Here be (rules about) dragons

1 January, 2009 at 6:06 pm (Dragongame, game design) (, , )

I’ll be running the second iteration of a game in which players play dragons, the first ones after generations without any of their kind having graced the sky. The game is scheduled to start at during early January with the university group. The previous iteration of dragongame is the best game I did not GM well enough.

Of dragons in general

Player character dragons start as mere hatchlings, between one and half and two metres long, including tail. They are omnivorous creatures, though large quantities of meat are necessary for fast growth. Plenty of sleep is also useful for that purpose (it is also the excuse for absent players; the dragon they play just went sleeping or started a frenzy of hunting and feasting).

All (player character) dragons can fly. (A good rule of thumb: all characters can fly or none can, especially in a game where there will be insignificant amounts of exploration.) They are not particularly good at it, however, but see below on skills. They can somewhat swim and burrow with the efficiency and speed of an average dog. Dragons have keen sight, hearing and sense of smell. They can see in darkness. Their sense of touch is not particularly delicate due to scales. They are fanged and clawed.

Psychology is up to players, pretty much. Hoarding instinct is voluntary but recommended. Old dragons tend to be eccentric, but they also do not exist when the game is happening, so it does not matter very much.

Dragons can communicate with their own kind and with human-like beings via normal speech, assuming there exists a shared language. Dracons instinctively know their ancestral language, which humans are unable of speaking due to differences in physiology. Dragons are capable of reasoning in much the same way that humans are. Dragons can make use of magical rituals, much like anyone else who can find instructions for performing one.

Mechanical representation

Dragons have three stats; body, mind and will (keho, mieli ja tahto tai jotkut näiden synonyymit). To start with players divide around 8 points between these; minimum of 2 is recommended, but not enforced. Most humans have the equivalent of 2 or 3 per stat, with 4 and 1 being rare and 5 maximum. Dragons are not bound by such silly limitations.

The main function of stats is to signify how many skills and special abilities dragons have in each domain. Each odd rank (1, 3, 5, ..) in a given stat gives a single skill. Each even one (2, 4, 6, …) gives one special ability and accompanying visible manifestation (or audible, or keyed to some other sense).

In addition, attributes determine how adept characters are when compared to each other. A difference of no points means relative parity, of 1 point means edge, of 2 points means significant edge and of 3 or more points means overwhelming edge. (The character with higher stat reaping benefits of the difference, of course.)

Advancement will, I think, be something like one point per session with an extra point or two if necessary.

Resolution

A version of otherkind dice. What is the character trying to achieve, what two things are risked? Roll 3 dice. Assign one to success: 1-2 is failure, 3-4 is partial success or nothing happens, 5-6 is success. Assign two to the risks: 1-3 is bad stuff, 4-6 is averting the risk. The goal and the risks are made explicit before rolling. Ideally everyone gives ideas, but play will show.

There are also heritage tokens. They are actually fate/luck/plot/action points. You get one for playing well by some measure relevant around the table. This includes entertaining descriptions, good acting, deep character moments and clever solutions to problems. Other stuff, too.

If character has a skill relevant in a conflict, one heritage token can be expended to roll an extra die. This should be done after rolling. Player must explain how the character recalls something relevant or draws from the power of its ancestors. One token can be used to temporarily acquire the use of a particular skill. (Learning the skill when given the chance to do so is polite.)

One should note that stats and resolution are decoupled on mechanical level. They have an effect solely through the fiction; what one can attempt and what the risks are depend on stats, skills, special abilities and the conflict at hand.

Lists of skills and special abilities

I should write more extensive ones someday. The following are not exhaustive. Skills marked with star (*) require relevant in-game events before they can be taken.

Body skills

  • Burrow: This dragon can create tunnels, even a lair, in soft earth. Sand swimming: This is a separate skill that requires burrowing. The character can move as though swimming in loose sand and similar materials.
  • Fly: This dragon is particularly good flyer, to the extent of chasing and even catching birds in the air.
  • Kill: This dragon can kill any beast or man of reasonable size. Warfare*: This is a distinct skill that requires killing. This dragon can fight military formations on at least equal footing.
  • Roar: This dragon can emit a roar of greater volume than one would assume, given its size. It can be used for intimidation, large-distance communication or stunning small animals, small being a relative term.
  • Stalk: This dragon makes no more noise than a stalking cat does and always finds the best places to hide in.
  • Swim: This dragon can swim and dive as well as crocodiles.

Special abilities keyed to body

  • Breath weapon: This dragon can exhale flames, lightning, frost, acid, venom, or some other hostile substance or type of energy. Breath weapon may manifest as smoke emerging from the nostrils of an angry, or excited, dragon, or the dragon having inordinate static electricity, or by caustic spittle. The power of the breath is a function of body stat. Using a breath weapon makes the dragon awfully hungry, which makes the situation no better for those suffering its effects. Breath weapon that affects minds of targets also counts as a mind special ability. (E.g. sleep, confusion, rage.)
  • Chameleon: The dragon is of colour similar to its immediate surroundings and changes in colour as it moves around.
  • Regeneration: This dragon will heal all non-fatal wounds, up to and including lost body parts. Recovering from major wounds involves long periods of sleep. This dragon always looks healthy, its scales lightly shining and perfect in shape and colour.
  • Scales of iron: This dragon’s scales are harder than weapon of iron, bending and shattering any used against it. Body 5+ required. The scales will look special in some way.
  • Venom: This dragon has venomous bite, stinger, or maybe even claws. It can eat food killed by its poison. Poison glands are a typical sign.
  • Water breathing: The dragon can breathe underwater as in air. Swimming is a recommended skill. Webbed feet or even gills may be how this special ability manifests.

Mind skills

  • Extend awareness: This dragon can, by concentrating, simply know everything about its surroundings. This process takes about an hour per two metres of range. It relies on no normal senses, but is rather mystical in nature.
  • Literacy*: This dragon is capable or reading and even writing, though the natural shape of dragons is ill-suited for the latter activity.
  • Lore*: This dragon is very knowledgeable and competent within a certain field, such as flora and fauna, history of dragonkind or tracking.
  • Notice: This dragon notices almost everything stalking it, trying to hide from it, or generally concealed.
  • Read auras: This dragon can read what an aura reveals, assuming it can see the aura in the first place.
  • Sorcery: This dragon is particularly adept with arcane rituals, being able to analyse and modify them. Given suitable collection of arcane works, even developing new rituals is possible.
  • Teaching: This dragon can easily teach the willing on any subject they are capable of mastering and the dragon is skilled in.

Mind abilities

Unless otherwise mentioned, mind and will abilities often manifest as strange behaviour or odd-looking relevant sensory organs. Some abilities are associated with specific sensory organ, such as aura sight; these are examples only.

  • Far sight: This dragon can by concentration see places far away, known by having been there or by simple distance and direction.
  • Hear emotions: This dragon hears powerful emotions of entities close by, assuming such emotions are not being deliberately controlled or suppressed.
  • See auras: This dragon can see the auras of powerful entities; aura of a being is a function of the being’s will. The eyes of such a dragon often look otherworldly in some way.
  • Sense heat: This dragon can see heat, to the point of being able to act in complete and total darkness if there are differences in heat levels.
  • Speak with animals: This dragon can communicate with a given group of animals, such as fish, canines, spiders or little birds. Typically the dragon also behaves in a manner similar to the animals in question.
  • Speak with things: This dragon can communicate with objects of a given substance. For example, rock, plants, clouds and fog, rivers and lakes or fire and smoke. The knowledge such objects have is often peculiar and very limited.

Will skills

  • Deceit: This dragon is easily trusted and few think of questioning its words.
  • Disguise: This dragon can effortlessly act as entities in given position do, even if shapeshifted.
  • False patterns: This dragon can obscure its real thoughs and emotions, projecting what it wills on any that observe those.
  • Forceful: This dragon has very forceful personality and carries an aura of authority; lesser creatures are prone to doing as it commands.
  • Leadership: This dragon, willingly or not, attracts followers of various kinds.

Will abilities

  • Awe: This dragon inspires awe and worship among any that see it in its full glory.
  • Command substance: This dragon can bend a given substance to its will. Examples: Water, rock, clouds. Manifests as the dragon resembling the substance thus under control.
  • Domination: This dragon can control the minds of those who look deep into its eyes. The eyes look like swirling pools of molten metal, water, or other liquid substance.
  • Emanate: This dragon projects its feelings to nearby creatures; any strong emotions the dragon experiences are mirrored in lesser creatures around it.
  • Shapeshift: This dragon has a number of alternate shapes equal to the least of body, will or mind. Assuming a non-native shape takes minutes, returning to native shape mere seconds. This counts as a special ability of all three kinds. All shapes share some distinctive feature which knowledgeable observers can notice and use to identify the dragon.
  • Weather spirit: This dragon can manipulate weather by willing it to change, though the process is slow. In addition, the weather naturally follows the moods of this dragon; anger and storms, sorrow and rains, happiness and clear weather, confusion and fog.
  • Whispers: This dragon can implant ideas and actions on creatures not aware of its presence by mere whispers. The dragon’s voice is particularly compelling and soothing.
  • Wings of terror: This dragon inspires a strong instance of gives emotion on any who are under the shadow of its wings. Examples: Terror, sorrow, despair, joy, hope, madness, awe, obedience.

Design blather

The idea here is that most of the time, skills tell when characters succeed and abilities tell what they can try. If something is risky for a given character, then dice will be rolled.

I was considering some sort of mind reading ability, yet did not find a suitable way of implementing it. Maybe later, if some player is interested in such an ability.

Note that many of the abilities are powerful; players can very much shape the gameplay by taking relevant abilities and skills. I’ll try to shape my gamemastering to fit with whatever choices they make.

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Strategic rules

27 October, 2008 at 7:07 am (rpg theory) ()

I’ve been reading a collection of philosophical essays, titled “Tieto, totuus ja todellisuus”, for some months now (slowly but with certainty. A particular article by Jaakko Hintikka contained a bit of terminology I found useful. It is related to games.

Defining rules

In game theory, rules are what define a game. They tell what one can do within the bounds of the game.

For example, in chess: Turns, moving different pieces, winning, stalemate.

Strategic rules

The interesting part was strategic rules, which essentially tell what moves one should make in order to win (winning, in game theory, means maximising utility, and utility functions are something beyond the scope of rules; see, for example, playing against/with young kids, where you are likely to have different goals than you have in normal play). E.g. in chess, you generally don’t want your queen to be eaten.

Learning games

As a contrast to (most) roleplaying games, take a competitive game that has a winner. Assuming it is a good game, players will be making (strategic) choices, which will to some extent determine who wins the game. In my experience, it usually takes a bit of play to really understand these games, which is the same thing as learning some strategic rules. Simply playing the game may be sufficient, but maybe being taught by someone or reading books is more convenient or efficient. Be that as it may, once certain level of competency is achieved, then the intricate and interesting parts of the gameplay open.

Sometimes the learning process outlined above is interesting in and of itself, someties a nuisance. Personally, I only find gameplay meaningful after understanding what the game is about, in a sense.

This is far less true of roleplaying games (again in my experience); most of them are fundamentally the same game with different defined rules. There are two major exceptions: Intricate subsystems (combat and character creation are the most common) and the more divergent Forgey games.

The lesson here is that mechanical rules, in and of themselves, do not matter a whole lot. Maybe I roll 2d6 and add skill, or maybe I compare an attribute to value indicated by a table. The difference is minor, unless the way the game is played changes significantly. For example: If the way to solve problems is to have a character with suitable skill or spell, then the art of character building is important, but if the way the player approaches the problem is what determines the success of a given action, then wits and reading the GM’s/game desiger’s mind are more important, and the actual character played matters less.

In conclusion

Forge wisdom sayeth: System matters. The best way to investigate this claim is to play different systems and see if there is a difference. Here’s my refinement of the phrase above:

Take two games. Between these two, system matters to the extent that a different set of strategic rules is necessary for enjoying the different games.

Disclaimer

The above has little to do with system as defined in Forge glossary (as it encompasses defining and strategic rules actually used in play) and even less to do with the content of the system does matter essay, which is focused on GNS and so on.

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The purpose of rules

24 November, 2007 at 12:00 pm (game design, rpg theory) (, , , , )

I have dabbled in freeform. It works. This begs the question; why use rules at all?

There have, naturally, been several good answers to the question. One famous comes from the Forge and is called Lumpley principle: “System (including but not limited to ‘the rules‘) is defined as the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play.” In essence: System, including the rules, tells who can say what and when (“what” regarding the fiction). So, what are the implications? First, all games with one GM and number of players who only decide things about the behaviour of their characters are fundamentally the same. Second, there are alternatives to that model. Third, there is always a system; rules just make it explicit.

Another, more recently surfaced, theory says that rules share spotlight (originally from Ben Robbins, further elaborated by Fang Langford here, here and here). The implications include that rules which create separate subgames (hacking in Cyberpunk) not accessible to all players are bad. In turn-based environment, such as many combat systems, rules that give extra actions should be considered carefully. Critical hits and fumbles are actually meaningful rules; they give random bursts of spotlight to players. The purpose of rules is to regulate spotlight away from those who would have it in freeform gaming.

Rules also create shared expectations with regards to the fiction and player behaviour generally, which is probably more important. The Mountain Witch (Vuoren velho in Finnish) has rules for betrayal and every player knows that every other player has a dark secret. This creates the atmosphere where betrayal is assumed to happen, at some point, and hence reduces the potential for damage that may happen with unexpected interparty conflict (see also: this RPGsite thread). Game art and such also contribute in similar manner. Under this point of view rules make the gameplay smoother; less need for negotiation, fewer mistakes that need fixing.

“The rules are the physics of the game world.” is often heard. I am going to extend it a bit: Rules define setting. The effect is not necessarily straightforward, but it is there. D&D dwarves are harder to hit by giants. There might be several reasons for this, or none at all, but it will be reflected in the setting somehow. What does this imply? Well, first, the more rules, the more defined the setting will be. This may be a perk or a flaw. Second; setting andrules interact. Choosing one will or should affect the other. Third, if you want a setting that does make sense internally, take a good look at the rules and how to translate them into in-game (diegetic) information.

Rules create tactical and strategic sub-games. Some are very explicit about this, some far less so, but at least the combat or generic conflict resolution systems tend to be minigames. Implications: Make them meaningful and fun, given that they are there.

In summary, there are several ways of looking at the purpose of rules. When selecting a ruleset, or designing one, it is useful to look at it from several perspectives.

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