RPGs = Six Situations

I was thinking about the practice and experience of playing a TRPG consisting of about six situations, and how you could look at the challenge of designing a game as having something interesting for those six situations. I’m using tropes from fantasy RPGs here, but I think it would be easy to reskin these situations to include different tropes.

In Town

Town, or the city, or whatever your home base is. Time spent in town is time finding a way to rest and recuperate. If you are going on a shopping spree, it’ll happen here.

I like the way that Torchbearer makes resting a challenge. It is not easy, nor assumed, that you’ll find a safe place to rest. You might end up hiding in a stable or sleeping in an alleyway. I also like the way that The One Ring and Adventures in Middle-Earth require you to open a Sanctuary before you can fully rest and recover there, often demanding a quest, or at least a successful audience with the ruler of that Sanctuary.

Socializing

It’s always hard to add mechanical teeth to socializing. There’s this idea that you should speak and interact in character, and as you do so it’s hard to know when to roll the dice and when not to. What if you make a great argument, or come up with a killer lie, but then botch the roll? Or what if you make an absurd ask and then critically succeed? This kind of silliness can just be the fun of using a randomizer, but I watch groups struggle and disagree on where to draw the line here. Surely it’s because socializing is something we literally act out at the table, in contrast to exploration or combat. We never ask for anyone to test their weapon skills, but we do ask them to test their social skills from time to time.

Some groups, of course, don’t socialize much at all. You get the mission briefing, and then head to the entrance to the dungeon and kick in the door.

Traveling

A lot of time in classic fantasy and sci-fi stories is often spent traveling. There is the canard of The Lord of the Rings being mostly just people walking and looking at trees, but even in something like Star Trek you spend a lot of time figuring out what you do while watching stars zoom past.

One option is always to just hand-wave the travel and get to the next interesting thing. As a lifelong road trip connoisseur, however, the journey really is about more than just the destination. Again, I think of The One Ring, and to a slightly lesser degree Adventures in Middle-Earth, as well as Mouse Guard as games that focus on the journey itself and provide mechanics to make it an interesting challenge.

Think if verisimilitude, when I think about traveling hundreds of miles through a fantasy landscape on foot, that would absolutely be a noteworthy life experience. Lots of challenges would arise and lots of interesting things would happen, not even counting the monsters and random encounters. I would like to have mechanics to support this.

In Camp

I was thinking of having a camp checklist, and the more things you can check off on the list, the more comfortable you are and the better able you are to recover.

  • Clean water
  • Dry/Shelter
  • Fire
  • Food

A simple example might be that for each checkmark in D&D, you can roll up to 25% of your hit dice. So with clean water and shelter but no food or fire,  you can only roll 50% of your hit dice to recover. That’s not prefect, but is a decent example. Maybe you just recover 25% of your hit points and other expendables per check-mark when you camp.

Investigating Danger

Searching a crime scene, checking for traps, or exploring an ancient tomb all count, and have been central to TRPGs from the beginning. Some OSR folks make the case that original versions of D&D were more about exploration than combat. Some games do this part really well, like Gumshoe. Like with socializing, groups have a chance to choose whether they want to handle investigation with rolls or with players describing what their characters are looking for. I have a whole blog post about how you shouldn’t roll perception that you can check out if you want. But whether you are playing Mothership or Pathfinder, investigating dangerous areas and situations is a big part of what is fun about many TRPGs.

Fighting

Most RPGs are mostly about fighting. If you read the rulebook, most of those rule are about combat – usually physically combat, sometimes social conflicts as well. But social conflicts go under this heading as well as fistfights.

I don’t feel like I have to put time into making the case that RPGs focus on fighting, honestly, but see below. They don’t have to.

Rules Modules

So, if we look at each of these six categories of systems in turn, we can also imagine a group preferring to ignore some of them. Maybe your group wants to hand-wave their way to their destination, or maybe they want to just camp and rest and not worry about safety and comfort. Maybe they will handle time in town between games, just buying things from a price list and getting straight to the adventure when they get together to play. There could even be a group that wants to skip the combats (blasphemy!). If each of these systems is built like a module that can be used or ignored, I like that idea. You can socket in what interests you and get on with playing only the things that interest you.

Advancement in Breath of the Wild

Why Breath of the Wild is the best open-world game ever

I know I am late to the party, but I’ve defeated Calamity Ganon and loved pretty much every moment of Breath of the Wild. One of the many interesting things about this game is that it does not handle leveling up the way that most other RPGs, like Mass Effect or Dragon Age or Skyrim for example, do. I know that this is very much in line with the Zelda series of games, but the only Zelda games I’ve actually played are the original, Legend of Zelda, Wind Waker, and now Breath of the Wild.

Player Skill Development

There are cleverly hidden tutorials for things like shield surfing and the perfect block and perfect dodge, which are all skills that depend on the player’s dexterity. Each of the shrines is also potential skill development, as it teaches you various ways to solve problems that reflect some situations you find while exploring the world. Of course, this is an open world, so the shrines don’t necessarily happen in any particular order (after you leave the starting zone), but frequently I would have to learn something to solve a shrine, and then later realize that I could use a similar skill to solve a problem in the world.

This is the part of game design that builds up player mastery or system mastery, which makes a big difference, at least to my experience of games. This can also reveal when a game is too complex for the people playing it. In a current D&D campaign for example, we are at 12th level and players are still realizing features their characters have had for months. My character has so many different abilities to use in combat that I regularly forget one of them in a given fight – and fighting is what D&D is built for.

5th edition D&D is a lot of fun, but by the time you hit about 5th level your character has a ton of abilities, even in a system that is clearly slimmed down compared to 3.5. I have pretty much never been in a game where the players remember all of their abilities, me included. Similarly, after learning in theory how to perform a perfect dodge and a perfect parry, I never again used those skills in Breath of the Wild, getting through to the end of the game without them (except for learning how to deflect Guardian blasts, which seems to simply be necessary). Though it does say something for the flexibility of the game that without a difficult setting, I was able to ignore two significant skills and still complete the game.

Player mastery really comes up in the shrine quest of Eventide Island. You are stripped of all of your equipment, and have to complete three shrine quests on the island starting from nothing. This depends much more on your player skills than normal, as for a lot of the game you can power past mistakes and tough fights by force-feeding Link and using your best weapons until they wear out.

“Leveling” – Hearts and Stamina

The closest to leveling up that you do in Breath of the Wild is when you complete four shrine quests you turn in four Spirit Orbs for another heart or portion of stamina. There are no built-in increases aside from these two things – if you want to deal more damage, or absorb less damage, move faster, etc., then those things have to be accomplished in other ways. But in terms of ‘leveling up’ in the traditional way, this is it for BotW.

Hearts and stamina also provide difficulty settings for the game. If you find the game to be difficult, you can solve more shrines and gain more hearts and live longer in fights. If you want to explore more freely, then you can turn in more Spirit Orbs and gain more stamina so you can climb higher and swim farther.

Or you could leave the starting zone, go straight to Calamity Ganon, and fight him at the equivalent of ‘level 1.’ There are whole YouTube channels devoted to this kind of mastery.

Ingredients for Cooking

Finding new ingredients and new recipes allow you to heal up and create self-buffs, and this is another way that you advance in the game. The farther you travel from your starting zone, the more exotic ingredients become available to you, and as you gather these various ingredients, you are also able to use them to upgrade your weapons and armor (which I discuss below). If you need to, you can also just travel around gathering apples, which are very common and safe, and devour them in the middle of fights to help you survive when your skills and equipment aren’t enough. You can also create food that gives you 25 bonus hearts when you eat it, or triple upgrades your armor, etc.

Weapons and Armor

Breath of the Wild is interesting because of the speed at which your weapons break down – a very durable weapon will survive at most a handful of fights before it explodes into bluish shards. I thought that I would find this more frustrating than I did, and there are so many weapons in the game that my weapon inventory is never empty, and most of my korok seeds go to expanding my weapon stash. This is something like D&D, with the classic question of how will we carry all of our loot back to town. The main downside is that when I find a weapon I really like (I’m looking at you, Thunder Spear) it only survives a fight or two before it explodes into shards. But when I read about the game, I expected to spend more time scavenging weapons.

Improving Armor

I suppose the other way that you “level up” in the traditional sense in BotW is when you can improve your armor with the help of up to four Great Fairies in the game (with, yes, a bonus fifth who resurrects horses). Like cooking and selling, upgrading armor is the reason to travel the world harvesting strange things, and is like the soft form of the “fetch” quests that are so central to MMOs.

Exploration and Unlocking Travel

Breath of the Wild is, above all, a game of exploration. And it is so well designed, it is at times stunning. There are shrines and korok seeds to find, and the game rewards climbing every cliff and ever tree and literally looking under every rock.

There is a history of ‘hex crawls’ and traditional RPGs that focus on exploration, and ideally a dungeon crawl is first and foremost about exploration. I’ve never seen exploration done better than Breath of the Wild, however, on or off a screen.

One of the ways that you ‘level up’ in Breath of the Wild is not only through exploration, but by unlocking travel options. When you find a new stable and have access to your horses, or especially when you unlock a new tower and expand your map. Teleportation between shrines and towers becomes necessary and commonplace, but even after dozens (hundreds?) of hours of play, I find myself returning to already-explored areas to discover new things.

Lots of Ways to Win

What Breath of the Wild masterfully provides is an open-world game that is also open as to how you can win it. You can depend entirely on player skill, and beat Calamity Ganon to death with three hearts and scavenged equipment. You can travel around gathering ingredients and create super-foods that give you bonus hearts and upgrades and survive regardless of your skills. You can upgrade all of your equipment and have amazing armor to wear, or travel the world gathering powerful weapons to use. You can solve all of the shrines and have a huge number of hearts. Or do all of the above.

For all of their complexity, most tabletop RPGs have only one way to win – do the thing the game rewards with XP (almost always fighting) and get XP and improve. But if you are playing D&D 5E, there’s no way to just ignore leveling up and just rely on your skill as a player. You couldn’t go and gather amazing equipment rather than level up either. One way or another, you need to get XP. That is the only path to winning. This narrow window is the case with pretty much every tabletop RPG I can think of, even the really clever ones. I’m just left in awe of the designers of Breath of the Wild, including for this reason – that they created an open-world and open-victory game.

Game Design: D&D and Other Thoughts

Three-Part Advancement

This basic idea for advancement would work for any D&D-like game where leveling, treasure or loot, and your reputation in the world matter. My idea is for one session to result in leveling up, another session to result in an improved reputation, and another session to grant you some cool loot. This might emerge from the game organically – if there isn’t a chance for reputation or loot, you level, and so on. Check each of those three boxes, and then start again. You also end up leveling around every 3 sessions, which seems to be average anecdotally for D&D.

Tri-Force Tri-Stat

If I were to create a tabletop version of Zelda, I would like to use the Tri-Force as the basic ability scores or attributes. So a character would have a basic measure of Courage, Power, and Wisdom. Courage would cover fighting of course; Power would be the use of magic and magical devices, and Wisdom to know lore or to solve a problem socially, or maybe get a hint for a riddle or puzzle.

This could be mapped roughly to the Tri-Stat system used in games like Big Eyes Small Mouth, where Courage = Body, Power = Soul, and Wisdom = Mind. Otherwise, I could see challenges being resolved similarly to how they are in Satanic Panic, where you succeed if you have the proper equipment for the challenge and there is some cost if you don’t. (I’d of course have hearts at the top of your character sheet that you color in as you level up)

Leveling by Time Played

Midway between experience points and milestone leveling, I thought it might make sense to base leveling on how many hours a given player has played. XP is a reward for the player, not the character, after all, and what a CR system and recommended encounters per level amount to is a certain amount of time played. For my home group, which averages around 3 hours per session, I thought of this table.

Level Hours
2nd 3
3rd 9
4th 15
5th 21
6th 30
7th 39
8th 48
9th 57
10th 66
11th 75

Heroic Boasts as Stakes-Setting

I like the idea of boasting and swearing oaths as central to Norse stories, and I think that I would gamify this system as stakes-setting for reputation gain or loss (in a setting where reputation is life). The more boasting you do, the more reputation you stand to gain, or lose. Others can add insults or question your capability to increase the risk where maybe you’d rather they wouldn’t.

I would like for this to be a situation where it could make sense to die rather than come back in dishonor – that is, your reputation loss might be so great that if you die while adventuring, you mitigate your loss and don’t destroy the lives of your family or reduce the reputation of your entire clan or town. Then, your family, or maybe your new PC taken from your family or town, inherits your previous reputation and begins the pattern again. The important thing to build toward is that situation, irrational to people not in an honor/shame culture, that death is preferable to dishonor, or that saving face might be worth one’s life. I also would like to create the moment where a hero leaves town, having made extravagant boasts, and thinks, now I’m screwed because there’s no way I can accomplish all this. But I have to try! Hence, adventure.

Ultimately, reputation becomes a kind of currency, and it can be handled through any sort of betting/bluffing mechanic. Maybe an insult is a raise, and you have to either call the raise, re-raise, or fold, and lose the reputation you’ve placed into the ‘pot’ while boasting.

Life With An Asshole

I’d like to create a hack of the Game of Life that is a simplified version of the game itself, but you just add an Asshole, and the game becomes trying to accomplish things in Life despite the Asshole. You could have cards for dealing with the Asshole, including Avoidant, Passive-Aggressive, Assertive, and Aggressive. There could be a second spinner that tells you whether things escalate when you confront the Asshole, but otherwise it’s a game that is slightly more similar to life.

D&D 5E: Grab-Bag of Ideas

Here I’m just tossing out a handful of ideas as a way to go through the backlog of my game and setting design doc. These didn’t fit with an overall theme, so I called it a grab-bag. Feel free to grab and use!

New Spell: Duplication

  • Transmutation; V, S, M
  • 2nd Level
  • Casting Time 10 minutes
  • Range/Area Touch
  • Components V, S, M
  • Duration Instantaneous
  • You touch an object as large as a sword or shield and create a duplicate of it. The new item is made of non-magical, mundane material, meaning for example that a duplicate of an adamantine sword would be made of steel. For objects smaller than a sword or a shield, this spell can duplicate multiple objects at once. Five arrows or crossbow bolts can be duplicated at a time, for example, or two daggers. DMs can use these examples as guidelines for determining how many items can be duplicated. Note that duplicates of gold coins will be made of steel.

‘Monstrous’ Player-Characters

I would like rules allowing a player to play a character who starts with a ‘monster’ stat-block who can then level up according to their class. I would like to be able to playtest this with an interested player, but my rule of thumb for this is to take a creature’s CR and double it, and use this as their equivalent level. So, for example, an ogre would be the equivalent of a 4th level player-character. I would like to see a party composed of 4th level PCs and one ogre and see how that worked, but at a glance I think it could make sense. The ogre would have lots of hit points but fewer abilities – and maybe an ogre is a bad example. Maybe look at a gargoyle, or an adult faerie dragon for something more comparable.

Granted, the CR system in 5E is pretty broken, but I think it could maybe be a good starting-point. I don’t know if this idea would scale up, and as I said I would like to play-test it sometime. But this is what I would use as a starting-point.

Horde of the Dead God

This would work for any game, including Call of Cthulhu. But the idea is that there is a dead, mad god bound in an ancient crypt or corrupted sacred site, but the bonds are breaking and some of the god’s essence is leaking out. The result of this is that anyone who dies near the location is re-animated with a fragment of the god’s intelligence, becoming a hive-mind hoard of zombies.

For an interesting twist to use with Call of Cthulhu, imagine the ancient sacred site of a people wiped out by Conquistadors. Now backpackers and White explorers have reached the place which indigenous people know to avoid, and there have been mysterious disappearances. The investigators get involved, maybe studying the lost civilization, and have to find a way to partition the place off, killing all of the zombies, or raise the dead god back to life and deal with those consequences.

Shadow-Stealing Mirror

Somewhat inspired by A Wizard of Earthsea. A stone or mirror that steals your shadow and then animates a shadowy version of you that goes out into the world, acting out your worst impulses. The hint is that your shadow is gone, or at most tenuously visible in strong direct light. You have to go find your shadow and vanquish it, and then make amends for all that it did, before you get it back. Otherwise it just keeps re-animating and causing trouble. The Mirror was first created and given to an impulsive Prince or Princess in order to teach them humility and to deal with their own dark side.

Radiant Desert

I like the idea that deep in a desert, particularly a supernatural one like much of Dark Sun, the sun deals radiant damage during the day. Maybe you get advantage on Constitution saves against the damage if you are well-prepared with proper clothing, water, and some kind of protection against the sun. But for anyone who has ever had a bad sunburn, it is clear that the sun deals a kind of damage you don’t encounter many other places.

Non-Lethal Beatdown

I’ve already laid out how you could run D&D with non-lethal combats. I had a further thought, that players might want to incapacitate someone at the end of a combat, and so I figured that further damage could inflict levels of exhaustion on their foe. So, kind of midway between non-lethal and lethal violence.

Call of Cthulhu, Morality, and Sanity

I have an itch to run Call of Cthulhu, largely as a result of loving How We Roll’s podcast actual plays. I also know that my spouse likes Call of Cthulhu, or has in the past. One result of this is I have to decide which version of CoC to run. I own 5.1.2 and 5.6; they also recently released 7th edition, which looks awesome, and is also expensive.

(As a side note, I created my own hack of Call of Cthulhu, and I released rough PDFs of it for anyone who wants to use it here.)

Thinking of running Call of Cthulhu leads to me thinking about the Sanity mechanic. It has existed for a few decades now, and it is interesting, and sometimes controversial I think, and overall troublesome, and not just personally because I struggle with mental illness. It is troublesome because of the changing way we have come to understand mental illness since the game first came out in the 80s.

Morality and Sanity

One of the things that I think are missing from Call of Cthulhu’s Sanity mechanic is the idea that morality can insulate you from some kinds of trauma. If someone suffers for the sake of a higher ideal, it is different than just suffering as a victim of violence or abuse. Onyx Path games represent this, in that you often roll a dice pool based on your morality score to resist suffering derangement. It is far from a perfect system, but I like that it gives a motivation to have a high morality score, and also represents something I think that is a real part of how trauma works – that moral growth and moral commitment can insulate a person from some psychological harm.

Honestly, I don’t think that this can easily be added to Call of Cthulhu. A morality mechanic would be out of place in the system, which basically depends on a high starting Sanity score and careful play to keep investigators sane longer. (This is one of the reasons that we have a Conviction and Fear mechanic in Reckoning, a horror game designed in part due to frustration with other horror RPGs. It’s also a reason that I decided to use Mothership’s Stress mechanic in the hack I linked to above)

One idea would be to have ways to increase one’s Sanity between adventures through self-cultivation, which of course could take a lot of forms. Another idea could be moral ‘armor’ to protect against Sanity loss. Say you take a sacred vow, and it gives you a Sanity Armor score of 1, reducing all Sanity losses rolled by 1 as long as you maintain your vow. That’s a rough example, and I’m sure there are better ones, but I imagine you get the idea.

What Sanity Represents In Call of Cthulhu

When I think of insanity in Call of Cthulhu, I think of detachment rather than drooling or gibbering madness, much less the various things we’d think of as mental illness now. The horror in Lovecraft’s mythos is meaninglessness, or insignificance. There is the immediacy of fear and revulsion, but what follows is worse. There’s the famous quote from The Call of Cthulhu that I’ve seen so many times:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

That is the horror of detachment. It is the horror that causes the psyche to retreat from what it knows but doesn’t want to know – specifically, that one is adrift in an uncaring universe populated by monstrosities that are beyond comprehension. I also see this as an emotional detachment – one who has learned of the meaninglessness of human life and striving in the midst of the mythos hardly cares much about other people or even themselves. They are cut off, and those affected by the Mythos in the various stories seem to isolate themselves, or to become isolated, in various ways. They tend to disappear, or become hermits, or are committed to psychiatric wards (such as they were in the 20s and 30s).

Sanity and Empathy at The Mountains of Madness

One of the most interesting missing elements in Call of Cthulhu as a game is something reflecting the empathy shown in At the Mountains of Madness. A great example is this quote:

“Poor Old Ones! Scientists to the last — what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn — whatever they had been, they were men!”

Compared to the Shoggoths, the Old Ones seem like men to the narrator, geologist William Dyer. He has learned something of their ancient civilization, and though they first struck the expedition as dangerous monsters, by learning about them he comes to empathize with them. This empathy is what is missing from every version of Call of Cthulhu the RPG, as well as every Mythos story I can think of. I think that At the Mountains of Madness was something Lovecraft wrote late in his writing career, and that would make sense, as it shows some of his development as a writer and thinker.

Maybe it is that very empathy that enables Dyer to come out of the ordeal sane enough to write the story, framed as a warning to future expeditions to leave what was found in Antarctica alone. It would be interesting to see something of that empathy reflected in Mythos-inspired game design.

Maybe greater empathy would help keep us all sane.