RPG Corruption Mechanics

 Posted by at 10:32 pm  No Responses »
Dec 282011

A corruption mechanic is a common device of pen-and-paper roleplaying games in which player characters are prone to some form of physical, mental, or moral decay over time. As the corruption deepens, a character’s personality or behavior shifts and, if they continue down this path and do not purge themselves of the taint, they are removed from play. Often a character must juggle a short-term benefit that increases corruption against the long-term consequences of making that choice.

Map Barad-dur in Middle-earth

A corruption mechanic creates a thematic game element that transcends the particular adventure or mission, forcing the players into more “global” thinking and providing an initial goal for the campaign from its first day: Do not fall to the corruption.

For example:

The Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game tracks sanity points, which are lost through encounters with Lovecraftian horrors or exposure to Mythos lore. As a character loses sanity points she risks bouts of temporary insanity–uncontrollable fainting, fleeing, or screaming fits–followed by permanent psychoses or personality quirks. If her sanity points drop to zero, she slips into permanent madness.

In Cyberpunk 2020 cybernetic enhancement leads to a slow loss of humanity and a descent into cyberpsychosis. Each character maintains an empathy stat, a measure of his ability to empathize and interact with other people. As he implants more and more technology, his empathy score falls and he becomes cold and calculating, more machine than man. If his score reaches zero, he slips into a violent and sociopathic rage, consumed by a hatred of humanity and organic life.

White Wolf’s classic World of Darkness games featured various corruption mechanics. In Vampire: The Masquerade, immoral or vicious choices cause a loss of humanity and a strengthening of the beast. A vampire given totally over to their beast is a force of violence and hunger. The ghosts in Wraith: The Oblivion struggle against their inner shadow, a tendency towards nihilism and hopelessness. If their emotional energy or pathos is totally spent the ghost transforms into a spectre, an agent of oblivion.

In The One Ring from Cubicle 7, a roleplaying game set in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Sauron’s corruptive will preys on the innate flaws of the characters. Suffering or witnessing tragedy or traveling through regions under Sauron’s control will increase the characters’ Shadow score. The results of the Shadow depend on the driving forces and flaws of the characters: treasure-hunters grow increasingly greedy until they descend into thieving madness, those that seek the power to protect their people descend into tyranny.

These corruption mechanics fall into several categories:

  • Innate to the character. The struggle is part of the character’s nature and must be suffered regardless of the character’s choices. Examples: Vampire and Wraith
  • The result of an adventurous life. If the characters stayed home, the dangers could be avoid, but by choosing to adventure the characters endanger themselves. Examples: The One Ring, The Call of Cthulhu.
  • The price of power. The danger of corruption is the cost of additional power and abilities. Examples: The Call of Cthulhu (learning and casting spells), Cyberpunk 2020.

The problem: I use capistrano to deploy my projects, many of which I keep in public github repositories. While I’m happy to share my code, I don’t want my system credentials, server addresses, and deployment locations visible to the world. I could add deploy.rb and my config directory to .gitignore but deployment scripts are complicated enough to benefit from version control. Additionally, there may be some value in sharing them with the outside world.

The solution: Capistrano is just a ruby DSL and can load external files. We can put the bulk of the deployment configuration in deploy.rb and check it into version control, while leaving the deployment user’s credentials in a separate file that only lives on the local machine.

In our deploy.rb we have:

set :application, "sample_app"
set :scm, "git"
set :repository, "git@github.com:geektastical/sample_app.git"
set :branch, "master"

require '../credentials/sample_app.rb'  # lives outside project dir

# rest of deploy

In our credentials/sample_app.rb we have:

Capistrano::Configuration.instance.load do
   set :deploy_to, "deploy_path"
   role :app, "server_name"
   set :user, "username"
   set :password, "password"
Oct 122011

Infamous 2 CoverI’ve recently been playing through Infamous 2 and while I enjoy the game the lack of persistent change in the sandbox city is a terrible waste of a great opportunity.

The electrically super-powered Cole travels to New Marais, a New Orleans analogue, to gain the power necessary to defeat the Beast, a destructive force moving down the east coast of the United States murdering millions. Cole battles both mutated creatures and a fascist militia across the various neighborhoods and swamps of New Marais, making moral choices along the way that drive him towards either heroism or infamy.

With the exception of a few set pieces, there is little permanent change to the environment over the course of the game. Massive burrowing creatures tunnel up in the middle of a plaza, killing and destroying, but when you return ten minutes later, crowds wander through the park, cars drive on the streets, and the businesses are open. Bombs detonate all over the city but no permanent scars appear on the buildings. Undoubtedly there are technical limitations to building an open world city of deformable terrain but the trouble is larger than cosmetics. Whether Cole chooses the light or dark side the ghetto neighborhoods stay ghetto. The nice neighborhoods stay nice. As the Beast approaches, the sky glows a terrifying red but the citizens of New Marais go about their days just as before. I see no panic, no hoarding of supplies, no attempt to evacuate.

There is one particular mission where Cole is given the choice between freeing a small army of police and leading them in an assault on a militia stronghold or setting the stronghold afire, killing both the police and the militia in the process. One would think that returning a significant number of police to the streets (or not) should have some impact on the amount of crime in the area? But it doesn’t. New Marais is almost entirely static.

I would like to have seen Cole’s actions and moral choices reflected in the city around him. In sections of the city secured by a heroic Cole, business is booming, citizens walk abroad at night, nice cars park along the streets, and the police patrol the sidewalks. A destructive, evil Cole would result in a city of boarded-up shops and broken windows, abandoned cars and graffiti. But regardless of Cole’s path, as the Beast approaches, the city gives way to desperation: mad men yell about the end times on street corners, religious groups pray publicly in the parks and the rooftops, drunken block parties break out spontaneously as scared people try to drown their fears in alcohol, drugs, and sex.

I would have liked New Marais to live a little.

Oct 092011

Most RPGs, both the pen and paper and video game varieties, include the idea of skills. Although they go by various names in different systems, skills are areas of expertise or knowledge in which characters can gain ranks or ratings. A character’s rank is taken into account when resolving actions related to that skill. For example, a lockpick skill measures a character’s ability to crack safes and open doors, while a swimming skill covers long distance swims, trending water for long period of times, and holding one’s breath.

Depending on the game system, the number and type of skills available varies from ten to twelve high-level proficiencies to hundreds of detailed areas covering nearly every imaginable scenario. Game systems striving for universality and encouraging multiple types of gameplay tend towards larger lists while more focused games often support shorter, more targeted specialties. Although part of the game’s mechanics, the skills made accessible to the players strongly communicates the atmosphere of the campaign.

RPG Skills

What sort of game is suggested by a skill list that includes occult, library research, archaeology, and astronomy? Does it sound like a game where the characters can expect to encounter eldritch horrors from beyond time and space? What about survival, barter, jury-rig, and energy weapons? Perhaps a futuristic post-apocalyptic wasteland? A campaign relying on intimidate, stealth, streetwise, and thievery is very different than one focused on history, heraldry, warfare, and diplomacy.

The potential list of skills is practically infinite. Rather than strive for completeness a focused list of ten to twenty skills is sufficient to enable a wide range of gameplay if choosen carefully.

1. Decide on the atmosphere and setting of the campaign

A game designer or DM should develop a skill list that corresponds to the play style they want to encourage and that supports the campaign atmosphere they are trying to establish. Is it a swashbuckling and piracy adventure? Dungeon-crawling? Gothic horror? Van Helsing has a very different skill set than Conan but both are appropriate to their worlds.

2. Decide on the challenges the characters will face

A characters’ skills define the possible solutions they can bring to bear on a situation. If the characters will often have the opportunity to talk themselves out of sticky situations rather than fight, you should offer skills like intimidate, barter, and bribery. Likewise, there should be no pointless skills. Every skill should be a Chekhov’s gun.

3. Decide when to be specific and when to be general

The Dewey Decimal Classification reserves the 200s for religion. 220-290 catalogs various aspects of Christianity; 290-300 is reserved for all others religions. Obviously this is culturally imbalanced but it accurately reflects the Western libraries of the 1800s. One should consider specificity and generality carefully. For a super hero-themed game, a science skill may cover every science imaginable–high-energy physics, biology, astronomy–to match the super-scientists common in comic books. A sci-fi themed exploration game may divide those sciences into different specialties: engineering, medical, and xenobiology.

Little Refactorings

 Posted by at 5:59 pm  No Responses »
Sep 172011

While reading through a Rails app, I came across the following chunk of Ruby code.

page_index = 1
page_index = params[:page].to_i if params[:page]
options["page"] = page_index

It’s a piece of a larger controller method that handles pagination for an article. It checks the web request’s parameters for a “page” field, using that value if it exists; otherwise it defaults to the first page.

What’s with the to_i? Most likely the original author was worried about malicious users passing in garbage values since to_i will convert non-numeric values to 0. But how does the code handle -1? How does it handle 102 on a 5 page article? There’s a bigger validation problem here.

I reworked the code and replaced it with the following.

page_range = (1..6)  # article with six pages
options["page"] = (page_range === params[:page] && params[:page]) || 1

If the value of params[:page] is within the bounds of the page_range, set options["page"] to params[:page]; otherwise set it to 1. The === operator correctly handles non-numeric and nil values. This code performs the correct validation in fewer lines.

As a larger refactoring I replaced the options hash with a presenter, renamed the presenter’s variables to make them more readable, and encapsulated the page check code into a method.

presenter.page_number = find_page_number

Of course, by adding the find_page_number method I’ve increased the number of lines of code, but it makes the controller’s code more self-documenting so I prefer it.


Fallout: New Vegas implements an interesting faction system where most of the NPCs the player encounters belong to one of many organizations spread throughout the Mojave wasteland. Over time the player develops reputations with the various factions: allying with some, combating others. Which factions the player supports and which he or she fights has a major impact on the unfolding of the game.

This faction system adds great depth and complexity to Fallout’s sandbox world. It is worth replicating when world-building. Let’s examine it to see if we can derive any guidelines.

Fallout New Vegas Map

Fallout: New Vegas Factions

There is variation in the strength and importance of the various factions. The groups maintain a web of relationships among themselves: some are bitter enemies; others are unaware of each other’s existence. First, there are three major factions struggling for supremacy in the Mojave wasteland.

  • The New California Republic is an expansionist, democratic nation-state that has sent their army into the Mojave desert. The NCR’s soldiers maintain order, serving as a police when necessary, but also fight against any major forces that oppose their expansion.
  • Caesar’s Legion is an aggressive, tyrannical horde from the east that plans on invading and conquering the Mojave wasteland.
  • Robert House is a shadowy former tech company CEO who survived the nuclear apocalypse and controls New Vegas through a small army of robots. More interested in technological progress than politics, Mr. House plans on setting himself up as an autocrat to build a technologically advanced civilization.

The NCR and Caesar’s Legion are locked in a brutal war for the Mojave desert while Mr. House is manipulating events behind the scenes to expand his own power. This is the primary conflict in Fallout: New Vegas and the main plot-line hinges on which side the player takes in this three-way power struggle.

There are also numerous minor but powerful factions that will support one of the big players if the player develops the proper relationships. The Boomers are an isolationist tribe armed with heavy ordnance. The Brotherhood of Steel is a militant, religious order that seeks to gather and preserve prewar technology. They live in hiding after a defeat by the NCR. The Followers of the Apocalypse are a humanitarian organization of doctors and scientists that strive to reintroduce education and learning into the world. They are tolerated by the NCR but relations between the two factions are cool as the Followers assist everyone including the NCR’s enemies. The Great Khans are a former raiding tribe that were nearly destroyed by the NCR. They are considering joining Caesar’s Legion to enact revenge. The Enclave is a racist, military organization that claims to be the true United States government. They were defeated in a previous game and only remnants of their force now survive.

Additionally, there are many small factions scattered throughout the world. The Mojave wasteland is filled with various raiding tribal gangs include the Fiends, Jackals, Vipers, and Scorpions. There are numerous settlements–Goodsprings, Freeside, Novac–with each town counting as a faction. There are also several powerful gangs: the Kings operate in Freeside; the Powder Gangers are escaped inmates from a NCR prison; each casino in New Vegas is run by a different gang, including the cannibalistic White Glove Society. Finally, there are trading companies like the Crimson Caravan and the Gun Runners.

Creating Factions for a RPG Sandbox

Using Fallout: New Vegas as a model, what guidelines can we derive to fill our sandbox world with factions?

1. Make each settlement a faction

Every town and village in Fallout: New Vegas is a faction all its own. This mechanic ensures that each settlement maintains a separate reputation score for the player. Saving a village from goblins makes the adventurers idolized in this village but no one has heard of them in the next town over.

2. Divide a single group into factions to add flavor and conflict

The Mojave desert isn’t plagued by generic “raiders” but by Fiends and Jackals, Vipers and Scorpions, Powder Gangers and Great Khans. This not only adds atmosphere and flavor but also creates the opportunity for conflict between the various raider factions. If the mountains are overrun with orcs, split them into tribes and give them slightly different armor and weapon preferences to make them distinctive. Perhaps two of the orc tribes don’t get along?

3. Vary the formats of the organizations

The factions in Fallout: New Vegas represent many different types of organizations. There are gangs, armies, humanitarian groups, townships, trading houses, social societies, and religious cults. In any sandbox, there should be a good mix of types. Wizardry circles, adventuring companies, and thieves guilds could appear in a fantasy sandbox.

4. Create world-spanning organizations to knit the world together

Neither the humanitarian Followers of the Apocalypse nor the Crimson Caravan traders are powerful players in the Mojave wasteland but their reappearance here and there helps flesh out the fabric of the sandbox. Their presence creates a sense of continuation between the various settlements. Imagine a temple that sends clerics out to heal the ills of the world. Members of the temple could be encountered over and over. Perhaps the thieves guild of a major city maintains “branch offices” is some of the smaller towns?

5. Hide some of them

Most believe the The Brotherhood of Steel was wiped out after their battle with the NCR. Their continuing presence is only suspected by a few. Whether as secret societies living among everyday folk or as small forces hiding in remote or secret compounds, let some of the sandbox’s factions live in secrecy.

6. Develop a handful of big players engaged in a world-spanning conflict

The fate of the Mojave wasteland hinges on the struggles between the three major factions. In their respective areas of control the NCR, the Legion, and Mr. House wield tremendous power and influence. The player will encounter representatives of those factions, and his or her reputation with them impacts the entire game. If the player is vilified by any of those groups, it becomes difficult to travel in some regions of the sandbox. Major factions should have various strongholds scattered throughout the sandbox. Border areas between spheres of control are inherently interesting and exciting places.

7. Add a sense of history

Both the Enclave and the Brotherhood of Steel are the remains of once major armies, now defeated and weak. A few of the smaller factions should be the remnants of previous struggles. Are the fae rings in the Great Forest the last strongholds of a faerie people that once ruled the entire region? Are the outlaw bands hiding in the mountains the veterans of a failed rebellion twenty years ago?

8. Force the player to make choices and make enemies

The player must eventually choose a side in the struggle between the NCR, Mr. House, and the Legion. Allying with one of the factions makes you the enemy of the others. If two factions of wizards are waring for supremacy, the players can only support one. The other becomes an instant enemy.

9. Complicate the relationships between factions

In contrast to the last guideline not every relationship between factions must be antagonistic. The NCR looks askew at the Followers of Apocalypse since they are willing to assist the NCR’s enemies, but they still allow the Followers to operate in their territory. The Great Khans are considering an alliance with the Legion but worry about the loss of independence. Mr. House does not want to destroy the NCR but rather use them.

10. Let factions represent competing philosophies

The NCR is a democratic republic believing in personal freedom. Caesar’s Legion is a fascist, slave-owning society that outlaws moral “weaknesses” like drugs and alcohol which are commonly abused by NCR citizens. Mr. House is an opportunist, caring more about his goals than political ideology. The Followers of the Apocalypse work to recover scientific learning and reintroduce it to the world. The Brotherhood of Steel horde knowledge to protect it from misuse. By forcing the major factions to represent particular stances, the struggles in the world become part of a larger philosophical argument rather than just two gangs beating one another over the head for dominance. This works best if the sides are not simply good and evil but more complicated and nuanced.

For instance, in a fantasy RPG, a circle of wizards that seek knowledge and understanding can be opposed by a religious order that believes magic is too dangerous to practice. The religious order is fanatical and prejudiced but the wizards are arrogant and careless.


Entrance to Firetop Mountain“You peer into the gloom to see dark, slimy walls with pools of water on the stone floor in front of you. The air is cold and dank. You light your lantern and step warily into the blackness. Cobwebs brush your face and you hear the scurrying of tiny feet: rats, most likely. You set off into the cave. After a few yards you arrive at a junction. Will you turn west or east?”

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is a single-player RPG “choose your own adventure”-style gamebook published by Steve Jackson (the UK Steve Jackson) in the early 80s and recently rereleased for the Amazon Kindle. More game than book, the reader controls an adventurer who descends into the dungeon beneath Firetop Mountain to loot the famed treasure of the titular Warlock. As the reader explores, she is provided with alternative options: to go east or west, to reason with a madman or to attack him, to sneak past an orc guard or to turn back and go the other way. The reader’s decisions impact the unfolding of the story. Additionally, the book provides a simple, dice-based, combat mechanic. Both the reader’s character and the dungeon’s denizens are quantified by a set of three statistics–skill, stamina, and luck–which are used to resolve combat encounters. Upgrades to weapons and armor are also found in the dungeon, making the adventurer tougher in a fight.

As far as I can tell, the Kindle edition is a faithful recreation of the original gamebook. The illustrations are crisp and clear. Compensating for the lack of paper, the game draws a map as the reader uncovers more and more of the dungeon. The rough, hand-drawn style of the map was undoubtedly my favorite part of the game.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain Map

Unfortunately, adherence to the dice-mechanic of the paper version makes the Kindle game a chore to play. A single combat turn includes several screens of information, including attack and damage rolls and the reporting of success or failure. On paper this process is probably fast and smooth, but interrupted by slow Kindle page refreshes, combat drags on for far too long. A battle against four zombies required flipping through approximately 50 pages. This is a case where fidelity to the source material should have been sacrificed to improve usability.

But beyond slow combat there’s another more fundamental problem with the Kindle edition. It’s impossible to cheat by peaking ahead or backing out of a bad decision. While this may seem like a positive, enforcing the rules and all, in reality no one wants to restart a book from the beginning after their character opens the wrong door and gets jumped by a zombie pack. Modern video games have save points for a reason.

I hope that the growing prevalence of eReaders will usher in an era of experimentation in interactive fiction, and we see a range of works along the continuum of static fiction to interactive stories to games. The Kindle edition of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain isn’t perfect, but I purchased it to encourage authors and programmers to continue developing creative works in this space.

What Is Best In Life?

 Posted by at 10:28 pm  No Responses »
Aug 302011

What Is Best In Life
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Creepy Dude

 Posted by at 10:19 pm  No Responses »
Aug 262011

Conan Motivational Poster: Creepy Dude
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Thulsa Doom is unimpressed

 Posted by at 12:31 pm  No Responses »
Aug 202011

Thulsa Doom is unimpressed from Conan the barbarian

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