Hacking together a game

6 May, 2008 at 11:51 pm (game design, game element, persistent fantasy) (, , , , )

Vincent Baker a.k.a. Lumpley has published a game called In a Wicked Age. Being the cheap bastard I am, I won’t buy it (unless Arkkikivi/Arkenstone stocks it, at least), but will rather hack together something vaguely similar and play it.

What makes the process fun is that I have neither played nor read IAWA.


The parts are, in no particular order, the List, the mechanics, the way resolution is used, and the random generator. Their implementation is explained after first explaining the components on more general level. And, as before, there’ll be one GM as a default assumption.

The list

This is stolen more-or-less directly from IAWA. Whenever a certain condition is met, the relevant character is added to the bottom of the list. Character can be crossed off the list by the player of that character to get a bonus. Whenever a game is played and the list is not empty, a number of characters from the top of the list are automatically in the game and their names are crossed off.

A (short) list might look like the following, with the character name first and player name in parenthesis after it. One entry has been crossed over. (Usually, there would be a huge swarm of entries crossed over in the beginning, but that is not very illustrative.)

  • Kisfal (Gastogh)
  • Ceosinnax (Tommi)
  • Kisfal (Gastogh)
  • Mori (Thalin)
  • Animagynth (Gastogh)

The random generator

The idea behind having a random generator is that at the start of every session/scenario/story/game (choose whichever is appropriate) a number of entries is generated and those are used to build the starting situation. I personally use Abulafia, but other generators can fit the bill. If one wishes to be independent of computers writing down or printing out a suitable list is advised. Number it, use dice or playing cards or whatever.

IAWA was what sold me to the concept of using random generators like this. (Actually, a random thread or two about IAWA, but the point remains unchanged.)

The mechanics

Characters are composed of a (finite) number of freeform traits. At least one should be an archetype or profession or something similar. Each trait has a numerical value, which directly determines how many dice it is worth in conflicts where it is directly and unambiguously applicable. Halve the number for somewhat applicable traits. (The idea of freeform traits is originally from Over the Edge; the numeric value corresponding to number of dice is from somewhere.)

When two characters are in conflict they get dice as above. Not all of the dice need to be claimed at once; it is possible and recommended to first roll whatever is most relevant and then add more dice from other traits if necessary. This bit stolen from Thalin‘s current victorian game, where it is not really doing anything due to there being too few traits per character. Any flaws give dice to the opposing side. If side 1 has no applicable traits, other sides have their pools doubled and side 1 gets a single die. Good luck.

Once dice are rolled and both sides as satisfied, or have run out of traits they intend to use, the dice are compared as per a method I have used before: First remove opposing and equal dice, then the side with highest remaining die is the winner, margin of success equals the number of dice that are higher than all the dice of the opposing side.

This didn’t really work in the previous incarnation, largely because there were too few dice on the table and I used too few dice for the opposition. The lack of a sufficient number of interesting traits also made it stale. Hopefully this attempt will work out better.

One should note that the resolution is very chaotic; it is possible for a single die to turn a minor defeat into a major victory. This is very much intended, so that one who is just about to win a conflict will be tempted to use all traits, even the ones that are of a somewhat questionable nature.

The resolution

After dice have been rolled (as above), the winning participant (player or GM) suggests what happens; the losing side either accepts that suggestion or takes harm equal to the margin of failure in the conflict. This, again, is from IAWA. The idea is that the winning participant needs to suggest something the losing participant finds interesting (or be content dealing harm, which won’t actually solve anything).

The resolution generalises to several participants: Whoever wins has a total margin of success that can be divided among the opposing sides. Every side with successes above the opposition can do this. All the dice can be targeted at single opponent or they can be divided in arbitrary way among the opposition that was beaten.

This we will play(test)

This is an explanation or example of play, which reveals details not included above. Assume everything written above still applies.

In the beginning

I mixed several appropriate generators on Abulafia to create the fantasy oracle compilation I’ll be using in this game. The oracle seems to generate too few actual characters; I’ll have to see if that is an actual problem. An example of output:

Ore which seems to whisper with incoherent voices.

The guardian spirit of a foolhardy, naive, reckless and impressionable young person.

A genius of flame, imprisoned within a brass mirror. (Might be a typo; maybe should be a genie.)

Forest of Eternal Peril

What is relevant is that there are explicit and implied characters generated. There’s the piece of ore or whatever resides inside it, if anything. There’s the guardian spirit and the foolhardy youngling. There’s the fire genie. And there’s whatever, if anything, that resides in the forest of eternal peril, whatever that is.

Part of the list may be ignored; namely, if a player is not present, all entries keyed to that player are simply ignored. If the list is empty (of relevant entries), every player selects something implicitly or explicitly generated by the oracle. If there is something relevant on the list, take half the number of participants, rounds down. This many different characters, counting from the top, are included in this session. The other players take characters implied by the oracle.

Assuming three players and one GM, the cast of player characters might be as follows, with traits and their values listed in parenthesis. Starting limitations: Up to three traits, up to six dice per trait. Scaling: 1 and 2 are minor, 3 and 4 significant, 5 quite powerful, 6 a bit too powerful to be used very often.

  • An efreet (genie 5, essence of flame 4, entrapped 3)
  • A kid (street kid 4, naive 3, “The stone guides me.” 2)
  • A guardian spirit (unseen 5, protect the kid 6, mute 4)

The starting situation could be: The kid, following the whispers of the stone she carries have taken the kid to the forest of eternal peril, where she discovered a beautiful brass mirror lying on the bottom of a pond. Her guardian spirit could only watch as she scrubbed it clean…

The next task is to determine something for the characters or the players to strive for. This can be formal (a trait) or informal, but the characters should bump into each other frequently.

The play

Characters done and the starting situation established it is time to play. Feel free to skip the next paragraph; it is mostly dry mechanics.

There’s the normal narration and roleplay and so forth until a clear conflict emerges; at least two entities, named or not, are in conflict more severe than mere discussion (arguments, intimidation, swindling, … are not mere discussion). For example, the efreet wants the kid to free it. Efreets are good at bargaining (that’s their purpose), so the efreet starts with 5 dice. The kid starts with 3 dice for the entrapment, the power of which makes it harder for the efreet to be released. Efreet: {6, 4, 3, 3, 2}, kid {3, 2, 1}. After putting the matching dice aside, one is left with {6, 4, 3} for the efreet and {1} for the kid, with {3, 2} aside from the efreet and the kid. The guardian spirit protects the kid from the vile efreet’s influence: 6 dice for protecting the kid. Dice show {4, 3, 3, 2, 2, 1}. Since the kid and the guardian are allied and not the same entity, one 3 and one 2 the spirit rolled is set aside, as the kid and the efreet also lost one of both. Then another 3 and 4 are cancelled from both the efreet and the spirit. This means that the relevant sets are efreet {6}, spirit {2, 1}, kid {1}, aside several (which I won’t write down; this is a lot easier when there are actual dice on an actual table and they are moved and grouped). To make matters worse, the kid is naieve, which the efreet’s player can draw upon, giving extra three dice, which show {5, 4, 2}. Other traits are not claimed, so the final result is efreet {6, 5, 4}, guardian spirit {1}, kid {1}. The efreet has 3 successes over both opponents, the others have none. The dice are biased tonight.

So, the efreeti has total 3 successes over the kid and the kid’s guardian spirit. Efreet’s player offers that the efreet is released from the mirror, owes the kid three wishes, but the kid does not know that with mere 1 die to back it up. To the other involved player the efreet’s player suggest that the efreet can see and interact with the guardian and does not seem an immediate threat, backed with the remaining 2 dice. Both suggestions are cordially accepted. Efreet’s player changes the trait “entrapped 3″ to be “Those who imprisoned me shall burn! 3″, which seems appropriate, so the GM and other participants accept. There would naturally be some roleplay involved in describing these events.

What if one of the players had not accepted the suggestions? Their characters would have taken 1 or 2 harm (kid and spirit, respectively). The meaning of harm: One can only use traits with value exceeding the total harm suffered. That is: Harm 4 and only traits with 5 or more dice can be used. This does not affect opponents using weaknesses, but does affect the harmed character exploiting the weaknessses of others. Harm is recovered only when the session/story ends, and is then recovered completely. Harm equaling or exceeding the character’s highest trait (or all traits, same thing) implies that the character is unable to do anything meaningful; maybe dead, maybe imprisoned, maybe searching for more peaceful lands elsewhere. Such characters, if they are on the list, can be encountered later.

The list, right. Current idea is that any character losing a conflict gets on the list. This condition may be too lenient, but only play(testing) will tell. More restrictive conditions in the same spirit: Only when when actually suffering consequences for losing a conflict (marginally more restrictive), only when losing a conflict and accepting the interesting consequences suggested by the other participant (as opposed to taking harm; if people take harm too often, I’ll implement this), only when taking harm (feels too limited and encourages taking harm, which I assume will not be that interesting). Crossing the name of the character you are currently playing has the following effect: If the name is on top of the list (of the characters whose players are present), get 3 extra dice. This is typically a very significant lucky incident or divine favour. If crossing the name on the bottom of the list, get 1 die. For any other location on the list, get 2 dice. This can be done exactly once per conflict per character. These dice are not restricted by harm. Alternatively, the player can choose to cross over all places where the character is on the list. This gives single die per name, and hence should not be used unless there are at least three names of that particular character present. Note that this has a significant chance of permanently removing the character from play. Take care, use wisely.

In the example, the guardian spirit and the kid get on the list. I think their order will be first the spirit and then the kid; this because the spirit risked 2 harm. If this is not sufficient to determine the order, remaining draws are handled by the GM by pure fiat (which may include asking the players if they have preferences).

A character can get on the list if and only if the character is named.

Character change

When participant feels a character has changed in some significant way, he ought to tell that to the other players and any relevant change in traits should happen immediately. Training is suitable. Saying the character has practiced something during his or her downtime is likewise suitable.

One of the more interesting possibilities is trait change due to losing conflicts: The winning participant may suggest changing, adding or removing a trait. For example, an assassination attempt could lead to traits like “crippled”, “wounded”, “They all are out to get me!” or “nervous”.

The end

Game master gathers character sheets and the list. They are persistent from session to session. Any detail generated about the game world should likewise be recorded somewhere, because emergent fantasy setting are fun and useful.

A note on design

This is very much bricolage-style design; that is, building from old parts, mixing them together and hoping they interact in good ways. The purpose is to create a game that I can play with, well, anyone, even if the groups of people change, there is irregular attendance, or otherwise separate groups are brought together in, say, Ropecon. Episodic gaming, pretty much.

1 Comment

  1. It works! « Cogito, ergo ludo. said,

    [...] IAWA, In a Wicked Age, sword and sorcery) In which I will gush about the actual play of the game I built in the previous post; first, a few words about In a wicked age, then the actual [...]

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