RPG Mechanics Round-Up #8

Elvish Skill

I have toyed with an idea, which I haven’t used in a (finished) game design yet, that is an attempt to deal with a diminishing return in gaining skill combined with the incredibly long lives of elves. Even D&D’s non-immortal elves live for 700-1000 years. The idea I came up with is to have what amounts to only 3 levels of ability in any given skill (as measured by elves): 1 year, 10 years, and 100 years. (This also echoes the Chinese aphorisms about how it takes 10 weeks to learn the spear, 10 months to learn the dao, and 10 years to learn the jiann). After 100 years, diminishing returns seem like they would be such that measurable improvement would be unlikely. In a setting with elves and non-elves, non-elves would be limited to a skill level of 10 years (about how long it takes to earn a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu if you are working hard at it).

Burnout

I like the idea of having the option of burning out a repeatable ability in one big demonstration. That is, say you can do Ability X three times a day, or once per short rest. If you choose, you can choose some dramatic moment to do something that is equivalent to 5X or even 10X. After that, though, you lose the ability permanently. This could be a lead into a ‘Retire in Safety’ mechanic or another peaceful end for the character, and of course only makes sense for characters who have repeatable, likely supernatural, abilities.

Secrets on Page 1

I wonder what effect it would have to write a secret, or multiple secrets, about the character on the character sheet. (There is a mechanic for this in Parsec) Probably in some groups it would no effect, but in a Vampire the Masquerade group for example, each vampire having to have their secrets written out on their character sheets (preferably on page 1) just might have an interesting, subtle impact at the table. A little layer of suspicion added to any interaction.

Deeper Backgrounds

Here I’m going to take the example of backgrounds in D&D 5E, which are a great addition to the system in my opinion, and could be taken further. Almost every adventurer character ever created is an orphan with no social ties at all when the game begins – that just seems to be a truism at this point. Some systems make a player create a more detailed, interconnected background at character creation for that reason – otherwise very few will. World of Darkness games even added this element to the game itself in the prelude session, during which we see the character in scenes from their life before the supernatural stuff hits the fan.

For the remainder of this round-up, I am going to go through the backgrounds in the 5E PHB and note briefly how they could be expanded to include some family members, friends and social connections in a character’s life. (H/T to Fate and the Fablemaidens for indirectly reminding me to expand this idea and post it)

Acolyte: a criminal or sinner whom you are trying to reform; parents and family whose religious views strongly differ from yours; the gravesite of your mentor which you visit every year to make a small offering to their spirit; a rival member of your religion who believes you lack conviction

Charlatan: a minor local noble whom you embarrassed; a widow who believes you are psychic; a sibling who is always trying to get you on the straight and narrow path; a parent who tsks at what you do but makes sure you aren’t disowned

Criminal: an elderly priest or priestess who fed you when you were down and out; loving parents who believe you are a traveling salesperson; your best friend growing up who is now a recruit in the town guard; the heir of a local noble or wealthy family who has a forbidden crush on you

Entertainer: the amazing performer who inspired you to get started years ago; the leader of your small, but growing, local fan-club; a pen-pal who is always offering to put you up at their place if you make the journey to perform for them; hardworking, dour siblings who don’t understand your art

Folk Hero: the tyrant or corrupt official’s remaining agents in the area; your proud family, including a sibling who looks up to you and wants to be just like you; the person back home who everyone assumed you were going to marry

Guild Artisan: the head of your local guild chapter; your master, now too old to practice the trade; a local merchant or noble who is one of your primary buyers; someone who supplies raw materials whose personality is the opposite of yours

Guild Merchant: your mule, who is smarter than she looks; your family, whose signature business is one you detest; a rival who betrayed you on a key deal; a particular gate guard, with whom you have the best banter; a performer, who gets their best material from stories of your travels

Hermit: the villager who would come each week to bring you fresh supplies and news, in exchange for your wisdom; an extraordinary talking animal that would sometimes visit you in seclusion; your family of origin, who have strong feelings about what you’re doing (good or bad, you choose)

Noble: the peasant who looks a lot like you, with whom you exchanged places once as kids; the doting nurse who actually raised you while your parents were at court; a younger sibling whom you are always getting out of trouble

Outlander: your folks back home, and perhaps the reason you don’t live there now; a sweetheart from your adolescence who went looking for you; a bird or small animal who just follows you wherever you go; another local wanderer with whom you share news, food and shelter when your paths cross

Sage: your first tutor, now like a parental figure for you; a rival scholar who wants to discredit you; a small-time loan shark who still says you owe her back payments on student loans; your proud family, either many academics, or perhaps you’re the first among them to go for higher education

Sailor: if you have a lover in every port, there’s one of them that feels true; the salty old dog who taught you everything they know; your siblings, who count the days until you return from time at sea; the bartender at your favorite seaside watering hole

Soldier: your drill instructor, who has a new insult for you every time you meet; a comrade who was crippled in battle and had to retire early; the person you’re engaged to marry as soon as you return home; a gruff parent who was also a career soldier; the ghost of the first person you ever killed

Urchin: the kind local noble who would always give you a few spare coins; your best friend who got lucky and married out of the life; a fixer who always has local gossip; the leader of the gang you were in as a kid; the innkeeper who would give you a place to sleep when the weather was bad

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Bassem Youssef

I haven’t done one of these in way too long, but one name has been at the forefront for a while now: Bassem Youssef. The snapshot – he was wanted for arrest by the authorities in an authoritarian regime (Egypt) for wearing a hat mocking the President, and when he turned himself in, he was wearing the hat.

Baller.

Before we continue, here is a manly picture of Bassem:

Image result for bassem youssef

Bassem Youssef is an Egyptian comedian and political commentator as well as writer, producer, physician and freaking surgeon. He’s like Jon Stewart, if Jon was born in a dictatorship, smarter and more accomplished, while also facing threats to his life as a matter of course throughout his career. (And I love Jon Stewart. But for real.)

Lots of racists and ideologues in the US like to whine about “free speech” and “censorship” whenever someone calls them out for their shitty ideas, but Youssef has had to deal with actual threats to his freedom of speech and actual censorship. In response to this, he has remained relentless funny.

It’s one thing to respond to a violent, repressive regime with violence. It’s another thing entirely to respond to a violent, repressive regime with jokes on television. One thing that Youssef highlights to me is the emptiness of what so many comedians in the United States complain about in terms of ‘political correctness’, whining about how hard it is to do their jobs now because they can’t make as many trans-phobic or ableist jokes or whatever. I look at someone like Bassem Youssef, in all of his manly glory, and it puts those complaints in an entirely different light.

It makes me wonder whether actual humor (and not just vapid alt-right trolling, or mere snark) can insulate us against being radicalized, or reverting to nativism, or falling under the sway of demagogues.

For his combination of courage, intelligence, and humor, Bassem Youssef is today’s Profile in Positive Masculinity.

For more information, you can start with this interview through The Economist from last year:

 

D&D 5E Hack: No Cash

I understand what the designers and developers were thinking when they changed how gold and magic items interact in 5th Edition. Magic items are supposed to be special, and having them available at any old magic item shop makes them less so. They just become another way you level up, a steady incline of power the way that class abilities are, which makes them redundant. I get it.

The problem is that 100% of D&D gaming groups I have ever played with have wanted to go shopping for magic items with their gold. Every single one, to varying degrees, particular starting with 3rd Edition. What this has meant in practice is that the DMG was missing something when it was missing magic item prices, something players would almost immediately demand, and so along comes Xanathar’s Guide to Everything with it’s downtime option of purchasing magic items. It is OK, I’ve used it, but it leaves something to be desired.

So I came up with a simple hack of 5E where you can get rid of cash altogether.

When a character wants to buy something beyond the incidental – drinks, simple rooms at the inn, meals, etc., they roll using their flat Proficiency bonus. On a success, they can find what they want to buy and can afford it. On a failure, either they can’t find it, or they can’t afford it, or they get the item but go into debt. Debt is like disadvantage, you can only do it once. Once you’re in debt, you can’t go further into debt. While in debt, your Proficiency score rolls to buy things are at disadvantage.

Sometimes, a PC will be Flush With Cash. This means they just went through a dungeon or pulled of a heist or found buried treasure. When Flush With Cash, characters roll their Proficiency bonus to buy things with advantage. The DM decides when the cash runs out, or you can say that the first time you fail a roll, you’re out of the extra cash and back to your usual means.

When you want to buy something, here are the DCs:

  • Something simple and inexpensive, like adventuring gear: DC 8
  • Something mundane but expensive, or a common magic item, like a longbow or a healing potion: DC 10
  • Something very expensive, like plate armor, or an uncommon magic item: DC 12
  • A rare magic item: DC 15
  • A very rare magic item: DC 20

Of course DMs can fell free to not allow players to roll for things that aren’t available. Also, I’d use the normal downtime rules for looking to buy a magic item, and make the PC spend a week looking. Often in a game, time is more valuable than gold anyway.

Oh, and all 1st level characters start the game in debt unless they have the Noble Background 🙂

A Card Mechanic for Western RPGs

This is a smooshing together of mechanics from Deadlands and Clockwork: Dominion with a little bit sprinkled in. I’m not presenting it as a Newfangled Thing, but simply as what I think I would want to use if I was going to run a Western game, whether Weird West or mythic or whatever.

System Basics

  • Initiative and the action economy are managed by playing cards you are dealt when a conflict begins
  • Actions are also resolved by playing cards, where the number on the card is its value and more ability means you have more cards from which to choose
  • Cards that aren’t used, or are played in failed tests, can be retained by the player to store up and build hands
  • Those hands are spent for special effects in the game like introducing new NPC allies, critical hits, and activating special abilities – in this way failure leads to success later

Stolen Initiative

The initiative system for this game is straight-up stolen from Clockwork: Dominion, because that system also uses cards, and also because it is the best initiative system I’m aware of.

When a conflict begins, each player is dealt cards. Actions occur in the order of the cards dealt, from Ace down to the two. If a player doesn’t want their character to act, they can still pass.

In order to interrupt an action, a player can push two cards forward instead of one. Their character’s action is resolved before any other actions, as an interrupt. Yes, you can push two cards forward to interrupt the interrupt.

I’m thinking of maybe one free reaction, and then you spend one card to react or actively defend if someone pushes a card forward to act on you.

The GM gets cards for the NPCs in the conflict, and plays them as if she was just another player. This gets a bit complicated with more than a handfull of NPCs, but that’s true in every system (tonight’s D&D game will have a fight with 28 participants).

Building A Hand

I love when you mark xp with a failed roll in Dungeon World. The way I adapted that idea to this system is to let players retain cards used in failed tests, and maybe cards they don’t use in initiative as well, and use them to build hands to use later in the story. The hands are all, of course, poker hands, and here are my ideas so far:

  • Pair: your hit is a critical hit, or your success is a critical success
  • Two Pair: a trick shot, or a highly unlikely positive result
  • Three of a Kind: you cheat death, when you would otherwise be killed, you are simply taken out
  • Straight: maybe you can use a straight to prevent another PC from dying? You rescue them in some way?
  • Flush: you set a type of scene and stack things in your favor. Maybe even take over narration from the GM for a scene that you just want to see. The type of scene depends on the suit of the flush. Spades: you learn something, or establish something, big and decisive about the setting or situation; Clubs: you stomp the crap out of a host of foes, or embarrass a major opponent; Hearts: a social scene where you get what you want, like getting married, becoming mayor, etc.; Diamonds: you have some kind of big break, like striking gold on your land
  • Full House: add a significant, allied NPC to the story
  • Four of a Kind: rewind time and repeat what just happened, up to four rounds back. “But that wasn’t how it was meant to be.”

Luck

Instead of health, I think of Poker chips that represent a character’s luck. So much in the Old West is deadly, or at least wounding – arrows, bullets, knives, being gored by stampeding cattle, and so on. When your “luck runs out” you are liable to be killed, and there should be abilities for super dangerous NPCs to be able to bypass your luck straight to a wounding or killing attack. I also like that you can potentially spend that luck to re-try a failed test, at the risk of putting yourself that much closer to death’s door.

What’s Missing, and What’s Next

I don’t really have a damage mechanic. I’m not sure what exactly would go on a character sheet. I have the thought that the four suits could be the four attributes, where maybe spades are mental, clubs are physical, hearts are social, and diamonds might be a speed measure, or even resources available to you.

This Christmas, Baby Jesus Is Being Raped In A U.S. Concentration Camp

Matthew 2:13-23

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph[a] got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

Image result for holy family ice detention art card

Mathew 25:31-33;41-46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 

41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Let’s Be Clear

This Christmas, Jesus is being raped in a United States concentration camp. His parents came to the Untied States’ southern border, seeking asylum as protected by US and international law. They were captured, their child taken from them, and they were locked in cages in separate concentration camps. Presently in that concentration camp, held in cages with 15,000 other children taken from their parents, Jesus is being sexually abused by concentration camp staff. Mary and Joseph, panicked and sobbing and despairing of ever seeing their child again, are locked in cages a thousand miles away. There is no plan to release them, and there is no plan to reunite them with their traumatized son. He was taken as a baby, and does not speak English, and there are no careful records being kept, so it is unlikely he will ever see his parents again.

This. Is. WhoWe. Are. Now.

If you take the Bible seriously, then this is the conclusion you must come to. Why? For the first reason, which is that the Holy Family fled to Egypt seeking asylum when their lives were in danger, and for the second reason, which is that Jesus says very clearly that how we treat the least among us is how we treat him. There are complex interpretive challenges when reading the Bible, but this is not one of them. This one is simple.

As I write this, filled with rage and disgust that has grown beyond words, I find that I have nothing else to say.

Merry Christmas.

Image result for holy family ice detention art card

RPG Mechanic Round-Up #7

Meta-Round-Up

Progress and Drama

In the game text, instead of listing the result of a passed test in a resolution mechanic as “success”, describe it as “progress.” That is, progress is made toward whatever your goal was, or toward winning what was at stake. In parallel, instead of listing a failed test in your resolution mechanic as “failure”, call it “drama”, in that the dramatic tension increases in the scene or in the story. This could almost be the only change in how a system is written, but I think it opens up results in interesting ways.

Let’s say your D&D player does the classic thing and makes an absurd proficiency check – then they roll a 20, and even though there isn’t a “natural 20” rule in 5E for proficiency checks, they still expect something big from their absurd plan (seduce the dragon, pick the lock with mage hand, lie to the Inevitable’s face, etc.). So if passing the test equals “progress” rather than “success”, you can just describe how their absurd plan gets them closer to their goal. Similarly, for all of those proficiency checks where failure just means the story stops, if it is “drama” (or “tension” perhaps, or “threat”) instead of “failure” for a failed test, the attempt can be technically successful, moving things ahead, but they are now worse than they were.

Theme Music

Each player chooses a theme song for their character and queue’s it up on their phone. At any time during the session, they can hit play for the song, play a bit of it, and their character automatically succeeds on whatever it is they are doing. Maybe instead of Inspiration, players can gain bonus uses of their theme music during the session. Similarly, the DM can queue up theme songs for any Big Bads they’ll face, and those enable them to use a legendary save ability to choose to save on a failed saving throw, or to resist death for a round after being reduced to 0 hit points, etc.

Big and Small Advantages with Percentile Dice

This is a layer of complexity that one might not choose, but it occurred to me while listening (and enjoying) another How We Roll actual play of Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition. In CoC 7E there is an advantage mechanic, where you roll the 10s digit die more than once and take the worse of the two rolls. I thought that this made sense for big advantages and disadvantages, but for smaller advantages and disadvantages it would make sense to roll the 1s digit die twice and take the better or worse of the two rolls. This gives you an approximately 1 in 10 change of barely making, or barely missing, the roll, and isn’t a big deal, but could be an interesting tweak, maybe for when the player thinks they should have advantage but the Keeper disagrees. “Yes, but…”

Percentile Auto-Success

Rolling is not always fun. Games usually have some kind of hand-wavey rule about “only roll when it is interesting” or “only roll when there is danger involved” but even in games where that is spelled out enforcement is sporadic. It occurred to me, in particular in a percentile system, that it could be simpler and also more interesting to give each character a number of auto-successes equal to the tens digit of the applicable skill. So, again looking at Call of Cthulhu, your investigator with a Credit Rating of 57 could just have 5 automatic successes on Credit Rating rolls during the scenario (intended to be more than one session). The downside is that you don’t get any chance to advance when using one of these auto-successes, nor can you get a critical success of any kind. Maybe one could ignore this rule in combat, and of course the Keeper would be able to say that it doesn’t apply in a certain situation (like a Sanity roll, or a situation where the danger of failure is really interesting), but I like it as a rule.

Final Fantasy Action Selector

Remember old school Final Fantasy where you had the action selector when each character’s turn came up? It looked something vaguely like this:

  • Fight / Run
  • Magic
  • Drink
  • Item

I was thinking about something like this for new players. Frequently, players at my table forget all of the various things their character can do when it is their turn, especially at higher levels. What if new players had something like this, printed up by the DM, with their abilities on it? Something for a Druid might look like this:

  • Melee Attack
  • Missile Attack
  • Shapechange

And one for a Rogue more like this:

  • Melee Attack
  • Missile Attack
  • Dash
  • Disengage
  • Hide

Of course, the player can put whatever is interesting on the selector, and can always do things not listed, but it might be helpful to just have that at a glance. I’ve seen a lot of new players stare glassy-eyed at their complex character sheet when their turn comes when really they only have two or three viable and interesting options. The problem is that it takes significant system mastery for one to know what those few viable and interesting options are.