We fight the woods

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

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

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

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

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

This is a story about the wardens.

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

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

Rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critique

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

Sources and inspiration

Two former posts of mine: 1 and 2

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

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

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

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Persistent fantasy – system update

27 August, 2008 at 11:37 am (game design, persistent fantasy) (, , )

These are the clarified and collected rules of my default house system, still somewhat in progress.

Big picture

The design goals of this system are, in no particular order:

  • Sword and sorcerish fantasy adventure.
  • Meaningful one-shot games.
  • The setting and the characters have continuity, even though the players present in any one game may radically change.
  • Playing the game generates the setting, the characters and the rules.
  • Planning ahead is futile and impossible, or at least very hard.
  • Players have power to shape the fiction.
  • Character concepts are protected, in that breaking them is hard.
  • Conflicts should be detailed, not tactical.

Cycle of play

  1. Gather players. See how many participants there are. Take half this number, round down, and consult the list (my list is visible in the persistent fantasy page). Select the topmost characters whose players are present, though a given player can only get one character from the list to play.
  2. Consult a relevant random generator (my generator: http://random-generator.com/index.php?title=Fantasy_oracle_compilation). The players who are thus far without characters generate new ones implied or explicitly mentioned by the random entries. Should some named character not controlled by another player be eligible, playing that one is recommended, but not obligatory.
  3. Generate a situation based on the random elements and characters: What is happening, why are the characters involved, and what do they want?
  4. Play.
  5. Update the list and character records.
  6. If such is the habit, also update setting info.

Anatomy of characters

  • Starting player characters have three traits. At most one trait may have the value of six. All have integer values between 1 and 6. Values 1 and 2 indicate a minor trait, 3 and 4 a significant one, 5 a major one and 6 something potentially legendary.
  • Starting non-player characters have an arbitrary number of arbitrary traits. All must have positive integers as values.
  • All player characters must have a name.

Anatomy of traits

All traits work as defined below in the section that relates to resolution. Some have additional qualities. Examples follow. (Ksym, corruption is built for you, if you are interested.)

  • Aspirant to the throne: Increase this trait by one whenever the character does something that will prove useful in evidently grabbing the throne. Inciting a rebellion in the streets, blackmailing noblemen, gaining favour of the church, being of noble birth, deterring an invasion in the borders. It can be reduced by one as a consequence of failing at the listed tasks. Aspirant can be rolled when the character is trying to take over the throne, or at half value when negotiating with the nobles. After winning the game of thrones the trait is replaced by Queen/King of the realm or similar trait at the same value. Any trait that signifies a goal can be handled in similar way.
  • Corruption: Corruption is any source of power that takes over the character when used. A demon whispering advice, a blade with something evil bound to it, the power to make the dead walk. Using the corrupted trait means that its value increases by 1. (This does not apply to others using the trait, only the character who has it, though some corruption may spread to other characters who use it against the person wielding it.) When the value of the corrupted trait is greater than that of any other trait, it transforms the character into something else. Demonic whispers trait may turn into champion of chaos. Necromancy turns into lich.
  • Creeping doom: Any effect that slowly consumes the character. A disease, say. Increases by 1 every session. Trait may evidently transform into something else or just totally cripple the character. Curing it may be useful.
  • Lycanthropy: Any trait that can be drawn strength from, but without the condition becoming more severe. Use the trait and certain effects will come to be; your character is wounded in battle, you use the werewolf trait, win the combat, and later the character wakes up naked in a graveyard next to half a corpse of human, for example.

Names and the list

Some characters are named (including all player characters). Anyone can name a character in play. Some named characters are on the list.

While a character is on the list that particular character can’t be permanently removed from play. Should one be killed, it will later become apparent that this did not actually happen or that the character has returned to life or is now a demon who just happened to be summoned back to this world. Also: Undead.

Any character on the list is owned by some player (or GM). Unless a player explicitly says otherwise, other players are not to play that character. Any player can renounce a character; this means that any entries where that player and that character are linked are removed from the list. It is recommended for one to not renounce characters.

Named characters who are not on the list can be played by anyone, regardless of who previously played them. They can be killed permanently in game (though doing this without the character entering the list is hard) so that they actually will not come back.

Named characters not on the list should be possible result of the random generator. Named characters on the list may not be.

Unnamed characters have some traits and function as other characters do, but they do not enter the list. An unnamed character can be named at any time in play by any participant. This may be done as a reaction to the character failing a roll, so that the character immediately enters the list.

A brief respite

Some player may want to retire a character for a while, but still retain control of that character. The fiction must offer a suitable opportunity for doing this; for example, a character building a cabin in some forlorn woods and staying there. Or entering a large city incognito.

This can only be done if the character has at least one entry on the list. Remove all entries featuring the character from the list. After the session add the character once to the bottom of the list.

If a character is controlled by several players, all of them must agree to the respite. The process works as above, except that the character gets one entry per player to the bottom. The order of the entries is determined by their previous order; the player who previously was closest to the top with that character gets the first entry, and so on. Players can agree to different order.

I will not abandon you

Some characters may stick together, no matter what. A D&Dish adventuring party, a married couple, brothers in arms, a group of soldiers. Pets, cohorts, and such also qualify. The mechanical term for this will be “group”. Grouped characters must have traits linking them to the group, mentioning other members by name. Not all characters need to be thus linked, but any two characters must be linked through other chars. (A linked to B linked to C linked to A, for example.)

Grouped characters will only enter play if all the relevant players are present. If even one of the characters would enter play due to being on the list, then all will. The top-most name of every grouped character is removed from the list.

The actual procedure when using the list is to select characters as normal so long as a group is not encountered. When one is, check to see if all the players are present and if none of them are yet playing another character. If both of these conditions are true, then the relevant players are assigned the characters in the group. Names are removed from the list as above. The players hence selected count towards the total number of player assigned characters before play, and may exceed that number.

(Note to ksym and others playing: This replaces bound characters as a concept.)

Actually playing

By this point, every player has a character and the fundamental situation has been created. Characters are motivated or just plain involved.

Play happens in freeform manner; players tell what their characters do, participants tell what happens around them (should a game master exist, this is likely to be done by them). If a given player is otherwise uninvolved, playing and possibly naming an NPC is a good idea, if that particular player is up to the task.

Adjusting traits

Characters can gain and lose traits in play. This can be in the way of flashback (“When Moh was young he had to fish for his own food, so he has the trait fisher 3. Okay?”) or in-game events (“Since you killed those outlaws the word has been spreading. Take vigilante 2 as a trait.”), or mix thereof (The game starts at desert and my character has been wandering around for a while. I’ll take desert survival 1.)

The above applies to adjusting the values of traits, too. Extensively practice a skill, get better at it. Be in location where a particular skill is never used and it might go down (if someone bothers).

Resolution system

(I use six-sided dice. Other dice can be used, as long as there are enough dice to go around. Everyone must use dice with the same number of sides.)

Should a situation where both (1) the outcome is uncertain and (2) player character is in risk emerge in play, dice come to play. One can use the dice in other situations, too, but inconsequental rolls should be avoided. They break things.

For every involved character some player tells what the character does and names a useful trait of that character or a trait that other character has that can be exploited in this situation, and further that same player explains what the character does, including how the trait is used. For example: “I know this land and the best route through it (trait Born in the desert 4).” or “I meditate and consult the spirits, asking them to reveal the lay of the land (trait Shaman 3).” A clearly relevant trait gives its value in dice. A partially relevant trait gives half the value, rounded down.

Any number of traits can be introduced to a given conflict, but every time one must describe how the trait comes to play. Turns should be taken such that every player, in some order, adds more details to the conflict. This is the way through which play creates fiction.

A player can opt to remove a name from the list to get more dice. The name must be of the character in conflict and it must be linked to the player currently playing that character. Removing the top-most name on the list gives 3 dice, while the name on the very bottom gives 1 die. Every other name gives 2 dice. (Unless otherwise mentioned by the relevant player, the lowest name that gives 2 dice is removed.) This can only be done once per character per conflict. Description should be related to good luck or other unrelated factor.

If some characters have no dice, those character get a single die and the pools of everyone else are doubled.

The dice are rolled.

Interpreting dice

Some characters oppose each other, some do not. They are respectively called opponents and allies. (In this case, someone really is on your side or the other side; mechanically, there is no way of being neutral.) The relations need not be transitive, but they are symmetric. That is: Any two characters are either allies or opponents, but two characters allied to same char can still be enemies. A likes B, B likes C, A hates C (this is only relevant if there is someone for B to oppose, too).

The dice are rolled. If any opponents have dice showing the same number, every character in the conflict removes one such die from table. Continue as long as any opponents have dice showing same numbers. After this process is done, there will be one character or several allied characters who have the highest die still on table. This character, or these characters, are winners. They have a number of successes equal to the amount of dice they have that are higher than all the dice of their opponents. All characters that are not winners get their name on the list. (Order arbitrary, but generally the characters who fare the worst should be entered first in order to remain true to the game’s principles.)

In case of tie (no dice remain on the table),  there are no winners. The conflict must be started from beginning, but the situation has somewhat changed. Nobody gets to the list.

The participants playing the winning character, or winning characters, now have the power to describe what happens in the fiction. The participants playing the losing character(s) have veto power, but using it means they take harm equal to the number of successes of the one who described the events. In case of harm the situation stays unresolved (but it has changed regardless due to the way participants described their characters acting). Dice can be used again or the situation may dissolve.

Harm

Characters can only take harm when losing conflicts. Harm stacks. Player can’t invoke any traits with value equal to or less than the amount of harm that player’s relevant character has. For example: Character with 4 harm can only make use of traits with value 5+. This includes exploitable traits of other characters.

Any character with harm equal to or greater than that character’s highest trait is removed from play for this session. Maybe the character is unconscious, dead, lost, or just got bored and walked away, whatever is appropriate to the fiction. Characters can’t recover from harm in play. All harm is removed from all characters between sessions.

In play

In actual play conflicts usually have less than five participants. Mobs of people or swarms of creatures are better represented as single entities. (Peasant mob traits, an example: Torches and pitchforks 5, mob mentality 4, burn the witch 4. Peasant traits, an example: Peasant 3.)

The way dice work is actually pretty easy to show, but hard to explain. What is notable is that there are no tactical decisions to be made, except perhaps in fiction. What is also notable is that the dice practically never produce a tie; it would require that all the dice were removed from the table, which is extremely unlikely, but possible in few cases.

Also, in conflicts it is useful to check who is winning right now to provide inspiration for the narrative. I am not inclined to explain the process here, however, but suffice to say it does not make a difference on the level of crunch.

Players usually accept the offered narration. If it is unacceptable, negotiation is possible instead of taking harm. It is recommended to suggest what might happen to other participants. Don’t try writing a novel, just keep the game moving in some simple way. Embrace the obvious, because what is obvious to you might not be so to others.

It is possible to grant traits as a result of conflicts. It is usually a good way to harm other characters, for example. General guideline: The value of an added trait should be roughly equal to the amount of successes one got. Charming someone with 2 successes might give the target trait “Trusts [whoever happened to be the charmer] 2”.

Running and playing the game

This game does not actually need a gamemaster, though one is very useful for adding adversity in game. If all characters are on each others throats anyway, GM will play a smaller role. Co-GMing and such activities should be fairly easy.

The fine art of negotiation

When you win a conflict, you can suggest how the events unfold. Few key principles: Make it interesting to everyone. Don’t reach into the future, unless some character has oracular powers, and even then, giving traits is a better idea. Do give traits liberally. Try to give ambivalent traits that are not clearly good or clearly bad, as they are more fun to everyone. Give obscure and fuzzy traits.

Should some other player have an idea of what might happen, do listen to them. The idea might be good. Negotiation is preferable to dictation. But don’t reach into future.

In other words: Consequences should guide and influence future play, not dictate it. Traits are an excellent way of guiding and influencing, but not dictating.

Pacing

One of the actual reasons for having a GM is pacing. At the start of a session, it is necessary to open new story threads and expand on any potential for interest. At the mid-point, one should start focusing on the key story threads. At the end of play, only the key story thread should be there, others forgotten, for now.

The scope of traits

People should have a rough vision of what the traits in play mean. In game it is negotiated further. General guidelines: Only give full trait value in dice if the trait completely fits with the use. Almost always give half the trait in dice, as long as it can be justified. Stingy with full dice, generous with half dice.

Further development

The following are ideas or variant rules. They might be tested at some point and accepted as official at some point.

Death

A way for characters to die in play would be nice. Something definitely under player control, though. My tentative rule suggestion goes thusly: A character whose name is on the list is in conflict. Already has the player removed the character from the list to get bonus dice. Should the player want to do this again, the player must remove all occasions of that particular character from the list (permission of all players whose name is listed with that character is required). One die per name removed and the character may die as a consequence of this conflict.

Alternatively: 2 dice per name removed and the character must die as a consequence of this conflict.

Negotiation tweaking

One of the following…

  • Upon ending a conflict, the loser must suggest what happens and the winner can accept or deal harm.
  • As above, but freefrom brainstormy negotiation.
  • At any point in a conflict any player, or some specific (losing, winning, …) player can make suggestion. Anyone can answer by rolling more dice and describing more, or the suggestion may be accepted.

Things that don’t work as they should

Messy conflicts with several sides, especially if someone is throwing fireballs or other area-of-effect things. Generally, harm and messy conflicts.

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Old school (or not)

30 June, 2008 at 10:59 am (game design) (, , )

I created a fantasy game and played a session with Gastogh and Nakano. Here’s the somewhat updated rules. The combat rules were inspired by Tunnels and Trolls (which I have never played or read).

Chargen

Starting characters have 10 points to divide among hit points, power and miscellaneous. 10 points creates potentially somewhat exceptional characters, but not powerful ones. (A random orc has at least 12 points in it.)

Hit points

All characters must have at least 1 hit point. More will be useful. At least 2 is recommended. Hit points are temporarily reduced in combat, due to some poisons and generally hurting oneself. They can be healed in town (or other fairly calm and pleasant location) at one hp per day, assuming a skilled healer is present. Otherwise one hp per week.

Power

Power is used notably in combat, but also whenever something needs to be rolled. It is the generic competence and heroism of the character. Roll a die with sides equal to the power attribute. If you don’t have a d7 nearby, use a d6 instead (and so on). Using a die roller can get past such problems.

Miscellanous

This is the actual meat of the system. Misc points need not be assigned at chargen and the unassigned ones can, at GM’s discretion, be assigned once adventuring. Use one point to get any of the following and feel free to develop new ones and get them okayed by the GM and other players who care.

  • A cohort: Character built on half the PC’s points. Reasonably loyal, wants money, slows advancement.
  • Followers: 3 characters, all built on one third the PC’s points.
  • Backstabbing: When attacking from surprise roll power twice. (E.g. d6 power => 2d6 when attacking from surprise.)
  • Archer: +2 power when using ranged weapon from distance.
  • Brawler: Suffer no penalty for fighting unarmed.
  • Tough: No penalty for being unarmoured.
  • Spellcaster: Start one school of magic as detailed below, with single spell known. Additional points give new spell each.
  • Hunter/Gatherer: Support one person in wilderness that contains sufficient food and water (not in desert, yes in forest). Additional points support one person each.
  • Heirloom: Start with a powerful, potentially magical toy. Negotiate details with the GM. Selling it is bad form.
  • Contact: Know a potentially powerful ally who can be negotiated with for favours, information and missions/quests.
  • Healer: Offer skilled healing: Stabilise someone dying due to loss of hp, allow recovery of 1 hp per day in good conditions.
  • Fast draw: Once a round change weapon without spending the entire round doing so.

Inventory

In addition to the above starting characters have d6 copper coins, food and drink for 3 days, a knife, some clothes, tools for making a fire and a short pice of rope. Maybe some camping equipment. Also, each character can pick two options from the list below (selling these is bad form):

  • A poor weapon. If ranged, ammunition for 3 fights or one extended fight is included. Shield may be included but does not change the statistics in any way.
  • A poor armour.
  • Torches, rope, a ten foot pole.
  • A lousy horse not trained for war.
  • Spellbook or other magical implement.
  • Other stuff you get by asking the GM.

Profession

Each character has a profession/trade/class, which tells what kinds of stuff the character can generally accomplish. A scholar can know ancient lore, a woodsman can climb trees and track, and so on. It generally gives no mechanical benefits. (Namely, mercenaries and soldiers do not get extra power in combat.) The purpose of professions is to offer a way of knowing if the characters can or can’t do a particular task.

Actual rules

Character generation was above. In actual play the rules should be used in combat and maybe in other situations where there is risk involved and the outcome of events in uncertain. These rules do work for negotiations and playing hide and seek and whatever else, but using them for that is completely optional. I didn’t.

Combat

All characters take a -2 penalty (minimum 1) to power in combat unless they are sufficiently armed. Poor weapon from chargen qualifies. Gauntlets or a stone do not. Sharpened stick is an edge case. All characters take 1 extra damage during a combat round if they are not armoured and take any damage.

Process and example

I am assuming two sides fighting against each other. Example: Three goblins (3hp, 3 power) against two adventurers (3 hp, 2 power and 3 hp, 6 power). All are assumed to have proper equipment (of poor quality, but proper none the less).

Every combatant chooses one of the following actions during each round: Fight, run (screaming recommended), or do something else. Both sides can choose a goal related to positioning (like “We hold the door so only few can come in at a time.”), assuming the group considers them sensible. Specific targets to attack are not selected (but see surprise below). Example: People would choose positioning now, but this combat obviously takes place in a flat room with no interesting features. Every combatant fights.

All combatants who actually fight roll power. Both sides sum their totals. If the combat totals of both sides are equal, every combatant takes 1 damage. Otherwise one side is winning and has the higher result. Example: Goblins roll 3, 2, 2 for total of 7, adventurers roll 1 and 4 for total of 5.

The winning side achieves whatever positioning it was doing and deals damage to the losing side. If NPCs are losing, the GM chooses the order in which they take damage. NPC is reduced to 0 hp, drops and the next takes the remaining damage until all damage is dealt. If PCs are losing, players can divide the damage among their characters as they will (default: Everyone takes equal damage, rounded up if no agreement is reached). Any character reduced to 0 hp is dying and requires skilled aid within a few hours or dies. Example: Player chars take a total of 2 points of damage. Both take 1. Another round: Goblins roll 1, 2, 1 for total of 4. Players roll 1 and 6 for total of 7. One goblin (GM’s pick) takes 3 damage and falls.

Miscellaneous actions include combat magic, sneaking, shooting burning arrows at the oil pit, toppling statues to crush enemies, and so on. It is resolved after normal fighting. Magic and other tasks requiring concentration can be interrupted if the magus takes any damage.

Any fleeing character gets away if it has any hp left at the end of the round, unless pursued as per positioning (or after combat by other means).

A list of ways to spend a round

  • Fight
  • Run
  • Change/draw a weapon
  • Cast a combat spell
  • Keep watch over a handful of people
  • Wake up
  • Get up
  • Prepare heavy or improvised weaponry for use
  • Give an item to someone

Sneaking and surprise

To remain undetected a character must have two benefits: The character must be hiding and not actively searched for. “Hiding” means that the character must be hidden from sight, not make loud or uncharacteristic (wrt the situation) noises, have masked scent of approach from downwind when that is relevant, and so on. Active searching means exactly that and takes great attention. A guard watching a door qualifies. A lone guardsman at night in a forest can only keep a small section of the woods under active attention; two or more sneaks can surprise one guardsman. Keeping watch is a misc action in combat and prevents active participation in the fight.

A group of characters, or part of such a group, can do a surprise attack if they are undetected as per above. The benefits are simple: The surprising side can select the order in which their targets take damage. This is also true when the PCs are being surprised. It may hurt. Additional benefits: Opponents are often unarmed or sleeping or mounted or have some other reason for wasting actions.

Ranged weapons

Weapons are of 3 types: Melee, thrown or ranged. Melee weapons do good and reliable work at melee range. They can be thrown at -2 power. Thrown weapons work at short range. Round of fighting involves throwing such and preparing more to be thrown or using one in melee, which destroys the weapons or means losing it, requiring an action to equip a new weapon (or being quite good at drawing weapons or fighting at -2 penalty or being a skilled brawler). Ranged weapons work at long range (thrown ones do not), at short range and at melee with -2 power lost as thrown ones are.

It takes a successful positioning or relevant spell to move from long to short range or from short to melee.

Magic

There’s two kinds of magic: Combat and noncombat (ritual) magic. Combat magic usually takes one round to cast. It takes effect at the end of the round. Noncombat magic generally takes at least an hour to use, but often much longer.

Combat spells are either instantaneous or have duration of single combat (few minutes of noncombat). Combat spells should do damage or buff or curse. Ritual magic varies greatly, up to permanent and world-shattering events.

Schools of magic

All mages must select one school of magic. It defines the way they acquire magic, the magic they can acquire, the way it is used and the price for it.

Learning: From books and tomes and scrolls, by natural talent, through mentoring, as a natural ability (can’t learn more magic), by a deal with spirits, by dissecting ancient artifacts, …

Source of power: The fabric of reality, the very bones of earth, the deep oceans, the darkest shadows, death itself, …

Method: Chanting and drawing patterns into air, by brewing potions, by drawing (suitable) energy from the surroundings and releasing it, by inscribing actual runes on targets, by self-mutilation, through extreme concentration, commanding spirits, crafting magical objects, …

Price: Live sacrifices, lengthy preparation ahead of time, self-mutilation, hostile spirits waiting for the opportunity to strike, slow transformation into an undead of other monster, paralysing headache, …

The above should be mixed (and more created) so as to create flavourful and not too powerful mages. Namely, magic from reading is fairly hard to improve and can be powerful in other ways, natural magic can have quite low price (if any), crafting potions and such should be able to achieve great results as it is takes foresight and resources to achieve. Source of power should create mages such as elementalists and necromancers. The fabric of reality as a source of power should be more-or-less limited to book mages and those similarly limited. It is boring.

Spells

  • Healing: Ritual. Casting time one hour: Roll power, target heals 1 hit point but not above the roll or normal maximum. Two hours: Roll power four times, take the best. Target heals 2 hit points but not above the roll or normal maximum. n hours: Roll n^2 times, take the best. Target heals n points but not above the roll or maximum hp.
  • Strength: Combat. Casting takes one action, target gets +2 power to fighting. Duration: One combat or few minutes.

Some foes

Orc: 5 hp, power d6, armed with javelins, spears or axes, possibly poisoned to do 1 damage every hour for d6 hours. Sees in dark.

Hellhound: 10 hp, d6, can have nasty poison or unhealing bites of fiery bites or whatever. Sees in dark, through smoke and flames, good sense of smell.

Human soldier, professional: d4, 5 hp.

Rewards

Characters get 1 experience point for every gold piece they acquire through adventuring and spend. The characters must divide the gold they spend and hence the experience they gain. Source: Brian’s Trollsmyth.

Once a character has a number of exp equal to current point value +1 (starting characters are worth 10 points and hence need 11 xp), they get one extra point to use as they will. It must be used immediately on power or hp (no justification necessary or can be transferred into misc points which can be used at will. Such expenditures must be explained. Downtime is a good generic explanation.

One silver piece is worth 3d6 copper pieces. One gold piece is worth 5d20 silver pieces. These ratios are specific to a town or other similar economic unit. They will likely change as time passes, too.

Food and drink for a day is worth a copper. A poor weapon is worth 10 to 15. Equipment of quality is priced in silver (or even gold). Gold is rare. Outside towns and such people usually trade goods for goods or favours. Money is not frequently used, but is generally accepted.

(I will accept criticism and advice on pricing things, but I also am too lazy to do research.)

Items of quality, perhaps of magical nature, are another assumed reward. Such weapons give bonus to power when used in combat (and may do something interesting, too). Armours reduce damage taken, but never below 1, so they can’t completely negate it. Healing potions work like the healing spell, varying parameters, foul taste.

Running and playing the game

The point of the game, for characters, is to get rich and powerful. For players it is to come up with imaginative solutions to presented problems. Avoiding fair fights is recommended. For game master it is to create a problematic situation, often a dungeon, and to adjudicate how the fiction works once players get their characters involved in it.

To be explicit: There is a lot of rules material focused on combat. This material is not very interesting to play with. The point is to allow characters who shine at combat and to heavily discourage attacking superior foes, while encouraging attacking inferior foes.

Skills it takes to run this game

Running this game actually takes preparation. I’m not used to preparing games. Namely, I think the following should be prepared ahead of time: The general nature of the problem, the motivations of key figures and groups, the resources they have and the information they have. Vague idea of a map is useful. Should a dungeon be involved, mapping it to some degree is advised. At least as a flowchart with some notable things placed where they should be.

Dungeoncraft

An interesting dungeon should be constructed as follows: There should be internal schisms or outright fighting among the residents. It should be possible to negotiate with intelligent residents and to use the unintelligent ones. There should always be at least three ways to get to any place of importance, though some should be hidden or dangerous. This is a variant of the three clue rule, most recently written about by the Alexandrian.

Random encounters, dynamic dungeons, or other means of discouraging player characters from simply doing hit-and-run tactics, on foe at a time, are advised.

Getting player characters into the adventure

Some GMs may want to prepare several adventures. (Using prepublished adventures takes preparation.) Some will want to only prepare one. I recommend the following methods of getting player characters into the adventure:

  • I have prepared this adventure. We’ll play it or some other game. Here’s the plot hook.
  • As above, but replace the final sentence with “Come up with a plot hook.”
  • Schrödinger’s dungeon: Have the adventure be where the player characters go to. Take care to not nullify player choices; that is, if they specifically want to avoid an adventure or an encounter, let them have a fair chance of doing so, if it is at all reasonable. This is to avoid railroading.

Random, unrelated stuff

My sister shall, as of this autumn, be studying biology in the university of Jyväskylä, where I also study mathematics.

I will (very probably) be offline starting tomorrow, ending near the end of the week.

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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.

Components

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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