Month: January 2013 (Page 1 of 2)

Judgement and Rules

I had a one-sided argument with someone on the nature of “judgement”. I claimed that some rules could make Judgement difficult; they contested that Judgement relied on there being rules in the first place–indeed it is “impossible to make Judgements without Rules”.

As in all cases of wrong on the internet no examples or context was given, and I doubt either of us will care or be humble enough to elaborate in a meaningful way. But since this is my soapbox…

Judgement has a special meaning for me, since it appears in both Silver and Hope.

From Silver’s Brief Instructions (1599):

The 4 governors are those that follow

1. The first governor is judgment which is to know when your adversary can reach you, and when not, and when you can do the like to him, and to know by the goodness or badness of his lying, what he can do, and when and how he can perform it.

And from Hope’s Sword-Man’s Vade Mecum (1691)

Calmness, – Vigour, – and Judgement.

Now these three Words in general, being the only Foundation upon which all True Fencing is built, and each Word in particular being as it were a Column, or Pillar by which my Rules are to be supported, (for without them all would be but Uncertain and False) I shall begin my Fisrt Rule, which as well as all the rest, is to be supported by those three infallible, and never to be too exactly copied Pillars of the composite Order, because each of then in some measure partake of the Beauty and Excellency of the Other two, and to that end Earnestly and Serioulsy intreats and desires: That.

  • Rule I.

    Whatever you do, let it alwayes (if possible) be done Calmely, and without Passion, and Precipitation, but still with all Vigour, and Briskness imaginable, your Judgement not failing to Direct, Order, and Govern you as to both.

That very narrow definition of Judgement is intrinsicly tied to Governance in both cases. The accepted definition of Govern is taken as to conduct the affairs, policies and actions of a state, and it’s etymology is from the latin guburnare, meaning “to steer or rule”.

There’s that word, rule. So, are rules required of Judgement? In Hope’s case Governance follows Judgement, but in Silver’s case it’s not so clear–Judgement is a Governor, a guiding principle or rule.

Our modern definition of Judgement is tied to legal and other processes, but at its base it’s a process of evaluating evidence and coming to a conclusion.

We’re all familiar with rules. Are they the same as Judgements? Well, there are definitions of rules, but this one leaps out:

Governing power or its possession or use; authority.


p>Rules are an expression of power in possession or use by a governing body.

So the only conclusion I can reach is that Governance is the Judicious application of Rules. This makes sense, I think: Rules are abstracted input/output operations. This is why we have human Judges to decide if the rules even apply.

So then the act of Judging is tied to Rules. It implies that for a Judgement to take place, there must be a Rule to be applied in the first place. Is this right? Surely you can Judge that no rule applies.

On the other hand the cognitive process of Judging must be based on an assumption of acts and consequences, anticipated cause and effect that leads to certain decisions based on evidence. But, just because firmly believe that driving over the speed limit can have legal and health consequences to me, it’s still an act of judgement. The rules or law or physics are not automatically applied as soon as I make the decision. My judgement just allows me to notice the likelihood of them being applied as consequences, and then deciding whether to apply the brakes based on that evidence.

All well and good, but does it matter? In the context of game system design, the “new school” may consider rules essential to judgements, driving the need for tighter system with narrow ranges of actions and consequences, under the banner of System Does Matter.

This is divergent thinking from RPG evolution as a whole, where the classic Rules Lawyer has been lampooned for applying rules without judgement, using selected evidence as a mandatory trigger for the Rules. To haul ourselves out of this hole we developed essays on critical thinking that encouraged Judgement over Rules, driving the market for minimalist system.

The new school approach of making it impossible not to judge a certain situation in any way that doesn’t lead to applying a Rule is effective, and will work until you come across a situation where there is no rule. Then you’re back to square one, using your own judgement. The response to this for, say, Apocalypse World is to make sure any situation can be interpreted with a particular judgement, leading to a given rule. In fact, you effectively leapfrog over Judgement and go straight from Situation to Rule.1

Are there truly cases where Rules get in the way of Judgement? The D&D Lawyer is one example where written rule competes with Judgement. Is there a modern example? Well, yes, but it’s not the rules of Apocalypse World so much as comprehension of the rules. This is why Baker says you must read all of his book, and apply his rules as written all the time for his game to work.

That’s fine, but just not appealing to many of us. Now we get into play preference, and my preference is to have a set of guiding principles, not rules per se.

The “new school” approach is orthogonal to the traditional, minimalist approach to the same problem.

  1. Of course the MC exercises Judgement in many other ways, such as managing NPCs for the PCs to interact with. But there are no rules that say under this circumstance you must have an NPC with a defined interaction. That’s covered by principles and guidelines for creating Fronts, and left to the MC’s judgement for when to apply countdowns and so forth.

Playlist: Some Female Vocals

Kind of phoning it in this week, but… love those live performances, especially Kim Deal getting a mouthful of microphone.

    1. Duke Spirit, Lassoo
    2. UNKLE, Follow Me Down
    3. Echobelly, Great Things
    4. Lush, Single Girl
    5. Dubstar, Just A Girl She Said
    6. Ting Tings, That’s Not My Name
    7. The Cardigans, Erase/Rewind
    8. The Breeders, No Aloha
    9. Elastica, Vaseline
    10. P.J. Harvey, Dress
    11. Curve, Chinese Burn
    12. Hybrid, If I Survive
    13. School of Seven Bells, Dust Devil
    14. Eve’s Plum, Blue
    15. Go! Team, Doing It Right
    16. Tori Amos, Cornflake Girl
    17. Little Boots, Tune Into My Heart


A few years ago I went on a leadership course. It was a strange and challenging experience that certainly altered my view on life and people forever.

It consisted of a number of lectures and team-building exercises (with a bunch of strangers). It was not the sort of course where you get a handy ring binder at the end; no-one took notes when the lectures were delivered. Even so I can remember the content of most of them, which is pretty remarkable retention.

The number one concept that remains is the idea of tiers of communication. I don’t think I’ve seen this anywhere else (so if a reader can identify the theory, I’d be grateful).


Base is the bare minimum of communication you must do to get by. Facts are irrefutable observations. Once you go into the realm of Opinions you start to risk offending someone by talking to them. Showing them Feelings exposes you to even greater risk–but at the same time there is a better overall understanding. It all comes together in Peak communication, the optimum and complete form.

I like models, and this is one of the most useful I’ve encountered. It’s easy to observe and test. Colleagues who only communicate with smalltalk can become wrong-footed when you suddenly move to expressing opinions. The main example we got was greeting someone with “how are you?” and being answered with a cheery “fine!” despite the fact they were limping. Once you move to “actually, I’m in a lot of pain” you’ve automatically moved into an uncomfortable space of statement of fact (or even feelings). You’ve put a foot on the communication ladder.

I’ve been suffering with the misery of sciatica for two weeks now. This is why it’s 4am and I’m standing up to write a blog post waiting for the painkillers to start working, when I should be asleep.

So when colleagues ask me “how are you?” I reply honestly. It’s clear they didn’t want to know; they’d rather get away. I tend to let them off pretty quickly by changing the subject.

One chap asked me how I was and I did just that. He nodded politely and made to disappear. Then as we were parting, he said

“I’ll pray for you”.

I know he’s a Christian, but even so–he’s taken more risk than I did in that conversation by leaping into the realm of Opinion (and if he was sincere, Feeling) about his personal religion.

I don’t have much more to say about that. I guess I could talk about how in gaming we should strive towards peak communication between characters by taking risks, stating Opinions and displaying Feelings of our characters. But, the main thing I’m thinking about now is how deeply those statements intrude into the thoughts of others, particularly a secular heathen like myself.

I also think about how much less they would matter if spoken in a Christian community, where prayer is taken for granted. In that context, they’re a statement of Fact. But they’re still an expression of Feeling, maybe even Peak communication. As people become more alike, do you go up the scale or down?

Superman Lives


Playlist: Hello Goodbye

Couple of days late, due to the distracting nature of sciatica. Now I’ve been on a steady diet of co-codamol and naprosyn and have improvised a standing workstation from my grandma’s bureau and a few boxes…


Yes, that is Rogue Trooper and Chainsaw Warrior making the filling in a Rega sandwich.

(‘scuse the mess.)

  1. Apples In StereoHello Lola
  2. Thomas DolbyI Love You Goodbye
  3. OutkastHey Ya!
  4. David Bowie, London Bye Ta Ta
  5. Pixies, Hey
  6. Madonna, The Power of Goodbye
  7. No Doubt, Hey Baby
  8. Lush, Ciao!
  9. Kula Shaker, Hey Dude
  10. Elton John, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
  11. Kate Bush, Hello Earth
  12. The Cult, Edie (Ciao Baby)
  13. The New Pornographers, Hey Snow White
  14. The Stone Roses, Bye Bye Badman
  15. The Dandy Warhols, Good Morning
  16. Sarabeth Tucek, Good Night
  17. Green Day, Good Riddence (The Time Of Your Life)
  18. Shakespere’s Sister, Hello (Turn Your Radio On)
  19. Queens of the Stone Age, Long Slow Goodbye



RPG First Look: Conspiracy X 2.0 and Little Fears

I snagged these titles in the DriveThruRPG January sale.


There’s not much to be said about Conspiracy X, other than it’s standard Unisystem (classic) stuff. It repeats the system from AFMBE and Terra Primate, including chunks of psionics, qualities and drawbacks, etc.

It does a couple of interesting things, though. It provides templates for (US-centric) government and military forces. OK, you could construct these “skill packages”, but it’s nice to have something pre-made. Also it’s interesting for the sheer breadth of occupations listed; it does give a sense of a global network where no-one really knows what’s going on.

The best parts are the “pulling strings” qualities and the “cell creation”. The former are qualities where you can exert influence to get things done–summon accomplices, call in air strikes, use external laboratories, and so on.

Cell creation deals with creating your own little base of operations. Locations, facilities, staff and other resources are all point-buy. I could see this being a real fun activity for the party (and a nice source of inter-departmental tension even before the missions start). The nice part here is they’ve incorporated all the weapons, vehicles and other equipment lists. Everything costs departmental resources. It’s pretty old-school to demand players to itemise their kit like this, but should add to the immersion.

Add that together and you should get an autonomous cell of characters with a range of departmental strings they can pull and a place to call their own. And of course the presence of their cell implies goodness-knows how many other cells worldwide, connected to however-many agencies. Conspiracy? You bet.

Well, mostly. There’s not much in the way of antagonists. There’s a potted history at the back which I haven’t read yet. Since I’m more inclined to use this game as a toolkit, I’m not so bothered. Still it does the usual Unisystem job of padding the book with yet another version of the rules. This book could have easily been an AFMBE sourcebook, but since it’s a brand in its own right, it gets its own line.

It’s not the best value (full price) if you already have other Unisystem corebooks, but the Cell creation is a unique feature that adds a lot of value; I can already see potential with supers (a la Planetary), supernaturals, and even Transhuman/Cyberpunk Space (making use of All Tomorrow’s Zombies). Of the four corebooks I own, this is probably the one I like the most just because it does modern organisations so well. However if all you want is an antagonist faction with defined resources, there is a simpler alternative in the Angel RPG–that one does corporations, sects and government cells adequately.

Now, Little Fears


Looking at the first few pages I can feel the controversy dripping off this one, that lead to at least some people saying/thinking “oh, that’s the game with the child abuse”. That closes a portion of your audience off, on principle.

Let’s be clear. The author mentions abuse, and says it happens to innocents, and suggests how it might affect characters. He also says its inclusion in the game doesn’t mean you should use it in your game. He treats the subject as sensitively (and briefly) as possible.

That controversial style of play is True Horror (“removing some fantastical elements and adding more humanity to the story”). The author states (in his white-on-black annotations–this is a 10th anniversary edition) that while that was the play style that attracted the most attention, hardly anyone he knew played in that way; they would stick to the nightmarish fantasy of monsters in closets, etc.

In some ways Little Fears is the pre-teen equivalent of Buffy with more focus on innocence and magic through belief, and with a defined enemy pantheon (the seven Kings of Closetland). There are some good guys, the “Divine Host”. Between the original and this edition the Divine Host have lost some definition. In the original the presence of a defined “good pantheon” was suggestive of a supernatural war, something that glossed over the very real, personal horrors felt by the PCs. The author deliberately made the guardian angels of the Divine Host nebulous to return focus to the children and their own ability to overcome evil.

There are a couple of nice mechanical touches. For example, the character generation includes a questionnaire with questions like “what’s your (nick)name?” and “who is your best friend?”. These are not just window dressing; they have a mechanical function since later on we’re told exactly how the monsters of Closetland use the answers to get you.

Other mechanics are pretty much what you’d expect if you’ve played Adult horror games with insanity mechanics–you gain Fear, you lose Innocence (and lose too much Innoncense and you become Blind to Closetland, like an adult). Dice rolling is all about rolling a number of d6 and picking the highest value you roll on any one die–the modifiers are Qualities which add dice (though Negative Qualities that apply force you to take the worst result, not the best). It’s simple enough, though it requires claiming attributes which is not a mechanic I am wild about.

One interesting feature is how kids oppose monsters: when kids fight monsters they roll against a static number rather than an opposed roll against the monster. In other words if the monster gets the kid, it’s due to a failing of the child, not because the monster is monstrous. It makes a nasty sort of sense, although causes me to raise an eyebrow when combined with the True Horror style of play.

As for Closetland–each King is described, although mostly stylistically rather than mechanically. I would have preferred to read a bit more practical advice on using them as opponents, and less about how to roleplay them. There is advice on how one crosses over into Closetland, and back again. Closetland is (as you would expect) like the Umbra and Penumbra in the WoD–a fantasy world that overlaps (or invades) ours in places.

Making the inevitable comparison with Monsters and Other Childish Things, Little Fears is not a game to be played for laughs (or even black comedy). Actually much of the tone that Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor tries to exude (poor orphans, weird uncaring and dangerous world) is much more effectively brought to life. It does beg the question whether you can have too much of a “good” thing.

RPG Combat: A Newer, Easier Method

The best combat system I ever played with (even better than Lace and Steel) was also one of the simplest. It was a homebrew system for a fantasy game, and followed this basic mechanic.

You had two combat stats. One was your “combat skill”, which was a general ability at fighting. The other was your “weapon skill”, which was your specific technique at attacking and parrying with a given weapon.

It worked like this: when two opponents engaged, they rolled Combat Skill. The winner had “control” of combat. They could choose to directly attack the other side, or hold off and “set” their attack for the next round. The loser could only defend, and hope they survived long enough to win control next round.

The act of “setting” meant that the follow-up attack would be much more powerful than a no-set attack. However, to make it work you had to win combat for the new round. If you didn’t and the opponent got control of combat, you lose your advantage.

It was incredibly simple, and yet made for superb tension and gratifying victory. If characters were evenly matched it meant they took a lot of sniping attacks to wear each other down, not wanting to risk their window of opportunity. If there was a gross mismatch one side would tend to “set” once and deliver a rapid kill.

In the mismatched case, that lead to a couple of other consequences. There were no (or very few) one-round victories, meaning such combats took at least two “beats”. The first beat foreshadowed the second–the victory to come.

For fights where the PCs were clearly superior, this was blatant player gratification. They saw the victory, anticipated it and savoured it. That sounds a bit lurid, but it’s what happened.

When the shoe was on the other foot and a PC was in danger, it telegraphed the impending doom. This happened to my first character. He was a monk with a stick, and he squared off against a knight to protect a weaker PC.

GM: Xiao’s fencing with the knight.

Another Player: We’ve not seen him fight before. How’s he doing?

GM: He has good technique but he’s hopelessly outclassed. He’s going to die next round.

The system allowed that exchange to happen–another character (with way more combat experience) watched the fight, stepped in and saved Xiao. From my perspective it was transparent that Xiao was going to die–it really was hopeless. When the other PC stepped in it was gratifying for me (being rescued) and them (being the rescuer), and made for interesting roleplaying later.

(The system worked so that bad hits were really bad. The GM was keen on anatomy, and took some pleasure in telling me in a later fight that Xiao had been shot through the spleen. Xiao probably didn’t even know what a spleen was, but he died anyway.)

Had we been playing Runequest it may have been different. Xiao squares off against the knight and before anyone can even react, he takes a fatal blow. That still has merit for a game, but it sets a totally different tone. Using this system, Xiao’s life hangs in the balance for a moment, and in that moment another character can act.

Combat Skill functions a bit like Initiative, but it’s not the same. Most Initiative systems just give the order of action, and do not preclude one side from attacking the other (unless the systems are so deadly that instant kills are common). The only system I’ve played that plays like the one above is Lace and Steel, where the initiative is passed between the two fencers.

Relation to Martial Theory

“Combat Skill” is not a micro-scale activity; it encompasses a whole range of assumed activities the Martial Artist is doing. Hope would term this the half-pursuit; a series of testing actions designed to both get the measure of the enemy’s fight, and herd them into a predictable pattern of activity against which the artist can employ a strategy.

There is no need to make Combat Skill any more granular than a single, opposed roll. The artist either has control of the fight, or she does not. Combat Skill represents the four grounds of fight presented by Silver:

through judgment, you keep your distance, through distance you take your time, through time you safely win or gain the place of your adversary, the place being won or gained you have time safely either to strike, thrust, ward, close, grip, slip or go back

(from Brief Instructions)

The whole point of winning control of combat is to gain “the place”, which is the correct distance where you can launch your desired attack. If you don’t have “the place” and you attempt to launch an attack it will fail–you may be too far away, or “disordered” and at risk of a counter, etc.

Combat skill happens in the minds of the combatants. It includes decisions, actions, strategies, the will to press forward, the ability to anticipate an opponent’s action and counter. It is everything that happens before the attack roll is made.

What does Weapon Skill represent? It represents technique, strength, accuracy, muscle memory, attack and parry. It’s everything that happens once one side gains the place. It is attack and parry. It is possible to gain the place and miss; it is possible to defend against an attack launched from the place.


To successfully implement this idea, you have to win the hearts and minds of the players. They have to both enjoy the system and get the theory behind it. So I’m going to anticipate a few stumbling blocks.

Problem One

Players won’t initially get how Combat Skill and Weapon Skill relate to each other–or the fact they don’t relate to each other. That’s not what we’re used to, and a source of frustration for character generation.

That’s really down to the GM and designer. Traditional games like RuneQuest accept a strong competency in one weapon and zero ability in another that should be quite similar (say an axe and a mace). There’s no argument, it’s just the way things are in that system.

Combat Skill is a leveller. It means that even when outclassed by superior weapons, a more experienced fighter can still control the combat. They may not be able to do anything useful (see the next problem) but they can at least keep themselves relatively safe, for now.

However, some players will just want Weapon Skill to have an effect on Combat Skill. While I sort of resist this, here’s how you might do it:


I don’t like this way because it makes things more complicated–you have to add and subtract–but if that’s what you and your players want, you can do this. You can then “tune” the system to be closer to D&D (i.e. your fighter is capable, regarless of weapon) or RQ (competency is strongly biased per-weapon).

I prefer to tackle this problem in a completely diffrent way–be completely up front with the players, run them through a few combats, manage expectations in character creation, and don’t touch the Combat Skill.

Problem Two

It also won’t make sense that, no matter how badly mismatched weapons are, the winner of the Combat Skill roll will always get to do something and the loser only gets to defend.

To borrow some of Apocalypse World’s parlance, winning the Combat Skill contest gives the artist the chance to “make a move”1. That move is usually just a straight attack, but could be a subduing action, taunt, wrestling, or even fleeing.

It’s easy to deal with the mismatched weapons. Consider a heirarchy of weapons; if you intend to press in against a greater threat (say, a weapon with better reach, or unarmed vs armed) and you fail, you are instantly vulnerable to a counter. If the opponent manages to defend they automatically get control of combat next round. Of course if they’re relatively green they might not keep control, but it gives them an attack of opportunity.

For a more complex approach, consider a matrix of attacker vs defender weapons. Moves are available depending on the mismatch. For example:

  Sword Dagger Fist Spear
Sword Slash/stab, Grip Slash/stab, Grip* Slash/stab Slash/stab*, Grip*
Dagger Stab*, Grip* Stab, Grip* Stab, Grip Stab*, Grip*
Fist Punch*, Grip* Punch*, Grip* Punch, Grip Punch*, Grip*
Spear Impale, Blunt Impale, Blunt Impale, Blunt Impale, Blunt 

Attacker is in the first column; cross reference with the top row (the defender).

Already we’ve descended into very specific terms. But the broad ideas are:

  1. Give the players funky “moves” they can attempt, once they get control of combat
  2. Anything with an asterisk is vulnerable to a counter if that move is attempted

Some of the terms are based on my specific experience, and I’m not going to itemise them here; suffice to say if I did create a big table, it would need a lot of care to explain to GM and players what was actually going on. There are a couple of other comments, though:

  • Fleeing is a special case. Regardless of who has control over the combat, people should be able to flee if they want to.
  • I haven’t even started to think about changing weapon distances, e.g. what happens if the dagger-man gets inside the point of the spear-man. I think the way to do it is a new table for the new distance (the above assumes “open fight”) and some of the “moves” you can apply are designed to change the engagement distance. But I’m already talking about crunch, when I wanted to address principles. Let’s park this for now.

Problem Three

How does the system adapt to changing environment? An armed skirmish is not a formal duel, which is not a brawl in a cellar.

You have a few levers you can pull. One, you change the character’s Combat Skill. Maybe they’re in unfamiliar territory. Maybe they’re surprised. Somehow their Judgement is compromised.

Two, you can change their Weapon Skill. This is appropriate when, say, the weapon is just too big for the environment.

Three, you restrict the Moves they can do from The Place. That’s not a lot different from just restricting their Weapon Skill, so mostly down to taste; however there may be a couple of cases where you want to shut down what moves your players can do, e.g. if they’re somehow backed into a corner or otherwise restricted.

Problem Four

How do you deal with multiple opponents?

This isn’t hard to do, but requires a conceptual leap. Most systems assume that your opponents will pack in on all sides and will all take swings. Some deal with multiple opponents by forcing you to divide attack or parry percentages. The assumption is that all opponents attack at the same time, in the same space.

That isn’t how a many-on-one fight works, usually. One opponent will always be closer than the other, and you can assume the lone fighter is trying to keep it that way by moving so one of their opponents is between them and the other one. If they can keep that up, one of their opponents will never be in a position to land a blow. They then only have one opponent to deal with. Job done, eh?

Well, not quite. If our lone fighter wants to hit one of their opponents, they have to commit to stepping into distance for their attack. As they do that, the other soldier–the one they’re trying to keep away–also steps.

2 opponents

Mechanically this works like mismatched weapons, i.e. if you attack one opponent and screw it up, you’re immediately asking for a counterattack in the next round, and may need to go on the defensive.

As long as you have control of combat, you can keep the two (or three, or four) bad guys at bay. How you measure “control” needs to be defined, of course. Do you treat the attacking force as a single entity (i.e. one opposed roll), or does each participant roll separately? If they roll separately and your hero has a higher score than some but lower than other opponents, how do you handle that–do they get a free attack anyway? Do they have to beat everyone before they can pick a target?

Other considerations might be the fatiguing effect of fighting more than one person–does fatigue exist in this system? Does it affect Judgement/Combat Skill?


To further separate the Combat Skill roll phase (“initiative”) from Weapon Skill (attack/parry) you could make them use different dice. A friend’s system (which is a couple of decades old) uses a d6 dice pool for attack, looking for matches, but the parries are made using a percentile roll. It feels a bit funky, but it works (variable success result for attack, binary result for parry).

If you want to make the Combat Skill roll more meaningful than a simple yes/no threshold, adding a dice pool mechanic might make for some interesting mechanics. (I have some ideas, but I’ll save those for later). This could make it nicely distinct compared to your (percentile? opposed single die roll?) attack/parry roll that follows afterwards.

Layering and Retrofit

A game like Runequest could be perfect for adding a “Combat Skill” layer on top of normal fighting proficiency. It would need some effort to incorporate other aspects–spell casting, missile combat, and so forth, but it could be done. RQ is surprisingly easy to tinker with, and combining an extra “Combat Skill” as part of the Basic Skills package isn’t hard.

Does This Matter?


p>Well, clearly it matters to me since I wrote this. Does making the system more “real” fill a niche in the gaming market? Only insofar as it gives you a marketing lever.

D&D, RuneQuest and others have been satisfying gamers with their mechanics for decades. If you can’t explain why your system follows martial principles then it has no value over established systems (which fill the primary need of being a game). Besides, realism is an illusion. If players are getting the immersion and the thrill they want, the system already works.

I don’t feel this system is an answer to anything, other than scratching a personal itch. However I do think it’s possible to develop a system that’s true to martial principles I agree with, but simple enough that anyone can enjoy it. Maybe more later.

  1. Yes, I know AW explicitly avoids double moves.

20 Questions for Everway

Let’s think of a general case for character creation. There are two approaches: qualitative, and quantitative.

In the quantitative approach, you generate some absolute numbers (randomly or by point-buy) and apply them to your character sheet according to what competencies you want your PC to have. Min/maxers, OSR players, and anyone thinking of generating a functional character to fill a niche in a party might take this approach.

In the qualitative approach, you start by thinking of the character you’re going to play, and what they’re good and bad at. Effete gothic artsy types might take this approach.

Of course this is gross stereotyping; it’s a guiding preference, nothing more1 and real people sit somewhere between the two poles. Anyway it doesn’t matter which end you started from or why; at some point in the process you’ll incorporate the elements from the other end and the result is a functional character. Hurrah!

I like RPG theory, but I don’t think it’s half as useful as identifying preference. Preference is what drives the GM’s customers–our players.2

I like Everway because it does character generation in a very simple but open way. I think whichever end of the preference scale a player begins at, they are encouraged towards the middle. The qualitatives–players who like to start with cards and images, as the book suggests–shouldn’t have a problem translating that to Elemental bias. The quantitatives have it even easier–they choose  their Elemental skill set then structure their identity around it. It’s all pretty transparent.


I mentioned previously the one job a system must do is bring the PC to life. Now, as much as I love Everway it is not a granular system; it’s almost cartoonish in its application of four stats to define a hero. Much of the nuance of Everway PCs comes from the fortune cards picked as Virtue, Fault and Fate, the images the player selects, etc. The qualitatives will be satisfied; what about those literal-minded quantitatives?

Elemental Identity

The hero’s identity, their ability to influence the game world, is not just about the strongest element. It’s about priority given to the elements.

  • The element they ranked highest is the area they want the highest level of competency. More to the point, they want their competency acknowledged by the game world, players and GM. It defines the PC.
  • The second-highest element is not just a secondary competency; it’s also a modifier to the primary element. It also forms a key part of the PC’s identity.
  • The third-ranked (second lowest) element is the least important. It’s something the player doesn’t want to be a deficiency, but it’s not strong enough to make it a factor in play. It’s the second cheapest wine in the restaurant.
  • The lowest priority element is the real concern. It’s either a compromise (i.e. the player accepts a weakness, and de-emphasises it) or it’s a conscious expression of weakness that becomes a roleplay motif.

I imagined the City Accelerator using a four-axis system because people identify with the number four (including of course its elemental connotations). That’s a system of convenience designed to sort the high value from the low value detail and get the most from the city design–so by definition, you pay attention to the two highest priorities, and just ignore the others. That approach works for Everway characters, too.

The question then is how does the second highest rated element influence the behaviour and identity of the highest rated element? Since I’ve been banging on about combat in Everway, I’ll use the example of a fighter. With the highest priority in Fire, how do the other elements modify the character?

Let’s consider a rudimentary map, with Fire at the centre (as the highest priority):

Element Diagram

Now consider how the player might see their character, depending on which element is the second-highest priority:

Element Diagram  Fighter

Some of these labels suggest how your fighter goes about fighting; others suggest history, a mental state, or a vocation.

Now consider how your fighter goes about fighting:

Element Diagram  How

This is more focused on the act of combat. Some words will strongly affect the outcome in certain circumstances; others have absolutely nothing to do with the act itself, but could determine how the PC deals with the outcome (e.g. “Code”, “Empathy”). 

Both of these are important for how a player sees their character, and how they present themselves when doing certain actions.

The goal here isn’t to teach experienced roleplayers to suck eggs–they know how to answer all these questions and present a solid, three dimensional character. I’m suggesting a way for the GM to invite the players to talk about their characters and present them as not only I am, but also I do.

There are 20 questions here to encourage thought about a character. There are five per element. To answer, consider how a dominant element might affect your action. For the questions where the character is strong in that element, the secondary element might come into play. For others, the character’s strongest element might dominate–but if it doesn’t, why not?

Fire questions

  1. How would I ride a horse?
  2. How would I climb a hill?
  3. What sport would I play?
  4. What musical instrument would I play?
  5. How do I fight?

Air questions

  1. How would I address a crowd?
  2. How would I solve a puzzle?
  3. How would I stop an argument?
  4. How would I communicate if I didn’t know someone’s language?
  5. How do I look for information?

Water questions

  1. How would I attract the opposite (or same) sex?
  2. How would I sing a song?
  3. What’s the first thing I look for or notice in a room?
  4. What do I like to read?
  5. What pet do I keep?

Earth questions 

  1. How would I move a large object?
  2. How would I cook a meal?
  3. How would I go on a long journey?
  4. How would I build my house?
  5. How do I make money?


p>If you want to create new questions, why not adopt the spirit of the Everway vision cards? If the player has generated imagery, use it to inspire questions (because the player probably already has answers).


1. And if you think about it, the first decision a D&D player makes is “what class do I want?” which is a qualitative choice.

  1. I strongly believe this. I do not subscribe to the notion that the referee is simply “another player with a stewarding role”. We GM, we get adulation from our players, it strokes our egos. We should treat our players as customers.

Lynn Willis RIP

Lynn Willis has sadly passed away.

As you can see from the press release, he contributed to many great titles for Chaosium. I’m looking at my game shelf and there are copies of CoCDreamlands and the (underrated) Elric! series.

He also wrote the Ghostbusters RPG (with Sandy Petersen). That game influenced my gaming more than any other. As I said before, it contains many features we take for granted these days.

Rest in peace, man.

Fear and Pain

Over at theRPGSite Dan Davenport (who I assume is “the” Dan Davenport whose reviews are partly responsible for my AFMBE habit) asked

What game systems do you think do the best job of simulating pain, as well as the fear of pain?


p>There were a few replies around systems that deal with pain as a consequence and penalty to action, but there’s not much that deals with fear (and specifically fear of pain) as a factor that would stop you to act.

There are good reasons for this. For one, RPGs are a fantasy; unless you want a game where the horror is presented to PCs as their inability to act in the face of injustice (an example was being too afraid to interrupt a mugging) it’s best to leave those choices to the player in charge–they should be able to imagine their PC’s fear and they will certainly know the consequences of failure if their unarmed hero takes on someone with a knife and it goes south.

There are disadvantages you can take (in GURPS) that deal with an inability to act in stress situations, but these are not imposed system-wide.

So I was thinking about how to simulate this and keep the system workable and fun. The best way I can think of is to make it fear of escalation: that is, your PC is fine with getting into a brawl where the worst anyone will suffer is bruises, but outside her comfort zone once a lethal weapon is drawn.

Another example which is slightly backwards is a society of effete nobles who are fine stabbing each other to death with rapiers, but actual brawling and getting a bloody nose puts them outside their comfort zones.

It would be possible to design a game with “partitioned combat” that requires effort to transition between types of combat. That effort would be more or less depending on where you were from, whether you’d killed before and your general attitude to life, fear of punishment for crime, etc.

I know Dogs in the Vineyard escalates conflict in this way, and when I’ve had the system described by someone who doesn’t grok it, their response is “but why don’t I just leap all the way to guns drawn and kill them?” I don’t think the DitV approach fits most systems, because it doesn’t really answer this question. But I think it’s a good start.


  1. This “partitioning” is probably useful for NPCs to determine how far they would go in a given situation to challenge the PCs. For PCs, it’s probably best to leave to player choice. This is a roleplaying game, after all.
  2. Players will respond to consequences rather than threat when deciding whether to engage. If you want them to really think about whether they want to escalate the fight from fists to knives, make the consequences really bad.
  3. The example of interrupting a mugging–assume the NPC has already escalated by threatening a PC or dependent. That would and should override fear of engagement (unless the PC had a stated disadvantage).

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