Exploring the Ports of Light in a d100 game

After thinking a lot about social and combat encounters, and magic systems, I decided to write a post about exploration instead. After all, its supposed to be one of the big pillars of roleplaying games. First up, I don’t think a d100 core mechanic has any inherent advantage or disadvantage when it comes to making exploration part of the game, unless it helps your GM prep by buying a lot of the cheap d100 content generation tables on drivethrurpg.com.

When I started playing roleplaying games about 40 years ago, exploration was largely focused on “-crawl” play eg dungeon crawl for specific locations, or hex crawl for exploring a geographical region, with the players making decisions about risk and reward in deciding where to move next. The game system then provided rules for:

  • verisimilitude rules for representing reality in a game, such as calendars and time, movement rates, and weather.
  • spot rules for hazards, such as falling damage.
  • wandering damage tables (random encounters that cost resources or threaten the PCs)
  • inventory management rules for characters, so that food, water, and other necessities need to be tracked and accounted for.

The problem is that inventory management is not a fun activity for players. It also requires some paperwork for the GM (per Gygax “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT” emphasis in the DMG page 37). Many modern game designs make as much of the player facing problems as possible go away. For example, in the GUMSHOE games, you can spend points of your Preparedness ability to have a useful item to hand, even if you did not write it down on your sheet earlier. Another technique is to use a die to represent resources, e.g. roll the die when firing an arrow, and on a 1 or 2 you might run out of arrows or step the die down in size. A countervailing trend, are games that deliberately lean into the inventory management, making it a critical part of gameplay, eg Torchbearer. In these games, the decision around whether to drop a torch or first aid kit, so that you can carry an extra bag of gold coins out of the dungeon is a core part of the game experience.

As for a philosophy of why exploration is fun, the best take I can find in a day of searching and reading comes from The Angry GM, exploration is the satisfaction of curiosity. Other useful articles include The Alexandrian’s take on Hex Crawls, and Ben Robbins West Marches.

So you can push the PCs out of the tavern on a quest to find the macguffin, and the players will search until they discover it, at which point this push-exploration stops. If the players are curious about the world, however, they will see something interesting and want to go and check it out. This pull-exploration is a meaningful choice, derived from player investment in the game world. The players may have different interests, and be pulled in different directions. Exploring may be a distraction, or obstacle, from the current party goal. The time and resources exploring may require is an opportunity cost, and a risk/reward trade-off. Exploration becomes a series of choices, not just an activity or nested loop of play procedure.

Detail from map of Dragon Pass. A good map will evoke interest from players. The map of Dragon Pass is one of my all time favourites.

The d100 games I am most familiar with are largely descended from the verisimilitude game engines of roleplaying antiquity, with detailed encumbrance rules. Exploration does not get the same level of thematic attention as combat and magic do, except in Call of Cthulhu. I think CoC has a central exploration theme, with players choosing to pursue the knowledge that can be found in grimoires of spells and Cthulhu Mythos lore. This is definitely something I want, a game of book hounds, seeking rumours of ancient tomes of lost knowledge, with which the world might be healed of its hurts from “All-Banes Day.” So I will build things into the game from the start for the players to discover in play.

Introspection is internal exploration – where players explore what their character is about. This is not something the older d100 games are optimised for, although in CoC you may get to discover how your character goes insane, that is not an activity the players want to have happen. The randomness of the experience system can produce some surprises about how quickly your character grows in some skills and not others. The more modern d100 designs can put an emphasis on internal emotions through the passion mechanics. As I already want to integrate passions with the setting and the experience system, I do not think I need to do much more with this. I could introduce a specific downtime activity between adventures that is “soul searching” and self-reflection on your character.

Encumbrance Rules

A short overview of how the main d100 games in my collection handle this:

  • Basic Roleplaying: Encumbrance (ENC) is an optional rule. A thing you can carry in one hand is one ENC, two hands is two ENC, with tables to specify the ENC of armour, shields, and weapons. ENC is mainly used to reduce your Dodge skill.
  • Runequest in Glorantha: Your max ENC is the average of STR and CON, with STR as a maximum. If players and GM agree on a reasonable carry, encumbrance can be ignored. The “things” system from BRP can also be used. Every point of ENC above your max load reduces movement, and most skill use by 5%. All ENC (even below max load), reduces Dodge skill by 1% per ENC.
  • Mythras: Characters can carry STRx2 ENC. Greater loads make skill checks harder, reduce movement, and increase effort for fatigue. Armour also reduces initiative, but while worn only counts as half its normal ENC value. An optional simpler system lets you carry half STR in items, ignoring worn armour. Fatigue comes in ten levels (fresh to dead), and in the Mythras campaign I ran my players regarded “Wearied” (level 4), which reduced skill value by half as the point at which life became hell.
  • Call of Cthulhu: Does not really bother with detailed encumbrance rules – but this game does not normally feature the PCs wearing heavy armour.
  • Revolution D100: does not recommend tracking carried weight. Fatigue only plays a role if the GM wants it to.
Map detail of Southern Mirkwood for Adventures in Middle Earth.

Other Games

I am going to look at few non-d100 games for inspiration.

  • Ultraviolet Grasslands: in UVG some of the ways that PCs can gain XP is by eating meals in the locations they are traveling through, as well as spending gold on carousing in the local den of iniquity, seeking out intense new experiences, and the wonder of new creatures or landmarks. The point crawl movement map gives the party a limited number of choices for moving onward, usually not more than three.
  • Symbaroum for 5E: this setting for D&D tries to make exploring the Davokar forest a dark and scary experience, dividing the forest into bright, wild, and dark zones of increasing difficulty. The system eliminates the normal D&D classes that have features that eliminate the hazards of exploring (like Druids and Rangers). Rests take longer: a short rest is an hour, a long rest eight hours, and a full rest requires 24 hours in a safe place. There is a Death March rule for forced marches, where forced marches require the PCs to make death saves. If my players had wanted a d20 game, I would have used this as a base, along with Adventures in Middle Earth.
  • Adventures in Middle Earth: Lord of the Rings for D&D 5E, now out of print. Largely an adaptation of the first edition of The One Ring. Terrain was divided into five types, from easy to daunting. Winter increased the peril rating by one. Using ponies or boats mitigated the first level of exhaustion on the journey. Journeys were divided into short (1-15 hexes), medium (16-40 hexes), and Long (41+) hexes. The longer the journey and the more difficult the terrain, the more encounters the party faced. Checks were also made at the start and end of the journey. The peril rating of the journey also increased all DCs.
  • The One Ring (2E): The party needs to allocate the roles of Guide, Hunter, Look-out, and Scout between the PCs. On a journey the path is determined between origin and destination. March tests are made, on a success the party advances three hexes before an event is triggered. On a failure they move two hexes in Spring/Summer and one hex in Autumn/Winter. Entering areas of peril always triggers events. Events often result in fatigue for the PCs, a skill check for one or more PCs based on their role, and are more likely to be hazardous in wild or dark lands. Fatigue from the journey can be reduced by a mount, a travel roll, and prolonged rest in a safe place. Long journeys of 20+ hexes may require stops in safe places. This captures the mood of travel through the wilderness, and I like the emphasis on mount quality in reducing fatigue. That gives players a reason to own multiple horses, like a medieval knight did with their chargers (warhorse), palfreys (riding horse) and pack or cart horses.
Detail of the Eriador Map for The One Ring (2E). Green hexes are Border Lands, Tan hexes are Wild Lands, Orange hexes are Dark Lands, and regions with a red border are Perilous Areas. The player facing map has less information.

It seems I have a gap in my rpg collection where it comes to games or supplements that feature nautical travel or exploration, 7th Sea being the notable exception. Sailing ships do suffer from the same problem as space ships in sci-fi campaigns – any credible threat to the ship is a potential Total Party Kill. Perhaps a combination of point crawl and TOR hazard levels. The well known points are largely at ports, or other safe harbours where galleys and ships can land for water. Journeys that hug the coastline would be relatively safe, while those that cross seas and oceans would be riskier. If the journey passes by a point of peril, such as a pirate haven or sorcerer haunted isle, further perilous encounters could occur. Weather would factor in here, the old joke being that the Mediterranean has three sailing seasons: July, August, and Winter. Ship and crew quality could adjust encounters and outcomes like fatigue. Sly Flourish has a post on point crawls with links to a few other related topics.

Detail from Ultraviolet Grasslands point crawl map.

I think fatigue in TOR is a mechanic that makes interesting decisions for journeys – at what point does the party decide between pressing on, seeking shelter, or turning back? This will need a conversation in session zero about expectations, as I think the default in modern gaming is that narrative hand waving will occur, rather than it may occur. At the same time I want the paperwork element to be simple. TOR manages this in part by making Endurance, which is also HP, be what load is compared to. It also just focuses on war gear. Players can that easily spot when their PC is about to become wearied by fatigue, as Endurance is already a number they will be paying close attention to.

I do not think traditional d100 Encumbrance creates meaningful decisions at the tactical level, which accords with my own experience in medieval re-enactment. People who are used to carrying a load can move and fight with that load for well beyond the duration of even a very, very long tabletop roleplaying combat. Where it might be a factor, is when fresh combatants engage fatigued combatants – and I think that situation can be handled with advantage/disadvantage.

In the Mythras campaign I ran, fatigue only produced one memorable moment in the campaign, when one PC was separated from the rest of the party, and subject to a magical cold effect that was forcing Endurance checks. By the end of the campaign we had stopped tracking fatigue in combat.

TOR can be interesting at the tactical level, in that when Fatigue plus Load rises above Endurance, you can temporarily alleviate the problem by discarding a shield or removing your helm. If I have a “willpower” system for combat stunts, then spending willpower to ignore fatigue for an action sounds good, but the luck mechanics I am already experimenting with might do the job as well.

My design decisions

A “ports of light” point crawl design will help facilitate travel mechanics, and discovery of points of interest far away from the initial home base location will help evoke the Renaissance theme of rediscovery. This is a play on the “points of light” approach for making an adventure friendly world. Ports will generally be safe havens, with the interior of islands out of sight of the sea being more dangerous.

I will design an evocative map to spur player interest in the world. Little pictures to spark curiosity, rather than text based lore dumps, like the RQ Dragon Pass maps. There will be a player map and a GM map with some hidden locations. The geography will also tell me something about the weather.

I will build a calendar for the campaign world, and a sheet to record the passage of time, so that the time a journey takes to complete is relevant to player decisions. “Can we sail there, and get home safely before the winter storms?” I will have a conversation with my players about whether the RQG norm of one adventure per season is one they are happy with.

The equipment list will need ships and mounts of varying qualities.

I will need to think about what is known, what is unknown, and where and how the unknown might be discovered. A quick list of things that I think the players will be interested in discovering in the setting:

  • Develop a number of mysteries for the players to stumble over and investigate if they wish
  • Safe havens where they can rest and recover fatigue
  • A way to enter a forbidden city (or other gated area)
  • Places to go shopping for exotic goods
  • A few places to explore in depth, worthy of repeat visits
  • Locations where they can find trainers for downtime spent on improving characters
  • Short cuts
  • Free XP from picaresque encounters that surprise and delight
  • new point locations on the edge of their known map.

I think I can adapt the TOR fatigue rules for d100. In TOR 2E, the starting Endurance range for PCs is a range from 20 to 29, although within each culture its normally a three point spread (eg 24-26). This is close to the HP range I was planning for a d100 game (20-30 HP), which means that I could use the TOR endurance, load, weariness, and fatigue mechanics. In TOR a one handed weapon is 1-2 load, a two handed weapon is 3-4 load, armour varies from load 3 for a leather shirt to load 12 for a coat of mail, plus 4 for a helm. Shields are 2-6 load depending on size. Load only measures war gear and treasure – ordinary clothes, blankets, and tools are not counted (but the number of useful items you can carry is limited by culture wealth – which would be an issue with my players who hoard possibly useful items like a squirrel storing nuts for winter).

For a renaissance setting, big heavy shields are unlikely (they fell out of use with the rise of plate armour and polearms). Pistols and aquebus are fairly cumbersome items, so they would be load 2 and load 4 respectively. A big musket (built to penetrate armour) with a supporting rest to allow it to be aimed might be load 6. I can extend the armour table, which in TOR is more dark age than medieval. Plate armour would be load 15, pistol “proof” armour would be load 18 (or 5 for a helm), and aquebus proof armour would be load 21 (or 6 for a helm). I will explore the topic of renaissance arms and armour further when I do a post on combat.

Getting ‘Passionate’ about d100

This post on building a d100 campaign game for a fantasy renaissance setting is about passions. Passions are traits that define a character in a way that links them mechanically to what the game is about (I am thinking of questions 4 and 5 on the Power 19 list). As well as covering how passions are handled in Runequest in Glorantha (RQG) and in Mythras, I will look at some adjacent rule concepts from several other roleplaying game systems, and then try to draw some conclusions as to what is the best fit for my campaign concept.

Call of Cthulhu does not use passions, but a key connection in your player character (PC) background can aid in restoring lost Sanity points. Passions are not a mechanic in Basic Roleplaying either.

Passions in Runequest in Glorantha

Each character starts with three passions at 60%, plus or minus any life path modifications (the quick start version is add up to three more passions at 60%, increase one passion by 20% and another by 10%). Passions are capped at 100% during PC creation. The passions are determined by starting homeland. Common passions include:

  • Devotion (Deity)
  • Fear (type or individual)
  • Hate (group or individual)
  • Honour
  • Loyalty (temple, leader, or group such as clan, city, or tribe)
  • Love (individual or group

In play, invoking a passion is an instantaneous action. A passion (and runes and skills) can be used to augment another relevant ability (at GM’s discretion). Only one inspiration check may be attempted per ability, and a passion can only be used once per game session to augment. A check is made:

  • Critical Success: add +50% to the ability being used
  • Special Success: add +30% to the ability being used
  • Success: add +20% to the ability being used
  • Failure: -20% to the ability being used
  • Fumble: -50% to the ability being used. This can also reduce passion score by 1d10% and induce a state of helpless despair for up to three days.

If invoked for a battle scene, the augmentation lasts the entire fight.

The GM can also ask for a player to check a passion before proceeding with an action, for example a character with Fear (Dragons) would have to fail a Passion Fear (Dragons) check before taking part in a dragon hunt. If a Passion is ranked at 80%+, the GM can ask for mandatory checks, to represent how staunchly held the belief or connection is to the character. For example, if you hate someone and encounter them, you may need to check in order to not immediately attack them, regardless of consequences. Not acting in accord with our passions can see your passions drop – the examples in the rules are for people with passions of 80+%, dropping down to some level below 80% if they “refuse the call” (exactly how far is a GM call, but I would hesitate to drop it below the starting level of 60%, perhaps you could say “80 minus a 1d20 roll”). Some spells buff (by 20%) or create passions (at 60%), and spells of logic prevent you from making passion checks while they are active.

Characters in RQG are more likely to belong to a community, than to be lawless murder hobos. Loyalty passions to communities and leaders can be used to gain support in adventures, but a failure on the check could have consequences for the community or your patron. The Honour passion has a long list of taboos, which if violated will cost you honour. There is no discretion here – honour has a universal shared interpretation in the setting. For example, killing an unarmed foe reduces honour by 5%, oath breaking by 25%, and kin slaying by 50%. I will have some thoughts below on what an honour code rooted in a renaissance setting might look like, compared to the Bronze Age inspired RQG setting.

Passions, including honour, are increased from experience in the same way as skills, rolling d100 over the current passion level to improve it by 1d6%.

Reputation reflects fame, notoriety, and renown – including both your deeds and those of your ancestors. Reputation reflects how likely an NPC has heard of a PC before meeting them. Reputation can also be used to impress people as an augmentation for social skills. Reputation has a much lower starting score than a passion, 5% plus bonuses from life path. Looking at the example characters in RQG, a starting reputation could be anywhere from 0% to 20%. Overall I find the reputation system a good reflection of the boasting that is present in Bronze Age epics.

Reputation gains are handled differently in RQG from passions. Reputation can be gained from battles, and other actions that draw attention – eg marriages, mighty oaths, heroic quests, owning magic items, or becoming a rune master. It cannot be increased through experience. Negative as well as positive deeds can increase it. Reputation grants are normally at the GM’s discretion (success on a Battle skill check is an exception). Reputation is also geographical, you get a bonus of +25% with your clan, and up to -75% if you are far away from home. I am not seeing any method for reputation being reduced. I suspect you need to decide at the table whether a PC is more well known for their infamous deeds than their heroic deeds.

Picture from RQG

Passions in Mythras

Passions are an optional but recommended rule in Mythras. Unlike RQG, Mythras is a toolkit system for building your own setting (or running a published setting), and not a rule system fully integrated into one setting. Passions represent loyalties and allegiances, strongly held beliefs or ideals, and emotions towards someone or something. There are four human cultures (Barbarian, Civilised, Nomadic, and Primitive) and each has its own set of passions. For example, the Barbarian culture has the following cultural passions:

  • Loyalty to Clan Chieftain
  • Love (friend, sibling, or romantic lover)
  • Hate (creature, rival, or clan).

Passions are part of the PCs connection to community, along with family, contacts, and background events. The starting value of a passion is 30% plus some combination of POW+CHA, or POW+INT, or POWx2 depending on the type of passion. So a starting value of 52-54% for a character with average stats. Most starting characters will have three passions (you might acquire one as a background event).

In play passions have the following uses:

  • Augmenting another skill by one fifth of its value
  • A way to identify how strongly the character feels about an issue
  • To oppose other passions
  • To measure depth of commitment to a cause
  • To resist psychological manipulation or magical domination, passion may be substituted for Willpower.

Opposed rolls with passions are usually Passion versus Passion, Passion versus Insight, or Passion versus Influence.

Passions can be improved as skills, or increased or decreased by the GM. They can be established at any point in time, and new passions cost 0 XP to create.. When the GM mandates a change in a psassion, it can be weak +/- 1d10, moderate +/- 1d10+5, or strong +/- 1d10+10. Some spells and spirits influence passions. A nice touch is that the chance of a Resurrect spell working on someone is influenced by passion, including the possibility of resisting a return to life!

In the GM advice section, passions get attention around:

  • being a reason for the party to be together
  • as an augmentation in combat
  • advice on using passions to drive behaviour in the campaign.

Reflecting on Using Passions in a Campaign

My Tarantium campaign used Mythras style passions with mixed outcomes. Its been a few years, but I think for most of the players, they largely only invoked one passion as a signature for their character. As the GM I got a little frustrated with the “Mother May I?” game of fishing for bonuses. I prefer the greater weight attached to passions in RQG, where the decision to seek inspiration from passion to augment a skill must be weighed against the risks of failure and despair. The one use for inspiration per session limit also encourages a player to consider the full range of their passions, not just their favourite or highest scoring passion.

My other disconnect with Mythras is that use of the passions did not link to the XP system. Where RQG allows a tick to check for improvement whenever a skill is used, Mythras by default uses a fixed XP per session system. This gives the players freedom to spend XP as they see fit. With a suggested 2-4 XP per session or adventure, players have to choose between improving skills (1 XP per roll), boosting ability scores (variable cost, but can be more than 10 XP), opening new skills (cost 3 XP), learning spells (3 or 5 XP), and improving passions (1 XP per roll). My players found it difficult to justify investing in improving passions over learning spells, and they always wanted to improve combat style, magic, willpower, endurance, and evade skills first – and that is 5 XP you need out of your 4 XP allotment from a generous GM.

The Mythras rules were first published as Runequest 6 in 2012, while RQG was published in 2018. While the two books are from different companies, I can’t help but think that experience with Mythras over the intervening years informed the development of passions in RQG. Both sets of rules are worth reading for their advice, but in RQG they are a more integrated mechanic than in Mythras. The other point of comparison here is that Mythras defaults to three passions at the start of the campaign, while RQG has six passions per character. That makes sense considering invoking RQG passions for augmenting checks are one use per session, while Mythras passions are always available.

Additional thoughts for me going forward:

  • If a passion is not catching fire at the table – ask the players if it is still relevant to their character.
  • In session zero, make sure the characters have some internal conflict in their passions, so that it can drive some interesting choices for them in play about who their character really is.
  • In session zero, the group should have a discussion about conflicting passions between PCs and where they might go as the campaign evolves – I don’t need one PC stabbing another PC because “It’s what my character would do!”
  • Make sure that the fluid shifting nature of passions is present in representing change in characters.

Alternatives to Passions

I am going to look at some different takes on passions, from five other game systems, and how I could adapt those ideas into a d100 game:

  • Swords of the Serpentine: This GUMSHOE game asks players to jot down some adjectives and drives to describe their character. For the drives, SOTS asks you to answer the question from the 1982 Conan movie “What three things are best in life?” Drives can be invoked in play for a small bonus (a +1 on a d6 die roll, ignoring a penalty for a round), and can be changed at any time. Simple, focused, and flexible. A reminder to try and make my own rules and setting fluff as short and direct as possible.
Swords of the Serpentine
  • Burning Wheel: Of the games listed here, BW is the one I have the least experience with. Some characters have specific emotional abilities, such as Faith, Grief, Greed, and Hatred (for human, elf, dwarf, and orc heritages respectively). Each character must also choose specific beliefs – the three top priorities of fundamental ethical or moral importance for their character. Beliefs are meant to be challenged, betrayed, and broken in play. Artha (fate points) are earned by playing in accordance with your beliefs. Relationships are more usually handled by the Circle mechanic. BW is a tightly bound system, the instinct mechanic is perhaps its most modular feature (choose a condition and a reaction, using always, never, when, or if/then statements). I will come back to the Duel of Wits mechanic when I post about social actions.
  • FATE: Aspects in FATE are a fractal mechanic – just about everything in the game can be described in Aspects. They link directly into the Fate Points that are the metacurrency used to fuel player actions in the game. I especially like the advice for creating aspects: “The best aspects are double-edged, say more than one thing, and keep the phrasing simple.” (emphasis in the original). For PCs, FATE asks you to come up with both a high concept and trouble aspects. PCs are expected to be exceptional and interesting. The high concept is a phrase that sums up what your character is about—who they are and what they do. For example, your high concept could be Knight of the Round Table. Trouble aspects represent personal struggles and problematic relationships. Personal struggles are about your darker side or impulses that are hard to control. Perhaps the Knight is a Poor Loser at Tournaments. Problematic relationships are about people or organizations that make your life hard, so the knight could have Lover of the Fae Queen. Maybe I could have use of Passions as a recharge mechanic for luck points?
  • 13th Age: Two mechanics are of interest to me from this game. First is the One Unique Thing that each player can specify for their character – explicit permission to make your character as awesome as you want. The main restriction is that its not there to provide combat utility, so it should impact more on social and exploration activities. I would also add that your unique should not close off options to the other players (ie don’t choose “Last elf in the world” if another player also wants to play an elf). Second are the Icons, 13 major factions in the setting, each personified by a distinctive leader (eg the Priestess, the Crusader, the Warlord). Characters can take up to three icon relationships, which can be positive, hostile, or ambiguous. For the GM, player icon choice is a clear signal as to the type of game the players want to experience, and Icons with no PC relationships can fade out of view.
  • Pendragon: possibly the first game to feature passions, as strong emotions that can be invoked for inspiration. The initial passions for knights are set to Loyalty (Lord), Love (Family), Hospitality, Honor, and sometimes a Hatred. As in RQG, there is a risk to invoking passions, a failure could impose conditions of shock, melancholy, or madness. I also like the Glory mechanic, a mix of reputation and experience. In a game that spans decades and generations, 10% of your final Glory score for a PC is inherited by their heir. A typical year of heroic adventures might net you 300 Glory, and you need 32,000 Glory to be considered a legendary knight! At 1,000+ Glory a Knight gets a bonus point every Winter phase to improve their various abilities. Traits and Passions ranked at 16+ can gain you bonus Glory. Maybe I could have Reputation as bonus skill points for replacement characters mid-campaign, allowing a bit of a catch up with more experienced PCs.

My Design Choices

I will probably use the RQG passion mechanics as the base for my campaign. What does this mean in the context of a fantasy renaissance setting, where my players have indicated a desire for ambiguous factions and mission driven play?

The important thing is that the Setting fits the Characters and the Characters fit in the Setting.

Troy Costisick, ‘What are the ‘Power 19′ ? pt 2’, 26 January 2006.

So the passions need to both fit the context of the setting, and be appealing to the players to choose for their characters. So what passions make sense for a renaissance setting, for ambiguous factions, and mission driven play?

First, ambiguous factions suggests against using default clean cut loyalties to clans or other social organisations. This could be a game of artists, where the primary social passions are the relationships with a circle of capricious patrons who all happen to be dragons that have decided art and architecture are more important than gold. The 13th Age Icons framing might work – everyone must take one positive passion, one ambiguous passion, and one hostile passion. A local focus could revolve around factions within a single city, or between rival city states. I do not want big damn empires to be a focus of the game, so the plucky rebel and evil overlord factions will not be appearing in this campaign. Otherwise the factions should be shades of grey, not black and white morality, or even use something like the five points of the Magic the Gathering alignments.

Second, mission driven play. Well “do the job, get paid” is an easy procedural loop. Ambiguous factions suggests the PCs are not permanent employees of one faction. I think its going to be on the player (or the group as a whole) to identify why it is that their characters are adventurers. What gets them out of the warm cozy tavern and into a crumbling sepulcher as the full moon starts to rise? Otherwise I am going to assign them “Adventurers who like adventuring” Passion at 60% and get Patrons to offer them dangerous jobs at low wages until the party finds their motivation. So if the campaign poses the question “What happens when all the Gods in the setting die?” then the PCs need a passion that makes them at least a little bit curious about that question. If the campaign is about love, then maybe the PCs all need an unrequited love passion, a platonic crush, or a messy three way love triangle.

Third, the renaissance. Well. This is pretty big, as it draws on a continent or two and several centuries of history on Earth. I will start with the bits of the renaissance that the campaign will not be focusing on:

  • the centralised, monarchical gunpowder empires outside of Europe (like the Ottomans or the Mughals)
  • the religious violence of the Thirty Years War or English Civil War
  • slavery
  • piracy
  • discovery, conquest, and genocide in the ‘new world’
  • church corruption and inquisitorial torture
  • witches as diabolists who have sold their souls to the devil, and are therefore Evil with a capital E.

For the areas that I think could be good for the campaign, I will present a list of what I think are the six strongest choices to the players. This list is evolving as I think about the game, and I will add setting specific colour to these generic themes, but for now its:

  1. Honour. Explore the tensions between honour as public social virtue, and honour as private self-esteem and moral rectitude. Are you driven more by guilt, shame, or fear?
  2. Rebirth. The search for ancient lore, and bringing this lost wisdom into the light of day. It is not a search for CoC grimoires that send their readers insane. What kind of secrets are you looking to discover?
  3. Ethics. Changing values in a society where divine word and holy scripture are no longer a source of authority. Do you still follow the doctrines of the fallen theocracies, or do new concepts of justice attract your interest?
  4. Change. The long medieval stasis is over and the world is changing quickly. Do you embrace or reject those changes? Are you trying to restore something that has been lost?
  5. Fate. Is the world one of destiny or free will? Do you believe the world is trapped in an eternal cycle, or is the nature of the world linear and perfectible?
  6. Reconciliation. How does the world cope with the fall of two great theocratic empires, which were previously locked in a prophecy of eternal conflict? Do you think peace and forgiveness are possible, or will the future see only war and hatred?

With an RQG spread of six passions, a possible starter set of passions for a PC could include three faction related passions, honour/reputation, a passion that links to an important philosophical concept in the setting, and the drive that makes them an adventurer. A PC could substitute one or two of the faction passions for other passions if the player prefers that.

My players have asked for a “high XP” game so that they can see “real change” in their characters. I am thinking about using a mix of the RQG XP check for skill use, plus a small number of free XP to be spent as the players wish. Using passions could be what generates the free XP (but I would not combine this with passion use also being what generates luck points as in FATE or Burning Wheel).

I think the next post in this series will be on the topic of luck.

Drafting objectives in megagames

Riffing on Tony Martin’s recent post on traitors in megagames, which made me reflect on loyalty and internal tension in megagame player teams, here a couple of mental tools I use to help me think when crafting objectives for different factions and roles in megagames.

Fear, Honor, and Interest

And the nature of the case first compelled us to advance our empire to its present height; fear being our principal motive, though honor and interest afterwards came in.

Richard Crawley (1910), translation of Thucydides history of the Peloponnesian War

In a speech before the Spartans, Athenian diplomats argued that these are the three greatest motives, and used them to explain their reluctance to give up their empire without a fight. Their attempt to persuade the Spartans not to go with war with Athens failed, but I think these three primal motives can be used to build strong objectives for megagame factions and individual player roles. For a bit more on this speech on the meaning of the three terms try this article.

Fear: this objective is about something you are afraid of. You want to stop it from happening, or defer it as far as possible into the future. Pretty obviously, players respond well to clear and present dangers that threaten their game role with harm or loss of agency in the game.

Honor: this objective is something that you must, or must not do, during the course of the game. This is more about how you behave in trying to achieve your other goals. While a player may not appreciate the restriction on their play, I believe that such constraints help encourage creativity. For Thucydides, honor was about maintaining the reputation of the state, and thus deterrence credibility. I have taken a different approach here closer to a modern sensibility for the word honor.

Interest: this objective is about something you desire. You want it to happen, to have more of it, or you want to control it. If nothing else, you can use greed – a desire for more stuff. It is in many ways the reverse of fear as a goal.

For good measure, you can have these personal motives be in tension or conflict, so that a player must choose which is more important to them. If you must always honor your agreements, but when your closest ally threatens to drag you into an unwinnable war, what will you do?


I found the “DNA” idea on a roleplaying forum a few months back. It is an abbreviation for Desire, Need, and Agenda. Alternately it can be Desire, Need, and Assets. Assets are possibly more relevant to a player role in a megagame than an agenda, as the player will create the agenda using their assets to fulfill their needs and desires. I am unsure who to credit with the original DNA formulation, but it is a good technique for helping a GM decide what an NPC is likely to do in a scene without having to refresh themselves on six pages of backstory.

A quick example of a DNA for a familiar character: Dracula

  • Desires: to be reunited with Mina Harker, who he believes to be the reincarnation of his mortal love.
  • Needs: human blood to survive, and to retain an appearance of healthy humanity.
  • Agenda: plans to sail on a ship carrying crates of earth from the homeland to Whitby, in order to establish a base in England closer to Mina Harker.
  • Assets: a castle in Transylvania, the children of the night, three vampire brides, etc.

Analysing Goals with Criticality

In larping terms, a subcritical game situation might be one in which plot is low and boring, and nothing is likely to change. A supercritical situation might be one in which characters are likely to explode on each other and quickly transform the game outside of playable range as most plots get resolved to the point of non-playability. A system that is critical, however, is one in which many actions are likely to have a substantive impact without destroying the larger system as a whole. In a game, this looks like a situation in which characters can have a meaningful impact without breaking the game.

J Li and Jason Morningstar, Pattern Language for LARP Design

The key insight I got from this reading this section of Pattern Language for LARP Design is that if a faction or player goal can be achieved during a game, the game will be better for everyone if that success or failure leads to a new critical situation with uncertain outcomes and further action needed by players to respond to the change in the state of the game. This is more of a reflective tool, for use after drafting some goals, as you try to imagine what might happen in your game. I recommend reading the entire document, as it has a lot of ideas applicable to megagames.

One of the ideas explored in Tony’s post on traitors was on the role that a combination of active obstruction and passive incompetence can play in stalling the emerging narrative of the megagame. One possible approach, thinking about criticality, is to structure key decision points into the game for the players, that must result in a change in the game, rather than preservation of the status quo. For example, in the last run of Colossus of Atlantis, one faction was always going to be exiled (voted off the island as it were) every time the Assembly met (about three times during the game). They could be recalled back from exile by a later Council vote or Assembly meeting, but I deliberately made exile a hard mechanic in the game to focus player attention and diplomacy.

A Practical Example

In working on a revision of Colossus of Atlantis, I will use these tools for the leader of the House Atlas faction. The House of Atlas starts the game as the ruling royal family of the city of Atlantis and the Atlantean empire. Alas for House Atlas, the high king has been cursed by the Gods, and his wife has borne him only daughters.

Fear: the House of Atlas fears losing control of their traditional role of sovereign, which in accordance with the constitution at the start of the game, can only be filled by a male citizen, born in Atlantis (faction goal). You also fear any weakening in the laws of Atlantis, that currently favour the institution of monarchy, over the interests of the other factional ideologies (Democracy, Oligarchy, etc) that have divided the city of late (personal goal).

Honour: the daughters of the House of Atlas are coming of age, and one daughter must be married each game round, with a respectable dowry, to one of the other player roles in the game (personal goal). While you hold the office of sovereign, the laws of Atlantis allow you to pay for dowries from the Treasury of Atlantis. This is not Ptolemaic Egypt, and your daughters cannot marry anyone in your family (faction goal).

Interest: you want a strong military and prosperous economy for a stable Atlantean Empire. You should be feared and respected by the rival empires of Hyperborea, Thule, and Lemuria, safe and secure from the threat of rebellion or barbarian raiding (faction goal). The people of Atlantis should never go hungry for grain, nor the Gods for libations of wine in the temples (personal goal).

Personal Desire: Poseidon should be the Patron God of Atlantis, as he was for your ancestors (personal goal).

Personal Need: Live long enough to see all of your daughters married, and the birth of an heir to the throne (personal goal).

Agenda: strongly recommend you consult with your daughters before offering their hand in marriage to someone (play hint).

Assets: Palace Guard, Royal Cavalry, keys to the Treasury of Atlantis, a casting vote on any tied council votes.

Criticality: Your eldest daughter gets married, and the treasury is not bankrupt, success! Now the suitors crowd around for the hand of your second oldest daughter, and the benchmark has been set for dowry expectations. Are the happy couple now both playing for the House Atlas team, or another noble house? Is their first child a boy or a girl? What happens if the constitutional amendment to allow women to be citizens succeeds? A witch approaches you offering a herbal remedy to help with your lack of a male heir, how do you respond? You now have three sons-in-law, which one do you designate as your heir? The marriage between your youngest daughter and the exiled Prince of Lemuria is causing the Lemurian ambassador to threaten war, how should Atlantis respond to this threat? Strong military and prosperous economy – how are you paying for both enough wine and enough spears to keep everyone happy?

I think that set of goals should work well, and they have a lot of hooks for interacting with the rest of the team, and many of the other player roles in the game. If I can think of different mixes of Fear, Honor, and Interest and a touch of DNA with similar levels of criticality for the other factions I will be pretty happy.

Next blog post, might be on the topic of adjudicating special actions. I have some ideas rattling around the head on that topic, maybe this time it will not take me six months to finish the post.