This post on building a d100 campaign game for a fantasy renaissance setting is about luck mechanics. By “luck” I mean a resource that players can use to adjust die rolls made in the game when the normal process has not resulted in what the player wants. As roleplaying games are in part about how you overcome obstacles to get to your desired outcomes, luck mechanics can be another way of reinforcing what the setting and the player characters (PCs) are about.
A short overview of luck rules in the four main d100 games I usually seek inspiration from:
Basic Roleplaying (BRP): PCs have a Luck score equal to POWx5%. Luck is the knack of being in the right place at the right time, or the uncanny ability to escape a random peril unscathed. It can also be used like the Preparedness ability in GUMSHOE, to check if you remembered to pack something for the adventure. A POWx1% roll might be used if a PC is acting without skill, or to avoid a coup de grace attack. Opposed luck rolls can be used in some gambling games. A luck roll might be made to mitigate or avoid the potential harm from a fumble roll, to attempt divine intervention, to impart vital information while dying, or to enhance the effect of some spells. Because luck is treated as a characteristic, it is not reduced when called on.
Call of Cthulhu 7E (CoC7E): A PC starts with 3d6x5 Luck Points. Luck rolls can be called by the Keeper when circumstances external to the investigator are in question, or to determine the fickle hand of fate. A group luck check can be called by the Keeper, and the PC with the lowest luck score rolls to see if the entire party is affected. Alternately, the keeper can just target the PC with the lowest Luck. Optional rules allow Luck to be spent to alter the roll on a 1 for 1 basis. Luck rolls cannot be pushed (a mechanic that allows a reroll, which ups the ante with dire consequences if failed a second time). Luck points cannot be spent on Luck rolls, damage rolls, Sanity rolls, Sanity loss rolls, or a pushed roll. Criticals, fumbles, and firearms malfunctions cannot be changed by luck. No skill improvement check is gained if luck is used. Luck itself can be improved in the same way as skill improvement, but cannot increase above 99. The Pulp Cthulhu supplement has additional optional rules for luck. Of note here are that you can spend all your remaining Luck, minimum of 30 points, to avoid certain death., and you gain also spend 20 Luck to immediately gain 1d6 Hit Points. Pulp Cthulhu also increases Luck point improvement, from 1d10 in CoC7E to 2d10+10 on a successful improvement check, and 1d10+5 on an unsuccessful improvement check.
Mythras: In Mythras luck points represent the ability to turn failure into success, and even cheat death. Most PCs will have one to three Luck Points, based on their POW score. Luck points refresh at the start of a session. Luck points can be used to re-roll any die roll they made, or swap the numbers rolled. This can be any kind of roll, including damage rolls. Players can also force opponents to re-roll. A luck point can also be exchanged for an action point, or to mitigate a Major Wound, turning it into a Serious Wound. The party as a whole may also have a pool of Luck points, equal to two plus one per PC. So a group of five PCs will have a Group Luck Pool of seven. Group luck points can only be spent on actions that aid other PCs, and to gain information for investigations. Only one luck point can be spent on a particular action, so if you fumble twice in a row you are stuck with the fumble.
Runequest in Glorantha (RQG): There are no luck points in this game … but you do have divine intervention (DI). This can replicate divine feats from myths, teleport a worshiper and up to nine friends to a temple, resurrect dead adventurers, and to increase characteristic scores. You cannot ask for divine help against people who worship your God. The DI process first requires the PC to permanently sacrifice one Rune Point, then roll a d100 (initiates and priests) or d10 (for rune lords) depending on your cult status. Rune Lords can even ask after they have died (but many Death Gods will not return their worshipers to life). If the roll is over your total Rune Points + POW, your God does not intervene. Otherwise you lose POW equal to the roll (for initiates), or POW and Rune Points (for priests and rune lords), with Rune Points spent first. If a successful DI reduces you to zero POW, congratulations, your God takes your PC straight to their eternal reward.
Luck Points worked fine in the Tarantium campaign I ran, and largely kept the PCs alive, apart from that one incident with a Cockatrice and a petrification attack. Fumble rolls tended to result in Luck Points being immediately spent on a reroll or dice flip. We did have one player roll two consecutive 99-00 fumble rolls on a d100. DI was fairly rare in the Runequest campaigns I played in when I was younger – we had really only reached the Rune Priest and Rune Lord stage of the game when the campaign ended. I have not played CoC7E, but the BRP luck mechanic looks similar to what we had in the CoC games I was playing in 30 years ago, if I am remembering things correctly.
My Design Choices
In the campaign setting I intend to offer four heritage choices to the players. Each heritage will be associated with one form of “luck”, but not exclusively. As a setting background element, all the Gods have died within living memory, so divine intervention is not a possibility.
Adroit: Your heritage is still influenced by ancient magic and prophecy. You can call on Fate after a die roll is made. The action you are attempting is an automatic critical success, or you can cause a foe’s action to fumble. Hand your fate token to the GM. The GM can invoke fate in a later scene, causing one of your actions to fumble, or for a foe to gain a critical success against you. The GM then hands your fate token back to you.
Human: The recently freed humans believe strongly in liberty and Free Will. This allows you to use the CoC7E pushed roll mechanic.
Moglin: The cat-folk have always had a reputation for luck. Use the CoC7E Luck Point system. Moglins can buy off certain death nine times in the campaign. Non-Moglin who have the Luck mechanic can only buy off certain death once.
Taurian: Your heritage is still influenced by the call to adventure and the path of the hero. You can call on Destiny before a die roll is made. In all other respects, this works like the Fate mechanic above.
Anyone who chooses to roll their character ability scores can also choose the Luck Point mechanic. Anyone who chooses point buy for their character ability scores can also choose one of the Fate, Free Will, or Destiny mechanics. This should leave things relatively open, but still retain the colour of the setting. Significant NPCs will have access to these mechanics as well, but not ordinary people or mooks. Once again, because my players have asked for high XP campaign, I may grant a point of free XP to PCs who use their luck mechanic at least once during the game session.
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:
Fear (type or individual)
Hate (group or individual)
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.
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 Passionsin 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.
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.
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
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:
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
In which I will eventually consider my own play preferences, but first…
I have been doing a lot of reading on roleplaying game design over the last few weeks. So much so that I suddenly started dreaming in GURPS mechanics last week. Which is odd, as I have never owned a copy of the GURPS rules, just a few of the setting supplements.
My reading started with me thinking about cooperative magic mechanics, magic mechanics in roleplaying games in general, tropes entries on magic, and some Wikipedia research on shadows and weaving. I also listened to some podcasts at Narrative Control. Chatting with friends, I got feedback that my pitch was more of a Gotterdamerung/final days pitch than a real post-apocalyptic pitch, which I thought was valid. This led to me thinking a bit about noir settings – and the very next day Bundle of Holding decided to have a noir themed release. I am still working through that pile of information (and the rulebook for Ars Magicka 5th Edition from another Bundle of Holding offer a few weeks back), but I think a noir influenced setting might require multiple flying cities (so you can have a Casablanca in the middle of it all).
I can go back and forth on the setting. While its important, trying to build it without a better grasp on system is likely to be a waste of time. Figuring out the best system for the setting depends on figuring out exactly what I want the characters to be doing in the game system and what I want the players to be doing around the game table. So I need to do some research to try and figure out if an existing game system already does what I want, or if I need to build my own system.
Many game systems are silent on the issue of character cooperation to resolve contests in the game. Some games allow one character to assist another, but few of the mechanics I looked at are built explicitly around a group of players all making decisions about the contest outcome. Here are three that I found:
Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition: everyone makes a roll, if half the characters succeed, the group succeeds. Dull.
Runequest 6th Edition: the extended skill check system can be used for group tasks. The GM sets a difficulty (suggested base is 100), and the characters do skill checks, +25 for a success, +50 for a critical success and -25 for a fumble. Not quite as dull as D&D, but close.
Blades in the Dark: Characters take turns at being “on point” for an operation (which is based on teamwork). One of their options is to lead a group action: all players roll six sided dice, the best roll is used, but the leader takes one “stress” for each roll of 1-3. Players in “backup” roles can also influence this, e.g. by taking stress to roll a bonus die. Extended tasks are handled with progress clocks, which reminded me of the damage clocks in Apocalypse World. Overall I found this system was exciting my imagination, and I plan to run a Blades in the Dark game at Kapcon in 2016.
Starting with Runequest, the sorcery system is close to what I want, but many of the spells are either lacking in obvious utility for player characters, or are too powerful for player characters. In play, I am not sure there is enough width to the spell list to make a combination of magic form 5-6 characters worthwhile. The current edition also makes magic very all-or-nothing, either a spell overcomes the defences, or it completely fails, and this is a paper-scissors-rock subgame game.
I am not done reading Ars Magicka yet, but its rich and detailed magic system is primarily focused on the individual mage. While the troupe/covenant playstyle is interesting, its not what I am looking for.
D&D/F20 suffers from my dislike of Vancian magic. Too weak at low levels, a campaign killer at high levels. If I have to rebuild the entire magic system, I might as well look elsewhere.
Note: there are a lot of roleplaying game systems out there that I have not played, or are unfamiliar with. I would be happy to hear suggestions of game systems I should take a closer look at. Information in forum posts makes me think I should take a look at FATE, and in particular The Dresden Files. I only know the Mage: the whatever games in brief summary. Heroquest and Riddle of Steel fall in the :too damn complicated” box for me.
Not satisfied with my search for illumination, I have been thinking about my literary influences, and also doing some research on roleplaying game design.
Roleplaying Game Design
Time to post a few links:
The Game Designers Resource Thread at rpg.net’s forums (which led me to many of the other links here, and I am still only halfway through the thread).
The Power 19 are like an extension of the Big 3, and most of the 19 feed off/interact with them, so I will just repeat the Big 3 here:
What is the game about?
What do the characters do?
What do the players do?
Hard questions that are worth answering. I don’t think I have solid answers yet but some initial bullet points are:
The game is about the transition to a post-peak magic society, and shaping the age that is to come (its about surviving the apocalypse long enough to make a difference).
The characters are a cabal of mages, who share a fragment of a broken God, and the sum of the whole is greater than the parts when they weave their magic together.
The players have to decide between escalating or escaping from contests, how much personal gain they want to try and twist out of the cabal, andwhat they want to do with their broken God.
Another part of my research was trying to figure out how dice pool mechanics work. I was sleeping under rock when these came on the scene, and I was intimidated by the wall of d6s required to fire an AK-47 in Shadowrun. I think I get the concept now, and while an “exploding die” can be fun for criticals/fumbles, I still think my gut feeling is right that throwing large numbers of dice to determine contest outcomes has a big downside in terms of the mental energy required to keep processing the maths. Star Wars: Edge of Empire has a dice system I would like to know more about, but the game is petrified in dead tree format, so it is going to be a while yet before I get to read it.
RPG Design Patterns was a good read. I think the best insight it gave me was on “Conflicted Gauges”, where is where a mechanic in the game is situationally good or bad. For example, in Call of Cthulhu a high Mythos Lore skill is handy when trying to remember facts about eldritch monsters, but a disadvantage when trying to make Sanity checks. There was a lot more in there, but this is going to be a long post already.
The RPG Design Handbook gave me some other questions to think about:
How does the game make players care?
What behaviours are rewarded, and how are they rewarded?
Will the system let the players play the game the way I intended it to be played?
Authority in the game – who gets to decide when the conversation moves forward and the decisions are locked in place?
Credibility in the game – who has the right to challenge the shared fiction, and who gets to win that contest?
Literary Influences (Appendix N)
I think its worth listing some of my literary influences at this point:
Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence (I have only read the first two books, but I like what I have read)
Mark Smylie’s Artesia comics and first novel The Barrow (one of the best literary interpretations of a dungeon crawl ever).
I have not been influenced by Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, even though I worked back to it when searching for “magic + weaving” on Google.
My tabletop roleplaying gaming started in the 1980s and was firmly rooted in the first generation of games: Dungeons & Dragons, Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, and Traveller. Most of the campaigns I have played in or game mastered, have been in those systems, or a D20 version (like Fading Suns). Kapcon has been good for being exposed to indie games, but prior to the Bundle of Holding, it was rare for me to look at other game systems on a regular basis.
Its interesting to reflect on my play preferences and how they differ when I am a player or a game master.
As a player I like:
rolling dice and sometimes getting lucky
being effective in combat
having a solid background hook for the character
a clear niche for my character
progression over time (and don’t make me lose the game in character generation by failing to understand what my character build should be)
some kind of direction about what we are doing in the game.
As a game master I like:
contest outcomes that give me some direction about what to narrate next – this is the main weakness of the d100 game engines, what does 57 mean?
faction ambiguity – players will always attempt to immediately kill anything within line of sight that is flagged “obvious villain”, and will feel like utter failures if you refuse to let them roll for initiative before you finish the opening monologue. So I like shades of grey and intrigue as a GM.
a system I am comfortable tinkering with for the house campaign (i.e. I understand everything inside the black box and feel comfortable about pulling level A to get result B)
running long, multi-year campaigns (most narrative games cannot do this to my satisfaction)
building a detailed setting for the house game and doing prep before each session (when I stop enjoying prep its time to think about wrapping the campaign up)
the lightbulb moment when one of the players figures out the big secret!
While there are a lot of grim and gritty roleplaying games out there, there are not a lot of glam and sticky games. These reflects the wargaming roots and the mania for combat simulation. Still, maybe someone will make a game some day about playing 1970s rock stars and their groupies.
What might an ideal cooperative mechanic look like?
I do not have a solid idea yet on how to articulate these ideas as a mechanical expression. Rolling some dice probably, but if I want something closer to the stories of literature/cinema, then I need a way of divorcing myself from the simulationist mania. I would like the game mechanics to incorporate these ideas:
The Cabal of Broken Gods: as a resource shared between the players – encourage the players to work together by making it advantageous to do so. Maybe the cabal lets you cast spells known by the other PCs but not by your PC? Maybe the cabal has a bonus pool of magic points? The cabal obviously needs its own character sheet (a character sheet is a promise).
Magic Weaving: the players need each other’s help to cast effective spells, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Other PCs can give a die roll bonus, share the cost, benefit from the cast, etc.
The Tapestry of Shadows: the potential threat of losing control over your character, or otherwise increasing a potential threat.
Betrayal: the potential to twist a cabal weaving to your own benefit.
Escalation: as the contest progresses, the player has to make the decision to escape or escalate. Think of the classic mage duels, no one dies in the first fireball, its a sequence of move and counter-move (and after scribbling this idea down I read about escalation mechanics in Dogs in the Vineyard for the first time)
Going “all out”: a choice by the player to commit everything to the contest, with dire consequences for failure, the last option on the escalation ladder
Escape: so common in literature, so rare in tabletop gaming. I want to make escape a valid choice for players, by having some kind of reward for bailing out of a fight they might lose (e.g. +1 Luck Point), and by making it easy (e.g. mages can teleport).
I am doodling some diagrams, trying to see if I can build some conflicted gauges around 3-5 magic resources. For example, having a strong talent in Wild Magic could help you create new magic, but might make all your spells harder to control. Other potential axis are destructive/creative, permanent/non-permanent, clarity/confusion. One thing I want to avoid, is writing up 666 different spells. Much easier to have just a small number of useful spells. Some important considerations for magic in the setting itself:
is magic an individual gift, or can anyone do it?
is magic powered from within the self, or by tapping into a universal magic force field?
is magic a fixed list of specified power, or can the players be creative/improvise on the go
is there are hard limit to the magical energy a character can tap – I think this is important because in much the same way players dislike going to zero Hit Points, they also dislike using their last Magic Point/spell, but it did occur to me that I could build into the reward system an explicit bonus for spending that last magic point
how quickly does magical energy refresh?
I did some quick market research this week. Tabletop roleplaying games make up $15m of the $750m hobby gaming market. Boardgames have a greater share of the market at $75m. Most of the market is taken up by miniatures ($125m) and card games ($500m+).
The bulk of the tabletop game market is dominated by the Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder systems. Outside of the F20 market are a handful of universal game systems, such as GURPS, or more focused systems, such as World of Darkness that have large followings.
I think if you want to make some money in publishing a new game setting, you have to think really hard about not using some flavour of F20. If you want to publish a new game system, I think you need to be focused in your efforts. Write two pages, not twenty pages, write twenty pages, not 200 pages. Having looked through a number of the universal setting free game engines, I would be unconvinced that the world needs another way to roll dice on the table.
Finally, a shout out for my friends at the Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group in London, who have migrated their old club newsletter into the blogging age. Military Muddling may be of interest to people who are keen on historical game design and megagames.
The artwork in this post was taken from the art pack for The Silent Legion.