Ornithopter World? Troupe play powered by the apocalypse.

edited July 2014 in Actual Play
Or, "Where the captain is a vampire, and the chef is a talking bear."

Another thread recently reminded me of a *world game I ran for about a dozen sessions last year that I don't think I've talked about much on line. The premise: a smuggler ornithopter crash lands on a floating island in the midst of a psychic hurricane; what follows is old-school D&D style exploration and tomb raiding.

Cheat sheets
Rules Doc

It had a few qualities that make it unique in the set of things I've run and, as far as I'm aware, the set of Apoc world descended games. Namely:
  1. Troupe Play
  2. Character Draft
  3. Extremely Thin Characters
  4. Circumstance over Stats
  5. Default Zoomed-Out Moves
  6. Harmless Harm
Troupe Play: A rotating pool of 8 players had joint control over the 16-person crew of the ornithopter. Each game, some portion of the crew (or sometimes all of them) would venture out from the crash site to go exploring. Nobody owned a single character. Sometimes the whole group would jointly control the crew. Sometimes they'd assign one or more crew members to each other for the duration of a fight, a scene, an expedition, or a whole session. Some people tended to "speak for" certain crew members by default, but without nearly the level of "my guy" ownership you get when each player controls a PC.

Certain crew members went on nearly every expedition—typically the more powerful ones, and the ones that didn't eat much. (Food was tight!) Others only went out once or twice in the entire game, or mainly contributed during downtime.

Character Draft: Instead of playbooks, characters were randomly generated by combining together six things: given name, family name, background, trait, shipboard role, and a piece of bonus equipment. Only one of those things—background—was guaranteed to actually contribute mechanically to the character, in the form of a new move. Shipboard role usually added a move as well, and trait sometimes did.

There are 32 (more more) options in each category. We wrote the choices out on scraps of index cards at the start of the first game, and shuffled them all together to create 32 completely random characters. The players then picked the 16 that they wanted for their crew; everyone else didn't make the cut or perished in the crash. Including their pilot! Very sad!

We then glued all the cards onto a big piece of poster board and kept it in the center of the table. We used lightly taped down cardboard chits to represent resources and equipment that would frequently be traded back and forth between characters.

Extremely Thin Characters: Characters had no stats. In fact, the mechanical portion of each characters was comprised entirely of between one and three moves, most of which were "no roll" moves. Kind of necessary—you can't expect eight people to each learn the ins and outs of 16 complex characters. Instead, players learned to treat the crews' various abilities as a sort of arsenal or utility kilt. "There's undead spirits in that crypt, so we'd best bring the Medium and the Thaumaturge."

Circumstance over Stats: You didn't add stat bonuses to moves, as there were no stats! Instead, each move described 1-3 circumstances that would let you take +1 to the roll.

- For "Move into Position", you'd get +1 for acting alone or in a pair and if the enemy couldn't see you.
- For Hack and Slash, you'd get +1 for heavy weapons and spending a point of Armor.
- For the Thaumaturge's rituals, you'd get +1 for a blood sacrifice, for spending a point of Vim, and for lengthy rites.

Default Zoomed-Out Moves: The default assumption is that each move represented the actions of a group of characters, rather than a single character. In a fight, we'd roll one Hack and Slash or Open Fire for the whole crew, not for each combatant. On a miss or partial success, the I'd pick a logical crewmember, someone on the front lines, to suffer the consequences. Sometimes we'd zoom in on one character in a tight spot, but most rolls were for four to eight crewmen.

Harmless Harm: There was no mechanically codified harm. Instead, when characters were hurt, I just hurt them. Bad. Basically, the size of the crew was their pool of hit points. One bad roll, one character's got a broken arm or is hamstrung or is bleeding out on the ground.


This was both the first troupe-style game I'd ever run, and the first Powered by the Apocalypse game. It went smashingly! I also suspect it's got a lot of replay value; I'd love to try it again with a different group, as half the character elements didn't make it past the draft! The Vampire Captain and Bear Chef were great, but I kinda wanted to see a Robot Fireman.


  • edited July 2014
    That looks incredible, Jeph - whimsical and well-built. It reminds me of The Hunting of the Snark (you need beavers, billiard-makers and bellmen!) and Brian Eno's song Backwater (link, it has a senator from Ecuador and two porter's daughters).

    I got a bit confused looking at the surnames - I'd assumed that there were a couple that were meant to go "Virgil, whose father was never around" or "Uygun, of Vinland". Then I realised those were separate surname entries. Perhaps semicolons instead of commas would help there?

    The rituals seemed a bit weird to me. Not bad, necessarily, but out of place. What sort of fiction are you basing the game off? The name sounds a bit like the Weatherlight (Sp?) from Magic, the Gathering, but I don't know anything about it.

    I tried creating a monster. How does it look?

    * Slip out of sight
    * Seize in its jaws
    * Stalk

    EDIT: What if you have a Telempath that doesn't have any way to earn Vim?
  • Definitely interesting! The one thing that's bugging me... why 32? I mean if the answer is "why not" or "just happened" that's fine, but- why 32?
  • Funny! That jumped out at me, too.
  • Hah, yeah, 32 mostly just because that's where I ran out of steam. But also a little because it allows you to reject half the options when drafting 16 PCs, which seemed like a good minimum amount of choice.

    A telempath without vim can use alchymic batteries instead! We also decided at some point that characters can pool vim by pooling blood. Setting up the circuit costs 1 vim though.

    (Move Into Position was also added after a few sessions because of table need. People kept trying to do... That. But there was no appropriate move. It's like a positively oriented defy danger!)

    The rituals are indeed week, I think only two of those saw the table. They found more... autochtonous? contextually situated? ones on the walls of tombs and stuff.

    The main fictional and tonal influences were Perdido Street Station, Lost, Firefly, Lady Blackbird, and the Western Marches.
  • Wow, this is so great. I'm putting this in my game bag.
  • I love this.
    Honestly, you had me at "ornithopter".
  • I'm curious if there are other games out there that do some similar stuff. I think maybe the closest I'm aware of, at least for the crew-style play, is the... what was it called? Meat grinder? Funnel? in the first session of Dungeon Crawl Classics. The one where everyone makes half a dozen PCs, most of whom promptly get slaughtered.

    Anything that does thin characters or group control of PCs?
  • Circumstance over Stats: You didn't add stat bonuses to moves, as there were no stats! Instead, each move described 1-3 circumstances that would let you take +1 to the roll.
    I like this part and I'm probably going to steal it. :)
  • Circumstance over Stats: You didn't add stat bonuses to moves, as there were no stats! Instead, each move described 1-3 circumstances that would let you take +1 to the roll.
    I like this part and I'm probably going to steal it. :)
    Yeah this is great and something I want to see in more games.
  • I'm rediscovering this, after you posted about it in the "recommend a one-shot" thread. Some great stuff here!

    I like how Trek and Landmarks work together, for example.

    A comment:

    You might want to clarify somewhere how Vim works. It sounds like you don't get any unless you have feature which gives you some, right?

    If so, put the "you gain 1-Vim when..." text before the description of the Trait/Feature. That puts it in a more logical order when playing.

    Similarly, I don't know what "burned out" means, and it comes up a handful of times.

    There should definitely be something in there about how harm works, too!

    Great things in here... very evocative and magnetic material.
  • I also wonder:

    How does having a whole gang of wild and wacky characters play out?

    My feeling is that it might get a little overbearing. 16 really unique characters to keep track of?

    If I were to play, I'd be tempted to run this as a game where there are fewer characters on the Fairweather Jay (just to give my brain a break!) or where their henchmen are "normal" people, but with the option to have some of them reveal unexpected abilities or to pick up new crew members occasionally, to justify weird character joining the group (perhaps as others die).

    For the "character stable" concept, you could borrow a page from Storming the Wizard's Tower:

    * Characters gain experience and 'level up' somewhat.

    (In this game, that could mean gaining new Features/Abilities, or a +1 bonus to a selected move.)

    * When a character is sorely injured (e.g. a 7-9 on a Meet Thy Fate roll), they will survive if they are given proper care... but they must sit out the next session.

    (Their player would need to create a second character to play.)

    * If you have multiple characters, at the start of each session you decide which one to send along on the adventure.
  • 16 characters does get a bit overbearing! That contributed to some players feeling like they couldn't really adopt a single PC's viewpoint.

    One balancing factor is rations: Each time a party leaves for an expedition, it costs 1-2 rations per character going along. So, if you're bringing the whole gang on each expedition, you burn through your supplies fast; in practice, we ended up with about half the crew in each party. People who didn't eat (the golem, whoever to the Dainty trait) were always along, because they're basically free!

    But, the first expedition of any given game, the ration stockpile is still flush, so people tend to take the whole crew along, even if they don't get much use out of most of them.

    Last weekend we did a one-shot; one of the characters was a Gluttonous Vampire. 2-blood (drain a person dry and kill them!) every time a normal character would consume 1-rations, oh my!

    I like that idea of having fewer real characters + leveling up as a way to manage complexity. Maybe something like, start with game with only fully generating 1 crewman per player. Each game thereafter, you get to "highlight" one more crewman, promoting them from a statless henchman to a full character by drafting their trait, background, and role.
  • Side note, I just discovered them and haven't had a chance to do this yet, but most of the 2-pager adventures from http://blog.trilemma.com/ are perfect drop-ins for the Shrouded Sky-Isle of Doom.
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