Review: Spycraft 2nd ed

Spycraft roleplaying game: version 2.0 (AEG, MGP 6100)


Spycraft is any over-the top spy game you can imagine. Mostly you will think James Bond, but also The Ipcress File, The Man from UNCLE and Enemy of the State.


Spycraft is the game which made people sit up and say D20 (aka D&D v3) can be adapted to a non-fantasy game. So you have the same six stats, you have classes, skills and feats. You also have Hit Points, except it's called Vitality (the effort need to avoid damage) as well as wounds. They did at least make Vitality more balanced and less explosive. The skills pretty much cover everything you expect, with some having narrow focuses.

Added to this mix, they add Action Dice as beenies, and a comprehensive chapter on gear and how you acquire it.

The heroes

Freelance spies. Or you work for an agency. Spycraft 2.0 is written without any real background. Which is fair really, it doesn't need it.

The villains

The main conceit of the book is that villains are larger than life, which is why the James Bond reference is so prominent (especially the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan eras). Nobody will be surprised to find a lair within a volcano with an obvious, easy to activate self-destruct mechanism.

The look

What art in the book is reminiscent of the better mainstream comics - clear line art with textured colour. Stereotypes are present but mixed and non-sexual (there isn't a 'sexy spy' class or stereotype).

The good

The authors really, really thought about this. If feels like it there are a lot of options all of which are viable and all of which are in-genre. If you like the number-crunching side of roleplaying and the genre suits you, this game will suit you.

It also has some very good advice for running games within the genre. It's a small section but helps a lot.

The bad

I don't feel there is anything intrinsically bad here. I think if I was 13 again I could happily absorb this book and spend hours poring over different options.

The ugly

My major beef is personal: this is far too complicated. There are tables upon tables upon tables. There are 12 basic classes and a similar number of expert classes. There are so many skills you don't know how to pick them (partly, I'll confess, because there are very few truly niche skills which you can ignore, like in D&D). The feats.... so many feats. Worse for me is that you have to pick Talents and Specialities at the beginning, sort of like nature and demeanor from White Wolf books except that they come with substantial rules effects. Then there are the Action Dice: STs have 12 ways to use them, and then the way the players can use them on top. So about 20 ways.

Looking back, D&D is just as guilty of this (hello spell tables). I just don't like it any more. My mind would explode.

It does inspire me to play in the genre, but I would like to adapt it to the Houses of the Blooded system. Not least because I love the idea of the players using Cunning and Learning to define the plot for me. Probably much better than anything I would come up with. And because I think Style points work much better than the distracting Action Dice.

Execution - 6
Ideas - 9

8 months in summary

I had a fairly drawn out first 6 months in 2013. Work was hard, weather was bad and I think I had a hard time recovering from where IVs had left me at Christmas. I wasn't ill, just not fully focussed. I neglected my lj, my health record. This was partly because it was getting circular, a lot due to lack of time and energy; and then something very positive happened which affected my life but which I didn't want to talk about here. I also got shingles, which was fun (very mild though, and only three days off).

Luckily, by September I was in better health and good spirits. I also didn't need to spend precious energy learning the ropes of hall duties. I did get a bug just before fresher's week and stupidly went to a new LARP (BSG, not-so-good series, fun game though). It was my only suspect decision - fresher's week meant being out most nights because the new arrivals space had been finished on the day the students arrived meaning some key elements were not in place and there hadn't been enough time to walk the site and plan.

Still by being careful for the next while I survived ... until end of November. My lung function dropped suddenly during a long three weeks of rain. Due to the unrelenting nature of this term at work, I just didn't have the reserves to deal with it properly so I ended up taking oral antibiotics and two weeks off sick to rest, exercise and do physio. It mostly worked (my results were about the same as in April) but there was strong pressure from the hospital to have IV antibiotics. I took my first Christmas outside Bristol (other than I think I was in Birmingham Heartlands hospital once; I don't think that counts), and it was only in the gym on my return that I was happy that the huge lung clearance at 3am Boxing Day was just the train journey shaking pieces loose.

I am still not all there. The cold and the damp do me no favours, and my lung function is no better than the hospital appointment when I fought not to have IVs, but my health didn't decline, even improved, while other CF patients were falling prey to the weather and taking to hospital.

But I am doing much better than last year and just have to survive the bad weather. And get earlier nights - it's hard to get out of holiday timing :D

How dryness and cold don't work

When I first started seeing my acupuncturist, I suffered from being in a very damp house (it sat over a spring). Then I moved to a better one. Then I moved into halls where, for whatever reason, it is very dry. I meant to put some bowls of water out after I returned from hospital at Christmas, but got distracted (duh) and forgot. When my lung function dropped badly in February, I remembered THEN tested the humidity. It was reading 33-35 using the (free) meter I was borrowing. Before it must have been below that. The ideal is 50 but I would be happy with 40.

With that knowledge we could start changing up the herbs. The kidney generate heat, sending it upwards; the lungs cool the energy down, sending it back to the kidneys; just like those convection drawings from Physics classes. Unfortunately, when it produces too much heat (or the lung don't cool enough), you get a furnace which is what was happening to me. I have continued to take rehydrators but mainly we have been focussed on cooling the heat in the kidneys. Now it's cooled down a lot, I am on no.30, a variation on no.14. Since the problem is one of deficiency, it cools the kidneys and tonifies them, with a bit of phlegm clearance for good measure. (There was also a 29, a focussed cooling of the kidneys and lungs.)

The end result of all this has been slow. I have been tired for much of the year and at several points needed to take days of work to recuperate. But there has been a gradual improvement; most noticeable when I remember to take all my herbs and do good physio. With tiredness from CF and tiredness from a crazy workload (or even just creeping stress from knowledge of the same), I haven't always remembered and that's sent me back a bit a few times. Similarly, I have neglected exercise - I did some Tai Chi on Sunday and realised how much more I needed to do.

There have been moments when a friend's reference to a "demanding job which you are unable to quit" really hit home. Luckily I got over them.

The crunch here is the hospital appointment next week. Have I done enough to improve my lung function? I have no idea but I'm not optimistic. If I haven't, what then? IVs? I don't have a rampant infection. My phlegm is still thick and dry, but my diabetes only goes demanding when my diaphragm gets tight. Maybe some oral antibiotics would be enough. Fingers crossed.

Firefly deckbuilder - new template

New template is made, cards copied across (manually!!). Hopefully it will help clarify things. Also slightly tweaked a few cards (especially hazards, to make them stronger). The final cards should have horizontal, not square or vertical, image boxes to make best use of screenshots; that would also let the awesome background of the Mission cards show more.


Firefly deckbuilder - tweak 3

Thanks to So Board in Bristol I got in a playtest with the new revisions, getting through a whole game in about 90 minutes.

This was the first game with a draw of 5 cards, hand limit 8. It changed the play dramatically, and all for the better:

  • Beginning the game was a lot easier

  • There was a feeling of getting through the deck quicker.

  • There are more ties

  • Playing more cards is just more exciting

There is still some issues about timing/terminology which are mostly due to unfamiliarity. Between that and other discussions, there are still some changes:

  1. I need to do a new template anyway. This will need to make the attributes clearer, and ideally use icons for the timing of the abilities. In particular, there needs to be increased contrast between crews and hazards.

  2. Part of that should include making a rules summary card.

  3. Crew should be Crew Ship and Crew Character. This gives full flexibility of reference. Hazards should just be hazards.

  4. We finally found a solution to Hazards having a different card back. Part of the cost of winning is showing your remaining cards in hand to the player on your right.

  5. In that environment, 10 mission points is too many. 5 seemed plenty enough, at least for friendly play.

  6. Wash is awesome. In general, removing most of the abilities made the start a lot easier.

  7. There was some discussion about the cost of Hazards; but with a goal of 5 points, I would prefer to keep them at their current costs for now.

There were a few issues with particular cards. With so many characters around, Serenity[1]'s ability to discard other crew of the same name was too strong for cost: reducing it to once per turn or increasing to cost 4 both seemed good, but I will probably go with the latter. Stitch Hessian is a fine late game card but is overcosted; will probably go to cost 2 (or just be removed).

I'm happy with the current version, sufficient to keep going. Almost happy enough to print the starting cards in colour. But I need to make the new template first so I'll give that a test before using coloured ink :)

Firefly: deckbuilding - tweak 2

The last playtest basically said, "The start of this game is just too confusing."
  1. I've removed the ability from half of the characters.
  2. I am going to try a change to the numbers. Instead of randomly removing three cards, everyone will keep the initial ten. Instead the draw size will be 5, with a cap of 8.
  • The Sponsor character is a significant cost in cards-in-hand. This will reduce that cost.
  • It save set-up time and confusion.
  • It gives more room for Hazards. In effect they should turn from "I just can't win if I draw a strong hazard" to "It's more difficult to win."
  • I think it will improve deck cycling slightly, especially as players start eliminating their starting cards.
  • It will affect the balance of some cards; in particular River, Serenity, whores and faith. Something to deal with over time.
The other change I thought about making was letting you buy hazards in the same way you buy crew, and then playing them to other player's piles. This would stop problems with card backs but lose the idea that you are impeded by your own deck; and more importantly would add confusion in each mission as player add cards to other players' stacks. If produced commercially I suspect the card backs would be very similar except for a small symbol in one or two corners (so it's visible to opponents as you fan your cards).

The big news is that Toy Vault have a license for Firefly and want submissions for game ideas (thanks Greg). I've been wanting to get a company to look at my games for a couple of years (since I had one which was actually solid and fun enough to release) but have been hampered by my inability to go to games conventions. This is my opportunity but without the ability to demo the game, and talk to the company staff, in person I feel a little bit off-balance.

However my main problem is that of all the games I designed, the one I never thought had a chance of being published was the Firefly one, so I didn't worry about using an existing MSE template. According to the terms of MSE, you cannot use other peoples' code for commercial purposes. Doh! That and the somewhat shakey state of the game at present means it is at best awkward for me to send them the game. In fact, I've been mulling over a different game (more of a Hand-building game) that uses many of the same ideas in a faster way. It would almost be quicker to do that than rebuild the deckbuilder using a hand-written template. Of course, testing would be needed, so maybe not. Frankly I wish I had something ready right now because I have a long to-do list, even I've managed to cross some lines off it recently.

While I'm fully aware that the odds of this leading to something tangible are slight, I want to give it a good try at least. So we'll see.

Back to normal?

Six weeks worth to blog... and I've forgotten most of it. Let's see how I do.

Although I was due to return to work on the Friday, I took it off as holiday in the end because I wanted to spend the time getting Things done. As it turned out, I wasn't ready to go back and spent most of the weekend sleeping and coughing. I was actually very worried because I appeared to be going backwards but eventually I saw my acupuncturist he wasn't worried at all. It was just heat from yang-chi deficiency. Taking lots of the right herb (23 I think) did, in time, resolve that. Still, between snow problems, cold and a heavy workload at work it took a while to recover. I managed to miss my hospital appointment but it was probably for the better since it would have shown poor lung function without understanding the reasons for it. Still, snow was easier here since transport to work at worst meant walking up a hill from which most of the snow and ice was cleared. The one day the buses weren't running, the University closed anyway.

For whatever reasons, my good routine of going to be at 11 most nights has been utterly destroyed by all this. Even though I'm almost at normal (not quite full) strength I'm still missing breakfast too often because my pacing is wrong. It's a battle I keep trying to fight and failing. Grrrrrr.

The other one is trying to get back in the habit of Tai Chi. Unfortunately, I find my very long list of things to do very distracting, not least when I actually have the energy to do them (luckily the list is getting a little shorter).

I'm still getting a little heat but at the moment the cycle is fairly well contained as long as I take the right herbs. And that's where I am now.


Two weeks of home IVs, two weeks in hospital and various weeks of wondering how ill I might or might not be and I'm clear.

We opened up the airways, hydrated every which way, cooled and antibiotic-ed and shook everything loose. It was like a massive spring clean which cleared six years of congealed gunk from behind the boiler. You know you'll never need the space and it will get filled with cobwebs soon enough but it feels good anyway.

The keys here were bird (see previous post) to open up the airways and percussion (where the physio pummels your chest in a vigorous but non-painful manner). However, without the antibiotics to still the infection and herbs to cool and rehydrate it would have been too sticky to move at all, which is what happened the first time round. Considering how well the second lot of IV antibiotics worked, we have to conclude the first set I took were just not right - the infection was immune. It might have been better had I taken my herbs, but my incarceration demonstrated how much effort was needed to clear my lungs so my only regret is not going into hospital first time round - but that's only clear in hindsight.

For the future then, I naturally need to resume exercise and keep up Tai Chi more regularly. What's new is that I was really dehydrated and I'm not sure what I need to do to fix that. Even now, out of a hospital stupidly hot and dry for one resisting those conditions, I am horribly thirsty. Some might be the antibiotics still in my system, and I'm still taking no. 14 to cool and hydrate them as I have through the last fortnight, but solving this dehydration problem is the first step to a long-term solution.

The more immediate problem is remembering how to live outside the strange environment that is a hospital. Progress is being made.

Houses of the Kindred

Two posts. First the trivial one:
Ever since I read Houses of the Blooded, it seemed like a fantastic dramatic system that would also work for Vampire - a game tainted by the the "good effort" World of Darkness system. It's taken me far too long but it struck me on my last day in hospital how to make it work.

Make the disciplines work by results not mechanisms.

Using Obtenebration to help you hide? Sure, get 3 bonus dice to your pool. Using it to climb a wall? Get 3 bonus dice to your pool. Now we aren't worried about fitting mechanics around the discipline; you just make them aspects like everything else. Note also that the use of wagers to add details is fantastic for adding details of you manipulate foes/train your animal ghoul/drive them mad. Also note that this enables you to easily factor disciplines into long term actions (e.g. using your Dominate to build a network of informants).

In this rough draft, each discipline has three levels (although there's no reason older vampires acan't have more). Since HotB doesn't use experience, the initial concept is that disciplines develop over time (and with diablerie) as long as the vampire is active (no strong details here). Optionally, each discipline may have a bonus ability which can be bought instead of the third level.

[Tedious discipline stuff]_Animalism_
Aspects: "I speak to animals", "Animals defend me"
Each level: adds to the Invoke bonus. +3/+6/+9
Cost: 1 blood/round
Catch: There need to be sufficient animals present.
Bonus: Whenever the character might frenzy (before any Courage roll), they can choose to aim it at another creature. Pool is Animalism vs Courage, difficulty 15. If either character fails they frenzy.

Aspects: "I notice things" "I see the impossible"
Each level: adds to the Invoke bonus. +3/+6/+9
Cost: Examining someone or something costs 1 blood. Heightened senses can be reduced to shut out the noise (for peace or focus); doing so (to any level) or reactivating them costs 1 blood.
Catch: Having anything above the first level of Auspex active on continuously leads to sensory overload and distraction so sane kindred to learn to dull their senses. Even the first level is distracting in environments with lots of different signals.
Bonus: You can actually sense what's going on in nearby areas (up 200 yards away, through solid walls). Pool is Auspex, difficulty 10-30.
Note: Auspex cannot actually read auras or minds, but seeing minute details or reading small nuances of body language can make it seem that way.

Aspects: "I move fast", "I fight fast"
Each level: adds to the Invoke bonus. +3/+6/+9
Cost: 2 blood/round
Catch: Activating more than the first level is obvious supernatural speed.
Bonus: You can travel long distances at speed. Each 2 blood is one mile travelled in 10 seconds. This can only be used to travel known paths (the more difficult the path the more it needs to be known). The instinctive reflexes that enable this ability also stop it short if an unexpected obstacle appears.

Aspects: "Let me help you see things clearly", "This is an illusion" [ok, needs work]
Each level: adds to the Invoke bonus. +3/+6/+9
Cost: 1 blood per level per use
Catch: Only affects one person. Extravagant or ongoing illusions may require additional blood.
Bonus: Your illusions affect all those present if you spend 2 extra blood.

Aspects: "My dreams in your waking mind", "There are patterns"
Each level: adds to the Invoke bonus. +3/+6/+9. Dementation when used as an attack is not used with any other ability so this becomes the dice pool (normal Aspects can be invoked).
Cost: 1 blood per level per use
Catch: The user must look at the target, and must succeed at a Courage roll (difficulty 10/13/16 depending on the level invoked) for it to work successfully.

Aspects: "You obey me" "I control you"
Each level: adds to the Invoke bonus. +3/+6/+9. Dominate is not used with any other ability so this becomes the dice pool (normal Aspects can be invoked).
Costs: 1 blood per use
Catch: The target must be able to hear and understand you. The victim does not intrinsically know they have been compelled, although circumstances may make them wonder.
Bonus: Anyone who has drunk the user's blood can be Dominated from across a room without words (costs 3 blood).

Aspects: none
Each level: adds a health level. It increases the amount of time necessary between feeding.
Costs: no extra costs
Catch: Foreign bodies are ejected where possible, absorbed otherwise.
Bonus: You heal one wound per minute for free (this is automatic). You can survive on animal blood. Mostly.
[The Feeding table is one of the few strong mechanics.]

Aspects: "I am concealed", "I look like someone else"
Each level: adds to the Invoke bonus. +3/+6/+9.
Costs: 1 blood for every 2 people present (approx; user has vague idea after spending one blood how much is needed)
Catch: Doesn't affect anyone in the immediate vicinity (e.g. more than 100 yards away).
Bonus: By annointing them with your blood, you can conceal up to your level in willing creatures as long as they stay within 20 yards of you. You can see each other; mostly.

Aspects: "I move shadows" (level 1) "The shadows DO things" (levels 2-3)
Each level: Gives an Invoke bonus (+3); level 3 adds to the Invoke bonus (another +3)
Costs: 1 blood per round (level 1), 2 blood per round (levels 2-3)
Catch: What shadows ARE they?
Bonus: What is in shadow becomes as clear to you as if it was daylight and you can control patches of shadow 25 yards across.

_ Potence_
Aspects: none
Each level: adds 1 to your blood pool and the amount of blood you can spend per round (default: 10, 2)
Costs: none
Catch: This has the same benefit as Generation without the drawback.
Bonus: You get the aspect, "I am strong."

Aspects: "I am attractive", "I am terrifying"
Each level: adds to the Invoke bonus. +3/+6/+9
Cost: 1 blood/round
Catch: Amazingly, none.
Bonus: You can wield Beauty or Courage defensively in combat

Aspects: "I am wolf", "I am bat", "I am mist" (level 3 only)
Each level: lets you Invoke one of the above.
Cost: 1 blood/use
Catch: The user must actually change, or partially change, form to get the benefits of the discipline. A change cannot be made reactively. Protean is not as overtly powerful as some, but can be used in a wide range of situations.
Bonus: The user can spend 3 blood to use Protean reactively.

Aspects: "I change me", "I change you"
Each level: adds one Wager
Cost: 2 blood per use
Catch: Using Vicissitude for anything other than destruction requires time and Wisdom.
Bonus: You can quickly adapt yourself into a known form (takes 1 vulnerable round). You effectively get +1 health level and +1 Strength per level of Vicissitude.

Necromancy, Quietus, Serpentis and Thaumateurgy I consider all to be forms of sorcery and as such require special rules. And keeping away from PCs until such time as they're written! My theory is that Thaum is special because it uses blood inside the body, while other sorcery requires outside sources of blood.

__General concepts__
Vampires wake each night with a full blood pool. They don't need to feed to fuel their abilities.* Instead they just have a hunger which needed to be satiated. Every [X] days, they need to eat or they become Hungry (-1 on all rolls). [X] days without eating after that they become Starving (-2 on all rolls) and are constantly close to frenzy. The next stage is torpor. X is determined by Fortitude, and a chart which hasn't been made yet.

A normal feed is about half a pint (less for small vampires!). A full feed, to go from Starving to Hungry or Hungry to normal, requires draining a body dry; although half a pint from a dozen sources would also work. A desperate vampire can voluntarily become Hungry to refresh his blood pool; or Starving to refresh half the blood pool.

Any vampire can spend 1 blood to get +1 to any ability except Courage and Wisdom for the scene.

Vampires by default have a blood pool of 10 and can spend two blood per round. Potence can increase these. My inclination is to use, in some form, blood potency from Vampire: the Requiem as well but it might be covered by Potence anyway.

* From that point of view, it's worth considering dropping the blood pool altogether and just going with Style points as written in Houses of the Blooded. It would certainly encourage dramatic behaviour.

D&D => Adventure!

A few weeks ago I was challenged to adapt Adventure! for D&D. It still needed to share the shape of the latter (classes etc) but benefit from the bell curve and equal billing of non-combat abilities.

I failed.

I found you would either get into a Cthulhu type position where you were dealing with powerful beings with nothing much more than your wits; or you would have to completely rewrite all the knacks to make them relevant and it would become a completely new game.

Both of these are possible. For the low powered game, wizards use magic pretty much like superscience. They create magic items and research spells for specific purposes. Curiously this makes wizards a power in the world but only a direct threat if the PCs interfere.

For more immediate magic, sorcerers would effectively use Mesmerist powers. For a quick conversion there's no need to change them round.

Priests have so many options. My feeling is they buy a knack which gives them extended dramatic editing options, then can buy custom signature knacks for their religion. Otherwise they buy knacks as always. Similarly, non-magical and semi-magical classes combine existing knacks, the above and any new knacks added to the mix.

My other approach uses the base rules for Houses of the Blooded, using a tick based combat system adapted for multiple opponents and Inspiration instead of Style points.

Here, all combat manoeuvres become knacks, so a powerful fighter can do a lot more in one round than a sorcerer, especially since a lot of manoeuvres will use fewer ticks. Alternatively they let you use ranged weapons in close quarters, backstab, move through combat etc. All the Feat ideas from D&D4 in a more flexible system.

This version in many ways uses D&D spell lists, although rewritten for the new system and costing Inspiration rather than using fixed spell slots. Sorcerers buy spells as knacks, and can cast them as often as they have Inspiration. Wizards buy slots then prepare spells ahead of time. They spend Inspiration to cast them still. They are limited only by what's in their spellbooks, objects that should be treated as magical treasures unto themselves.

It's worth noting at this point that having read most of Jack Vance's Dying Earth novels I understand where the original system for Wizards came from and this does colour my judgment.