Let’s consider two degrees of freedom in RPGs. One is the Environmental Boundary of a game; this is how far the PCs are allowed to roam. The other is the System Boundary of a game, which is how much their actions are etched in the system.

I. Environmental Boundaries

Forget for the moment how big the space is, and instead think of how rigid the boundary is. A hard boundary is one that cannot be crossed in game, ever. There may be good in-game reasons, e.g. you can’t go to the Moon because your society hasn’t invented the technology yet. There may be metagame reasons, such as a D&D game that focuses only on the dungeon, not what’s outside it — in which case, the hard boundary comes from the game’s social contract. There may be no good reason other than the GM’s viking hat, but since that’s a special case I’ll cover it later.

Then there are soft boundaries. These aren’t directly restrictive, but there are consequences of crossing them. If the soft boundary is the GM saying “plot is OVER HERE” and the players ignore her there may be social consequences as she then scrabbles to GM on the fly for a couple of hours as the party ignore her lovingly prepped encounters.

That’s a negative example. A positive example is any kind of isolation or survival scenario where if the players attempt to leave, there are in-game penalties. The purpose of the soft boundary is to telegraph the penalties so the players can make a decision.

Is there a no boundary case? A sandbox might be considered unbounded if the play area is bigger than the ambitions of the party to explore; but by definition a sandbox has a boundary, somewhere. The value of a boundary is not only to physically restrict but also to provide a restriction on perspective, and a lot of the attraction of large-world exploration gaming comes from the expectation of something beyond the boundary. Really despite the name the sandbox is kind of irrelevant to boundary considerations.

II. System Boundaries

Now let’s consider if the system is similarly bounded like the environment. All components of a system must be related to either PCs trying to do things, or a measure of the game environment trying to do things to the PCs.

What’s the difference between a hard and a soft system boundary? An element with a hard boundary has a precisely defined function. The scope of its operation is non-negotiable. Armour, saving throws, D&D style spells are old-school examples, and Apocalypse World’s various moves are new school examples.

Soft-bounded system components have a lot more negotiation value. This is good because they can take up the slack when an unfamiliar situation arises and the GM has to find something for her players to roll dice against. D&D (and Runequest) attributes are softly bounded because they can be used for a catch-all test in a pinch, in addition to whatever they do in the RAW*.

III. Remarks

Why does this all matter?

a. History

First, I think it’s interesting to think where trends in RPG design have swung between hard and soft boundaries. Most games have non-negotiable system and environmental boundaries. This includes war-games, but RPGs are a peculiar exception.

The roots of our hobby lie in the Braunstein game. As noted in this excellent summary:

2. Players weren’t limited to actions in a rule book. It allowed players great latitude to take creative actions that would be interpreted by a game master.

In other words, Major David Wesely introduced softly-bounded concepts into a hard-bounded game, and p&p RPGs were born.

The capacity for negotiation is what sets RPGs apart from all other games; it is the USP of the hobby. CRPGs can’t do soft system, or soft environments. Players appreciate being able to apply their personal experience to a game and use that to influence its outcome. It’s pretty much what we do in real life, as we learn that rules-as-written are only one part of our day-to-day jobs, for example — a significant portion of probably everyone’s job is tacit experience and skill.

The early games still had a lot of hard boundary design, with saving throws, to-hit rolls, damage dice, etc. But into the nineties the preference for softly bounded system emerged. The World of Darkness with its negotiated Attribute + Skill = Dice Pool is very soft in terms of design, a flexibility that appealed to me but came a cropper when the power gamers got hold of the system, and divided the Vampire-playing community into one half who wanted to largely ignore the rules, and another that wanted to play fanged superheroes. It causes tremendous problems for player expectation.

I reckon the apex of soft system design came with my favourite Everway. That game is so soft, it’s positively fuzzy. But that’s OK, it’s designed for heavy player-GM negotiation and interpretation, particularly with the fortune deck.

Post-Everway we have games like FATE with very soft and negotiable boundaries around Aspects (more about FATE later). But also we have a new school with very rigid system boundaries. Burning Wheel is very rigid, but modular. Apocalypse World (and progeny) appears flexible because it’s so simple, but I consider the system boundaries to be very hard. Yes, there are some negotiation aspects but generally the game is about using moves creatively, but within the framework of the move as written.

What about environmental boundaries?

D&D’s wargame roots have strong environmental boundaries, something that’s carried into the dungeon. Gradually though the preference for soft boundaries in system crept into scenario design, because it makes sense to players that they should be free to explore. D&D transitioned from dungeon to wilderness, sandbox play happened, etc.

Then Vampire came along, and scene-by-scene railroading came along. Like the sandbox it’s a special case, but nevertheless it’s a form of GM-imposed, rigid environmental boundary.

And ever since the World of Darkness we’ve been forced to wear the hair shirt of railroading. Phrases like player agency creep into the indie design terminology — but at the same time, indie games are strongly scene focused. The story-now ethos forbids the GM from imposing a plot on the players, but she’s free to impose a temporary (and often arbitrary) environmental boundary in the scene; and if a character in a scene chooses to leave, they are consciously walking off-camera and out of the bounded area. Whether the boundary is soft or hard is open for debate; I would argue that it’s a hard boundary, because the cost of crossing the boundary is to the player (disengagement with the game) rather than the player-character.

The saving grace of this practice is that the scene is sort of negotiated up front between players; the hard boundary is built into the game. Hollowpoint is scene (or mission) focused, and because that’s the game the players have already agreed to play by those boundaries. Still, there’s pressure to “resolve the scene” and the implication that nothing happens outside the scene. The Story Game vs. RPG debate swiftly follows, but that’s something for another time.

b. Coherency

What is an incoherent game design? From Ron Edwards’ article it’s one of two things:

  1. The design “fails to permit one or any mode of play”, by which I assume Edwards means it’s impossible to focus on playing in one of the G, N or S modes;
  2. The design is a mixed bag among the modes, where some bits play as S and others play as N, for example.

If incoherent design means poorly signposting the mode of play, then we can infer that mixing system elements with soft and hard boundaries could also be incoherent. It certainly makes the game harder to learn and teach — take the attributes and saving throws on a D&D character sheet, for example. If both are given similar priority on the sheet how is a newcomer to know that you can negotiate activity based on one set, but not on the other?

The worst example I can think of is the good ol’ WoD, where everything is given the same 1 to 5 dots rating, but some traits are clearly broad in scope (e.g. skills) whereas others are very narrow (e.g. disciplines) and procedurally very different. Clearly the issue is signposting which traits are softly bounded, and which are hard-bounded. For example:

  • Runequest/BRP draws boxes around the different soft (skills) and hard (hit points, magic) elements, so gets away with having a lot going on on the character sheet.
  • Monsterhearts is mostly hard-boundary stuff, but soft-boundary items tend to be in separate headings and in text, rather than codified into moves.
  • Barbarians of Lemuria has a hard/soft divide around the combat/non-combat parts of the system (the latter being the very broad-scope careers).
  • FATE’s aspects are soft, but FATE points are hard; it separates the two by having aspects written down but points represented by tokens.

Coherency is probably easier to achieve when you have only soft or only hard-bounded items. Everway is the former and Hollowpoint is the latter. Both of these games are also fairly minimalist, so it’s unsurprising that they should be easier to teach.

c. Utility

By inference with environmental boundaries, system boundaries that are soft should include some penalty when the element crosses over into unfamiliar action. Usually when a player tries to use a skill that doesn’t directly apply, the GM will make up a penalty or consider the scope for success with an imperfect skill.

FATE deserves a special mention since its default mode is compelling/invoking Aspects and passing around fate points; use of Aspects is designed for players to try to push the soft boundaries, and the fate point expenditure is a cost of the crossing.

There may be something to be said for a hybrid arrangement in system elements; defining for a particular skill what behaviour comes at zero cost, and what stretch behaviour will require the player to pay in whatever game currency you’re using. A modification of WFRP’s skills could be used here. WFRP’s stat block largely covers “common actions” but the character is then “tuned” by individual specialised skills. The implementation in WFRP is not consistent — some skills just provide a bonus (e.g. a “hide” skill), others give permission to attempt the special action (e.g. a “specialist weapon” skill). You could change the function of the skills to allowing certain actions to be performed out of the normal scope for free. This means you’d need some kind of economy, perhaps a finite resource like Gumshoes’ investigative points.

IV. Dungeon Logic?

Consider Lamentations of the Flame Princess–very stripped down D&D with one purpose in mind: explore dungeons and get treasure, advance your career.

It has rigid environmental boundaries associated with dungeons and other dangerous places — if you don’t fight monsters and recover treasure from remote areas, you don’t advance. It also has rigid system boundaries associated for encumbrance, attributes, advancement, saving throws, even skills (if you’re not a specialist, your chances are 1 in 6).

This is “Dungeon Logic”. All character attributes have one function, and collectively they are directed at one task, which is dungeon exploration. Those traits don’t really work outside the context of a dungeon, but hey, that’s no problem if you never go outside the dungeon.

Now, back to all those games that aren’t RPGs, with their non-negotiable boundaries. Everything in such games is contextual; it doesn’t need to fit into a holistic worldview, although it ideally needs to be consistent with the player’s expectations to be satisfying. This is the new-school credo–if RPGs are games, shouldn’t they function like any other game with defined rules?

The conclusion is that new-school hippy gaming applies dungeon logic as well. Rules are hard and contextual, environment is bounded by scene.

Closing Comments: some examples

Soft Environment Hard Environment
Soft System WoD (freeform)

Everway

WoD (railroaded)

Live action games with heavy GM intervention

Over the Edge

Hard System WoD (munchkin)

RuneQuest

Don’t Rest Your Head

LotFP

Monsterhearts (scene bounded)

I’m mostly interested on soft system / hard environment games… which could be a recipe for disaster. A small environment with hard boundaries will often end up with one group trying to dominate others, but if the system is soft it’s very difficult to be “fair”. This is particularly obvious in live action games where success depends on getting the attention of the GM and negotiating for benefits.

But… is the soft/soft case any better? The main difference between soft/hard and soft/soft is in the latter case, a player is not forced to compete for resources, if that’s how the game goes. But if they choose that strategy and decide to leave the rest of the party, can they reasonably expect the GM to divide attention between them and the other players? That would be like James Hurley’s road trip in the second season of Twin Peaks.


  • Rules as Written, not in the nuddy.

Nothing says “RPG Dinosaur” like an equipment list.

Back in the old old days, itemised equipment lists were the norm, and were a working component of the game: a component that a lot of us could comfortably ignore, but in many ways given equal priority to levels, hit points and saving throws.

In our modern era of hippy games, there are no equipment lists. Games like Don’t Rest Your Head and Hollowpoint don’t even require equipment per se. DRYH‘s talents are entirely contained within the dice system–it doesn’t matter which power, all that matters is scale. Hollowpoint’s gadgets are a kind of one-use trait–so if it’s not really possible to separate a character from their equipment because it’s a trait, is it really equipment?

In the two decades in between, we have a whole load of games where equipment was sort of implied and sort of not. We didn’t bother tracking how heavy something was, or itemising the contents of a pack. Equipment was relegated to a little box at the very bottom of page two of your character sheet (you know, the page no-one reads).

That’s interesting. A whole part of the game system was deprioritised, despite having a defined game effect. As with most things it started with Vampire, where there was a little space on the sheet for weapons, and nothing else.

When I ran LotFP there was a clash of these two cultures. Some my players didn’t look at the second half of their character sheet; they’d all assumed they had a basic level of equipment (or objects to hand) that would allow them to perform whatever action they chose. Case in point:

GM: he’s drowning in the quicksand.

Player: OK, I’ll throw him a rope.

GM: what rope?

Player: the rope I carry everywhere.

GM: is it on your character sheet? If it isn’t, you don’t have it.

This isn’t the player’s fault. In a modern game, or even a 20 year old game, we’d assume a basic level of fluidity and common sense with carried equipment. But this was an OSR game, and I was being a bit of a prick about it.

In a hippy game the discussion might be:

GM: he’s drowning in the quicksand.

Player: I need to get him out!

GM: what’s your plan?

Player: well, I have my pack with me–it’s got all sorts of stuff in it. Maybe a rope or something.

GM: roll COOL. If you get a success you have the rope and you can help him. Otherwise, find another way.

The hippy game sidesteps this whole issue with a trait-based resource management mechanism. In doing so it also sidesteps the issue of game world economies, but in many cases that doesn’t matter if what you can do is wholly encompassed in your dice pool (or whatever).

Equipment still matters in games like D&D with long times between levels, as it’s the only mechanism the GM has outside x.p. to reward the players or give them an advantage.

Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe

What is kit, and what is just a trait by another name? Kit is anything that forms a transferrable bonus (e.g. someone borrows your armour) or anything that’s essential for the use of a skill (e.g. a lockpick). It’s only worth differentiating as “kit” if you intend to separate it from the original owner.

Games without transferrable/deniable kit can wrap “kit” up with non-transferrable character traits; equipment function is secondary to character ability. It’s a very “story” or “mythic” approach. Everway is an example: in the example fight between Fireson and a couple of ghouls, it’s noted that Fireson is armed with a sword, but it’s nothing more than one nebulous advantage in the fight–the main factors are the Fire and Earth scores of each side and the draw of the Fortune Deck.

It raises the question of whether or not your players actually like mucking around with equipment lists. For the Everway player the weapons, tools and armour of a given character are motifs that project their image into the game, just like habits and speech. D&D however will appeal to players who like to organise/optimise their own resources, accepting penalties if they fail to do so.

Currency

But seriously, who wants to keep track of gold pieces, much less dollars? That’s the problem with games like Vampire: Resources or Wealth is a dotted trait, but the stuff that matters–swords, guns and armour, things with in-game effects–are measured in dollars. Of course you can always apply some kind of conversion but even so, a PC with no dots of Wealth will chose to go naked as long as they can scrape together enough pennies for bullets.

All of this links back to the Currency of the game, and I’m talking GNS Currency with a capital C. If equipment provides an advantage it should be measured on the same scale as all the other traits, or otherwise not measured at all.

If you don’t bother to measure it, then the GM simply decides to allow equipment for all, or prohibit it for all. That’s desirable for several reasons–say your game is in a totalitarian state where firearms are just not allowed, then posession of a prohibited weapon becomes a plot point. Or say you want to up the threat level of that state, so you arm everyone equally. In each case having a weapon stops being the thing that differentiates PCs from NPCs, forcing the group to focus on what does make them different.

Otherwise if you’re going to make players “pay” for equipment, there are a few ways you can achieve this:

1. Set Menu (dietary restrictions apply)

There is no choice. You assume that a flautist has a flute, a mechanic has a monkey wrench and a thief has a mask and a bag with SWAG written on it. Spell foci in Runequest work like this–if you can cast the spell, you’re assumed to have a focus. If they player has the skill, they’ve already paid for the kit.

If you play this way then you remove a lot of the negotiation around “can I have XXX”. However just because you remove the negotiation it doesn’t mean you remove the equipment as a tangiable object, i.e. something that can be taken away. The decision to deprioritise equipment (as in Everway) is a separate choice.

2. All-you-can-eat Buffet

Players sign up to a particular “package” where they can pick out as much stuff as they want up to a certain level of functionality. In Vampire, for example, you could make equipment availability dependent on a certain threshold–wealth, status or rank.

Conspiracy X uses a point-buy approach for resources. In a lot of ways it’s not much different from assuming kit based on skill set, although it’s a shared resource.

Since players will often use the best available equipment–it doesn’t matter how many guns there are in the armoury, they want the big one–there’s no need to break things down into dollars here, either. A point system equates to a certain level of performance in-game and has the same Currency as other performance indicators (skills and whatnot).

3. A la Carte

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p>Players can buy anything they can afford, as long as it’s available to buy (D&D model). This puts the responsibility on the players to plan everything they would need in advance. While that’s unfashionably old-school, it is part of the game that some people like–kit is another PC resource and a factor in winning or losing.

It may seem that this is the most complex approach, but it can absolve the GM of a lot of responsibility. There’s no tiresome negotiation on whether the BFG2000 comes with the Illuminati Orbital Mind Control Laser Package. It’s their money, let them spend it how they want.

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.

However…

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?

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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).

TTFN


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.

So, a long time ago there was a game called Everway. It used cards! and no dice! and pictures! and was written by Jonathan Tweet!

Everway was influential in the GNS theory, the cornerstone of indie games (some say their de-facto agenda); this didn’t stop some in the Story Gaming crowd proclaiming it didn’t work or at least only served as a vehicle for the GM to push story on to the players (naughty!).

Everway isn’t a story game. GM autocracy is maintained, roles are clearly defined. You might not care for the slightly ethereal game world or the cards or the way PCs are painted with a broad brush, but it’s a traditional RPG.

Now the current darling of the indie scene is Apocalypse World, and it’s not bad at all. Notably it’s designed to be “hacked” into other worlds and settings to make complete new games.

ApoWo conversions are called “hacks” because they require system-level modification to work, as opposed to the lick of paint we might slap over GURPS or D20 or BRP. The result should be a completely new game that expresses the genre through mechanics, which is the GNS/Big Model way. I have no doubt that the best and brightest of the hacks achieve that; Monsterhearts looks especially coherent to me and appeals more than AW does. Yet even for those efforts I find it hard to imagine players able to completely forget that they are playing a system derived from another game, which must colour their experience; they are still playing the AW way (and don’t you forget it). Ironic, given the way GNS rails against generic system.

But as for hacking… you know, that could have been Everway. For a brief while there was interest in converting Everway into all manner of games–supers, steampunk, even Amber and Final Fantasy.

…if the game had been created ten years later…

…if Jonathan Tweet had the mixture of internet charisma and good fortune to fall in with the right crowd that Vincent Baker evidently has…

…we might see all manner of Everway hacks with custom, fan-made vision cards and fortune decks. You might think that’s way more effort than simply hacking the AW “moves” but I believe AW presents a barrier of system comprehension that doesn’t exist in Everway. Effort must be spent either way, especially if you want decent playbooks.

Everway and AW are diametrically opposed mechanically; much more than Everway and D&D ever were. Both can achieve hacking goals and provide new games on their foundations; Everway does this because it’s a blank canvas, AW because it’s moves-focused. AW may have the edge with its community and its ability to integrate mechanics and genre, but there’s one game it cannot emulate–that’s Everway.

(I dare you to make an EverWorld hack.)

Post Script

I witnessed the absurd thread on RPG.net that concerned itself with “defining the OSR” in the way one might fit wheels to a tomato. The only consensus I could spot was the one claiming that OSR players liked “bullshitting and making up rules” because they eschewed the refinements and more granular mechanisms of D&D’s latest and greatest. I don’t know about that; but given Everway is so heavily reliant on GM Fiat, I’ve got to wonder when that game is going to be considered “old school”. It is nearly 20 years old, after all.

Post Post Script

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p>I just realised. EW and AW. EW-AW. Why did Edward Woodward have so many letter d’s in his name?

Never mind.

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).

Snowflakes

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.

Analysis

I’m going to finish with a few examples.

Mage

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

Mage

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.

Everway

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

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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.

I love to start things, and I’m terrible at finishing things. I like to send ideas off into the ether and forget them.

Let’s recap on the Everway Combat Posts:

In Part 1 I talked about preference for receiving information, and how detailed combat systems will appeal to a Sensing type and less to an iNtuitive type.

In Part 2 I talked about setting the stage of combat, using elemental axes to provide context for the conflict.

In Part 3 I talked about how conflicts provide milestones in the plot; in particular, they provide a range of consequences to the players. That part is obviously related to the “what’s at stake?” question.

The Elemental Fighter, Revisited

Combat is just a series of tests, with something at stake.  To know what consequences are applied (to either side) we need to know who has the advantage. But advantage is contextual – it depends on how you’ve set the stage.

In the Amber RPG the relative power of combatants is considered on a sliding scale, from complete superiority to complete inferiority.

  • At the extremes of the scale, the PC is either going to win easily, or lose automatically. The only thing that will prevent the losing side from dying right there and then would be a supernatural advantage (e.g. the blood of Amber). Becky suggests letting the player narrate the outcome if they’re on the winning side.

  • In the middle of the scale, where both sides are very close in ability, tactics and peripheral advantages (like endurance) become important.

  • Between the middle and the extremes – as the power gap widens – a point comes where victory is assured, it’s just a matter of time. The things that prevent a victory will be anything that disrupts the events before one side can dominate the other (such as reinforcements, one side becoming completely defensive, or other delays).

A walkover or an unassailable opponent will have narrative value, but we’re mostly interested in matching power levels. The closer to the centre, the more we have to think about what punishment the victor has to take to secure their victory. The GM can still Let Them Win, and force them to make a sacrifice.

Let’s consider relative power levels. For each point of an element in Everway, power doubles, and the speciality in each element adds 1 point to the score. A rating of five is twice as good as a rating of four, and should confer success except in rare circumstances. How far would the inferior fighter have to go to win against a superior opponent?

The Everway book lists a few advantages, including:

  • Having an ally to help against the threat (two people with Fire 4 will roughly match one with Fire 5)
  • Having a strength or endurance advantage (i.e. a high Earth)
  • Having a power that confers an advantage (such as Fireson’s sweat fire power)
  • Having equipment such as armour and weapons

Add to that list specific experience – e.g. if your net Fire score includes some bonus from a weapon skill, you’ll have a slight advantage over someone who is naturally faster, but less experienced (a 4+1 vs a 5).

The elemental score provides a very coarse scale – even a difference of 1 point will change the outcome. The question we have to ask is whether the effect of the other advantages is bigger or smaller than 1 point. That’s entirely down to how the GM likes to run their games and the situation – but since Heroes are defined by their Elements, I prefer to assume these increments will be less than 1. Putting precise numbers will always be tricky, and Everway isn’t supposed to be a crunchy game – the GM should feel their way around task resolution, using the fortune deck for inspiration. But for a rule of thumb, I’ve considered these numbers:

Fire element score (including specialities)

Base combat score

Supporting element

0.5 points per point of advantage over opponent

Power (or spell)

0.5 points for an applicable minor power; 1 or more for a major power (disrupting influence). 

Superior equipment

0.5 points 

Experience

0.5 points

Fortune deck

Anything from +1 to -1 points depending on draw. If the card is significant – for example, if it’s associated with a character’s Fate, the bonus or penalty could be greater (even overriding other considerations).

Now consider the relative scores, and assume the likely outcome according to the table:

Less than 1 point difference

Very closely matched. For one side to win, they will have to make some kind of sacrifice.

Between 1 and 2 points

A clear advantage. A draw on the fortune deck could still equalise the battle though, and the victor is unlikely to come out of the fight unscathed.

Between 2 and 3 points

Victory is inevitable, as long as there is no disruptive event to change fortunes. It should be clear to PCs that they are outmatched, but they have an opportunity to act defensively to at least limit their losses.

More than 3 points

A quick and decisive end to the fight. One side is so overwhelmed, they cannot stand against the other, and are at their mercy.

Let’s apply these numbers to the fight between Fireson and a ghoul in the Everway GM’s guide. Fireson has a Fire of 6, and the ghoul has a score of 5. Fireson also has a sword, and is sweating fire – so his adjusted score is 7. However the ghoul has a massive advantage in Earth (+3) making its score 6.5. With that, Fireson has only a small advantage. A good or bad draw on the Fortune Deck could make a difference; otherwise it’ll depend on Fireson’s tactics.

Those modifiers above are entirely down to my taste. If another GM wanted to take this system but felt (for example) equipment should have a bigger effect, just tweak that modifier. Again, we’re talking about a relative advantage here – if both sides are similarly equipped, no real advantage.

Making Our Own Fate

Everway’s combat system allows for single-card resolution, or a blow by blow narration. In the latter case, it’s the time when players act and then react to changing circumstance. Given the option, Fireson’s player will want to try some things to improve his advantage over the ghoul.

Despite being non-crunchy, you can argue that this kind of game is more tactical than “gamist” systems like D&D. Amber gives the players plenty of tactical options despite being diceless – although these are pretty specific to the kind of fighting being done.

In part 2 I deliberately referred to elemental axes when setting the stage. This is because different stages will confer different opportunities, and a PC with a high score in the right element can take advantage.

Fire is the base element for fighting. Whenever there’s conflict, having Fire is an advantage. When a PC uses their Fire in a conflict you can assume they’re doing all manner of attacks, feints, advancing and retreating as the situation demands. However there is a bit of flexibility to allow your players choice. You could apply the “three fronts”from Amber:

Attacking Furiously will put you in harm’s way, but could conclude the fight quickly. It may give the upper hand when the fighters are evenly matched, but at the risk of injury. Knowing that the ghouls will wear him down, Fireson might choose this tactic to end his fight, accepting the loss of some skin to the ghoul’s claws.

Making an Opportunistic Stand is the default option in the absence of other instruction – the PC is looking for openings, making cautious attacks, and maybe looking to the environment for tactical advantage.

You might Go Defensive if you suspect the enemy of being tougher, if you’re protecting someone, or if you’re planning escape. Obviously that limits the damage you get but it will also limit your ability to hurt or capture your opponent.

Now the basics are covered, let’s consider the other elements.

Earth tactics are all to do with using physical advantage – strength, endurance, height. Using Earth involves either wearing the opponent down or closing to grapple – where superior strength becomes more important than martial skill.

When Earth tactics apply:

  • any long, extended fight scene where people may start to tire (e.g. a skirmish or war)
  • whenever there’s an opportunity to grapple
  • in close combat when Attacking Furiously or Going Defensive

When Earth tactics don’t apply:

  • when there’s an attack at long range
  • when the attacker is unseen.

Of course in both these cases, taking damage is easier if you have a high Earth. But it’s only a tactic if you sacrifice (by taking the blow) in order to gain an advantage.

Air tactics involve technical superiority, either with equipment or with technical skills. It can also include awareness of one’s surroundings – improvising weapons, dropping chandeliers on people, and so on.

When Air tactics apply:

  • formalised combat, duels, and any kind of fight where rules are involved (either to work within the rules, or to cheat at them)
  • long range fighting
  • when Going Defensive against a concealed attacker, generally trying to keep distance (i.e. the opposite of Earth)

When Air tactics don’t apply:

  • brawls and skirmishes with no “rules”; being grappled falls into this category too.

Finally Water tactics concern stealth and trickery. It includes all manners of feint, lure and fake-out, ambush and distraction.

When Water tactics apply:

  • any time a character is making an attack by stealth. To do this, their target either has to be unaware of them, or at least not expecting them to attack.
  • using sucker punches, concealed weapons or otherwise appearing less dangerous than they are.

When Water tactics don’t apply:

  • any time the character is out in the open, in plain sight and at range. None of those situations favour sneak attacks.

Do Unto Others

That deals with the when; now how do we apply the numbers?

There are a couple of options. The obvious one is to oppose element with element – pretty much as the rulebook suggests (but extending it to Air and Water as well). This is my preference. If you decide that Air is important for a particular scene then compare Air scores and decide if one character has an advantage.

Alternatively you could oppose one element with a different one. Then you have to rationalise which element can oppose another, and why. I covered this already in part 2 and I don’t intend to re-hash it just yet.

There’s one final consideration. If a character happens to be in a situation – one that favours a high Water, say – and their abilities mean they’re at an advantage, then they have no desire to change the field of battle. But if they find themselves at a disadvantage, they’ll want to try to change their fate. If they’re being stalked by an assassin they’ll try to get away from a crowd and to somewhere that their foe can’t hide. If they’re fighting a giant with overwhelming strength, they might want to keep out of arm’s reach, and throw rocks at the giant.

This means there has to be one more kind of tactic available to fight with – the tactic of changing the field. In this case a model where elements oppose each other could be useful – for example, opposing Earth with Air to dodge the giant, or opposing Water with Air to spot your assassin.

There are 10 combinations of elemental pairs (including same-element pairs). Clearly that’s a lot of options for the GM to adjudicate change, but it requires some decision about what the pairs mean. But this post is a bit long already, so I’ll save that for the next instalment.

The iPad has a really good app for writing Mandala Charts. William Reed has an article on it as well as some others in his flexible focus series.

The Mandala Chart is also called the Lotus Blossom technique. It was developed by Matsumura Yasuo.

From the Wikipedia Page on Mandala:

In common use, mandala has become a generic term for any plan, chart or geometric pattern that represents the cosmos metaphysically or symbolically, a microcosm of the universe from the human perspective.

The Mandala is great for forcing character generation in a structured way. If the GM wants to force players to align themselves with the world’s metaphysic, then the Mandala can be the tool to marry cosmic metaphysics with a character’s daily life, skills, beliefs and goals. (I have one rpg project waiting in the ideas bucket that uses this kind of system).

However, it doesn’t have to represent the world on a cosmic scale. What the Mandala Chart does is force questions on the areas that are important to the GM, and to the world.

Reed’s approach is to use the 8 frames of life to achieve work life balance. A central 3×3 grid is used with headings in each of the eight squares surrounding the central question (in this case it’s Health, Business, Home, Finance, Society, Personal, Study and Leisure). For each of these squares there is a second 3×3 grid that looks at each area in detail – he suggests headings appropriate to each area, so Health uses Food, Movement, Breathing, Sleep, Skinship, Resilience, Humour and Love

Flexible Focus #67 shows you the central (type A) and expanded (type B) mandalas.

Mandala Chart for Directed Character Generation

Reed says “proverbial wisdom comes in opposite pairs”. The implication is that the chart may be expressed as four pairs of balancing concepts.

The way I’m going to use the chart is kind of a directed mind map, with eight nodes each with (up to) eight sub-nodes. But unlike a mind map, the Mandala chart forces total focus on the nodes when working with the expanded map. When you’re working on a mind map the eye is inevitably drawn to the central premise – but since the expanded maps can be treated as eight cells in isolation, they refocus attention on each node and let the creative mind concentrate on that aspect.

This is our central mandala chart, with eight headings: Family, Profession, Friends, Ambition, Enemies, Faith, Childhood, Magic. Hopefully the headings are self-explanatory.

I’ve considered my character Kakhta from the Mind Mapping example.

F.

Faith

C.

Friends

G.

Childhood

Complete belief in the Doctrine of the Autarch

 

 

New allies in a foreign country

Raised in the holy city of the Autarch, in the centre of a massive jungle.

B.

Profession

0.

Character

D.

Ambition

Bodyguard, elite warrior and nobleman

 

  

Kakhta, Monarchorn warrior of the Grand Autocracy, Traitor to his people

To do what is right, and to return home to an honourable welcome

E.

Enemies

A.

Family

H.

Magic

His former squad-mates, and other Legions of the Autarch

 

A wife and two daughters, back in the homeland

Immune – divorced from cosmic and magical forces

Now for the expanded map, I need a template. Each of the secondary charts should be based on the same eight sub-headings. I chose the following:

6.

People

3.

Benefits

7.

Hobbies

Simple – the characters they have met in this part of their life 

  

How this part of their life benefits them (other than providing skills)

Non-critical abilities gained through this experience

2.

Obligations

X.

[Node]

4.

Intentions

Duties that arise as a result of this part of the character’s life

  

Write the name of the node here.

Actions they intend to take as a consequence of this part of their life

5.

Skills

1.

Images

8.

Crisis

Useful abilities they have been taught as a consequence of this experience 

 

Visual cues that relate to this portion of the character’s life

Things that may happen as part of the plot (the GM may leave this part blank, and write it later)

These are headings I have chosen. Other GMs might pick a completely different set of headings depending on their campaign and preference. If Magic is important, a subheading of Magic could appear in every secondary chart (meaning Family, Enemies, Ambition etc. all have magical significance). But crucially all of the players receive the same chart.

The player isn’t obliged to fill in every square for every node, but they’re encouraged to think about them. Depending on the different types of node the context of the secondary charts changes. For example Intentions based on Enemies or Family may be straightforward, but based on Ambition or Faith may take on a completely different meaning.

Of course there may well be items that span more than one box. In Amber Family spills into Friends and Enemies, for example.

For an example I filled in –

Kakhta’s Childhood

6.

People

3.

Benefits

7.

Hobbies

A cruel mentor figure who beat him and his pack-mates. A fortune teller who told him that he would one day betray his allies.

The finest equipment, well nourished, excellent physical conditioning.

Hunting giant lizards outside the city (technically forbidden for his caste).

2.

Obligations

G.

Childhood

4.

Intentions

Raised to fight for the Autarch as one of his elite warriors.

 

Raised in the holy city of the Autarch, in the centre of a massive jungle.

Do his duty, and not question orders.

5.

Skills

1.

Images

8.

Crisis

Amazing martial prowess, familiarity with a wide range of weapons.

A massive ziggurat in the centre of a Mayan-style city, surrounded by lush jungle full of deadly hazards.

His childhood allegiances may be tested when he is forced to betray his comrades.

 

Kakhta’s Magic

6.

People

3.

Benefits

7.

Hobbies

A temple priest, (forbidden to speak with him because of his status) who helps him with philosophical questions. 

Magic resistance (same as skills).

Chewing coca leaves to stimulate dreams which he doesn’t have naturally. Developed into a habit.

2.

Obligations

H.

Magic

4.

Intentions

His magical status sets him apart and above the other religious castes. He is an Angel Incarnate. As a result, he is expected to lead. 

Immune – divorced from cosmic and magical forces

Understand why he was born different one day.

5.

Skills

1.

Images

8.

Crisis

Magic resistance. 

 

 

 

Born with gold-flecked eyes indicating genetic heritage. A trial by holy fire that threatened to kill him.

[ideas?]

 

Beyond the Chart

<

p>The traditional Buddhist or Indian Mandala sacred art has specific connotations and proportions, but in a wider context Mandala Art could be used to create any pictorial representation of a character. This may particularly suit Everway. But, that’s not really the scope of this article.

There’s nothing stopping you inserting images into the mandala chart, of course. 

Finally the Black Armada site is live, so I can link to Admiral Rabalias’ Johari’s Window article.

I’m keen on using tools like the Johari Window to express character traits. They require less interpretation than Everway‘s pseudo-tarot spread and allow players to express their character more or less in a way that they prefer to communicate and read information.

Everway’s Fate/Fault/Fortune spread serves an in-game (narrative) purpose. Tools like the Johari Window, or Mind Mapping, or a Mandala Chart should be useful within the game, rather than just mental masturbation character creation aids.

There are a couple of ways to achieve this. You could take Burning Wheel’s approach: let the players create all of the cool character background in isolation using the BIT system and then have the GM link all of the bits and pieces of character’s lives together. This provides the “story engine” to generate the overall plot. While this approach is fairly progressive in terms of generating story, it’s also quite “traditional” in that it doesn’t restrict player choice of character much – players get a list of character classes and will generally pick the weirdest thing on the menu, and it’s up to the GM to then bring an unlikely group of characters together.

I prefer a restrictive framework to link the characters together – as part of a family, organisation, or throwing them together into a situation. You can do this with the BIT system of course, making it a bit less of a blank canvas. Let’s call this a “closed” vs “open” creation method.

Now on to the tools.

Mind Mapping

Map by Prog Drummer Michael Petiford. Also, look at the fantastic Mind Map Art site.

My map isn’t nearly as pretty, because I knocked it up in XMind.

Kakhta

Kakhta was a real character I played many years ago. He was part of an invasion force in another continent, and was part of the nobility or ruling elite in his homeland. He was immune to magic. He chose to leave his comrades and join the resistance (the other PCs), resulting in deep personal conflicts. He integrated with the rest of the party and discussed cultural and culinary differences between their peoples.

I picked five major features about the character, and then used the map to expand on each. I didn’t worry much about order or depth of information – the intent with the mind map is to dump information onto the page as swiftly as possible.

The problem with mind maps is this “brain dump” makes for a slightly chaotic mess that doesn’t read well for play. Some sorting of the nodes was needed. I chose three categories:

  • Abilities (Red) – descriptors that actually indicate something the character is good at
  • Behaviours (Blue) – these could be instincts (in the BW sense), habits, or quirks; they could also be negative
  • Plots (Green) – these are things the GM can potentially use

Everything else I left black. Some of the items in black could be behaviours or other talents, but their overall impact on play is low.

Once I marked up the mind map it looked like this:

Kakhta2

Not a great deal of depth but enough to hang a plot on. Add another colour for physical appearance and you could have a reasonably rounded character.

Of course I haven’t actually said which system I would use. For the Ability nodes I could add percentages (BRP), levels of competence (FATE) or any other descriptor that fitted with the system. In fact FATE might work quite well with this technique since it expects people to be average in skills that aren’t explicitly named – that takes away any need to have stats outside the mind map.

The other thing you could do with the map is to enable characters to grow in areas they hadn’t previously thought of. Let’s say the characters travel to Kakhta’s homeland on a mission to infiltrate the Autarch’s palace. Suddenly we ask questions about what other skills Kakhta can bring to the game. His background as a bodyguard could give him skills his player hasn’t considered yet – but the map enables him to keep some character points back and spend them later in a fairly credible fashion.

Kakhta4

<

p>That’s enough for now. Next time, Mandala Charts.

This blog is mainly my stream of conscious, albeit edited (yes, I do actually have an internal censor) and that’s a convenient method of breaking up ideas – such as how to run Everway – into bite-sized chunks. At some point I’ll compile all of my Everway notes into a digest. I had intended this to be the last instalment but I kind of got side-tracked with the ideas below.

In part 1 I talked about player preference in receiving information, and in part 2 I talked (at great length) about different scenarios and how the elemental strengths of characters and antagonists will fit to them.

The topic I’d like to cover is why a GM would want to run a fight, or indeed any conflict (“social combat” systems have been around since before Vampire started serving its delicious buttery angst).

Planned vs Unplanned

Planned events are the mainstay of D&D, which is a game about killing monsters and nicking their treasure. Planned conflicts provide the best kind of Climax to a game – and these don’t need to be physical combats, of course, but they should be a showdown with the sentient force behind the character’s trials (otherwise, what’s the point?). Up until that point you might get away with just trials and inanimate obstacles, though conflicts (with henchmen, etc) provide important Milestones.

What then are unplanned events?  You could argue that no event is truly unplanned, since the GM controls the environment. On the other hand there are a couple of reasons to run unscripted combat – either because the player action has a penalty (alert the guards!) or because of player inaction that must be challenged. Let’s call them Penalties and Motivators respectively.

The nice thing about Everway is how you can short-cut the decision process when it’s needed: unplanned events can be single-card draws whereas the big climactic battle will be a blow-by-blow narration.

Penalty Spectrum: Kill, Punish or Let Them Win

In our enlightened post-TPK gaming utopia there are still reasons to kill the PCs, but ideally you want to be challenging players rather than taking their PCs away permanently.

But there are also times you want to let them win – usually when they outclass their opponents. At that stage winning is secondary to decisions such as whether to grant clemency. Becky proposes allowing the players narrative control at this stage.

Crucially these are consequences rather than the conflict itself. You may encourage narrative description by the players during the fight, but until they have been told that they’ve actually won, they shouldn’t be narrating the outcome. But assuming your players “get” your GM style, that shouldn’t be a problem.

K/P/LtW consequences are intrinsically tied to “what’s at stake?” If KPL (hey, an acronym) is a straight line, then arguably the planned events should fall towards the K end and unplanned towards the L end. There are exceptions of course – having Unplanned events with Kill consequences can make for surprise twists. One GM told me how he killed a PC in an unplanned encounter in a sewer – providing a direct contrast with the high-fantasy heroic theme of the campaign and the PC. (But since they were resurrected later they were only nearly dead, not really dead).

By the same token, planned events should not fall at the L end of the spectrum, since that would be anticlimactic. It sounds obvious, but I’ve run and played in games where the boss fight just ends with the GM narrating victory.

Comment

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p>This is kind of an aide memoir to myself to say don’t get bogged down with unscripted fights. I’ve tied this to Everway because that system allows the GM to put as much or as little time into each conflict as necessary. Of course any GM can bring a fight to a quick conclusion based on relative strengths of participants – but D&D and other OSR games were never intended to be fudged that way.

The games’ Climax is a Planned event, and it should be heavily weighted towards the Kill end of the KPL spectrum. In other words, there is a risk that some PCs will be taken out or otherwise rendered unplayable, at least in the short term. Climax events should tend to be Blow by Blow. If a Climax event appears to be weighted towards Let Them Win then it could be a false climax. (“This is too easy!”)

The Milestones are Planned much like the Climax, but not so far biased towards Kill. In fact through investigation, planning and resource gathering on the PCs part, a Milestone could become Let Them Win. (“You’re finished, Lord Crane. The hostages are safe and we have all the evidence we need to prove your allegiance to the Dark One! You’re going to tell us what we need to storm his castle and end his reign of terror!”). Let Them Win consequences should be short to narrate – and could even be an opportunity to let the players take narrative control. Otherwise a Blow by Blow account is appropriate for a Milestone.

Of the Unplanned events, Penalties are the results of plans being derailed. You don’t want to Kill the party but it’s meaningless to just Let Them Win. It’s going to be quite tough to balance an appropriate Punishment with the party progress. Those are the kind of events that threaten to change the direction of (or worse, stall) the whole campaign. Thinking up front on what would make a setback vs what would completely kill the campaign is useful here. Since these events are actual Penalties they should be dealt with quickly, e.g. with a one-card narration (unless you want to drag them out to give the PCs a chance of recovering the situation).

The other Unplanned event is the Motivator. This should not be a killer; it could be a Let Them Win because its purpose is not to punish but provide a plot lead. Short Fight or Blow by Blow depends on the circumstance. If the action is flagging then the latter may be a good diversion; on the other hand if you really want to signpost the PCs towards the plot, a short fight may be what you want.

So…

  • A Climax should have K/P consequences and be a blow by blow
  • A Milestone can be K/P and blow by blow, or LtW and be short fight
  • A Penalty should be neither K not LtW, and is probably better short fight
  • A Motivator should not be K but may be better as LtW, and could be either blow by blow or short fight depending on the needs of the plot.