Background Count is a GM-tool that can be used to nerf down players and enemies. It also can be used to buff magical characters by using Aspected Background Counts. Before we cover the houserules, let’s quickly cover some details here.
For those who don’t know how it works: A Background Count of Rating +/-X normally gives a -X Dice on all tests (buffed by) Magic, and sustained effects (spells, Foci) get hit by -X on their Force. Magical-buffed Initiative also likely takes a hit though that’s not entirely official yet (Missions came with it but will it apply elsewhere?). If the Force-drop makes the Force drop to 0, effects go poof: Foci deactivate and spells are all gone. (Including Quickened Spells, ouch for karma! What were you doing quickening at that low a Force though?)
If the Force of a Focus goes down, it also means the Focus gives less bonus. A Force 3 Power Focus in Background Count -2 will be stuck at only a +1 from Force 2 (and you ALSO take a -2 on the magical tests). A Force 4 Qi Focus giving you 2 ranks of 0.5 PP each will drop down to Force 2 so only giving 1 rank of whatever Adept Power it gave. And if you got a Force 4 Qi Focus giving you, say, Astral Perception? POOF! Force 2 means you no longer have the Force 4 required, so the power is unaccessable.
Sustained Spells also get hit by the Force Penalty, which may or may not matter. An Increase Attribute Spell must be high enough Force-wise to impact the target. If the Force is lowered to below the previous attribute value, well it would probably mean (GM-decision in the end) the spell is still active but no longer is giving a boost. Detection spells decrease in range, but most Illusion spells wouldn’t care. Combat Spells are Instant so don’t care anyway (even if cast from outside to inside a background count). And if you cast a low-Force Sustained spell using Reagents to keep the drain low, a background count can easily pop the spell.
(Summoners get hit badly by this as well: Spirits ARE magical. So ALL their actions take the penalty. Evasion? Yeah that seems like an action (GM-calls may vary). The sole exception would be Resistance tests.)
The flipside is Aspected Background Counts: If a Background Count is Positive AND Aspected in YOUR favour, ignore everything before this! Instead it gives you a limit-bonus on magic! Dangerous for Spellcasting (hits after limit decide whether drain is physical or stun), but real useful for things where the Force decides Physical vs Stun Drain and where the limit awfully gets in the way. Alchemy, Summoning and Binding come to mind. ESPECIALLY Binding, where without Limit-increase you’re stuck with >1/6 chance that a Force 6 Spirit’s hits will equal or exceed your limit and you’ll autofail. Also nice for Rituals which also suffer from an opposed dicepool depending on the Force.
Speaking of Aspected Background Counts, according to page 31 and page 32 from Street Grimoire these are aspected towards their traditions and their Rating counts as their Background Count. On the other hand Missions rules player-owned Lodges don’t get this bonus. Which brings us to houserule number 1. Houserule 2 might not even be a houserule but simply a bad phrasing in Core, 3 takes that up a noth, while houserule 4 goes into a silly side-effect of the Force-loss of spells we mentioned earlier.
Before we get into the houserules, first though one tip for GMs: Background Counts are a weapon against magical players. Use them sparingly. Yes, it can be nice to make a Force-1-Sustainer suffer penalties, or to give the magicians a penalty once in a while (plus letting Adepts show off their Adept Centering), but when you start throwing around background counts as if they’re candy on halloween you should take a long, hard look at what you’re doing and why. Hint: If it starts with ‘Player X needs to be put in their place’, you need to smack yourself upside the head. Seriously though, don’t overdo it with this unless your campaign has a plausible reason for it AND you made sure your players knew in advance. Nobody faces Auslander every month and even that ass only manages an Aspected Count 4. That’s a horrible Force 8 Master Shedim that oughta die in a frickin’ fire and then be torn apart by demons, and even he only has a Rating 4. So ease up on the massive counts would ya?
Rule: Magical Lodges/Circles take time to aspect their count
As noted above, SG says these have an aspected count, while the Missions FAQ doesn’t allow it. Now we could decide one of them is wrong and the other should be followed, but where’s the fun in that? How about instead we reward permanency? See, you can take a lodge down in a day and rebuild it elsewhere in <Force> days. So if a runner really needs to, they can tear it down or just forfeit it and get another one. Which, if you end up burned by a Johnson, might be a good idea. You won’t always have a good base available.
So to not let background counts go crazy (‘hey, I spent a week of downtime setting this up, hello Force-4-limit-11 spells, let me just roll these 24 dice and BAM 8 hits!’), but also reward people who manage to keep their Lodge around, we let Lodges slowly build up their Background Count. Each step up costs <NewRating> months, so from BC0 to BC4 you’d need 1+2+3+4=10 months. And no, a lodge bought in chargen would start the game at rating 1 at most, no ‘but I’ve had it for yeaaaaaars!’.
Rule: Cleansing impacts an Area around the magician for all
Cleansing lets a Magician temporarily reduce a positive background count, with the fluff talking about neutralizing the background count and it being useful for a few hours, or temporarily cleaning up a mess. Now the ritual lets you cleanse a small sphere for a few hours, while the metamagic itself only lets the magician make a very-shortlasting effect.
One problem with that though: It’s noted to only affect the cleansing magician (for (Magic) CTs). This could be poor phrasing, or it could mean that Cleansing has no impact on other people. However the technique says you temporarily reduce the background count, NOT that it lets the magician ignore part of the count, so the magician-only thing seems rather weird.
So this rule lets the metamagic create a cleaned area the same size as the ritual, aka a (Magic) meters radius sphere around the Cleanser. This lets them support other magical beings such as their Spirits or Adepts, while also damaging any nearby enemies enjoying the count. It makes Cleansing not just an expensive thing for the Mage but also something with significant rewards for not just the mage but also their allies.
Rule: The Cleansing area is larger, jammer-wise
Normally Cleansing, both the metamagic and the Ritual, only work inside a rather small sphere around the caster. Which sounds a bit like bollocks. Seriously, you got a metamagic that lets you fight a background count and the best you can do is only reduce it in a tiny sphere?
Instead, we make it work like a jammer. Each increment equals (Magic) meters and each increment away from the origin you lose 1 impact. So you roll 4 net hits on your Cleansing test and got Magic 8? At 17 meters distance the Aspected Background Count will have been reduced by 2 for a short while.
This mechanic can be adjusted to even downgrade in increments rather than fully fizzle out in a single second. So when the effect starts wearing off, it will take a while before it’s completely gone and until then the effect simply reduces by 1 each interval. (Magic – Original Background Count?)
Rule: Sustained Spells don’t keep hits from Background Counts
Say you cast a spell at Force 6 outside a background count of Rating 2. You step in, spell is now at Force 4. You step out, step in, Force 2. Third time kills the spell. If you end up going through a patchy area, or temporarily enter a fully-cleansed area, that will suck balls.
Instead we simply make the highest count experienced count, almost as if it’s Essence Loss. You lost 2 Force? Well you’re at Force 4(6) then. Exit, still 4(6). Enter a Rating 1 Count then? Still 4(6). But a Rating 3 drops you to 3(6).