing a grenade. Fuck.
Initiative or lack thereof
Okay, so the initiative system is actually interesting, though it presents many of the similar kinds of issues I have with the conflict resolution/combat. Initiative equals your Reaction and Intuition attributes + 1d6 (can be more if you take certain positive qualities in chargen or if you’ve cyber-ware) if in meatspace, and other stats if you are in astral or cyberspace. This means your initiative if somewhere around 10 if your attributes are decent as well as your roll. The main mechanic being at the end of each round of combat (every participant getting a turn.) All scores are subtracted by then and then whoever has a number greater than 1 goes again, in theory it’s supposed to get across the idea of certain actions being faster in cyberspace as well as chromed up people in meatspace being very quick. Another thing with the initiative score is that you can sacrifice X amount of it to do specific actions, usually defensive ones. This is actually a decent concept, but I am unsure if it was necessary to tie defensive reactions to make combat more dynamic to initiative which can already be long-winded. Don’t forget after every participant has a score of 0 or less, you re-roll the initiative and start the process again, all this combined with normal conflict resolution makes combat a slog through tar-filled swamps.
I could go on and on, but I won’t. Instead I’ll just provide a list of more things I think is a problem with the game or pet peeves. Here we go.
Too many separate rule sets to handle the various archetypes
Riggers are…not well thought out, they are planning to release a splat to fix it.
Wireless Matrix makes no sense, they released a Splat book to help with that.
Astral Space makes some sense, they released some splat books for it too (sensing a trend?)
Juggling all three spaces is tough for newer GM’s, even veteran ones who are new to Shadowrun
The vehicle combat rules..just..what?
No mechanics to enforce the games concepts of oppression/monolith rule of Mega Corporations or party opposition
GM Advice is largely worthless, lots of fluff about what to throw at them, no advice on how to mechanically do it.
Game assumes you will create enemies from scratch (as in Chargen them!) from scratch to oppose the PC’s
So that sums up most of my thoughts about Shadowrun. Would I run it again? I’m not sure, there is a lot of good fluff in the book about how to portray its world and its setting but probably other games do the mechanics of cyberpunk better. Or maybe I’m just totally wrong.
I’ve finally decided to do something with my ideas instead of just letting them stew in my head and then forgetting to write them down. This is blog is just as the title states, some words about things (usually role-playing games or its related topics) and some heavy metal, or whatever music I’m feeling at the time. You’ll notice that I write informally and that’s for a good reason, I’m terrible and new, and new and terrible. So let’s get going.
The Shadowrun campaign that I ran for the better half of a year (I think.) has been over for about two months now and with my group getting into other projects I have decided to publish what was my concept for ending the campaign or possibility starting a new one. The set up is that the protagonists are your typical band of cyberpunk miscreants, a way-too-cool-for-school Batman clone, a mage who is book smart, a shaman who isn’t quite sure of himself, an orc who used to drive for the triads and a super fashion-sensible female troll who is all too ready to modify herself with cybernetics.
The protagonists find themselves on the wrong end of a corrupt police investigator and decide to kidnap his son to lure him out for a battle, employing the aid of an all-elf biker gang (Shadowrun players would know them as the Ancients.) for backup. This investigator was named Jackson Douglas, and I fashioned his motivations and personality to be a gigantic dick to the PC’s. He’d routinely call the players, asking how they were complying with his blackmail efforts and generally being the passive-aggressive southern gentleman jackass cliché I imagined him to be. A cheap trick to make your players hate your villain is to just have him insult or snub the players at every opportunity he can. Don’t go overboard with it, just the occasional reminder that the target of the PC’s ire is worthy of it.
Our heroes lure Douglas out to an abandoned mall on the outskirts of town and open fire as soon he lands. Grenades were thrown, lightning bolts hurled, gunshots exchanged. It all ended with someone shooting down the escaping helicopter with a bazooka and Jackson Douglas, Knight-Errant Astral Investigator being sniped..twice. You can never be too sure. With the story arc concluded I decided to write the end scene in the spirit of a TV show and have the end scene play out with an after-the-fact news story like you’d see on the late night news. This is for my players whom I didn’t get to share it with and for anyone else curious.
And the “metal” for the day isn’t that metal (we’re off to a bad start huh?), but it is a fantastic song I put on my cyberpunk playlist just for this Shadowrun campaign. A fitting season-ending theme.
LIVE UPDATE FROM KOMO NEWS
A helicopter hovers above the trail of black smoke emitting from the remains of the wreckage, a twisted maze of metal and carbon fiber. Camera panning to the left, it eventually stops and zooms in on a body lying on his back and facing the sky. It appears to be an older gentleman in civilian clothes. stained with blood and gore. From this distance you can tell it was the work of a high-caliber rifle, or many of them. The camera zooms out again, showing the corpses of a number of elvish men dressed in leather black jackets and jeans, clutching outdated old-war rifles in their hands. Panning out further it catches what looks to be uniformed officers lying dead on the nearby rooftop, in bloody pools and charred husks. “It’s a scene right out of an action movie.” a reporter says over the footage, her voice calm and stoic.“Knight Errant is reporting that the infamous gang of elvish renegades called The ‘Ancients’ are responsible for the ambush and murder of Knight Errant Astral Investigator Jackson Douglas.”
A mug shot of a male elf of asian descent appears on the trideo, his hair black and slicked backwards. “The prime suspect for the attack is Ying Hi-Shu, thought to be a high-ranking leader in the gang. Additionally he was spotted with other conspirators whom police suspect to not be in the gang but are also persons of interest.” The mug shot smash cuts to a blurry photo of Ying taking cover behind a black van, mouth open mid-shout and pointing at the camera, and is followed by computer-rendered sketches of our protagonists “This is the last photo the authorities have on the suspect, followed by computerized approximations of his conspirators. Anyone with any information as to the whereabouts of Ying are advised to called 1-800-KE-TIPS, Knight Errant have stated there will be a large monetary award for any information leading to the capture.” The images then fade out to a blonde woman with a short professional haircut, with a photograph of a young caucasian male wearing an urban brawl jersey “Additionally, Knight Errant are looking into the whereabouts of Douglas’s son, James Luke Douglas who has gone missing. Any information regarding James Douglas’s location is to be reported to 1-800-KE-TIPS.” The camera angle shifts focus to the co-anchor who promptly begins the next story about pop-star sensation Christine Starbright playing a sold out show in downtown Seattle.