23 March, 2018


Yesterday's anecdotal post was intended to be more than just a trip down memory lane. There's actually quite a bit to unpack in it. A lot of good game theorising occurred in the early 2000s to give names and context to what we were doing, but at the time we were just following trial and error.

The main reason I'm thinking about this is one of those many projects I've got that feeds on previous ideas and occasionally rears it's head demanding attention. I'll probably meander back and forth between a few developments where these ideas have manifested through my work over the years, but to keep things a bit more organised, I'll add a few discreet heading categories.

Flat Comparisons vs Randomisers
This is where I was heading with yesterday's post, before I cut things off. Standard Magic: the Gathering uses flat comparisons to determine conflicts. If a creature's power is at least equal to their opponent's toughness, they kill them. If it's less, the opponent resets for the next round. Sure there are quirky effects that modify this, but the base comparison is the benchmark. Instead of die rolls, cards are played to modify the outcome in various ways, the same sort of thing happens in the card game Munchkin (which has it's own issues that I'll address later). We didn't think of it at the time, but it's basically playing in the same conceptual ballpark as Fortune and Karma (these terms came later as a method of addressing the ideas. Yes, these ideas echo back to Everway in 1995, but we didn't really know about this game at the time, except as that quirky game with freeform narrative based on artwork cards... we didn't know anyone who played it.)

Conflicts in most RPGs are basically resolved through a combination of Karma and Fortune. Karma throws weight to the side with the higher skill and the better advantages in the situation, fortune is arbitrary (adding the results of dice or some other randomiser). If your system uses a die roll plus modifier verses a difficulty, the die roll is the fortune element, while the modifier and difficulty are karma elements. Some games place a stronger weighting on karma toward the outcome of conflicts, some place a higher weighting on fortune...and some games add 'drama' to the mix, where the potential impact on the narrative plays a factor in the conflict's outcome.

We were basically adding fortune into M:tG's karma mechanisms.

I don't know exact statistics for creatures in M:tG, and a quick search hasn't revealed anyone who has run the math, but it always felt like creatures with averaged power and toughness around 1 made up about a third of the total, once we combine creatures withe an average score up to 2, that gives us more than half of the total creatures out there... then we get creatures with power and toughness reaching up to 10+, but there get less and less common as the numbers ascend. In most cases, rather than increasing the power and toughness, more exotic creatures are given some kind of quirky ability that manipulates other creatures, or some other element of gameplay.

When we added a die roll to our conflicts, we experimented with using a d6 at first. But we found that the randomness of the die roll overpowered the strategic elements of the card play. Too much fortune, not enough karma. The one point advantage that a creature might have over another one is diminished somewhat when a due is added to the mix, but the bigger the die, the more pronounced the effect.

We play Munchkin in a similar way, but for slightly different reasons. In a two player game, once one player gets ahead it can be really hard for their opponent to catch up, in a game with four or more players the end game can really drag on when three players prevent one from winning, then gang up on someone else the next turn. In this case, the randomiser works to inject a bit more chaos into the mix, but in Munchkin the numbers are more spread out compared to the concentration of 1s and 2s in Magic, so the use of a d6 added to the character and the opponent makes more sense. An increased degree of fortune in Munchkin also fits the freewheeling comedic nature of the game.

A few years ago, I specifically used this "Munchkin + randomiser" concept as the basis for my game Town Guard (which was a finalist in a contest by The Game Crafter), so I know it works in a variety of contexts.

Bell Curves
I didn't necessarily tie the idea of bell curves to gaming until I saw it mentioned in various forums in the early 2000s. Despite this, it's exactly what we were playing with.

The chances of the attacker rolling a natural 4, while the defender rolled a 1, were 1 in 16... and the same for the opposite scenario. There was more chance (1 in 4) that equal numbers would be rolled, with other decreasing probabilities of results as they became more extreme. The outliers were spectacular because they came up less often.

Multiple Dice
If I was doing it again, I'd consider allowing players to roll two dice for their creatures, one added to power, and one added to toughness. Roll the dice, then allocate them...first the attacker, then the defender. It might slow things down a bit, but the added level of strategic thinking would add some interest. Another option might be to roll three dice, discard the highest result, then allocate the others... this would keep the low rolling numbers more prominent, but still allow the occasional heroic die roll to slip through for epic storytelling later.
Moving Forward
All these thoughts have come to mind because I've been considering the street gang game that has occasionally demanded a bit of thought. The premise is a pair of decks for each player, one with gang recruits, and one with strategic elements (such as equipment, situational advantages for yourself, situational disadvantages for your opponents, etc.) The first time I remember it appearing as a coherent concept used Goblin mobs in the goblin labyrinth. A player draws the top six gang recruits from their gang deck, then sorts them into two rows of three. The front row of three are face-up and fight against the opponent's front face-up rank. The second rank are face-down, they step forward (and flip to face up status) once a member of the front rank is eliminated.

When members of respective front ranks come into contact with each other, a flurry of cards from the strategic deck affects the outcome. At the end of the conflict both gang members may survive, one may die, or fluke incidents both may die. A survivor might retreat back to the second rank to tend their wounds, or they may return to the deck. A gang member who dies is placed in a discard pile.

One version of the game saw characters roll a die and add the value to the power and toughness analogues in the game. A later iteration saw separate dice added to powet, and to toughness. The current iteration of the game allows a series of dice to be rolled actoss the team, then allocated to specific members as hero points. These points are used to activate powers written on the card and pay for strategy cards in the player's hand.

Now it's just a case of balancing those costs and effects, and trying to work out where a good balance between karma and fortune applies for this project.

22 March, 2018


Back in the mid 1990s, we played a variant on Magic: the Gathering for a while. We didn't pay it for long because it wasn't 'proper' Magic, and most of the other people we tried to get involved in the games just couldn't handle it.

The variant was simple. Every time a creature attacked or defended you rolled a d4, the power and toughness of the creature were boosted by the result. If a 1/1 creature rolled a 4, it might take down a 4/4 creature that rolled a 1... it might walk away unscathed from a conflict with a 3/3 creature who rolled a 1. There would only be a 1 in 16 chance of it occurring, but there was still the outside chance of a upset. Similarly, once a creature managed to score a hit on a player the player rolled a d4 to reflect a potential mystical barrier that might absorb some or all of the hit. The dice were only rolled at the end of the conflict, when everything is being resolved.

The simple concept made certain abilities more powerful, others less powerful, and changed a number of fundamental dynamics in the game. Zero cost ornithopters became potential nightmares bringing lethal strikes from above.

To counterbalance a bit of the added danger, we specified that a creatures cost an extra colorless mana... and while this generally worked, it was a case that for every rule we added in to balance things out, another aspect of the game would become unbalanced.

It was a fun idea, but needed to be integrated into the game from the beginning, because when we were adding it in, the game was already a fine tuned engine. The variant was fun for a while, and it added a degree of novelty, but after a while it became very easy to abuse.


19 March, 2018

Neither here, nor there

Edges are mystically powerful. The transition between open plains and dense forest, the coastline between land and sea, the wizard's tower between the earth and the sky. The places unable to be clearly defined as neither one thing or another make a natural home for energies in flux, for the transformation of things.

The realms of the Dark Places have laws of their own... these may follow the laws of the physical realm, an internally consistent dream rules, a paradigm matching an ancient set of mythical lore, or something else entirely. Magic can often be woven in these realms, but only if it follows the laws of the realm. The most powerful mystics learn to bridge realms with stable wormholes... much like a wizards tower connecting the earth and the sky. Within such wormholes, the wizard's belief sets the reality; these places exist outside time and space, they are sanctum sanctorum. Within a wormhole, a wizard may create subrealms according to their whim. Such realms might be connected like the rooms in a house, with doors and corridors joining them (often for the comfort of outsider visitors more than any requirement for the creating wizard), other wizards may allow the subconscious chaos of dream logic to connect a surreal landscape of subrealms.

There are very few wizards powerful enough to make them, and even then wormholes need a pair of stable realms to connect to. If either collapses, the wormhole, and any subrealms within it are also collapsed.

18 March, 2018

Tweaking the fiddly bits

I've got a couple of hundred regular readers here, based on my daily viewer stats, even if I assume a percentage of them are just bots that trawl through pages and hit the pageview counter. The vast majority of you are silent, but a few of you provide 'likes' and '+1s', and some offer me interesting ideas or queries in comments and reshares. To those people, I'm grateful.

Today though, a bit more about my generic version of The Law (the project with the working title of SNAFU). There are quite a few ideas that didn't make it into the core rules for The Law, and a few design decisions under the surface which led to after effects and surface elements tbat might require a bit of unpacking.

Benj Davis has brought up the concept of converting the Rank die to a generic format. Because I've been working with the background concepts so deeply over recent years, I didn't realise how strongly it appeared intertwined with the heirarchical structure of the Department of Law. The essence of the Rank die was drawn from the Name die in John Harper's Agon RPG, where the original idea reflected a blend of fame, arete, and heroic closeness to divinity. I retained the idea that this was the core die used in pretty much every die roll, but it made sense in my game to link it across to a character's rank as an agent.

This will never function as a "generic" system. I admit that there are types of games where the mechanisms of play will be a bit too much of a stretch from the intended conventions of a specified genre. But renaming this specific die to something more appropriate to the intended genre would be hard. A steampunk criminal interpretation might see the 'ranks' increase through levels of 'urchin'/'light-finger'/'schemer'/'racketeer'/'mastermind'... a magical interpretation might see 'ranks' of 'novice'/'disciple'/'adept'/'master'/'oracle'... these are just spur of the moment ideas, and I'd probably give a lot more thought to logical progressions in a final product.

One of the rules that got cut from the base book for The Law, was the idea of different departments within the agency. There were either going to be four or six departments during iterations of the idea. Four would directly correspond to the attributes (physical = SWAT team, social = Undercover, mental = Investigation, paranormal = PSI division), six would have combined a pair of attributes to get it's divisions (phy+soc, phy+men, phy+para, soc+men, soc+para, men+para). When characters were doing something specifically relating to the purview of a given department, they'd roll their department die instead of their general rank die. The idea was ultimately abandoned, because choice of abilities helped define characters in this way, and it felt like it was overcomplicating an otherwise elegant system. It will probably come back in a players guide as an optional rule, where department rank counts as an advantage die that is only added under specific circumstances. These departments could easily be substituted for generic occupations in other settings (swap out 'SWAT team' for 'warrior', or 'PSI division' for 'wizard', etc.) Specific dice like this would be raised independently of the rank die, and while the rank die has the overall rule that it may never be the highest (or equal highest) die until a attribute reaches d12, these division advantage dice would be linked to a specific attribute, and never be able to exceed it's die level.

I've been toying with similar ideas for schools of magic and elemental affinities in the Familiar branch of the game.

Long story short... consider what the game is about, what kind of organisation or community the characters work within. The game isn't really designed for loners. The Rank die reflects the overall power, notoriety, and accomplishments of the individual within that community. But always remember that a Rank die is limited by the attribute dice, and a higher rank die brings bigger threats to the table. It was deliberately designed as a two-edged sword to prevent it becoming too overpowered in the game.

Another thing to consider when adapting the rule system would be the choice of abilities available to the characters. A 'drive' skill wouldn't be important to a medieval game, a 'wilderness survival' skill wouldn't see a lot of use in urban fantasy.

I like the idea of at least five skills or abilities per category, and preferably a number around ten. That's probably a throwback to Cyberpunk2020 and the Storyteller System, but it feels nice. I've also tried to make sure a couple of skills in each category are a bit more exclusive by limiting their choice to characters who meet certain attribute minimums (typically d8 in an attribute opens these up)... while also providing a couple of skills that have the potential to be upgraded to an advanced form. The whole point is to maintain a general consistency, while adding a bit of diversity where I felt the core concepts were lacking. Although it doesn't appear in The Law, a 'music' skill developed for a specific genre of game might break down into specialised forms for a variety of instruments, musical styles, or composition.

16 March, 2018

Boiling down the Essence

I'm working on the essence of The Law, because a few people have said that they like the system and would be interested in seeing it adapted to urban fantasy, standard fantsy, or even sword-&-sorcery. It's a sturdy enough core, not particularly wedded to the setting except through a couple of character abilities, and the investigation mechanisms (which could fairly easily be adapted to quest mechanisms).

So the aim would be to produce a little 8 page booklet, or maybe a couple of pocketmods that boil down the essence of the rules. I previously described it as the SRD of The Law, but now I'm just calling it SNAFU which basically links it back to its roots in my game FUBAR.   

15 March, 2018

Mortals and Immortals

Another interesting post amongst the mini zeitgeist I'm currently working in can be found at the Pits Perilous blog by Olde House Rules (find the post here). It delves into the idea of long lived characters such as elves, and to a lesser extent dwarves, compared to traditionally shorter lived races such as humans.

The article can instantly be seen as analogous to my dilemma of using player character spirits and familiars who run the gamut from a infant spritelings couple of months old through to immortal forces of nature for whom the entirety of recorded history has been the blink of an eye.

It proposes an elegant solution, where all races reach maturity at much the same pace, then diverge once adulthood is attained. I've proposed similar ideas in the past, where human genetics sees cell degradation gradually accelerate (thus causing aging), while the cell degradation of other races occurs at differing rates (thus accounting for their varied lifespans while seeing basic maturity manifest at roughly the same age). But for spirit beings, who have chronologically been "alive" for exponentially different timeframes, this doesn't really cut it.

I guess it goes back to the concept of what experience is. I've already decided that experience does not equate to age, but rather is proportional to the activity of the individual, and the risks they have taken. Existing in the real world is a risky activity, but it provides knowledge and power about maintaining an ongoing existence. Observing the world from up close may also provide knowledge, but it's less visceral, so the accumulation of data is a slower process. Observing from afar is safer still, but only really grants macroscopic data of the widest trends. It then seems easy for us to tie a rate of spiritual aging, to the closeness of that spirit to reality. Those who manifest in "meat-space" age and develop at the rate of the mortals. Those who linger in the penumbral periphery might age at a fraction of that rate (for argument, lets say a tenth)... here they exist on the edge of a mortal's vision, they can observe but not interact. Those who exist in deeper planes may be able to observe the penumbra, but they cannot see anything of the material-plane/"meatspace" beyond its ripples through the spirit realms (to continue the analogy, such beings might age at a hundredth of the mortal rate). Beings further detached from reality start to lose their point of reference to mortals, they need to fracture their essence to create avatars capable of drawing closer to the mortal realm, or spawn angels, demigods and other lesser spirits to act as intermediaries (such beings would age at a thousandth of the mortal rate, or slower still if they existed even further from the physical).

If an average mortal lifespan is 70-100 years, we suddenly have commonly encountered spirits capable of living several centuries to a millenium... distant spirits capable of living several millennia... and alien beings observing on the edge of reality who could easily watch ice ages come and go. But the longer the lifespan, the more alien and exotic they are, and the less they are able to meaningfully interact with the mortal world. There's the balance.

Similarly, we get periods of activity or periods of slumber/torpor/inactivity. I'm seeing a lot of spirits functioning in the Dark Places as drones. As such, they perform a simple duty in the spirit realm that supports the structure of the mortal realm, but it is when they break from this drone activity that things get interesting. These are the stories we tell. Most characters will have a few years of meaningful experiences to draw on, the youngest ones might be in contact with an Akashic record, or retain  fragmentary knowledge from the greater spirit who spawned them.

I like where this is heading, but there's more work to do.

13 March, 2018

Balance and Imbalance.

Yesterday's post got a bit of feedback, and that's great. It's also interesting to see parallel discussions emerging on various Facebook groups today. I don't know whether it's my superpower of "Tapping the Zeitgeist" at work again, or if those people starting the discussions were prompted by reading my blog. Either way, there's some good thoughts out there and I'd love to engage the area more deeply.

One of the great points raised, came from Joseph Teller...

"The questions in design you need to ask yourself is, does Age=Experience or does Activity=Experience?"

It's an awesome question that isn't really addressed in a lot of games.

I'll address it with some instances I've seen over the years. It was probably about four years ago when I joined up with the fledgling Clans of Elgardt LARP. During tbe first couple of months there were teething problems, including a "gold = XP" system akin to the early days of D&D. A policy was established where teams could pool their gold tnen withdraw it for upgrades. I saw a number of teams at this time, who had numerous characters contributing, with the same one or two "leaders" getting first serve of the gold after every session. This led to charismatic or intimidating players getting the best characters in the game. This was exacerbated by the way these large teams would get most of the game's rewards due to sheer weight of numbers. When called out on this, these privileged players claimed that since they had the best characters, they contributed more, and it was only fair that they got more rewards...a self fulfilling prophecy which rapidly led to more extreme imbalance as the games went by.

This is clearly something I want to avoid.

Let's go back further, 15-20 years ago, to the turn of the millennium. I was playing and running the various Minds Eye Theatre (MET) LARPs, under the umbrella of the global Camarilla organisation. Based on the Storyteller System from White Wolf, the MET games streamlined things and made politics and social intrigue the driving factors in the narrative. This came at the expense of other parts of the game (such as the combat system which was notoriously terrible), but produced a distinct style of play. The Camarilla organisation applied it's own meta-rule framework around the MET core, giving richer background interaction for players to drive storyline, and allowing players who had done service for the game in the real world to gain advantages within the fictional world. For example, a player who ran games for a year or two might be rewarded with characters who started play with higher rank or more XP. A player who sacrificed their character for the good of a wider story involving other characters might be offered an exclusive character type to play next. Chatacters would gain XP for turning up, filing a report for the organisers, and maybe for making a bit of extra effort like wearing a costume or engaging other players in their stories...that's about it. One character might have been created two years ago, but if they weren't regularly attending games, a new character might match them in XP after a few sessions. Similarly, a boosted character started by a prestigious player might have the edge initially, but they'd have to regularly play to maintain that edge. Yes, there were people who abused the system, and yes, it wasn't perfect...but it was aiming at turning the hobby into something more commumal.

This is closer to what I'm after.

Neither of these really specifically addresses my concerns. But they hold clues to what I do and don't want. So, I'll look at some of those Facebook posts.
This screen-capture from gets really close to what I'm aiming for when it comes to asymmetrical play.

So does this one. 

I want characters of different power levels, but I want everyone to be able to contribute relatively equally to the game narrative. I want ancient characters, who have shaped empires and history, to stumble when they encounter a smart phone while the young cyberpunk street urchin has no trouble at all with the phone but gets utter.y lost in the catacombs under the city because they have no idea what happened more than 20 years ago (except the revisionist history they've seen in movies... "but in the movie, there was a secret passage here").

So a lot of it boils down to what power actually is in the game.

It reminds me of Cyberpunk 2020... why would you play a Solo or a Media, when you could play a Corporate who could relatively easily hire either of these types when the need arises, letting them take the risk so you don't have to??... because those who take the risks are the ones involved in more interesting stories, and taking risks brings experience.

I know this isn't for everyone, but I like games where there is enough risk that the end of a character's story is alway a few steps and a couple of die rolls away. The d20/OSR level zero and level one characters who could die at a moments notice against a giant rat don't have enough agency for me. The characters beyond level 10 wno are basically gods among the mortal world bore me, especially when combat ends up with six whiffs for every strike, and each strike literally tzkes away no more than 5% of an opponent's hit points... I came here for story, not for rolling dice and looking up tables for two hours. Levels four to seven are the sweet spot for me in that style of play, a few good hits are dangerous, characters start picking up some of the fun quirky abilities, and the world opens up. No character is more than twice as powerful as any other, and a decent DM/GM/Referee can create a range of situations where the less powerful characters still have a chance to shine. Beyond that, I'm happy to retire a character and work my way through that sweet spot again and again.