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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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Metagaming in Amber

1 July, 2011 at 8:46 am (Amber, game mastering) (, , , )

In my Amber game, none of the players are familiar with the setting. None. I am, somewhat, and thus far sufficiently.

So, we start with the standard amnesiac plot – you are all prisoners in this facility and know nothing. Have fun.

The players of course knew what I told them during character creation. I also told them to freely read the rulebook, and if they happen to read Amber material online, that is also completely okay. Their characters recover their memories to the extent that the players find out about things. They should still note that my Amber is, by necessity, not the official Amber, as I don’t remember that well enough. So their characters might have misconceptions and remember falsities. I get all that for free by allowing metagaming in these ways.

The organisation which imprisoned the player characters is (heavily inspired by) the SCP foundation. They have, for example, already had several encounters with [REDACTED], have sort of allied themselves with certain employee of the foundation, and attacked it more than once, generally pretty unsuccesfully due to lack of preparation and disparity in manpower. I have stated that they are free to read any stuff found there and use it to their own advantage, though my SCP foundation is not exactly what they find there, as before.

As a game master it takes some trying to not simply tell things or hint at them or whatever, especially when not playing. Games with serious secrets and hidden information are pretty much unlike the games I usually run, where there is certainly unknown information, but revealing it is not a problem. Here hidden information and not knowing are parts of the game. We also theoretically use secret notes, though actual use has been sparse, mostly due to old habit of not using them at all. I should send some dummy ones. And some proper ones, too.

As with all things, claiming that metagaming is good or bad is useless. In this case, it is mostly desired, but players are also free to stick with what their characters know. It might even be more fun that way, depending on the player. Players are free to make the call either way.

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Unique and beautiful amberite

30 June, 2011 at 10:05 pm (actual play, Amber)

A brief description of character generation in Amber diceless and some commentary on how it went. See the previous blog post for an introduction.

Characters start with 100 points. These are used to buy the following: Attributes, powers and items. The balance remains as good or bad stuff, essentially karma. Powers are expensive: Pattern, the fundamental and very useful power, is described as a bargain for 50 points. Attributes have the following scale: Attribute may be human level (which gives 25 points and is very much discouraged), chaos rank (gives 10 points) which stands for peak human ability, amber level (0 points, default) which is a major improvement over chaos rank. Further, each attribute is auctioned and bids buy ranks. Whoever has the first rank is significantly and permanently better than the other player characters. Only the ranks matter, points spent do not. In theory. In practice, NPCs (of which there are several in default cases) have point values, so ranking player characters with them goes by points. After auction, players can buy up the attributes of their characters so as to provide hidden information and uncertainty.

There is also player contributions: Diary, game reports and drawing trump (tarot) cards of the player characters and other major characters all give 10 character points per commitment. I add: Bringing munchies gives 5.

There are four attributes – Strength, warfare, psyche and endurance. The first three are used directly in conflicts, while endurance breaks ties and works as a sort of battery for powers. Of the attributes strength and sometimes endurance are judged weak, while psyche and warfare are strong. This is not a problem, since the auction nicely balances this. We had the first rank in psyche with 30 points, while first rank in strength was mere 11 points, so it was quite a bargain in comparison.

I set one limit: Everyone is to have at least amber rank endurance. That way they can regrow lost body parts and recover from other injuries in reasonable time and can acquire the pattern power. I did not force them to take pattern to start with and only one character has it (as public knowledge). I did emphasise that it is a good power and highly recommended. I suppose the other powers looked more interesting. Pattern allows one to shift from shadow (reality) to another, to manipulate probabilities, and gives certain other benefits.

Right now one of the characters has frequently used pattern to move from a reality to another, one draws trump cards, which are sort of cell phone-teleporters with extra risk of mental assault when used and allow travel to known locations and to familiar people, though they are slow to use. One has a pollaxe that allow to seek objects in shadow, but which is limited when compared to pattern. One has not demonstrated any significant ability shift through shadows. The trumps have been rarely useful (though there is a reason for this that is not related to their usefulness), pollaxe sometimes and pattern frequently.

So, of four characters, one is shadow-crippled and two have problems. One is as capable as one would assume an amberite to be. Give the players enough rope to hang themselves…

As it happens, the character without ability to travel shadow is separated from the others, in an unknown reality, and with no good means of escaping. There is one risky way, though, and more might be found – but they’ll have a price.

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Now running: Amber diceless

8 June, 2011 at 10:34 pm (Amber, game mastering) (, )

I’ve been playing in several fairly short games with the Monday rpg group, but now I have again managed to start running a game, or maybe even a campaign, with some energy to it. We’ve played five sessions thus far. The players are Aleksi, Henrik, Mikko and one who on the internet goes by the name of Thalin.

Amber diceless is based on the Amber books by Roger Zelazny that seem to be quite obscure hereabouts, which is sort of pity. I read the roleplaying game first, then at some point (it has been more than five years, I suppose) read the books when Gastogh bought them, and then reread the rpg. Recently Thalin gave the rpg to me, or, rather, I saved it from an unknown destiny when Thalin moved.

Some mild spoilers about the books follow.

The cosmology of Amber is vast. There is a central pole, the city of Amber itself, which (simplifying and lying a bit) represents order. On the far edges of the multiverse there are the Courts of Chaos and behind them there is the Abyss, vast nothingness. Between these are innumerable shadows (of Amber), each of which is a world or a universe in and of itself. Our world, the shadow Earth, is one of them. The entire setting of Planescape presumably is one of them. Amberites can walk from shadow to shadow – they can, for example, find a shadow of their desire by starting anywhere and shifting between shadows until they get there. So, the multiverse or the cosmology or whatever is, well, quite large. There are philosophical issues and details that I choose to omit, as they are not really relevant until someone starts seriously playing around with the Pattern, i.e. the power of walking between shadows.

More accurately, almost all Amberites can walk through shadows. Of the four characters, one has in public admitted to having the power. This is somewhat due to the peculiar character creation rules and certain psychological factors, I presume, but more on those later.

Amber diceless is actually a diceless rpg. It does not use any other randomiser or bidding system or other complicated resolution system, either. Characters have attributes and they are compared. In a fair fight, the higher attribute wins. In practice, what the play is about is not having a fair fight. This can be accomplished by manipulating the fiction and using certain mechanical powers, more on which later.

For reference: The game was published in 1991 and was designed by Erick Wujcik. One interested in its design philosophy could do worse than read Wujcik’s article on diceless roleplaying. The articles is short and though it is hosted on the Forge, there’s never any GNS mentioned. Really.

I do also intend this article to mark the rebirth of my humble blog. Let us see how it goes.

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Fantastic: Assumption or exception?

3 July, 2010 at 9:16 pm (definition, game design, roleplaying, rpg theory) (, , , )

In most roleplaying settings there is something I call here fantastic: Something the players are not familiar with.


Lovecraft mythos, sword and sorcery, horror in general, LotFP’s products (this post of mister Raggi inspired my post), stories where characters discover that they (and nearly only they) have some strange powers, Stalker and Praedor.

Most of the setting is normal, non-fantastic, and typically draws heavily from the real world (present state, history, or low-key scifi). There fantastic is something that breaks the normal setting – it works with completely different principles, if any.


Glorantha, Zelazy’s Amber, Nobilis, Carcosa, Tékumel.

These settings are fundamentally different from our reality. They work by different principles, and what is exotic and fantastic to us might be common and usual for residents of these worlds, and vice versa.

Why bother?

A setting where the fantastic is assumed can be explored to find out how it works, and supposing the setting has sufficiently interesting premises, this can be good play. A roleplaying game is a good medium for such an exploration because it allows many people to contribute and further allows several issues to be explored.

Settings with fantastic principles can also make certain dramatic issues very explicit and easy to treat via gaming. Sibling rivalry and broken families are good subjects behind any game set in Zelazny’s Amber where the amberites are played, as almost everything that happens can be traced back to some family member (at least by the first five books). This is also the justification for fantasy and science fiction as vessels of serious literature.

Settings where the fantastic is something exceptional are usually easy to understand (of equal difficulty to relevant setting minus the fantastic, assuming the fantastic is not the player characters, in which case there is more complexity). Unnatural makes sense as a concept. The fantastic creates interesting situations (in both senses mentioned above).

For short I would recommend a setting that is not entirely fantastic, simply to make learning it not a problem. A setting common to everyone would of course work, too.

The third way

There are also so-called fantasy settings where the assumptions are like those of the real world and yet where there is little uncanny even to the residents of the setting. This is the vanilla fantasy setting, which to me has no value – fantasy without the fantastic has no reason, no justification, and provides no interest. I’d love to hear from anyone who disagrees, since I almost certainly am missing something.

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Serious gaming

11 May, 2010 at 8:26 pm (actual play, game mastering, Solar system)

I am currently running a Solar system game. Last session contained something I have not often seen in roleplaying, so maybe it is worth sharing. First, some background.

I started the character generation by outlining the general situation and setting: science fiction, mostly hard, characters are people sent to the prison planetoid Pluto. Game can happen there or elsewhere if the characters get away.

Next, players created character concepts (I had a bunch of skill lists as inspiration and guide) and I asked them to pose some question they are interested in, and that is about their character. “Why is your character the main character here?” was something I think I asked. Use the word protagonist if you will. The questions the players came up with were surprisingly high-brow, even though I even gave an example of something more task-oriented. Here’s a few: Was the massacre of Ganymedes worth it? Why is [the character] such a ruthless killer? Do ends justify the means?

Then, each player posed a question about another player’s character. All the questions have mechanical weight: When they come up in a scene, 1 experience. When a scene is about a question, 3 exp. When a session is about a question, 5 xp. When a question is answered (in play), 10 xp, lose the question, and come up with a new one at some point. (I’ll change those criteria in the future. Probably 5 xp when a question is answered and none when an entire session is about some question, since that is hard to judge and does not add much.)

We had some themes related to the worth of humans, the value of religion, and how far can one go to achieve one’s goals. Situation in play: The characters are leaders of one group in power and they are planning to soon leave and in the process stall the life-supporting processes of the entire prison facility (which is an old industrial complex, unsupervised by outside forces as they mostly don’t care). There’s an android or robot (a robot, as they later find out) preaching faith, goodwill and uniting the divided gangs to improve the quality of life of everyone there, and later to build a force of robots to take over as much area as they can (such as the Solar system in its entirety). As it happens, the robot walks to the players’ base and is neutralised, later to be powered up again. Once that is done there is a discussion with all but one player actively participating (and also the robot, so I get involved, too). The discussion is about the worth of human life, what should we do to the scum here, what should we do to this robot (who is judged evil or maybe only mad), and why all of this is right.

This conversation was notable in that it

  1. happened in character
  2. enriched the game and deepened the characters, especially the inhuman-seeming robot
  3. actively benefited from the game to the extent that such views would not probably have been brought up outside this context
  4. revealed us a new conflict among the characters, hence adding more playable material organically.

Some notable techniques I used to facilitate this were: to not fall back to dice (I had actively removed most persuasive and lie-detection skills from Solar system for this game, or more accurately made them hard to learn outside special training), to actively poke the questions with NPCs who take strong positions with regards them, and to then give players power to judge these NPCs (a trick learned from Dogs in the Vineyard, I think). The rules were there as a framework, but they were not explicitly invoked in this situation, which I think is somewhat optimal for may style of play.

And then the serious part

I have been explicitly called a Swine by the pundit, so of course my gaming must be ponderous and unfun. That is exactly why the robot preacher had the shape of an idealised white male (think of Tarzan or Conan) and used the name Arnold, and one somewhat shifty NPC is called Judas Calgarus, and why there is a bunch of old worker robots reactivated that have a hive mind and negotiated free time and pay to work for the PCs (there was certain speculation involving how they spend their free time, and many references to the strike that elevators did when people did not give them sufficient respect), and all the usual skulduggery and action bits, including neutralising the Terminator-like preacher Arnold by heavy gunfire.

Point being that the interesting philosophical discussion is good content, but much better when it is not too frequent and there is sufficient action and humour to balance it out.

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Prologue for Solar system

21 February, 2010 at 11:45 am (game design, Solar system)

Two friends were visiting me and we talked roleplaying, so I figured we might as well try a thing that’s been on my mind.

Design goals: To have a game that is easy for everyone to get into, but so that a longer campaign can be set up in the process or created in play by stringing a series of scenarios together.

  1. Set up a strong vision for a game world. Have people contribute, ask questions, answer them, so on. If there is glitches have someone (the GM, probably) take creative responsibility for the whole deal. Someone, again probably the GM, should write down details like names that would otherwise be forgotten. We had a city somewhere in the future where the rich built their homes above those of the poor. Eventually the poor were living in sewers where rubbish and prisoners were also thrown. This was iterated a number of times, but still it is the poor ones who keep the city living by using all that is thrown to them.
  2. Set up a goal. GM should have a few ideas ready, but if someone makes a more interesting suggestion, go with it. This should not take too long. We had a sick person in the underworld who needs a medicine that you can’t get but above.
  3. Players create characters who are motivated by the goal. They should be pretty freely adding detail to the goal.  Also, and this is important, name the characters. We had the sick person being some sort of prophet and spiritual leader with unknown motives and the characters were a cybernetic, still approximately human, mercenary called Zack and a wanderer secretly from the city above, called Nils. Both had their own motives for trying to save the leader.
  4. Players state one question about their character that they would like to know an answer to. We had: What is Nils willing to do and believe to live a thousand years? Can Zack become the master of his own life?
  5. Players state a question about one other player’s character that would like to learn. We had these being restatements of the original questions though with different emphasis: Does Nils really want to live forever? Does Zack even have a mind of his own (or he a mere follower)?
  6. Physical descriptions of the characters until everyone has some sort of mental image of them.
  7. Are the characters in order? Everyone interested in at least their own character and have some sort of image about the other characters?
  8. Does everyone have something about the game world?
  9. Brainstorm how the mission could be solved. This is quasi-play in that people should be getting comfortable with their characters and brainstorm about how the goal could achieved. The game world should be getting some flesh around the bones at this stage.  GM is free to participate. End this stage when there is at least one viable plan that could work.
  10. GM should now have a a list of questions about the characters that the players are curious about, a strong vision for the world, and knowledge about what the characters will be doing. GM should think some obstacles to show how fascinating the world is and some situations somewhat related to the questions. Don’t try to push all that in, but do add it to play when natural.
  11. Right now, you should have a game world, a situation going on and a bunch of characters ready for action with a rudimentary plan. So go at it. Play.

Since half the goal is to prepare for Solar system play and create characters, we added some rulesey bits. When characters tried to do something with risk and interesting consequences, players rolled three fudge dice, summed, added two if the characters was very good at it and 1 if the character was good, else only the roll. Positive result was success. GM was free to give a bonus or penalty dice or two if situation warranted it. I went pretty light with the dice, saying yes much of the time. Players might want to keep track of what their character is good at.

So, you have played and probably answered some questions that were posed – at least the goal should be resolved to one direction or the other. Most of the questions about the characters are probably not answered (unless you had lots of time and very focused and aggressive play, in which case you might want to use a more focused rules set to help with it), and that’s okay.

Talk a bit. Are the unanswered questions still interesting? Did any new questions arise? We had a few new ones.

Now, supposing there still are unanswered questions about the characters and supposing you want to make Solar system characters out of them, here’s what you should do. Select skills as normal, though you have made many of the choices in play. Assign resource pools as you will. Turn questions into keys so that the question itself is the buy-off condition. The ways the key gives experience should be inspired by the question and the play. For example: Is Zack merely a killer? 1 xp – kill someone out of necessity , 3 xp – kill someone when other methods would have been sufficient, buy-off – the question is definitively answered.

I imagine that after each session of play there would be reflection and some of the questions would be noticed to have been already answered and probably new questions posed. It doesn’t really matter if the questions are answered affirmatively or with a negative answer, as long as they are answered.

Why have such a prologue?

Many players, especially those less used to roleplaying, often have trouble starting to play, so the prologue is a situation where characters and the world are fleshed out and play starts slowly. Further, there is a clear purpose and motivation to go for that, which hopefully reduces the barrier of entry.

There is this phenomenon where players create characters, start playing them and notice that the character actually is quite different from what the mechanical bits would say, or maybe the game world is quite different from what they imagined. A prologue mitigates this effect by having the player play the character and only then create the mechanical description in detail.

Additional bonus is the episodic nature of play. You can have a self-contained prologue, then maybe different players, another linked situation that builds on the previous one, and soon you’ll have a vibrant world and a fair number of interesting characters. My gut feeling is that the prologue format becomes restrictive and abrasive if used with established characters and setting, but maybe not. A quick pass through the list might very well be useful even in longer games.

Further refinement

Thus far there’s been one impromptu session, so obviously further playtesting is in order. One particular issue I’d like to focus on is if players should ask genuinely new questions about each others’ characters (which might create too much clutter but also inspire new ways of looking at the characters) or if they should refine the questions the players themselves posed, which would make them sharper and enhance a shared sense of what the characters are about.

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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.

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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.


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.


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.

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TSoY in space: The inhuman

22 October, 2009 at 9:27 pm (Solar system) (, , , , , )

This post contains thoughts about the inhuman elements of the game world: psionics, aliens, robots and androids, cyborgs and whatnot.

My experience in balancing secrets and keys is not great, so all commentary is gladly accepted. Few of the secrets are intentionally powerful; steel and wires, in particular.


Everyone knows psionics exist. Very few have met anybody capable of manifesting them or controlling their power. There are rumours of gifted children simply disappearing and of secret government programs and corporate assassins and so on. Rumours, nothing more.

Secret of psionics: The character can contact others with her mind. This requires a successful psionics (instinct) test, possibly resisted with resist or psionics. Using a skill through the psionic contact is taxing and costs 1 instinct. Other secrets in this chapter require the secret of psionics. Only those with the secret can take the psionics skill.

Secret of disciplined psionicist: Psionics (reason), not (instinct). Using skills through the connection has no extra cost. The character has been trained by some facility dedicated for this purpose, and is almost certain to either be an employee or a very hunted rogue operative.

Secret of [freaky exotic psionic ability]: The character can use [freaky exotic psionic ability], which may cost reason or instinct, in addition to requiring dice to be rolled. Telekinesis, making the heads of people explode, invisibility, illusions, that sort of stuff.

Secret of the electromancer: Psionics affects androids.

Secret of psionic storm: Pay up to six points from insinct or reason, whichever governs the psionics ability. Roll psionics. On failure, take reason harm equal to the resource spent. On success, deal that much harm to all characters in the great area affected by the power and take half that in reason damage. Named characters get to resist; others die, are in pain, or whatever was at stake. This ability is not fast to use and any psions in the affected area may resist, hence making this a risky proposition. Still utterly powerful.

The following keys, aside from the first one, only make sense for characters with (latent) psionic ability.

Key of shattered mind: Some psionicist has violently invaded the character’s mind. 1 experience for being hostile to such vile mind-rapers, 3 for losing control in public when something important is happening (and sobbing incoherently or going berserk, say). Buy-off: Forgive and accept.

Key of the empath: The character can sense the emotions, particularly strong emotions and pain, of others. 1 xp for revealing this in play, 3 for suffering due to the talent. Buy-off: Silence the pain by becoming inured to the suffering of others.

Key of the wilder: The character has uncontrolled or poorly controlled psionic ability. It manifests at inopportunate times, particularly when the character is stressed. 1 xp for uncontrolled manifestations, 3 for major destruction or set-back by wild psionics. (Note: this could manifest whenever the character fails a roll, particularly psionics roll, or when the story guide or players feel like it. Up to group negotiation.) Buy-off: Characters gets rid of unintended psionic effects (by iron will or removing the ability).

Steel and wires

Our game has thus far not seen detailed robotic player characters. We do know that proper robots and androids are (almost) immune to psionics.

Secret of steel among the flesh: Character can accomplish deeds requiring superhuman strength or endurance. One point of vigour gives 2 bonus dice to such and makes them possible.

Secrets of wires in the head: Character can compute and analyse with great speed. One point of reason gives 2 bonus dice for analysis (not limited to epsilon-delta proofs) and calculations.

Fancy cybernetic gadgets are also secrets. Heat-vision, cleverly hidden needle guns, hidden containers, armoured skin, things out of Cyberpunk books.

Key of programmed mind: Those who built or fixed the character added some unwanted orders. 1 xp when the character acts upon the programmed orders, 3 xp when he does so against his will. Buy-off: Remove the programming.

Key of lost humanity: Some go mad when great parts of their body are replaced with inorganic materials. 1 xp for showing the cold, aloof and cruel nature that is now character’s; 3 xp for murdering or slaughter of humans in cold blood. Buy-off: Become completely human or completely machine.

Key of malfunctioning component: Some component of character is constantly malfunctioning and in need of repair. 1 xp for maintaining it, 3xp for getting in trouble when it breaks anyways. Buy-off: Fix or replace it.

The hive cluster

Just recently there have been aliens discovered. Inspirations are the zerg of Starcraft and the aliens in series of movies with alien in the name. They are not public knowledge, and whether they will ever be is up to gaming. They have a hive mind; all are connected to the collective consciousness and it commands them all, much like a player in an RTS game. The aliens encountered thus far have been somewhat insectile in appearance.

Skill: Hive mind (instinct): The character is in contact with the hive mind, willingly or not. The skill can be used to communicate and command other aliens, but they can also command back. It works by telepathy. The collective has 4 skill, takes penalty dice for distance (1 for orbit, 2 for solar system, 3 for galaxy, 4 for outside it) and can command the character; resist with hive mind, telepathy or resist. The collective can also lend its knowledge and help for the character, in which case the character gets to help almost any skill roll with the hive mind skill, though failure at the roll inflicts a penalty die. Other keys and secrets of this chapter require this skill.

Key of slave to the brood: The character is unwilling servant of the swarm, yet has little power against it. 1 experience for obeying its orders, 3 for doing so in spite of one’s will. Buy-off: Be rid of the influence.

Key of corrupted monster: Requires some visible mutations. The character looks horrible and inhuman. 1 experience for being shunned and despised for it, 3 when someone’s actively hunting the character for such taint. Buy-off: Mask your true nature.

Secret of contaminated talent: Requires hive mind and psionics. Whenever character touches the mind of another, the brood widens its influence. Pay one instinct to inflict the slave to the brood-key upon any contacted via psionics. Upon first contact they also learn hive mind at skill level mediocre.

Secret of vast knowledge: The character can scan the collective memory for information pertaining to whatever subject; pay as much instinct as desired to get bonus dice for any attempt already aided by hive mind skill, 1 die per point of instinct. This is an awfully big deal.

Secret of regeneration: At the start of a session, or when significat time in the fiction is glossed over, roll endure are heal on level of vigour harm, up to the endure result. Further, given sufficient time, the character can heal from the most severe of wounds.

Secret of [random mutation]: Character has [random mutation]. Claws like knives! Acid spit! Tentacles! Using it may or may not cost vigour. Spitting acid does, for the record.

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