Monday, 4 February 2013

Storygames Ahoy!

This weekend we have been playing a trio of storygames. I have the Admirals at Black Armada to thank for my general introduction to their new school / indie / prepless / GMless hippy games, but it’s still unfamiliar territory.


As I mentioned in the comments here I don’t think I’ve found a Nordic game or a concept that I didn’t like.

Archipelago is free. It is a “game of epic stories” about heroes and their inexorable journey towards their destiny. It’s now in it’s third edition, and for a free game with a minimalist page count it’s absolutely stunning to read. Lovely black and white art, a nice section at the back with the Resolution Cards (also used in Itras By, apparently) and generally good pagenation in an iPad-friendly size.

The author conceived the game as a way to tell stories in Earthsea, but it works for any world. Of course you need to agree on a world you’re familiar with. We couldn’t. Many of the proposals weren’t familiar enough to all the players, and the ones that were (Buffy was considered) were vetoed. Instead, we created our own.

This proved to be more fun than actually playing (for me at least). World creation is not what Archipelago is about per se–there is a single page on Defining a New Setting with a rudimentary workflow:

  1. Choose genre
  2. Choose themes (e.g. culture, geography, magic), assign one to each player
  3. Draw a map on a big piece of paper
  4. Choose at least 5 locations, name and describe them 

Unfortunately we didn’t follow this approach (which to be fair is more implied than explicit in the book), and instead decided on New York for our magical post-apocalyptic setting, then argued whether there were bridges over or just tunnels under the Hudson River and other details. After four hours we had at least created a world, but it might have gone much more quickly if we’d done themes before map.

The character creation requires thinking about extraordinary characters with great destinies ahead. Regardless of power level they will be at the centre of events. They have relationships to other characters, locations or events; at least two PCs must be connected via this third party. That means there’s no direct relationship between PCs. Relationship building is another collaborative effort for this reason.

Next we generated our destinies. Other players each anonymously write a destiny for a given character, and that player then selects the one they like best. This part feels like a fun party game (as in you guess who wrote the most provocative, interesting destiny). A quote towards the end of the book tells you to “be bold when writing destiny points for other players” as if there’s a risk of players writing weak destinies. That certainly wasn’t a problem.

Then we started play, and it went downhill from there.

To be fair, we didn’t have enough time after faffing with the world and our characters to play more than one round of scenes, meaning we got nowhere near our stated destinites. However I found the structure we followed–and on later reading it, the structure given in the book–just wasn’t enough to drive us towards an exciting story.

A scene is directed by the player controlling the in-spotlight character. Their actions are narrated and they bring in other players to play NPCs, describe detail, provide advice on features (magic, culture, etc) and so on. The other players also get to use “ritual phrases” that challenge the story, such as “try a different way” if they feel a piece of narration is incongruous to the shared story. If you take it seriously (as I expect those dour Scandinavians do) I guess it can produce challenging but coherent storytelling; the trouble is when you release a ritual phrase like “harder!” on a gaggle of hysterical Brits, the results are inevitable.

Scenes are introduced by each player with an objective–and interaction, overcoming an obstacle, and so on. The problem I have is that this almost never gives rise to a cliffhanger because the scene is supposed to achieve some sort of closure. Our host argued that a player can choose to end on a cliffhanger, but since the player is always in control of their scene they can’t be surprised by someone else saying “cut!” in the middle of a life-or-death situation. If the player is driving the scene towards closure, an abrupt stop in the middle of that scene is the opposite of the normal procedure, and tricky to judge. Using Hamlet’s Hit Points‘ terminology, this inevitably gives rise mostly procedural beats and few drama beats.

But what struck me about Archipelago was not the metagame, nor the directorial style of play. It was the way I’m stewarding my “PC”, but I’m treating him as an NPC with an agenda. When I bring in other players to play “NPCs” to fill scene roles they are reacting to my character with an agenda; their behaviour is more PC-like than my character’s. In other words, it’s an almost complete inversion of our accepted roleplaying dynamics.

This game displayed what is probably the number one issue for all story games; the supporting players knowing what the narrating player expects of them at the point they are drawn into the scene. There’s no off-narration negotiation; all the player has to go on is the scene objective at the start. Probably this is intended to throw in surprises to the narrator as they use the other players as wild cards in their scene, but unless the group is intimately knowledgable of each other’s preferences and communicating at peak, this won’t happen.

The single biggest issue I had was the relationships. With no direct PC-PC relationship, players can drift around their sandbox and never encounter each other, each pursuing their own plot thread. This I assume is deliberate since one player can’t narrate another player.

Overall I wasn’t sure what to make of Archipelago. It’s a great concept, but is it even a game? I considered how it might be used to provide a behind-the-scenes look at political interactions as a backdrop for a traditional game, but even then it’s a bit diffuse to be useful to me. Possibly we set our boundaries too wide when we drew our map in the first place, giving this sense of individuals adrift in setting, rather than as essential moving parts in a story engine. 

A Taste For Murder

This is Graham Walmsley’s prepless, GMless storygame of murder in a 1930’s country manor for 4-6 people (though you can play with more). 

Where Archipelago is diffuse and very open, ATFM is absolutely watertight. There is no latitude to negotiate location (one player wanted to set a scene in their club in London, which won’t happen), there are no opportunities to bring in speaking characters other than the players (you assume there are servants etc. but they never speak) and crucially all of the relationships are directly character to character.

Character creation involves a bit of negotiation, since relationship descriptors must match each other where they appear on both party’s sheets. The descriptors go beyond simple family or employer-employee relationships and need to include some active part of that relationship–such as “I will inherit the estate from him” or “she beats me” or “we are lovers”. All of these are essential for constructing motive for murder in the later stages of the game.

This relationship mechanism includes influence, which is a number of dice allocated to that relationship. Players get six dice total to distribute, and these dice are always in play–they can be won or lost from other players as various side scenes are played out, but the total number of dice remains.

The structure makes use of a group scene to draw the characters together, from where the various side scenes happen in turn. When everyone has taken a turn at inviting another PC into a side scene, the round finishes and begins again. During the side scenes one party attempts to influence (or later investigate) the other. This is the “roleplaying” aspect of the game although it’s not really roleplaying–there is only one outcome which is an influence attempt leading to a dice-based challenge. The only thing either side can do to skew events in their favour is to try to win the Black and White Dice, which are tied to certain emotions. When the influence attempt is made conversation stops, and the other players decide who deserves which die based on their thespian efforts.

Act one contains two full rounds after which someone is killed. This is determined by secret ballot. The Victim then takes the role of Inspector Chapel–a character who must investigate and cannot influence or be influenced. Investigation is mechanically the same as influence, but the outcome is revealing detail on suspect records. Once a character has three lines filled in on their suspect record, they become a murder suspect. Once two characters have become suspects we move to the Denoument where Inspector Chapel gets to outline the case and the suspects make a final challenge, following which the loser gets clapped in irons and manhandled into the back of a black maria.

I made a mistake with how dice challenges are made, assuming it was a contest between the two characters invovled in the scene. It’s not. Anyone with influence over the character being influenced rolls dice against them, and the player with the highest score–in scene or external observer–chooses whether the influence (or investigation) succeeds or not. In other words the dice are intentionally stacked against the person being influenced or investigated, and while that might not matter for influence once investigation happens all of the other players have a vested interest in making investigations succeed and revealing more of the suspects dark secret (if only to see more blood on the walls).

A couple of other important points emerged. One was the effect of conversation. Even with the slightly silly mechanics it still feels like a narrow-field roleplaying scene, but the side-scenes are reliant on some give and take between the players. Since I was “hosting” (i.e. reading out the rules) I decided to run the very first side scene–and since my relationship with the other character was abusive, I started out by clipping them around the ear before making my demands. Their (reasonable) response was not to wait for me to speak but to begin shouting and make it impossible for me to attempt to influence because I couldn’t get a word in–making it almost impossible for me to seize the black or white dice.

Also I felt that we’d negotiated an abusive relationship but when we came to play it out, they unilaterally changed the relationship by resisting. The rationale was that they’d been away to London and had a new perspective and grown some backbone–but it was effectively the same as having a “we are lovers” relationship only for one side to announce “no, we ended that months ago” in the conversation. Relationships need to be static and a statement of fact, and side scenes are not a psychodrama where game-changing stuff can be made up simply by roleplaying. This is not how we are used to playing our games, however. (It doesn’t really matter, since there’s not much “strategy” in choosing a side scene–no-one’s actually cheated if a misunderstanding about a relationship happens, since the influence remains the same). 

Overall the side scenes are amusing thespian events with one aim only–to weaken one side’s influence over the other, and therefore make them more susceptable to investigation and suspicion and drive the game towards a conclusion. They’re a way of shuffling the influence dice around the table.

Like Archipelago, ATFM has mechanisms for slowing the game down, but none for speeding it up. Towards then end the group scenes were silent as we’d completely run out of amusing smalltalk (I was a bit drunk by then). But unlike Archipelago I can see myself playing this game again, and next time it will hopefully go faster.

Mostly our post-game analysis consisted of arguing whether Sir Ian McKellan would manage to game the system unfairly on account of always winning the black and white dice. Various inducements involving blood orange jelly were made towards Sir Ian and Graham Walmsley on twitter for a play session to test the theory. We remain hopeful…

When The Dark Is Gone

The game is free from the Black Armada, written by Admiral Frax. It concerns a therapy session for adults who, as children, travelled to a fantasy world and who as adults have actualy mental disorders that threaten their life and family.

Several variants have been proposed in our social network, some sensible, some not so sensible. My contribution was When The Orcs Are Gone, to do with retired dungeoneers who are wealthy but with deep-rooted mental problems based on their past professions. Sounds familiar?

Having both played and discussed this game with the designer I know that just wouldn’t work. WTDIG relies on a real-world approach to therapy and mental illness; furthermore it requires ambiguity on whether the fantasy world actually exists. Though you can expect most of the participants to agree that yes, the fantasy world did exist, there are no objective measures to verify that. It’s all in their head.

WTDIG treats mental illness very seriously. It’s intentionally dark and intentionally treats the therapy process with respect. It also allows the players to veto certain themes in advance (like mutilation, or other triggers for player’s phobias). Thereafter character generation includes the collaborative relationship building that’s present in Archipelago and ATFM although with some twists–these relationships are a bit more three-dimensional and involve betrayals, hurts and dark secrets. All of the characters know each other, and have a shared memory of an event in the fantasy world as well as some descriptive keywords or phrases (“Dark Woods”, “David’s Coronation”, “The Weather Was All Wrong”) which are also developed collaboratively.

The game is designed to enable a two-hour group therapy session. There’s no steering mechanism beyond the time limit and the therapist occasionally asking leading questions (otherwise they keep to the background as much as possible).  There’s no stated objective other than to have the therapy session; fixing the characters isn’t an objective, nor is exposition of the shared world, though both can happen. In our game very little of the world was uncovered and no-one was fixed, with one character remaining in denial throughout.

What then is the point of this game?

Frax has previously attested that conversation and generating emotion for its own sake is a valid goal that is seperate from the Threefold model. This game is a proof of concept. Even though no real narrative has been generated (aside from the fragments of shared history) and no external challenges have been overcome, characters have been changed through conversation.

This game includes both elements of shared world-building and psychodrama and avoids gaming staples of overcoming external obstacles. Some have interpreted it as not a roleplaying game, which is starting to be a popular argument in some corners of the internet. Yet everything I was doing in WTDIG was from an in-character point of view, including the imagining and building on fantasy world details and interacting with other characters. I’ve played freeform LARPs with exactly the same dynamics.

Anyway, Frax calls it a roleplaying game. That’s all.

WTDIG has a defined time limit–two hours, framed by opening and closing questions from the Therapist, so at least you know it’s going to be short. That does constrain the number of PCs–we played with five, which was slightly too many as it limited participation time per player. The defined timing and the lack of pressure to get to a defined point made the game more worthwhile, not less.

Final Words


p>Three very different games with both roleplaying and collaborative elements that are lumped under the category of “hippy games”. Archipelago is freeform creation of narrative; ATFM is a gamist’s game masquerading as a narrative game; WTDIG doesn’t fit any of the threefold definitions and proves that other gaming goals and priorities can and do exist.

With such different approaches and goals, the underlying structure present in all three is relationships. Relationships (with mechanistic properties if possible) are also essential for some commercial freeform games if only to encourage the players to talk with one another.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013


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?

Saturday, 19 January 2013

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.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Fiat Breaks Down

Daniel Dover wrote a long essay on what a decent RPG provides that can be boiled down to:

  • Clear and consistent premise, with traits and mechanics that do what they say they’re going to do
  • Optionally, provides inspiration to the player and GM
  • Optionally, provides interesting gameplay due to the in-game choices offered to the players

I enjoy reading and writing about RPG theory, even the controversial stuff, because I think (hope) it will improve the way I write and run games.

About 5 years ago there was a war. Like a lot of wars, it mattered to a small number of people and was ignored by the rest of us. I for one was completely oblivious.

I am referring to the Forge “Brain Damage” controversy and the resulting backlash. Threads of the argument and the ripples it caused can be found if you look hard enough–for example, two threads with Burning Wheel author Luke Crane from 2007 on theRPGsite, and a Theory From The Closet Interview with Edwards. Read (and listen) if you feel it’s worth your time.

Everything that marks the Forge/theRPGsite divide comes down to one idea: that it is possible to make a roleplaying game objectively better. Rightly or wrongly this was interpreted as the way you’re playing is wrong, we know how to play better than you.

I don’t believe the Forge-ites meant that. In fact in Edwards’ interview he criticises what he perceives as “monstrous head games” the Vampire GMs would play on their players to keep the group together, turning their game into a weird cult of personality1. If anything he’s anti-elitism, pro-openness. But by then the “story gamers” had painted themselves into a corner. They couldn’t engage with their critics because it only made things worse, and they weren’t going to concede they were wrong (and why should they?).

If we learn anything from that episode, it’s that reasonable people will tolerate a lot of diversity, but they won’t stand for evangelism.

The question is, is it possible to make a game objectively better? Yes, as long as you can measure and agree on better. I can’t write any game that will guarantee a better user experience. And if a designer responded to my criticism with “well, you’re just playing it wrong, it is objectively better” I’d laugh at them. What I can do is take a real-world skill I know something about, compare how different game systems model it, and declare which is the better model.

Even then, just because I say it’s a better model is no guarantee that someone will like it better. Also, I might be wrong.2

Customer Satisfaction and GM Personality

The primary motivator for playing a roleplaying game must be to play a role. To claim otherwise and maintain your game is a RPG is doublethink.

This is why the first of Dover’s bullet points is crucial–the game system must be able to translate the subjective view the individual player has of her PC to the objective (well, shared) world the group play in. Not only does the character need to be defined in whatever outline the system provides, the player then has to be able to test the limits of their PC against the world.

This is why designing games is not easy, because there’s more than one way to screw this up. For one, where there’s ambiguity in the system (a disconnect between players on what represents power) then someone can end up disappointed and not having fun. That’s compounded when the game gives poor guidance to GMs on how to challenge the PCs just enough to make it exciting and let them make transparent tactical decisions.

The Shortfall

When mechanics and written advice fall short, we have responses to correct the game and make it fun.

Vincent Baker’s approach is to make the rules follow the way we play as closely as possible, or “elimination of shortfall = fun”. It’s a laudible goal to make the system say what you mean and mean what you say, and it’s evidenced in games like Apocalypse World where character actions are system, i.e. there is no interpretive step to go through. The problem with that is the player has to go through an interpretive step to make their vision of their PC fit the playbook. Granted with the quality job Vincent has done on the playbooks actually making that transition isn’t hard, but its more of a constraining action; I may see my Brainer as a Tetsuo Shima-type character, but the playbook will not allow me to behave exactly as Tetsuo does.

D&D’s approach is to remove ambiguity in the system; yes, the game fails to simulate on many levels, and just doesn’t make sense, but everyone agrees what we mean by Armour Class. For the activities D&D is supposed to simulate–fighting, mainly–it has a common language of levels and to-hit numbers and saving throws; the player should be under no doubt what they can do under the scope of the system. In this case the system constrains identity rather than action (i.e. you are a 5th level thief), and identity constraint works only when the context of play is also constrained (i.e. we’re in a dungeon, check for traps).

Vampire‘s approach is to allow the utmost creative freedom (well, within reason) for a new PC, helping them to define what they see as the PC’s strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately it fails badly at translating that to the game world where those strengths and weaknesses can be tested with a predictable outcome–at least, not unless the character is min/maxed horribly. And woe betide a player who expects their sharp shooter to be using Dex+Firearms as their dice pool, when the ST rules that Perception is the operative stat.


p>For both D&D and Vampire the rules shortfall is covered by Rule Zero. While Crane, Edwards, Baker et. al. are quite right to say “if the system is so broken that it needs GM Fiat to enable play, better to design good rules that don’t need GM Fiat” it’s disingenuous to suggest that will fix certain problems without causing others.

Most of us overcome the rules shortfall and apply Rule Zero by force of personality and through knowing our players and being identified as the GM; we can manage any player expectations by picking up on social cues and adapting play to make it more or less challenging. We can even overcome initial objections to play by eclipsing the system to be used with the GM’s personality (“well, D&D isn’t really my thing, but since it’s you…”). Of course it’s much more likely the GM will pick a game she knows will appeal and sell it to players. But they are still selling not just the game but themselves as GM, and using this as a promise that they will make up the shortfall between the system’s shortcomings and the player’s expectation.

Ironically, just as Rule Zero is intrinsically linked to GM personality, the adoption of indie systems that eschew Rule Zero have also been in part due to force of personality. Both Baker and Crane have forums for their games where they imprint their personality, and I don’t think either game would be popular if they weren’t identifiable designers with a fanbase. That’s a good lesson in customer management.

I was going to talk about how Everway can achieve player expectation, but I got sidetracked. Everway is possibly the ultimate game for GM Fiat, with it’s Karma/Drama/Fortune giving the GM plenty of scope to give the PCs what they want. In fact so much scope that it might be difficult to challenge them.


1. I don’t know how Vampire was played in California back then, but he’s describing insecurity an order of magnitude greater than anything we felt here.

  1. In Luke Crane’s interview his scripted combat is discussed; he drops Jake Norwood’s name. Mr Norwood is a medieval martial artist with years of experience, and his own RPG The Riddle of Steel has an endorsement from John Clements (who is to The ARMA what Ron Edwards is to The Forge). With years of WMA experience myself I respectfully disagree with The ARMA’s approach to WMA and Norwood’s model. But also I just don’t like Crane’s scripted combat.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

CIty Accelerator pt 8: Area Knowledge

I’ve always had trouble with Area Knowledge and Streetwise skills. What do they represent? What is the benefit of a successful roll? What’s the consequence of failure?

For GURPS I guess they’re supposed to work like this. In Storyteller games, goodness knows. Streetwise is a weird hybrid of savoir faire, larceny, situational awareness and familiarity with the locale. Ah, well. We know that the five-dots-fits-all of the WW games is just for show; no-one takes it seriously, do they?

The problem with all of these nebulous skills (like Contacts, Allies, Influence, Area Knowledge) is that they rarely require any stake, have no underlying mechanism, and rely on GM judgement calls. They’re a lottery; their value is subjective and reliant on GM-player relationship and are entirely at the mercy of the GM’s sense of fair play. 

I prefer Area Knowledge to be a consequence of a chosen lifepath (“Back when I was picking beans in Guatemala, we used to make fresh coffee, right off the trees I mean.”). It should be colour used to illustrate aquired skills, rather than skill in its own right. I’m going to discuss how to use the City Accelerator to generate interesting personal histories. But before that, let’s consider:

The View from the Outside

If you’re beginning a game outside a city and bringing the PCs to it, all you need to know is what Locations they can see from the outside. You don’t need to worry about grouping anything into Districts yet (although if you want to, go ahead).

What you need to consider is – what can they actually see? – what have they heard about? – what do they actually know is there?

If someone were looking at my city from the outside, they might see airships, a couple of prominent towers, a large wall surrounding the city with a gate, armed guards outside the city, a palace, gun emplacements, several canals passing into the city carrying commercial barges, and so on.

Of course, that’s what they can see. They can infer the presence of an airfield, and they can assume houses, taverns, sewers and so on. But one of the aims of this tool is to avoid the distracting ephemera that crops up with city design–so unless you plan to do something exciting with the sewer (and who doesn’t love a sewer) don’t bother writing a card for it. Let them assume.

Those are the features they can see. On the next tier are the places they’ve heard of, but (as first-time visitors) have never seen. If something is important enough to be in a guide book (“see the moon-pool at N’dregh, where the milk-fed boys dance and are devoured by captive sheep-dragons!”) then it might deserve a card. Again, no need to group that detail into a District.

I’ve Seen Things You Wouldn’t Believe

Let’s say your game starts in a city that’s home to the PCs. They are not external observers; they’ve lived there, and know all the places that aren’t in the guide book.

The obvious problem is getting your players to agree on what the city looks like, which will vary based on their PCs’ respective experience growing up (or passing through).

Well, no problem. Firstly, PCs should have different perspectives, and secondly this tool is here to help. Start from the perspective of an outsider: what are the features and landmarks that everyone knows? Lay the cards out on the table so all your players can see. Draw a map if it helps everyone get a sense of scale and relative position. Let the players look through the stacks.

At the start of the game, or when the party are visiting a new city (or town, or other environment), do this:

  1. The GM lays down the cards for The View From Outside in front of the players. This includes everything they could see as an external observer, and all the landmarks inside they may have heard of. It does not need to include all the Districts (or even any of them).
  2. Each player mentions a place in the city that their PC knows. If it’s in a stack, great. If not, they write it down on a new card. That card goes in front of them.
  3. Go around the table three or four times until each player has that many cards in front of them.
  4. You’re relying on your players to be honest. If their PC has never been here before, they can knock on the table and pass.
  5. You’ll have a new stack of cards; at some point you’ll file them into the stacks of your city. For now you might want to mark them on the front with each PC’s name. Also for a final check, you could ask around the table if anyone else in the party also has experienced that Location.

There–that wasn’t hard, eh? Some parties are full of players who love to write screeds of background, and then expect you to build it into your game. Well, you should, if they’re going to that sort of trouble. However managing all of that creative work alone as a series of GM to player relationships is hard. Much better to get everyone to talk about it at the same time, and manage it GM to party. Also you get a nice little metagame where the thesps in the group get to do some character exposition.

Of course, some background is secret knowledge to be kept from the other players. I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly want to conspire with one player against the rest of the group. That’s not how I roll. There’s a great bit of advice in the Burning Wheel Gold book on p.99:

“If you have a secret about your character, make a Belief about it. It seems counter-intuitive, but in order to make a secret work in this game, you have to tell everyone about it!”


p>And we’re not really asking them to give up secrets, per se. We’re asking them to be candid about the places they’ve been. If the other players infer something about that character as a result, well that’s great!

And the best part of this exercise–you’ve taken your player’s creative energies and embedded them into your world in a very tangiable fashion that the other players can touch. And they’ve done the work, not you. Hurrah!

There are plenty of variants on this exercise. At character generation, you could give each player a stack of 10 cards and ask them to write down 10 interesting locations their PC has seen. If you’re playing Burning Wheel, make it a rule that each player owes you 5 locations for every Lifepath stage their PC has.

This shouldn’t be hard. We’re not asking the players to come up with back plot involving people, events and outcomes, just all of the interesting, marvelous places they’ve seen. They can be broad like a mercenary who’s seen a dozen campaigns in as many countries, or deep like a mage who knows every book and brick in the Great Library that’s been her home for four decades.


Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Ye Olde Zeppo

The Zeppo is one of my favourite episodes of Buffy. (It doesn’t seem to feature in many top tens, but competition is stiff out of the 144 eps in all 7 seasons.)

The Zeppo pushes many underdog wish-fulfilment buttons. It’s a tightly written story that both pastiches the mainstream Buffy and remains true to its weekly saving-the-world format. The fact that it’s not the first choice amongst its stable mates–it is the Xander Harris of Buffy eps–makes it even more resonant.

My next one-off will be about a fantasy village of heroes called off to a war in a foreign land. Except, the players won’t be playing those heroes. They’ll be playing the people left behind. Children, the elderly or infirm, the village idiot, the coward who hid from the army recruiter… all of them strongly disadvantaged in some way that precludes a heroic role or any recognition for it.

Physical Infirmity

This is probably the easiest part to make happen. Children are short and weak, and the elderly are slow and often in pain. Simply shave off the hit points, strength and dexterity. More drastically shave off entire body parts from that farm machinery accident.

Mental Incapacity

I’m not sure I want to play this one. Mainly it’s because characters with severe mental impairments–to the point they can’t articulate ideas–will never be fun to play and worse, risk degenerating into caricature.

There are milder mental problems, of course. Making a character unable to communicate verbally is something I’ve done in the past, with success–all I needed was to give them an ally in the form of another PC.

Unisystem does have a whole list of “mental problems” which are designed to be playable and yet provide variety. Cowardice and Cruelty will probably work well, as will Paranoia.

Social Exclusion


p>This is probably the most important side. The characters have started up as socially excluded already, albeit mostly patronised rather than disadvantaged.

I’ve played games where children and adults mixed, and whilst the game was fantastic (based on Garth NixSabriel) the issues came when the plucky children, who should have been going off on adventures despite the long-suffering captain’s orders to stay together and wait for the army, were sidelined in their activities by that authority figure (who was much more interested in building camp defences than investigating the weird-fu nearby).

The experience here is that if I’m going to mix and match all ages then somehow I have to avoid division within the party on the basis of age. Some of the advice in Frax’s Group Generation article applies. However I expect to go through this exercise as GM rather than facilitating the player discussion (since this game is a one-off, there probably won’t be time).

The system I’m leaning to is Unisystem, mainly because it works in one-off games–but also because it clearly identifies strengths and weaknesses of this type while retaining a strongly gamist orientation. Furthermore it deliberately provides tiers of competence (Buffy’s White hats and Champions, AFMBE’s Norms and Survivors).

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Masquerade Mashup

“There isn’t anything personal or horrifying in V:tM as a *system*, except what you bring from how hardcore you bought into all the delicious fiction-y bits”

That quotation is from Lenny Balsera, commenting on Ryan Macklin’s post.

Vampire‘s premise as a “personal horror” game is still as fresh as it was in 1991 (even in our post Dresden Files/True Blood/Blade mainstream vampire malaise). At the risk of patronising my readers (all three of you) I’ll quickly list what I think are the most important parts of Vampire:

  • They are hungry for a forbidden food
  • They can frenzy and lose all control if they don’t get it or if they’re they’re threatened
  • They find it harder and harder to relate to humanity as they get older, sometimes becoming deranged
  • They need to keep the Masquerade, or they get whacked by the mob a blood hunt called on them
  • They’re immortal, but mortally afraid of the few things that can kill them

Vampire handles the Humanity vs Beast inner conflict this mechanically through Humanity, Willpower, and Virtues. You know the weird thing? When the power-creep set in and stats began being inflated above 5 dots, Virtues did not improve. Imagine your 19th level Fighter/Mage/Patissier never improving on his first-level saving throws. And they’re odd little stats anyway; they’re on a scale of 1-5 when everything else is on a scale of 1-10. They’re tucked away in the bottom-right of the character sheet like an obscure second cousin screwing up the seating plan at a wedding; no wonder all we ever did with them was make small-talk.

The problem with Humanity is not visibility, it’s gameplay effect. Certain dice pools are limited to the Humanity rating (1-10); these include Empathy rolls, Virtue rolls and all dice pools during daylight. That’s great! Except that it’s absolutely impossible to generate a PC with a Humanity score below 5 at character creation, and at the same time there aren’t too many dice pools above 5 that would be frequently affected. Vamps lose Humanity according to a “heirarchy of sins” which is not difficult to circumvent.

A player needs to do a perverse min-maxing exercise with Virtues and really behave badly to get their Humanity to drop below 5 and be threatened by any real penalty. If you’re playing that kind of sociopath, you probably want to be in a Sabbat game anyway.1

The other issue is hunger, which should be a prime motive for vamp behaviour. In VtM blood point consumption is fairly low for survival, but high for discipline use. So to avoid losing blood, don’t use disciplines that are powered by blood: no celerity, or blood buff, or healing. This means if parties practice an avoidance strategy the need not spend much blood at all; they can still use all of the other tasty mind-warping powers (plus Fortitude and Potence) for free. By avoiding combat they avoid hunger and avoid those annoying Humanity checks. Simples!

Build a Better Vamp

My ideal vampire system would

  1. Track how hungry the character is
  2. Have a mechanism to test for or resist frenzy
  3. Have a system for developing derangements
  4. Keep track of masquerade violations
  5. Not feel like StorytellerTM

There are commercial systems available that can achieve most of these aims with minimal tweaking. Here are some suggestions.

One: Don’t Bite The Neck


Don’t Rest Your Head is almost a drop-in for this kind of game, as long as you don’t expect the characters or campaign to last too long. Substitute Hunger for Exhaustion and you’re mostly there; now it’s hunger rather than tiredness that both gives the vampire its power and threatens destruction.

Madness becomes The Beast; by giving into the Beast the vamp can access their supernatural powers. But if the Beast dominates, they may Frenzy; a Frenzy is basically a fight-or-flight response.

Both use of The Beast‘s powers and overall Hunger can lead to bad consequences. In the “vanilla” DRYHMadness leads to snapping and Exhaustion leads to crashing. In this case, substitute snapping for degeneration. When the vampire degenerates it gains a point of permanent Frenzy, which manefests as either a beast trait or a derangement, and roleplay appropriately. Either traits will severely limit social interaction. The GM may also spend a despair token to force the vampire’s derangement to surface.

For Hunger, once the number of Hunger dice exceeds six, the vampire comes under the GM’s control and will slake their thirst however they can. This will more than likely be a masquerade violation and could very well end the character. In regular DRYH it’s assumed that the mad city has caught up with the character, so in Vampire assume that the Camarilla intends to clean up. If you want to work in some politics you could implement a “three strikes” policy, maybe even get the PCs to work off a strike with political favours. But that’s outside the scope of the system, so I’ll leave it for further development.

Two: Vampires and other Childish Things


What does Monsters and Other Childish Things bring to Vampire? 

The monsters in MAOCT are extradimensional terrors which have somehow emotionally bonded with children. The system makes heavy use of Relationships, noting that Monsters eat Relationships. That sounds like a vampire to me.

Using this game for Vampire requires some reinterpretation. The monsters in MAOCT are supposedly visible to the children, but not to adults or anyone else except for a few shadowy monster-hunting antagonists. However the effects of their mayhem–such as devouring the substitute teacher–are very real. There’s the obvious suggestion that the children are monsters and have made up their imaginary friends to account for something worse.

MAOCT probably doesn’t suit an “adult” Vampire game, but a high-school game for the Twiglet or Teen Wolf genre would work. Relationships are the key. Children can loan their relationships to their monsters, but if the monsters lose a fight while using them, those relationships get shocked. That’s a nice mechanic for illustrating the teen vamp giving into the Beast, and the damage it does to their family relationships.

Normally relationship dice are used to boost the pool in the right situation; but for a Vampire-style MAOCT game they may have a very specific function–to shield the character from the authorities. Take it for granted that the character’s vampirism will be noticed by the various MIBs, argents and other vamps; but while the PC is protected by a relationship (teacher, family or friend) the hunters can’t touch them. Relationships are a finite resource, however, and could even be attacked (there are rules for doing this in MAOCT’s relative Wild Talents).

Since MAOCT is usually played for laughs, it’s assumed that the monster will get the character into trouble, so players can expect not to be in complete control of their monster. And there’s the rub: the loss of control aspect of Vampire should be something that the players avoid at all costs, but in MAOCT it’s accepted, expected, even encouraged. That doesn’t make the game particularly horrific when they PCs can lose control by consent.

Still, this system could be used to run a teen vampire game effectively. All the comments about the helplessness of children with monsters apply equally to children with supernatural powers that aren’t under their control. The power levels of the monsters probably should be given a bit of attention. Candlewick Manor’s creepy skills could be a good starting point.

Three: Vnisystem


I picked one “traditional” option; this is mostly just a mechanical replacement for Storyteller based on my preference. I did consider VampORE, but that idea isn’t fully formed yet and in any case MAOCT does ORE simpler and better.

There are a lot of metaphysical power options to translate the magic and action mechanics from VtM to Unisystem, but you could do that with any game (although Enter the Zombie covers undead PCs and Witchcraft is arguably Eden’s version of the WoD, so it’s not a bad starting point). The question is how can Unisystem cope with the loss of control, the estrangement of friends and family, and the masquerade?

The Abomination Codex has useful rules on Taint, a kind of insanity trait. Unlike CoC’s implementation of Sanity where investigators lose points, Taint is gained; at certain thresholds (multiples of the Willpower trait) characters will gain mental problem disadvantages, and may also change physically. There are also Taint Powers, which include infecting other people with Taint. Taint is the antithesis of Essence (the creative metaphysical force in the Unisystem) and is used to power a twisted version of regular magic. It’s a nice expression for the vampiric blood curse–the players should be aware of the temptation to use their powers, the way their powers pervert their minds and bodies, and the fact that there is a benign, creative essence in the universe and they’re not part of it.

Taint is related to the Mad Gods in the vast Witchcraft metaplot. Witchcraft has its own brand of vampires (vampyres) as well as a lot of other secret society stuff; if you want to play all of that you’re probably better off playing Witchcraft straight as an alternative to VtM. I’d advocate lifting the Taint rules and inserting into a less conspiracy-charged system like AFMBE.

Like MAOCT, this approach probably suits a Vamps vs Hunters type of game; in this case the Hunters are Essence imbued and can “smell” Taint if it’s used. Taint therefore does two duties; a mark of the “curse” that could lead to loss of player control, and a masquerade breaker. Swap the word Taint for Wyrm and it drops into the Werewolf mythos nicely, too.

Honourable Mention


p>Project Nemesis is a free supernatural conspiracy game published by Arc Dream and also using the one-roll engine. Although it’s based on mortals, its four-axis approach to insanity (lifted from Unknown Armies) is interesting and is very comprehensive in detailing response to different kinds of mental trauma, even if it doesn’t actually take control away from players the way a vampire’s Frenzy should. Worth a download.

  1. The Sabbat‘s use of Paths turns this mechanic on its head, almost to the point of religious dogma. Instead of Humanity proscribing what the vamp shouldn’t do (making loss fairly easy to avoid), the Paths tell the character what the vamp must do to preserve their Path rating. This is either a very interesting way to enforce behaviour on your character, or an excuse to behave badly. I don’t own Vampire: Dark Ages but I’m aware of its use of Roads.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

D&D Artwork – Petition!

This documentary would have you believe that D&D is the most influential game in history. Whether you believe that or not, petitioning Wizards of the Coast for art with better gender and racial balance in D&D 5e is a good thing. The nice folks at Black Armada started the petition, I’ve signed it, and other friends of mine have blogged about it.

The chainmail bikini did not begin with D&D. Frank Frazetta did his fair share of drawing more flesh than chainmail (though to be fair, Conan was also nearly naked). But if D&D wants to take the credit for the success of the videogame industry, for treating PTSD, and for “lite roleplaying activities like Facebook” (really?) then it can also take the blame for Game of Thrones‘ disproportionate female to male naked bottom ratio.

I didn’t like GoT when I read it more than 10 years ago. I thought it was forgettable fantasy trash remarkable only for the number of bland characters and gratuitous body count. Watching the first episode of the series this week brought all of that back. My first instinct was “it’s Downton Abbey with swords” but it’s not even a soap opera. GoT fails the Bechdel test miserably; its women exist to be raped, and its men exist to be murdered in graphic fashion. It’s George R R Martin’s perogative to kill his characters as he sees fit, but of the 15 best deaths in the first series only one is female (and arguably not a sympathetic character). Perhaps Martin was reluctant to kill female characters in the way he kills males. Still, I subscribe to my partner’s view – it’s OK to have death, prostitution, and people married against their will – as long as the gender balance is equal. 

GoT probably likes to think it’s edgy but it does nothing to distance itself from the fantasy gender (im)balance tropes. In fact I think Sinbad does marginally better in that respect; it’s plotting may leave a lot to be desired but it has a female fighter and thief, and the most vulnerable character is male.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Order of the Carrot

My players have a habit of asking for experience points at the end of a session. What, my company isn’t enough?

Look Grateful

Jonathan Tweet never felt the need for experience points in Everway – although he retrospectively calls the lack of an experience mechanism a “problem”

Everway works on a system of boons in lieu of experience points to develop character traits directly. Boons represent gifts bestowed on the heroes for doing great deeds. Everway players seem to like them because they’re explicitly in-character rather than out-of-character. I guess I get that, but I’m a bit skeptical; players claw tooth and nail through hell to rescue the sun-child of the village of something-or-other, and get rewarded with yet another fetish that wards against were-goats. Then I have to look my players in the eye as they nod and smile and tell me that “it’s just what they’ve always wanted” before stuffing them into the bottom of their backpacks with the other junk. Much easier to give them a few XP in a gift card. “Didn’t know what you wanted, son. Thought you could go out and choose some stats to level yerself. Have a good time!”

The reason I don’t often give out experience points is because I forget. I’m not in the habit of doing so. Ever since my brush with Palladium (shudder) I tend to avoid games with XP rewards in greater than single figures.

Maybe I should pay attention to XP. They do some very positive things. First, players like to feel their advancing their character. And in most (traditional) games the players are reactive – they rarely get a chance to advance their agenda unless the GM throws them a bone. XP are a good way of granting some player autonomy.

Second – and maybe more significantly – experience is a way of correcting unintended bias or defects in character creation. Even if the character creation is as transparent as Everway, there’s a chance that the player will be dissatisfied with their chosen weaknesses they traded for strengths. Of course if you’re dealing with a chronic min-maxer they probably never expected to have to use their “weak” stats anyway. Well, that’s got more to do with who you game with than your system.

There are three types of experience. Leveling (and keeping track of thousands of xp) is the mainstay of D&D and clones, and I don’t care for it one bit. Then you have ticking off boxes to advance a skill that you’ve used – that would be Runequest and its ilk (and more recently, Burning Wheel). I don’t like that either because it negates the usefulness of the second option – to bring flagging skills up to a useful level in a reasonable time.

That leaves the third option – just dole out a couple of xp at the end of a session for good roleplaying, achievements, or writing your own name at the top of the character sheet. I find a lot of games skimp on this part when it’s arguably one of the most important parts of a system – since it involves motivating the players to come back next week. I’ve been a bit down on Burning Wheel in the past but to be fair their guidelines for voting on who gets the “Artha” at the end of each session are good – if your group is happy to play that way of course.

There is a fourth option – I call it the Travis Touchdown method. You scatter magic beans through the game world and watch the PCs try to get them. They might appear at the end of boss fights, or just floating in the air when a player turns a corner, or there to buy in Ye Potion Shoppe. Make them metaphysical objects that exist both in and out of character. It’s what the videogames do.

Afterword: I called this post “Order of the Carrot” because of the Order of the Stick and, y’know, you have the carrot and the stick to motivate players and… (ah, if you have to explain the joke, eventually it’ll be funny, right?)

Anyway, by coincidence there is an Order of the Carrot website which is probably something to do with Icelandic performance artist Hannes Larunnson. Unexpected.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Divinity and Trickery

Fludd triangle

It’s easy to discuss realism in systems when it’s about a property you understand. I can go on ad nauseum about realism in rpg combat. A doctor will know a lot more about injury. An equestrian will know all manner of details about horse riding and a physicist will know about quantum mechanics. We (hopefully) then decide how useful it is to go into depth on each of those subjects. But overall we’re representing something we know and understand.

For most of us, we neither know nor understand magic. Of course we’ve read our Crowley or Dee or Agrippa; we’re interested in the Tarot and comparative religeon and folklore and the Tree of Life. But these are not trivial to translate to a game (and in doing so, they can be trivialised).

When we think of magic as it applies to our escapist fantasy, we think of defying nature with super powers. We also think of being able to do something that others – PCs and NPCs – cannot. And the gamer in us thinks of it as a means to an end; a trump card.

Axes of Magic

I’m going to analyse several game magic systems. To do so, I’ve taken the approach Greg Stolze uses for his superheroic histories, and considered four axes of expression for powers, spells and magic:

1. Exoteric vs Esoteric

My day job is chemistry. A lot of people don’t know what that entails, but at least they know what chemists do all day. We make chemicals. In the context of 21st century earth, it’s  exoteric knowledge. But go back several hundred years and I’d be an alchemist, a magician capable of preparing all manner of enchantments and potions, and likely to end up suspended head first in a vat of warm marmalade for being a witch.

On this scale a 1 would mean a completely exoteric setting where magic is used as we use technology; it’s relied upon, and mages are service providers to those who don’t understand the science. A 5 would mean magic is not known or believed as a science, deemed impossible, and probably feared.

2. Constrained vs Unconstrained

This question is all about lists of spells. It’s really a mechanical property, and for a lot of games it’s one of convenience. Do you rigidly restrict what your PCs can do with a list of spells – possibly organised into tiers – or do you give them skills and let them cast spells from first principles?

A 1 on this scale means Vancian magic, memorising each spell daily. Going up the scale things become more flexible – say, using essence points for casting, varying power of spells, and beginning to draft your own spells. By 5 it’s completely freeform and based around a few loose principles. 

3. Public Access or Members Only

This is a slightly different question to Exoteric vs Esoteric; it’s about access. Can anyone learn a bit of magic, or does it require years of training/special favours/raw talent?

At 1 it’s completely public; any run-down schmuck with a two-dollar prayerbook can invoke the almighty and expect results. At 5 it takes rare talent, dragon blood or a scion of the goddess to work miracles.

4. Continuous or Discontinuous

This I feel is the most important question. Does your magic operate in isolation, or is it part of a continuous system of principles? At 1, there is one single system that all abide by, regardless of paradigm; at 5, powers are evolutionary divergent and any reseblence to one another is superficial.

Crucially at level 5 powers do not interoperate. There is no way to use Power X to counter Power Y. Sounds dumb? Well, it rarely happens by design – usually it’s a loophole in a system that was overlooked in playtesting. Psionics – especially telepathy and telempathy – have this problem.

Take it down a level to 4, and powers still don’t operate as part of a continuum – but countermagic does exist. So you design powers specifically to counter other powers.

A subset of this question is Secular vs Contextual: are all magics viewed as part of a universal pattern, or are they self-contained within their own paradigm? I don’t want to dwell on this one too much because I think it’s generally flavour rather than mechanics, but it’s important for some games (e.g. Mage).


One of the many great things about Garth Nix’ Sabriel is the way the protagonists interact with the dead through their magic. But regardless of how they’re used Sabriel’s bandolier of seven bells is nothing more than a few very handy anti-necromancer spells.

What makes Sabriel an interesting mage is the focus of her magic. If you want your players to be Sabriels then you have to empower them to focus their character into magic.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that as long as your axes rest on or near 1, you will never have a magician who is a special and unique snowflake. At least, not as a magician (as a character, sure). It all depends on what you want to run and play.


I’m going to finish with a few examples.


Esoteric (5); mostly Unconstrained (4); Members Only (5); moderately Continuous (3).


Here’s the rub with Mage: it’s supposed to be a paradigm-based game, but the actual paradigms presented don’t really affect overall magic other than making foci different depending on your flavour of magic. Otherwise it revolves around the same 9 spheres. Its unconstrained as it allows for free-form magic, which is nice – but I found it difficult to use in practice.

Ghosts of Albion

moderately Esoteric (3); moderately Constrained (3); moderately Accessible (3); mostly Discontinuous (4)


Occupying the middle ground this game exists in a world where magic is common to all players but not necessarily to the world. Individual spells are designed, so it’s fairly constrained. The discrete spells make it discontinuous.

Basic D&D

Exoteric (1); Constrained (1); variable Access (1-5); Continuous (1)

D D basic

Access is variable in D&D – on the one hand you have to be a Magic User or a Cleric, but on the other hand there are swords +1 and potions of healing scattered all over the place. It’s almost completely Continuous in that there’s no thought to differentiating between magical philosphy (though I believe this changes in later editions of AD&D).

Runequest et al.

Exoteric (1); mostly Constrained (2); Public Access (1); moderately Continuous (3).


Sharing the same roots as D&D magic is mostly constrained to spell lists, but unlike D&D it’s available to all. RQ attempted to draw together magic under one underlying system that enables spells to be resisted and uses a common currency – POW and Magic Points. Differentiating between Shamans, Priests and Sorcerers is its strength, otherwise the system feels a bit clinical.

Wild Talents

mostly Esoteric (4); variable Constraint (3); Public Access (1); mostly Discontinuous (4)

Wt2 cover

Because Wild Talents covers such a range of superhero genres it’s difficult to tie it down to a point on the axes. But considering the system, it’s generally a world where anyone can be a superhero (access 1), but superpowers aren’t generally known or understood (esoteric 4). Constraints vary because the system is very flexible but requires a detailed point build. Most importantly the powers are almost completely Discontinuous making opposing one power with another labour intensive.


mostly Exoteric (2); mostly Unconstrained (4); variable Access (3); mostly Discontinuous (4)


In Everway magic is expected, although it’s a mystery to many. Designing your powers is only loosly covered by the rules, and any character can be a mage – but only at character generation. However all magic is treated in isolation – interoperation is entirely at GM’s call. Some fans have expanded on the system to give guidelines for resistance, which makes it playable.

I resisted doing more – but you could apply the same analysis to Nephilim, Continuum or Amber.

Last Word


p>Of course the gaming relativists and the old school anti-Forge reactionaries will say “who cares? As long as the players are having fun!” And I couldn’t agree more. But I believe that system does matter, and there’s no place it matters more than the powers used to express the fantastic elements of character.