Caveat Emptor (Buyer Beware)

Hi guys!

I can’t wait to share what I’ve been working on with you all. I’m a couple of iterations into a d20-based BinD hack called Caveat Emptor set in a sci-fi world crafted from my SWN group’s adventures and my writing. It takes a lot of inspiration from Mass Effect and Dishonored, and of course everything here!

I’ll probably ask for input and opinions on systems I’ve either adapted, am iterating on, or have “finished” prior to further playtesting. Let me know if you’d like to help at all :slight_smile:



Caveat Emptor makes a departure from d6 pools and instead uses one or two (in the case of advantage or disadvantage) modified d20 rolls for its actions, reactions, and fortune rolls. Effect has been altered to calculate whether or not a roll is made with advantage or disadvantage instead of judging its traditional effectiveness.

I’ve set it up to allow you guys to make comments.

I’m very taken by the concept of life paths (as seen in Burning Wheel and Shadowrun) and Traveler’s (in)famous gambler’s ruin-esc character creation system. I am attempting to do generate a similar system, but I cannot seem to get the balance quite right to make it feel like a lethal but potentially rewarding character generation system. I am also heavily enamored with Dogs in the Vineyard’s chargen capstone where players are able to get a little extra something for their character if they do a ten minute solo adventure with the GM.

I’m very interested in synthesizing a mechano-narrative system that incorporates these very disparate systems.

Right now, at chargen I offer one action rating or playbook experience point or Clout (my rendering of Rep and Coin into a single currency) for each question answered by the player:

  1. Who are your people?
  2. How did you get the suit you wear now?
  3. What got you into the Lancer’s life?
  4. Who can turn your world upside down?
  5. What annoying quirk does your suit have?
  6. What extraordinary sight changed you forever?
  7. How did you get those scars?
  8. What do you do to cope with stress?
  9. Who have you sworn to never aid or assist?

I’m going to do some more research, but any assistance you could give would be great

So I’ve gone over the list a bit, and I’ve got the following write up.

When you answer one of these questions, mark the choice and add an action dot.

Life: Who are your people?

  • Academics: You came into your own in great halls of learning or on exotic research excursions.
  • Bureaucrats: You seemed destined for a life and career of government service.
  • Corporate: You chased financial freedom and worked to scurry up the corporate ladder.
  • Military: You grew up on a military base, soldier’s camp, civilian’s quarters, or with mercenaries
  • Oligarchs: You were born to the manner and raised to rule over the teeming masses.
  • Proletariat: Your blue collar history is written in the map of scars and calloused flesh.
  • Recidivists: You’re a scoundrel and came into your own as a cut-throat or cut-purse.
  • Thalassocrats: Your history is written in ledgers, manifests, and across the star-lanes.

Suit: How did you get your power suit?

  • Awarded: You completed some incredible task and your reward was this suit
  • Bootlegged: You bought the suit after “it fell off the back of a starship” at a secondary market
  • Cobbled: You scraped, scrounged, and cobbled together a suit from junk heaps and workshops.
  • Gambled: You took a big risk and won the suit, perhaps because you cheated?
  • Inherited: Your suit was passed on to you from your family, or someone as close as kin.
  • Leased: Your suit isn’t your’s, because it’s leased to you or on loan from the true owner.
  • Scavenged: You stripped this suit off the dead or dying from some horrible tragedy.
  • Theft: You stole this suit from its rightful owners, and someone’s looking for it and you.

Origin: What got you into this life?

  • Apprentice: You were apprenticed to a Free or Service Lancer, who trained you in their craft
  • Ascension: You were in an impossible situation, and you were given an offer you couldn’t refuse
  • Betrayal: You were betrayed, and you survived on your wits, grit, and perhaps a little charity
  • Criminal: You turned to crime for thrills or simply to survive, and live now by a criminal code
  • Enlistment: You enlisted with some military where you learned more than just how to kill
  • Exile: You were exiled from your people for some real or made up crime, but managed to live
  • Frontier: You learned how to survive in untamed and downright inhospitable wildernesses
  • Wanted: You have been on the run from tenacious hunter who and have learned to stay hidden

the current version of character creation is up for review and commentary by you guys here:

Trying to think of interesting Crews. Lancers, the in universe name for what the characters are, belong to a lance, a quasi-military unit designed around a handful of individuals who wear armored and reinforced eva suits designed to operate in extremely hazardous environments: space, combat, and inhospitable planets. There are free-lancers (private owned) and service-lancers (public “owned”), but I think we should focus on free-lancers, as these are meant to be private contractors and specialists who are brought in to deal with time and data sensitive jobs.

With that in mind, I’m thinking about the major organizations that could support freelancers:

  • The Mediators: diplomats that ensure fair trade and good will between worlds through any means.
  • The Inquisitors: cunning and vicious investigators who hunt the monsters that go bump in the night.
  • The Archivists: keepers and disseminators of knowledge who have preserved it throughout dark times.
  • The Executors: the navy and marines of the high lord executor tasked with preserving the empire and keeping its secrets.
  • Sector Powers
  • System Governments
  • Private Corporations
  • Self employed? On what mission?

With that in mind, do we even need to modify the existing playbooks? The originals plus vigilantes and academics can support a wide array of play-styles already, but the question becomes: how do the players avoid getting tied down in a system that’s designed for them to move about space freely? I made a big ol’ sector, and I want people to see it. Instead of a crew, having a class of ship may make more sense. Ship upgrades could replace lair upgrades, but not everyone wants a ship and not every holding can reasonably fit on a ship.

I guess I need to decide what kind of adventures I want to design around.

What are the settings and stories that influenced this setting?

  • The Expanse: a crew aboard a ship they’ve lovingly maintained follow a trail of clues on a system spanning conspiracy that opens the doorway to an unbelievable future.
  • Battletech: a mercenary company pilots big battlemechs and gets its feet under it by returning a deposed noble to her throne, through a campaign of targeted, asymmetrical mech warfare.
  • Mass Effect: now that I think of it, the one-sentence elevator pitch is the same as the Expanse. Andromeda has a similar story, but it’s also a “find a new home” story woven through it instead of just “man versus existential threat”.
  • Monster Blood Tattoo: In an era of city states, monsters are kept at bay through a combination of private bounty hunters with alchemical powers and large government forces, but sometimes the worst monsters might be people.
  • The Black Company: A band of mercenaries travel the globe on contracts and quests as much to get paid as to keep the flame of their precious heritage alive.

The common threads are travel and the importance of the mission (central tension). There’s also a thread of getting paid and uncovering secrets. Pretty standard adventuring fare, but it is clearly important that the “crews” be highly mobile and focused on a mission. Sometimes having a ship is important, sometimes it’s not relevant, but from story to story the environment always changes. I think we can replace “lair” with ship. This puts greater importance on ship upgrades than a lair’s and contact npcs are more likely to be members of the crew. Holdings are portions of the ship that have been designated for npcs to work out of. How much emphasis is placed on the crew versus the ship. The ship is really an aspect of character unto itself of the crew, so I think crews should be kept as a concept.

So let’s think of crew types. The common threads are that the work must be dangerous, the job is something the employers can’t or won’t do, and must be one-and-done contracts.

  • Academics handle hazardous science either in a laboratory (with the illusion of safety) or out in the wilderness
  • Assassins center around targeted, asymmetrical attacks meant to terrorize or destabilize a faction
  • Bravos apply overwhelming force to intimidate and damage a target faction on behalf of another
  • Cults worship search for powerful artifacts and grow a following of zealous devotees
  • Hawkers: in short are vice dealers
  • Shadows are thieves and spies that collect valuables and secrets for their patrons
  • Smugglers move goods safely through blockades and other hazards
  • Vigilantes are extralegal operatives who do what the law can’t or won’t do for the common good

Each shares the common thread of danger, missions, and say something about the world. There wouldn’t be vice dealing hawkers if the vices were legal and plentiful. Bravos would not exist without the need for overt, bloody violence. They’re all up to something extra-legal. There’s a tension, because if they are ever found out, they’ll be punished; most likely severely.

Okay, are there more setting appropriate ways to name and characterize these crew types?

  • Academics work when the stuff they’re dealing with is hazardous, so we can leave that be.
  • Assassins seems to focused a word for what they do, so some alterations should be made here.
  • Bravos has a nice renaissance feel, but they need to evoke mercenaries or condottieri for sure.
  • Cultists can work, as there are a multitude of faiths and no official state religion (any more).
  • Hawkers this crew-book seems a little too sedentary on first glance, and may need alterations.
  • Shadows are a classic trope of limited-engagement espionage and thievery, but I may want to open this open a bit more to include fixers or mediators with dirty tricks.
  • Smugglers are great because they move things through danger, so already we’ve checked all the boxes
  • Vigilantes have a tendency to get tied down, but a traveling band of extra-legal do-gooders may fit well

In a twisted sort of way, Assassins are really Fixers, who solve problems that are people. They remove elements of the employer’s business that are impending their line of work. They disappear problems. This is different from Bravos who make vicious shows of force that are meant to be seen (even if they are not), and shadows who are meant to steal knowledge and things. Assassins eliminate obstacles, so I suppose the term applies.

How does a hawker selling religion differ from a cult? They both operate similarly, and cults may be too mystical for the setting we’re going for. Religion certainly exists, but it’s viewed someone cynically by the system as just a ploy for profit.

Hawkers sell their own vice, while smugglers move someone else’s, but what really distinguishes these two “mover” crew types?

I think the answer lies in Warhammer 40k’s Rogue Traders, which have an entire faction within my SWN setting knowns as the Greater Chartist Clans led by House Ceannaiche (a Scots-Gaelic word for trader or merchant). The term Chartist is someone who has a charter to capitalizes on the exchange of goods, whether they be their goods that they produce or that their serfs produce or simply facilitate the movement of goods with their ships. The idea of having a Warrant of Trade (or not) to prowl around known (and unknown) space and be about the business of a larger hegemony is incredibly appealing to the rover aesthetic of the setting. These chartists may be religious zealots or a superstitious lot and may even try to peddle that religion to the worlds they do business with. That business may even be of peddling this philosophy for good or ill.

Perhaps Chartist is too narrow a term for this setting, and “Mover” or “Runner” may be more inclusive of all peddlers of vice or requirement. Then again, I really like the idea of these freelancer groups having a charter, chronicle, or warrant of office that empowers them, and which they can either uphold or corrupt. Academics go on expeditions funded by all manner of business partners and their arrangements are codified in a contract. There’s that word: contract. This game is about questionable contracts, so shouldn’t it be the case that crew playbooks are about executing on these questionable contracts (whether they’re simply verbal agreements or written in blood)?

Okay, so where do vigilantes fit into the notion of contract fulfillers? Perhaps their’s is a social contract. They’re filling in a contract that societies are falling through on. How do they differ from Mercenaries? Mercenaries, Assassins, and Shadows are all contracted by an organization to do a job they can’t do, but Vigilantes are supported by their populace to do things larger organizations don’t want to have happen. Whereas the former three are for the good of a particular organization, the latter are good for the common folk (or at least in their minds). Vigilantes need not be heroic: they can be revanchists, partisans, separatists, or all manner of other extralegal entities we might now a days refer to as terrorists. They operate dangerously for a cause or belief above profit, instead of the other way around.

So what are the warrants or entitlements that empower the crew to act?

  • Academics: Research Grants that allow them to explore and discover
  • Assassins: Letters of Mark that contract them to disappear a threat
  • Chartists: Warrant of Trade that allows them to conduct the empire’s business
  • Mercenaries: Freelancer’s Chronicle that records their deeds and contracts
  • Shadows: Thieve’s Honor that defines etiquette and scope of activity
  • Vigilantes: People’s Will is a social compact that empowers their extra-legality

These are all dubious contracts and not a one of them is entirely legal or safe, involve the movement of the Lancer Crew, and ensure deniability should things go sour.

In a highly mobile group, there is a stronger leaning towards having highly skilled agents and subordinates over taking and holding businesses or territory. When the crew establishes itself on a new world or in a new city, they would settle into the new environment and set up shop, but we want any permanent structures to simply be temporary bases of operation.

This begs the question of how important “turf” and holdings really are. Let’s look back at our inspirations:

  • The Expanse: All of the crew’s resources that they depend upon are on the ship, and whenever they need something special they’ll go to a port. Fixed holdings or turf are given over to friendly agents, who then make those services available to the crew.
  • Battletech: portions of the Argus are cleared out and made usable again throughout the craft’s rehabilitation, opening up new bonuses for the crew and lances.
  • Mass Effect: again, like the expanse, the ship is the character’s true home, and holdings and turf are won for allies who then aid the crew.
  • Monster Blood Tattoo: The towns may change, but money can always seem to buy the services and goods required for the adventures. Only the second book really alters this.
  • The Black Company: The strength of the company exists in the wisdom and ferocity of its brotherhood, which is embodied by its chronicle.

So perhaps “turf” and holdings can be acquired on worlds, but they don’t belong to the crew. The crew does not administer these assets. The crew has agents that are loyal to them that provide services whenever they’re nearby.


So what do we do with crews? They’re what defines the mission statement of the crew. What is it that they do. What codifies that mission statement? Perhaps a document. What are some crews, and what kind of documents of power could they make use of?

  • Academics would have grants that allow them to conduct dangerous research
  • Assassins would have contracts that would task the with hits?
  • Chartists would have charters or warrants that would let them trade
  • Mercenaries would have a chronicle that they write their contracts and knowledge in
  • Shadows would have what? Thieves’ Code?
  • Vigilantes have some kind of manifesto that they’re trying to bring about

So how do these things start embodying and empowering these kinds of crews?

So assassins and thieves play by different rules. What might those rules be? They don’t just operate differently. They embody different specialities, even if they body operate chiefly in secret. This will require some more thought about how to differentiate in fiction these two modes of operating.

Okay, so we’ve got a basic premise:

  • Condottieri companies are contracted to wage penny-wars that do little more than exchange fortresses of no strategic value.
  • System governors serve as proxies for the larger Sector powers in brushfire and border wars that never redraw any territorial lines.
  • An endless shadow war rages between deniable assets just out of view of the public where they can’t or won’t look.
  • All the while the great powers play at breaking bread and making peace with those they’d kill if they weren’t their only allies left.
  • The age of the freelancer has come to the Caveat Emptor sector. Everyone is looking for trouble and to be paid.

You are a member of a Freelancer company tied to no banner in particular, who dares to go where they are not wanted to do things no one will acknowledge have been asked to be done for great sums of coin that go into a coffer without a bottom and for favors that can’t be redeemed after death. Everything has a price, which is rarely fully known before purchase, and all sales are final.

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Academic specific missions seeds:

  • Capture and deliver some deadly weapon for analysis
  • Assess a force or guarded structure for weaknesses
  • Test the limits of an unproven technology against a foe
  • Weaponize a volatile discovery for your employer
  • Study a dangerous albeit natural phenomenon
  • Repair damaged technology amidst a lethal hazard

These are all tasks uniquely suited for academically minded mercenaries who study under fire.

I’m having to reassess “resistance” (what I call reaction) rolls and harm, given the new system.

  • PC chooses Reaction to Harm
  • Danger (what I call position) is moderate, serious, or critical depending on degree of incoming harm
  • Effect is gaged by normal factors
  • Roll:
    – Nat 20: All harm avoided and recover a Luck
    – Unmodified Roll >= to Danger: Reduce incoming harm by 2 (on moderate roll suffer no harm)
    – Modified Roll >= to Danger: Reduce harm by 1 (on moderate roll suffer no harm)
    – Modified Roll < Danger: take full harm

Okay, that’s resolved. “Stress” is replaced by “Luck”, which is an ablative, pooled resource used to shrug off harm and to “Push Your Luck” to improve effect.

Just finished up the Sector Map, which is meant to be played by the rules of diplomacy, with a few tweaks. Let me know what you think of the Caveat Emptor Sector!

The present state of the sector is the result of my ongoing Stars Without Number campaign. I did faction turns up to the year 3204, and wrote up a series of rises and falls that’ve led the sector to its current state. Each circle represents a star system, the circles represent planets, and the black circles represent planets with power centers and strategic resources on them; while the lines represent the relatively safest travel routes between systems.

The Reformed Human Mandate is a bureaucratic and federal stellar empire, where each system and world are administrated by a planetary governor beholden to the RHM’s High Lord Executox. While each planetary or system governor is ostensibly loyal only to the HLE, there are seven households that hold open or secret power over numerous governors and have formed “nations” or leagues.

The player character’s Lancers will operate as freelancers and agents of these powers in their covert games of intrigue. Presently, there is a HLE known as The Lady, who quietly encourages this infighting as long as “it does not get out of hand”.

I feel that a game of Diplomacy is the best way to handle this ruleset, but anything from Stars Without Number’s Faction Turn to using Chess to determine system conflicts to using Dogs in the Vineyard can be used to handle the “game”.

I’ll include a more detailed sector history in a follow up post, as well as a faction over-view. Let me know what you think?

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Currently compiling a review copy for v0.2.6 of Caveat Emptor, and I’d love for you guys to read it over and suggest edits :slight_smile: Let me know what you think?

Okay, for the sake of my own sanity, I’m going to overhaul a lancer playbooks, add in some Altered Carbon lancer playbooks, and work out the crew playbooks finally.

v0.2.6 Lancer Playbooks:

  • Kinetics: A knightly or samurai type who leverages their physicality to their advantage.
  • Experts: fixers and faces who know someone who knows what they don’t.
  • Shapers: basically biotics from mass effect
  • Minders: diviners and telepaths [This needs to get overhauled and folded into Shapers]
  • Patches: Cyborgs who are more man than machine
  • Awoken: either synthetic minds or people who’s minds have been reshaped by vr to basically be synthetic.

I’m a huge fan of Altered Carbon, and for all its flaws, it tackles more questions and does more creatively with its story telling than just about any other show on tv. It also allows for a more scifi take on ghosts, hulls, and vampires. In altered carbon, “everyone” has a “stack” or a digital backup of their consciousness, and if your “sleeve” of body is destroyed you can get put into another sleeve (if you’ve got the right cash and influence). This opens the door for body hopping, body backups, body upgrades that can be paid for, getting someone else’s “sleeve” and having to deal with all their baggage because you couldn’t afford a new body, etc. It also allows us to take away some of the sting of “dying” like Blades in the Dark does. This also brings up cool things like brain backups and what happens when your data stack suffers direct damage (read: “real death” unless you’ve got a duplicate of your mind somewhere).

More than any of those cool opportunities, it espouses a personal philosophy of mine: transhumanism. As I view it, everyone deserves to be the best form of themselves that they can be. It’s their right to define themselves and their destiny, and to be empowered to chase those definitions. Whether they get them or not is (in fiction) just part of the story.

Okay, back to how this impacts the game and playbooks. The advanced playbooks will be:

  • Stack: you’re just your stack, which means you can still do awesome stuff in cyberspace, but physically you’re a data stack the size of a vertebrae. You can be downloaded into a new “sleeve” and pick up another playbook at a cost.
  • Lazarus: this’ll be the post-human, gene-tailored superman type character that’s been rebuilt from the cellular level to be whatever you want to be.

For v0.2.7, the plabooks are going to need some reworking:

  • Kinetics are conceptually fine and won’t need a tremendous amount of editing.
  • Experts are in a really good place right now and I don’t want to change them up too much.
  • Shapers are going to have elements of Minders blended into them so there’s one “normal” space magic playbook.
  • Minders are out. Too science fantasy.
  • Patches are a curious case, because I want “cybernetics” or “gene-tailoring” to take over the ritual mechanics from Blades in the Dark, but part of Patches are about hunting, so perhaps I should lean into Bounty Hunter archetypes both from Blades and the most iconic bounty hunter of all time: Boba Fett (just a thought).
    – Okay, so the cybernetics will be out and more “hunter” stuff will be in.
    – They’re going to need a bit of a lore rewrite as well.
  • Awoken will lean a little more into the hacker archetype as well as keeping some of the leech stuff from Blades in the Dark. The hack code and bodies into whatever form they like… kinky… I like it. I’ll lean into synthetics from Blade Runner and Alien as well for some “almost not quite human anymore” vibes.
  • I’m bringing back the Nomad playbook out of mothball, because we’re lacking a fast-moving, raider type playbook a la the pilots from Titanfall. I’ll throw in some mechanical tinkering and perhaps migrate some abilities back from Experts to act as a counter-balance to Awoken’s “programming and medical” vibes with engineering vibes.

Okay, so with the strange classes we’ll do some cool stuff:

  • Stacked: I definitely want them to be ghosty like from Blades, but I want to differentiate them from the Awoken. Maybe lean into servitors from 40k and the revenant idea that was originally planned for Patches. Through a ritual, your stack can be brought back to life in a mechanical or in a ruined biological frame. YES! Spooky Cyber-zombies from Shadowrun would be good to look at as well.
  • Lazarus: brought back from the dead into a more perfect form. This’ll be the analogue to vampires in Blades in the Dark. Lean into the Meth’s from Altered Carbon.
  • Hull: for lack of a better term, hulls are those who have fully steped away from any semblance of the human form to exist as a swarm of drones, a vehicle/starship, a manufactory. Whatever they are, they don’t just interface with machinery, because they are machinery.
    – UPDATE: Grail: we’re going to lean into some Stars Without Number territory here haha.

Okay, Faction Playbooks. You and your crew are a freelance asset that can rent yourselves out to larger Factions for Clout (influence, secrets, currency, reputation, etc) and/or do your own thing. Here are the current playbooks:

  • Academics would have grants that allow them to conduct dangerous research
  • Assassins would have legend of past hits that reassure employers that they can do the job
  • Chartists would have warrants of trade that grant them rights and responsibilities
  • Mercenaries would have a chronicle that they write their contracts and knowledge in
  • Shadows abide by a code or omerta that guides their activities and can be relied upon by employers
  • Vigilantes have a manifesto that they’re trying to effect

Okay, here will be the v0.2.7 playbook overhaul doc, which will be folded into the larger v0.2.7 review copy. The v0.2.6 review copy and its d20 system will be mothballed for the time being, until a true Blades in the Dark 1.0 version can be finished, playtested, and published. Please feel free to make comments as I continue to edit and fill it out.

Okay, so the current list of lancer playbooks is:

  • Awoken: minds shaped by and from the machines.
  • Experts: know someone who knows what they do not.
  • Kinetics: leverage their physicality on and off the battlefield.
  • Nomads: free spirits impossible to pin down and entrap.
  • Riggers: you cannot hide from these relentless hunters.
  • Shapers: leverage tragedy to reshape the world on your whim.

Pretty happy with these. There’re also the advanced classes that more or less require body death: Grail (a machine mind that forgoes a fleshy form), Lazarus (a superhuman body), and Ghost (the digital representation of your mind housed in a stack).