Stress Pool Mechanic

Back in November I promised a more mechanics focused article on some of the systems I was exploring. Edits since the original post are in bold.

I have read my way through a few more D100 variations, including the playtest kit for the Revolution D100 system I backed on a European crowd sourcing platform. While RD100 tries to marry the aspects/tags of Fate systems with the gritty simulation of D100, its just not quite working for me in the way its set up. I took another look at Fate, and yes its still a thing of beauty, but I still can’t quite get my head around it.

I skimmed through various powered by the Apocalypse systems, and finally kinda got it after reading a couple of blogs explaining the Dungeon World game (not DW itself though, that still had me going “huh?”). On balance, I think the attention paid to writing style, communication about play style, and adherence to fiction is what makes AW and its followers the best change in roleplaying in a very long time. The simple 2d6 die roll just doesn’t grab me (compared to the escalation mechanic in Dogs in the Vineyard which had me going “wow” once it sunk in). Reading these games makes me feel like an old curmudgeon at times, just not able to keep up with the hipsters. Its a pity I missed playing Sprawl at Christmas, that might have given me a few more clues.

I read through some finished Kickstarter deliveries for SymbaroumNumenera, and Shadows of the Demon Lord. All solid D20 games, but not quite what I am looking for. Numenera in particular stands out as a game that promises a particular style of gameplay (exploration), but builds characters good at doing something else (combat).  SOTDL I think would provide me with a better than D&D5E experience, should I ever desire a short three month D20 campaign. I glanced at 13th Age again for long enough to remind myself that something about stacking Hit Points up to high totals just makes my teeth itch and gorge rise these days. Still waiting for 13th Age in Glorantha to troll off the Kickstarter production line. For some OSR vibes I looked at Planescape – I think I would have really enjoyed that setting 25 years ago, but I never came across it in my university gaming crowd.

One takeaway I had from a binge of reading focused on mechanics for corrupting characters (hello Blue RoseCall of Cthulhu, Vow of Honor and many other titles) was that its pretty much an established conflict gauge with little scope for novelty or exploration of new boundaries for moral choices.  I did try playing around with more of three-pointed triangle gauge, but it just felt a bit too complex. This led me to the idea of corruption as a shared party element. Something that all the characters (and players) have a stake in. More on that in a bit (see Husk below).

I looked at Pendragon again, and thought, what if I treated magical power the same way Pendragon treats Glory. Something you gain in big lumps, +50, +200, +500, etc. Then when you cross a threshold, say 10,000, you ascend to a new tier of magical power. Still thinking about whether this is just a recolour of experience points, or whether it is both permanent XP and a one use resource for game stuff.

At Kapcon I got to run a couple of dice pool game systems. The Paranoia system was pretty simple (Roll stat + skill D6 + computer D6, 5+ is a success, a 1 on the computer die is a fumble) and lots of fun in play. I also ran a fantasy hack of the Cortex Plus system from Firefly. This was slow – too much time was spent assembling the dice pool. I also looked at FFG’s Edge of Empire, where the unique dice are pretty, but my brain gets tired trying to read the results – definitely a dice pool system where you want a computer application to eliminate all the success/failure ties for you.

I read The Clay that Woke by Paul Czege. Its an evocative setting, playing Minotaur servants in a crumbling city run by decadent humans. While I grasped the broad thrust of slef dsicipline versus giving in to anger, the actual mechanics were fiddly enough to make me skip forward to the story fluff. The Gaean Reach has been a teenage flashback guilty pleasure, an rpg based on Jack Vance’s Demon Prince books. If I ever want to run a vengeance focused game, I’ll be looking at this again.

Among a huge pile of Bundle of Holding stuff a couple of titles have stood out over the last six months: Spears of the Dawn (a game set in a fantasy Africa), The Books of Days/Gates/Law (a D&D 3.0 fantasy Egypt, which had me salivating for sand and Pyramids).

In my to read soon pile are: Mindjammer, Colonial Gothic, Blood Red Sands, Urban Shadows, Starfare, Nefertiti Overdrive, Cold Steel Wardens,  Witch, and Starvation Cheap.

The Husk of the Broken God

But I should get back to actual mechanics. Lets start by assuming this is done with some form of roll-under-skill D100 system with doubles (33, 44, 55, etc) as special success (or failure with consequences if > skill).

Going back to the shared conflict gauge for the party. My central idea is that the party are all connected to a fragment of a dead God. I refer to it as the Husk for short. The Husk is like a mana battery and a spell book. It gives the PCs “moves” that are not available to ordinary mortals, it can help fuel their magic, and attempt high risk actions. The more you tap on the slumbering Husk, the greater the risk of arousing and empowering the fragment, to the point where it attempts to take over one of the PCs. So its “corruption” but with a “tragedy of the commons” element. Even if your PC is pure and honourable, if the other PCs keep calling on the power of the dead God, your PC could be the one who gets hit by the possession attempt.

Mechanically it could work like this:

  1. The Husk has a pool of D10s. Green D10s for “sleeping power” and Red D10s for “roused power”.
  2. A player can take one or more D10s when making a skill check. This is done on a “Ask for forgiveness, not for permission” basis.
    1. To discourage the first player from grabbing all of the available dice, the GM can assemble a failure with consequences roll from the dice used. For example if a player with 50% skill rolls a 53% with their inherent skill check, and gets results of 40, 60, 7 and 6 on the four Husk dice, then they can build a success (43%) but the GM can also build a special failure (66%).
  3. Green D10s generate an extra singles die – increasing the chance of a special success. If you get a special success using a Green die, convert the Green D10 into a Red D10.
  4. Green D10s are exhausted when used, refresh at the end of the scene (but see 6 below) or if a PC makes some kind of in-fiction appropriate attempt to subdue or control the Husk.
  5. Red D10s generate an extra tens die – increasing both overall success and special success odds.
  6. If you get a special success using a Red die, convert a fresh Green D10 into a Red D10. If no fresh Green D10s are available, convert an exhausted one. If all the dice are now Red this triggers something like a possession or manifestation of the dead God.
  7. Red dice are not exhausted when used.
  8. For each die you grab for your skill check, reduce the power cost of special ability use by one.

Needs playtesting and polish, but its a work in progress.

The Stress Pool

Now to my idea of a Stress Pool. This idea came to me when I was thinking about fatigue systems. RD100 has a book-keeping heavy one that requires you to track at least two gauges (stamina and strike rank), and trying to get players to accurately track penalties for their characters is a hard ask. So here is my Stress Pool idea:

  1. For each beat in the scene, add a stress marker into a pool shared by all the PCs.
  2. A player can try to reduce stress by blowing an action on an appropriate in-fiction move (e.g. in a battle they might remove their helmet to get fresh air, in a salon they might withdraw from debate to grab another drink).
  3. A player can also exploit stress in a risky move – with player/GM agreement on what is at stake if things go wrong.
  4. For each stress marker used the player rolls a penalty D10 as a Disadvantage – both increasing their chance of failure, and of failure with consequences. Alternately, a player can ask for pain – with each stress marker being a damage roll against them (use the highest die rolled, rather than combining all of them I think)
  5. Stressful failure is worth XP (the reward for success in a scene/episode is Power, which unlocks new abilities, XP improves your skill at using those abilities) with the XP gain being equal to the number of penalty dice used. If you use two stress dice in one scene and three stress dice in another scene, that is +3 XP not +5 XP.
  6. Should the Stress Pool reach 10, the GM has freedom to impose something “interesting” on the party, resetting the Stress pool to zero (or half?).

Tone could vary a lot – stress failure could result in blood and pain, or it could be more in the nature of picaresque comedy or slapstick humor. As a shared resource though, the players are all in competition for the XP reward. Needs playtesting and polish, but it would let me side step all those annoying fatigue systems by simply having the players invoke it in game fiction when they justify why stress is hitting them.

Now I wonder if anyone else has done anything quite like this? Its been another week of “snap”, with that idea I had for building an ancient Alexandria-like adventure city with the name Iskandar, well John Wick had the same idea for his 7th Sea kickstarter. I have also been ruminating about a setting focus of just-before-the-fall Golden Age like Atlantis/Numenor, and look what turned up on Indiegogo this week: Chariot: Roleplaying in an Age of Miracles. Not that I would ever quite want to go down the new age crystal road this journey is taking with my own design, but its another example of ideas being cheap, finished product being hard work.

Next post, I’ll try fleshing out some more setting focused ideas on Halflings.

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3 Responses to Stress Pool Mechanic

  1. Dennis says:

    Some thoughts on Red dice

    They give a lot of control over the pool.
    As soon as they are available there’s no dis-incentive to never use them.

    It depends what I can do with the pool. If can assemble any result I want (as opposed to having to take the ‘best’ result), I can prevent red dice escalation by never building special result successes with red dice.
    That’s fewer crits, but much more reliable successes.
    If I have one red dice and I’m in trouble, my choices are either: fail with my normal pool, or crit with a red dice. In this circumstance I’ll probably be forced to take the crit. (Oh no! I have to crit, whatever shall I do?) However, once I have access to two red dice my odds of this happening again decrease significantly.

    (Note: If I want ‘safe’ crits, I’m better off rolling green dice.)

    Using Red dice combined with the stress mechanic I may be able to create ‘on call’ failures when stressing my character. (This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just a emergent property of those systems in combination.)

    You may actually want it so that players are rolling red dice for every action. The consequences of the use of red dice may be reflected in some other part of the game. Rumblings of the Husk and all that dark godling indegestion.

    You also forgot to add what happens if all the dice are red – that sentence is incomplete. 🙂

    A thought on Stress:
    The GM could have the ability to spend stress from the pool with set costs (maybe only purchasable at certain break points). That means that you don’t have to spend at 10 points, you can wait for some more dramatically appropriate time. In this situation a clear list of the things the GM can spend on would be good. eg: spend 8 stress for pursuers to catch up. The spend may be for a combination of effects which are only practical ocne enough stress is available. This system incentivizes control and awareness of stress pool by the players. It makes them worry about future badness and makes stress options more interesting for the GM. The options and costs would have to be tuned. – Note this is the type of thing that Powered by the Apocalypse World games tend to be good at: giving interesting options to screw players, but also giving players some agency in when/how they get screwed. (What I’ve suggested here is based in part on something, but I can’t remember what it is right now.)

  2. texarkana23 says:

    On using all the available dice – I think you are right, and that matches my current playtest experience. What I can do is add something along the lines of “If the GM can assemble a failure with a double from your dice, then they get to add consequences to the check”.

    All dice are red, should trigger a possession check or similar major consequence. If I want a more granular experience, then I could take the number rolled on every red D10 and keep a running tab of slumbering power accumulation.

    Spending stress – this looks similar to some aspects of the GUMSHOE system. I suspect that something tied so strongly to the XP system is unlikely to be allowed to run to high scores by the players. My current RQ experience is that combat scenes rarely last longer than 3-4 combat rounds, so if stress is one token per round, its not going to go very high.

  3. texarkana23 says:

    So I spent some time today rolling a few D10 in various combinations. I suspect trying to compare a 10s and a 1s die in several combinations might be pushing the brain a bit hard. One reason I like the D100 skill check system is because it allows a lot of scope for character improvement over time – and I tend to run long campaigns. I might be swimming against the tide a bit there, as several new games focus on short story arc campaigns that do zero-to-hero in 10-15 sessions.

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