Category: Theory and Design (Page 1 of 13)
The character history method from part 2 should produce interesting, three-dimensional characters with a bit of mystery and personal plot hooks.
By comparison, demons are cartoonish, one-dimensional, one-trick ponies — which is intentional. Demons are all about a character’s singular purpose in life and how it’s both a path to power and damnation. Whereas the human side of the character should feel “real” with believable professions, the Demon side is much more like a character class.
I. Brief notes on demons
A demon represents a character’s drive. What I mean by this is that the demon is essential for the character’s heroic aspect. A superlative warrior unmatched in combat owes their ability to their demon; their identity is the demon, the two are inseparable.
There are six Demon Realms that define six dimensions of activity.
A Demon Realm has associated lesser and greater suits, or petitions which may be made for magical aid. A demon can access the lesser and greater suits from its realm, as well as the lesser suits from two adjacent realms.
A demon always seeks to transgress against its master. It achieves this goal by accumulating power through its master’s over-reliance on its services.
When a demon successfully transgresses, it undergoes metamorphosis.
II. Generating the demon character
To generate the demon half of the PC you need to decide on Drive, Demon Realm and Seeming.
Drive is a lot like a Character Class. It’s a direction for the character’s life, something they’re supernaturally good at. The basic fantasy tropes of fighter, magic user, thief and so forth work here; in fact I really encourage thinking in these terms. The demon is all about power and exceeding human capability, and the powers it bestows fit into these particular classes. In fact, it’s probably not possible to think about Drive without thinking about your demon’s Realm at the same time — so we’ll cover that next.
The Realm of Violence defines warfare, causing harm and injury. Its demons are demons of combat, demon weapons. It borders the Realms of Durance and Majesty. It is almost always associated with martial Drives, i.e. fighters and soldiers.
The Realm of Durance concerns surviving pain, disease and injury, and superseding the limits of the body. Its demons are armour, shields, wards and pacts. It borders the Realms of Violence and Flux. It will be associated with martial pursuits as well as the wilderness, for example scouts and rangers, barbarians, and possibly some priests or druids.
The Realm of Flux concerns movement through and perceptions of space and time, and its demons are transporters, teleporters and gates. It borders the Realms of Durance and Contrivance. It is often associated with athletic and/or larcenous Drives such as thieves, acrobats, or assassins.
The Realm of Contrivance is about satisfying desires and needs. Its demons are lovers, seekers and procurers. It borders Flux and Voyance. Its drives are frequently arcane, including illusionists and sorcerers.
The Realm of Voyance deals with knowledge of past, present and future. It borders Contrivance and Majesty, and its demons are scryers, seers and ledgers, and its drives frequently involve priests, oracles and sages.
The Realm of Majesty controls minds. Its demons are possessors, controllers and parasites. It borders the realms of Voyance and Violence. Its drives are politicians, leaders and enchanters.
Last, have an idea of what the demon looks like — to the PC, and to the external observer. Many demons, especially low level ones which are only beginning their metamorphosis, appear as some kind of motif on the character. A fighter might have a particular sword, for example. It could be clothes, body art, a piece of jewellery. It could be something large and immobile, for example a hotel, but this would limit the scope of the game to in and around the hotel (which wouldn’t play easily with a hex crawl).
Perhaps more interesting is the PC’s internal perception of their demon. If you go with the idea of the player to their left playing the demon from time to time, that player will be helped by knowing how the PC actually sees their demon. Is it a voice in their head, a long shadow from behind a tree, a reflection, a speck of dust in the corner of their eye? Or is it more overt, like a goblin that sits at the end of their bed?
III. Example: Kayl’s demon
We know a lot about Kayl’s past from part 2, but what about their ambition?
The obvious choice is to follow Kayl’s background and make them some kind of witch or mystic. Perhaps when the adventure starts they’re just on the cusp of awakening; they have realised their potential and manifested their own demon.
For Kayl’s Drive we simply write Fane Witch. That’s nice and punchy; it’s direct in the description with just a little hint of the connection to their backstory.
If Kayl’s a witch, the more obvious Realms for their demon are Voyance, Contrivance and Majesty. Contrivance would make them some kind of conjurer or illusionist, and a very physical kind of magician. Majesty would make them a kind of social manipulator, and confrontational with it. The middle ground is Voyance, which would make them a seer and able to connect with other worlds. Note that they will access minor powers from Contrivance and Majesty as well.
What is this demon’s Seeming? Kayl’s player decides that they have taken to wearing makeup outwardly, great black smears over each eye which makes them seem strange and ferocious despite their youth. Inwardly their demon mostly manifests in their dreams; it is the voice of the matriarch interred at Aelfa, speaking from the threshold of her tomb under a sky like ash.
And that’s all for now. I’ll come back to StormHack with actual mechanics in the near future. But the next post will be something a bit different.
This is a post about Man, Play and Games by Roger Callois.
I haven’t read Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, but Callois mentions his work directly in the first chapter and also challenges his fixation on the competitive nature of games (and I believe the exclusion of gambling. Callois’ theory on play is summarised here).
Note that I haven’t really touched on chapters 3 or 5, which are both good reads but relate more generally to the cultural need for and the sociology of games. I’ve also very much glossed over the second part concerning the interplay of simulation and vertigo (chapter 7) and competition and chance (chapter 8) because the main area I want to consider is the conditional relationship between AGON and MIMICRY.
The Definition of Play / The Classification of Games
Note: the first two chapters are reproduced in the Game Design Reader):
- The Definition of Play includes the six core characteristics (free, separate, uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, make-believe)
- The Classification of Games covers the four categories (Agon, Alea, Mimicry, Ilinx) and the progression from chaos to order (paidia to ludus)
Mimicry is directly (and obviously) applicable to role-playing:
Mimicry. All play presupposes the temporary acceptance, if not of an illusion (indeed this last word means nothing less than beginning a game: in-lusio), then at least of a closed, conventional, and, in certain respects, imaginary universe. Play can consist not only of deploying actions or submitting to one’s fate in an imaginary milieu, but of becoming an illusory character oneself, and of so behaving.
The “closed, conventional, imaginary universe” is I guess the magic circle.
The interesting part of these first two chapters is the interplay between the four categories. One, Agon and Alea represent two ends of a spectrum; at one end is complete mastery and the other is complete surrender to chance.
Agon and alea imply opposite and somewhat complementary attitudes, but they both obey the same law — the creation for the players of conditions of pure equality denied them in real life.
The notion of equality is has always been the subject of hand-wringing with role-players; here it’s not game balance that matters but the ability to engage with the game on equal terms. Also game options may not be balanced, but if the freedom to make choices is there then equality is preserved. This is true if the game is largely random or has some strategic (i.e. skilful, competitive) element.
Two, there’s the interplay of Agon and Mimicry as pageantry accompanying sport:
In fact, bicycle races, boxing or wrestling matches, football, tennis, or polo games are intrinsic spectacles, with costumes, solemn overture, appropriate liturgy, and regulated procedures. In a word, these are dramas whose vicissitudes keep the public breathless, and lead to denouements which exalt some and depress others. The nature of these spectacles remains that of an agon, but their outward aspect is that of an exhibition.
This raises a question: where agon is present in the game, is mimicry always subordinate to it? I am not sure of the answer. But, let’s say you have two schools of RPG thought; one is based on boundaries and the consequences of action/reaction, and the other is based on narrative threads and the need to progress through a narrative arc, at any cost. If mimicry must be subordinate to anon, then the latter must by definition avoid all manner of competitive or strategic play. This leads us to…
Three, going from informal paidia to formal ludus, these four categories start becoming exclusive:
as soon as conventions, techniques, and utensils emerge, the first games as such arise with them: e.g. leapfrog, hide and seek, kite-flying, teetotum, sliding, blindman’s buff, and doll-play. At this point the contradictory roads of agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx begin to bifurcate.
So, to unpack this in terms of our simulationist vs. narrativist argument, any game which purports to “maturity” (ludus) must choose one approach and not the others. It’s easy therefore to see how ideas like exclusionary Gamist (alea) / Narrativist (mimicry) / Simulationist (agon) emerge; and the need for conventions and techniques to steer the players in one direction or another becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.
Note that paidia and ludus are not exclusionary notations but form a continuum of unstructured/informal to structured/formal, and there are examples of both in the four categories, which Callois lays out like this:
|AGON (competition)||ALEA (chance)||MIMICRY (simulation)||ILINX (vertigo)|
|PAIDIA||Unregulated contests (wrestling, running, etc.)||Dice rolls and coin flips||Initiation, hazing, “games of illusion”||Dancing, horseback riding, “children whirling”|
|LUDUS||Regulated competitions/sports||Betting and lotteries||Theatre and spectacle||Skiing, skydiving, mountain climbing|
Callois places “games of illusion” which might be our immersive, emotional roleplaying towards the unstructured and informal end of the spectrum.
In such an instance MIMICRY coexists perfectly well with AGON. The need to switch between roleplaying and competitive/rules based play is unspoken and in the mode of play I’m familiar with, the timing for the switch is tacitly appreciated by all players. There is no need for fundamentalist declarations of play towards one category or another; rather this mode switching is done on the fly by unspoken agreement.
Thus far from being an immature vs. mature relationship the relationship between PAIDIA and LUDUS is one of tacit vs. explicit knowledge. And with my knowledge management hat on, this leads to a pretty important idea, which is that attempts to formalise roleplaying games into different categories may be doomed to fail, due to the prevalence of the tacit in all learned activity — learned activity being a social construct.
The Corruption of Games
“Corruption of play” has a couple antecedents in roleplaying; the first is the need for immersion or verisimilitude:
Where the problem is to enumerate the characteristics that define the nature of play, it appears to be an activity that is (1) free, (2) separate, (3) uncertain, (4) unproductive, (5) regulated, and (6) fictive, it being understood that the last two characteristics tend to exclude one another. These six purely formal qualities are not clearly related to the various psychological attitudes that govern play. In strongly opposing the world of play to that of reality, and in stressing that play is essentially a side activity, the inference is drawn that any contamination by ordinary life runs the risk of corrupting and destroying its very nature.
Second is the need to remove “cheating”. From this we get all manner of GM advice, contingent rules to stop certain behaviours, etc.
The principle of play has become corrupted. It is now necessary to take precautions against cheats and professional players, a unique product of the contagion of reality. Basically, it is not a perversion of play, but a sidetracking derived from one of the four primary impulses governing play. The situation is not unique. It occurs whenever the specified instinct does not encounter, in an appropriate game, the discipline and refuge that anchor it, or whenever it does not find gratification in the game.
The dilemma is that the player is still playing within the rules as written, but not in the “spirit of the game”.
The cheat is still inside the universe of play. If he violates the rules of the game, he at least pretends to respect them. He tries to influence them. He is dishonest, but hypocritical. He thus, by his attitude, safeguards and proclaims the validity of the conventions he violates, because he is dependent upon others obeying the rules. If he is caught, he is thrown out. The universe of play remains intact.
The third is bleed which is a buzz-word du jour in narrative circles.
Superstition therefore seems to be a perversion, i.e. the application to reality of one of the principles of play, alea, which causes one to expect nothing of himself and leaves all to chance. The corruption of mimicry follows a parallel course. It is produced when simulation is no longer accepted as such, when the one who is disguised believes that his role, travesty, or mask is real. He no longer plays another. Persuaded that he is the other, he behaves as if he were, forgetting his own self. The loss of his real identity is a punishment for his inability to be content with merely playing a strange personality. It is properly called alienation.
There’s not much else to be said about corruption except that it is and will continue to be endemic. But the table at the end of the chapter is interesting:
|Cultural forms||Institutional forms||Corruption|
|AGON (competition)||sports||economic competition, competitive examinations||violence, will to power, trickery|
|ALEA (chance)||lotteries, casinos, etc.||speculation on the stock market||superstition, astrology, etc.|
|MIMICRY (simulation)||carnival, theatre, cinema, hero-worship||uniforms, ceremonial etiquette||alienation, split personality|
|ILINX (vertigo)||mountain climbing, tightrope walking, skiing, sky-diving||professions requiring control of vertigo||alcoholism and drugs|
I wonder if (given its susceptibility for bleed and its otherwise tacit nature) roleplaying is unusually vulnerable to corruption, which is why we get so much contingency built into games.
Conditional, Fundamental and Forbidden Relationships
Chapter 6 covers an expanded theory of games, and starts with six relationships:
Competition-Chance and Mimicry-Vertigo are Fundamental Relationships; they are “parallel and complementary”. Competition-Chance relies on equality, and in games are regulated. Mimicry-Vertigo lies at the opposite extreme and “equally presume a world in which the player constantly improvises”.
Competition-Vertigo and Chance-Mimicry and Forbidden Relationships. This is self-evident — you can’t have a strategic game which at the same time destroys judgement and distorts truth; and you can’t have a game where reality is simulated based on internal logic, but at the same time random. BUT in the latter case you could design a game where one is subordinate to the other, e.g. the randomness creates a set of conditions in the illusion that the players respond to (which is a cornerstone of RPGs).
Last, and most interesting IMHO, are the Contingent Relationships of AGON-MIMICRY and ALEA-ILINX which “may be associated harmlessly.” Callois again goes back to the spectacle:
I have already had occasion to stress that every competition is also a spectacle. It unfolds according to identical rules, and with the same anticipation of the outcome. It requires the presence of an audience which crowds about the ticket windows of the stadium or velodrome just as at those of the theater and cinema.
On the Narrativist vs. Challenge (“OSR”) modes of design: logically if you characterise the aim of Narrativist games to induce sensation or vertigo, then this is incompatible with strategic, “challenge based” or “boundary based” design. Of course if we’re using these terms then the use of MIMICRY to denote simulation is going to cause some confusion.
I’ll finish this with a couple of quotes — which are interesting although not specific to roleplaying.
From Chapter 8, concerning Competition and Chance:
The reign of mimicry and ilinx as recognised, honoured, and dominant cultural trends is indeed condemned as soon as the mind arrives at the concept of cosmos, i.e. a stable and orderly universe without miracles or transformations. Such a universe seems the domain of regularity, necessity, and proportion—in a word, a world of number.
From Chapter 9, concerning “The Mask and the Uniform”:
modern society is scarcely aware of the two survivals of the sorcerer’s mask: the black mask and the grotesque carnival mask. The black mask, the mask reduced to its essentials, elegant and abstract, has long been associated with erotic fetes and with conspiracies. It characterises equivocally sensual intrigues and mysterious plots against the powers that be.
Unsurprisingly other gamers have already done this analysis: this article cleans up the table and covers the six pairs of categories very neatly.
Going further I found this article by Jesper Juul from 2003, which goes beyond Callois’ classifications and argues that RPGs are a borderline case between GAMES-NOT GAMES. This is outside the scope of what I’ve written here but worth reading.
Finally this appears to be someone’s entire thesis which is a bit much for a casual read-through but it includes a nice pictogram of the relationships (which I reproduced above).
Bothered by the new Vampire 5th Edition Alpha? Here are five games you can play instead:
Don’t Rest Your Head
If you want to really focus on Hunger Dice-like mechanics — which are a really good idea — try Don’t Rest Your Head which is just waiting to be hacked into a Vampire-like game. For example, just rename Exhaustion dice Hunger and use Madness dice for Disciplines. There’s some conceptual massaging to be done (when Madness dominates it’s clearly Frenzy, but Frenzy should come about from Hunger, etc.) but iron those out and you’ve probably got a very tidy system.
If you want to play a supernatural arsehole who basically hijacks a mortal body and rides it like they stole it, play Nephilim. Use it for long-lived vamps who’ve endured periods of torpor between their “past lives”. There are secret societies galore. Granted, the system and setting need some full-on reupholstering but it goes back to a VtM 1e conceit — that basically all mythical things have their roots in Vampires (you know, Baba Yaga is a Nosferatu, etc.). Use the Transformations for revealing the vamp’s monstrous nature (a bit like the woge in Grimm, maybe).
If you want to play in a vast, world-spanning conspiracy of vampire society, maybe built it from the ground up with Silent Legions. For “Elder Gods” read “Antediluvians”. Then build all of the descendants and followers as magical secret societies etc, and have them play a sort of “great game” of politics and nonsense. Use the Kelipot rules for special areas like Elysium and vampiric domains. Yeah, I know they’re like magical other dimensions — re-imagine them as areas outside normal human space, the underbelly where the natural order is reversed and the vamps have control, etc. And sure, you need to do something to make vampire PCs — my best bet so far is to do something with sanity rules and make the pursuit of sanity the same as the pursuit of blood, or something.
Over The Edge
If frankly you’re not bothered about actual rules, which let’s face it we never really bothered with them back in the 90s, you just want to free-form through the game and you need the bare minimum of a framework to support it — why not use the WaRP system? I’ve been thinking about this on and off for some time. And honestly it’s got most of what you need — the Fringe Powers work, and the Psychic Pool and/or Experience Dice work for a temporary resource you can spend when you really need it. Maybe just make a Blood Pool of dice to power your Fringe Powers and otherwise use for Blood Buffs, and replenish it by roleplaying the hunt. Job done.
Vampire the Masquerade, 1st Edition
Back in the 90s before all the splatbooks, before Werewolf and the others, before being collared in goth clubs having your ear bent about metaplot, there was only one rulebook with messy layout and inconsistent rules and a pretentious goth bibliography/soundtrack. If you’re not so bothered about Rules as Written (we weren’t) Vampire the Masquerade First Edition is as worthwhile as any version. For me it’s the best; VtM 1e left a lot of blank space to fill in (lupines, cities, etc.). I also liked the non-glossy pages and the understated fonts and understated clans and the many ideas for chronicles. Yeah, OK, we’ll never get that back, but at least we were free to create our own incongruous scenarios and sophomoric characters
An update to the SRD mini-document for StormHack. What this includes:
- the “Drama game” which is how you play in downtime or flashbacks, for dramatic scenes/origin stories etc.
- the “Adventure game” which is basically an OSR game.
What it doesn’t contain are details on the Demon Ladders which just wouldn’t fit, but those will come shortly in the complete SRD. But it should give you sort of an idea on how to play.
Here’s the two sides. Print them on one sheet of paper, and make the little booklet as previously shown; when you open it up you should have the two modes of play in there.
Here’s the thing in PDF, which may be useful if you’ve got a printer that does double-sided printing.
Working on the SRD for StormHack. I’ve changed the system a bit since the playtest at Concrete Cow. The revised version has an “interior game” and an “exterior game”, something I’ve been noodling with the idea for nearly 3 years in Beyond the Wall (character sheets here). Basic idea:
- The Adventure game happens outside the “village” (the settlement, city, etc.). Play this like an OSR game (e.g. WhiteHack or Beyond the Wall).
- The Drama game happens either in Downtime (i.e. “back in the village”) or as Flashbacks between the adventure scenes. Run these as you would Dramasystem by playing out the character’s relationships (“Bonds”) and possibly with another player roleplaying the other end of the relationship. The outcome generates tokens that can be spent in the Adventure game.
- It’s up to the players and GM how much you play flashbacks vs. the adventure portion.
- (Yes, similar to Night Witches although note that I had this idea back in August 2014…)
Anyway, I went from writing a monolithic document to trying the SRD on a single page and from there a little 8 page A6 pamphlet (made like this).
Here’s the image file:
The margins are screwed up at the moment. The reverse side will be instructions for the Drama and Adventure games but I haven’t written that yet. The plan is to use this for both an Eternal Champion type game, and Black Mantle.
More to come.
This rough game sketch follows some ideas laid down in the latest Fictoplasm podcast about Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov.
The General Idea
First, influences, a bit of this and that:
- Books: Pale Fire (Nabokov), The Land of Laughs (Carroll), Weaveworld (Barker)
- Film and TV: Twin Peaks, Riverdale, It Follows
- Comics: Planetary issue 9 (“Planet Fiction”) (Warren Ellis)
- RPGs: Mage: The Ascension, Over The Edge, Unknown Armies, Changeling: The Lost
In summary, a lot like a contemporary game, a liminal fantasy, magical realism, a setting that looks like the real world but with weirdness.
Second, the pitch.
The characters are exiles from “Ruritania”, a.k.a. The Old Country. This is a place that (mostly) exists outside the game area.
Most of the time the characters have settled in a “Ruritanian colony” in The New Country. This colony isn’t really a real place, but it’s close enough to all the real places in the New Country that most non-Ruritanians, or “normal people” could not tell the difference. It fits right in with their world, they can easily travel to it, etc.
What do the PCs do in this place? Well, any kind of modern drama/investigative type of game. The world looks like our world, and the people inside it behave accordingly, and most of the time you follow the characters around and see how their lives link up.
But at some point, Ruritania intrudes on the real world. Ruritania is the exotic, the weird, the magical. It’s also subjective; Ruritania means different things to different characters. And it’s possible to hold a personal view of Ruritania and experience someone else’s version. Ruritania is a single place but viewed from many different perspectives.
The default setup is that assassins from Ruritania are stalking the characters. The game should play out episodically like a drama, soap opera, police procedural, etc. with a weekly (well, short) story arc. But the Ruritanian arc is long-term. As things get stranger, the assassins get closer to where the PCs are; and when they are close enough, they strike.
The goal is to run a game like Twin Peaks with “real” people and their personal interests and drama. Most of the time things are perfectly mundane but at points the strangeness intrudes.
Also consider the WaRP system, which works nicely for very light characters. WaRP is very neat looking with the Central Trait, Side Traits and Negative Trait.
Consider the involvement of NPCs in Dramatic and Procedural scenes. A lot of Dramasystem supposedly focuses inward; but a game like this needs external characters to come from outside and connect with the interior characters.
Use a sort of location tagging system. Rate this numerically:
- 0 for “real world”
- 1 for “almost real world”; the default state for a Ruritanian colony
- 2-3 for “intrusion”, that is any strangeness, alternative reality
- 5 is full-on Ruritania; the magical or weird reality that is stalking the characters.
Locations in the game world can have ratings that go up and down. These ratings represent difficulties for passing into certain areas. See the Boundaries bit, next.
During the game, each character will have a clock which goes up or down. As their rating increases they become more sensitive, more connected with the secret world (criminal underworld, psychic world, dream world, etc.). If this is handled using an Apocalypse World style of “hard moves” then above a certain threshold on the clock certain options are opened to the GM to take hard moves on behalf of the Ruritanian assassins, representing their progress towards the characters.
Additionally when the characters are “in Ruritania” (i.e. in the psychic landscape) they may have restricted actions depending on what permission they have to be there — this fits with e.g. a dream world where certain moves simply aren’t available owing to dream logic.
What is Ruritania?
“Ruritania” represents somewhere far away, magical, normally separate from reality; a higher world, a dream world, an idealised state, a place yearned for. It’s the Black and White Lodges in Twin Peaks, the higher universe of Yesod in the Book of the New Sun, the dream worlds of Dreamscape or Nightmare on Elm St, and so on.
Ruritania in the game is an unattainable state — and it’s normally a place the characters are fleeing from, and from whence they are pursued with lethal intent.
But there are Ruritanian colonies for the exiles; decide whether these are created consciously or happen spontaneously. Maybe they are necessary for survival; the Ruritanians can sustain themselves for a short while in the real world as vampires by feeding off individual dreamers, but for long term health they need to be in a place of stability. Maybe Ruritanian exiles gathering together in one place is a risky strategy since it attracts attention, but they’re forced to get together to survive.
What happens when normal people who are touched by Ruritanian unreality leave? Are they haunted? Are they infected? Is Ruritania a transmissible condition?
- Use a location tagging system to map out the play area
- Partition the areas in the map with clear boundaries, and rank these areas according to the previous scale: 0 for real world, 1 for not-quite-there, 2 for magical realism, etc.
- Consider that some of these areas can be reached normally, but the magical or secret or mysterious part can only be accessed with certain permissions. Draw these as circles with cross the main boundary.
See the example for Twin Peaks:
Twin Peaks as an example:
- “Ruritania” is the Black Lodge
- The Assassin is Windom Earle
- Twin Peaks is a colony for Ruritanian exiles, some of whom are magically attuned e.g. Laura Palmer, Sarah Palmer, the Log Lady, Agent Cooper, Garland Briggs, Hawk
- The Red Room, Agent Cooper’s dictaphone messages to Diane, Tibet, the Log Lady’s log, the owls in the forest, visions by various characters (e.g. the one Garland Briggs relates to Bobby) and possibly even the FBI represent higher states of consciousness
Several locations. Rating indicates how far they are removed from reality:
If you were playing Twin Peaks most characters would be drawn together by Laura Palmer’s murder. Agent Cooper travels in from outside but the other characters are already in the location.
The law enforcement characters and indeed everyone affected by Laura Palmer’s death will be interested in getting answers. This would be the arc plot; over the course of the game the Assassin will draw closer and the Black Lodge exert more of an influence.
But there should be episodic drama too, and that’s what the characters should be doing week on week. Dramasystem offers a nice structure to let players frame scenes so they each get spotlight. Consider the balance of incentives in pursuing individual dramatic poles vs. the arc plot.
Ruritania, Magic and Unreality
Agent Cooper’s actions are restricted in the Red Room, and early on he’s only allowed to be a spectator and only to receive cryptic information. He only accesses the room in dreams. All of these point to the level of permission he has to act freely in the Red Room (and the Black Lodge), and (in game terms) the moves he can make in that environment. Furthermore the advent of his dreams is a result of ramping up of weirdness and the psychic world penetrating the real world when he’s in Twin Peaks.
You probably already know that Everway has three different ways of resolving tasks: Karma, Drama and Fortune.
But that’s not what Everway’s system did. Not only was the GM free to use whichever method of resolution suited them at the time, these methods form a continuity.
All Tasks start in the middle with a player wanting to achieve something. It may or may not be articulated as simply as “I want”; it could be implied, it may be teased out with conversation, there may be context and conditions. But a combination of Karma, Drama and Fortune can be used to negotiate what the player wants and get to some kind of outcome.
The graphic assumes a couple of things:
- As soon as we know what the task is, the GM can move to any one of the three options.
- Once you’re at one option, you’re free to switch to another option.
- However it’s most likely that people will start at Karma and then move to Drama or Fortune (directly, or via Drama). The reasons for this are below.
- The three approaches arrive at the end states in three different ways; one by dice, one by GM adjudication, and one by either a consensus between players or by the GM imposing plot on the players.
This is what the Everway playing guide says about karma on p124:
When applying the law of karma you, as the gamemaster, assess the difficulty of the task, judge the capability of the hero attempting the task, and rule on the result. The hero succeeds if, in your judgement, the hero has the abilities necessary to meet the challenge of the task. The hero fails if, in your judgement, the task is too difficult for the hero’s capabilities.
Going in, karma is a short-cut. If a PC is up to a task then let them have the outcome they’re going for; and if they’re not, don’t waste their time with making them roll dice — especially if the fail outcome is simply “you don’t get the thing” without any other consequence.
This is why karma is often good as an opening position for resolving any task. Drama may be all about what benefits the plot, but karma is in some ways about cutting out what doesn’t benefit the plot and just slows everything down.
If there’s no clear-cut Yes or No what happens next will probably be a bit of negotiation — either prompted by the GM asking how they achieve that, or more detail volunteered by the player. These start to become blow by blow plans, etc. This can go one of two ways: either a lot of back and forth between players and GM (drama) or going to the dice (fortune).
From the Everway playing guide, p126:
When applying the law of drama you, as the gamemaster, the needs of the plot determine the outcome of events. As in a novel or play, events proceed in such a way as to make the plot and story more engaging and enjoyable. The hero succeeds if doing so helps the plot. The hero fails if that helps the plot.
The role of drama is to make sure things happen that are interesting and everyone engaged and invested in the plot.
The problem with drama is… how does the GM judge that to be the case? Occasionally it’s easy, e.g. drama says the PCs must find a clue here to keep things moving. Sometimes, the GM will be working from a script and have prepared set pieces or bangs. Most of the time though the plot will arise from a back-and-forth conversation, etc. And specifically for task resolution, some players love to talk their way through their plans and every step of their actions — a process of exposition that’s dramatic.
Effectively you have a natural progression from karma into drama. At the start when a player says “I want to do XXX” and the GM asks them “how?” they’re starting a conversation and inviting a whole load of dramatic play.
So, when does the GM go straight to drama without going through karma first? Usually when there’s an obstacle but it’s not quite clear what the task is — prompting the players to talk around the situation until they get what they want.
To truly resolve by drama one of two things happen: either the players agree how the plot is going forward, or the GM imposes plot on everyone. This isn’t really the same as the GM judging the outcome based on ability, and in general it can feel anticlimactic (either because everything ends in agreement, or because the GM just narrates an ending).
What’s much more likely to happen is that the drama comes to a head and calls for a dice roll, so moves into the realm of fortune. It can do this naturally because all that conversation is setting stakes and bringing everything to a head.
The Everway playing guide, p128:
When you, as the gamemaster, apply the law of fortune, a card from the Fortune Deck determines the outcome of an action. If the card’s meaning is positive, the event in the game world is positive for the hero. If the card’s meaning is negative, the event or outcome is negative.
Everway suggests drawing cards for an immediate yes/no judgement, and also for Tarot-like long-term interpretations, and also to improvise results or developments.
You can arrive at fortune from three ways:
- Start at karma; the task is clear but there’s no clear yes/no answer, in which case call for a dice roll.
- Start at drama; talk until things come to a head and the need for a yes/no, then call for a dice roll.
- Go straight to fortune.
I’m going to argue that many times a dice roll is called for the thought process of GM and players have gone through karma and or drama first, setting up the context for the random roll. So the times when people go straight to fortune without thinking about karma/drama is when they’re not really invested in the balance of power or the outcome; they just want something new and interesting to happen that isn’t directly coloured by player or GM invention. Sounds counter-intuitive, but this is exactly what random tables are for, and they work.
The argument above is that karma, drama and fortune form a continuity rather than three separate techniques. I don’t think this is revelatory — more I’ve just said aloud what any good GM with experience has internalised by trial and error. But there are some essential learnings for me at least.
First, always assume the PCs have competence, even if they lack expertise. So if you’re applying the law of karma, assume the PC is judging the situation rather than committing to it. This means that if the task is beyond their abilities they don’t even attempt the task — so they either succeed or they don’t attempt it.
Second, try not to waste people’s time. Don’t roll dice when there’s no real risk. Don’t have players grubbing in the dark for clues when they will inevitably find those clues anyway.
Third, the players will tell you which direction they want to go. This is part of the big drama conversation. The conclusion to that conversation can be one of three things: agree with the players and go with their plot, or disagree and impose your own, or set stakes and go to the dice.
Fourth, do not neglect the power of a random table, card draw or dice roll from a completely neutral position.
OSR games often feature rolling under attributes for pass/fail task resolving; it’s simpler than calculating bonuses from attributes, setting target numbers, etc.
Here is a mashup of OSR roll-under-attribute (specifically something like Whitehack) and PbtA pass/pass with consequences/fail with MC move.
When you take an action and the GM says you need to make a roll, it will be against one of your attributes. Roll a D20 and compare the result with the attribute number.
- if the result is higher than your attribute, you fail with consequences
- if the result is below your attribute and 10 or above, you succeed
- if the result is below your attribute but 9 or lower, you may succeed at cost
- if the result is exactly your attribute it’s a critical success
Cost or Consequences
Consequences happen when you try and fail (if there were no consequences, ask why you needed a die roll in the first place). Consequences can be made up by the GM on the spot or picked from a list (much like a MC move in Apocalypse World).
Success with a Cost is like paying Consequences to get the Success you wanted. The Cost of Success could be the same as the Consequences of Failure, or it could be different (usually less).
There are no numerical changes to the die rolls (either bonus or penalty). So how does the GM make the challenge easier or harder?
First, by changing the Costs of success for rolls below 10. If the Cost is a slider then setting it to zero means that a success with a roll below 10 is the same as a full success; alternatively if it’s set to “high” then it makes the chance of a Cost-free success lower, but also pushes a decision onto the player — take the hit now, or wait until the next opportunity to roll in the hope that you get a 10+ next time.
Second, by changing the Consequences. OK, this doesn’t affect the actual probability, but it does affect the perceived difficulty and pushes a decision onto the player. This only happens when the GM informs the player of potential Consequences in advance. It could even be phrased as “if you fail, XXX will happen” to set the stakes.
Third, by forcing Whitehack-style Disadvantage on the roll — so the player rolls 2 dice and keeps the lower result.
And fourth, by requiring more than one roll. You could demand a succession or rolls (for time passing and ticking bombs) or that all the rolls are made at once.
Skill and Expertise
That’s all well and good, but how does my character’s abilities affect this roll if there are no numerical modifiers?
The obvious one is rolling with advantage as used in Whitehack and D&D5e. You get to roll two D20s and keep the result you like.
The less obvious one is mitigating a Consequence or Cost. If you have a hierarchy of Costs, you could move the cost one rung down the ladder. Alternatively you could say the PC’s skill means they can defer one Cost per scene (or two, or more… though I’d stick with just one).
One thing this allows you to do is then ask the player how their PC is mitigating the cost — e.g. if they’re using an ability that lets them ignore this cost, where did this advantage or training come from? The approach should be (again) similar to Whitehack.
What about combat?
Since OSR has a whole subsystem devoted to fighting with AC, HP and BAB I guess you need to decide whether to keep this subsystem, or convert it.
If you convert it then you need to decide things like “does the GM roll dice, or just the players?” and how armour works, e.g. does it offset Cost or Consequence of a bad attack roll? I haven’t worked those out just yet, but I’ll get to them shortly.
Ladder of Costs
Finally, here are some PbtA style Costs aka MC moves:
- Take damage or trade damage (Cost can be mitigated by armour, hit dice, etc.)
- Put them on the spot
- Take their stuff
- GM advances a clock (or clock die)
- GM takes a pain token (Don’t Rest Your Head style)
Taking or trading damage can be according to a damage ladder, which is really just a way to differentiate between things that do some damage (e.g. a weapon in the hands of an average person) and more damage (a weapon used by a trained person, a bear, a dragon, etc.).
More generally some costs will be more onerous than others, hence the need for a “ladder” which will also allow the GM to tune the level of difficulty/consequence (q.v.). This is a WIP, so more later.