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Jason Tocci

Another approach to Urban Shadows XP

As you may already know, I really like one of the advancement mechanics in Urban Shadows (marking corruption), but the other one (marking factions) didn't really do it for me and my group. A thread tonight reminded me of +Aaron Griffin's "Alternate Faction" rules for Urban Shadows, which I suspect my local players and I might enjoy more than the faction advancement rules as written, but I wondered if I might be able to come up with a method that doesn't require replacing the standard 4 factions or any other moves in the game. Last night's Dungeon World game gave me another idea: consider using an end of session move.

Going this route, you do still put a mark next to each faction on your character sheet when any move tells you to mark a faction, but you don't advance by just marking each faction once. Rather, at the end of the session, go through each of the following questions:

1. Did you mark any factions? Gain 1 XP for each faction you marked, then erase all marks. Gain an extra XP if you marked every faction.
2. Did you advance your own faction's interests in the city? Gain 1 XP if yes.
3. Did you eliminate a significant threat to the community? Gain 1 XP if yes.

At least, those are a few things that reflected the implicit goals of our game. I suspect other games might differ a bit, and other questions could work too, like, "Did you avoid revealing evidence of the supernatural to any mundanes?" or "Did you preserve [or upset] the status quo in the supernatural community?"

I feel like this approach would've still encouraged players to go out of their way to interact with different factions, but not feel like they were blocked from enjoying one of the game's major systems just because they did what made sense in the context of the story. Maybe I'll give it a try if I run the game again sometime.
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Latest in my long list of ideas for what system would be most fun for me to use when running Eclipse Phase: Spiralis, a hack of Cthulhu Dark. While Cthulhu Dark just asks if you'd risk your mind to do something, Spiralis asks if you'd also risk bodily harm or social standing. The last of those may sound potentially less worrisome to players used to murder-hoboing, but translate that to Eclipse Phase – where you might risk your morph, ego, or rep – and the third of those is the only one that can't be fixed by just reinstalling from a backup.
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Adventuring Party, July 2018: It’s Not My Fault! (plus Fate house rules)

I wasn’t able to run my monthly game for a while due to needing to look for work in May, and starting a new job in July. The new job and the baby are keeping me busy enough, though, that I didn’t really have much time to prep anything for today. Instead, I showed up with four different options with various levels of pre-written or improvised. My players chose It’s Not My Fault!, a Fate Accelerated Edition game with random character and scenario generation through a deck of special cards (which ended up transitioning into +Michael Prescott's "The Moon is a Mirror" – – a terrific map/scenario). The players were all new to Fate, so I took the opportunity to try out a few house rules I’ve been kicking around. It was probably the easiest time I’ve ever had running Fate, and definitely the easiest time I’ve ever seen first-time players have with it.

I decided to only introduce a few house rules at a time rather than the whole list I was considering (, as I hadn’t had time to look at every It’s Not My Fault! card to assess where my tweaks might break them. So, we still rolled 4 fate dice, and still handled damage in terms of shifts on a success, but I largely dispensed with some other Fate mainstays, and It’s Not My Fault! was actually pretty helpful for this. In particular, I didn’t even bother to introduce them to....

... writing aspects on index cards, tracking free invokes, and distinguishing between aspects and boosts. Every concrete detail already established in the fiction was fair game to invoke as an aspect, without rolling to “create an advantage” first. The first time anybody invoked an aspect from established narrative details, it was free, no fate point required. So, for instance, when the players set out on their mission, they asked their client to provide a wolf pelt, some dried meat, and a rope, no roll required – and each of these things provided a free +2 later on when players remembered them and thought to use them. Near the end, I compelled an aspect on a player (which I knew he’d love and accept) even though we never actually wrote down it was an aspect, or even established what was happening with him: A sage had just sacrificed herself to transport him home from the moon, and I decided he gained some of her memories and personality in the deal, so I gave him a fate point he knew he’d never get to spend to encourage him to sacrifice himself so his own friends could get away. (Don’t worry, he also happened to unlock the secret of immortality by this point in the session.)

Of all the tweaks I made, this is probably the biggest departure from how most regular Fate Core players feel the game should be played. I’d experimented a bit with it before, though, and had heard from some players who do likewise, so I figured I’d just make it the rule of the day and see how it went for players who’d never seen Fate played any other way. And you know what? I don’t think I can go back. It made play go so much faster. Obviously, you spend less time taking notes and ticking boxes or shuffling around tokens. Scenes also play faster, though, as this approach also eliminates the necessity of “volleyball style” play, where players have to use their turns one-by-one to progressively set up advantages so one player can spike it at the end to succeed – any scene potentially already has a bunch of free invokes lying around! – but it still rewards cooperative setup when players take the time to do that (and mine did). Plus, I suspect this approach was a major reason we didn’t stop to answer rules questions nearly as often as I’m used to with Fate, I’m guessing just because it just feels intuitive, like a “Chekhov’s gun” rule: If some detail of a scene warrants enough attention to be mentioned, by all means, bring it up later for mechanical benefit.

... the four actions. I didn’t ask them think at all about whether they were overcoming, attacking, or creating an advantage, one of the biggest points of confusion I’ve seen new Fate players wrestle with – I just asked them what they wanted to do. To be fair, I still thought of the players’ actions in terms of the four actions at times, but only to help me advise them of the possible effects of what they wanted to do on their turn, or to adjudicate whether a stunt that specified a particular action could be used in a given situation. Still, as part of this approach, I didn’t really make a distinction between, say, what a tie or a success with style means for one action versus another. (The little rule summary cards that come with It’s Not My Fault! don’t make this distinction either, which I appreciate.)

Basically, if someone succeeded with style, I just gave them more of whatever they were going for – described some extra effect on a huge attack or defense roll (which, again, is basically fair game to invoke for free later), offered more detailed information when investigating clues or recalling lore, or awarding an even more impressive aspect when they were creating advantages (rather than 2 free invokes, which I honestly don’t feel like tracking). And if someone tied, I just described a complication like I would on a 7-9 in a PbtA game (which could range from something as simple to reduced effect to something as permanent as a severed hand fused to a PC’s forehead, depending on the stakes of the situation). I could imagine some die-hard Fate players twitching a little bit about how fast and loose that all sounds, but it fit my GMing style so much more easily, – which in turn, again, made things go faster, in combination with players just thinking in terms of answering “what do you do?” instead of “which action do I use?”

... numbered stress boxes. It’s Not My Fault! stress boxes are just 1 point each, and there’s no special rule limiting how many you can use at a time. This is so much easier for players who are familiar with the concept of hit points/health points, which is pretty much anybody who has ever played a traditional tabletop RPG or a video game RPG.

... Fate jargon and wordy aspects. I still used some terms, like “aspect,” “fate point,” “compel,” and “approaches,” as these seemed fairly self explanatory to me, especially since the character aspects in It’s Not My Fault! are super simple as aspects go: Alchemist, Con Artist, Swashbuckler, etc. Players had a super easy time comprehending briefly phrased, straightforwardly descriptive aspects. And I didn’t ask them to “invoke” aspects, but to spend a fate point to “use” or “exploit” them. And while “stunt” is a simple enough concept, I think calling it a “special ability” means just one less specific term players need to memorize.

There are some other things that I would like to dispense of in Fate which I couldn’t get around to cutting or replacing here. For one thing, I really dislike the standard stunt construction of “+2 to use one approach with a very specific action in a very specific situation.” It’s slightly more flavorful than the standard example of the “+1 sword” as the dullest magic item ever, but a flat numerical bonus is still pretty boring regardless. I couldn’t avoid this because It’s Not My Fault! comes with pre-written stunts, but I was pleased that very few of the cards we drew had these kinds of stunts on them.

Also – and apologies in advance, Fate fans who are about to cringe – I am not really a fan of fate dice. When rolling to see whether a fairly common action succeeds or fails, I’d rather look for a single value than pair off or sum up four dice. I mentioned after the game to my players that I was considering running Fate with a d20 next time I do it, and they were all for it. You could port It’s Not My Fault! directly into a d20 framework by saying that the default difficulty is 10, or if you want to get more frequent success at a cost, you could just specify success ranges (with 1-9, 10-18, and 19-20 roughly mapping to PbtA odds). This would screw up some stunts that specify effects based on a number of shifts, though, so I figured it wasn’t worth fiddling with until I think through it a bit more. Most likely, I’d replace the shift/progress/damage system with the one from Index Card RPG – a d4 if poorly equipped, a d6 with an appropriate tool or weapon, a d8 with magic or advanced technology, a d12 for extra powerful results, with targets having stress to clear in groups of 10.

I also want to think a bit more about how to deal with compels, which I find to be a fascinating paradox. I’ve seen people saying they hate compels, but like keys from The Shadow of Yesterday (and popularized by Lady Blackbird), even though to my mind, these things can work very similarly. Both are a way to encourage certain kinds of behavior and scenes by rewarding the player with a narrative currency, but – in a funny reversal of sorts, given the common complaint that Fate Core is more complex than it looks, and Lady Blackbird is delightful in its simplicity – compels represent the far simpler and more flexible of the two. Mechanically speaking, keys have a few different things to differentiate them from compels, but not by as much as it seems: They’re much narrower and more specific in their triggers (which actually leads to more repetition and less variety, which is not a point in their favor in my book); you can buy keys off (but you can also switch aspects, effectively replacing what you compel); and keys don’t necessarily always lead to suboptimal performance the way compels do (but many keys definitely do go in that direction). The only compel made in today’s session, described earlier, kind of suggests to me that the art of compelling is just to keep your eyes open for opportunities that players will relish. Still, I might try sometime coming up with a “sample compel” or “double reward compel” for each aspect, key-style, since the breadth of possibilities for compels can actually make it harder to know what to keep your eyes open for. I’m also considering trying something like the rules for acting from a “desperate” position in Blades in the Dark: When you act with a penalty due to an aspect, you automatically get a fate point. It’s less punishment than a standard compel, but I think it could lead to some fun scenes.

Whew! I must be making up for lost time with the number of words spilled on this game today. The short version, at least, is that It’s Not My Fault! (supplemented by one of Michael Prescott’s typically excellent maps when I ran out of steam for full-on improvisation) was a really excellent way to get a Fate game going with practically zero prep and no more than a minute or two spent explaining the rules – especially if you don’t bother using some rules at all. Don’t get me wrong: Fate Core as-written is an excellent system for players looking for a “traditional RPG” level of tactical complexity and opportunities for system mastery applied to “how can I simulate a certain kind of story?” instead of “how can I simulate realistic parameters for characters getting hurt?” But speaking as someone with very little time to prep or teach games, and enough familiarity with Fate to know what I can cut without breaking it, I think I got more out of using less.
The Moon is a Mirror
The Moon is a Mirror
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An ill-fated hack?

I love so much of Fate, but some parts of it are really tough for me as a GM. So, I've been thinking a lot about how I might make use of all those Fate materials I've been collecting but not running. A possibly ill-advised top contender for tomorrow's monthly game, in fact, is a Frankenstein's monster abomination that attempts to fuse my favorite parts of Fate with some stuff I love from other games. How bad an idea is this, I wonder?

1. Randomly created characters with FAE approaches, aspects, and stunts from It's Not My Fault!

2. Resolution done by adding your modifier to a d20, with a PbtA style miss on 1-9, a partial success on 10-18, and a full success on 19-20.

3. Beyond your character sheet, you don't need to explicitly define aspects; any established fictional detail is usable as an aspect. There's no explicit "create an advantage" action to create new aspects; if you want to change the details of the fiction, just explain what you do, and the GM will confirm whether it needs a roll.

4. To gain a mechanical benefit from exploiting an aspect, say what you want to do, and the GM will tell you whether you get the benefit for free or it costs a fate point (maybe renamed "effort" or "focus" or even "luck"). It'll generally be free for the first time someone uses it in a scene. Exploiting an aspect lets you keep the best result of 2d20 or add +2 to your result. (You can do it before or after the roll, but if you do it after, you have to explain how you take additional action or suddenly change direction, which is potentially a bit trickier and more specific.)

5. Combat and damage rules either from Apocalypse World (weapons with low, fixed damage values and "tags" that are basically aspects) or Into the Odd (weapons have damage dice depending on size/quality, but also drawbacks that functionally are like aspects).

6. Still figuring how you gain fate points and how you advance, though I would like compels to work more like Lady Blackbird/Shadow of Yesterday keys or 7th Sea hero point generators than like Cypher System intrusions (i.e., more player driven), and advancement probably isn't a pressing concern for a one shot.

This is your chance to dissuade me of this madness, internet!
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The (mostly) indecipherable spellbook

I have always been a little dissatisfied with the two main mechanisms I've seen for magic users to gain spells in D&D: either the player just picks one from a book and the character suddenly knows it, or the character finds a spell in the world and among loot and gets to learn it when they next level. The former has no narrative justification (which I know doesn't bother many, but always disappoints me); the latter puts the burden on the DM to include spells among loot, and gives players less choice in what spells to take (which I think is a bummer for players who like pursuing "character builds," and is a bummer to me as a DM who likes to prep very little). Saying the character has been researching in their spare time and "discovers" a spell in a eureka moment at level-up does work, but raises the question for me of what the hell they were consulting for research sources if they were plundering dungeons all this time.

One obvious answer occurs to me: They're studying the spellbook itself. It starts play full of notes and diagrams placed there by passed it to the magic user – perhaps a graduation gift from mentor to apprentice, an inheritance from family who didn't even know its true nature, or loot from some adventure before play ever started. Unfortunately, the damn thing is nearly indecipherable. It takes, oh, say, roughly [one level worth of] days to actually work out how a spell works. Then, suddenly, you "know" it.

This suggests some other variants and house rules for play that might be fun to explore, such as:

a) If you want to encourage random character building but also allow for purposeful character builds by eager players, let characters who roll for random spells decipher randomly rolled 2 spells or 1 specifically chosen spell when they level up. Maybe you just know this one page lets you cast Fireball because there's a big damn drawing of a ball of fire, but flipping around and cross-referencing between multiple pages and piecing together whatever looks easiest will definitely result in deciphering spells faster.

b) If you want to play a game without classes, or where classes only determine starting gear and anybody can build in any direction over time (like Index Card RPG), "a book full of mostly indecipherable spells" could just be one of multiple starting items alongside "a finely crafted dagger" and "a set of armor in the style of those knighted by the king." When you gain a level, you get to choose one upgrade (or, if using the above method, roll for two), improving your facility with one of your special items – learn a spell, master the technique of knife-throwing, move more freely in your heavy plate, etc.

c) Gradually deciphered spellbooks can apply to clerics as well as wizards, though in the case of clerics, all adherents of a single religion might actually be working from the same sacred text(s). Studying in solitude could be a rite of passage to prove one's devotion – or a show of faith that convinces a living deity to grant the ability to read certain passages and channel their divine power.
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Cypher System variant: Pool dice

There's a lot I dig about Numenera and The Strange, but some of the rules of the Cypher System make running them again as-written a pretty tall order for me. I tried to put together a big "Decyphered System" house rules doc awhile back, but it remains untested and feels a little janky. I'm wondering if I'd enjoy the game more if I just changed one thing: replacing all the tedious point-tracking in ability "pools" with a variant of "usage dice" from The Black Hack. Here's how it might work.

Instead of pools of points for Might, Speed, and Intellect, you have a "pool die" for each, ranging from d2 to d12 (or even just equal to the number of pool points you'd get in the game, if you're looking for a use for all those Zocchi dice you otherwise only get to use in Dungeon Crawl Classics, though that would require adjusting the rate of loss described below). Anytime you would spend or lose points from that pool, you instead roll its pool die. If it rolls too low, your pool die drops in size (d12 to d10, d10 to d8, etc., dropping from d2 to nothing left in that pool). Specifically....

To boost an ability roll: Roll the appropriate pool die and add +3 to your d20 roll for each level of Effort you want to apply, up to your Effort score. Drop the pool die 1 step if it rolls on or under the total number added to your d20 roll.

To boost damage: Roll the appropriate pool die and add up to your Effort score to the damage dealt. Drop the pool die 1 step if it rolls on or under the total amount of damage you just inflicted.

To boost a special ability: Roll the appropriate pool die, provided the die has more sides the special ability’s tier. Drop the pool die 1 step if it rolls on or under the special ability’s cost.

To use an Edge: Once per action, you can add your Edge to either your d20 roll or your pool die roll.

When you take damage: If the damage dealt is higher than the number of faces on the appropriate pool die, drop it 3 steps. If it’s on or under the number of faces, but over half that number, drop it 2 steps. If it’s on or under half the number of faces, drop it 1 step.

If you feel especially devious, you could say that rolling a 1 on a pool die is just like rolling a 1 on a d20, triggering a GM intervention.

There are probably bugs in this I’m missing, but I tried to make use of all the other terms surrounding the point system (like Effort, Edge, and damage) to reduce knock-on effects as much as possible. I feel like this might get around my issues with tedious pool-tracking, fiddly Effort spending rules, and applications of both positive and negative modifiers on every roll, which are the main things that bug me about the original system. We’ll see if I have a chance to give it a try....
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Is there any way to see all posts "shared only with you" on G+? I just happened to come across one (by looking at someone's timeline) that I otherwise would've missed because it's older than my oldest visible notifications....
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Hit dice should be as exciting as they sound

I wrote up some notes awhile ago on a special abilities system for D&D based around hit dice as an expendable resource. I came across those notes again this week and realized I have no plans to use this for anything in the immediate future, but I figured I’d share them here in case anybody’s interested in this particular brand of nerdery.

The basics: You have as many hit dice as your level, and your hit die size is based on class (d4 wizard, d6 thief, d8 cleric, d10 fighter). You can spend a hit die on a variety of different things, and you refresh your supply when you rest long enough to make you wonder if maybe it’s not safe to rest again (e.g., long enough to trigger a random encounter).

Injury: When you fall to 0 HP or less, you die instantly, OR you spend a hit die to roll for your fate:

1 = dead
2 = permanent injury and incapacitated at 1 HP
3 = temporary injury and incapacitated at 1 HP
4+ = temporary injury but still on your feet at 1 HP

Everybody has access to that option. Each class has some additional options for how to spend hit dice, too.

Fighter uses:
Second Wind: Roll and regain that many HP as an action.
Cleave: On successful attack, roll and deal that much damage to the same or adjacent targets. (Indicate which die goes to whom.)
Maneuver: On an successful attack, if your HD roll is higher than the target's HD, inflict a condition or affect the target's position (knocking down, pushing back, etc.).

Wizard uses:
Spellcasting: Roll HD > spell level or else suffer calamity or lose ability to cast again today. (Higher level spells thus require multiple dice for a chance to avoid risks.)
Metamagic: Extend a spell’s damage, duration, range, or area/targets (somehow).
Counterspell: Deflect or disenchant a spell. If your HD roll < target spell’s level, though, there’s a nasty side effect.

Thief uses:
Finesse: Add your HD roll to a save or check.
Backstab: Add your HD roll to damage done to an opponent unaware of your presence.
Shift: Spend to move an as many yards as your HD roll either quickly, carefully, or silently (choose 1).

Cleric uses:
Lay on Hands: Restore HD roll in HP to a target worthy in the eyes of your deity.
Turn Abominations: Drive back creatures considered abominations in the eyes of your deity, making them unwilling to come within spitting distance of you. After they take as many turns as your HD roll, they can attempt a save to break the effect.
Miracles: Works like wizard’s spellcasting, but a different spell list (or the same spell list, but limited to keywords relevant to your deity).

There are some issues with this, I think, probably related to rests and healing, and it might be smart to make a distinction between expenditures that refresh quickly vs. those that refresh only after a long night’s rest. And honestly, some of the fighter and thief stuff is probably more fun if it just works, without rolling extra dice. Still, maybe an interesting start to something to try someday.
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Sandbox D&D pipe dreams

I recently finished a cover-to-cover reading of Broodmother Sky Fortress, which made me really, really want to run not just that specific module, but an ongoing sandbox oldschool D&D campaign. Before I can do such a thing, though, I need three things I don't have, which could take a long while to figure out:

1. Which setting do I use?

Jeff Rients suggests running Broodmother in an established campaign setting the players already care about. I don't have one, but I have plenty to choose from. I can see going about it in either of two ways: gonzo or pseudo-historical.

The gonzo approach would likely be a strangely interconnected mishmash of any number of other sci-fi/fantasy settings I have handy or plan to pick up eventually, like Anomalous Subsurface Environment, Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Carcosa, Planet Psychon, Electric Bastionland, Ultraviolet Grasslands, etc. I know I have players who’d dig this, too, considering how well Numenera went over with my local group, even though everybody hated the rules. I probably couldn’t comfortably fit everything listed there in one campaign, but I imagine I could at least knock a few modules off my to-run list.

The pseudo-historical approach, on the other hand, bases the game in a fantasy version of “the real world.” I must confess I’d be at a disadvantage here, as history was never my strongest subject. The main draw to this approach for me, though, is the excellent list of 50 grimoires at the end of Broodmother, suggested for a magic system in which casters can only access the spells they find in completely unique spellbooks. Each grimoire has a weird little “blasphemy” in its pages that readers will grow utter convinced of, no matter the contradictions, like, “The corpses that left their graves during the Crucifixion (Matthew 27:52) still wander the world as the original undead,” or, “The Apocalypse and Second Coming have been delayed by a magical ritual performed annually since 666 AD.” Some of these may just sound weird, but plenty could well be seeds for sandbox adventures waiting to happen. I could see these being the running backdrop of an entire campaign: Magic-using antagonists’ agendas could each be based on the blasphemies in their own spellbooks, and their common goal is to amass the collection of every grimoire in existence, revealing the universal truth – and unlocking unthinkable power – hidden between their seeming “contradictions.” PCs could ignore all that and go fight goblins or whatever, of course, but man, what a setup.

2. Which rules do I use?

There are a lot of different D&D rules variants. I have no particular nostalgia for any of them, and the most popular of them each have quirks that kind of bug me. So, I’m weighing my options between a heavily house-ruled approach to something bit more fiddly than I want to deal with (like the D&D Basic/Expert rules, or a variant thereof like Lamentations of the Flame Princess); a hack or rule set that preserves some oldschool feel but with a lighter approach (like Whitehack, The Black Hack, Exemplars & Eidolons, or Index Card RPG); something with more character advancement options to please the players who love that kind of thing (like D&D 5e or Dungeons & Delvers); something built specifically for historical/real-world play (like the upcoming Wolves of God); or something I make up myself (like this weird hack I’ve got lying around that introduces “partial successes” to d20 rolls, or this other idea that may or may not work with “hit dice” as expendable resources for special abilities).

I know this is a question nobody can really answer for me and my players. I love reading and dissecting game rules, so I have an embarrassment of riches to choose from. That will take time. And that, of course, leads me to my third concern....

3. When will ever have time to prep and run this?

Maybe after the baby grows up and gets a job? Someday in the far-flung future when a high-speed monorail reduces my commute to under an hour? Yeah, I dunno. It’s all fun food for thought for now, though.
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Approaches for a PbtA spy thriller game

I came across some old notes today on how I once planned to use a sort of customized World of Dungeons to run Night’s Black Agents. I abandoned the idea after I learned that Jason Lutes made a PbtA/NBA hack, Nick Wedig made “World of Secrets,” Lowell Francis wrote notes on using The Sprawl for NBA, and so on. But I kind of liked some of my old notes upon second glance today, so I fiddled with them and figured I’d share what I liked.

The basic idea is to combine the World of Dungeons base with a simplified take on Fate Accelerated approaches: Whatever approach you use determines what complications you won’t face on a 7-9. So….

■ If you weren't cold, you might pull punches or show weakness.
■ If you weren't clean, you might be spotted or leave evidence.
■ If you weren't sharp, you might miss noticing something.
■ If you weren't smooth, you might leave a bad impression.

One thing that Fate Accelerated doesn’t make explicit (if I remember correctly), but that I would want to be very explicit, is that you only roll when facing risks, so you only choose an approach if it addresses a real risk you face. This makes sure you don’t get someone “smoothly” throwing a grappling hook to scale a wall: If there are no social stakes, there’s no need to be smooth.

I think you could get away with running Night’s Black Agents (or similar spy thrillers) with just this, rules for damage and HP cribbed from either World of Dungeons or Apocalypse World, and (optionally) lists for skills, special abilities, and equipment adapted from World of Dungeons and World of Dungeons Turbo: Breakers. Maybe I’ll do that, if I decide not to use any of the other couple dozen systems I’m looking at for that campaign….
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