The League of Extraordinary Roleplayers: From Swamps To Superheroes

mnm_wp_banners

This post is going to be a touch unique, because I want to share an idea for a tabletop RPG campaign that I’ve had bouncing around in my head, and maybe try to figure out exactly what about it I find so interesting.

The origin of the idea comes from a concept called the West Marches, a game run and then detailed by designer Ben Robbins. His detailed (and very good) writeup can be found here, but the summary of it is that the West Marches was a campaign designed to be extremely resilient to group volatility: that is, the availability of the players and the GM(s). The West Marches followed a cast of characters exploring and venturing out into the eponymous Marches, a hostile, dangerous region at the edge of the civilized world. Players explored, mapped out, and became familiar with this one, well-defined region, which would change and grow and respond to the player’s actions over time.

The benefits of such a campaign were many. Since there was no real overarching plot, simply exploration-focused ventures out into the wilderness, players could opt in and out of sessions as their schedule permitted, without worry of disrupting the story. Constant retreading of similar in-game ground not only helped players feel like real explorers, as their discoveries were constant, and provided information that could be reused as parties explored familiar ground, but also eased the work of the GM, as prep done for a given area could be reused, or grown upon, as players return to the same area over and over. Having this single, constant environment grow and evolve in response to the players, and having players develop a familiarity with the environment and how it works, ended up creating a real living, breathing, world.

So, this was rolling around in the back of my head, about a month ago I was on the RPG subreddit when I happened across this post, in which a GM was getting public opinion about what they should run that would be resilient towards a setting in which players would drop-in and drop-out at random intervals. In the top comment was a single line which suddenly sparked a wave of creativity in my head:

goodideas

What a good goddamn idea, I thought.

And thus, the gears started spinning. Almost all superhero media, from comics to TV series all the way up to the Marvel Cinematic Universe are episodic in one way or another: while elements from previous stories might be worked in to new stories as payoff for long-time fans, almost every piece of media is either self-contained or inside of a small arc, making the format a natural fit. Each session could be a self-contained story in which a subset of this larger superhero team takes on the villain of the week. Villains could pop up repeatedly, establishing themselves as central figures in the world, and allowing them to develop relationships with certain player characters (similar to the way Batman and the Joker, and Superman and Lex Luthor, have special relationships, despite the fact that Batman and Superman face other villains, and the Joker and Lex other heroes). Setting the game in one metropolitan area allows players to develop familiarity with the setting, and for the setting to respond to player actions (read: destruction).

The benefit a superhero game has over a fantasy game such as West Marches, I think, is that the genre allows room for a disparity of both tone and scale. Say, for example, I’m running Marvel Cinematic Universe: the Campaign for my group. If, one day, I have my Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Captain America players as a party, I have a chance to tell a much more down-to-Earth, street-level story in which my party is dealing with thugs, criminals, and gangsters in the grittiest parts of the city, and to tell really human stories about real people dealing with real problems: addiction, corruption, and community become themes within striking distance.

Say next week rolls around, and while last week’s party find themselves busy, this week I have a new crop of players, playing Doctor Strange, Thor, and Hulk. Well, now, within the same setting, I can now tell a story on a grand scale, of gods and magic and parallel worlds and of cataclysmic stakes. This game is now dealing with battles for the fate of all humanity, and themes of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, of courage in the face of impossible odds and of dealing with the unknown. This is the same game in the same world as last week, just on a much larger scale. Much like the real world, such a game setting operates on a multitude of scales, each one having its own serious threats that, to people operating on that scale, seem earth-shatteringly important.

This is, of course, a bit of a double-edged sword for the GM. While such a game does open up room to tell all sorts of stories and to have all sorts of different kinds of adventures, it means you have to have prep ready to run a game on any part of the spectrum  of scale, so as to be prepared for any type of group to show up. Also, you need to be prepared for if, say, Daredevil, Luke Cage, Doctor Strange, and Thor all show up to the same session. You need to be ready to present something challenging enough that your stronger characters don’t plow right through it, but easy enough that your lower-power characters don’t feel impotent.

I think the solution to this, however, ties back to the strength of a campaign set up in this manner: player and character connection to the setting and the NPCs within it. In such a game, players will come to recognize and ultimately identify with parts of the city that they like. They’ll have NPCs that they come back to again and again for help, which they eventually will develop affinity for, and particularly nasty villains that come back again and again will be the subject of hatred and ire. As your players become more and more engrossed in this world, it will be easier to develop stories that can engage the entire group no matter the power level.

Civil-War-2.jpg

Think of Captain America: Civil War, for example. That movie contained a pretty massive ensemble cast of characters, from characters like Vision and Scarlet Witch, who are honest-to-god superheroes with seemingly unbounded potential, to Hawkeye and Falcon, who are…some dudes in suits. There was potential for a few characters to seemingly dominate the story through sheer power, but this was ultimately mitigated by weaving the central conflict in with the interpersonal drama already established within the “campaign”.

By drawing on the relationships the characters had with one another, the stronger characters had greater incentive to “tone it down”, while the weaker characters had the intimate knowledge of their foes that allowed them to go toe-to-toe. Furthermore, the central conflict of Civil War played out on a few levels of scale, such that characters tended to square off against their closest equals instead of preying on the weaker or getting stomped by the stronger.

While my current Edge of the Empire group is still going very strong, I’m definitely going to keep this superhero idea on the backburner. I think as I grow older, and my responsibilities greater, the idea of having such a game that is so responsive to real-world schedules, while still remaining so potentially meaningful and offering such a variety of stories to tell, will only become more and more enticing.

Advertisements

Hacking Roleplaying Games for Fun and Profit

dragon-672x350

When people refer to modding games, the term tends to refer to modifying video games (or, at least, hardware and software in general). Modding is a weird situation for designers, in that you’re getting a preexisting design, and you’re hacking and slashing and adding to it to match a new design. It’s as if you were a sculptor, and instead of getting a fresh block of marble, you’re given someone else’s sculpture.

However, what a lot of people don’t know is that there is a fairly vibrant culture of tabletop RPG hacking out there, of people taking tabletop RPG systems and modifying the rules for new purposes. For instance, check out this hack of Fantasy Flight’s Edge of the Empire system, turning the system into a sword-and-sorcery fantasy game. Or, alternatively, you can play some Star Wars, but with this hack of Apocalypse World.

Not wanting to be left out of the fun, I’ve decided that, as long as I have a bit of free time between semesters, I’m going to try my hands at a bit of hacking, just for fun. After all, it’ll take less time than starting a new game from scratch (especially considering I have in progress projects that need time), while still scratching the itch to work on something new, as well as getting some time to bang around in someone else’s rules and maybe see how an actual pro does it.

The system I’ll be hacking is Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition. I’ve read through the 4E rules, and am very familiar with D&D rules in general, but always disliked using miniature combat in general, and my affection for 3.5/Pathfinder was too great to be shook by a new edition (at least, until friends from my gaming group ranted and raved about 5th Edition).

DungeonMaster-2.jpg

Now, inspired by some reddit posts of other people who’ve taken to hacking Fourth Edition, I’m going to take a crack at it myself. Hopefully, this project won’t consume too terribly much time (when compared to a full game designed from scratch), and should be pretty fun.

Step one to this process is rereading the rules for Fourth Edition. Taking a deep dive into how the actual game functions, and reading them with hacking in mind, is an obvious first step. See what I don’t like, see what I do, and generally try to piece together what the rules are lending themselves to, what situations the rules seem built to push sessions to, and what mood the rules evoke.

With that knowledge in tow, the next step is to figure out a plan. I think it’s safe to say that I don’t want to keep the setting wholesale, since I already have a perfectly good game for playing D&D, and that’s D&D. Whether that means I’ll turn it into some other type of fantasy (perhaps some Warhammer-style grimdark, or something a bit more cutthroat and in the shadows), or maybe I’ll turn it into something completely different.

Given that the rules set I’ll be working with is D&D, the third step will most likely be the construction of classes. 4th Edition is very class-focused, giving each class unique paths and abilities, so redefining those classes will be the easiest way to make significant changes to the game. Classes define what the major roles players can take on will be, what players will be doing, and what sort of stories the game will facilitate.

With that, the fourth, and biggest step, is to go at the rules themselves, and make the changes as I see fit to match the vision. I don’t 100% know to what extent these changes will be made, since I don’t know what they are yet, but the more extreme the setting change, the greater the mechanical changes will be, more than likely, although I don’t want to get too far away from the original rules. Generally thinking, I believe my policy will be to try and keep everything that I can, and making minimum possible modifications to the actual rules, only changing what I need to.

Once that’s done, the “last” step is to playtest. The reason I say “last” is that playtesting and modification of the rules will probably go hand in hand, with multiple repetitions of each in a cyclical fashion, as playtesting informs rules modifications and rules modifications demand playtesting.

I think modifying tabletop RPGs is a really interesting idea, and very easy to do. After all, all you need is a word processor. With this project, I’m looking forward to the idea of taking an established game and making it something new.

Writing A Story For An Existing Canon

cannon_chateau_du_haut-koenigsbourg_france
First: Make sure to pack the papers together, so that they fire as a single projectile instead of just scattering everywhere

Whenever existing franchises have their debut in the world of video games, the matter of story is often an interesting one. People love the stories in their favorite books, movies, and shows, so when those books, movies, and shows become games, writers have an awkward balance to strike between giving fans what they want and keeping them from getting bored.

I’ve noticed that, generally speaking, whenever a series needs to be adapted for a game, there are basically three core strategies that can be used:

Strategy #1: Throw Canon, and Chronology, In The Dumpster

jojo

The most recent game to use this strategy is also the game that inspired this post: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Eyes of Heaven. Promising a story set in the long-running JJBA franchise, Eyes of Heaven delivers a Jojo’s story by taking anything remotely resembling chronology and throwing it into a dumpster before lighting the whole thing on fire and, presumably, posing.

Thanks to the narrative trope of “time travel, alternate universe bullshit”, Eyes of Heaven gets to simultaneously connect to every single part of the series at its most interesting. Noteworthy characters who died (multiple times, in some cases) come back for basically no reason. Old and young versions of the same character fight side by side, as do characters who are technically the same person in two different parallel universes.

This kind of story is sort of the Greatest Hits album of a series: all of the best moments, without a shred of context or framing. You just get to see all of your favorite cool guys do a bunch of cool stuff, but no one’s going to say the story is emotionally engaging or even meaningful. It’s essentially just a montage. Ultimately, this kind of game is extremely appealing as a massive “What If?” simulator for hardcore fans, but people new to the franchise are going to be utterly lost, if not repulsed entirely.

Strategy #2: The Same, But More

maxresdefault-7

A strategy I feel like was more popular in the 90s and 2000s, this strategy basically involves remaining as faithful to the source material as possible, while adding content that extends the lifespan of the game, while not significantly modifying the story. Obviously, this was more common in the eras where it was commonplace for studios to poop out a crappy tie-in game with every big-budget movie.

The benefits of this strategy are obvious: your writing work is reduced immensely. Basically, rummage up the original manuscript or screenplay, Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V, done. Your level designers get the basic structure and order of the levels handed right to them, and your artists have mountains of reference material to go off of. Basically, all you have to do is extrapolate on the contents of the original work to get that bonus material. If your characters know each other before the start of the original work, cover that origin story in your game. Everywhere the camera cuts from one action scene to another, cover the in-between in the game.

Of course, this is a double-edged sword. Your project has expectations to meet in the minds of people familiar with the project. You need to hit the right story beats, show the right places, show the right events happening in the right way, and you need to strike the same mood and tone. If you don’t, your game isn’t faithful, and you’re going to make fans mad, and you’re going to create tension as people who know the story through your game struggle to communicate with people who know the story through the original. That’s not what you want, you want a project of this nature to harmonize with the original work, to bring in new fans cleanly, and to expand the experience of new players.

Strategy #3: A New Entry Entirely

ghostbusters1

Sometimes, games come out that have the gall to simply declare themselves a part of a series as important as the founding works. I think that Ghostbusters: The Video Game is one of the most interesting renditions of this idea: it just stood next to two of the most beloved comedy movies of all time and said “Yeah, I’m the sequel”.

This is really the dream of all of the fans on your team, which is hopefully everyone on your team. You get to produce a brand new work using this series or work that you already love, creating a new project, a new entry. It’s the dream of every fan, because you basically get to work side-by-side with the original creator, even if not concurrently.

The down side, however, is obvious, especially to anyone who’s read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: you have a standard that you have to meet. Instead of with Strategy 2, where you have a fairly tangible set of requirements your adaptation has to meet (Harry needs to have a scar, Hogwarts is in Britain, etc.), now you have this much more ambiguous requirement that you meet the level of quality of the original works, and that you be “true” to the original works. Existing characters need to act like the original writer would have them act, and new characters need to feel like they belong, and the same goes for everything else. All of a sudden, you have a pedigree to match.

No matter what strategy you implement, your goals for adapting an old canon into a game are basically the same two, which are what I’m going to leave you with:

  1. Celebrate the original work, and revel in the things that make people like it
  2. Allow people to enjoy the original work in a new and interesting way

 

Achievements as a Force For Good

scorewhore

“Is it my turn to talk? Alright cool. H…hi, everyone, my name’s Michael, and I’m a reformed achievement addict.”

Achievement addicts, or as they’re sometimes pejoratively known, “score-whores”, are people who obsessively seek out achievements in games, usually on the Xbox line of consoles. Some people who had it way worse than me would buy crappy games purely on the knowledge that they offered easy achievements.

For me, it wasn’t like that, though. Generally speaking, I only played the games I wanted to play, with the exception of some free advergames (I show my relatively high Doritos Crash Course score in shame, although that game kinda wasn’t awful). For me, getting achievements was a way to show mastery of a game, to show appreciation. It was a measure of how much of that game I had truly explored.

I’ve since broken out of my achievement hunting habit, thanks to two reasons. One, I started playing on consoles with, frankly, worse achievement architectures, such as my PS4, as well as on Steam. Two, I realized that most achievement lists were poorly designed, and did not comprise a full representation of a game’s contents, and thus, their value to me decreased.

Looking back over my achievement list, I have quite a few regrets. Grinding out the multiplayer in Bioshock 2 and Red Faction Guerilla was maddening. Looking at the achievement lists for the first 3 Gears of War games still gives me haunting flashbacks. But there were other games whose achievements actually probably led to me having more fun.

Take, for example, “The One Free Bullet” from Half Life 2: Episode 1. This achievement required you to beat the entire episode using only a single bullet, which had to be used to unlock a gate near the beginning of the game. This forces you to play the entire game using the Gravity Gun, the crowbar, and explosives, which is actually quite a bit of fun. And while carrying that little garden gnome around Half Life 2: Episode 2 was terrible, give me a bit more of a robust inventory system, and three friends, and I had a blast doing the exact same thing for “Guardin’ Gnome” in Left 4 Dead 2.

4120372693_e6ab3d3941
Probably because that game lets you bludgeon zombies to death with the gnome.

In fact, looking over my achievements, all the ones I really look back at with fondness are the ones that forced me, or at least encouraged me, to mix up my playstyles. Looking over the Fallout: New Vegas achievements reminds me how a subset of those achievements inspired me to play my favorite character: Carl, the brutish Legionnaire who liked hitting stuff with clubs and gambling. Halo 3 ODST was a lot more fun on Legendary, I mode I normally never play, but did for the achievement. Trying to engineer situations for “Flippin’ Crazy” and “Global Impact” in Crackdown had me maximizing all of those games’ systems.

This, I think, is the real power of achievements. By simply existing, they can imply a way of playing the game that isn’t obvious in the game, and serve as a nice way of signposting these strategies without having something extremely obvious in the game (“Try killing those guys without shooting!” a random NPC screams). Since they’re not in the game, players don’t miss out on mechanical benefits for not doing them, they’re just little suggestions, little nudges towards an idea.

 

How I Would Make A Suicide Squad Game

Suicide-Squad-Movie-Set-Visit
Step 1: Be Not Terrible

This isn’t going to be a review of the recent Suicide Squad movie, because I don’t have much to say that reviews haven’t already. It’s really bad, and has some severe problems with pacing, choppy editing, and characterization. That’s not interesting to say, though.

Instead, I want to explore a hypothetical. Let’s say that DC wants to release a game following the movie’s critical failure, in an attempt to regain audience approval. It’s going to be a big-budget, AAA game, and I’m assigned to be creative director, presumably because every other game designer in the world died in a tragic accident. Maybe all of GDC got swallowed up in some sort of hell portal. Who knows. It was probably id’s fault.

First thing’s first: I would set the game up in a mission structure, where every mission takes place in a semi-open area, like Dishonored. The prison would serve as a hub area for story elements, to embark upon new missions on, and maybe to handle character customization. More on that in a bit. Each mission has Amanda Waller send the Squad out on some dangerous job, usually to neutralize a super-villain, but there are plenty of collectibles and side-quests in this areas. This structure lacks the “But shouldn’t you be saving the world right now?” problem of games like Skyrim: the Suicide Squad is full of real jerks, so it’s in-character for them to drop what they’re doing and go pursue selfish desires.

However, despite this, we need a reason for the Squad (read: our players) to stick relatively close together. If we include objectives which only one person cares about (which would be cool, I think, like having Deadshot take a diversion to steal some textbooks for his daughter), we need a reason for them not to just book it in that direction and leave the rest behind. The way we handle that is NOT to give the player playing Rick Flagg the ability to blow up any other player’s head, because that is an awful idea. I think the solution would instead just be to make the game fairly challenging, such that players who run off on their own, they just get curb-stomped by a swarm of enemies.

But that brings us to the actual gameplay, then. Here’s where I think the really good design needs to be. My first idea, design wise, is that half of the characters, specifically Deadshot, Rick Flagg, Captain Boomerang, and El Diablo, play from a first-person view, while Harley Quinn, Killer Croc, and Katana play from a third-person view. These three characters are largely melee focused, and in my opinion, melee combat just feels better from a third-person perspective. On top of that, those are three characters who look pretty cool doing what they do, from Harley bouncing around hitting people with a bat, to Croc tanking enemies like a monster, so why not let those players see themselves be awesome? On top of that, a third-person perspective gives these players greater situational awareness than the other four, adding to their value to the team.

Actual gameplay focuses more on the players getting swarmed by nameless mooks, like in the film, sort of like in Left 4 Dead. Maybe these swarms will be melee-focused zombie guys, or maybe they’ll be ranged opponents, but mixing it up gives a chance for both the ranged and the melee Squad members to shine. I think key to the design should be that every Squad member plays differently, such that a player who is sick of, or doesn’t like how, one character plays can re-spark their enthusiasm for the game by playing someone else.

66787_Left4Dead2ThePassing-Screenshot-10
“OK, which one of you ding-dong-ditched me?”

For example, among the melee Squad members, there seems like some surprisingly different gameplay styles implied through the character design. Harley is a more nimble opponent who isn’t actually very physically tough, so what if she played as a more dodging and blocking based melee fighter, maybe not as efficient as Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham games, but still extremely mobile, and focused on well-timed interruptions to enemy attacks. Killer Croc, meanwhile, is an obvious fit for party tank. He can just wade into enemies, and maybe can toss them around for an added sense of being a real big tough guy. Katana, meanwhile, has a sword that consumes the souls of those it kills, so I think she plays more as a finisher-based character. If an enemy is stunned or staggered, like after being thrown by Killer Croc, Katana can launch a super-cool instant execution and consume that enemy’s soul, which maybe also has some sort of mechanical benefit for her, like regaining a bit of health (since she lacks the survivability of Harley’s deftness and Croc’s size).

killer-croc-waylon-jones
In the interest of fairness and brand consistency, maybe we don’t have Killer Croc be a twelve foot tall murder machine, as fun as that would be.

Among the ranged Squad members, there’s still plenty of room for variation. I think El Diablo, as the resident pyrokinetic, is heavily focused on AoE damage and controlling space. His fire doesn’t do a ton of damage, but by spraying large clusters of enemies, or by covering key chokepoints in fire, he gets his money’s worth by spreading that damage around. Deadshot and Flagg are both similar characters, ability-wise, so I propose leaning heavy into the key differentiators. Deadshot focuses on tricks (like the hopping on the hood of the car thing in the movie). I’m thinking we give him some parkour abilities, and maybe some fun, almost gun-kata moves. Flagg, meanwhile, as the only official member of the team, can requisition some cooler gear, so he has access to traps, grenades, rocket launchers, and other cool weapons and items.

I think Boomerang sticks out as a character whose gameplay isn’t immediately fun. However, given his personality and characterization in the movie, I think we can make him the character most suited for “lone wolfing it”, despite what I said earlier. He’s pretty fast and a little tough, so he can stand being out on his own for a little bit longer than anyone else. Why give him this ability? Because he has a unique secondary goal that ties directly into his character and gameplay: find alcohol and get wasted. The drunker the Boomerang player gets, the more access he has to powerful, awesome boomerang-powered skills that are extremely handy in a firefight. Boomerang might randomly split from your party for no reason, but when he comes back, he’ll be your guardian angel in a firefight.

Add onto these basic mechanics some player progression, maybe through loot, or maybe through leveling up a skill tree for each hero, add in some interesting side quest design and encounter design meant to give every hero a chance to shine, and maybe some raid-style boss battles at the end of every mission, and I think this game would be super cool. It offers the team-based gameplay of a Left 4 Dead or a Rainbow 6: Siege that has players replaying missions over and over again, trying out new characters and strategies and gaining map awareness, but also the character driven gameplay of something like Overwatch that makes every character feel unique, and we have ourselves an interesting game.

 

Thirty Minutes or It’s Free: Using Dominoes In Tabletop RPGs

dominos
This is both incorrect and making me very hungry

Sorry about the late post: I recently moved, and in the hustle and bustle of the move I forgot to queue a post for this Wednesday.

Something that has always fascinated me is the idea of making a tabletop RPG which does not rely on dice as the primary resolution mechanic. While reliable, understandable, and fun to roll, dice are hardly the only way to produce random results in a physical space. Cards have been used for a while, notably in Deadlands, but that’s not the end of it either. The thing I’m interested in, however, are dominoes.

Dominoes have a number of interesting properties. For starters, every domino has sides, which can have the same number, different numbers, a number and a blank, or two blanks. On top of that, the shape of a domino makes it easy to lay on a table, and hard to accidentally shift around. The uniform shape of dominoes also makes it easy to lay them adjacent to one another. Geometric shapes can easily be formed using dominoes in this manner.

The naive approach to making a game with dominoes is simply to use them as close to dice as you could: whenever you need to resolve a skill check, pull a domino from some sort of bag, box, or other random pile, and use one of the numbers on it as the result for the check, plus or minus modifiers. This works, but it’s also really boring, and does nothing that a die couldn’t do.

What if we spiced that up a little bit? What if the domino pulled represented both your skill check and you enemy’s skill check, simultaneously? After all, it has two numbers on it. I could see this working in a game of dueling, where the actions of the two combatants seem to happen simultaneously.I think for this to be interesting, you’d need a system where “get the highest number” (or, conversely, “get the lowest number” isn’t the core principle for dice rolls, or players will just always end up giving themselves the good side of the domino and their adversary the bad.

The issue with such a system is that player characters don’t always have an active adversary. If the character is climbing a wall, they pull a domino and, what, the other side represents how wall-y the wall is? That’s goofy. However, there is one “adversary” that player characters will always have to confront:

1445287639-JekyllandHyde_tickets
Their love of classic literature!

Characters are constantly undone by their own flaws, their own tragic characteristics and dark secrets. It’s possible to structure a game based around those flaws and tragedies using dominoes as a core mechanic. Whenever a character attempts to do something, they pull a domino, and choose a side to select as their skill check result. The other side doesn’t go to an enemy this time, instead it goes to what I am hastily going to name the Tragic Flaw Table.

The Tragic Flaw Table contains as many entries as the highest possible number on the side of a domino plus one (the plus one is to account for the blank), and contains a series of the character’s worst personality traits, with a short description and/or mechanical ruling when appropriate. When a character makes their skill check, they must look at the unused side of the domino. The flaw related to that number on the Tragic Flaw Table activates. This is obviously going to require some clever wording of the Flaws to ensure they make some amount of sense: if a character swings their sword at a foe, and the Flaw that comes up is “Has a hard time getting to sleep”, you’re probably going to just end up with a player shrugging.

Or, what if we took the dualistic approach even further, and simply gave every character a straight-up evil side, like the Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll. Instead of the Tragic Flaw Table, you have a sort of Latent Evil Table, and whenever you pull a domino, you use one side as the skill check and the other one activates the associated trait on the Latent Evil Table. For instance, maybe 3 is associated with Disappear Without a Trace, an ability that lets your evil doppelganger simply disappear from a scene, no questions asked. Every time you pull a domino and don’t use a 3 side, you’re giving your evil side one “Get Out Of Jail Free” card.

love this, but let’s shift gears and talk about how we could use the domino’s geometric shape in game design. Traditional domino rules state that you can only lay dominoes next to each other as long as the touching sides have the same number. Let’s ignore that. That’s no fun.

Instead of that, what if we used the dominoes as a sort of “sentence construction” system. For instance, for convenience sake, let’s say we have dominoes that can have the numbers 1-6, without a blank, on any given side. Let’s then construct this table:

chart

Whenever you lay a domino on the board, you have to connect it to at least one other domino by having the sides touch. This laying of a domino represents your action. When you do so, you read the connection you made through this table, and that represents how you did. For instance, if there’s a domino on the table with a 5 side, and I lay a domino down such that a 2 is now touching the 5, I can read my result on this action as “With my heart pounding, I use the environment to succeed”. Depending on the context, I can then go on to describe how exactly that plays out (maybe I throw a flowerpot at my foe to distract them while I make the killing blow, or maybe I impress my crush by hitting the jukebox to get her favorite song to play). Clever domino orientations can introduce a third number to this chain, which adds the suffix sentence fragments.

Dominoes are just one way to spice up a resolution system for a roleplaying game. When considering how mechanical resolution in a game will work, don’t be afraid to use things other than dice, especially things as common as a deck of cards or dominoes. When you do venture out into the Wild West of game mechanics, consider what makes your new mechanic unique, and build a game based on that.

Violently and Mercilessly Killing Your Children

Samara_vs_Morinth.png
Except, y’know, not like your offspring, but like your ideas.

So, in the second part of this series of blogs, I came to the conclusion that the current dice system for my tabletop RPG Blackmarked is hot garbage. It’s terribly non-evocative, the actual probability distribution was all wrong, and it had a lot of seemingly arbitrary math tacked on.

Unfortunately, I had already written about 50 pages of rules using this system. It was deeply ingrained into all of the other systems. What do I do? Do I just try and fix it up a bit so I don’t have to change too much? Maybe at least try to develop a system for which the Target Numbers end up looking similar?

No. Of course I don’t.

Just because it’s going to be a lot of work doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Like I said, a core dice mechanic is essential to a good game, and will permeate through all of its parts. To leave something so fundamentally uninteresting at the core of my game would be dooming it to a death sentence.

So what’s a better system? Well, basically, the only way to find out is the same way you generate any good design: raw iteration. Create a new idea, put it through the grinder, keep what works, trash what doesn’t, repeat until game is good. Anyone who thinks they have the best version of their design in the first iteration is either divinity given flesh, or an idiot.

So, here I am, stuck thinking up a new system. I needed something interesting, something that captured the mood and theme of my game at its first level. Eventually, what I came to was going back to one of the games that inspired BlackmarkedDark Souls. Specifically, what I thought of was how every action in that game ties back to the Stamina system, which limits how much you can do in a single span of time by forcing your character to rest. Alright, I thought, here’s a system I can work with. A bit of reworking, and…

Idea #1: the dStamina System

  • Every dice roll is a 2d6 roll (two, six-sided die) plus the relevant Skill. If the result is greater than or equal to the Target Number, it’s successful.
  • Every character has a pool of extra d6s called the Stamina Pool, which may be added on to any roll. Resting is the only way to replenish this pool, and depleting it causes exhaustion.

OK, so immediately we have a simpler system, and one which seems to invoke the theme of characters slogging through this world, instead of marching triumphantly, a little better. There’s a pretty glaring problem, though, which ruins this system. Basically, if Target Numbers are low enough, or Stamina pools high enough, players will just save their pools for one big dice roll at the end of a session, throw all but one Stamina die in the roll, and make success almost mathematically guaranteed. People aren’t going to want to spend this pool on anything but the biggest rolls, and those rolls are going to be rendered trivial as a result. More often than not, this system is just going to be 2d6 + Skill, with no alterations, which is boring.

Idea #2: the dStamina System Mk. II

  • Every dice roll is a (2+Skill)d6 roll. If the result is greater than or equal to the Target Number, it’s successful.
  • The Stamina Pool exists as per Mk. I

OK, so here’s a small iteration, designed to try and keep the core structure, but lessen the player’s ability to auto-win important rolls by removing their guaranteed skill modifier, and replace that with a more random way of factoring in Skills, by having Skills add extra dice. Unfortunately, for all but the most obscenely large Target Numbers, creating a dice pool of about five dice or more will pretty much guarantee success, with every additional die only marginally increasing your odds.

diceOdds1
This is for a Target Number of 12. See how success is almost assured once you hit a dice pool of 5 (3 dice added)?

For this system to work, either Target Numbers need to be so high that performing no or low-Skilled checks need to be literally impossible, or Stamina Pools need to be so small that they’ll basically never get used. Both are not good.

Idea #3: the “Try Again” System

  • Every dice roll is a 2d6 roll plus the relevant Skill. If the result is greater than or equal to the Target Number, it’s successful.
  • If you fail, you may incur one Strain to reroll your 2d6, this time as 2d10. If that fails, you may do so again to reroll your 2d10 as 2d12.
  • Strain causes negative effects to your character, and must be rested away.

Alright, so if incurring exhaustion to add dice to your dice pool seems pretty broken, how about using exhaustion to make the dice in your pool better? This system removes a player’s ability to just burn away their character’s stamina to ensure success, which is very good, while still offering a good motivation to use up that stamina (rerolls).

The problem I have with this system is that it causes some weird interactions with the Skill system. Spending 2 Strain increases your average roll result by 6, which means that if Skill numbers are low, the benefit of having high Skills is not going to be equivalent to the gain of just burning 2 Strain, and specialist characters are going to be less useful. If Skill numbers are high, however, Target Numbers are going to have to be high to match, and all of a sudden that +6 on average from Strain rerolls are going to be borderline useless. We’re so close, though.

Idea #4: The Strain System

  • Every Skill a character has is represented by a size of die, four-sided all the way to twelve-sided. Every dice roll is just rolling the die of the associated Skill. If the result is greater than or equal to the Target Number, it’s successful.
  • You may roll a larger die than your Skill allows, but doing so risk incurring Strain (more so for larger jumps in Skill).
  • If you incur too much Strain (from pushing dice rolls, or from taking damage), the size of every single one of your Skill dice starts to go down.
  • Strain can only be regained by getting a good night’s rest.

If Skills and the die size system are interacting weirdly, we can solve that by just making them one and the same. This system has a variety of benefits. One, it makes the Skill system as a whole much clearer, and makes it more obvious how much better one Skill rank is than another (someone with d4 Strength will only match a TN of 4 a quarter of the time, while someone with d6 Strength will match it half of the time).

On top of this, boosting the size of your die is still just as good as before, and can allow you to perform some feats outside of your normal skill set in really heroic ways, but the cost of doing so is enormous: you run the risk of making your entire character less effective for the entire rest of the in-game day. Again, boosting die size to perform feats beyond your Skills doesn’t render Skills irrelevant, because your Skill is your die size. These seems pretty in-theme to me: being a big, courageous hero up against impossible odds is exhausting. Hell, just getting through the day will probably be exhausting, which, if you’re an adventurer for-hire, it should be.

Narratively, this system also has the benefit of emphasizing downtime. As a character adventures, they’re naturally going to incur a decent chunk of Strain one way or another, and unless the party wants to go on completely gimped, they’re going to need to think about how they’re guaranteeing themselves a good night’s rest, which is an interesting thing to have to think about. This means that Game Masters can do some really interesting stuff with a party’s downtime, and emotional distress can have a real, significant effect on a party (by ruining their good night’s sleep), and can have a significant effect on the game. All of a sudden, the throwaway line of “We set up camp and go to sleep” becomes a lot more interesting.

On top of this, this system can form the base for other interesting systems to be built on top of it. For example, since deciding upon this system, I built another attribute for characters, their Vice. Basically, getting a good night’s sleep is easier (and thus, getting rid of Strain is easier) if a character indulges their Vice beforehand, which can be anything from getting really drunk to gambling to indulging their bloodlust to just shutting themselves off from the others and reading forbidden knowledge.

1212
For example, the original Witcher game, Geralt’s vice is pretending that Dice Poker involves any skill whatsoever and isn’t just fantasy Yahtzee.

Now, characters have a mechanical incentive to be the kind of bad people that match the setting, and now they have a built in character trait that makes developing a character’s personality easier, and Game Masters have a way to introduce interesting situations into that character downtime (the guy you just lost all your money to in a card game offers you an odd job to win it back, the guy you’ve been drinking with all night is actually the target you’ve been chasing for the last 2 weeks, etc.).

This is the power of iteration. By just making system after system, thinking about each and making meaningful changes, I’ve gone from a weird, non-evocative, arbitrary dice mechanic to one that’s extremely evocative of my setting. This system probably has its own flaws, and will still need iteration, but by not being married to my original ideas, I’ve gone from something OK to something great, and my game will only improve as a result.