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Urban Mythos: Lock, Stock and 2 Smoking Wands of +2 Fireball

Started by richks, January 20, 2003, 05:30:57 PM

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I've just joined this forum, and I've had a read through some of the older posts and I'm posting some of the notes on my current project.  

The setting's been floating around the bowels of my head for about 5 years, and most of the work I've done on the actual system was done about 2 years ago.  The name appeared about 2 years ago and I think it suits the setting rather well.  Unfortunately since then, WotC have basically come up with a very similar setting and given it a very similar name, but I'll get to that later.


In a sentence: Imagine Snatch, Minder or The Sweeny but with magic.

The basic premise came to me after playing Vampire et al for ages.  The setting was getting so overpopulated with "hidden horrors" that I though the likelihood of all these beasties being able to keep themselves hidden for so long was stupid.  I got to thinking and thought up a setting where all this stuff existed and was reasonably well documented.  Vampires and Demons and Dragons all exist, and everyone knows it.  They all co-exist with the rest of the population and have all the same concerns as you and I: they have to pay rent and bills etc.  Also Magic is a real force in this world.  Anyone can learn and cast spells, but it's quite hard to learn and so few people bother.  

Technology in the setting as about level with the 1970's in the real world.  Magic and technology co-exist quite happily: learning an "ignite" spell is hard, and a box of matches only costs 10p.  Yes, I know it sounds a lot like Bloodshadws.  There is a history which explains how this state of affairs all came into being which I'll go into later if anyone's interested.

The game has a well defined, but currently not written up setting.  Everything of any consequence takes place in The City, Capital of The Kingdom.  The City is surrounded by The Countryside, which does contain villages and towns, even other, lesser cities.  Other notable locations that might crop up are Up North, The Western Mountains/Western Dragon Lands, The Colonies and The Continent.  You can see a map at the website ( Http:\\ )


There is a fairly straightforward resolution mechanic, using Tarot cards in what's not quite a "dice substitute" way, but comes very close.  The idea was that the characters are seedy, gambling types, and Tarot has that whole mystic/starytelling theme so they fit the atmosphere in 2 ways.  Plus they don't require a table to roll on.  There was also a mechanic whereby character creation is handled by creating a Tarot spread which defines the characters past, future and attributes, but that proved to be somewhat unweildy.  Characters are now defined by some fairly standard attributes, talents and skills type system, but each has a positive and negative trump associated.  

Basically if the characters positive card comes up while they're trying to do samething then some nice narrative thing happens to them, and likewise if the negative one comes up some nasty narrative thing happens.  Also these represent an advantage and disadvantage the character has.

Wherever possible, I've tried to make the system "feel" like a TV show of that type.  Generally the rules are weighted sa that characters can either do something or they can't.  There are some mechanics regarding a character's "popularity".  As a character does "cool" things, they get more popular.  Characters who are more popular can get away with thing they'd usually fail.  A popular character cannot be killed off, but become less popular (ie has to spend popularity) in avoiding death by way of blatant deus ex.

Another mechanic which has worked really well in playtest is the "trailer".  The Director (GM) hands out a line to each player, something he thinks they might say in the upcoming episode.  If they manage to say their line during the session, they get a bonus (currently a popularity point).  If not, the audience assumes that the line was cut from the final version of the episode and the player gets no bonus.  The players in my group tend to "play chicken" with these lines, leaving them until as late as possible in the session to make things more interesting.  Players who's characters just blert their lines when they make no sense don't get any bonus, they have to say it when they make sense.

I was toying with getting it printed as a small book (64 pages ish) but I think that I'll go the way of a cheap PDF.  Seems like a better idea frankly.

I doubt any of this is that original, but any input/questions about the setting or system are welcome and encouraged


Shreyas Sampat

Hi, Rich.  Welcome to the Forge.

I really like the idea of the 'trailer'... it's cool.  Please, tell us more about it.  Have you tried having players come up with their own lines to put in the trailer?

The popularity mechanic is interesting, too, and I'd like to know how you've implemented it.


Popularity: This is a difficult one to go into without describing the entire system, but it's basically a fairly typical "karma" style thing.

Players can spend popularity points to buy bonuses when they attempt a skill check.  This works in 2 ways.  First is "suspension of disbelief" (which needs a better name).  You can spend N popularity points to get +N when you make the skill check.  Second is a "re-write".  If you fail a skill check by N points, you can spend 3N popularity and you pass.  This is basically what stop PCs dying when they might in other games.  This is based on a type of TV show where the characters don't really die that often, and in a traditional RPG the GM would probably fudge the die rolls to keep players alive.  The idea is that the audiance gets to love the characters, and then the scriptwriter does something that pushes things a bit too far to get the character out of a tight spot.

Another use is currently called "Directors Cut" where the character can suddenly "remember" that they have a skill.  This is the nearest thing there is to a character development mechanic at the moment.

The trailer works one of 3 ways tried so far;

* The GM gives each player a line, written specifically for that character and appropriate to the current episode.  This can be used to foreshadow events in the upcoming episode, which appears to work rather well.

* The GM writes up a bunch of lines on cards and shuffles them, then deals one to each player.  This leads to players trying to come up with ways to say stuff that's almost always irrelevant, which is great fun, as they subtly try to shift the conversation around to whatever conversation is on their card.

* Players each write a line on an index card, they get dealt out to the players.  This didn't work that well in my group.  Getting players involved in the narrative of a game is all well and good, but some players are just along for the ride.  If a game's mechanics put emphasis on the players narrating, those players lose interest, they basically take forever to write these lines.

Basically the better the line fits with the story, the funnier or more dramatically the line fits, the better the reward for the player.

Trailer can also be an action.  Something like diving over a table, or driving really fast.

Mike Holmes

Who decides when a character geets more popularity. It seems odd to have this as a resource, as a character that succeeds shoudn't neccessarily become less popular. Hmmm...

Have you read Extreme Vengance? Has very muych the same mechanic in a very explicit system.

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Shreyas Sampat

I think the idea is that when you "cheat" with Popularity to solve something, the viewers can tell and it irritates them, so your personal popularity drops.  Which is pretty interesting, IMO.


Willows, that's exactly right.  The audience basically starts to see thru the blatant "deus ex" that the scriptwriters keep throwng in.  After a while, it get tiresome.  "what, you mean the A-Team were locked in a shed with a bunch of tools AGAIN???"


Another idea (leading of from my last post) might be that you could allow players to spend popularity to give things a "narrative nudge" in the direction they want.  I don't want to give narrative control to the players: In my group that doesn't work, half the players don't really want narrative control and they'd get marginalised by the others if we played, say, Dust Devils.

But being able to spend some points to find tools in the back of the shed you've been locked in makes sense.  Of course, the GM has right of veto...

Mike Holmes

OK, I buy that explanation. This seems to correspond to the Coincidence and Popularity mechanics of EV pretty closely.

Looking at the setting notes, given that everything is out in the open, what is it that you want to explore with the Magic? And why the generic comic-book-esque place names? What is it that you are going for there?

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Spooky Fanboy

Mike Holmes wrote:

QuoteLooking at the setting notes, given that everything is out in the open, what is it that you want to explore with the Magic? And why the generic comic-book-esque place names? What is it that you are going for there?

I think he's going for the hyper-noir/dark comedy of British gangster films melded with the standard, pseudomedieval fantasy game setting. If that's the case, a few suggestions:

1) Please, no more spell lists a la D&D. In fact, I think it'd be funny as hell to have a world where the magic was fairly free-form, but the Ministry of Fabulism (or whatever) has to have spells listed and ranked by some obscure, pseudo-scientific gobbledeygook system. Thus, while the government is talking about magic as if it were science, the real magic-users shake their heads and order another pint.

2) In fact, the above Ministry of Fabulism is the main "bad guy" of the stories. They attempt to regulate and license practitioners, certain spells, and certain magical items, all of which creates a whopping huge black market for goods and services. I can see "Snatch" being rewritten as an attempt by various parties to grab and sell a crystal ball that has had unusual success in predicting the outcome of gambling events (horse races, cards, etc.)

Please note: I haven't read your setting information yet, so if the above is already there, and/or you don't feel like changing anything, just tell me so.

In that line:

3) Try to de-genericize your vampires and fairie folk. Go off of the real legends, or invent a new way of looking at them, anything other than the same old attempts to make them a more interesting target to shoot at.

Other than the above, I love the idea of magic in the open in a modern-day setting, I like the thing with trailers and popularity points ("He's just too f---ing cool to die, s'what the problem is!"), and I really hope that the rules are made for the premise, rather than in Bloodshadows, where the premise and setting were slapped on top of incompatible and clunky rules.

I must check this out.
Proudly having no idea what he's doing since 1970!

Spooky Fanboy

Something else: Right in this forum, there is another game in development which uses the Tarot as it's Fortune mechanic: Shadows in the Fog. It's take on magic in particular, you might want to look at. Of course, you're also going to want to do things it doesn't, in particular figure out how the players can enchant items for sale on the black market.

Again, I don't know how your system works exactly; you may have nailed all of this down already, are quite happy with it, and I'm wasting photons. I'm just saying, this is what your description of the game has triggered in my head.
Proudly having no idea what he's doing since 1970!


The idea with magic in this setting is that it's really, really commonplace.  It's just anothr tool that people use to do their day to day stuff.  I want to light a fire, I can use a match or an ignition spell.  The system reflects this by using identical mechanics for skills and spells.  I've been trying very hard not to use words like "mystic" and "occult" for supernatural things because those terms just aren't appropriate for most magic in the setting.  If I'm exploring anything with the magic, it's "magic as the mundane".

The Generic names come from the idea that people in The City don't really consider anything outside the city to be interenting.  They're too busy getting along with their day-to-day lives to really bother with what's going on elsewere.  It's meant to emphasise that, and give everything a mundane, yet almost unknown feel.  The contradiction that everything is so mundane that it's not really considered worth exploring, which then makes it unexplored and exotic.

It's more "Brit noir meets urban fantasy".  Think of what a cross between Weaveworld or Perdido Street Station and Snatch or The Italian Job.  I'm certainly not using things like Orks and trolls, this is about Darker Things (TM).  A standard fantasy thing might end up being basically Shardowrun.  But yes, you have pretty much the right idea.

As for your suggestions:

1) Skills and spells are mechanically identical.  Characters have Talents which are rated and Skills which are not.  So for instance, a character might well have something like:

    Mechanic: 4

      He can use his Mechanic talent at it's full rating (4) whenever he works on a Car, Bike or Plane.  If he's trying to fix a boat engine, he can still try, but there's a penalty because even though his Mechanic Talent is relevant here, he doesn't have the right skill.

      The magic system works the same way.  A Spell is a learned technique which a character knows within an area of magic.  If you have a Pyromancy Talent of 4 and only know Fireball as a spell, you can still try to light cigars by improvising an ignite spell.  Again, right Talent, but not a Skill you actually have.  So in a way the system is both: There are spell lists and a free-form system.  It's quite hard to create a free form-magic system that (a) actually has rules and (b) isn't basically Mage.  In the setting this is reflected by the magic trade.  There are companies like Thelemic Rituals Inc and Smythe Thaumaturgical who publish and sell their branded spells to the masses.  People who really know what they're up to can either create their own spells, or pull a bought spell appart and re-build it how they want.  Most people don't have time to do this, and use them "straight out of the packet" as it were.  One of the main themes with this setting is that casting a Spell is about as hard as using a computer.  Most people can do it if they try, some people are experts when it comes to certain applications and a few people roll their own.  And some people have no clue at all.  But in the same way that someone who's clued up about the web won't use AOL, someone who knows magic in depth won't bother with a "Crowley's Best" Spell.

2) The Home Office regulates magic along with everything else.  They tax it and ban the sale and use of dangerous spells.  People who are proven to use such spells in court are in deep trouble.  Blowing someone away with a Telekinetic Blast spell is worse than using a shotgun.  Characters who're found guilty of knowing unlicensed spells of this type will have them "removed" by having a portion of their memory erased.  Yes, so far dealing unlicensed magic swords and trinkets has been the basis of a few episodes and it fits exactly the theme of the setting.

3) Vampires and such are handled differently to the norm (everyone says that!).  The main thing with Vampries is that they are born, not created.  They are sensitive to sunlight, they don't like the sun and try to avoid it in general, but they don't do the cheesey "turn to dust" thing, they just get a nasty headache and sunburn easily.  When they're born though they're much more sensitive, so they tend to be kept indoors during the day until they're 10 or 12.  This means they have to either go to school at night or get taught at home.  As a result, they tend to be ghettoized and have difficulty fitting in at school.  They tend to stick together and feel that there is a prejudice against them in society.  They generally won't drink human blood any more than you or I would eat cat meat.  It's not that they can't physically drink it, it's just not appealing, humans eat all kinds or crap and are generally the least healthy things around.  Plus you'd never know who's demon tainted.

So some of this is glued, rather than nailed.  No much of this is really that firm.  Still in heavy playtest, so very little is actually written up in a way worth presenting to the world at large.  Crappy "fag packet" notes are all well and good when you have a small playing group that you know fairly well, but whipping them into shape so that they are human readable is another thing entirely.  I'm not wasting my time with that until it's at least 3/4 fixed in terms of rules.  I know from professional experience that version control is a total bitch.

On balance you appear to have gotten the main thrust of what I was aiming at.  Which hopefully means I'm explaining it OK!

Spooky Fanboy

Since it's been awhile, and I was interested in the progress in your game, I was wondering how it was going.
Proudly having no idea what he's doing since 1970!


Currently progress is very slow, for various reasons.  Playtesting is still my No.1 priority, and there's a weird phenomenon (which I can't spell) whereby the players really enjoy playing the game and don't really want to spend any time actually analysing things.  One player is often writing up notes on what he doesn't like about the system, but most of his complaints are fairly minor and usually come about because he's got a different set of goals to me when it comes to game design.  He wants Realistic and I want Cinematic, so there really isn't a lot of stuff to talk about.

I'm comming to the conclusion thot I need to write up something worth reading and put it up so that people can have a proper read...