Friday, October 12, 2012

Lady Penelope's Odyssey: Historical Personages

Over the course of our four seasons of play, Lady Penelope has met a fair number of famous (and not-so-famous) historical characters. Here is the full list (in order of appearance), with their Wikipedia links. Asterisks indicate characters whom Penelope met several times or took on board of her TARDIS. One of them is even given two asterisks, because he actually travelled through time and space with our Time Lady several episodes!

Dr John Dee * (and his devoted daughter Mary)

King Arthur * (OK, semi-historical), Galven * (Gawaine) and Bedwyr * (Bedivere)

Emperor Nero

King Richard III, Lady Anne Neville and Lady Elizabeth Woodville

Jack the Ripper (the real one!)

King James I and his favourite Robert Carr

Francis Bacon *

Christopher Marlowe **

William Shakespeare * and Thomas Kyd

Thomas Harriot (as well as an alternate universe version)

Richard Baines

King Charles I and Sir Walter Raleigh (well, she saw their executions...)

Oliver Cromwell *

Bram Stoker and his wife Florence

Arthur Conan Doyle, E.W. Hornung and George Cecil Ives

Sir Henry Irving and Dame Ellen Terry

Cassandra of Troy (more mythical than historical)

Lord Byron*, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley *, John Polidori and Claire Clairmont

Leigh Hunt

Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Emilie Louise Flöge

Sigmund Freud*, Carl Jung and Otto Rank

King Philip II of Spain (alternate universe)

Lady Anne Stanley (alternate universe, where she becomes the new Virgin Queen, after Elizabeth)

King Henry III of France (alternate universe)

Sir Francis Drake (alternate universe)

Ada Byron*, Charles Babbage, Lady Anne Isabella Byron and William King-Noel, earl of Lovelace

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Duchess Sophie and Gavrilo Princip (just a quick glimpse at Sarajevo)

Baron Roman von Ungern Sternberg (if you've never heard about him, you've got to check this guy)

Grygory Semenov, Ferdynand Ossendowski and Kamil Gyzicki (no Wikipedia page for him...)

Georges Méliès

Rasputin (actually an illusory disguise of the Black Guardian)

King Louis XIV of France (in his teens) and his mother Queen Anne

Le Chevalier d'Herblay (aka "Aramis" - semi-fictional) and Cyrano de Bergerac

Aristotle and Epicurus

(I don't think I've forgotten anyone...)

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Fear Factor, revisited

As the DWAITAS rules now stand, potentially frightening aliens and creatures have a “passive”  Fear score equal to the sum of their Resolve and Presence, which is supposed to be rolled against the characters’ Ingenuity + Resolve according to the usual conflict rules – and beings with the Fear Factor trait add +2 per trait level to this basic Fear score, but only when (and I quote) “actively trying to strike fear into people’s hearts”. At first glance, this approach seems to be a smooth and elegant application of the usual DWAITAS mechanics; in actual play, however, I found it didn’t work that well, for a variety of reasons. The purpose of this article is to identify these problems and present a simple alternative.

The Scale of Fear

The first problem lies with the Fear Factor given to some creatures; in several cases, this really seems to be completely arbitrary and creates some annoying inconsistencies when you compare some creatures to others. Cybermen, for instance, have a massive Fear Factor bonus of +6, while neither the Saturnynians nor the Weeping Angels have even a single level in this trait. When adding these various creatures’ Presence and Resolve scores, we get the following ‘active’ Fear scores: 11 for Cybermen, 8 for Saturnynians and a measly 6 for Weeping Angels. Whatever your subjective interpretation of these creatures is, this really does not seem quite right.

Another example: the Gelth and their gas-animated zombies are given the same formidable Fear Factor of 4 – which puts these creatures in the same league as the Beast or the Jagrafess and also means that Gelth zombies are far, far more frightening than Jagrafess zombies or Nanogene zombies (with their very unsettling flesh-sculpted gas-masks), who have a Fear Factor of 1.

As shown by these examples, the Fear Factor of some creatures should simply be revised, taking into account their inherent scaring power, as well as what we might call their relative frightfulness (compared to other frightening creatures). The simplest manner to ensure that creatures are given the right Fear Factors is to rank their Fear Factor according to what we might call the Pyramid of Fear, starting with the most terrifying creatures, such as the Beast (Fear Factor 4, bonus +8) and climbing down through each lower level.

We should also examine the question of “Fear Factor 0”, i.e. creatures who were not given any Fear Factor in their game descriptions but whose Alien Appearance, regardless of should be enough to scare some humans – creatures like the Tritovores and the Ood.

But before we break down the system, let us take a closer look at how it distributes Fear Factors among the various creature types. As the rules now stand, the “Pyramid of Fear” is made of the following degrees:

Fear Factor 4 = The Beast, the Jagrafess and, yes, the Gelth and the Gelth Zombies. It should also be noted that, in the 11th Doctor rules, Daleks have been upgraded from a Fear Factor of 3 to this supreme Fear Factor of 4.

Fear Factor 3 = Cybermen (including Controllers, Leaders etc), Cybershades, Daleks (but see above) and big nasties such as the Tooth & Claw Werewolf, the Lazarus creature or the Macra.

Fear Factor 2 = Judoons, Krilitanes, Slitheen, Hoiks, Scarecrows, Vastha Nerada, Futurekind, Smilers and Spacesuit Zombies.

Fear Factor 1 = Carrionites, Sycorax, Nestene Consciousness and Autons, members of the Family of Blood, Jagrafess Zombies, Nanogene Zombies, Infected New Human Flesh, The Wire and Davros.

We should also add two other lists: “Fear Factor 0” (creatures which may not want to frighten you but who have a frightening appearance – fear of the unknown and all that) and “Fear Factor X” (creatures which SHOULD have been given a Fear Factor but were oddly forgotten by the rules).

Fear Factor 0 = Ood, Tritovores, Silurians.

Fear Factor X = Weeping Angels, Swarm, Saturnynians, Pyroviles, Vespiform, Racnoss.

The Presence Problem

Another problem with the Fear rules is their use of a creature’s Presence – and the rather ambiguous way it defines what this attribute actually represents in the case of creatures (especially monstrous or artificial ones).

Let us take the example of zombies and other unnaturally animated creatures. Most of them are given low or mediocre Presence to reflect their lack of personality, inability to express themselves, blank appearance etc. This is obviously why Autons and the Scarecrows of the Family of Blood have a Presence of 1 and Nanogene Zombies have a Presence of 2. Since the rules define Presence as charisma and force of personality, this does make sense – but as far as the Fear system is concerned, this approach also has the weird side effect of making such creatures less frightening, since the Fear effect is based on Presence.

And then we have the other extreme of the problem, reflected by the Gelth Zombies, with their insane Presence of 6 (!) – more than the Beast itself!  The only explanation here is that the Gelth Zombies’ Presence comes from their Gelth masters, as if the possessing entity’s disembodied Presence somehow transpired through the walking corpse it inhabits… but as far as the Fear effect is concerned, this seems quite odd - especially since Gelth zombies look and behave much like other zombies and do not become inherently more terrifying (at least not in such proportions) as soon as you realize they are actually possessed corpses.

This internal contradiction must be solved if we want the system to work in a reasonably logical manner; either we change the way Presence works for of zombies and zombie-like creatures or we simply disconnect the Fear effect from Presence and rule that zombies and zombie-like creatures have an effective Presence of 0, which would be perfectly logical if you define Presence as charisma, force of personality and command. This latter approach would also dispense us from bothering to define what the Presence score of a Dalek or Cyberman actually means or entails.

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid… Or Not

My final issue with the Fear rules as they now stand is the difference they insist on making between ‘actively trying to strike fear’ and a supposedly more ‘passive’ attitude.

While it is true that some creatures become more frightening when they purposefully choose to intimidate their foes or victims, making this distinction such an essential aspect of the system (and the necessary condition for putting the Fear Factor bonus into play) doesn’t really work for me: it conjures up images of aliens and beasties going on “fright mode”, making menacing noises and gestures while the characters watch them do their Fear Factor routine. In a weird, not entirely rational way, this idea strikes me as the in-game equivalent of actors in bad rubber suits trying really, really hard to convince the audience that they are, indeed, very frightening monsters.

An Alternate Approach

In my games, I find it far simpler (and more dramatic) to treat Fear as a passive and inherent (i.e. always on) feature of creatures, with a Fear total used as a fixed target number for the characters’ Ingenuity + Resolve roll.

Creatures which can cause Fear are simply given a Fear total which has nothing to do with its Presence or Resolve but is rated on the same scale as difficulty levels: we start at 12 (Normal) and each level of Fear Factor increases this total by +3 (rather than +2), so that each increment matches the scale of fixed difficulty levels given in the game.

Thus, a creature with a Fear Factor of 2 would have a Fear total of 18 (Hard), while one with a Fear Factor of 4 would have a Fear total of 24 (Very Difficult).

Creatures which qualify for this Fear effect obviously include all those which were given a Fear Factor in the original rules, as well as all creatures with the Major version of the Alien Appearance trait: a creature like an Ood or a Tritovore, for instance, has no Fear Factor (i.e. no extra Fear bonus) but its Alien Appearance may well frighten some humans, giving them the basic Fear score of 12.

For characters, failing their roll against the creature’s Fear total will usually mean running away, panicking or (more probably) having to spend Story points to avoid such undesirable effects. A “Yes but…” result could mean that the character can attempt any action except attack the creature, while a “Yes and…” result could mean that the character will never have to make Fear checks again when encountering this specific type of creature.

Fear Factoring

Now that the nuts and bolts of the system have been established, it is time to rework the Fear Factors of various creatures, according to their relative frightfulness, starting at the top with Fear Factor 4 (the Beast and other eldritch entities), all the way down to Fear Factor 0 (Ood, Tritovores etc), according to our “pyramid of fear” principle. In order to make things easier to adjudicate, I have given each Fear Factor level a general descriptor.

Fear Factor 4: Infernal  (Fear total = 24)
This supreme level should be restricted to the most terrifying entities in the universe, such as the Beast or Abaddon – entities which radiate a preternatural aura of sheer, primal evil or terror.

Fear Factor 3: Nightmarish  (Fear total = 21)
Creatures with this Fear Factor include enormous monsters like the Macra or warped, unnatural aberrations like the Lazarus Creature and, of course, beings which qualify for both, such as the Jagrafess).

Fear Factor 2: Fearsome  (Fear total = 18)
Creatures with this Fear Factor include most “big & bad monsters”, such as the Werewolf from Tooth & Claw, Vespiforms, Saturnynians, Giant Pyroviles, Slitheen, Krilitanes, Hoix, Racnoss as well as beings who display a completely emotionless form of aggression, such as Cybermen and Daleks. This level should also include non-corporeal, ghost-like or shadow-like menaces such as the Gelth or the Vashta Nerada, as well as all Zombies and zombie-like beings such as Autons, Gelth Zombies, Scarecrows etc.

Fear Factor 1:  Menacing  (Fear total = 15)
Creatures with this Fear Factor include most highly-aggressive (or intimidating) humanoids such as Judoon, Sycorax, Carrionites, Futurekind or the Family of Blood,. This category also includes those beings which can only act through controlled creatures or some technological interface, such as the Wire or the Nestene Consciousness.

Fear Factor 0: Weird  (Fear total= 12)
Creatures with this Fear Factor simply have a frightening Alien Appearance (at least to human eyes). This includes Oods, Silurians, Tritovores and a few others.

Last Words

So, where do our dear Weeping Angels fit into all this?  In their case, I’d be tempted to give them a variable Fear Factor, starting at 0 (Weird) for characters who simply find these strange statues unsettling, increasing to 1 (Menacing) when you realize that, yes, they must have moved and then to 2 (Fearsome) once you realize that they are after you (or if you already know what you are facing – the “don’t blink” stuff and all that).

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Lady Penelope's Odyssey, Seasons 1-4

(Coming soon: season 5 - but in the meantime, here is a single-post recap of the four seasons we've played so far - that's 52 episodes / game sessions !)

Season One : First Steps

Episode 1 : The Mists of Time
In which Lady Penelope Ashworth falls into the Vortex – with too many questions in her head and a time-marauding predator on her trail …

Episode 2 : Legacy
In which Lady Penelope Ashworth discovers her true heritage as a child of Avalon and Gallifrey… and gets her own TARDIS too !

Episode 3 : The Once and Future King
Lady Penelope returns to Arthurian Britain, becomes the Lady of the Lake and takes Excalibur to a very dark future…

Episode 4 : The City of Chimeras
With the help of two otherworldly cats, Penelope faces the nightmarish menace of the Master of Chimeras in 1920s Paris !

Episode 5 : Lost In Versailles
Lady Penelope travels to 18th century Versailles and helps a couple of alien castaways to escape from the so-called Age of Reason.

Episode 6 : The Gates of Janus
While visiting Ancient Rome, Penelope discovers that the city is ruled by an emperor that never was. Can she save History as we know it ?

Episode 7 : Brave New Worlds
While travelling back to the 2080s to fulfill a promise, Penelope arrives in an alternate, far brighter future – and faces a Time Lady’s dilemma.

Episode 8 : The Daughter of Time
Penelope and the Victorian adventurer Lord Ulysses Ashworth engage in some temporal tourism, from Waterloo to the dark days of Richard III.

Episode 9 : The Shadow Below London
Did you know Jack the Ripper had struck again in 1893 ? No, of course you didn’t, because it was all covered up by the Torchwood Institute…

Episode 10 : Somewhere In Time
Weston-super-mare, July 1907. Penelope finally gets to meet the Doctor - trapped in a week that never ends. Questions, answers and a waltz on the Grand Pier.

Episode 11 : The Orion Express Mystery
Just remember two things : “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” and, of course, “The butler did it.”

Episode 12 : The Avalon Project
Penelope comes back to the 2080s to help King Arthur the Second awaken the powers of Excalibur and build a brighter future - but sinister forces conspire in the shadows…

Episode 13 : The Queen of Air and Darkness
Penelope finally faces her half-brother Mordred and her mother Morgana the Witch Queen in a duel of wits and wills- with the fate of Britain in the balance… 

Season Two : Time Lady

Episode 1: Space Princess
In which Lady Penelope experiences the joys of a 25th century luxury space cruise, including high-stakes gambling, dinner at the captain's table and, of course, an attack by space pirates.

Episode 2: For Queen and Planet
A most adventurous journey from a cursed temple in India to the farthest-reaching colony of the British Empire - the mysterious planet Mura. And yes, it all happened in 1894.

Episode 3: Operation Strikeback
There is no Mission:Impossible when you can jump back in time. Lady Penelope faces Felicity Warburton, the Triumvirate's Time Assassin, and saves Britain's future - again!

Episode 4: All Yesterday's Tomorrows 

New York, 1933. Nikita Nova, inventress extraordinaire, is testing her new teleportation machine... but who the Hell is Nikita Nova and how come she looks so much like Lady Penelope?

Episode 5: The Doctor and the Angel 

London, 1608. The Angel of Death has extended his dark wings over the city, heralding the reign of an even greater Terror. The dying Dr Dee sends a desperate call through Time... 

Episode 6: Making History 
Accompanied by the (not quite) late Christopher Marlowe, Lady Penelope attends three public executions, bumps into Oliver Cromwell and meets the Meddling... Puritan.

Episode 7: Childhood's End
Lady Penelope is summoned to the Ark of Arcadia, a huge transdimensional ship, where she meets the Guardians of Infinity - beings formerly known as... Time Lords.

Episode 8: The Never People 

Question: How could so many Time Lords survive the Last Great Time War? Answer: By being already dead when it all happened. Featuring the Doctor!

Episode 9: Time Off 

Nothing can beat an evening at the Lyceum Theatre - especially when you get to meet Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, E.W. Hornung, Sir Henry Irving and a Vortex Medusa.

Episode 10: The Walls of Troy
Lady Penelope and her companions never found the Trojan War - but they did have a most interesting trip, complete with temporal phenomena and metaphysical dilemmas...

Episode 11: Phantasmagoria
Summer 1816. Lady Penelope meets Lord Byron, the Shelleys and a few other tormented souls in this dark romantic tale of revenge, melancholy and psychic infestation.

Episode 12: The King and the Land
Lady Penelope returns to the Avalon Project to attend a royal wedding - only to discover that Excalibur, the key to mankind's future, has been stolen by the lords of the Otherworld.

Episode 13: The Sun of Blood
Lady Penelope forges an uneasy alliance with her half-brother Mordred to defeat the power of the Sun of Blood - and prevent the rebirth of their mother, Morgaine the Witch Queen. 

Season Three : The Web of Time

Episode 1: Demons of the Mind 
Lady Penelope goes on holiday in 1909 Vienna, immerses herself in the local Zeitgeist, meets Klimt, Schiele, Freud, Jung - and foils the dark designs of her old enemies the Lloigor… 

Episode 2: Age of the Captain 
Back in the 2010s, Penelope discovers the link between the future of the Torchwood Institute and the past of the Time Agency – and finally gets to meet Captain Jack Harkness!

Episode 3: The Sycorax Situation 
Having driven off the Hounds of Tindalos from the streets of Cardiff, Penelope travels with Captain Jack through the Rift, encounters an alien horde - and faces a life-affecting choice. 

Episode 4: Reconquista! 
Another 1595. England has been living under Spanish rule for 7 years, since the victory of the Armada. It's time for Kit Marlowe, playwright, time-traveller and spy extraordinaire to make a truly historic come back - with the help of a certain Time Lady.

Episode 5: Pride & Probability
1834. Who is really Miss Ada Byron's new mathematics teacher - and why is he plotting to destroy her friendship with Charles Babbage? Lady Penelope saves History once again in this decidedly Austenian tale of science and sensibility. 

Episode 6: Time & Tide
Places to go, people to see, dilemmas to solve. Can Lady Penelope run the risk of unraveling the Web of Time just to save a few lives from the tides of History? Perhaps the Doctor has the answer... Oh, and did we mention Captain Jack Harkness?

Episode 7: No Man’s Land
July 1916, the Green Fields of France – aka Hell on Earth. Lady Penelope must, once again, juggle with Time, history and her own decisions. Featuring Captain Jack Harkness, the Man Who Wouldn’t Die, and introducing Lt Edward Wilberforce, the Man Who Should Have Died. 

Episode 8: Temporal Power
They have erased the Time Agency out of history. They are the watchers, sentinels and regulators of the Web of Time. They call themselves the Time Authority – and they want a word or two with the last Time Lords (and Lady) of the universe. 

Episode 9: Deus Ex Machina
Lady Penelope, Mortimus and the Doctor finally get to meet the Higher Power behind the Time Authority – an old foe with a new face, a new name and a new plan for the universe. Can Merlin’s daughter defeat the Ghost in the Machine before it becomes God? 

Episode 10: Merry Christmas, Mr Cromwell
A desperate prayer sent through space and time reaches Lady Penelope’s TARDIS, bringing her to London, on the 23rd of December 1654. Will she succeed in bringing the spirit of the season to England’s Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell – the man who banned Christmas?

Episode 11: The Shadow Over Shanghai
Shanghai, on New Year’s Eve 1920. As a new decade dawns, Penelope joins forces with Jack Harkness and Edward Wilberforce to save the young century from a fiendish conspiracy. But time is running out – can our heroes save history before the clock strikes midnight?

Episode 12: Judgement Day
After outwitting the Black Guardian and saving everyone at Torchwood 3, Lady Penelope is finally reunited with the Doctor, who stands accused in a trial of cosmic magnitude. Featuring Captain Jack Harkness, the Valeyard and no less than four Guardians of Time.

Episode 13: Ever After
Can Lady Penelope help the Last Doctor to come to terms with some of his more painful memories – and accept his ultimate role as Warden of the Web of Time? For this, she will need all the help she can get – including that of the Doctor’s lifelong companion, his TARDIS.

Season Four : The Great Game 

Episode 1: Lord of Misrule
Back in Lord Christopher Marlowe’s alternate continuum, Lady Penelope finds herself locked in a deadly battle of wits against a mysterious time meddler known as Duke Prospero, to save a world where Shakespeare’s play was never written from the Tempest of the Sirens of Time.

Episode 2: Raiders of the Fallen Star
Siberia, 1920: the height of the Russian civil war. Can Lady Penelope and Edward Wilberforce uncover the secret of the 1908 Tunguska Event before the Mad Baron destroys History as we know it? A tale of warlords and exiles – with some Rutans and Sontarans, too.

Episode 3: Hearts & Minds
When she chose to salvage Countess Katia Kazakovna from the turmoil of history, Lady Penelope knew she would have to accept the responsibility and the consequences of this decision – and so did the Black Guardian. The Great Game has just entered a new phase…

Episode 4: The Bothan Gambit
Penelope takes her new travelling companion to the 25th century to visit some old friends and get involved in a game of intrigue and deceit which will lay (or destroy) the foundations of the first Great and Bountiful Human Empire. Featuring the unforgettable Pirate Jenny.

Episode 5: Masquerade of the Moon
What if the Sun King had become the Moon King? From 1682 Versailles to 1652 Paris, Lady Penelope ensures that the fate of Louis XIV follows its correct path, with the help of Aramis and Cyrano de Bergerac. Can the Musketeers of Time save history from the Mad Meddler?

Episode 6: Full Circle
The Cardiff Rift, Torchwood, the Time Agency, Jack Harkness and the Last Time War – all pieces of the great temporal conundrum finally fall into place as the fates of the Doctor and Lady Penelope come full circle. Oh, and Lady Penelope dies, too. Long live the Time Lady!

Episode 7: Hesperis
Following her recent regeneration, Penelope takes some time off on the peaceful and serene world of Hesperis – a place of simple harmony and contemplative tranquility… or is it? What secrets lie hidden beneath the surface of Hesperis – or buried in its not-so-ancient past?

Episode 8: Of Truth and Time
In the wake of a star whale, Penelope discovers two of the best-kept secrets of the universe, but that’s only the beginning of the tale - a tale of memories and mathematics, of truth and time, of things past, present and parallel. Featuring Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley. 

Episode 9: Bentham Hall Revisited
Wiltshire, 1923. Lady Penelope takes a welcome break from the Great Game (not to mention the London season) in a stately Edwardian mansion. What could possibly go wrong? A tale of family secrets, social barriers, failed expectations and sinister forces from below.
Episode 10: Revenge of the Lloigor
A desperate call from Excalibur brings Lady Penelope back to 22nd century Britannia, to defend the realm of King Arthur II against the Lloigor and their minions – and finally face the Black Druid in an earth-shattering battle of raw power at the heart of Stonehenge.

Episode 11: Avalon
As the conclusion of the Great Game draws near, Lady Penelope’s Odyssey celebrates its 50th episode (yes!) with the birth of Avalon, a new world of hope and possibility, shaped by the power of quantum mathematics - and a haven for the last Time Lords in the universe.

Episode 12: Endgame
Penelope and the Doctor finally get to meet the Mad Mastermind behind the Great Game. But what is the Name of the Game? Subterfuges & Stratagems? Puzzles & Philosophers?  Time & Truth?  Featuring the Celestial Toymaker, Aristotle, Epicure and the Cosmic Cube.

Episode 13: Checkmate
The last move of the Great Game will mark the end of the universe as we know it – unless Lady Penelope and the Doctor manage to beat both the Black and the White Guardians at their own game. A tale of dilemmas and decisions, of endings and new beginnings.