Complex 214 – Unethical Ends

Complex 214 game components on the tableComplex 214 character generation include three card-driven facets – Mutation, Secret Affiliation and Unethical Ends.

I have been looking with some interest at the lattermost.

Essentially, all characters have a purpose in their daily existence. Characters in Complex 214 could not describe themselves as competent in much at all. They don’t need to be. The protocols that drive the balance and integrity of the contained society demands no one individual become too good at anything.

With great power comes great risk of abuse.

That’s why all characters start with a flat chance of success in a challenge. You’re not that good and you’re just not meant to be.

Unethical Ends represent those facets of their day assignment that have become areas of expertise, quite against the expectations of the protocols. People don’t get promoted because they’re good at stuff, or at least not according to the strictest renditions of the protocols.

Each character works for a department, office, organisation or agency responsible for something within the wider maintenance and management of the Complex. In getting ideas, I have needed to look no further than the many and varied branches of British Government, though I might try a couple of other countries for variety. It doesn’t make for particularly amusing or gigglesome reading, but it does show just how many agencies, departments and non-ministerial offices you need to run a country (or a Complex).

For every Unethical Ends card, the text will offer a brief definition of organisational responsibilities, then list a few suggestions of how you might adapt skills, expertise and understanding in that area to complete tasks. In most instances, the suggestions offered will angle use to unethical ends.

For example, the Gee-Gnomes – the group who complete tedious organic tissue mapping for medical ends – might Exploit Annual Fitness Records, Speed Assess Achilles Heel, and Spout Advanced Medical Gobbledegook. If the player can come up with some other convincing angle, the GM can still allow them to discharge their card for a bonus.

I seem to have a list of about 50 interesting looking agencies, but I suspect that list will become more manageable (if only because I need to write them all up!).

At the same time, I’m looking at the best ways to make the game cards for playtesting Complex 214. While I could do them all by hand, I might consider other options of a less labour intensive nature, though they will inevitably cost money…

Selfish and Selfless Successes

complex-214-success-2When I discussed running Stealth Train at the weekend, I also mentioned Selfless and Selfish Successes. I just wanted to cover that topic in a little more detail.

Essentially, I didn’t want success to be anything but. When you get the 7 needed for success, I didn’t want anyone to run away with it.

If you roll a natural 7, you succeed. Period.

If you play a card before you roll, then roll 6, 7 or 8 – you also succeed. It isn’t a natural success, but you do succeed.

If you play a card, make your roll and you don’t get 6, 7 or 8, you have your team mates to fall back on.

Lucky you.

Every player character has a pool of counters – some Power, some Access. Power denotes personal expertise, skill, gadgets – anything within your control. Access denotes all those things working in your favour, yet outside your control – like favours, luck, preparation by outside agencies, complex protocol subroutines and so on. Someone (or thing) outside your direct control steps in and lends a hand.

When a team mate helps you, they find it easier to weigh in personally. They can spend Power on a 1-for-1 ratio to adjust your roll. If they choose to spend Access, it works out 2-for-1, as their luck, contacts, or shadowy associates have less reason to step in to assist.

However the help arises, this adjustment can carry you to the magic 7 and success. No doubt about it, you will have succeeded. Period.


Here we enter the world of ‘Yes‘, ‘Yes and…‘ and ‘Yes, but…‘ – depending on what happens next.

The team mate spends the points and hands over the tokens from their pool, then picks up a Success Counter (or rolls a Success Die, I haven’t decided yet!).

The Counters have values of: 1 Access, 1 Power, 1 Access or Power (2 of these), 2 Access, and 2 Power.

In combat, opponents have their own Pools and these values will deduct from those. Generic mooks will take damage from anything, Access or Power. A powerful villain might have a master plan that means you can only defeat her with Access damage.

In non-combat challenges, you will need either a generic success or a specific value of 1. Getting through a door might take generic success, while defeating a locking protocol subroutine would demand Access.

Anway, when the team mate picks up the Success Counter they need to choose either a Selfish or Selfless Success.

A Selfless Success means they use the value to complete the task and don’t hold back. If they’ve just helped you shoot someone, say by spending Power to help guide your aim, a Selfless Success means the full counter value comes off the opponent’s pool. If you shoot someone or complete a task that needs a value of 1, that’s a ‘Yes’ Success. If they complete a basic task, but pull a Counter with a value of 2, that will be a ‘Yes and…’ Success, as you have more than you need.

A Selfish Success means they withhold the value of the Counter. In this case, you Succeed, but… So, you might shoot your opponent square in the chest, but it does nothing but distract them or forces them to change tact or direction. You don’t hurt them. If you’re hacking a computer system, you manage to divert the route of Transport Alpha-2C, but it trips a security protocol or logs the illegal entry, alerting a SysOp next time they check. The Success Counter adds to the value of the character’s relevant Pool, or they choose to refill Access and/or Power where given the choice (and the value) to do so.

In practice this might seem like a way to stall and refill spent pools. I don’t that will work, as the random Success Counter value and the unpredictable dice rolls make this an inefficient approach. Most opponents or challenges will have plans or deadlines of their own. Your traitorous enemy won’t stand by while team mates support and refill their pools.

During the Complex 214 session, the business of team mates buying success arose infrequently. The alarming success of one player – the Team Leader – in rolling natural 7s made it unnecessary. When she didn’t roll them, she spent a card and grabbed success with a 6, 7, or 8. Confounded dice! When it finally happened, we’d entered the end game and somehow the team had bonded enough for trust and mutual support to seem the natural way forward. I shan’t allow that to happen again!

Complex 214 – Pitch to My Group

complex-214-prepMy gaming group – after 2.5 years of thoroughly non-organised play – has taken to pitching potential new games and adventures. This has come as something of a shock to the system, but its makes sense as we only get together once a week and we don’t want to waste any valuable time in that session not knowing what to play.

With an eye to running sessions of Complex 214, to help me develop the rules, setting and adventures, I have added my game to the pitch list. Necessarily, this required I write up a brief pitch.

Tales of a dystopia driven by fear, bureaucracy and a low level of life expectancy. Born from vats, trained to fill roles with a minimum level of ambition and competency, you live to work and serve the community first and foremost.

You have been biologically force-grown to a purified and protocol cleared template – you will not have any Mutation.

You have been hypno-trained and edutainment led to work within your defined capacity – you will not have any cause to push or apply skills toward suspect and Unethical Ends.

You work hard all day, eat and relax all evening, then sleep through the allotted suspension cycle – you have no time to engage in suboptimal diversions or foster Secret Affiliations.


Think Brave New World, 1984, Brazil, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub and similar stories of man versus monolithic bureaucracy and smothering mother state (possibly even think about a game called Paranoia).

As Complex 214 is my own system, in a state of ongoing development, I need to run this more than once. Every chance I get, I need to give it a go and garner feedback. I will push it at events and conventions, as well as at my gaming group and through Hang-outs. The more the merrier.

Initially, as I want to focus on refining the rules, I will use adventures from other existing games – like running Stealth Train for my first session. Once I have a firmer grasp on a reliable set of rules, I will start writing up my own adventures.

Yesterday, I had a brief tweet-versation with Dan Curtis Johnson about his Paranoia missions – given the success of Stealth Train at the weekend. He directed me to The Lightbulb Mission, one of several missions included in Service, Service! As I wrote two missions for this book, I suppose it should have occurred to me earlier as a potential source of test adventures!

The Lightbulb Mission might well prove a worthy candidate – though I’d be surprised if it hasn’t also been used by disreputable agencies in various countries as a means of progressive torture.

Complex 214 – Stealth Train

complex-214-successYesterday, I ran my first session of Complex 214, using the classic mission Stealth Train as my guinea pig. I ran the session with three players, one of them playing their first ever roleplaying adventure. In many ways, having the chance to run the game with a mixed group of players allowed me to get a better perspective. As it happens, I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally broken or wrong.

Of course, I can’t make sweeping statements after a single session. Especially not this session. The players had a lot of luck going their way.

At the heart of Complex 214, challenges require a 7 to achieve a success. One player rolled three 7s in a row. That’s a 1 in 216 chance. What chance did I stand against such lucky dice throwing?

It certainly made for a smooth start to the mission – and it meant that the player could comfortably get away with using their questionable abilities without a chance of recrimination.

It did give me a chance to see whether the basic setup worked or not. All players start the game with three points in Access and Power. Power refers to their own personal abilities, while Access links to their sway in the wider world. By the end of the session, given that I had handed out three rewards for quick wits and amusing play, two players had 3/2 and one had 5/3. The combination of strong early success and my not pushing the challenges too hard might well suggest that the initial pools are about right. Again, only continued play and testing will really tell.

Explaining the basics of the game allowed me to engage in some background, as well as mechanical details. I explained that the people of Complex 214 lived and worked for the good of the community. Everyone worked hard, born from vats to carefully balanced and purified genetic templates. Everyone worked for the common cause, and all used the skills and expertise they acquired from training and evening edutainment for the good of the Complex.

Genetic perfection meant no risk of impurity – so, no mutations, obviously. Hard work and striving for a common good meant no doubts or subversion – so, no splinter groups or secret plots. Constant focus and common goals in an ideal society meant no need to pursue personal agendas – so, no using skills or expertise for questionable or perfidious ends.

All characters starts with a Mutation, a Secret Affiliation, and Unethical Ends card.

Each card outlines the purpose to which these facets can be put to work in play, to assist in completing tasks. They offer an adjustment of 1 – mechanically allowing a success on a 6, 7 or 8.

You need to decide to use a card before you roll.

After you roll, your team mates have the option to help you get a success if you didn’t roll one to begin with. In this session, for those first three rolls, that didn’t come into play. If it had, the team mate has the option to help with Access or Power. Where a team mate chooses to spend points, they can opt for a Selfless Success, a Selfish Success, or acquire Incriminating Evidence if they challenged player used a card. In all circumstances, it’s still a success.

(More on the matter of Selfless and Selfish Successes in a later post)

For this session, the players stuck to helping one another. With a new player, that seemed like the fairest course of action. However, one player did note that he liked the potential he saw for this mechanic to screw people around.

If you opt for Incriminating Evidence, the player places a black token next to their character card. Depending on how many they have at the end of the game compared to their Access pool determines what fate has in store at the debriefing.

The players enjoyed the session, especially as they quickly noticed I took their suggestions or groans of despair and worked them into the session. If they thought something might happen, it did.

So, when they hit a button to call a lift and joked that it would probably set off a klaxon and a warning, it did. An automated voice warned them ‘Not to touch this button again’ amidst an ear-splitting warning wail – certain to be heard by anyone else nearby.

When they travelled down in the lift, it made a lot of noise, like the mechanism might break at any moment. When they reached them bottom, it came with sighs of relief. Next time they heard the mechanism, they had visitors and it didn’t go well. Groans of dismay followed whenever the mechanism wheezed and crunched into activity. It actually always happened as the team planned for the next course of action, the sound cutting off one specific player mid-sentenced. It worked fantastically well to ramp up their paranoia and frustration as the situation spiralled out of their control just when they thought they had it in hand.

My next key job is to get the cards for Mutations, Secret Affiliations, and Unethical Ends sorted. For this session, I had just enough to give three players a choice – four of each. I want to have enough to open up character generation considerably and support some really great variations in character. Each card needs to be flavourful, offer a very brief explanation, then outline three example facets of the trait. That should mean that any player can pick them up and get a fair idea of their purpose without too many questions.

Complex Development 214

paranoia-diceI’m running a game of Paranoia at the weekend, and to torture myself with extra work I’m messing around with a new system – which I’m currently calling the 214 System.

Creating a Character

Character generation involves selecting a Mutation, Secret Affiliation and Loyal Workers card – each of which lists facets of your character. In practice all three denote skills, but also represent things you shouldn’t be openly using for fear of punishment and laser-based retribution.

In addition, all characters start with 3-points of Power and Access (arbitrary number that I might adjust). Power represents the individual’s ability to bring their own talents into play – whether they’re skills, kit, environmental factors, or whatever. Access represents the connections and influence the character has – those ways and means outside of their immediate control that can nevertheless help.

Challenging Success

When a character faces a challenge, they need to roll a 7 on two 6-sided dice. No more, no less.

Before they attempt the challenge, they can play cards to help them. They can use one or more from their available Character Cards, but the play has to be relevant – or coaxed into play with a good explanation or excuse – and it ‘taps’ the card, so it can’t be used with the next action.

Each card used provides an adjustment of 1. In practice, using a single card – probability-wise – more than doubles your chances of success. However, using any card opens you up to reprimand if you fail, or succeed with outside assistance…

You roll the dice and succeed with any result of 7, whether natural or adjusted by card spend.

If you can’t get a success, your team can help you succeed. They can spend Power or Access to do this. Power spend is 1-to-1, while Access is 2-to-1 – as the players connections are unlikely to want to assist someone else.

If no one chooses to assist, you can spend from your own pools of Power or Access. As it’s harder to coax your own abilities to a better outcome (that’s what the dice roll represented), you need to make a 2-to-1 spend of Power. On the other hand, your connections and affiliations do want you to succeed, so you can spend your own Access on a 1-to-1.

At the end of this, if you have any result of 7, whether natural or adjusted, success follows. Any other results fails and the character suffers the consequences.

Benefits for the Masses

The player draws a benny from a bag (poker chips) and the value on the benny can be applied as desired. So, it might say 2 Power. The player can either take it and add to their pool – and explain what this success looks like. Or, they can apply it to someone else in the scene – subtracting it from an opponents Power pool, for example, as a wound.

If a team member’s spend got the 7, they get the option of the benny. So, the active character battles the traitor and backs him into a corner, but another team member takes the 2 Power boost for his own pool, as she takes advantage of the distraction to move into a better position, manages to open a door to get access to a safer area, or spots a weak point in the opponent’s attack pattern. If the active player used a card to attempt to adjust the roll, a team member can trade their option to draw a benny for a piece of incriminating evidence instead, relating to one of the Cards used.

Once More with Feeling Lasers

So, in summary:

1. Explain what you’re doing and what you want to achieve. GM explains the consequences of failure.
2. Player commits one or more cards and explains how they help, given the situation. Tap each spent.
3. Player rolls two 6-sided dice.
4. If they roll 7 (or an adjusted 7, achieved through card spends), they succeed.
5. Other team members can spend from their Pools to drive success.
6. If the adjusted roll hits 7, the character doesn’t fail, but the team member gets to choose where the benny goes. Or claims incriminating evidence based on a card spent.
7. If not adjusted to a 7 yet, the active player can choose to spend from Pools to drive success.
8. If the adjusted roll hits 7, they succeed. Otherwise, they fail and consequences ensue. The GM gets the benny and can apply it how she chooses.

As I’m playing with friends, I hope they’ll forgive me making them guinea pigs for my testing of the idea. I’m likely to concentrate on telling the story and fiddling with the rules rather than hammering the rules home at the expense of the tale.

Why the 214 System? Well, it adds up to 7. And throughout PARANOIA XP, the Year has always been 214. Just seems to fit.