RPG Mechanic Round-Up #2

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More of the snippets of mechanics that I thought were worth sharing – to add to your own games, or hack into the games you’re running, or provide a jumping-off point for your own design.

Generalized Saving Throws

This is a bit of an OSR-related thought. As I look at the saving throws from OD&D or other OSR games, they strike me as very…specific. Like, a save versus wands? That is different from a save versus spells? All kinds of spells? All kinds of wands?

I think that 3.X had a great response to this, one of the best aspects of that redesign, which was to reduce those down to three saves: Fortitude, Reflex and Will. The question becomes – what are you defending against, if not a physical attack (which Armor Class handles)? Roll that save.

I thought about generalized saving throws, that would cover most situations that would come up in OSR games but aren’t quite as generic as the 3.X saves. Same question – what are you defending against? Or, what are you trying to do? The ones I came up with are: take cover (avoid blasts, area of effect attacks, breath weapons, etc.), remain calm (resist attempts to control emotions, enrage, instill fear, etc.), retain control (resist attempts at mind-control), break free of restraints (covers things like being turned to stone as well as ensnaring attacks).

last night in a conversation with a friend, we also came up with the Danny Glover Saving Throw, or the “I’m getting too old for this shit” saving throw. It would based entirely off of the character’s level, and would represent the fact that you’d only really learn to survive these extraordinary circumstances through experience. But it is just a measure of the character’s canny-ness and self-preservation, built up through an adventuring career as opposed to something you learn in adventurer school.

Debts Tracked Like Wounds

I had the idea that it would be interesting to list a character’s debts right on their character sheet, especially in a game that is heavy in social economy like Vampire the Masquerade. I think some extended character sheets from White Wolf might have had a “Boons” section, but I like the idea of debts right there staring you in the face when you look at your character. Very often, especially in most traditional games, what you have is real, whereas what you owe, or who you are connected to, is ephemeral. I think that the game becomes about what is on the character, or at least it should be about that for the players, and so putting debts on the character sheet like wounds or other conditions would potentially make an interesting change in a game and how players approach it.

To color the game a paritcular way, it would be great to start the game in significant debt. That’s definitely something everyone but Baby Boomers at the table could relate to, if nothing else. And in a game like, again, Vampire, it makes sense that you would start play indebted to the Prince (for letting you be Embrace) and to your Sire (for teaching and protecting you) and maybe even a Clan Elder or Primogen (because unlife is unfair).

Hold Person Revisited

Few spells are less fun in a D&D game than the hold person line of spells – spells or abilities that immobilize the victim. When used on a player-character, in particular, it just means, “Sorry player, you get to sit there doing nothing for a half hour while we work this whole combat out. Grab a snack?” Recent iterations of D&D have tried to address this by allowing a save every round to break the effect, but often this just means that hold person is almost never used. It doesn’t provide the crowd-control advantage, and PCs often have really good saving throws and get out of it quickly. But it’s still basically “save versus not having fun anymore.”

I was thinking of how to adapt hold person. Maybe what it does is enable a single attack, with advantage from 5E or the equivalent from your system of choice, that does damage as if it was a critical hit once, and then the effect expires. Basically, it holds the victim still long enough to really smash them, and then ends. I think this could be preferable because there is some tension – the player has to watch helpless as the monster closes in on their character, knowing a huge hit is coming. The PCs see the NPC freeze up when they fail the save, and call in the heavy hitter to take them out in one epic hit.

At the very least, it is a little bit less “save versus not having fun anymore.”

Still More to Come

I have more where these came from. I’m keeping these posts relatively short and sweet, and probably have material for at least two more. So, keep an eye out, and as always feel free to share your own ideas…

Large-Sized Characters In 5E D&D

As it stands, making any large-sized playable race in D&D 5E is more of a problem than is likely to be worthwhile. According to the DMG, a large-size playable race would deal double weapon damage at level 1, and with the way hit dice work in the MM, it could be argued that their class hit dice would be upgraded by one die type, meaning a large-sized fighter for example would have d12 hit dice instead of d10 due to size.

These huge advantages would be balanced out a bit by the fact that a large PC would have to squeeze in a lot of common situations – traveling through Dwarven tunnels or visiting the ubiquitous pseudo-Medieval taverns. I’d assume, though, that the DM would just have to adjust for that, reducing the number of five-foot-wide corridors and so on in a given adventure, or else the player playing the large PC would just be left out. Somewhat balanced, but definitely no fun, leaving a situation where the PC would have all the advantages and probably few, or none, of the constraints of being large.

The effects of the Enlarge/Reduce spell in the PHB suggest another interpretation, a bit less advantageous than what the DMG and MM imply. An enlarged creature deals +1d4 damage with their enlarged weapon and have advantage on Strength checks and Strength saves and that’s pretty much it. Presumably, the DM just improvises the effects of being enlarged where it would be a detriment rather than an advantage, and obviously a savvy caster would not enlarge an ally in the middle of a cramped room or hallway designed for medium-sized species.

I don’t think either approach to a large-sized playable race is particularly good, whether taking our cue from the DMG and MM, or from the PHB. That being said, I like the idea of a large-sized playable race a lot. I think it adds something to a setting and to the options available to players, and there should be a way to balance things out. In 3.X this balance came in part with a penalty to Armor Class and stealth checks, and I think that makes sense conceptually.

So here is what I think a large-sized race or species in D&D 5E should include: +1d4 damage from large-sized weapons, advantage on Strength saves and Strength checks, disadvantage on Dexterity saves and Dexterity checks, +1 hit points per level, and a cost of living multiplied by four (including meals, water skins, clothing, equipment, etc.).

An Example: Dark Sun’s Half Giant

Ability Score Increase. Your Strength and Constitution score both increase by 2.

Age. Half-giants live about twice as long as humans, becoming adults around the age of 25 and often living to 170 (for the few who die of old age).

Alignment. Half-giants adopt their alignment from the people they spend the most time with, or fear or respect most. This means that their alignment will be more subject to change than others, though one axis till tend to remain consistent. So they might be consistently Good, but sometimes Chaotic and sometimes Lawful, or consistently Chaotic, but sometimes Good and sometimes Evil.

Powerful Build. Half-giants have advantage on Strength checks and Strength saves.  They also have disadvantage on Dexterity checks and Dexterity saves. In addition, their build grants them +1 hit points per level.

Size. Half-giants are Large sized creatures. They occupy a 10′ by 10′ square, and have a 5′ reach. They also deal +1d4 damage with all weapons, in addition to the listed damage.

Speed. Half-giants have a base speed of 35 feet.

Upkeep. The cost of living and all equipment for a half-giant costs four times the usual amount.

Fighting Class Obsolescence

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Clearly, not all classes are created equal. I remember playing AD&D as a kid, and wanting to play a thief. I read through the thief class description where for the first 10 levels or so, my thief skills would be abysmally low. I’d have a less than 50% chance to do the things that thieves are supposed to do – pick locks, pick pockets, that kind of thing. As a result, I never played thieves in D&D, because I didn’t want to be consistently terrible at my character’s wheelhouse.

Melee classes in fantasy games that include spell-casters often suffer from being under-powered, especially at mid and higher levels. While the spell-casters are traveling to other planes, raising people from the dead and incinerating their foes, the fighter is still swinging her sword once or twice per round. The druid shapechanges into a huge cave bear – the fighter swings her sword.

I get that fighters are a good option for players who want a simple character to play. Playing casters, or classes with a lot of special abilities to juggle, is challenging. 4th Edition D&D, designed to help address problems like this by giving all classes special abilities that functioned in similar ways, ended up striking some players as repetitive. Your function in combat mattered more than your class, and the differences were boiled down to fluff and flavor. Previously in 3.X D&D, and then in Pathfinder, they attempted to address this issue with feats and feat chains providing special abilities like Great Cleave and Whirlwind Attack.

Then there is the “dirt farmer” class that some older games include. The System Mastery guys love going off on these kinds of classes that are clearly not fun at all, but included because of misguided ideas of “realism” or “history.” Why be a cleric when you could be a merchant?

Point is, for forty years of character classes in TRPGs, it seems there are almost always some classes that are clearly less fun than others. At high enough level, that class is normally the fighter. So, what to do?

Fix It In Design

4th Edition’s attempt – replace class with role. 5th Edition D&D – give them all magical abilities. Fighters with superiority dice. Look at level capabilities that other classes have and try to give the weaker classes abilities that, if not equivalent, are at least comparable, while in line with their theme.

If your 10th level mage is flying through the air lobbing lightning bolts at her foes while your fighter is still trundling across the ground waving a sword around once or twice a round, that’s a design problem. Not because “balance” is intrinsically valuable for its own sake, but because in a game based around a group of adventurers, all classes should be able to contribute to similar adventures. It’s a problem if some classes become luggage for their more powerful, versatile allies.

Fix It With Equipment

This is especially an option in games like D&D that become dependent on equipment at higher levels. Often, fighter types (who are usually the under-powered ones) have more equipment ‘slots’ than other classes, wearing armor and bearing shields and often able to simply carry more.

Think about the things that other classes can do in your game, and give the fighter, or equivalently limited class, the ability to do similar things. Of course you don’t want to impinge on what makes other classes special, but just make it so the fighter doesn’t have to be accommodated or left behind every time.

Fix It With Hacking

Go into the game you’re playing, lift the hood, and mess around. Talk to anyone playing a class they feel is under-powered or just being left behind by the other characters. Find out what your player sees as a win, and give them a bit more of that. See when the story slows down because she has to be accommodated somehow, and figure out how to keep her going.

Play Better Games

Not all games use classes at all, and not all games with classes are created equal. If you’re frustrated with the incompetence of your AD&D thief, maybe check out an OSR game that emulates AD&D but benefits from 30 years of design insights.

5th Edition D&D is a pretty good start here. I think that 4th Edition also did a good job, but in essence your combat role replaced your class, and then class became a source of color and some customization options, like a sub-class from previous editions.

Obviously, other games get rid of classes altogether, relying on point-buy systems or using other methods to describe characters.

The idea, of course, is for everyone to be having around the same amount of fun, and engagement with the game, each session. There is just a lot of sub-optimal design out there that gets in the way.


Dystopian Gods in RPG Settings

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Who Accumulates Power?

What kind of person accumulates power, generally speaking? A good person or an evil person? In the current context of rising inequality as well as the resurgence of vile ideologies from the recent past, we see demagogues holding onto power despite movements like the Arab Spring and rising to greater power in Europe and the United States. And while inspiring to many, movements like Occupy have done little to slow the accumulation of wealth among fewer and fewer oligarchs; similarly Black Lives Matter has yet to see significant victories as they continue the fight for Civil Rights.

It’s been said that the last person who should have power is the kind of person who seeks power out, and we can see how our political systems reward wrongdoing and make doing what’s right all the more costly and difficult. How much more so might this be true of gods, and how they gather power to themselves?

I think that in many ‘standard’ D&D campaign settings like the Forgotten Realms and Eberron, the good-aligned gods are too powerful. There is this sense that there should be a balance of alignments in the world, most explicitly in a setting like Krynn, and so you often have good gods facing off against their opposite number while neutral gods move back and forth in allegiance, or go off and seek their own ends.

The problem is that the balance offers too much hope. I understand, it is fantasy after all, but for me a more compelling story can often be found when the protagonists are underdogs, fighting against overwhelming odds. Add that to what seems to be true about the nature of power in the world we know, and I think that our game settings should feature more overwhelmingly powerful evil deities.

Example: Midnight

In the Midnight setting, published in a first and second edition by Fantasy Flight Games, first for D&D 3E and then for D&D 3.5, there is only one god – the Dark Lord Izrador. All other deities have been shunted out of the material plane entirely, leaving only the occasional nature spirit and no good-aligned outsiders at all. The only deity available for clerics (or their Midnight equivalent, Wisdom-oriented channelers) is a god of evil, and it is a genuinely scary thing in a game to have what is usually the most over-powered class, the cleric (especially in D&D 3.x), as exclusively antagonists. Your enemies will have supernatural healing available to them, and waves of undead at their command.

Midnight is a superb setting to explore issues of resistance against a dystopia that is not only political but metaphysical as well. Is there any hope at all against overwhelming odds? If not, what meaning can you find? Where are the places for heroism? Midnight forces these questions on players precisely because the power of the evil deity is overwhelming.

Idea to steal: the setting is monotheistic, and that deity is evil. 

Example: Call of Cthulhu

The obvious flagship setting for overpowering, terrifying deities is clearly the Cthulhu Mythos. (Even though in the original story, Cthulhu is taken out by being rammed by a ship) For the most part, there are no gods of good – they are illusions, or impotent when compared to the seething cosmic horrors gazing hungrily at Earth and its inhabitants.

The Mythos can be an example of this idea taken too far, however, because so often one of the core themes of a Mythos-based setting is helplessness. And I don’t want to go that far. I don’t think movements for justice in our world are hopeless – it’s just that they are perpetually outgunned.

Idea to steal: there are gods, but they are overwhelmed by all-powerful cosmic horrors. 

Classic Example: Middle-Earth

For almost all of Middle-Earth’s history, including its mythic history, the Valar, equivalent to the benevolent gods of a pantheon, are at worst balanced out by Melkor in influence, and if anything, Melkor has a far greater influence on how history unfolds. Similarly in the Third Age, Sauron has a much greater influence than any of the Valar, and those who resist him are always doing so as underdogs, or in secret, or as part of a desperate ploy.

Unlike the other Valar, Melkor takes up residence in Middle-Earth itself in Utumno, guarded by Angband, the Hell of Iron. The same is true of Sauron in Mordor of course (well Mordor, then Dol Guldur, then Mordor again). The caricature of Middle-Earth is that it coddles its protagonists (to which we get responses like Moorcock and Martin), but it is hard to describe a setting where the deity of evil has a physical address anything but frightening.

Idea to steal: the most powerful of the various deities is an evil deity, and s/he rules a physical realm in the world while the deities of good are distant and can only intervene indirectly. 

Un-Balance Your Gods

I think that the gods of good in a fantasy setting should be overwhelmed, limited, and in a word, scrappy. They should face overwhelming odds, always feel like they are outclassed and fighting from behind, and sometimes have to fall back on luck to survive.

Just like the heroes.

There, I Fixed It: The Wish Spell

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Something that the System Mastery guys love to harp on, all the way back to their very first episode: Dungeons & Dragons’ wish spell (and similar spells in the wish tradition from other RPGs as well). As written, wish spells, or wishes in general in TRPGs, are almost always explicitly ways to disrupt players’ expectations and, in a word, screw them. GMs and DMs are often encouraged to find any possible loophole, any interpretation in the player-character’s wish that might justify screwing with them.

In 5th Edition and 3.5 as well, other than that, a wish spell is for the most part just a catch-all for replicating an 8th level spell. There is otherwise a list of possible effects that are clearly defined and limited in scope. Part of the problem is that wishes in the folkloric sense should not be spells – the simple solution here is to excise wish from the list of arcane spells entirely. But if you want to keep it, or if your game is going to feature a significant number of genies, then there must be something better than punishing players with it. (If you want to punish a character, hand them a Deck of Many Things and stand back).

The potential problems with wishes should be obvious, and there are plenty of folkloric stories about well-intentioned wishes going wrong, or at the very least not having the effect that the wisher intended. On the other hand, these problems are usually ways of moving the story forward so that the protagonist can learn something or change in some way. All too often in TRPGs, wishes are simply opportunities for the DM to punish a player for trying to be creative, when it’s the DM’s decision whether to allow wishes in the first place. For those DMs whose players are not masochists, I have some other thoughts.

The first is that a wish should be fun. Here I’m thinking of Aladdin’s first (official) wish in the Disney animated adaptation of his story regarding a certain lamp. He basically gets what he wishes for, and if anything, Genie goes overboard (as Robin Williams invariably did) in embellishing the whole scene. Rather than being a stingy saboteur, one pictures Aladdin’s DM just throwing cool things at the player-character until the player’s head spins. There are complication, of course, as “Prince Ali” draws the attention of a sinister visier and is suddenly plunged into court life having been a fruit-stealing street kid not long ago, but the story moves forward with the wish fulfilled at face value, plus interest.

Wishes should be fun. D&D should be fun. It should never be a DM power trip, or about ‘punishing’ players.

Second, a wish should indeed have a cost or an unforeseen complication, but this cost or complication should be something that is part of the story moving forward and continuing to be fun. The street rat suddenly lifted to Princedom has no actual idea how to be a Prince. No history, no family, no connections, no homeland, nothing. And as mentioned, he draws the attention of the sinister vizier. I would even recommend discussing possible complications with the player who is making the wish. I know this is not everyone’s play style, but in my experience this doesn’t diminish the fun – you kind of trade surprise for a higher guarantee that you’ll all enjoy the twist.

Third, a wish should take context into account. I still think that DMs should just eliminate wish from all spell lists where it might appear, and keep wishes as a story element. Obvious options are powerful fey or genies whom the PCs have worked to befriend. Maybe the goal of a whole campaign could be to earn a wish from a powerful entity, and then to use that wish to restore the kingdom, or end a curse, or cure a plague. But remember that the wish is interpreted in context. If a PC makes a wish granted by the genie, that genie will interpret the wish, and a wish granted by an ifrit will be very different from one granted by a marid, or a djinni. Rather than a chance to punish players, this is a chance for a DM to show off her creativity. To use this example again, a wish granted by a genie voiced by Robin Williams will be one thing – one granted by a stingy cantankerous fey quite another.

Remember that a wish’s fulfillment does not need to be immediate (unless maybe the PC adds that to the request – in which case, it could rain gold pieces or cause other upheaval). Feel free to take a moment in game when the wish is finally made (which again should be a huge story moment) to go think through what it will look like when it is fulfilled.

Discourage players from gaming the wish. A player might be tempted to go off and write out a page-long run-on sentence as her wish, full of legalese and dependent clauses. Depict the wish-granter getting bored and starting to wander off. Understandably, players will anticipate the DM trying to twist their wish against them, and will try to avoid that eventuality. Maybe reassure them, if necessary, that this is a big story moment and you’re not going to sabotage it.

So, to summarize the wish spell – don’t make it a spell at all. Make it a story element. Make it fun. Have a cost or unforeseen complication, but make it one that moves the story forward in an interesting way. Take the context of the wish, and the wish-granter, into account. And push the players not to lawyer the wish, even if you just have to reassure them.

Do you have any stories of wishes going well, or poorly, in your campaigns? If so, share in the comments. 

Advancement Systems In RPG Design


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I recently had a fun conversation with a friend of mine who is designing a tabletop RPG about what kind of advancement system to use for his game. It got me thinking about the pros and cons of all of the various methods games use for character advancement, mostly in tabletop but also drawing from video games. I thought I would lay out the various options as I saw them and discuss each in turn, both as a way to organize my thoughts a bit further and also to show the wide variety of methods there are out there.

How you use an advancement system for your game is a core question both for game designers and also for those running games. Many advancement systems leave a lot of flexibility based on play style – one D&D game for example might have characters leveling every four or five sessions of play, and another might have them leveling every session. One is a story of slow development where there have to be a lot of rewards that aren’t experience points while the other is a roller-coaster ride to power that won’t leave as much time for character development, since everyone will always be learning and trying out their new abilities. Designers should let GMs know where they think the “sweet spot” is for their game, as this can be a very helpful guide. Trial-and-error also works, but can lead to a lot more frustration among players.

Experience and Leveling (D&D)

Of course, the granddaddy system, the default in most people’s minds, is leveling. You accumulate experiences points doing whatever it is that the game wants to reward, and when you hit a particular break-point you have a sudden increase in your character’s abilities. This is true of many RPGs whether on console or tabletop, and was the method introduced by D&D and many of the very first tabletop RPGs forty years ago.

The important thing here is that the game gives experience points for what you want players and characters to be doing most often. In fact, if you want to know what a game is about, look to what it rewards – and if your game rewards something that you don’t want your game to be about, change your experience system. (This is true for all of the advancement methods I’ll discuss, and also true for any reward system or cycle you have in your game, period.) Reward the behavior you want. Don’t give experience points for killing monsters in your supposed political intrigue game.

You also want to have your level progression lean toward incremental and not be too jarring. Unless it is an intentional aspect of your game, a character shouldn’t be twice as capable after achieving a single level. Not only is it ‘unrealistic’, it is jarring to the fiction. Suddenly, things that were dire threats to you last session are a breeze now because you crossed an arbitrary threshold. Thing through how often you think characters should level – multiple times per session? Every two or three sessions? Every month of play? Etc. And tune your game accordingly.

Incremental Leveling (D&D 4E, D&D Online)

Kind of a subset to the above is something I really liked about Dungeon & Dragons Online, and how it used leveling to make the experience of play more similar to other MMOs (where there tend to be 100 or so levels, each only slightly different from the others). I’ve written about it here in the past, but in brief, DDO took each level in D&D and broke it into 10 mini-levels that were incremental points between. So, for example, instead of being 10% more likely to hit an enemy, you would be 1% more likely at each increment. Instead of 10 hit points, you would get 1. Ten of those increments would add up to a full level that one might recognize from the tabletop version of D&D.

D&D 4th Edition did something similar by making the three tiers of play explicit. First the Heroic tier, from level 1 to 10, then the Paragon tier from 11 to 20, and then the Epic tier from 21 to 30. At each tier different abilities became available, and it was intentional that there be a bigger difference between 10 and 11 than between 9 and 10 for example.

Advancement through Failure (Powered by the Apocalypse games)

When thinking of earning experience or character points or whatever it is that makes a character advance, we often think of achievement. Starting with Apocalypse World, there have been a series of games that root advancement in failure. Generally speaking, in games based on AW, you mark experience or gain experience when you fail in a roll. This is in part so that you can ‘fail forward’, so to speak, and I’ve also found it to be an encouraging aspect of these systems for people who feel like they don’t roll well. It’s also fun to crap out on an important roll, knowing it’ll hurt, but sit back and say, “You know, I learned something today…”

This is really just an example of another type of behavior  you want to reward – specifically, the behavior of taking risks in-game and using abilities you aren’t very good at. However many abilities a game might have, a given character will usually only use maybe a half dozen of them regularly. Characters tend to be specialists in RPGs, and players tend to want their characters to succeed, meaning players will want to only try things their characters are good at. This is doubly true if they only get experience points, or only move toward advancement, when they succeed. Actively rewarding failure is a good way to encourage players to have their characters try new, dangerous, and often entertaining things.

Edit: It was pointed out, correctly, that it is specifically Dungeon World that grants xp for failure, not Apocalypse World.

Ongoing Point-Buy (GURPS, WoD)

Leaving aside “leveling” altogether, there is the system where experience points are points that one can spend to improve specific abilities. This system is easier to customize, and can be less jarring. When a character levels, they often increase a number of different abilities and capacities, but with a point-buy or character point advancement system, the player can choose to improve some abilities and not others.

Often the choice for the player is whether to spend advancement points frequently on minor new abilities, or to save up the advancement points to buy more powerful abilities. In all World of Darkness games, as well as in GURPS, players are presented with this decision at the end of each session. Some players will want to advance a little bit each session, while others will save up for big abilities. Many will alternate between the two based on how they want their characters to develop.

For these and similar systems, the question for game designers becomes one of pricing. Pricing decisions can be a function of demand, how popular an ability is likely to be, as well as impact on the story. Check out what I wrote about frequency and payoff a while back, and think about how low-frequency and/or low-payoff abilities should be cheaper, in a point-buy system, than high-frequency and/or high-payoff abilities.

Advancement as Currency (Shadowrun, sometimes GURPS)

Often a subset of the point-buy system is when the points you use for advancement can also be used as in-game currency. This adds a layer of decision-making for the player, since they can either have the immediate payoff of spending a point in-game, or the quick payoff of spending the point on some small incremental advancement, or the delayed gratification of saving up for a powerful ability.

Shadowrun is the best example of this I could think of with its karma system, where you can spend karma in-game for benefits, but karma is also what you spend on new abilities for your character. GURPS has a version of this, where you can spend character points earned in play (or even left over from character creation) to do something in-game like have a suddenly wind-fall of cash. The big challenge here is human psychology. It is easy to, without thinking about it, use up a lot of your potential for advancement in-game, making up for unlucky rolls or ensuring your character shines in particular scenes. Players who don’t like to trust to luck will also tend to make more use of things like karma than others. This can lead to a discrepancy in advancement over time. Not necessarily a flaw, just something to consider.

Advancement by Use (Torchbearer, Call of Cthulhu, Skyrim)

Some games do away with experience points or character points granted for victories in the story or for certain player behaviors and simply link advancement to skill-use. The two biggest examples of this I could think of from tabletop games are Call of Cthulhu (the percentile versions) and the various games based on Burning Wheel, the most recent of which is Torchbearer. These systems take a bit more tracking than the ones above, but you don’t have to worry as much about pricing abilities or tuning the leveling system.

A system that links advancement to ability use seems to work better for less high-fantasy or high-powered games, at least where tabletop RPGs are concerned. And even in Skyrim, your Shouts are earned by completing the main storyline’s quests, or by exploring dungeons, rather than advancing based on use. In fact, that is probably a limitation on a system like this for a tabletop game – it would add a lot of complexity to do any kind of calculation – i.e., to make some abilities harder to raise than others based on use. I can also see limitations here – what to do about fantasy tropes like wizard spells, or psychic abilities, which are usually much more powerful than other abilities? Should your Cooking ability advance the same way that Fireball does? Maybe, but I can see a problem there.

Another challenge here is going to be ability-spamming. Players are going to be trying to use every conceivable ability as much as possible during a session if ability use is what is rewarded. This can have a similar effect to rewarding failure, mentioned above – it will make players branch out more in what they want their characters to try. It can also get repetitive, as in each session every character takes a moment to make a Photography roll, and then an Academics roll, and then a Gambling roll, or whatever. (I’ve definitely seen this come up in Call of Cthulhu.) A designer can find ways around this spamming issue, like limiting the total number of abilities that are counted in a given session, but it can definitely be a problem. On the other hand, this system does model reality pretty well (you get better at what you practice) and does reward a much more broad list of activities than leveling systems tend to.

Milestones (Fate Core, Parsec)

I’m sure other systems do this, but the example I came up with was Fate Core for a system that rewards characters based on reaching particular points in the story. (I mention Parsec because that game, which I designed, includes a system where players define obstacles and characters advance when those obstacles are faced in-game). A lot of video games do this with the main storyline or main quest-line – do whatever you want, take however much time you want, but you won’t advance until you get to a particular part of the story. This is, of course, significantly easier for a video game where the story is laid out ahead of time by the designers and writers.

But most games have an over-arching storyline of some sort. The DM or GM has come to the table with some kind of plan, much as players love to deviate. And a system like this could be an alternative to railroading, or designing every adventure as a box canyon. You can have more of a sandbox situation, but one that only rewards certain story milestones. Carrot rather than stick, so to speak, or honey rather than vinegar.

A story milestone system can be the way that each of the above systems are handled. The milestone could grant you a level, or character points, or a milestone could even be when the players have used a certain number of abilities in-game. In Fate Core, it functions a bit like leveling, as a milestone is a time you can improve your character as well as move abilities around or change them rather than improving them mechanically. Which brings us to…

Adjustment rather than Advancement (Spirit of the Century, Dresden Files)

In some RPGs, you don’t advance in any way that is marked on your character sheet. The story advances, and your character can change over time, but they don’t get better, or gain new abilities. Whether characters advance or not is a matter of taste, and will determine the kinds of games you play. Some games that include advancement can be played without, especially in the short term, and most games played as a one-shot will not include advancement.

Do you have more, or better, examples? Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments or on Reddit/Facebook/Twitter.


Works in Progress

I have way too many irons in the fire. I have a lot of things to work on (in addition to, you know, work) – far too many to actually finish any of them. As a friend reminded me recently, finishing things is a skill. I have that skill, but I need to sharpen it. Sometimes it helps to write everything out – and who knows? Maybe something here will be of interest to a reader. So, in no particular order:

Servants of the Secret Fire

Yes, this is a fantasy hearbreaker. A Tolkien-esque one no less! Until Cubicle 7 put out The One Ring, I was working on a system that actually reflected Middle-Earth. When TOR came out, I really felt that they did a good job at my task, so I let it languish.

The system as it is still has some interesting things about it. I wrote a post about attribute decay, for example, that is part of SotSF, and there are other elements in there that I like. But, an obvious problem: I do not work for Cubicle 7, which currently has the right to publish a RPG based on Middle-Earth. So whatever I do to complete this project would just be for me, for groups I game with, or maybe to release out into the world for free.

Simplified D&D

Years ago – eight years ago now? – before 5th edition existed for D&D, I hacked 4th Edition in order to run a game for a group that wanted to play D&D but wasn’t interested in learning a lot of rules. Or, in some cases, any rules. Though that hack was designed with 4th Ed in mind, I could definitely adapt it to 5th Ed. It’s even something I’m still interested in playing and running.

Rewilding the Bible

One of my problems is that I am interested in too many things. Scattered. But one thing I’m interested in is rewilding, and more than that, the idea that for the most part our civilization is not a good idea, certainly not in the long term, and that some other way of life is probably the way to go.

There are plenty of other people who know a lot more about this, who are working to learn self-sufficiency, and becoming ungovernable, and training in prehistoric survival skills. I’m not very good at any of these things, yet.

I have noticed, though, that I know more about the Bible than other people who are interested in rewilding. What I would like to do is to create a resource, probably the length of a short book, that looks at passages in the Bible that reflect this worldview. There is actually plenty there. And based on the reception of a recent sermon, I think there are people who might be able to hear what I have to say.

95 Tweets Expanded

A few years ago, two friends of mine and I assembled 95 Tweets, our homage to Luther’s 95 theses, all arguing against the idea of a Hell of eternal conscious torment. Even from a purely Christian standpoint, even from a literalist, the arguments for Hell are incredibly week, and the counter-arguments kind of overwhelming. So we overwhelmed, with 95 tweets.

The problem is that, with a barrage like that, there’s no point at which to engage. Even if someone wanted to argue a contrary position (and I know many do) it’s hard to get a hand-hold. So, I feel like I need to expand the ideas and claims that we made in the 95 Tweets. Part of what makes me hesitant is that there is already a lot out there about this issue, and I need to make sure that what I would contribute would be worthwhile, and not just replicating someone else’s work.

5E Setting: Dragonblade

I started a D&D 5E game set in what I’m not calling Tianxia, but that was just called Dragonblade at the time. It’s a south and east Asian mashup in the way that a lot of fantasy settings are a north and western Europe mashup, primarily drawing on Japanese, Chinese and Indian history and mythology. It’s fun, and I’ve posted a bit of my work on this blog before. It’s also the result of my frustrations with other attempts to do the same thing. Does that make it a hearbreaker? Sort of. Oh well. I think it’s a cool setting, and I’ve run the first part of a game in it. My rule is that I design settings that I would be excited to play in, and this one fits the bill.

5E Setting: Twilight of the Gods

I recently completed a long-term campaign called Twilight of the Gods. The setting is mythic Scandinavia, and beyond that, Europe and the wider world. The setting takes Ragnarok literally, and a campaign set in it will begin when Ragnarok is just about to. The advantage here is that the setting is actually slightly simpler than the base setting for 5th Edition. I’ve also already put in a lot of the work already, having run a full campaign.

5E Setting: Alaam

This is a cool setting that I’ve sketched out, but in which I have yet to run a campaign. It is inspired by the stories of 1001 Arabian Nights as well as aspects of Islamic mythology, blended with Dungeons & Dragons of course. It has a monotheistic religion, and godlike genies ruling a realm of raw and exaggerated elements, and other coolness. Less developed than Dragonblade or Twilight of the Gods, but still really cool.

This Blog

I’ve been blogging since 2006, and have carried over two other incarnations of my blog to this site. So, if you want, there are 11 years of my writing to choose from. Can’t recommend it all, though.

I’ve been working to be more consistent in writing, and I’ve found some cool connections on Reddit, as well as continued connections through social media. I’m trying to build up weekly, ideally daily, writing discipline. I’m not there yet, but it’s a vehicle for sharpening my skills. It always has been.