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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Going post-apocalyptic

3 March, 2008 at 9:20 pm (roleplaying) (, )

Starting next week, I’ll run a game in the Monday (university) group. Estimated duration: two to four sessions. It’s a placeholder and possible introduction to some people.

There is a summary in Finnish near the end of the post.


About 10 years in the future. Finland unless someone has a reason for some other location. There are a few dials: They will be negotiated before starting to play, probably during character creation.


In year 2010 (give or take 2) a massive outbreak of disease (not quite the black death, though similar) decimated all large settlements. If more than hundred people lived there, almost all of them died. Society stopped functioning. There were people who survived: Many lived in desolate areas and maybe heard news of the outbreak (before the news stopped coming), fortifying or hiding. The disease did not go away: few dared to enter the cities and most of those who did died. People formed small groups for protection and gathering food.

The present

3 to 10 years from the first infection. People live in groups of between 1 and 25 humans. Larger groups tend to split or be infected and perish. A given group can be formed around a strong leader, an ideology (including a religion), way of life, or simply due to simply having stumbled together. Groups live by scavenging, hunting, trading or raiding. Some groups are stationary, some wander around.

Group members have some recognisable roles: Hunter (gets food), leader, scavenger (seeks and can repair stuff), soldier, professor (knows a lot of stuff, some of which may be useful), priest (or shaman), child. The average life expectancy has dropped quite a bit. People who get old or severely wounded are often left behind by travelling groups, sometimes to a place where they should be somewhat safe, like a cottage the group occasionally returns to.

The scarred

Those who survive the disease carry visible marks: Some have lost body parts, all have a scarred skin, almost none can reproduce. Reaction to them vary: Some hold them in value (they can scavenge cities with little danger of infection), many are suspicious, some loathe them. Most hold them as a source of expendable labour; they can’t reproduce and usually won’t enjoy a long life and should be grateful for whatever little mercy they are given. There are rare groups consisting solely of the scarred.

Dial 1: Matters of technology

The default setting for the technology dial is that the old technology exist, can be used by most but repaired by few. In addition, internet, tv, radio and phones are all dead. Sources of power are scarce but may be found. Weapons and ammunition scavenged from military outposts likewise exist, but the means of reproducing ammunition are pretty much lost.

Alternatives: Technology has declined, because there are no power sources and few tools to repair anything. Ammunition has been long used. High-tech is the other option: Some people have braved the risk of infection and takes control of former factories. These people hire others to defend the factories and give out whatever good it produces in return.

Dial 2: Supernatural

Default setting for the supernatural dial is very little. People are religious (the world ending has that effect), but no god or demon has explicitly appeared and likely won’t. The disease is borderline natural in that something like it could theoretically develop. There are no high-functioning mutants in the style of Fallout or Shadowrun, no undead either. Just people. They are bad enough.

High supernatural is the other option. There are mutants, most mindless beasts, very few more like traditional superheroes. There are psionic abilities. There may be zombies or other undead. Demons and maybe even divine powers in the style of C. J. Carella’s Witchcraft.


I’ll try to use rules as little as possible. Reasons: Change of pace, exercise.

Every character has one archetype or profession. In addition, all characters can have as many other traits as they want to. All of this is descriptive. I advise between 3 and 5 miscellaneous traits to start with. More can be added in play at your and my discretion.

If there is need for resolution, the relevant player rolls d6. Target number is set by circumstances and declared by the GM (me), up to negotiation. List of target numbers: 2 in case of large edge, 3 for significant edge, 4 for fair case, 5 when the circumstances are bad, 6 for really bad stuff. Effects of failing or succeeding are usually determined ahead of time and told out loud by me. Wounding, death and so forth come as a consequence for (failing) tests or other fictional stuff, like jumping off a cliff. Wounds tend to make everything harder, but this is not formalised.

The game

I have some starting situations ready, depending on the kind of characters that are made and the setting of the dials. The most likely one is a conflict over resources, with all characters in one group that is involved. Characters of different groups are okay as long as they are okay with all players.

For those who want to make up a character ahead of time: Leave enough undefined so that the characters can be tied and are likely to fit together.


Oli nykymaailma. Tuli iso epidemia, tappoi kaikki isot ihmisjoukot (kuten kaupunkilaiset). Jäljelle jääneet organisoituivat pieniin joukkoihin. Nyt nämä kilpailevat keskenään resursseista. Yliluonnolisen ja teknologian merkittävyys päätetään paikan päällä.

Säännöt ovat yksinkertaiset. Niistä ei tarvi huolehtia.

Pelitilanne riippuu suureksi osaksi hahmoista. Jonkinmoista jengien välistä konfliktia luultavasti luvassa. Hahmot voivat aloittaa kyvykkäinä tai tärkeinä, mutta ei mitään puolijumalaa välttämättä ole tarvetta pelata. Nobilista pelataan sitten joskus myöhemmin.

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Death note?

12 February, 2008 at 8:17 pm (game design) (, , , )

There exists an anime called Death Note. I have seen some episodes of it. Premise: A college student finds a notebook. Writing a name on it causes the death of the named person. Kills criminals. Implausible plots and death gods are involved.

Why is the relevant? Well, Thalin just finished he SW d20 game he GM’d in the Monday (university) group. I’ll run a one-shot, or maybe even longer, game with inspiration from the aforementioned anime. (Implying that I steal the idea of death note and ignore everything else.)


I’ll likely go with Egypt. Something like Indiana Jones, tech-wise. Other possible setting is South or Meso-America. Doesn’t matter that much, anyway.

Characters are people who organised an excavation to get hold of the fabled Book of the Dead or Book of Death. Whatever. Write any name on it and think about the person and he will die. Possible elaboration: Death occurs within an hour and not immediately, character can determine the method of death, some sort of sign is left, the killed follow the character as undead bodyguards, character turns into undead, … It is quite easy to come up with more.

Characters should either know each other well (in which case getting the item is of extreme importance) or be strangers who have used false identities so as to not give each other power over themselves. Either works.


This is what I call a generic system. It makes relatively few assumptions. It does have a new way to roll dice because I like experimenting.

Characters are defined by an archetype: Something that tells their general skill-set and way to solve problems. Occupation is a good idea. In addition, all player characters and important NPCs have other traits. I think I’ll go with one related to appearance (like lean, scar-face, sun-burned, tidy aspect, big, kid) and one to personality (religious, friendly, scheming, irritable, curious). These are simply to make the characters easy to remember (appearance) and to play (personality). More can be added in play as explained soon.


Resolution is engaged if and only if there is a consequence to both succeeding and failing such that both take the game to interesting directions.

Dice pool. Get two dice if doing something clearly suitable to the archetype (soldier shooting or marching, chemist investigating a foreign susbtance), one die for something related to the archetype (journalist repairing a camera, guide telling about local legends of man-eating ghouls), one die for every relevant trait, up to two dice for favourable circumstances, variable number of dice roll-over from any linked rolls. Also: One die for every trait the opponent has that hinders the opponent. If you have no dice, you get one and the opponent’s pool is doubled. If neither would get any dice, both get one. If a roll is not opposed, GM sets a suitable amount of dice for it.

Before any dice are rolled, the consequences for succeeding or failing are described by GM. They are open to negotiation. After they have been agreed upon (negotiation is rare), dice are rolled as follows: Both sides total their dice and roll them (example sets: {1, 2, 2, 4, 4}, {2, 3, 3, 6}). Matching results are negated so that both sides lose an equal number of dice (example continues: both have one 2 and one 3, so lose one of both => {1, 2, 4}, {3, 3, 6}). Highest number indicates the triumphant side (the second, 4<6). Number of dice the winner has that are greater than all the dice the opponent has indicate the number of successes the winner got (6>4, 3<4 => 1 success). This number can be rolled over to any roll that is clearly linked to this one.

Foo points

Every system needs foo points. I might call them willpower in honour of WoD or maybe something setting-appropriate. Any ideas?

Players start with 2 or 3 foo points. Foo points do any of the following but only when rolling the dice, up to veto by other participants in the game:

  • Define a new trait for your character. This must be relevant to the roll at hand, either beneficial or harmful, and does contribute a die to the roll. “Did I mention my char is a pretty good swimmer?”
  • Define a new trait for an NPC in the conflict, up to the condition above. I am not certain of including this.
  • Get 2 dice in the conflict. Use before rolling. “I buy flowers and chocklad to her before knocking on her door.”
  • Spend n to get n dice in the conflict. Use after rolling. “The dog is about to catch me when a hare jumps from the bushes. Dog runs after it, barking loudly.”
  • Give to another player for whatever reason, but hopefully for entertaining play.
  • Remove a trait the character has grown over after demonstrating said development in the conflict. This probably won’t happen in such a short game.

Foo points can be earned in the following ways:

  • Get them from another player, hopefully due to entertaining play.
  • Get them from GM due to good (role)play.
  • Get one when your trait gives a die to your opponent in a conflict.

I’ll use whatever small objects I happen to find to represent foo points and kill book-keeping.

Designer’s rambles

Chargen is quick and simple. I can drop movie references (quality movies like Mummy [who may return], Indiana Jones) if someone gets stuck. Character development, if any, happens in play. Players have narrative power if they want to seize it, but doing such is not mandatory.

Dice are rolled when it matters and players can, if they care about it, influence the result significantly. (Forge theory or at least Ron Edwards would call this a position mechanic or some such.) This also has the tendency to build more colourful fiction as a side effect. As a bonus: Resolution practically always resolves something. Draws are rare and can only happen when both sides have the same amount of dice. Also: Adding dice after the roll can, in certain situations, wildly alter the result.

Giving foo points for good roleplaying is something that keeps me active and watching the performance of people. I just need to lower my standards to get the foo flowing properly.

The situation: General structure is one of my favourites; there is this powerful MacGuffin. You are about to get it. Who will take it? Who will get to use it? Will the others be killed? After that has been resolved, the nature of the game changes significantly. The main theme becomes: You have the power to kill anyone. Any public person at all. Anyone who has ever slighted you. Ultimate power. Ultimate corruption?

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