Monday, September 14, 2009

The Rules of War

The Rules of War

Warfare Mechanics Inspired by Sun Tzu

Written by Jarvis Mishler

When 600 soldiers attack 1000 farmers, most rpgs break down. These rules handle large battles quickly, with just enough flavor and drama to maximize the fun, while the PCs get a chance to influence the battle around them!


Give the larger army 10 tokens. Divide the number of troops in the army by 10 to determine the worth of each token. Give the smaller force a proportionate number of tokens (round up). This represents quantity alone, quality is factored in next. Size, for both armies, may be doubled, tripled, etc. for more ‘dramatic’ battles.

Example: if 1000 farmers have 10 tokens, then 600 soldiers have 6.


There are six fundamental factors to determining the outcome of a battle. Superiority in all six of these factors all but guarantees victory. Therefore, advantage in any factor grants an army 1 Strength. Determine which army possesses the advantage in a coming battle by answering the following questions:

  1. The Way – Which army possesses the highest morale?
  2. Heaven – Which army benefits most from the weather, time of day, etc?
  3. Earth – Which army gains more advantage from the terrain?
  4. Leadership – Which of the two generals is the better leader?
  5. Discipline – Which army is more skilled, trained, and supported?
  6. Steel – Which army uses the best weapons and technology?

No significant edge, grants no bonus for that category. Clear advantage grants 1 Strength.

Example: Soldiers have high morale, good leadership, great discipline, and good weapons, giving them 4 Strength. Farmers gain advantage only from their home terrain, leaving them with 1 Strength. The sky, cloudless and clear, grants no advantage and no bonus to either side.


To do battle, each side will implement a simple strategy to apply its Strength most effectively against the enemy’s Size. Each round of battle consists of the following phases:

  1. Strategy – Armies choose how much Strength to apply to defense and how much to offense
  2. Chaos – Armies roll 6 dice and count successes
  3. Strength applied to offense adds automatic successes
  4. Strength applied to defense subtracts successes from the opponent
  5. Reckoning – Each remaining success lowers the opponent’s Size by 1 token

Example: Soldiers apply all their Strength to defense and farmers apply theirs to offense. Both armies roll 6 dice, soldiers roll 2 successes and farmers roll 4. After factoring in Strength, soldiers end with 2 successes and farmers end with 1 (4 rolled, plus 1 automatic, minus 4). Soldiers lose only 1 Size while farmers lose 2. The soldiers’ victory proved costly.

Spotlight Missions

After each round of battle, PCs can volunteer for spotlight missions in an attempt to affect the factors contributing to the opponent’s Strength or their own. Many PCs can volunteer for the same mission, thus fighting together and increasing the chance of success, or separate to take on several missions. Missions can be anything the PCs dream up, scouting, assassination, demolition, etc. It’s up to the GM to determine the difficulty and opposition for each mission, but they are under no obligation to make a tough assassination attempt easier should only a single PC undertake it.

Note: Only PCs not directly contributing to Strength can undertake spotlight missions. A PC acting as the general of his army, thus contributing Strength through Leadership, cannot step down for a secret scouting mission without forfeiting his contribution to Leadership as well.

Missions are resolved using the normal rules for the rpg you’re playing. A spotlight mission can be detailed and drawn out to add drama or shortened and summarized to speed the action. Ultimately, each spotlight mission should produce an opposed die roll to gain, or maintain, the advantage. After the roll, the Strength point for that factor goes to the winner.

Example: Two farmers attempt to break the soldiers’ morale by taking a mission. They decide to defeat a group of 10 soldiers in a spectacularly flamboyant fashion, loudly proclaim themselves to be “Dragon’s Chosen Warriors of His Holy Wrath”, and so fear and uncertainty among the soldiers. Should they succeed in defeating those 10 soldiers, they’ll probably need a bluff roll vs. the soldiers’ will or their general’s leadership as he attempts to rein in his men. Their bluff roll may be easier or harder should they defeat more or less soldiers.

Players should be encouraged to get very creative with ideas for spotlight missions, but GMs should step in with any ideas or alterations of their own. If a PC wizard wants to use a “Heat Metal” spell to melt enemy swords, the GM should help out by declaring the number of swords necessary to make a difference.


An army is defeated when all of its Size tokens are lost. Whether this defeat is due to destruction, rout, or retreat simply depends on the narration up to that point. After the battle, each army attempts to recover its losses by rolling 1 (loser) or 2 (winner) dice for each Size token lost. One Size token is recovered for each success on this roll as warriors are healed, pulled to safety, etc.

Dice Pools

Missions always use the normal rules employed by the rpg you’re playing, but a simple dice pool is used during the ‘chaos’ phase of combat and recovering casualties. If the rpg you’re playing doesn’t already use dice pools and successes, just grab some six-sided dice. Any die that rolls 4+ is considered a success. A high target number (5+) places more value on Strength (automatic successes) where a low target number (3+) introduces more randomness during the battle. These rules were written with a 30% chance of success in mind (8-10 on a D10), but you are encouraged to adjust this as you wish!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Mass Combat Plug-In based on Art of War: Intriguing or Useless?

I'm currently re-reading The Art of War. I'm also finishing a long campaign that's led up to epic thousand man battles. There are currently two things going through my mind:

1. Mass Combat systems in RPGs are atrocious at worst, groan worthy at best. Yet, 'epic heroes' will inevitably find themselves there time and again. As fun as it is in the movies, it's absolute shite in an RPG. Even DitV's awesome rules for Groups break down when you have a group of 50. (break down as in tedium, not 'realism')
2. The Art of War is simple, classic, deep, and heavy with the ring of truth.

My idea (inspired by Daniel's Fighting Fighters) is to design a plug-n-play set of Mass Combat rules that can drop into almost any game, using the classic Art of War as a starting point.

The Art of War 1:4The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one's deliberations, when seeking to determine [advantage] . . . These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline.

To me, this just screams for the initial skill rolls to martial your troops and the recon missions necessary to gauge the enemy's strength. The better your scouts or generals roll on their 'Knowledge Nature' checks to evaluate the terrain, the larger the bonus provided to your army for the upcoming battle. Etc, etc, etc.

So what do you all think? Is this a curious idea that you'd love to hear more on or is this a complete waste of time and something you'd never use?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Done and Done

Dead Running is finished and uploaded! Time to go catch a couple hours of sleep before my Sunday game. ;)

Character Sheet!

All done with the text of my game, now I just need the character sheet!

GM Duties

In a game of Dead Running, the GM has several duties to keep the story flowing.

Interesting Opposition - The GM should always use interesting obstacles and opponents. A retinal scanner is more interesting than another locked door and a blackmailed father is more interesting than another thug. Also, it's the duty of GM to create interesting alternatives for tests. When a player tests to steal a car, "you fail" is much less interesting than "the car's owner sees you and comes running, with a knife."

Encourage Suspicion - When the players narrate, the GM should offer ideas to make characters more suspicious. When the GM narrates, all manner of NPCs, opponents, and even obstacles can be used to breed suspicion among the characters. Maybe the police only hassle half the team, maybe thugs kidnap a character and suddenly return him without injury, maybe an opponent keeps giving signals to one of the characters, etc. Little things like these can go a long way to set the mood of the game.

Spend Harm - The player lost a test. The GM was about to narrate an awesome defeat, but the player took a re-roll. Now it's the GM's duty to use the harm generated to make things tougher for the rest of the group! Spend that harm. Spend it!

Bring it Together - The toughest duty the GM will face is tying the whole tangle of plot together. If one player narrates rabid dogs tracking the courier team and another narrates secret microchips, it falls to the GM to tie these threads together with implanted tracking dogs or the like. Some threads can't be tied together, and that's fine, but it's the duty of the GM to create the most entertaining and sensible story possible.

Settle Disputes - This is when the GM steps in to mediate. When one player claims he stole narration before she did, the GM is the final word. If two players both want to start the next scene, the GM chooses one. Should pirates begin fighting ninjas during the game, the GM settles the debate.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Order of Play

The Opening Scene

The opening scene is always the introduction of the team. The Company introduces the Null to the team that will function as protection and aids during the mission. This is a chance for the players to describe their characters and roleplay the introductions. Don't forget to be suspicious!

"I'm Ann. I'll handle any legal trouble we find. And don't ask about the tattoo, it shouldn't be a problem."

Combined with the introductions or taking place shortly after, the characters each describe what sort of opposition led to the downfall of the last courier team they were assigned to. This is how the players tell the GM what sort of story they'd like to see in the upcoming mission. Gorgeous femme fatales are a very different kind of opposition than high tech security grids, producing a very different kind of story. Any expected opposition should be described through roleplaying.

"I'm packing some major firepower this time. Those mutant freaks won't know what hit 'em!"

During this first scene, the GM takes furious notes regarding any suspicious activity from the players and the opposition they expect to face. These notes will be used throughout the story to tie the plot together and tailor it to the player's interests.

Notice that the GM never describes the mission itself. This is because the details of the mission haven't been established yet. Dead Running is designed to be a no-prep game, so all mission details are revealed through play!

Plot Scenes

Missions have a set structure that serves everyone as a creative guide. This is the general path that the mission will take, but all the individual details are up to the group:
  1. First Sign of Trouble
  2. The True Threat
  3. The Chase
  4. The Countdown
  5. The Twist
After the opening scene, the first player with a good idea for Scene 1 (First Sign of Trouble) sets up the beginning of an appropriate scene and the GM takes over from there. The player only opens the scene, presenting a location and situation for the GM to run with, it's the GM's job to take over and add additional details, obstacles, etc from there.

These scene starters can be as simple as...

"We're on the highway, when Max looks back and says 'I think we're being followed.'"

Or as detailed as...

"It's raining at the dock and our courier team is restless. The ferry was supposed to be here 30
minutes ago.
A dark figure approaches and everyone tenses, preparing for the worst. The old man
introduces himself as
'Benny', our contact. Ann raises a suspicious eyebrow, 'Benny, huh? I thought
you'd be younger...'"

The only requirement is that the player give the GM both the location and the starting situation for the scene. Plot scenes can (and probably will!) evolve organically beyond the starting situation and sometimes even beyond the location. This is entirely up to the GM and should be done when it feels natural for the story. After giving the GM a location and a situation for the plot scene, the player's job is done.

Once all the obstacles and opponents in a scene are dealt with, the GM will end the scene and call for another player to set up the next one. Players set up subsequents plot scenes the same way Scene 1 was set up, by providing the GM with a starting location and situation. The game continues this way until all plot scenes have been set up (by different players if possible) and played through.

End Game

After Scene 5 (The Twist) wraps up, the GM takes as many loose ends, plot lines, surviving opponents, and story threads as seem appropriate and brings them all together for the End Game scene. The GM's goal is to bring all that built up suspicion to a boil and then work with the players to guide the scene to a entertaining and logical (or not!) conclusion.

Besides the climax, the End Game scene brings one major rule change.
Player vs. Player conflict is now possible.
Everything from arguments to gunfights can now be resolved with a die roll, but these tests are always considered harmful (with no need for the GM to spend harm!).

The initiating player rolls normally, against a resistance of half the trait used by the opposing player to defend. Narration goes to the 'winner' of the die roll as normal, while the 'loser' lowers an applicable trait. Either player can spend suspicion to force a re-roll and stealing narration works normally.

Turn Order: If multiple players are involved in one conflict, a basic turn order (clockwise) may be needed.

The End Game scene will probably escalate quickly and that's a good thing. This is the exciting conclusion everyone has been building towards. On its own, the scene will naturally evolve, twist, and, eventually, come to a close. Once there is no further conflict to resolve in the scene, the End Game phase is over.


If the group wishes, each player can take a turn to narrate a quick epilogue scene involving their character. This is a chance to see the hero riding into the sunset or an escaped villain getting an unexpected surprise.


Setting Out

Dead Running has no inherent setting. The events of the game could just as easily take place next week as the far future or, with a bit a tweaking, the distant past. There are only a few core elements that every game should include. These are as much a reminder to the GM as they are seeds to kick start player imaginations.
  1. The Event awakened or gave psychic ability for every one equally. Everyone can now read minds. Whether this resulted from radioactive mutation, evolution, or alien invasion can be decided each time the game is played.
  2. Ideas become so easily shared or stolen that there are few secrets left in the world.
  3. Powerful or paranoid individuals become reclusive to protect their own thoughts and ideas.
  4. The Company formed as the most secure way to deliver an idea, message, concept or plan.
  5. Nulls, unable to be read, work as couriers for The Company.
  6. Unreadable minds produce psychic static, easily detectable by the rest of the population.
  7. Psychics are provided to the Null to act as security during the mission.
  8. Anyone is likely to capture the Null since whatever it's carrying must be important.
  9. The toughest missions require traveling through dense populations where the Null can be easily detected and thus easily compromised.
  10. Dead Running is about those tough missions.
These are the only setting elements that are required for the game. Everything else is set dressing. Police, mutants, gangs, magic, ninjas, lasers, cybernetics, and all the rest can be sprinkled into the story as you wish. If the game still works for you without one of the 'required' elements, that's fine too. The main goal of this game is for everyone to have fun!

Naming Conventions

I needed something short and punchy. I needed something that alluded to either psychics, zombies, or couriers. I need something that sparked the imagination, but didn't give away the game. I needed a title that would help my game, but not hinder it.

Star Wars RPG - The title's good and short. It describes the game exactly, but leaves nothing to the imagination. Therefore, a hardcore trekkie may never pick up the game by sticking to the mantra "Star Wars sucks". The game could be a fantastic system for any science fiction story, but the trekkie will never find out.

Dogs in the Vineyard - Short. Describes the game exactly, but only through metaphor leaving much to the imagination. No one will say, "Vineyards suck so I'm not playing it." The game benefits from a grabby and symbolic title without being hindered by it.

I also wanted a subtitle for my game. My sister suggested a "Title: Subtitle" format and I told her that format was already inextricably tied to White Wolf. In giving my sister a quick example title and subtitle, I ended up inadvertently creating the best title e
ither of us could think of. We thought up several more, but we kept coming back to the 'example title' I had given her.

Without further ado...

I convey big business, zombies, couriers, assassins, and the daily grind all at the same time. I think that's the font I'll stick with for finished document and it should be a lot more legible after on a printed page. If not, I'll tweak it a bit of course.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Mechanics of Mind Reading

No Failure

In Dead Running, nothing never happens. Something is always more interesting, fun, and entertaining than nothing therefore something must always happen.

This means tests may never be pass/fail. Any test that is pass/fail, due to lack of creativity from the group, automatically succeeds. Traits are only tested when it will produce one of two outcomes, both of which are interesting, fun, or entertaining (preferably all three!).

Pass/Fail: A fence can be climbed (pass) or not climbed (fail).

In Dead Running, a character attempting the above test would automatically succeed. Failure would mean nothing happened, the character is still on the same side of the fence, and in this game nothing never happens.

Pass/Pass: A security system can be deactivated (pass) or triggered (pass).

This conflict is more interesting because either option produces a change in the story. Dead Running is not about shooting or missing, it's about shooting or getting shot. With a little thought, you can turn any pass/fail test into a pass/pass test. In the above example, not climbing the fence could mean getting caught by security, being separated from the others, or being forced to go the long way.

Mundane Tests

Mundane tests involve any attempt to use Intelligence, Strength, or Charisma to complete a task. Whenever a character faces an Obstacle or Opponent rated 4 or higher, the player must roll an applicable trait die and get a result equal to or higher than the task's resistance. Resistance is determined by the following chart, with the GM serving as the final arbiter:

Resistance Chart























Since only tasks rated 4+ require a roll, a character automatically succeeds at climbing a chain link fence or scaring a child (easy), but a roll would be required to climb a barbed wire fence quickly or defeat a group of armed street kids (difficult).

Narration: If the player rolls higher than the task's resistance, the player
narrates that
character achieving its goal. If the player rolls lower, the GM
narrates an alternative outcome. All narration is final. A re-roll may change the outcome of a test, but once narration begins the test is decided. Additionally, the same test may never be tried twice. At least one of the possible outcomes must be changed to create a new test.

Notice that the GM never rolls dice during Mundane Tests. The GM simply sets a resistance for the task and thinks up an alternative outcome should the player roll low.

Insight Tests

Insight tests are resolved differently than mundane tests. The player calling for an Insight test does not roll at all. Instead, the player uses his own psychic ability to read the mind of his target, usually the GM.

Once the GM announces the opponent's resistance (2-6), a die is rolled equal to twice that resistance (d4-d12) with the result visible to the GM but hidden from the player. This is called the target number.

The player then chooses a range of numbers equal to half the Insight trait of the character. If the target number falls within this range chosen by the player, the Insight test is successful!

Player: "I'm totally plunging. Is the cop really here to help?"
GM: "Okay! That cop's average, so I'll call him a 3. That gives me a d6!"
Keeping the roll hidden from the player, the GM rolls a 6.
Player: "D4 Insight means my range is only 2. Um... I'll go with 3-4!"
Smiling, the GM reveals the roll and the player groans.
GM: "6! The cop feels the mental intruder and pulls his pistol..."

It's important to note, the player may choose a range that 'wraps around' the die such as 6-1 (6,1 on a d6 or 6,7,8,1 on a d8). If the player above chose 6-1 instead, the Insight test would have been successful. Additionally, a d10 Insight will always succeed at reading a novice mind since a range of 1-5 covers any result on a d4.

Narration: As above, the player narrates a successful Insight test while the GM
narrates the alternative outcome of failure (usually a now hostile opponent!).
This means players actually
describe the thoughts they read! In the example
above, the player would determine if the cop was honest or crooked.

With the basics of Insight covered. We can get into the deviations encountered by different uses of the talent:

Eaves Drop - Resolved normally against a single opponent. Against a group, only
the toughest resistance is rolled, but failure alerts the entire group.
Trace - Test once to read the surface thought, test again to ask a question linked
to that thought, test again for another question, and so on until failure.
Plunge - Test to ask a single question from the target.
Devour - Succeeds automatically on dead minds, but requires several minutes.
Nulls will resist unless immobilized or otherwise incapacitated.

Psychics can attempt feats outside their expertise, but range is only a single number.
Eaves Drop can be performed in conversation range, but every other talent requires touching the target.

GM Psychics: When an opponent wishes to read a player character, the Insight test is reversed. The player rolls Insight
and the GM chooses a range of a numbers equal to the opponent's resistance, attempting to guess the player's roll.


Dead Running thrives on suspicion. To encourage suspicious behavior among the characters, suspicion points (tokens, beads, pennies, whatever) are awarded to the player. Each time a character displays behavior or speech that casts doubt on the character's loyalty, another player or the GM can award a suspicion point. One point of suspicion is generally enough acknowledge the player's actions, but a second may be given for exceptionally devious acts that make everyone pause.

The key is not to act like a traitor, whether it's true or not, but to act suspicious. If characters begin behaving too traitorously, they may notice certain players (or even the entire group!) not awarding suspicion for further traitorous acts. If the whole group believes you a traitor, no one will be surprised when you act like one. Don't worry, now you'll start getting suspicion when you act loyal!

A player may spend suspicion in two ways:

Re-roll: 1 suspicion allows the player to re-roll a test they just attempted
Narration: 1 suspicion allows the player to steal narration after any test
(2 suspicion allows a player to steal narration from the stealer, then 3, etc.)

In this way, a player may spend suspicion for a re-roll, overcome the obstacle, narrate something suspicious as the result, and possibly regain the suspicion right back. Boom! Free re-roll! Also, stealing narration when you have a really good idea can lead to your character behaving so suspiciously that you get 2 points, spending 1 suspicion to gain 2!


Anytime suspicion is spent for a re-roll, the token becomes a point of harm and is handed to the GM. Suspicion spent for narration is just placed back in the pile, narration never creates harm. Harm spent by the GM simply returns to the pile of suspicion waiting to be awarded back to the players.

The GM can spend a point of harm to add the 'harmful' quality to any test. Naturally, harmful tests get +1 resistance as per the Resistance Chart. Losing a harmful test carries additional consequence as the player must permanently lower a trait by 1 die size. Although the GM makes the test harmful and narrates the consequence of failure, the player chooses which trait to lower as long as it makes a good story.

For example: Even if Intelligence is used to disable a harmful security system,
the resulting electric
shock could harm Intelligence (fried neurons), Strength (debilitating injury), Charisma (burns), or Insight (altered brain waves).

Any trait reduced below d4 (0) cannot be tested. If a zeroed trait is needed, the character falls to the whim of the GM unless another trait can be justified. Players are e
ncouraged to be very creative about bringing in remaining traits.

The GM should not feel guilty about spending harm. Re-rolls are very powerful and they are the only way for the GM to gain harm. In this way, players actually choose the mission's difficulty by determining how much harm the GM can use.

Harm may be added to a test at any time, but some times are better than others. The GM may deem a test 'secretly harmful' by first describing resistance as 4 (difficult digital lock), then raising it to 5 (harmful countermeasures) just as the player rolls. Harm can be added after a failed test (the angry informant draws a gun). Harm can even increase resistance after a successfully tied roll, thus creating a failure (The barbed wire was electrified too!). Spending harm after a player begins narrating, however, is a dick move. Any GM resorting to it should immediately pass these rules to someone more fun.


Next up, Pacing!