2400 devlog: Xot

In Xot, players take on the roles of settlers crash-landed on a world that forces them to adapt. You might play an undying priest with an aversion to gravity, a sharp-eyed mystic with cameras for eyes, or a horned mechanic with finger-plugs that interface with machines, or any number of other bizarre combinations. It’s available as part of the full 2400 series on Itch.io, and on its own and in the 2400 bundle on DriveThruRPG.

Influences

As I describe in the original Itch.io devlog, Xot is a love letter to far(ther)-future sci-fi settings like Vaults of Vaarn, The Book of the New Sun, The Dying Earth. The most obvious influence, however, is from Numenera. Those who’ve played that game will see familiar elements its Xot’s approach to characters (each an adjectivenoun, with a distinctive element), single-use wondrous items, and focus on helping settlements survive and thrive in a strange and hostile environment.

I’ve hazarded a bunch of half-baked Numenera hacks over the years, including to Into the Odd, MinimalD6, Knave, Whitehack, and even a “simplified” version of Cypher System house rules. None of those are really finished, usable games, though. (Especially the the house rules. They are not good. Do not use them.) Still, I share all this to illustrate that hacking Numenera is something of a hobby within a hobby for me. I love the ideas packed into Numenera, but I’m really not the target audience for the Cypher System. As I’ve written about elsewhere, I have some pretty specific needs that are better served by more lightweight, less abstract rules.

I have been working on and off for a long while on Alight, a much longer game in this genre, but grew frustrated with my own impulses to take the rules in too many directions at once. Did I want to make a game with a bunch of character options to choose from, with d20-based rules that might be passingly familiar to D&D and Numenera fans? Or did I want to make something even simpler, more pared down, where the sentence describing your character is basically all you need to know in order to play? 

My four-year-old (who gives excellent game design advice) convinced me to do both. If Alight is my white whale, Xot can at least be a tuna steak.

Building characters that sound fun

I absolutely love the way Numenera characters sound. A swift glaive who rides the lightning? Hell yes. A mechanical jack who entertains? Ooh, tell me more. A tough nano who needs no weapons? Sign. Me. UP.

Numenera is a great game — but again, I have pretty specific needs, and those cool-sounding characters are not really built for the way I play. My friend with the character who entertains felt pretty useless in the combat-focused published adventure I grabbed from the Numenera rulebook. (Can’t help but notice “entertains” was cut from the second edition, Numenera: Destiny.) And that character who rides the lightning? Another friend was pretty irked that she didn’t actually get to ride any lightning; you have to advance awhile before you unlock that signature ability.

And so, even though Xot characters sound something like Numenera characters, they are mechanically quite different. If you want a character who rides the lightning, then from session one, you, my friend, will be riding lightning. Roll up a fearless pit fighter with cameras for eyes, I want you to tell me what those cameras can do. And if you want to have something to build toward, let’s brainstorm how your charming gambler with a cat-sized tardigrade floating nearby might someday be flanked by a telepathic, lion-sized tardigrade teleporting nearby.

I do recognize some potential drawbacks to this approach to character creation. For one thing, the idea of “balance” goes out the window; unless you happen to have a collection of fungi RPGs and adventures (though maybe you should), you probably won’t be rolling “mycologist” as often as “scout.” Plus, open-ended stats are, by their nature, less intuitive and more demanding of interpretation. I’m confident you could think of situations where you’d roll “zealous,” but it’s not as obvious as when you’d roll “strong.” And, of course, if you really prefer more detailed character builds, unlocking upgrades with tangible mechanical benefits, and unambiguous rules — which, let’s face it, is probably most of the RPG market — you might not enjoy a game as deliberately ambiguous and open-ended as Xot.

For this level of open-endedness to work, I think it requires some generosity on the GM’s part, and shared trust and communication between everyone at the table. The GM’s job isn’t to police players when they’re hanging words onto their traits and distinctions, quibbling over changes that would require an article or conjunction to be added. I even threw in “undying” as a starting option to be really clear that this game isn’t as concerned about “power level.” By the same token, it should be obvious that some changes would make the game less fun for everybody because they’d wreck the setting or any sense of challenge, like picking omnipotent as a trait, or changing the fists that can shatter stone distinction into fists that can shatter planets. I’m trusting groups to use common sense and keep clear lines of communication, even as I know I haven’t always managed to do these things myself in gaming groups over the years.

This approach to design has some risks, but I consider them acceptable risks with a terrifically fun payoff. Plus, I like to do something a little different with each 2400 release — to give you a little modular component or two that can be bolted onto another 2400 game if you want. If you don’t want that, and you’d rather have more familiar skills, you can do that too. (I’ll stick some notes at the end of this post for suggestions on how.)

More than “magic items”

The “xot” this game is named for are especially unstable fragments of alien tech — fragments of “exotica” left over from a lost civilization, still littering the world. Mechanically speaking, the rules for xot are inspired by Numenera‘s “cyphers” — a deceptively simple twist on “magic items” that’s so clever, I’m not surprised they named the whole rule system after the things.

As I’ve written about before, if you give RPG players interesting tools, they will look for excuses to use them. Give them tools with obvious uses, powerful effects, and no drawbacks, and players will feel compelled to use those tools all the time, even as it bores them. (Hence mechanisms that limit how often you can cast magic spells, as I wrote about recently.) But here’s the genius of cyphers: If you hand out immensely powerful items like candy, but make them limited in use and dangerous to horde, then players use their weird tools frequently, in fun, unpredictable ways. And, crucially, it doesn’t get boring or repetitive — because those tools are always changing.

The specific rules to encourage cypher usage and artifact depletion in Cypher System games are appropriate for the level of complexity Numenera’s target audience prefers — but, again, more involved than I typically like. So, I adapted the basic concept for Xot, but collapsed the risks into 2400’s standard rules for rolling. Xot are also the default currency of the setting (each worth about what a “credit” would be in other 2400 games, or 1 bulky bag of scrap), in my attempt to simplify the number of currencies you need to track. 

Unlike the more specific item effects noted in a game like Exiles, the exotica in Xot are extremely open to interpretation. A “temporal annihilator” might do completely different things in your game versus mine (or the first time you roll it versus the second). If you want to tell players what their xot do, I’d advise you just go ahead and tell them; it keeps the game moving fast. But if you like to introduce a bit more danger and mystery, players can roll to try to figure out what exotica do, at the risk of accidental activation (which would use up the xot on the spot, possibly wasting it) or only getting a vague idea of function.

If you don’t mind deviating a bit from blorb principles, you might even do both: Tell players the xot’s adjective/noun combo right off the bat, and use their speculation out loud to inform the object’s function before they roll. On a roll of 5+, they know exactly what it does, and it just so happens to be the most useful or interesting thing they speculated about. On a roll of 3–4, they only get a vague sense of what the thing does — just the adjective and noun you already told them. (And you’ve bought yourself some time to decide what “oneiric regenerator” actually means.) And on a 1–2, the thing activates unexpectedly, so they’ll find out what it does — quite possibly the most unfortunate thing they speculated about — whether they like it or not.

Also, I didn’t have space to get into it in the text of Xot, but I imagine you may wonder at some point, “How would my character even know what the heck an ‘oneiric regenerator’ looks like?” You could say it reminds them of another device they saw before — go scavenging long enough, and you learn to recognize dream-influencing tech at a glance, you know? But personally, my preferred explanation is that they just know, and they have no idea why. The planet has already changed its human castaways in quite visible ways; kind of makes you wonder how it might change them in ways you can’t see.

Combining with other 2400 games & beyond

While you could run Xot in the far future (as in the material that inspired it), it’s still intended to be compatible with other 2400 games. Your ark ship crashed on this very weird planet, out of step with the broader level of technology … but maybe you’ll rejoin galactic society another day.

Expand the scope of the setting by saying spacefarers detect a distress call sent years ago, finally discovering the fate of the lost ark ship. This could give characters made in Xot a way offworld — or it could put characters from Cosmic Highway, Eos, Xenolith, or Orbital Decay in a position to decide whether the whole place needs to be quarantined. And speaking of quarantines, the planet in Xot could well be the same as the quarantine world in Exiles.

For more exotica options, roll for artifacts in Zone, or use xenotech items in Exiles, or adapt incantations from Legends.

For more trait, vocation, and distinction options, plunder the weirdest Exiles backgrounds, the alterations in Zone, or species characteristics from Xenolith. The plague bearer background from Exiles might give a quiet plague bearer with detachable parts that try to scratch people. One of the Zone alterations might give you a character with a functional eyeball wherever they get cut.

To make Xot characters with more familiar skills, I recommend coming up with a trait, vocation, and distinction as normal, but then converting the trait and vocation to skills or skillsets. Let’s say you get the Strong trait, for instance. Ask yourself what broad skillset it maps to (e.g., Strength in Data Loss, Grit in Resistors), and raise that to d8. Or, if using narrower skills, ask yourself what two skills it might raise to d8, or one skill it raises to d10 (e.g., Hand-to-hand and Labor). The mycologist trait, meanwhile, might increase a mental skillset (Logic in Data Loss, Reason in Legends), or narrower skills like Healing or Poisons. If you need a list of narrow skills for inspiration, see Inner System Blues.

Adapt the advancement rules to other 2400 games if you prefer advancement to be a little more erratic and unpredictable. Alternatively, replace Xot’s advancement rules with those of another 2400 game if you want advancement to be more predictably paced. Be advised, though, that Xot characters have only a few features to advance, and giving a guaranteed advancement roughly every session could make them for some seriously wild (not to mention wordy) character concepts pretty quickly.

If you advance every session, by the fifth session, a character could have a d12 in both their trait and vocation, or a character concept as compicated as an invisible, teleporting, four-armed, hunter with detachable, snakelike finger-plugs that can interface with machines. If you’re worried about characters getting so competent they’re boring, or so wordy they’re unwieldy, you might want to alternate what players advance — e.g., after increasing a skill die, the next advancement must be to gain a trait or alter the wording of a trait, vocation, or distinction.

For even more options, look beyond 2400, just as the Xot text suggests. Pull in magic items, mutations, and strange character concepts from Numenera, Vaults of Vaarn, Ultraviolet Grasslands, Acid Death Fantasy, and whatever other weird science-fantasy games you’ve got handy. Search online for “d100 magic items” or “d1000 mutations” and see what tickles your fancy.

One of the main reasons I designed such minimal rules for 2400 is that it’s trivially easy to “convert” stuff when you’re focusing how things behave in fiction, not twisting dials and knobs via specific game mechanics. All a Xot character needs is an interesting concept. Every 2400 game encourages you to invent some elements and mash together diverse materials, but this one aims to break down the barriers as much as possible. If you really hate making rulings and judgment calls, this one might not be for you. But if you don’t mind improvising and trusting your gut, your whole library of RPGs could be a treasure trove of exotica to plunder.

Featured image edited from original by Beeple (Mike Winkelmann)

4 responses to “2400 devlog: Xot”

    • My most common mode of play is a one-shot taking between 20 minutes and 2 hours. Gotta squeeze in games where I can, and I tried to make this one as easy to squeeze in as I could. ❤

  1. […] If you’ve ever wondered what 2400 looks like in play, you might find something useful in the thread of links to actual plays and readthroughs on the Itch forum. One glaring omission from that thread, however, has been any sense of what it looks like when I run it myself. I’ll try to fix that now by sharing notes on my first session of a new arc of Xot, a weird fantasy game inspired by Numenera and Vaults of Vaarn, which I describe in more detail in the Xot devlog. […]

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