Level or skill advancement idea

27 August, 2011 at 6:07 pm (dungeon crawling, game design, game element)

Levels or skills should advance when they are used, but Basic roleplaying (Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, etc.) makes it awfully slow, while Burning Wheel’s approach requires inelegant tables and book-keeping and system mastery.

The idea is: For each class or skill write a list of fictional actions.

So, for fighter in old school game:

  • Fight a superior foe
  • Fight against superior numbers
  • Protect an ally in combat
  • Avenge someone close to you (kill the orcs who burned your father’s farm, say)
  • Recover an ancestral weapon or piece of armour
  • Use an ancestral weapon or piece of armour
  • Recover a weapon or piece of armour of legendary status
  • Use legendary equipment
  • Slay a beast of legend
  • Lead an army
  • Survive a siege
  • Be the master of a company of mercenaries
  • Conquer a castle
  • Establish a stronghold
  • Keep a stronghold

Whenever an action is accomplished, mark it.

Once you have marks equal to next level or rank, erase all marks and increase the level or rank by one.

Note that the list includes things that fighters do, and likewise people who do those things are fighters, to some extent at least. At low leves fighter only need to fulfill their role in the party, while at high levels they need to build a legend of their own and influence the world in order to advance.

As a further bonus, this gives a nice way of estimating NPC strength. See how many things you mark, and that is an upper bound for their level. How many things they certainly have marked at the same time? That’s the lower bound. Lord of a castle in an area of constant warfare certainly has led an army, survived a siege and kept a stronghold at the same time (so level at least three), but may also have conquered a castle, led mercenaries, protected an ally in combat, fought against superior numbers and against a superior foe and avenged someone close (so at most level nine).

It is easy to change the conditions and at the same time change what fighters are in the setting, and who are fighters in the setting.

For further complexity, training: Obviously it could be yet another action. But maybe it is automatically erased when the character stops training. Otherwise, better action would be to train under famous/more skilled/legendary master.

Or consider: Add some actions that depend on character race or alignment.

Or: Have players build the list when starting play, or adding a new entry at the beginning of each session, or when someone levels up that class or skill.

There’s some limitations, of course. You would not want to do this in a game system with huge list of skills, or then you would have to have each character only develop a handful at a time.

Skill reduction can be handled like this, too. Write one action, or several actions, or absences of actions. When they are marked, the player has the option of reducing the skill or class level in question. If the players opts to do so, then they get some compensation equal to the marked actions and the marks are erased. Some tokens, say.

Similar rules: Magical items in Earthdawn (IIRC), keys in Solar system (the reduction is buy-off), this thread about Dungeon world.

In other news

I’m running two Amber games at Tracon (if there are players – last year it was an anime convention with some roleplayers huddling in a corner) and maybe giving away some rpg and maybe fantasy books I no longer use.

There has been several updates and one playtest of diceless/nopaton, which now lives on Google docs. It is still in Finnish. The major change is that now there are some principles for playing it. And there is rotating player (and hence game masters, sort of).


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17 October, 2008 at 5:59 pm (Burning Wheel, dungeon crawling, game element) (, , , , )

A take on goblins as actual monsters, not a race of ugly and evil and small people. Inspired by a blog post by Jeff Rients and some reviews of Changeling: the Lost.

I will further write mechanical implementations or sketches thereof to some goblin spells, especially for my dungeoncrawling game. Also, I hereby release the rules of the dungeoncrawling game (particularly their presentation) into public domain.

Born of fear and mud

Should it be so that some dark corner, or alley, or woods, or perhaps even cave is feared and dark rumours abound, there will, sooner or later, be a goblin there. Maybe goblins are born of these rumours, or maybe the rumours of the goblins.

Once born, goblins will do as their nature makes them to: Cruel tricks and stealing people, particularly children, is their calling and source of mirth. Should a number of goblins live together for a while, a shaman will emerge and a pit of mud will be constructed, if suitable one does not exist yet.

Captured children are thrown into the pit, only to emerge as ugly goblins, much like those who created them. Captured adults are cast in and emerge as ogres, deformed monsters and mockeries of their former selves, small-minded, aggressive and brutish.

Goblin magic

Goblins are demonic, or feyish, in nature, and some have sorcerous abilities. Not all do, and they are not equally adept at their use. Shamans are naturally the undisputed masters of these arts.


Goblins are born of fear and can use it against their foes. A goblin can, in lieu of surprise attack, (attempt to) scare its foes. Everyone surprised by the goblin must resist it; those that fail are affected as though affected by normal fear effects. If any opponent succeeds, the goblin is also affected by a fear effect as though victim to its own power.

Boo! does not work in proper daylight or lighting of equivalent quality. Other goblins can hear one yelling Boo! over great distances, and they are curious creatures…


For my dungeoncrawly game: Roll magic versus magic, each target resist individually, effect as though the fear spell. Typically a number of goblins equal to magic result of the one invoking Boo! come to investigate at their leisure.

Burning Wheel: Will versus will, with steel test being the fear effect.

D&D 3rd: Will save DC 10 + 1/2 HD + charisma modifier of the goblin saying Boo!, failure means being frightened for d6 rounds. Shaken if you want the goblins to not be infuriating opponents. Either way, if anyone succeeds, the goblin is frightened. Spell-like ability, takes a standard action.

Goblin doors

Goblins can open doors from and to dark places, partially disregarding the distance between such places. They are so small that adults must grouch or even crawl to enter one and look like poorly made. There is typically a short winding tunnel after such a door, containing at least one corner such that it is impossible to see the entry and exit points of the tunnel at the same time. At the end of the tunnel there is another similar door, which opens somewhere else. Typical goblin door disappears once closed or left unattended and further it is impossible to turn around after losing sight of the entry door (going back is the same thing as going forward).

When opening a door one must imagine the location where the other side is supposed to be (and tell it to the GM, if appropriate). Most of the time the door opens to the desired location or at least to that direction; sometimes the unexpected happens, for which is the following random chart. Roll a suitable die.

  1. Oops: The other side of the door is the spawning place of the goblin this sorcery was used or taught by.
  2. Long ways to go: Traversing the tunnel takes d6 hours.
  3. Goblins: d4 goblins are lurking within the tunnel, just in case you would happen to wander through.
  4. Horror: An undead, demon, spirit, or some shadowy beast is lurking within the tunnel, preying upon unwary passengers.
  5. Shadows: Travellers are cursed to see everything as though it was night at all times. No light is bright enough, no colours distinct.
  6. Shadowy sight: Travellers can henceforth see in dim light as well as cats.
  7. Reduction: Travellers are gradually turned to size of the goblinkin.
  8. Permanency: The doors and the tunnel is permanent.
  9. U-turn: The exit point of the door is the same as the entry point.
  10. Scared: When leaving the tunnel the one who opened the door casts Boo! on the others who are treated as surprised.
  11. Infused: When leaving the tunnel one character with little magical or mental ability acquires some and can henceforth open a goblin door at will.
  12. Roll twice, apply both results if possible, else use the nastier one.


Dungeoncrawling game: After having entered the tunnel and moved so that returning is no longer a possibility, roll magic; on roll of anything but 1, the maximum distance the tunnel can cover is 20 metres multiplied by magic roll; on roll of 1, game master rolls a d12 and consults the chart. (Reduction is likely to reduce might of the character to around half; infusion gives +1 magic and goblin door at will to one character with lowest magic attribute.)

Burning Wheel: Roll will, count successes, no successes is botch, otherwise distance covered is in the ballpark of 20 metres per success. Becoming smaller reduces power by 1 and gives power cap of 6. Being infused gives a character with lowest will some custom trait that goblins have and access to goblin door. Else treat goblin door as a natural magic skill related to will.

D&D 3rd: Wisdom check DC 5 to avoid mishap, 1 is always a mishap, otherwise distance traveled equals 10 metres * check result. Shadows and shadowy sight mean dim light and low-light vision, respectively. Reduction as though being reduced to small size. Neutralise with any spell that can remove curses. Infusion gives/increases inherent bonus to charisma by 1 and gives goblin doors at will. To determine who it affects, take the highest mental score of the characters and then take the lowest of these. That’s the character you are looking for. Spell-like ability, but full-round action to open the door.

Goblin trader

Goblins are vile monsters, but also willing to help humans and others, for a price. Here’s a list of services they might grant and of prices they might ask. They are not very reliable trading partners, either, and will weasel out of an agreement if able to. Goblin traders are typically shamans out of favour within a nearby settlement.

  • Equipment the goblin happens to have, typically of poor quality – As much coins as they think you have; you would not be dealing with them if you had good choices, so better milk the situation for all it is worth.
  • Training against opponents the goblins are threatened by (say, kobolds) – Beard of a dwarf or delicious, fresh ears of an elf, or something similar.
  • Boo! at will – One live adult, subdued.
  • Goblin door at will – One live child, subdued.

Goblin magic is, I feel, suited for old school play. I doubt it would work very well with encounter-based D&D play, for example, being utterly broken and too unpredictable.

I’d love to add stats for older editions of D&D, but I don’t have the rules for any.


Everything not keyed to rules of BW or D&D is released into public domain. The intro text is not, though.

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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.

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Fluxx and Uno; system and memory

12 April, 2008 at 9:14 pm (game design, game element) (, , , )

My sister and a friend of hers visited my humble apartment. We played more than a bit of Fluxx. Here’s some reflection on that and on the numerous Uno games I have played along my short life.


Uno is extremely easy for even young people. Fluxx requires fair amount of skill with English (even my father had problems, surprisingly). I think they both are casual games. There’s a few factors that affect this.


Fluxx is the epitome of a chaotic game. This chaos is amplified when there are several people. With two or three people, your play actually has a visible effect on your next turn; with six, it does not have too much of an effect. There’s some, but not enough to count on.

Uno has few variants that are played among the circles where I have played it: First is to draw one or two cards when you can’t play any, second is to draw up to three cards until you can play one (and immediately play that). The third is to draw cards until you can play at least one of them and then play that. The first are least unpredictable, the third most. Also, the number of players has a large effect: Usually it is possible to meaningfully affect the next player or maybe two, again depending on the rules used (stacking “draw”-cards either affect only the next player or each player gets one effect until all cards are used). As in Fluxx, the state of game can vary significantly between the turns of an individual player. This is almost the norm when there are many players.

Why do I think unpredictability is good? First, it reduces stress; you can always blame the luck and will often be correct. In addition, both games can take new players in midplay and not make a significant splash. Further, one can take a pause from the game when the others are doing their turns and often not a lot has been missed.

No death spiral

Fluxx tends towards equality among the players due to the numerous hand limits and keeper limits, as well as rules reset. Further, winning the game is always possible by shifting the goal, stealing or scrambling keepers (and the changing the goal), or just picking the correct keepers and playing them. If you’ve got no keepers, hope someone will put a limit on them. Fluxx doesn’t so much balance itself as it screws everyone equally and always keeps victory a possiblity.

Uno self-balancing in a very elegant way: The more cards one has, the faster one can get rid of them by playing many at the same time. Also, as one gets more cards, the chance of drawing cards that match them in symbol only increases. (People rarely forgetting to say Uno is also something of a balancing mechanism, though very weak one).

The lack of death spiral means that skilled players don’t seem to dominate, because they could be toppled at any moment.

General observations

Take any system where participants have turns, take some action during a turn, then wait for the next one (examples: Heroes of might and magic n, most rpg combats, ADOM, roleplay with a split party). How much does a single turn matter?

Number of actions

Obviously, the number of actions one can take are very important. If one can somehow get more actions or deprive opponents of theirs, such abilities often are extremely valuable. For example: Haste in D&D 3rd, reflexes in Burning Wheel. If the number of actions or action points that are used when doing anything can be altered, one would do well to start with a fair number of them. If everyone starts with single action, getting another is worth very much. If everyone has 10 action points, getting 1 extra is very nice, but won’t as easily break things. Getting 5 or more does break things.

Whiff chance

There may be a chance that the actions one takes simply have no effect. High whiff chance is undesirable, because it tends to be frustrating (I want to hear a counter-example for this one). Further: With a significant whiff chance, the system becomes more chaotic; a given amount of play may give no results or be hugely effective, depending on luck. Obviously low number of actions and high whiff are a bad combination.


One has actions and does not whiff. What happens? In all examples I can recall right now the power of different actions (choices) is different. This may be balanced by different costs (in actions or other resources), different whiff chances (magic missile always hits), or other factors.


Memory may not be quite as obvious a factor as the others. In a system with long memory the effects of the choices one makes linger for long. They may change or weaken but one can easily see that a particular effect is there due to a particular choice made. System with short memory obfuscates these relations: The status of the system changes rabidly or radically. Or maybe there is a large number of choices made, so that the effects of single one are effectively buried. Or maybe there is a strong attractor the system tends towards, so choices tend to be lost as the attractor is approached again.

In roleplaying context: Traditionally, system has long memory with regards to character generation. Choices there count for a lot (hence the flames around point-buy vs. rolling and the tendency to let people do minor changes after actually playing a little). Character death is another event that games tend to remember for long.

Gamers try to avoid effects that are harmful and have long memory: D&D examples are level drains and ability drain/damage (prior to plentiful restorative magics). In the Mountain Witch the wounds that have duration for “rest of the game” tend to be nasty (this one is from experience), even if that duration is rarely more than three sessions. Generally speaking, permanently disfiguring a character is something that many gamers really dislike (exceptions abound). In some games, losing items is more harmful than character being wounded, because healing is fast and wounds matter little in the long run.

An interesting rules element

Whenever a player loses a conflict/roll (as suits the game and situation in play) any participant can suggest a permanent consequence, or at least one with long memory. If the player does not want that, damage time, for whatever values of damage the system recognises.

Example the first: A troll subdued the would-be trollslayer. Options: Take the harm (given the circumstances, may very well be death unless there is help coming) or take a semi-permanent nasty effect, such as a trollslayer cast into the river from which he is rescued with only his clothes on (or so the villagers insist), or the troll consuming the slayer’s right hand and leaving the slayer to die, not liking the taste.

Example the second: Negotiations with the high king. A failed diplomacy check. Options: Beaten up and thrown away from the castle, a humble apology (and charisma damage due to the humilation and loss of confidence), the ire and later assassins of the high king, losing some allies from the local nobility, being branded an outlaw, …

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Setting element: Body, dream, mind

30 March, 2008 at 2:30 pm (Dragongame, game element) (, , , , )

There is a philosophical problem called the mind-body problem. Basically, it is about the nature of human mind: Is it physical, emergent from what is physical, or entirely separate? If separate, how does it connect to the body? This piece of setting metaphysics is somewhat influenced by that problem.

Originally I developed these as a metaphysical structure for my traditional fantasy setting, the current form of which is not written down anywhere. Some assumptions: Certain sorts of magic are at least possible. There are spirits everywhere; that is, animism is correct. Dragons are the most mighty creature there is by their nature.

The three realms

The reality is neatly divided into three level, or dimensions, or planes, realms, or whatever name is desired for them. Some creatures only exist on specific levels, others are defined as the places where the levels interact.


The physical level, realm of body, is much like the physical world around us. The world may be a planet, or a disc riding atop elephants riding on a turtle swimming around space, or the world may be an infinite plane, or whatever. The physical realm is associated with persistency and stability; if something exists on the level of body, removing it without a trace is difficult.


The realm of dream is where emotions, ambitions, inspiration and dreaming happen. It is an ever-changing realm where distance is determined by familiarity and will; know something and it is easy to find, and it will have easy time finding you. Those with strong will can mold the dreaming with little trouble. Spirits, fey, demons and angels (all are the same thing) are creatures of the dreaming. All emotions and feelings live in the dreaming, and like attracts like; if one sleeps and is afraid, something that lives off, enjoys, or is fear may be attracted.

One moves in the dreaming by wanting to be somewhere. Walking, closing one’s eyes, or other such gesture often helps travelling; people are not used to their environment changing with little warning, and being panicked in the realm of fae is a definite risk; those attracted by panic tend to not be friendly and helpful. A person is sad when the region around the person contains much sadness; likewise, the surroundings of a sad person will become sad. The power of these interactions is determined by the strength of will of those involved.


The mental level, realm of mind, is where all knowledge and experience is. It is an immense, mayhaps infinite, collection of knowledge. When person thinks something, he is in the corresponding part of the realm of mind. Learning something means finding, or building, quick paths and ways between regions of the mental realm. One can likewise construct barriers and drive entities away from certain regions, though they are by no means simple tasks.

The human nature

Humans are creatures that connect all the three realms, yet have difficulty focusing on more than one at a time. Human presence drifts between the three realms. When the presence is in the physical realm, humans can be skilled athletes, precise craftsmen, or careful observers. When the presence is elsewhere, body does what it should be doing; keeps walking, is inactive, remains in one place, relaxes, is paralysed.

One’s presence is on the level of dream if one is feeling a strong emotion or sleeping. One who is friendly inspires others around him to act in a friendly way; one who is depressed provokes negative reactions. The confidence of a leader makes those around her confident of their abilities. Persuading or threatening someone means pushing one’s will and dreams against theirs until they give up. Intimidation is the brute force version; persuasion means emphasising their emotions that already agree with out while dampening the parts that do not. People in shock cut the dreaming away from themselves so as to not feel the pain. So do those who deny some emotionally powerful thing.

Presence in the mental realm indicates deep thought, perhaps solving a problem, trying to remember something, learning or communicating. Recalling means trying to find the lost pathway, while learning and solving problems is the process of discoring or constructing new ways, respectively. Communication is trying to describe some landmarks and guidelines so that the other person might find a way to the desired region of the mental level. Person who is quick-witted has fast methods of getting to the desired place. Someone who is intelligent can has discovered powerful methods of finding new paths. People who know a lot have mapped large areas of the realm. When one’s presence is not on the level of mind, deep thought does not happen.

Other beings

Inanimate objects have a very alien presence on the mental realm (some would say very limited), to such extent that communication with them is next to impossible. Their emotional presence can be strong. Old forests are peaceful, because the trees are calm; at night they can be menacing, for the trees do not enjoy the fire in their midst. The sense of wonderment that natural wonders can evoke is another effect of their significant emotional presence.

Most animal, likewise, have fairly strange ways of thinking. Many mammals are so alike people that rudimentary communication, or at least one-way understanding, is possible.

Stranger things

The denizens of dreaming are known by many names: Angels, demons, spirits, fey. Their physical presence varies from none through normal everyday object and animals to unique forms. Their mental presence likewise varies from sapient to mere instincts that the nameless spirits have. Even the least of feykind can mold the dreaming wtih great ability; the most pitiful imp has little trouble tricking an average dreamer (that’s why nightmares are common). The powerful lords of the dreaming can incite bloody rebellions or even wars with their mere presence.

Dragons are unique in that their presence never really leaves any realm. Dragon does not merely wonder about your name; its mental presence makes you want to say it out loud and when you do, it is already listening at you. Dragon does not merely try to eat you; when it bites at you, you willingly jump into its mouth and it has additionally determined your possible reactions, as well as how it will respond to each. An angry dragon flying overhead creates a storm by provoking the spirits of clouds and air; people will flee, faint, or kill each other. (Younger dragons are less powerful, but only in scope and force of the effect.)

Design notes

The original setting metaphysics were a mess similar to Platon’s ideas. It did not work well because there existed a god of fire, of mountains, of a vulcano, of lava, of heat, … Most of them were mere disembodied spirits, some were dragons, the most powerful actual gods. It became too much of a mess to understand.

That there are three realms is a matter of design history; the original had at least dreaming and physical world. Neither of those worked like deep thinking does, so I decided for it to be the third one. This is somewhat similar to BESM, actually, which I disliked way back then because it had only three stats (all strong people are also dexterous, for example).

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Rule element: Clock of doom

15 January, 2008 at 10:55 pm (game element) (, )

A character cursed with demonic powers, able, but not willing, to use them. A fire mage who always risks creating a fiery hell when using the powers. A mage who can use his lifeforce to power his spells, but who risks death or worse when doing it.

One way of representing such characters is to give the player access to powers, but with a hook: Every time they are used, there is a chance of something very bad happening. In the end, it will be inevitable.


Player, or character, can receive a significant benefit by bringing the character’s doom closer. When the power is used, roll a die. If result does not exceed the number of times the power has been used, Bad Stuff happens. Otherwise the risk has just increased a bit.

The size of the die determines how often the ability can be used. A d4 means that even the first try is quite risky (1/4 chance of bad stuff). It can be suitable for a one-shot where the power should be used no more than few times. d6 may work with a game the length of a session or two. Increase as appropriate, but a d100 may be a bit excessive and anything larger than that missing the point.

The chance of being able to use the power n times without bad stuff, given a die with s sides, is (s-1)/s*(s-2)/s*…*(s-n)/s, or zero once n at least equals s.


Player-controlled destiny is much more appealing than a demonic power usable once a day and GM-assigned side effects every now and then. It is up to the player and the game group if something the character could have little to no control over is still given to the player. A traditional example is a destiny of some sort: The character is destined to die by drowning, say. When the bad stuff happens, the character will die next time it will be possible and not utterly silly (GM’s or player’s call). This might kill the suspension of disbelief or break immersion for some players.

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Setting element: Those who fight the forest.

8 January, 2008 at 7:21 pm (game design, game element) (, , , )

This setting element started as an exercise in setting design. First posting happened on the Campaign Builders’ Guide.

Design goals: To make a setting suitable for many gaming styles, including the exemplified by Dogs in the Vineyard, and to further make it one that has themes that engaging to me on personal level. The setting has seen some play-by-post action, which is currently on hold because one player is serving his year in the FDF. The game hopefully continues after that.


Once upon a time there was a magnificient forest, untainted by civilisation. Humanity came and hacked and burned. Significant areas are now devoid of forest, but vibrant with farms, livestock and even a few cities. Now the forest is coming back.

The forest

It is dark, ancient and malicious. It wants to conquer your lands. Beasts mundane and mystical have been sighted. Few who dare to enter the woods come back, fewer still untainted.

Yet the forest is not without a weakness. An iron fence keeps a village safe from the enroachment of beasts. An iron blade is what can slay the beasts. An iron amulet protects one from the vile sorceries practiced by witches.

The people

Men and women are weak. They open the gates and let the forest in. They worship dead gods of the ancient forest-dwellers. They give away their amulets to be cured from a disease. They huddle behind their gates and let their blades rust. They neglect the fences during cold winter nights. They build with wood, not stone.

The banished, the outlaws, the poor, the diseased, the heretics, the muggers, those are the only people who have no choice but live next to the forest. No noble, no merchant would ever live there. Few are brave, or foolish, enough to visit the border. Most live in their secure castles and fabulous palaces, caring little of the forest and even less of those who live next to it.

The wardens

The nobles with no money, the bastards, the wealthy or influential who have earned the ire of the powers that be, the nonexistant children of the clergy are trained as wardens. They are taught to fight, to pray, to help. They travel from border village to next, slaying beasts and heathens, bringing news, murdering, raping, robbing, saving innocents, repairing the iron fence, holding sermons, smothering rebellions. They are the law near the forest. Theirs is the power over life and death, over sin and salvation. They are trained to be righteous, just, and careful saviors of the poor. Many are murderous, cunning, lecherous thugs. They hunt rogue wardens as often as beasts of the forest.

In play

A group of wardens, together for safety and watching over each other, enters a border village. Maybe they need to identify the witch, whose evil eye has cursed the doubtless devout priest. Maybe they need to judge the witch: She heals people and works as a midwife, the best of the region. Her magic is tainted by moss, rot and corruption, yet it is used for good. What’s a warden to do? Maybe they need to bring down the wolf of huge size and great cunning, which has slain all herds and some men. No villager has the courage to tread outside after dusk. Maybe a village is full of heretics worshipping the ancient pagan gods. Slaying everyone is not feasible. Maybe a rogue warden tracked down is enjoying quiet country life with his new-found wife rumoured to be a witch.

The themes

There is man fighting the forest (I am on the forest’s side). There is new religion against the old one (I support the old). Behind all conflicts are humans.

That said, do go and play it as a heroic monsterslaying spree. It is adaptable. It can be investigation, travelogue, hacking and slashing, or a tragic full of angst and moral dilemmas. That’s the point.

Add it to an existing setting. Some fringe area, possibly an island, where humanity recently arrived. It may be a jungle or a marsh. It may be a distant planet or moon, far from conventional trade routes.

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Rules element: Shooting contest

6 January, 2008 at 11:00 pm (game element) (, , , )

This is a nice semi-portable rules element. Should be usable in almost all rpgs that measure character skill and have some uncertainty. That is, not Wushu or Amber.

The purpose

The reason for this rules element is making a shooting contest, or similar event, mechanically interesting to play. An uninteresting method would be having the participants roll opposed checks and the best winning or having everyone roll more and more difficult checks until all but one fail. They are generally uninteresting because there is no player choice inherent in them (a specific game may not have this problem, depending on its rules).

This creates a small tactical minigame out of the situation. Not playtested. You were warned.

The implementation

The contestants are ordered in some way (preferably something that can be affected before the contest by PCs, like the whim of some important person).

First shot: Everyone sets their own difficulty, the first the first contestant, then the second, …, the last, after which the first can opt to increase her difficulty or keep it static, then the second has the same options, …, until nobody wants to increase her difficulty. Failing this shot means dropping out of the contest. The highest success determines who gets to set universal difficulty of the second shot. If there are multiple highest difficulty successes, the first in the order among them gets to decide.

The second shot: The winner of the first shot sets the difficulty of the second shot to any reasonable number. That is, any number achievable by an expert in the use of the equipment. DC around 15 in d20, obstacle 2 or 3 in Burning Wheel. Any contestant but the one who set the difficulty can voluntarily make the shot more difficult for herself only. Again, failure means utter defeat, while the highest success implies control over the next shot’s minimum/default difficulty. If multiple best successes exist, the one next in order among them gets to decide. (Example to follow).

The following shots: The winner of the previous round  may opt to increase the difficulty or keep it as is. It can be increased by significant, but not overwhelming, amount. In d20: by up to +5 (or by 0, +2 or +5 for less granularity). BW: keep as is or +1 Ob. All contestants may again opt to increase their personal difficulties.

The process continues until there is only single contestant left. She is the winner. If all remaining contestants fail at the same round, all get another try at the same or slightly less difficult level (GM’s/governing character’s choice). The reward could be decreased in case this happens.

When to use?

This is an extended resolution system, much like combat. Use only at dramatic situation and when PCs are involved. It is not a bad idea to let any noninvolved players play other contestants or the governing character, if NPC. Or maybe they are busy “adjusting” the result or getting bets or whatever. For less important situations simply roll opposed checks and get on to the important parts of the game.

An example

Athy, Bonaley and Chelae (names ripped from Abulafia) are competing in an archery contest. By totally random chance, their order is alphabetical. First Athy selects her starting difficulty (I’m using BW for no particular reason) as Ob 2, than Bonaley at Ob 3. Chelae could take 4 to get the potential starting position or anything if not trying that. She decides to risk the 4. Athy can increase her difficulty. Increasing it to four is sufficient to get the edge, due to her being first in order. She does so. The others pass their opportunities to further increase their difficulties.  Everyone succeeds at the bow rolls, so Athy can decide the next shot’s starting value.

Next shot. Athy is confident and set the difficulty at 4. Bonaley chooses to go for a quick win and increases hers to 5. The others would have to succeed at Ob 6+ to get the decision-making power, which they opt to not try. Everyone rolls: Bonaley barely misses her target.

The two remaining contests, Athy and Chelae, are tied, but Chelae is the next in order after Athy, so she can make her decision regarding the next shot’s difficulty: Remain at four or increase to 5. She decides to keep it at 4, which already has a significant chance of failure, given her  formidable bow skill of 6. Athy has little motive to up the ante. Rolls are made, but due to a poor strike of luck (and sudden gusts of wind) both miss. The baron overseeing the contest calms the dismayed crowds by letting half the reward promised to the contest winner be used in place of the taxation of the next year. The common folk is pretty happy after that (the other nobles less so). The baron decides to not make the shots any easier (GM seeing that one ought to be able to succeed).

Athy, surprisingly, sets the baseline difficulty at 5. Her player decided that this is the right occasion to burn some artha (kinda like action points) to ensure a victory. With her artha-boosted skill roll she gets a grand total of seven successes, while Chelae fails again, making Athy the winner (of half the price, if the baron keeps his word) with a particularly spectacular shot.

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