Levers and the fruitful void

24 January, 2010 at 3:32 pm (game design, rpg theory) (, , )

Theory post. It’s been a while since the previous one.

Fruitful void is a concept for designing and analysing games. Let us take some roleplaying game and assume it has rules. Fruitful void is something the rules do not cover, but point towards.

With D&D 4e rules give you plenty of maneuvres in combat so that significant number of them are interesting, but the rules do not tell which one you should use. There are characters whose powers can work well together, but the rules do not tell how to use the powers so that the synergy benefits manifest. Dogs in the Vineyard is about judging people, about how much violence one is willing to use to do what is right and about faith. There is no faith attribute (that judgment is for the players to make), there is no rule telling that you must use violence and there are no guidelines about what judgments are appropriate. That’s up to the players. Old D&D gives lots of tools for dungeon delving – combat ability, spells, items, henchmen – yet there is no skill for making tactical and strategic decisions. Those are up to the players. Burning Wheel has involved rules for fighting (in melee, with ranged weapons, with words) and lots of other rules that make other parts of gameplay or story move fast. And when fighting the player must script actions – high numbers on character sheet are not sufficient. The tactics and what one fights for are up to the players.

So: Fruitful void is the space a game leaves for players to fill, and towards which the game points players. The concept applies well to focused games and less well to GURPS or (certain) games which get out of the way. The concept applies weakly to games that take a life of their own (which, I reckon, is related to getting out of the way). The comments on Anyway relating to the subject are worth reading.

Lever as a concept was introduced by d7 just a while ago. Lever is some mechanical tool a player can use to affect the fiction. Skills, powers, aspects, so on.

I think these two concepts are related in more than a single way.

D7 uses diplomacy skill in D&D 3rd as an example of a lever ill placed: It negates all negotiation by skipping it with a single skill roll. That is bad if you want to have a game where negotiations are central. Point: Levers can certainly kill a fruitful void by bypassing it entirely. Consider: Play modern D&D, but instead of using the combat rules simply add a fighting skill and resolve all combats by rolling it. Not much point in playing modern D&D that way, is there?

Levers can skip boring parts of gameplay. This is what many skills in BW do. This is one way of seeing diplomacy on D&D 3rd. Of course it is also possible to handwave those bits away, but often the rules are useful.

Using levers can be the fruitful void. This is 4e. There is much GM advice on building interesting combats, which simply means that there is no universal best tactics – add environment factors, terrain, varied enemies with special powers and so on to change which tactics are functional and to what degree.

The decision to pull or not pull a lever can be in the void. Tactical version: You have one sleep spell per day. Use it now or later? Dramatic version: You can summon demons, but they demand a high price. Whichever version: You know magic, but there’s a chance it goes horribly wrong whenever you use it.

I’m sure there’s more. An exercise for readers.

Permalink 26 Comments

We fight the woods

1 January, 2010 at 6:52 pm (game design) (, , , , )

Imagine a new continent, dark and great woods, vast swamps, magnificent mountains. Imagine a fleet arriving, people landing, making their homes and building cities, roads and farms. That was a few hundred years ago.

Imagine a small village of mostly woodcutters, with wolves and bears and wolverines and other beasts charging at night, slaughtering all the men, women, children and even domesticated beasts. Roads lost at spring as they were quickly overgrown by saplings and thorny bushes. Imagine a castle swallowed by vines almost overnight. Imagine witches and fey-things stalking the great woods, preying on lone travellers. That was a few dozen years ago.

Now villages are circled with iron fences, roads secured with signs framed in iron and travellers moving in large groups. Patches of forest are cleared, from between the settlements, but on the border there is little to do but hide within the circle of iron. People are afraid of strangers, for they may be witches or worse. They are afraid of bandits and raiders employed by the other nearby lord who would be glad to annex a village or two.

Even more afraid are people of the wardens. They are youngish women and men, usually between 15 and 35 winters with average around 20, walking from one village to next, always wearing their silver-decorated cloaks and blades of iron. They always move in groups, watching each other at least as carefully as they watch the villagers, always looking for any sign of corruption, searching for heathens and witches. They are rarely found, so mostly they concern with other arguments between villagers, making their so-called fair judgements, often favouring whoever houses them and offers the finest food. Some are mere thugs in cloaks of silver, but the righteous ones are most dangerous.

This is a story about the wardens.

Some are young nobles or acolytes of the Wheel. Some are killers or other criminals given training and a chance to redeem themselves. Some have been hurt by the forest and wish to hurt it back. Most are desperate people with few other choices.

They are taught doctrine and rituals to drive away evil spirits. They know a bit about laws and lay of the land. They can use a sword or some other weapon of their choice. They know how to survive in the wilds. They are strangers set to keep the border safe for decent, weaker or common people (depending on whom you ask). Some have been trained by retired wardens, and they tend to have more hands-on knowledge and experience, but the church frowns upon their folksy rituals and attitude.

Rules

To create a warden, first select one upbringing: Noble, priestly or random thug. Next, select training: In monastery or by a lone warden. No training is also an option, but not a recommended one.

There are three means of violence: Iron (which is to say: physical violence), silver (attacking the mind and self-esteem) and wheel (faith). They are rated numerically so that there are seven points total divided between the three, all positive, none more than four. Noble upbringing indicates silver of at least three, priestly or wheel at least three and random thugs have iron of at least three. Those trained by lone wardens have one of three corrupted; reduce the selected attribute by one, and increase, as appropriate, one of the following three by one: Claw (corresponds to iron), poison (as silver) or shroud (as wheel). Those with no training only have six points, maximum of three, upbringing-related attribute two or three.

Characters have three traits: One should be related to upbringing, one to training or lack thereof and one is not restricted. The corrupted should have one trait related to their corruption. Traits can be positive or negative, but ideally they are both. At most two strictly positive and at most two strictly negative traits are allowed, but less are recommended.

Example traits: Strong, lame, zealot, coward, tidy, rich, kid, old, branded a killer, wolf-slayer, miracle-worker, witch-sniffer, fine iron maille, well-provisioned, lone wolf, bird-speak (a corrupted trait if there ever was one), silver tongue, charming, determined to find the one-armed man who killed his wife, amnesia, pious

Wardens gather some experience along the road or in their training: Untrained wardens start with three, church-trained with four and warden-trained with five wises. One should be related to upbringing and to training, if any. Corrupted may have one relating to the woods and how they received their corruption if they happen to know about it. Same wise can be selected many times, though generally speaking twice is much and thrice certainly sufficient.

Example wises: Tracking, merchant-wise, road-wise, peddler-wise, dryad-wise, lynx-wise, Rooksbridge-wise, clergy-wise, herbalism, winter is coming-wise, bridge-wise, troll-wise, bandit-wise, bribe-wise, horse-wise, mending, foraging, hunting, leadership, accounting, etiquette, family secret-wise

In play there is one GM and others play wardens who move as a group. When the wardens have no particular direction they are heading to, and even if they do, GM should have a number of encounters ready to play and a village or a farm where everything is not okay slightly more ready. Encounters: Travellers (especially mistrust-inducing ones), beasts, strange locations. Encounter is good when the GM can’t predict the reactiong of the players and their characters. Villages and farms: A situation where people have been wronged and there are at least two people blaming each other who are could be judged responsible by the players’ wardens. (See, for example, Dogs in the Vineyard for better guidance.)

Wises are used to set up favourable situations, find NPCs, maintain equipment and generally to not solve conflicts. Wises can no longer be used when conflict is on or directly at hand. Mechanics: Player tells what she wants her warden to achieve and how the warden will go about achieving it. GM can say yes, ask for a suitable wise, or say no, according to the difficulty of the task: trivial, challenging or impossible. In case of a challenging situation, player names a wise, then GM sets the difficulty: 1 is standard use of the wise (lord-wise to get an audience with the local ruler), 2 is difficult use (tracking to find where the wolves came from after it has snowed), 3 very difficult (merchant-wise to find out that one of the locals is a captain of certain merchant ship hiding from the king). +1 difficulty if the wise is not directly related (leadership to threaten someone to silence), +2 if there is only a tenous connection (family secret-wise to prepare against an assassination). Player rolls number of dice equal to the value of the wise; each even result indicates a success. If number of successes equals or exceeds the difficulty, then whatever was attempted succeeds. If not, GM comes up with an interesting complication related to whatever was attempted.

There are some subtleties in use of wises. First point: There must be actual action taken before the dice can be rolled. You don’t get to roll dice for trying to remember if there are any relatives living hereabouts; you do get to roll if you are asking around for them. This is so that the GM has easier time coming up with complications and that the game moves forward. Second point: Say there’s this lynx that has been killing cattle and even lone people. Say a player wants to track the lynx to its lair in the cellar of a particular witch. Say the GM has decided that the lynx lairs under a large boulder upon a certain hill, which is certainly not in the cellar of the witch. Player sets the task to find that the lynx lairs in the cellar and GM says that it won’t do, but finding its lair is lynx-wise 1. Say the GM has detailed the entire family inhabiting a certain farm and player wants to use merchant-wise to find an old business partner who has retired there. GM can say its merchant-wise 1 to find out something about the relations these people have to merchants (even if it is that there are none, but preferably something useful). General principle: GM may widen the scope of a roll if there are pre-determined facts that make the original intent null. The GM may also choose to let the dice fall as they may and ignore the pre-determined plans if necessary, but this I can’t recommend as an actual rule.

Iron, silver and wheel are used to hurt others and avoid harm: suppose two characters are quarreling. If they are trying to demoralise each other or destroy reputations or such, roll silver. If physical violence is used, roll iron. Wheel is for those trusting the heavenly Wheel. Iron trumps silver, wheel works against either.

Mechanics proper: For silver against silver or iron against iron, both sides roll number of dice equal to the relevant attribute. Sources of bonus dice are outlined later. Every die showing an even number is a success. If both sides get an equal number of successes, then both take harm equal to the result. If one sides beats the other, then the beaten takes the difference in harm while the beater takes one harm. Against the vile forces of nature can wheel be rolled directly; it works as detailed above in this paragraph. Against anything else use the following procedure: Roll as above. If wheel gets more successes, then the number of successes (and not merely the margin of success) is takes as harm by the blasphemer, while the faithful takes no harm. Wheel usually does damage as silver, but this varies by GM and player fiat and description of the events. If the faith is not strong enough, which means that it does not exceed the opposing successes, then it comes to nothing and the blasphemer deals harm as though the opponent had used iron or silver but rolled no successes.

Wardens have two wound tracks, one for iron and other for silver. Iron track has length equal to iron plus wheel, silver track length equal to silver + wheel (so two is the minimum while scores above six are exceedingly rare for humans). Other creatures and corrupted wardens have tracks calculated in different ways; in particular, corrupted wardens tend to be somewhat weaker in terms of tracks. To take harm of given level means that the particular box in the relevant wound track is marked. If that box is already marked, then the next one upwards gets marked instead. If there is nothing to mark, then the character is out of play, permanently. There is a way out: taking consequences. When player is about to mark the first box (of either track), the player can instead opt to take a minor consequence. Minor consequence is a temporary trait (like furious, hungry, hurt knee): It persists for the scene it was received in and for the next scene, or until removed in fiction. Major consequence can be takes instead of taking level 1 or 2 harm: It is temporary trait which persists for the session it was received in and for the next one, or until removed in fiction, which should not be trivial. Permanent consequence can be takes instead of harm of level up to four. It is a permanent trait and works as they do. Given character may only have one minor and one major consequence at a time.

One can get bonus dice to rolls by various means; in fact, it is even recommended. But first, a player may invoke a trait to get in trouble (or automatically fail a roll before even rolling). This is a good idea because by doing so one gets a token. Tokens can be used to invoke traits before rolling dice – each token allows activating one trait to get one bonus die. Given trait can only be used once per roll. So: traits may give any number of bonus dice, if managed with care. Circumstances are another means of getting bonus dice: Favourable circumstances is one bonus die, highly favourable means total of two bonus dice. Guideline: Using a wise successfully earns a bonus die, using three or more wises to set up a situation earns two.

Above a single instance of hurting someone else is described. In play there is further structure around it. First, there must be a situation in the fiction where another entity can be attacked. Usually these come from first trying to negotiate or avoid overt conflict in other ways. If one ends up harming others, dice are prepared. The others being harmed can give in, take the harm or fight back; in the first case, there is no need for dice, while in the second case the abuser rolls dice and deals harm but takes none, while in the third case an opposing attempt to harm the other is made as above. After dice are rolled and fiction described, assuming nobody is out, then everyone can continue, someone may give in or stop resisting. Repeat as long as necessary. Note that conflicts never force anyone to do anything; they simply hurt people.

In group conflicts both sides select one champion who rolls and takes harm. The champion with better reinforcements gets bonus dice. Others besides the champion may take damage instead of the champion if their players so decide. The champion has no power to stop them.

Wardens change. This happens naturally in play and rules exist to make the process more explicit and to smoothen it out. Warden changes according to the impression other players have of the warden. The way a warden is played has a significant role in shaping the impressions. Play well.

First a few more words on the structure of play. After a significant situation has been sorted out – for example, a villageful of problems dealt with or a long and eventful journey done – wardens gather around a campfire or in the hall of some friendly lord and tell tales of their exploits. The frequency of this event determines the pace of the game. The following happen in order.

Experience makes warden more formidable: They learn a bit about the world around them. Each player may have or may now fix three wises to improve or open. Other players (including the GM) decide what the warden has learned most about. That wise gets a check for advancement. When the number of checks exceeds the current value of the wise, all checks are erased and the wise improves by one (unlisted wises have value zero).

Some wardens are crippled in their travels, while others grow strong and powerful. For each attribute the character has check if there are traits which point at the attribute having higher value: For iron, examples are strong, bloodthirsty and serpent-slayer. If the number of positive traits exceeds the value of the attribute, then it increases by one, but some traits are lost along the way. Namely: Of the positive traits named, number equal to the attribute’s value before the increment must be removed. One additional trait must be removed – this can potentially be any trait, though the player should not remove traits with too much dramatic potential. Likewise, for each attribute higher than one, check if the number of negative traits associated with that attribute at least equals the value of the attribute. If so, the attribute will decrease by one. Total of traits equal to the attribute before decrease are lost – one can be chosen freely, while others must be of the negative traits named. Attribute can both increase and decrease, which simply amounts to bunch of traits lost. The purpose of this rule is to clean the list of traits once a while. It is smart to remove traits that are rarely used and to keep those that are often in use. Note that temporary traits count towards attributes increasing and decreasing. Yes, even minor consequences. The campfire counts as a scene.

Wardens are shaped by their actions. For each warden, other players decide one trait the warden receives. This is something the players judge, not the characters, mind. Do make judgments about the rightness and wrongness of the warden’s actions.

Critique

I am not yet quite satisfied with these rules. They have not been tested. There are some fiddly bits that are likely wrong or suboptimal: starting values of everything (I might go with 7 attribute points, 3 traits, 4 wises for everyone as the other seems to be pointless detail), harm thresholds of consequences (1/2/4 are the current ones; 2/3/4, 1/3/5, 2/3/5 might also work; making the first one a 2 would be less punishing of hurting others; I might actually go with 2/3/4) and the maximum number of consequences (one minor and major per wound track, maybe).

Sources and inspiration

Two former posts of mine: 1 and 2

A song of ice and fire by George Martin. Particularly the watch.

Dogs in the Vineyard by Vincent Baker. Particularly the dogs.

Select rules bits: FATE/Fudge via the Shadow of Yesterday and Diaspora.

Permalink 6 Comments

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.