Vanilla fantasy diceless

20 July, 2011 at 9:33 pm (Amber, game design)

This is an idea for a method for world creation and for playing a preferably high-powered fantasy rpg. This is rambling and overtly detailed, but the idea was making my sleep difficult so I had to write it somewhere.

Inspirations

Consider, how in Amber diceless, there are four attributes (psyche, strength, warfare, endurance) which correspond to different arenas of conflict – though endurance is more of a supporting attribute, but let us ignore that for now. Since the attributes are auctioned from a common pool of resources, balance between them is not a great problem.

Consider computer strategy games, real-time or not, with fantastic creatures. For example: Battle for Wesnoth, Heroes of might and magic, and Warlords & Warlords battlecry. (Various iterations of each, naturally.) Typically they have various factions which are often tied to races/species or cultures. The factions have certain mechanical tendencies. In Wesnoth drakes breath and resist fire and are individually tough, orcs rely on hordes of damaging units while elves fight and move exceptionally well in forests and have strong archery. There are also thematic trends. In Warlods battlecry, dark dwarves have war machines and magical technology, demons have summoning and souls, while orcs have aggressive and simple units.

Synthesis

Suppose there are at least three players and maybe a game master (not counted as a player here). I’d like to have four or five players for this. Each player selects one theme or venue of conflict or something similar. This could be: warfare, beauty, horse, runic magic, dream, faith, water, thunderstorm, cunning, politics, candle, sword, economics, alien technology, mutant, spider. There are constraints on this, but they are soft and social. Group can and should discuss what sort of elements they want – consider that everyone select an animal, or a Greek or Chinese element, or some form of magic, or maybe a tarot card or horoscope. Or just have a chaotic soup and see what emerges.

The selected elements are the attributes all characters have. Now each player needs paper for character sheet. There’s an auction for each attribute. For the order of attributes, determine randomly or as follows: Each player selects a number between one and hundred. First auction the attribute associated with the second highest number, then the third highest, …, and finally the highest.

The auctions happen pretty much as in Amber diceless. Each player has hundred points. The player whose element is auctioned does not participate in the auction, while every other player does. First participants each make a blind bid. These are listed and public. Any bid after this must exceed the highest bid thus far. 99 is absolute maximum bid, while 0 is the minimum. If there is chaos, proceed as follows: The lowest bidder first has an opportunity to bid higher, than the second lowest bidder, and so on until everyone has had an opportunity. Then repeat until done. All bids are binding. If players do not use all their points, or bid in excess of them, they get corresponding amount of good or bad karma or fate or luck or stuff (use whichever term has not been selected by any player as an element). Optionally, you can allow upping the attributes in secret, up to the number of points equal to any higher bid minus one.

For each attribute, calculate the total number of points bid on it (so whatever the player who selected that element bought is not included in the total). Sort the attributes correspondingly. The attribute with the highest total is the most relevant, and so on.

Now you need an empty paper for a map. A4 or A3 should be quite enough. The player who selected the highest attribute starts by drawing some place that is the center of her element roughly in the middle of the map. It could be a kingdom, a mountain, a forgotten and ancient statue, crashed alien spaceship, or some other reasonably evocative location. The player names the location and gives a brief description of it, thereby explaining how it relates to the player’s element. This also further defines the element – consider: Fire as the element, and the location is a city with its citizens fiery of nature and red of complexion, or the location a lonely mountain that occasionally spews forth liquid fire, or a huge forest through which fires often run. Each gives a very different view of the element. Take another paper, write the element in the middle of it, and write down some of these associations (or use a list instead of mind map).

The other players do the same in order of their attributes, always selecting some large empty area of the map (consider established locations and edges as not empty and stay some distance away) and telling what place there lies and how it relates to their element. There are few limitations: Anything associated with one element can’t be associated to another. E.g. if quick thinking is associated to fire, it can’t be associated to speed (with fire and speed as elements). For each element again take a paper and use it for a list or mind map.

Now, for each attribute, rank all player characters. The one who selected the attribute is always first and must use corresponding points (at least highest bid + 1 points, that is). The ranks, not the points, are used for resolution most of the time, but more on that later.

The lowest ranked player character gets some vulnerability or weakness or curse related to the attribute – the nature of this should be discussed by at least the player who selected that attribute and the player whose character is involved. Write new stuff on the relevant attribute page as thus required. Examples (format: attribute – weakness): Warfare – crippled, faith – marked as evil, insect – small and fragile, politics – never accepted as honest, candle – cursed to turn to stone in sunlight. The second lowest ranked character has no special power or vulnerability. As for others, it depends on the number of players.

If there are three players, the first ranked gets one perk or benefit or blessing or whatever related to the attribute. If there are four, first rank gives two benefits while second rank gives one. If there are five, second and third rank give one, other as before. In case of six players, fourth rank gives nothing particular, others as before. Perks should be discussed among the involved players or everyone in case of first ranked characters. They can be special powers (consider e.g. trumps in Amber, magic in various fantasy settings) or extraordinary physical capabilities or networks of contacts or items of power.

At least now, but earlier if the inspiration strikes, players should tell who their characters are. Typical stuff – description, some bits of history perhaps, some mannerisms, some beliefs and goals, friends and enemies. So on. The character may or may not have ties to the locations. To help in character creation, players (and GM) should decide on the power level of play. The easiest way is to set up the number of points that most people have. If it is 10, then player characters are quite powerful, like the gods in myths of ancient Greeks. Something like 100/(number of players) + small bonus would give very competent player characters, while larger bonus would reduce the competency. Hundred points for everyone would make players characters ordinary in terms of stats, and anything above that would make player characters below normal. See resolution below for details.

Using the map, fractally

To start playing, select some spot from the map. Go with consensus, have the player with the highest karma decide, take median of x- and y-coordinates of the established locations, or act as follows: Let the player who selected the least influential attribute select a spot, and then have the player with next least influential attribute either (1) move it halfway towards the location she established or (2) move it directly away from the closest established location, exactly doubling the distance, then go through rest of the players in the same order. The result may be an unestablished location. Or possibly have every player select one location for their character.

Whenever player characters come to an empty place on the map, check how far away it is from the elemental locations established in character and world creation. For our purposes, there are three possibilities. The simplest is that one of the elemental locations is clearly closest to the new location. Then the related player describes and draws the new location on the map. Slightly more complicated: There is only a minor difference in distance between two elemental locations. Then whichever is closer dominates – the player may choose to either describe or draw and name the new location. The other involved player does the other thing, of course along the lines established by the first one. If two elemental locations are equally far away, then use the ranking of the attributes to and go as per previous point. If more than two are involved, then divide the tasks further.

You can use a similar method for drawing maps of smaller locations, such as those on the map. First, establish order of the attributes by distance of this location to the elemental locations, breaking ties by dominance order of the attributes if required. Second, have the player related to the first attribute place something related to that and in accordance with the description of the location on the map. Have everyone do this. These are the new elemental locations on this map. For space between them, use the previous rules. Zoom in as necessary.

Resolution

For resolution I think the Amber diceless would work fine. If some event is left unresolved by common sense, then check if it relates to some attribute. The mind maps or lists are helpful for this. If the issue is included, then use the relevant attribute. If there are several that could be used, then check whichever is dominant (use either the global ranking or the geographical methods – I’d be inclined for the latter and getting rid of the global attribute ranking altogether, since it seems cumbersome), and add some related word to that attribute’s list or mind map.

Once the dominant attribute is determined, proceed as in Amber: There is a ranking of attributes established by the players. Any NPC either follows it or has rank zero (above highest player character – this is not recommended to be the case), half ranks (between the player character ranks), and one entire rank for those that are below all the player character ranks. Higher rank eventually wins a conflict, unless there is something to tip the odds. Half a rank of difference requires only minor contribution to overcame, while each complete rank of difference requires one significant factor. These judgment calls should be done by the game master or by uninvolved players or by consensus. Aggressive or defensive tactics and feints (and whatever equivalents) count as significant circumstances, as do smart decisions in general. Edge in karma implies extra opportunities for making decisions and in particular retreating.

Adding players

To add a new player, have that one know the previous elements and select a new one. The player then spends points on all or some of these, possibly changing their dominance order, and is ranked as others are. The player character gets one good perk on their attribute and nothing from others. Players draws to a new part of the map or large unclaimed territory far from the others – consider adding a new A4, for example. That player describes the location as normal and is then ready to play. The new attribute should be written down as the others were.

Character change

At some intervals players are allowed to shift points from pools to others. I’d go with one point per session, but it might be more meaningful to move five points every five sessions, or whatever. The pools are: particular attributes, karma. Further, change can happen in play: Some ritual or training might allow moving points, maybe even in powerful manner. Being exposed to new source of influence (see adding players, above) may or may not allow immediate transfer of points. This is up to the fiction and game master or consensus or the player associated with the new attribute.

I would not allow character development in the form of adding points, though that might be reasonable if there are entities with more points than the player characters have.

Cool powers and trinkets and curses and affiliations to groups may be gained and lost in play. Maybe karma can be allocated to a particular item or group, if someone wants to.

Meta

In an auction, players should bid most on what they find interesting and evocative (it will tend to become useful), and less of what they don’t feel intellectually comfortable with (if something is emotionally or socially uncomfortable, deal with it by talking and aborting or going on with it in spite of that, knowing you can trust the other participants). Having your attribute first in the auction is a benefit, since in that case you know how much you must spend on it – the others must guess.

You can have GM participate in character and world creation, or decide who is the GM after creating characters, and use the GM’s character as an NPC.

You can have each player establish something about the setting before drawing anything on the map, in the same order. These should relate to the attributes the players selected, and be such as – this world is a huge network of caves, people here have skin the colour of copper, birds are divine, there are dinosaurs.

It is reasonably easy to use this as a world creation and detailing process and playing by some completely different rules. By converting the attributes established here to some other system one can even use the characters generated herein as sketches for characters in some other system. Or they can be used as gods of the setting, with the elemental locations their holy places and centers of power. Cosmology and world creation in the same deal.

The fantasy genre is almost arbitrary – it is an easy and well known basis for many roleplayers and allows for varied elements.

Anyway, this is completely untested, so use with care, or steal ideas with abandon. I like the mapping mechanics.

12 Comments

  1. Joshua Macy said,

    The whole auction thing leaves me cold, but I feel the same way about Amber diceless.

    • Tommi Brander said,

      That’s interesting. What do you dislike about the auction, and do you think it has any positive aspects?

      I like how it makes character creation an uncertain process, much like rolling dice would do. I also like how it balances the different attributes for free. I am ambivalent about the auction being gameable, in that some will do better or worse at it.

      • Joshua Macy said,

        The whole game-ability of it; I was very good at it, or so the veteran Amber GM who was running it the one time I played, but that really had nothing to do with my character, and the whole PVP aspect was a turn-off. I’m quite capable of playing my character having a friendly or not-so-friendly rivalry with another player’s character without having to beat the other player or get beaten in trying to establish my character’s concept.

        If I were to run something along those lines where rank order was important, I’d probably just ask the players to decide among themselves. If I wanted to make it random, I’d do something like use playing cards: deal each player one of each suit (to represent the four attributes) face up, with the value of the card indicating their rank in the hierarchy. Players could swap cards by mutual agreement.

        • Tommi Brander said,

          In my case the auctioning did not cause any rivalries – it was taken as a character creation minigame, which it pretty much is.

          Do you think that players should create exactly the character they want? In particular, does rolling dice for attributes also bother you?

          The playing card idea is actually quite smart. I like it.

          • Joshua Macy said,

            In games I design, players can play what they want; I don’t see it as being my job as game designer or GM to prevent the players from having too much fun. I usually include an optional random generation method for players whose idea of fun is “surprise me.”

            I don’t strongly object to systems that use random rolls for chargen. Even though it’s not my preference, it does have the advantage that you can end up with a character that’s objectively rare. Still, I prefer to get that part out of the way quickly instead of making it a mini-game of its own. I think systems where chargen is its own game to master are a problem, even when they’re completely deterministic like GURPS or HERO.

            • Tommi Brander said,

              I see the process as one that provides prompting and creative constraints, which, yes, basically is limiting players from playing what they want. Does this reduce their fun? Maybe. Not mine, I like all sorts of oracles and limitations better than blank pages. So, depends on the players, as always (and hence a worthless platitude).

  2. oberonthefool said,

    Interesting. Sabe Jones’ game Blazing Rose uses something vaguely along the same lines for character creation (only vaguely, but maybe worth checking out). Rumble isn’t an RPG, but it does use player-generated game elements and bidding, so that might be worth taking a look at too. Also, if you’re not already familiar with it, check out Universalis by Ralph Mazza and Mike Holmes. None of them are quite the same idea you’ve got going here, but they all have elements that may help inform or inspire.

    • Tommi Brander said,

      Blazing rose: I found a playtest edition. A quick glance did not seem interesting, but maybe I’ll take another look.


      Oh, a thunderstorm. How nice. I’m closing this thing.

    • Tommi Brander said,

      Rumble: Can you give a link? Googling for it gives quite a few results.

      Universalis: I have played it twice or thrice. I do not really enjoy the resource management aspects, at all, and the often artificial-feeling conflicts are not to my taste, either.

  3. oberonthefool said,

    • Tommi Brander said,

      That’s actually quite an interesting game.

      • oberonthefool said,

        Yeah, I’ve played it a bunch. If you hit “random powers” a bunch of times you’ll probably see more than a few powers I’ve contributed (under Nev the Deranged and various similar noms de web)

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