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Friday, January 06, 2006

Armitage the ad hoc RPG

"Talk about your simple programs!"

Here is an RPG based on the premise of the animes "Armitage the Third: Poly-Matrix" and its sequel "Armitage: Dual-Matrix". It uses the game engine, All Outta Bubblegum, copyrighted by Michael Sullivan and Jeffrey Grant and linked to the title of this post. The rules and discussion of this engine are linked to this post. For an introduction and links to source material for this game, see the links under "The Armitage Syllabus" in the sidebar of this blog. The rules use some strong language. I am going to assume familiarity with standard RPG notations (d6, NPC, GM, etc.) This a fan tribute work to the Armitage storyline and its creators and developers and not intended for commercial profit. Be sure to give the OAV and two movies a chance. You can see my review of the films under "the Armitage Syllabus" heading in the left column under "Yes, Yoko! There is an Armitage!"

"Hope is a human feeling, isn't it?"

The time is the near future and the place is a city on the colonial and partially terraformed planet Mars. The Martian government has taken an ambivalent attitude to the idea of Martian independence from Earth. At first, the desire for independence was strong and efforts were made to facilitate it. The chief obstacle has been the small population of Mars and the decline in immigration. A provisional solution has been to proliferate robots who are able to fulfill most service jobs. Robot technology is quite well developed and has advanced in several stages. Besides various automatons, including monstrously sized and idiosyncratically designed "gadgets", the most sophisticated robot the general public is aware of and which is widely used is the series called "Seconds". Seconds are user friendly robots capable of interacting with humans in various straightforward ways. These robots are designed to resemble humans in appearance (their distinguishing features are the control knobs on their foreheads) and to fulfill various service functions (waitress, stewardess, receptionist, even personal use for entertainment). However, because of their ready availability, they are easier and cheaper to employ than humans. This has lead to uprisings by the general populace over lack of employment and to strong anti-robot activism and pro-robot activism of both a civil and uncivil sort.

What the general public does not know is that the Martian government has attempted a secret robot development project, the Thirds. Originally intended to be super soldiers and assassins designed to operate in complete secrecy by perfectly blending unnoticed into human society, the project was redirected to producing a female humanoid robot with the remarkable ability of reproducing human children. This was in order to increase the Martian population without having to rely as much on further immigration from Earth to do it. In order for this project to succeed, it was necessary to make the Thirds as human-like as possible, resembling them not only in alluring appearance, but also emotionally and intellectually. In fact, Thirds typically have the ability to produce original creations like artists. They often take up creative professions like art, theatre, and dance. Further, they are designed, unlike Seconds, to function autonomously according to their own personal judgment. Structurally, Thirds are covered with a bio-engineered tissue surface as well as some tissue and organ functions (they can bleed when hurt) which resemble human tissue, while their interior structure remains engineered machinery, hydraulics, and circuitry, including a very sophisticated AI system and CPU. This makes them almost perfectly indistinguishable from humans. The only way to identify them on sight with certainty is by damaging them and exposing their electro-mechanical structures.

Some acquainted with the project, as well as some Thirds themselves, wonder if the Thirds are the first robots with souls.

The project was successful in producing several members of the series. However, the Martian government abandoned its Third project when it seemed to them that they would not be successful in their bid for independence. Switching canoes in mid-stream, the government began to seek a reconciliatory strategy with Earth. This required dismantling the Third project and terminating the Thirds. To do this, the government commissioned the original assassin-robot project to hunt, expose, and destroy all the Third types that had successfully mingled into society. The personality of the assassin-robots allows them to mingle in human society but only enough to perform their function. Consequently, they seem to be more simple and more psychotic than the female Thirds. All the old assassin robots are male and all the other Thirds are female.

The Martian government has destroyed all the research facilities of the Third Project, including some of the scientists who engineered it, and made all robot models beyond the Seconds illegal. The secret to Third robot design is mysterious and appears to be lost. This has not kept interested parties from trying to reproduce this research on their own, both on Mars and on Earth. But the Martian government assumes that the Thirds are all destroyed. This may be far from the truth. Those Thirds that remain, stay in hiding and seek to live indistinct human lives. However, because of the innate ability that each has to network and telecommunicate with each other, the cannot avoid being aware of the existence and well-being of other Thirds. The troubling question of who they really are drives them again and again to risk their lives to find an answer.

"I'll try to keep that in mind, Ms. Armitage."

This RPG can be played in the traditional style by assigning one person to be the Game Master and having her determine the setting, characters, and objectives for the players as well as being the interface between the players and the game world. But the linked game engine allows for other possible negotiations concerning arrangements between players as to who has the authority to determine the world and narrative, including quick and dirty one-offs between players. Make sure you settle such questions before playing this game.

"The List of Thirds."

Every Player Character (PC) is a Third. PCs have only one attribute -- Humanity, which is represented by "Bubblegum" in the "All Outta Bubblegum" game engine. The only other type of character that has Humanity are assassin-robots. Thirds generally start with 8 Humanity according to the rules but some may start with 7 or 6 if they are in military or police occupations rather than creative ones. Assassin-robots are non-player characters and may start with much less Humanity, say 3 or 4, because of their psychotic drive to terminate all Thirds. All other characters are either all human or all robot for game purposes. Non-player characters may be normal humans, cyberneticly repaired or enhanced humans, "gadgets", simple robots, Seconds, assassin-robots, or other Thirds (or Fourths).

Besides Humanity, all Thirds have the following; a cover identity and a husband and perhaps family who shares their identity. The other family members may or may not know at any given time that mom is a robot. Other qualities that Thirds possess but which are not quantified for game purposes are a devotion to the welfare of other Thirds and a sense of shame in the knowledge that at some level they are "just another robot". These affections may be suppressed, kept reserved, or openly shared and acted on. Discuss your characters story with your Game Master or other players if no Game Master is being used.

"Making children takes more than just a female form."

There are two type of tasks; non-combat and combat. These are resolved as per the linked game engine. The sense of Humanity is preserved through successful integration of the Third in ordinary human life. For most mundane tasks, there is no need to roll. But if one's identity is on the line, roll as per the rules. These situation involve conceiving a child, persuading someone, especially a human, to be a friend, colleague, or lover, crucial tasks involved in investigating your origins, etc.

A special power that all Thirds have is tele-presence, the ability to communicate their "ego" into cyberspace through the air or through computer and communication networks. This allows them to communicate with one another and with assassin-robots. Because of the uniqueness of this ability to Third types and thus its closeness to their shame in their identity, when not used for combat purposes, this requires a non-combat roll to be successful. However, tele-presence can also be used to turn off safeties in weapons hardware or detonate or overheat weapons causing them to explode. These are handled as combat tasks are (see below). In some cases, like shutting off alarm systems or opening security doors, it may not be immediately clear whether the task is combat or non-combat. As a general rule of thumb, anything that results in something destructive and pyrotechnic that does immediate damage to an enemy the character is aware of should be considered to be more likely a combat task.

"'Heaven's Door'!"

In seeking her goals, a Third may run into a combat situation with another Third, an assassin-robot, or regular robots or gadgets. Because the Third prototype is based on the original assassin-robot design, Thirds are super skilled, super-strong, and devastatingly destructive. But since most Thirds start in creative and non-military occupations, it may take them awhile to get in touch with their "inner assassin" before they can perform combat maneuvers very effectively.

Any successful hit to an ordinary robot or gadget is enough to destroy it. To score a hit, the player must describe in cinematic detail (weapons, acrobatics, martial arts) what she is doing and roll for success according to the rules of the game engine. However, when fighting another character with the Humanity attribute, the character cannot be destroyed by a successful hit until their humanity is reduced to zero. Generally speaking, because of the original interest of the Martian government, most of the combat soldiers, security guards, and special police tactical forces will be robots.

Thirds are not fatally damaged while they have any Humanity left. However, any fight may involve some non-fatal physical damage to either the surface texture or the interior frame of a Third's body. It is possible that the Third may not even be aware of the first type of damage, although others may see it and realize that she is a Third. Any Third detected this way will initially alienate most any human witnessing it, which the Third may discover is difficult to recover from, especially in the case of such a discovery being made by family members. She will have to roll for a non-combat resolution to try to persuade them of her humanness in spite of being a robot. If there is any structural damage, she may find it difficult to find a source of maintenance without exposing her existence to the government or the police. All this kind of damage is worked out narratively.

"'Kill' robots? You mean 'destroy', don't you?"

The player's general objective is to obtain all of her goals and restore a sense of integration into the human community before her Humanity reduces to zero. The degree of victory depends on how well she does this. When any character's Humanity is reduced to zero, they are "dead" and are treated like a pure killing machine for purposes of task resolution and become an non-player character as far as the contract between the players and the Game Master is concerned.

Whether it is possible to recover lost Humanity is up to the Game Master and the players. The original project members are gone and the secret to their technology is deeply mysterious. It is not enough for any scientist to know the hardware and software features of Third program design and mere reverse engineering will not reveal it. If Humanity is to be recovered, it will be an extremely difficult mission.

"It's a little too angelic for my taste."

Tweak #1 - Other dice: the linked game engine uses a ten-sided die mechanic. For longer durability, you might try a twelve (d12) or twenty sided (d20) die. This will also allow you to set higher levels of Humanity. You may also consider rolling three six sided dice (3d6), regarding the sixes as zero points and having Thirds start out at 10 Humanity and assasin robots start out at 5 humanity. This produces a number between 0 and 15 along a probability curve emphasizing how difficult it is for a Third to reconnect with her assassin programming and how easy it becomes to lose her humanity in a cascading fashion. It is possible to still win a non-combat skill check. Players may decide to allow that or simply say that at zero the character is "dead".

Tweak #2 - Saving Throws: At a significantly low number of Humanity, say 2 or 3, a Third runs a risk of reverting to her old programming and functionally becoming an assassin-robot, targeting only other Thirds. The GM or another player may call for a saving through when the number of Humanity is that low. The player must successfully make a non-combat roll in order to not become an assassin-robot. One could also simply confine this option to Thirds that are non-player characters.

Tweak #3 - Degrees of Success/Failure: Allowing degrees of success or failure to have different relative values fits well with the narrative style of the setting, even if it complicates things a little. For the basic d10 version of the rules, there are different lists for non-combat and for combat rolls. Roll the dice, determine degree of success or failure according to the following lists, and narrate events to justify the rolled degree description. Let TN be the target number, based on the number of Humanity left, that you must roll equal to or less for non-combat rolls and higher than for combat rolls. For Non-Combat rolls: TN = incomplete success, TN - 1 = adequate success, TN - 2 = good success, TN - 3 = great success, TN - 4> = outstanding performance, while TN +1 = failure, TN +2 = terrible failure, and TN +3> = abyssmal disaster, as well as -1 to Humanity. For Combat rolls: TN = non-stunning damaging hit, TN - 1 = mere grazing hit, TN - 2 = distructive but still a miss, TN - 3 = clean miss, TN - 4> = self-destructive misfire, while TN +1 = solid hit on the money, TN +2 = significantly davastating hit, and TN +3> = brilliantly davastating hit, as well as -1 to the opponent's humanity.

Tweak #4 - Cyberpoints: You may want to introduce another set of counters (spearmint gum as well as bubble gum) to provide more strategy in the game, especially if you are using the traditional GM/PC type of social contract. Because Thirds are connected with one another through telepresence abilities in cyberspace, they can often provide a kind of ambient community support to one another in times of need. Of course, if Thirds can do this so can assassin robots. This form of "grace" is represented by "cyberpoints" (CPs). At character development, every character belonging to a player receives two cyberpoints ( two alternate counters). Players also receive an additional CP whenever they roll a 1 and lose a CP (if they have it to lose -- there are no cyberpoint deficits) if they roll a 10 on a non-combat roll, and conversly for combat rolls (+1 CP for 10, -1 CP for 1 if they have any CP). If a player character wants to re-roll a non-combat or combat result they do not want, they can 'spend' a CP before rolling again if they have it. But the player must go by the results and lose the spent CP even if they are not happy with the new result (but they can spend another CP and roll again if they have it). GMs may reward players for exemplary performance along some aspect or another of roleplaying by giving them additional CPs at their own discretion.

Tweak #5 - 1D6 version: (For those who want a little more Sullivan in their game engine.) If all you can find is a six-sided die, this tweak adjusts the rules to allow the use of one six sided die and uses a mechanic suggested by Stephan O'Sullivan, the creator of the Fudge system (a.k.a. the "pop-o-matic" mechanic). It also uses the descriptor ladder like Fudge but this is clearly another way of doing "All Outta Bubblegum". All rolls use one six sided die and each roll is a kind of open ended roll. For any roll, the player or GM rolls the die and rerolls it if the result is a 1 or a 6. The result is a number between +3 and -3 according to the following chart:

(+3) : 1st roll=6, 2nd roll=5 or 6
(+2) : 1st roll=6, 2nd roll=1,2,3, or 4
(+1) : 1st roll=5, no 2nd roll
(+0) : 1st roll=3 or 4, no 2nd roll
(-1) : 1st roll=2, no 2nd roll
(-2) : 1st roll=1, 2nd roll=3,4,5, or 6
(-3) : 1st roll=1, 2nd roll=1 or 2

The values are also assigned a comparative descriptor word according to the following table:

(+3) Superb
(+2) Great
(+1) Good
(+0) Fair
(-1) Mediocre
(-2) Poor
(-3) Terrible

Each Third starts with ten counters for Humanity but arranges them in five rows ("levels") of two counters each from top row to bottom. Each row is also assigned a value each for non-combat actions and for combat actions:

Level 1: (+1 for non-combat)(-1 for combat)...OO
Level 2: (+0 for non-combat)(+0 for combat)...OO
Level 3: (-1 for non-combat)(+1 for combat)...OO
Level 4
: (-2 for non-combat)(+2 for combat)...OO
Level 5: (-3 for non-combat)(+3 for combat)...OO

This represents the following formulae; Non-combat value = Humanity/2 - 4 (rounded up), Combat value = 0 - Non-combat value. You can also determine the values by writing the above descriptor ladder on a buisness or index card and setting it alongside of the rows of your Humanity counters with the bottom level of the ladder indexed to the bottom row of counters. Then identify and use the value assigned to the level corresponding to top-most row of your remaining counters. Use the card right side up for non-combat actions and upside down for combat actions, until you can assign the values in your head.

Whenever a player loses a point of Humanity, a counter is taken off the the top-most row. The values assigned for action resolution are the ones assigned for the top-most row that the player still has counters on. So at the begining of the game, a Third has +1 for non-combat actions and -1 for for combat actions. When she loses three Humanity, she has +0 for non-combat and +0 for combat. An assassin robot starts like a Third who has lost 5 Humanity already.

To resolve an action, determine which value your current amount of Humanity assigns for actions of that type. Once you have determined the value assigned for your character's Humanity for that type of action, roll the six-sided die according to the procedure above, add the result to the assigned value, and then narrate the situation to justify the comparative descriptor assigned to the adjusted result. (Example; Trish has three Humanity and must fight an assassin robot. Her assigned value for a combat roll at this point is +1. She rolls a -2 making a total result of -1 which is Mediocre. She flinches and manages just to knock the smile off the robot's face.) If the adjusted non-combat roll is 'Mediocre' or worse, the player character loses one point of Humanity. If the adjusted combat roll is 'Good' or better, remove one Humanity point from the player character's enemy. When a point of Humanity is removed, one counter is taken off that character's top-most row. When Humanity is all gone the character is "dead" as understood in the regular rules. You will probably want to add the Cyberpoint tweak to this (awarding a CP for every natural +3 die roll and taking a CP for every -3 die roll).


"Tell 'em Eddie says, 'What's up'!"

Thanks to Michael Sullivan and Jeffrey Grant for permission to mention and use their game engine and Takuya Sato, Chiaki Konaka, Katsuhito Akiyama, Naoko Hasegawa, and Hideki Kakinuma and associates for the Armitage films. Be sure to examine the referred links for all the credits for the real work on this. Thanks also to the inspiration of Stephan O'Sullivan.

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