Posts in Hell Or High Water
"Hell or High Water" Play-Testing

I've been sitting on this for a bit, and can't figure out for the life of me what else to do with it. I've written up all of the rules and playbooks for Hell or High Water, comprised them in a handy PDF, and we're ready to start play-testing.

If you like adventurous outer space stories like FireflyFarscape, or Babylon 5, and want to try a tabletop game that gets you right into that mood (hopefully), I really hope you'll give this a go for your next game night:

I'll be running a test of this myself soon, and will likely immediately make changes to it, which of course I'll document here. If you play the game, let me know what you think! This is obviously not the final version, there are still a few things left to do, such as find an illustrator, write detailed rules for running the game, and finalize an example mission to include in the book.

Reach out any time with feedback, I'm honestly all ears. Once finished, I'd love to be able to put this up on DriveThruRPG or something and sell copies, maybe even get a physical version made. 

Hell or High Water Basic Moves

In my most recent post, I outlined some of the roles that players will take on in Hell or High Water, and some of the unique moves that are available to them. While those role-specific moves help set the character apart from the others, they're far from a complete list of what the character is capable of. Here, I'll be outlining how players can attempt to do... anything else. 

Action vs. Purpose

Remember that Hell or High Water is about the dynamic between two kinds of intent. On one side: Hell, representing malice, hunger for power, force for force's sake. On the other: High Water, representing self-preservation, fear, survival. If all you are doing as a player is describing the action that you intend to take, you're only doing half the job. Basic Moves is a set of example actions, and examples of what using each action with various intents looks like. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and the players should work together to determine what kind of roll is necessary for a given action, as well as the end result of a success or failure. 

Basic Moves

Force a Hand

Usually considered a Hell roll, forcing a hand involves placing pressure on another party so that they reveal their position, their secrets, or a weakness. This can be done in a variety of ways depending on the situation, but is generally a physical action, such as firing a gun, releasing an air lock, pulling the proverbial plug, and so forth. It can be a High Water roll if this is done in self defense, or in the defense of others. For example, forcing the hand of someone who has taken hostages may be a Hell roll if made by an outside party, but a High Water roll if made by one of the hostages. 

 

Withstanding the Odds

When beset upon by outside forces, a player may roll to resist them and their effects; think of this as the inverse of the Force a Hand move. When done successfully, the player moves the story forward by maintaining the status quo against adversity. Usually, this is seen as a High Water roll, as it is done primarily in self-defense, however it can be construed as a Hell roll if the move is done with the intent of harming others. For example, flying through an asteroid field may warrant a High Water roll, but flying through that same field with the intent of outmaneuvering the ships behind you and watching as they explode against the rocks, may be a Hell roll. 

 

Read the Situation

In many cases, it is impossible to know which move is the correct one to take without first getting a feel for the room. In such cases, a player may want to attempt a roll to learn about the people, the set pieces, or the potentially dangers of the scene around them. The answers provided by a success are up to the specific questions asked and the Narrator's discretion, however this kind of roll is useful in determining your character's awareness, and the willingness of the scene to share its secrets. Typically, this is a High Water roll, as there is not an explicit offensive angle in most situations. However, if the question being asked is along the lines of "What is this person's weak point?" then the roll can just as easily be considered Hell
 

Help or Hinder Another Character

One of the things that I love most about the gritty space-faring setting of Hell or High Water is that the narrative works best with a crew. While it's certainly possible to tell the story of a lone spacer traveling the length and breadth of the Reach without the moral obligations of teamwork, it's more interesting narratively and mechanically to have others along for the ride. When another character is in a bad spot, it is useful to try rolling to see if your character can get them out of it. This is typically a High Water roll if your intent is to work together. However, if your intent is to get the character out of the proverbial frying pan only so you can extort money or information from them, then it is likely a Hell roll instead. 

 

Convince and Persuade

Over the course of play in Hell or High Water, you will likely need things that other characters don't want to give you. In these cases, rolling to convince them otherwise will quickly become necessary. The way that you roll will depend a little bit on the request, but a lot on how you ask it. Are you willing to cooperate with the target, meet them half-way, or appeal to the target's humanity? That's likely a High Water roll. Are you threatening them? That's a Hell roll every time. 

 

Roles in Hell or High Water

To survive in the Reach, you'll need a good crew behind you. It's one thing to talk a good game, but without someone to pilot, repair, or protect your ship, you won't get anywhere fast. When the job goes wrong, you'll need someone to patch you up, and someone else to reel in the next client. 

As we saw in my last post for Hell or High Water, the core mechanic of the game is fairly simple. This is done on purpose, as my ultimate goal here is for this game to be something that can be learned quickly, and manipulated over time. To achieve this, the main differences between the roles will be in the ways that they can make use of (or completely change) their own Guideline, and mechanically reward good role-play.

Listed below are the current list of roles, a brief description of each, and an initial sampling of their Role-Specific Moves. At the start of the game, or at periods of rest, a player may spend 1 Coin to gain one of their role-specific moves. This coin represents several days of training and practice to begin mastering a particular skill. They may also spend 3 Coin to learn a move from a different role, though they may only do this twice over the course of a character's career. 


The Mercenary

Guideline Shmideline
At the start of each new job, re-draw your Guideline on any number between 2 and 9. 

Favored Weapon
Describe your favorite weapon. When using that weapon, subtract 2 from your roll. 

Blow the Doors Off
When using force to change the setting, can opt to roll either Hell or High Water.

 

The Consultant

A Little Extra
When negotiating the terms of a job, roll High Water. On a success, you get paid a little extra. On a failure, you can get a little extra if you do a little extra. 

Nothing to See Here
When you get caught somewhere you're not supposed to be, roll High Water. On a success, you can get out if you move quick. On a failure, you accidentally draw more attention. 


Silver Tongue
When using wit and charm to diffuse a situation, add two to your roll. 

 

The Pilot

Leaf on the Wind
When piloting a vehicle of any sort, add two to High Water rolls.


Get the Lead Out
When throwing a vehicle into high gear to escape a situation, roll the die (this is neither a Hell or High Water roll). If you roll at your Guideline, you make it out without a scratch. If you roll on the Hell side of the Guideline, the vehicle loses something valuable. If you roll on the High Water side of the Guideline, the vehicle takes damage.


Got it Where it Counts
Vehicles have one extra point of health while you're driving them. 

 

Mechanic

Keep It Flying
When the ship has dropped below its maximum health and you're working to keep it together, roll High Water. On a success, the ship regains 1 health. On a miss, you get yourself into an awkward spot. 


Discerning Customer
During a period of rest, you can spend coin to purchase new parts for the ship. Each part is either a Weapon (+1 Ship Attack) or Armor (+1 Maximum Ship Health), and costs 2 Coins. Declare what you'd like to buy and roll the die. If the roll matches your Guideline, reduce cost of item by 2 Coins. If you roll on the Hell side, reduce the cost of a Weapons purchase by 1 Coin. If you roll on the High Water side, reduce the cost of an Armor purchase by 1 Coin. 


It's My Baby
When working with a vehicle that you have installed parts on, add two to your rolls. 
 

Captain

Protector
When you risk something to protect your ship and crew, add two to your roll. 

Friends in Low Places
Once per job, you can call upon a contact from your past. Name the contact, and roll the die. If the roll matches your Guideline, they were expecting your call, and are happy to help. If your roll is on the Hell side of the Guideline, they have what you need, but you'll need to make up for screwing them over last time. Roll on the High Water side, and they're happy to help, but don't have what you need. 


 

Development Log - The System

In creating Hell or High Water, I wanted a system that would reflect the grit of the world that I want to tell stories in, without the granular details that would deter new players. If possible, I prefer to have a central dice mechanic that is simple to understand, yet leaves room for fine-tuning and manipulation by more seasoned players. 

While first writing the HoHW concept, I had been reading through entrants of the “200-Word RPG Contest”, which invited various gaming microsystems to be detailed in 200 words or less. Given the restriction this poses against listing out lots of granular detail, many games proposed a simple “over/under” method, which I’m copping for the bare bones of this gritty space game. 

One of my favorite examples of this system was “Witchfeels” (https://200wordrpg.github.io/2017/rpg/2017/04/16/WITCHFEELS.html), which has each character select a number between two and five. With each action that involves risk, roll a number of D6. Each result above the chosen number represents a benevolent side of the character, while roll under represents theor malevolent side instead. 

In Hell or High Water, there are only two attributes: Hell, and High Water (I know, i’m so clever). “Hell” represents acting with force, malice, self-interest or aggression, while “High Water” represents self-preservation, fear, of desperation. Note that these do not speak to any particular acts, but instead the motivations behind them.

At character creation, each player will select a “Guideline”, a sort of moral compass, between 1 and 10. When asked to roll for a action, the player will roll a D10. Depending on the intent behind the action, the player will want to roll either above or below the guideline to succeed, depending on the motivations for their action. At or below the guideline, it’s a successful “Hell” roll, while at or above is a successful “High Water” roll. 

For example, say the players are organizing a deal with a local militia— meds for creds. Working to convince the militia to sell them the meds at a discount might be a “High Water” roll if you’re low on creds, while it might be a “Hell” roll if the rest of the crew is setting up an ambush. 

Of course, the guideline should be malleable. In a world where alliances are shifting, it should be possible to not only make Hell rolls more likely (oddly enough by subtracting from the roll), and equally possible for an injured soldier to move their guideline and make High Water rolls more likely. 

Next, we’ll talk about how roles, moves, and abilities make that possible.  

Hell Or High WaterTyler
Intro / The World

HELL OR HIGH WATER

SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS

 

THE WORLD

When man first traveled to new planets, most folk went with one of four groups, those being the ones with funding and knowledge for at least a modicum of terraforming. At last check, those were the Prime Coalition of Equals, the Ket-Avet, Marko Veroni’s Ashes, and the Foundation of Planetary Rejuvenation. Those who chose to not align themselves with a larger group became farmers or miners on the outskirts of civilization, or float the Frontier as nomads. 

Breaking new ground is never easy, and less so on a new planet that doesn’t want it. Though many had reason to leave mother Terran— overpopulation, political unrest, endless war— those who did finally leave had particular reason, each different. 

For the Prime Coalition of Equals, it was the hope of a fresh start, a chance to do things the right way. Their way. Though their coda and propaganda claim the equal distribution of all things, their rule is absolute over their subjects. Those who travel the Frontier would do well to avoid their Enforcers and Agents of Assurance. The PCE settled first on the planet Incalo, named for their founder. A high-gravity planet, the ores of Incalo are dense and almost completely pure, making PCE metals highly sought-after across the Frontier. The PCE’s people are of a single mind, and work tirelessly to improve the things around them: For the People, for the Coalition, for Ever. 

The Ket-Avet was more loosely based, and as a result of which is less technologically advanced than the other groups that made it across the Void. At the beginning, they were just a group of people with a vision: a massive key, casting a shadow over all of the planets, turning an endless lock, opening an edgeless door. Behind the door, no one knows. Many say there is light, a beacon. Others say there is nothing, just more void. Others still wield more obtuse conjectures, like “hope”, “freedom”, or “purpose.” Who knows. The Ket-Avet were fortunate in two regards: first, that a relatively small, quasi-religious sect was the first to ascertain inter-planetary travel. It wasn’t quite Near-Light, and we’re still not certain if they can reach that even now, but it was enough. It got them out their first, and they laid claim to one of the few planets already hospitable for human life. They call it “Avell”, and in the language they’ve developed since settling there, we mostly figure it translates to “home.” It’s a lush, jungle-like country, with tall trees and strange creatures. The Ket-Avet live amongst the nature, waiting for the day their visions reach fruition. 

Then there’s Marko Veroni’s Ashes, that’s where I come from. Veroni was a soldier. No one remembers who he fought for, even fewer remember who he fought against. We know he was a man, and we assume he was a good one, because that makes us feel better. What we do know is that he was loved. When he died— shot up in a war he had no stake in— his ashes returned home to a small village. He was the last of their soldiers, the last of the men who could wield weapons and wage wars in the ways of the Old People. In response, we retaliated, instead playing the game by new rules. Our means of space travel were stolen from wherever we could find them, our first bits of terraforming kit were mix-matched from ransacked ships and planetary outposts. We peeled ourselves away from mother Terran as quick as we could, desperate to make it out alive. Unsavory, yes, perhaps even immoral by most folks’ standards. You wouldn’t be wrong to say that. But we earned freedom, and don’t answer to anyone anymore, and we took Marko Veroni’s Ashes with us into the stars. Mostly, we live in the more habitable expanses on Keldoon, a place we’re still trying to make better for ourselves. We spread ourselves out, though, we aren’t afraid of it. Anywhere in the System, if you walk into the most run-down dive bar you can find, you’re likely to find a Shipper, a Skiff-rider, even an Enforcer, who still pays attention to the name Marko Veroni. 

No one knows what happened to the Foundation of Planetary Rejuvenation. Mostly, folks figure they failed. They weren’t the last to leave mother Terran, nor were they the first, by far, but they sure did make the most fuss about it. “We’re going to save you,” they said. “We’re going to save all of you.” We’re still waiting to be saved. 

Though each group has claimed a planet to be more or less solely theirs by this point, that doesn’t mean there are the only planets out there, not by a Frontier mile. There’s countless bits of rock, untouched oases, or calamitous death traps still waiting out there. Some of them we’ve settled, and others we’ve stayed away from with reason. It was rumored at one point that someone had tried making a map of all of them, but I’ve never seen it. Maybe that’s something you can work on, while you’re looking for the next job. 

Those who didn’t join a group? Well, like I said, they’re still out there. Some work as miners for PCE, others make a meager living as farmers, shipping goods to whoever needs them. Others buy a Near-Light ship and trade with the civilized folk, which I hear you may have done for a spell. The rest just float, scrounging up whatever they can, making ships out of whatever parts they can get. They’re the nomads, floating wherever the void winds may take them. Time to time, I hear rumors of them. I hear rumors of whole cities of them out there, huge ships of scrap metal with barely enough life support and never enough room. Whether there’s any truth to those is anyone’s guess. I suppose you’ll have to find out for me. 

Interplanetary travel, though it certainly started a grip of different ways, is mostly done by means of a piece of kit called Near-Light. Near-Light engines are common enough that they can get fixed most places and purchased for cheap enough, plus they’re fast enough to hop from one planet to the next in a couple of days or so. You’ve just got to make sure your pilot’s good with numbers before flipping the switch— you never know what you’re going to find out there. Or what’s going to find you, for that matter.

Sure, we’ve fought wars in space. Most ships have some form of gun on ‘em or other. Lords know the PCE ships sure do. But nowadays those are just for insurance, we’ve had our fill of war. Like a good side-arm, a ship’s guns are just a guarantee that you won’t be messed with much while floating the Void. That is, unless the other guy’s are bigger.