The Watcher Beyond the Veil

Back after a long hiatus! But Cosmic Cutthroats has never been far from my thoughts, and I’ve run quite a bit of it since my last post.
Today, I have an interesting in-universe mystery that adds to the setting’s weirdness, while adding a plot device that may prove useful from time to time.

The Watcher Beyond the Veil

Scientific materialists that live in Uru Ulan have an interesting time of it.

Uru Ulan is a city of almost infinite strangeness and seemingly endless possibilities. And yet, most of what goes on there seems to fit, if uncomfortably at times, into existing universal theories and plausible hypotheses. And yet, not every widely-reported phenomenon of the city does.

Like the Watcher.

Death is believed to be the end of the journey for all. Oh sure, in Uru Ulan, there are ways to “cheat” death — pay the cult of Osiris to create a clone backup, have a friend locate a duplicate from a near-identical dimension, restore a pattern from a teleportation device — but it can be argued that each of these isn’t the original.

Uru Ulan is a city rife with adventure, intrigue, dangerous exploits and narrow escapes, and the city’s many mercenaries and rogues often have very close brushes with death. And sometimes, they report that the brush was a lot closer than it looked.

Some adventurers report that they did, in fact, die, when it only seems like they did! At the very last moment, they encountered … something.

They appear in a misty non-space, in front of a misty, vaguely human-shaped figure. Sometimes they seem to imagine the classical features of a skeleton or one of their death-gods, but just as often, there’s nothing there but a nebulous form, an upright suggestion of head, arms, limbs, and torso and lower extremities.

In their minds, at that moment, they sense they have a choice. They can pass on to whatever awaits them … nothingness, transcendance, heaven, hell, or the waiting room at the local DMV … or, they can make a sacrifice and return.

The sacrifice is never something physical. It may be changing one Quality for another. It may be shifting a Level from any one Attribute to a mental Attribute, something they were lacking — they become more social, gaining Charm, for example, or they gain a newfound interest and curiosity in the world around them, gaining some Brains. A weak-willed and wishy-washy adventurer may find themselves with more Guts than previously, having faced death and come back for more.

An additional sacrifice is always required; the adventurer also loses something of their inner power and potency, losing 1 Level of EDG when presented with this choice. And in general, the adventurer only ever encounters the Dweller Beyond the Veil once. There is no compensation for this loss of EDG, beyond, well, not dying.

These sacrifices often seem to represent, in some way, a further step in personal development. Sometimes it represents redemption for a fallen hero, or a rededication to the cause of virtue in a champion of what is good and true. Sometimes though, it may represent a further fall into evil for a villain. Which makes one ask, what does the Dweller actually want? It doesn’t necessarily want goodness, as we think of it, as some come back worse than before. Maybe the Dweller records the history of the interdimensional city, and hates for a story arc to end before it’s completed. Maybe it’s a cosmic entity that likes to maintain the complex alchemical mixing-pot of the great metropolis. Or maybe it’s just a deific trickster that wants to see the punch line delivered. If anyone has a serious theory, they’re not saying.

Regardless of what’s changed and the reasons for the change, the adventurer is saved from certain death, just in the nick of time. There’s no indication that they ever went anywhere; their vision of the Dweller, even if it lasts for hours in the adventurer’s mind, takes only a nanosecond of real time. And afterward … something implausible happens. The gun jams, that would’ve splattered their brains across the bulkhead, or misfires and hits a shoulder or a piece of equipment instead. The arm swinging the sword to behead the adventurer, spasms and drops the lethal blade. The adventurer inexplicably rallies and somehow survives a deadly disease. The Dweller seems to manipulate time and probability to undo, or mitigate, whatever would have ended the adventurer’s life prematurely. If death is certain and there’s no escape, the Dweller doesn’t seem to interfere; it always intercedes in the simplest, most likely, and most easily explainable way.

So who does know about the Dweller? The Damocletian Order admits that it’s one of the subjects, beyond the Genesis Seeds, that the Order actively investigates. The Cult of Osiris gather info also, believing the figure to be Osiris himself, taking on what forms he will. The Holy Church of Vorsh will loudly imply that the figure is their cosmic figurehead, while admitting with unusual honesty behind closed doors that they have no idea, and the existence of the Dweller concerns them, somewhat.

One last point bears mentioning. Among the few that know of the Dweller and its appearances, it hasn’t escaped attention that the Dweller’s actions, saving those otherwise doomed to die, is much the same as how the city’s Servitors save unfortunate subjects of disaster from across space and time. Victims of floods, fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and other elemental calamities find themselves rescued at the last minute by the city’s automata. Is there some link between the Dweller’s activities, and how the city has populated itself over time? Probably only the city’s founder, immortal sorcerer Ensi Abgal knows, and good luck getting an audience with, let alone a straight answer from, that one.

The concept of the Watcher came to me as I thought about the impermanence of death in comic books. Uru Ulan is in many ways a comic book setting (hence the main body font!). And I thought about how in some cases — like the recent X-Men run — the writers have actually tried to make a systematic explanation for that common trope, the hero that returns from the dead. Of course, it’s not only heroes that can come back in this way, but villains, too. This plot device also provides a convenient way for a character, betrayed by the dice, or played by a new and still reckless player, to cheat fate in the strangest ways … but only once, and not without consequence.

Kicking Cutthroat Tires

Serious playtesting has begun for Cosmic Cutthroats. I’ve been running a Hogwarts or Brakebills style game for my wife, and we’re almost 10 sessions in and it’s been a blast. The game is based in the Academia Esoterica in Uru Ulan, and some details from that campaign are in Deep Cuts.

I’m also getting ready to run a space opera game for my regular gaming group, based in the Ilion System. Info on this can also be found in Deep Cuts.

It’s tremendously freeing to be able to give very minimal guidelines to players, and trust that not only can they make Characters they’ll want to play, but they won’t be unnecessarily limited in what the game will allow. And with the freeform results from Triumphs and Mishaps, encounters often take unexpected turns.

I’m looking forward eventually to running a high-power supers game at some point, and a mid-level dungeon crawl, maybe a conversion of some classic. I also want to be sure to give the vehicle rules a workout in the space opera game, and run more full-on boss battles. Turns out Goons are pretty easy to beat if you’re a high-Awesomeness adventurer (and that’s not a bad thing!)

Having fun and making lots of little refinements. Once testing is done, I’ll be contacting a few editors I know, and commissioning a few art new art pieces for the interior. This one might take awhile to cross the finish line, but I’m in no rush. In the meantime, download and try it out yourself, or follow the link and purchase an at-cost test copy at this link.

Old School Cutthroats

Cosmic Cutthroats contains rules for randomly generating Attribute Levels, converting OSR critters to CC stats, and some stats on some old-school-sounding spells. So, how to bring it all together?

I definitely want CC to be a fusion of all that’s best in old-style and new-style games. Here are some idea how.

Setting It Up

  1. Characters start at AWE 2, Fledgling Adventurers.
  2. Randomly roll for stats, as noted in Appendix 2.1.
  3. PCs get 375 UP for AWE 2, minus 250 UP for their random stats, leaving 125 UP to purchase LS/RM, Power, and Profession Packages.
  4. The GM may wish to limit the Packages that are available based on the Campaign they want to run. A traditional fantasy, dungeon crawling Campaign might allow the following Packages:
    1. LS/RM: Humans (-12 Upgrade Points), Elves (-51 UP), Dwarves (-30), Goblins (-22), Half-Elves (-24), Half-Orcs (-9), Halflings (-22).
    2. Professions and Powers: Assassin (-77 Upgrade Points), Bounty Hunter (-67 UP), Grifter (-67), Heretic(-38) + Blessed One (Hand of Mercy) (-40), Mystic (-46) + Mage (Sorcerer) (-57), Noble (-59), Outlaw (-63), Ronin (AKA “Fighter”, -69).
  5. Spend the remainder of your Upgrade Points on Talents and Skills, and supplement with Drawbacks, as normal.
  6. Many Qualities work well for an old school dungeon crawly game. A few examples include Cautious, Creative, Curious, Devious, Faithful, Gloryhound, Greedy, Grizzled, Hedonistic, Honorable, Packrat, Rebellious, Shadow, Spiritual, Stubborn, Vengeful.

Running the Game

  1. Thressa is a typical fantasy world, and it’s given some detail in Appendix 3.6.
  2. When the PCs discover a spell book, or want to learn additional spells, choose from the Sample Spells in Appendix 2.3.
  3. Thressa is a typical fantasy world, and it’s given some detail in Appendix 3.6.
  4. Some of the traps found in a dungeon are detailed in Section 6.6.
  5. Some typical monsters are found in Cosmic Cutthroats Section 7.3, and in Deep Cuts Section 3.0.
    1. Cosmic Cutthroats Section 7.3: Imp Demons, Orc Raiders, Ravenous Ghuls, Adolescent Titanium Dragon, Kaiju, Conduit Vermin (reskinned as Rodents of Unusual Size), Night Raptors, Riding Lizards, and the Ally Lodo Celestide.
    2. Deep Cuts Section 3.0: Ninjas, Throng Mind-Slaver, Voyeur Demons, Demon Prince/ss, Vampire Lords.

Optional Rules

  • Trade EDG from Qualities for Extra UP: If PCs are at full EDG, and they would gain EDG from following their Qualities, they instead gain 1/3 an Upgrade Point for every EDG they would have gained.
    • This is the same point cost as one Level of the EDG Attribute, with the Power Throttle Depletion [1 Use].
    • Since we have this calculation in hand, as an Optional Rule, PCs can spend 1 UP to regain 3 lost EDG.
  • In Old School games, PCs often gain XP for each gold coin they find. With this Optional Rule, Greedy PCs become more powerful when they accumulate great wealth, stolen from haunted crypts deep beneath the sunlit surface of the world.

Cutthroat Progress

Just completed a major graphical update for Cosmic Cutthroats, adding a background image, an outline for tables, and some gradients for section headers. I think it looks pretty nice, and can’t wait to order a test copy and see how it looks in print!

The previous test copy turned out pretty well, also. Hoping to get some playtesting in soon. Initial test runs have gone well, and resulted in some good changes, but nothing beats getting the system beaten into shape by actual players.

Here is a link to the playtest PDF, the print copy, and miscellaneous useful tools. Enjoy, and feel free to mail me. Address in this Google Doc also. Thanks!

Point-Based Chargen Conversations

A popular insight in game design the last few years is “game play is a conversation.” To be nit-picky, you can play many games without having a conversation, but then it becomes boring, a game of dice and probabilities, not a complex interplay of events and reactions.

It occurred to me recently that character creation is a conversation, too. This is especially important to know in point-based games, and even moreso in universal games like Cosmic Cutthroats. When you can easily make any kind of Character, the GM can’t foresee possibility. They can lay out certain guidelines, but they should be involved in the process, as well. The best Campaigns are flexible enough to accommodate a wide variety of Character concepts, and room for Players to add to the setting’s lore.

The hard thing about writing game advice is putting things into words that you’ve known in your bones, from decades of gameplay.

Fighting One-Trick Ponies

This is a followup to my previous post, where I talked about how in point-based games, it’s easy to make a powerful, boring Character. But what if you’re fighting a walking tank like this?

First, Don’t Do This

So in case it isn’t obvious, GMs, One-Trick Ponies aren’t good enemies in general, so this article isn’t making the case you should use them. In the interests of testing the game, though, we have to look at all possibilities, and one is an excitable GM sending a walking battleship against the PCs.


Buy 12 Levels of EDG. Use that EDG to Push Your Luck 4 times in combat.

Let’s say that the extra die and your native skill gives you a 75% chance for success. That means you’ll have about a 45% chance of scoring a Triumph with one of those 4 attacks, and when you narrate that Triumph, you can potentially end the battle, right there.


With the Marksmanship or Martial Arts Talents, you can spend 1 EDG to make a Joint Strike that ignores half the target’s PRO. If the target doesn’t have a ton of VP, Martial Artists can Body Slam to inflict Environmental damage; then, take Counterattack, and if they miss you with their attack, Body Slam them again.

Interesting Powers

Claws with the Cuts Through Anything Boost do Environmental Damage, which ignores armor. A lot of Impairment effects are pretty effective against targets with lower Athletics, PD, or MD, and so are Leech, Mind Control, Telepathy, and Time Control. That’s to say nothing of creative things like Size Control [Shrinking], Shapeshifting, or Teleportation with the Affects Others Boost. And you know, there’s nothing like Sympathetic Magic, doing that voodoo that you do so well. Speaking of Time Control, use Precognition to anticipate the enemy’s moves and retroactively plan a perfect way to foil them in one shot.

Intrigue and Allies

Troll the ever-loving shit out of them. Use Insight to figure out their mindset, then Intimidate them into losing EDG (even if you’re no threat to them, you can still threaten to key their car and burn their record collection!), or Deceive them into leaving. Or better yet, retreat and gather info about the enemy. Ingratiate yourself with his henchmen and turn them against him. Call on your Organization Membership to give you a special weapon to defeat this guy, or even just some extra hands to wear them down.

See if you can Turn your Bad Luck into Good

If the GM allows the Consolation Prize Optional Rule, pull out all the stops in battle. Try the craziest attacks you can think of, and if you score a Mishap, spend 3 EDG to turn that into a victory, but at a terrible cost.

To Sum Up

So in short, yes, at high levels, a straight-up punching shooting blasting fight can be super boring. So don’t do that! Take risks, try crazy stunts, and fight creatively!

Game Balance and One-Trick Ponies

Fix to Vigor Point Values

Running some combat tests on Cosmic Cutthroats, I find I may have been a bit generous with Vigor Points.

  • Old Formula: Awesomeness Level + (highest 2 of Body, Guts, and Edge).
  • New Formula: Awesomeness Level + half of (Body + Guts).

Reducing VP by about 6 across the board will make fights go faster, especially against Goons. And that’s 6 per Injury State, so it’s more like reducing by 24 VP overall.

Characters in this game have plenty of defensive options, and the Armor and Barrier Powers are reasonably cheap (although there are ways around them, like Joint Strikes and Triumphs). The goal is to make it so it’s best not to get hit, if you can help it!

One-Trick Ponies

Speaking of game balance, the most boring superhero in any point-based game rules would have to be a total one-trick pony. Let’s write up a Cyclops clone. Let’s call him Eyesore. Now, Cyclops isn’t boring, I like him! But at their simplest, his Powers are easy to represent, mechanically.

So, at Awesomeness Level 5, he gets 750 Upgrade Points. We want a minimum Level 6 in all Attributes, so that costs 180 UP, with 570 left.

Let’s just max out Blast. Blast is Step 5, so at AWE 5, the highest Level we can go is 40. He can do 6d12+1d6 damage, which is a little more than a starship strangelet torpedo. That’ll cost 440 UP, leaving 130.

We want to max out Ranged Combat Attack, Athletics, Toughness, and Willpower, so he’ll be tough to harm in any way. Advanced Skills like Ranged Combat Attack are Step 3, and Athletics is Basic, so Step 2. Let’s spend 3/4 of the remainder on these two, so around 98 points for these two. For 100 points, he can buy 16 more Levels of each.

Finally, for 28 points, he can buy each of the remaining 2 Skills at Level 7, making him fairly resistant to physical and mental attacks. He has 2 more UP to spend, maybe on a Skill Focus with some Ranged Combat Attack maneuver.

If we decide he needs some protection, we can make him less of a Cyclops clone, and more of a walking tank. Trade off half his Blast for Armor. He can buy Armor and Blast both at Level 17 for a total of 440 UP. He has armor equivalent to a space corvette, and he dishes out 2d12+1d8 damage, which is still a little more than a shot from a handheld rocket launcher.

But … he’s boring. We’ve given him no non-combat skills whatsoever. Even his armored version isn’t impervious to damage, another hero with an Environmental attack (like Claws with Cuts Through Anything) could take him out. He’s reliant on seeing well to attack, so being trapped in the dark will still make it tough for him to eye-blast the bejeezus out of things. And nothing protects you from having your EDG whittled away by social attacks.

A real conversion of Cyclops from the comics would probably be Lesser Demigod AWE, but only a few of those extra points would go toward improving his eye beams. Maybe only just adding a few Boosts onto them. All the rest would be Skills, Traits, and a few Attribute bumps.

So the moral is, yes, you can max out one or two Abilities. It’s not even that hard to make a walking battleship, but you’ll be a one-trick pony, and it will be ruinously expensive. The system will encourage you to make a Character with interesting abilities and things to do outside of combat.

The R.E.C.I.P.E. for Adventure

It’s time for some more details about the Cosmic Cutthroats system! I call it the R.E.C.I.P.E. system: Realms of Endless Challenge and Infinite Potential Engine. Or maybe it stands for Rules for Exploration, Combat, and Intrigue Practically
Everywhere. I honestly can’t decide, and either one sounds ridiculous and awesome.

In Cosmic Cutthroats, before creating your Character, the Game Master will give you the Campaign’s Awesomeness Level. Your Awesomeness Level gives you Upgrade Points that to spend on Attributes, Skills, Traits, and Powers.

There are six Attributes: Body, Reflexes, Brains, Guts, Charm, and Edge. Attributes are usually rated from 1 to 12, with 6 as the human average. Skills all have a Base Level, equal to 1/2 of one Attribute, or 1/4 of two Attributes. This is really the only thing that slows down Character creation a little, but it can be done instantly with a spreadsheet.

There are two kinds of Skills, Basic and Advanced. You get a Base Level in Basic Skills for free, but you don’t have any Levels in an Advanced Skill unless you buy at least one Level in that Skill.

For most actions, you’ll roll 2d12 and add a Skill, and try to exceed a difficulty number, a Challenge Severity. Successful actions that roll matched dice are a Triumph, a critical success, and failed actions that roll matched dice are a Mishap, a critical fumble. PCs and the GM will work together to decide what each Triumph and Mishap means. The higher the matched dice, the better, and the lower, the worse.

Traits are special abilities like unusual popularity, rank in an organization, wealth, special inventions, or martial arts maneuvers. Some Characters can purchase Powers, which give them superhuman abilities. Powers are highly customizable with Calibrations, which adjust the per-Level cost of Powers up or down.

Power damage is based on an escalating dice scale. Level 1 adds no real damage, only bruises. Level 2 adds 1 single point of damage, and Level 3 adds 1d4 damage. The damage die is 1d12 at Level 7, and from there, the scale starts over again, each +6 adding +1d12. Armor Protection stops incoming damage.

Characters also have Assets. Assets are calculated based on the Character’s Levels in Attributes, Skills, Powers, and Traits. You can’t make rolls with Assets, but they let you ignore or absorb damage, avoid getting hit, and other stuff. For example, Close Combat Defense is the difficulty to punch the Character, or hit them with melee weapons, while Ranged Combat Defense is the difficulty to hit them with bullets, arrows, energy beams, or thrown weapons. Tougher Characters have some Innate Protection against damage.

Characters absorb damage with Vigor Points, and when they take too much damage, they drop to a lower Injury State. At lower States, they’ll suffer penalties to their actions, and eventually they drop unconscious, or even die.

Characters have Qualities. Remember the Attribute called Edge? Characters can spend Edge to resist physical or social attacks, or to add a die to their action rolls. Characters can regain Edge by acting according to their personality Qualities, but they can lose their Edge if they fight their instincts.

All Abilities get a more expensive as their Level increases. The curve is gentle, but it adds up. Levels 13 to 24 cost twice as much, Levels 25 to 36 cost 3 times as much and so on. Each +12 Levels increases the multiplier by +1.

Some Abilities are Clustered, and let you take Cluster Options. Generous Clustered Abilities give you one Cluster Option for free for each Level. For example, the Martial Arts Trait gives you one free new martial arts move for each Level. Stingy Clustered Abilities let you pay the cost for 1 Level to get an extra Option. For example, when you buy the Firearms Skill, you can choose whether you know about Pistols, Rifles, or Energy Weapons. If you want to expand your training into another firearm category, pay the cost for 1 Level, and your firearms training becomes that much more valuable.

If you run low on Upgrade Points, you can take some Drawbacks to give you a few more points. Drawbacks represent special challenges your Character faces during the Adventure.

Attributes, Skills, Traits, Powers, and Drawbacks are sometimes packaged together, to reflect species, occupations, and superhumanly powerful origins. Packages come with a 10% Upgrade Point discount.

There are a couple of different kinds of NPCs. Bosses are usually built like full PCs, but Bystanders, Creatures, and Goons are built simpler and easier, more like OSR monsters. You don’t have to spend a point budget, and you only need to note the most important Skills they’ll need for combat. Bystanders, Creatures, and Goons have half he Vigor Points of a normal PC, and their ability to spend Edge is more limited. Bosses don’t have any such limits.

Soon, I’ll be ready to share the actual rules. I’m working with some great artists for the cover, and fixing some layout issues. More soon!

Cosmic Confluences

Or maybe that should be influences. Game design doesn’t take place in a vaccum. We always build on what we’ve seen and heard, what we know works and what doesn’t. Here I’ll talk here about some of the RPGs that influenced me in my design on Cosmic Cutthroats.

One of the biggest is Champions 4th Edition. Sure, it’s math-heavy, has definite breakpoints, and is susceptible to min-maxing. It also supports a wide variety of power levels and genres, and is amazingly flexible. I wanted something like Champs, but without multiplying by fractions, maybe with less spotlight-hogging by high-SPD characters. There’s still a lot to like here, and it’s still one of my favorite games. Lots of other games, like BESM and Wild Talents, have followed in the well-worn point RPG path, but Champs is the gold standard.

The OSR was a game changer for me. I realized when I first purchased Labyrinth Lord that I’d been running D&D according to OSR principles for years, and that modern D&D worked far and away best when run this way. My favorite OSR games now are Swords & Wizardry Complete and Dungeon Crawl Classics, but the principles of accepting imbalanced encounters, rulings vs. rules, simpler NPCs and critters, creating challenges instead of stories, and allowing active input from players in running the game, all appeal to me greatly. You can see this in CC in the open-ended way PCs and GM together interpret Triumphs and Mishaps, and how players are encouraged to build new Packages as needed to build out the setting.

Games like FATE and their “hero point economy” interested me greatly. FATE itself didn’t really grab me … no offense, I just like things a little more crunchy. Some meat to sink my gaming teeth into! But Strands of Fate really appealed to me. I’ve never gotten a chance to run Strands as much as I’d like to, and I apply Fate Points a little less as a scene-editing tool and a little more as an in-game concentration/effort mechanic, but the roots are there.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned, CC is based on my work on Invulnerable, Metagene, and Wormholes & Waystations. Invulnerable works as a multi-genre game, but CC has the simpler task resolution system of Metagene. CC includes some of the races and locations in W&W.

The Finest in Hand-Crafted Universes

One idea I have for Cosmic Cutthroats is to release dimension books, that would work as standalone settings. I know of one dimension-travel game that does that, so it’s not new, but it would still be fun.

Invulnerable 3rd Edition could be a sourcebook for CC, the dimension of Earth-Omega. Invulnerable itself grew out of a urban fantasy/horror game called Dirge that saw limited release online before I pulled it. In my mind, that world always had the depressing, poetic name The Vale of the Downtrodden. The sketchy setting for Wormholes & Waystations, the Sentient Assembly, would cover your space opera and giant robot genres. And I’ve always been a fan of post-apocalypse, settings, though I’ve never done more than tinker with a post-apoc setting. I have a name though, Dross Prime.

But for the core book itself, what will it play out like? How do you run a dimension travel game? I think the archetypal plot for CC will be The Seven Samurai. You’re wandering mercenary scum, you’re sucked into a local fight that’s not your own while you wait for the next dimensional gate to open, you grow to care for the locals, then, the big showdown. Of course, in a dimension travel game, you should be able to run any kind of plot. I see adventurers as money-grubbing trouble on the hoof, so Time Bandits works really well as a model, too. A major goal of most adventurers will be filling up their Edge meters, because that fuels all kinds of crazy stunts they’re capable of, so there will be a certain amount of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, too (note: also another Terry Gilliam film). Ultimately, the adventurers’ Qualities tell you what will grab the characters themselves and make the action personal.