Sunday, October 18, 2020

Underneath

In writing a horror adventure, I have fretted and pondered about which horror system to use, until I came upon the conclusion that I really just ought to write my own system. Underneath is that system, or at least its spooky skeleton. It is a rules light adventure system focused on investigation. To this end, it's going to assume that you're already familiar with how to run an RPG, and will simply provide the barest skeleton of a system for which you (the DM) can drape your own customization and DIY stuff upon.

Keep in mind, this is experimental, and will probably go through further iterations in the future.

Some core features of this system:

  • There is no Investigation / Search check. Avoid using Instinct for clue finding. If the players decide to search an area, you should either engage in a conversation about what exactly they're checking, or you should simply tell them about the hidden things.
  • There is no Initiative system. If something resembling combat occurs, there will be a tick-for-tack system. A player does something, you (the DM) do something, a player does something, you do something.
  • Combat is a nasty thing, and if the players are smart they're avoid it whenever possible. Player-Characters have very little vitality and healing is exceptionally slow. Injuries are not uncommonly incurable and frequently escalate beyond control. Player-characters will die - they're easy to make again.
  • Insight is the inverse of Sanity. It starts at zero and climbs upward. The higher the gets, the more you begin to see things as they truly are: monstrous and horrific.
  • It is designed for a modern era game in mind, although I see no reason why it couldn't be adapted to other periods.

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ATTRIBUTES

Investigators have FIVE ATTRIBUTES, put in terms of X in 6 chance of success. At creation, these stats have a minimum of 2 in 6 and maximum of 4 in 6, with exception of Insight, which starts at zero and has no maximum.

At creation, players have 4 points in which to increase their attributes, up to the maximum.

Example Arrays: 3, 3, 3, 3 ~ 2, 2, 4, 4 ~ 2, 3, 3, 4

RESOLVE...

...is used for violence, for intimidation, for feats of will.

Examples of using this attribute:

  • Sucker punch a guy.
  • Say: "I'll call Child Protection Services", and it doesn't sound like an empty threat.
  • Amputating someone else's leg... Or your own.
  • Sort through hundreds of stacks of old newspapers at an efficient pace.
  • Beating someone senseless.

INSTINCT...

...is used for perception, for stealth, and sensing.

Examples of using this attribute:

  • Sneaking past a patrolling mall cop.
  • Creating a misdirecting sound to throw The Troll off your trail.
  • Sensing a subtle change in wind direction or air pressure.
  • Knowing that that smell means there's a gas leak.
  • Innately noticing (without the player asking questions) subliminal messages in a film, or spotting an easy-to-miss detail.

BODY...

...is used for physical challenges, endurance, and recovery.

Examples of using this attribute:

  • Outrunning the hounds.
  • Balancing across a precarious rope bridge.
  • Doing a pull-up.
  • Holding a thrashing dog still.
  • Healing a minor infected cut with a good night's rest.
  • Going without sleep for three days and pressing on.

EMPATHY...

...is used for coercion, for spiritualism, for asking questions.

Examples of using this attribute:

  • Communing with a Ghost
  • Feeling the (emotional) temperature of a room.
  • Noticing that the doctor has a tell when she has bad news.
  • Sense whether the Spatial Anomaly merely finds you and and your companions incidental or is coming for you.
  • Get a feeling of what someone's Insight is at.

INSIGHT...

...is used to see things as they truly are, and not simply how a 'normal' person rationalizes it.

This attribute is used differently than the others. It isn't used for rolling. It begins at zero and climbs upwards as one begins to see how things truly are. There is no upper limit. Many monsters, encounters, and sometimes important clues have Insight Thresholds, which are witnessed differently depending on whether one is above or below this threshold.

A player doesn't know what their character's Insight is until their Investigator goes to sleep. The number is kept secretly by the DM until this time.

The minimum Insight of the Investigators raises to 3 below the maximum Insight within the party. So if Investigator #1 increases to an Insight of 7, and the rest of the party had Insights of 3, when Investigator #1 gains their Insight, the rest of the party's Insight raises to 4 to reflect the new minimum.

Insight Can Be Gained By...
  • Taking drugs like magic mushrooms or psychedelics.
  • Asking the first two questions to the DM about anomalous things.
  • Coming to important conclusions about mysteries.
  • Coming to terms with something incalculable.
  • Being around an Investigator with 3 more Insight than they.

Insight Can Be Lost By...
  • Watching television or consuming media.
  • Therapy.
  • Watching someone rationalize horrible situations, like watching a news program.
  • Taking drugs like alcohol.
  • Roleplaying having your Investigator try to rationalize something anomalous they witnessed.

WHEN IN DOUBT, TALK IT OUT

If you're not sure which Attribute to use in a given situation, either allow the players to make their case or make a ruling on the spot. There is a reasonable amount of overlap between the attributes that could see multiple potential attribute rolls used.

DIFFICULTY

If a task is to be considered exceptionally challenging, consider halving the X in 6 chance of success, rounded up (e.g. a 5 in 6 will become a 3 in 6). If the task is to be considered easy or trivial, such as one within the purview of an investigator's occupation, then don't bother rolling - just make it a success and move on. This should never apply to fighting or interacting with monsters or the exceptionally strange - that is under nobody's purview.


INITIATIVE AND COMBAT

Whenever it becomes necessary to precisely dictate the flow of events, such as coming into conflict with a monster, fighting a wizard, or rushing to complete a ritual, things will happen on a tick-for-tack basis. Simply:

One or more Players say they're doing something. Adjudicate it.

Then, the DM does something.

It goes back and forth like this until the event is concluded.

In order to slay, drive off, hide, or run away from a monster that is pursuing, the party must score a number of successes equal to the monster's Hit Dice (HD). This is often done by successful Resolve, Instinct, Body, or Empathy checks.

Resolve can be used for...
    ...hacking something apart with an axe.
    ...running at something with a primed grenade
    ...demanding a surrender

Instinct can be used for...
    ...taking a sniper shot
    ...whipping around a corner and shooting something with a pistol
    ...hiding

Body can be used for...
    ...garroting or choking someone out
    ...outrunning something quick
    ...carrying an unconscious person to safety
    ...breaking down a door with your shoulder

Empathy can be used for...
    ...exorcising a ghost
    ...asking questions about the potential motives of a monster*
    ...calming a crazed animal or person

 *(i.e. Is it looking for something? Was it human? Does it recoil at the religious symbol? Is it afraid of something?)


Injuries and total attribute damage are not revealed until the end of combat. Descriptions are made (i.e. the troll takes a bite out of one of your fingers), but the total cost in terms of attribute are not made clear until it's all over, or at least until there's a moment of respite for everyone to take stock of what's missing.

In this way, Players do not know the real power of what they're encountering until after the fact. This makes monsters and fights very, very dangerous.


INJURIES...

...will be varied and strange. Details for injuries should be listed on a given monster's data sheet or in an adventure iteself. Most Injuries will reduce one or more of an Investigators attributes. If any of the Investigator's attributes reach 0 in 6, then either something very bad happens according to the Injury, or you become generically debilitated depending on which attribute. If it was...

...Resolve, you become Surrendered: despondent, at someone else's mercy, beaten.

...Instinct, you become Unconscious: knocked out, asleep, blind deaf and dumb.

...Body, you become Incapacitated: paralyzed, unable to move, broken into immobility.

...Empathy, you become Disassociated: brain-fried, hysterical, unable to process and hide information.

If two or more attributes go to zero, then that investigator is DEAD. If an Investigator receives damage to an attribute two additional times when it's at zero, then the player permanently loses control of that character and they are thrown to the mercy of the DM: possession, death by exsanguination, what have you.

Induced Injuries or effects often target two or more attributes simultaneously. For instance: 
  • if a cop is beating someone with a nightstick, they are dealing damage to the person's Resolve and Body. 
  • if the cop pepper sprays someone, they are dealing damage to the person's Resolve and Instinct. 
  • if the cop is engaging in 'enhanced interrogation' by playing loud music all night, they are damaging Instinct and Empathy.

EXAMPLE GENERIC INJURIES

FOLDING: -1 Body, -1 Empathy / Day. 
Upon Death become another FLESH CRANE.
Creases on the skin. A pattern begins to emerge. What happens if you fold it? 
YOU MUST FOLD IT. When it is finished, will you be something beautiful?

NASTY CUT: -1 Instinct / Hour
Body checks cause -1 Instinct.
Medical Treatment can cure this injury.

SHOT (Low caliber): -2 Body, -1 Instinct / Minute

SHOT (High caliber): -3 Body, -2 Instinct / Minute


RESTING AND RECOVERY

Investigators can recover 1 Attribute Point per Day from a night's rest and/or from receiving medical attention (if the injury can even be addressed with modern medicine), up to their maximum at character creation. This is often not enough to keep up with a terminal or strange injury - it's merely bailing out water.


MONSTER TEMPLATES

Most monsters slip under the radar. They hide in plain sight, using the cloak of normalcy to hide their activities, or bang and scream against the wall separating them from everyone. Everyone, that is, except those with sufficient Insight.

Practice the language you're going to use to describe something horrific.


HIT DICE: Represents the number of d6's the monster gets in order to cause an Injury. Monsters can have many Hit Dice, or none. It also serves as the number of Hits required to bring it to heel: either shooing it away, banishing it, or killing it.

When a monster is attempting to cause an Injury, roll a number of d6's equal to its Hit Dice. Each die has a 3 in 6 chance of succeeding. For every success, it can deal one injury to one Investigator, or cause an even worse injury on a single Investigator.

Hit Dice also represent how many successful checks it requires to Escape, Hide, or otherwise deal with the monster. A monster of HD 3 which is keen on pursuing the Investigators and hunting them down may require 3 successful Body rolls from the Investigators to shake off. 

INSIGHT THRESHOLD: If an Investigator has Insight below the Insight Threshold of a monster, then it appears as a more rationalized form to that person: a ghost might seem as some swamp gas, a ghoul might seem as a hostile homeless person, a wizard may seem as an old man. Not infrequently, the behavior of the monster may change depending on whether Investigators are encountering it below or above its Insight Threshold.

INJURIES: Lists the injuries and consequences of what happens if a monster gets a Hit. These will be usually unique to each monster.

EXAMPLE MONSTER TEMPLATE: 

SUICIDE GHOST
Hit Dice: 2
Insight Threshold: 3
Will Not Pursue Runners.

Low Insight Appearance: Phantom Scream & Gunshot Sound
A scream from nowhere. Sourceless and unexpected. A gunshot with no source. Resolve Check or -1 Resolve.

Description: Weeping sounds around the corner. A shuttering figure. Gun limp at their side. Head like a gore-chanterelle. Blood flows from a gaping hold in the head like a garden hose.

Injuries
(1 Hit): Arm Possession: 
If the Investigator has no gun: uncontrollable weeping. +1 Empathy, -1 Resolve
If the Investigator has a gun: self-inflicted gun wound. -3 Body, -2 Resolve.

(2 Hit): Total Possession:
If the Investigator has no gun: uncontrollable weeping. -2 Resolve
If the Investigator has a gun: self-inflicted shot to the head. -4 Body, -4 Resolve. 

ITEMS

Investigators begin the game with a Smartphone, and two items of their request. These items must be reasonable and related to the backstories of their investigators. (For instance, a remote drone and a laptop are two reasonable items.) The party is granted one car which has the occupancy to accommodate all of them simultaneously.

Investigators may carry a maximum of 5 Items on their person.

SPELLS

Magic is dangerous. It is mysterious and arcane. The Cost of a Spell is hidden from the Players until after it is finishing casting. Frequently, the cost isn't even the same each time, and might be different depending on who's casting it. The Cost of a Spell is frequently dependent on some mysterious factor for which only the DM is to know.

EXAMPLE SPELL: FORESIGHT

Invoke the Middle Eye. See what the future holds.

Costs: Roll one 1d6 per times used, ever.
Takes one 1) Resolve 2) Instinct 3) Body 4) Empathy 5) Insight 6) Nothing

Effect: The Game Master rolls the next random encounter and shares with you, and only you, the result. You immediate gain knowledge of it - it's Name, Three Adjectives Describing It, and Attacks (if any).

EXAMPLE SPELL: WINDS OF A'AQUR

A'AQUR, that which chases the flashpoint of the end. The great entropic force bears winds of incalculable destruction. To wield just a tiny fraction is shattering. The winds of the North bear such heat and force as to turn its target to ash.

Costs: 1 Instinct and Body for every Day that's eclipsed since the start of the Everlasting Summer.

Effect: Deal 3 Hits to the target.

Requires 1 Round of preparation and chanting.

If this reduces the target to 0 Hits, it disintegrates, leaving nothing but black ash on the nearby terrain.

2 comments:

  1. Note to readers: I have no idea how well this will work. Even I have yet to playtest it. Take it for granted that there will be things requiring FOLDING.

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  2. This looks really good, and there are definitely bits and bobs that I'll probably scavenge for my own systems. I especially like how Resolve and Instinct each cover a broad range of thematically related tasks rather than physically related tasks (e.g. how brute strength isn't what governs your ability to win a fight).

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