As always, comments welcome.
Big Fish Points
Big Fish is a cool movie. In part, the movie is driven by the conflict between story on the one hand and fact on the other. One refrain that comes up in the various yarns is when the storyteller says, “This isn’t how I die.” The story then takes some turn for the better, and we know that it doesn’t end here even if things look dire.
The idea here is for the player to have “This isn’t how I die” points which she can spend when, according to the rules-as-written, they would normally die. This is to protect a character from a meaningless death, or a death that doesn’t make a good story.
Zombie Dinner Bell
In a zombie game, or any game where there is a potential for drawing the attention of swarming foes, have a dinner bell mechanic. Every time the characters do something noisy, or something that would draw attention, the dinner bell rating increases. As it increases, the number of monsters attracted should increase, maybe geometrically. So in the zombie example, first you attract 1 zombie, and then 4, and then 9, or maybe even 1 and then 10 and then 100 for a quicker escalation. I think that the effect could be comparable to that of the Jenga tower in Dread.
Always Minimal Success
Few things are less fun, in a RPG, than rolling a failure that just means you have no impact on the story. You take your turn to act as the player, and nothing happens because of a dice roll.
This idea is for a system that attaches a minimal effect to every action. To take D&D as an example, we could say that every melee or missile attack deals a minimal amount of damage, maybe equal to the character level, or equal to their ability score bonus. Even if you miss, you have some effect, chipping away at your foes.
For skills and other abilities, I would add a minimal effect that can be accomplished without any dice roll at all. It is possible to make something interesting of a failed roll, but there should be times when a character just gets to be awesome without having to take a risk. To take D&D as an example again, if a character is proficient with a skill, there should be a basic action they can always take. If they are proficient with thieves’ tools, then they can open a normal lock if they aren’t under time pressure. If they are proficient with Athletics, they can swim across a river or climb a rope without rolling.
With thanks to Jason Godesky, who helped me articulate this realization better than I have in the past.
Get Angry, Make Things
I was reflecting recently on how many of the creative projects I’ve actually finished were started because I was angry. It started early – I created a literary magazine with my best fried in high school because we were angry with our English teachers. It was called The Erudite Review.
The next angry things I created, with two more of my best friends in Seminary, was Shared Governance, the first student publication of San Francisco Theological Seminary. We create it because we were angry – the Seminary at the time was being reviewed for accreditation, something that happens regularly I suppose. At the same time, a lot of shenanigans were taking place, including some things like ignoring black mold that put a student in the hospital, and ten refusing to do anything more than paint over the mold in her student housing. We got attention when we put a copy of Shared Governance in every board member’s mailbox in the administration building – we even got a sit-down with the President of SFTS himself. I don’t know that we did significant good, but we were angry, and we created a thing.
From 2007 to 2012, I was at work on Parsec, the RPG I was designing, writing and editing for Jolly Roger Games. I was given an established setting and a number of guidelines as to what the owner of JRG wanted in the RPG and set to work. Obviously, it was a long process from being hired after a conversation at Origins to our successful Kickstarter in 2012. But part of this project was also driven by anger, or at least frustration, with Shadowrun. Because of that, I made sure Parsec lacked a huge equipment catalog – in particular a huge gun list – and I made sure that the cool plans you make matter.
One of the worst things about Shadowrun, in every incarnation, is when the players spend an hour or more making a complex plan for the job they are undertaking, and then the job doesn’t matter because the GM has planned something else, or someone fails their key roll, etc. As a result, Parsec equipment, including weapons and armor, is abstracted, and your cool plan gives you bonus dice when you go to execute it, so that your cool plan matters.
Another book I’ve written, with the same friends who helped on Shared Governance, was Never Pray Again. This time, the anger was directed against “Thoughts and prayers” responses to tragedy, or being told to pray my depression away, or the way that so much prayer seems to lead to so little change. So we wrote a book about all of the amazing things we could do instead of praying.
Anger Driving Art History
In thinking about it with Jason on Twitter, it occurred to me more clearly how one could see art history as being anger-driven. The Renaissance in frustration against the Roman Catholic strictures on medieval art. Romantics frustrated with the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Realism and Modernism arose as opposed to Romanticism. Postmodernism opposed to Modernism. And so on.
It’s interesting – I can imagine so much great historical artwork being the result of someone muttering “Dammit” under their breath and then going to work.
Anger Driving Modern Game Design
It’s easy to see game design in a similar way. The Forge was basically founded on anger and frustration with White Wolf. This was often explicit in what Forge designers said about themselves and their process. Ron Edwards and Vince Baker famously described Vampire the Masquerade as causing brain damage in players. I can only guess how much narrativism came out of frustration with a ‘Storyteller system’ that certain gamers found didn’t help them tell stories.
That being said, pretty much everything referred to as “indie” in tabletop role-playing games, including influential and popular games like Apocalypse World and its derivatives, including Dungeon World, Monsterhearts and Masks. Pretty much a who’s-who of story games from the last 15 years originated with the Forge and the discussions that took place there. And a lot of the discussions were driven by frustration with the way non-Forge games were designed.
The Healthy Function of Anger
They don’t talk about this in The Artist’s Way, but a lot of creativity is born from anger. I don’t see this connection discussed very often, but having thought it through a bit, I can now see it everywhere. So many great creators saying to themselves “Screw this, I’m-a make a thing!”
In the theory of emotions that I’ve absorbed, positive and negative emotions all have healthy functions. The healthy function of anger, as I understand it, is to give us the energy to protect ourselves and to overcome obstacles. And it’s clear how anger could be helpful in creative endeavors, which always involve overcoming obstacle after obstacle.
So, I guess what I’m getting at here is that as creators, creative people, and maybe people in general, we could focus on our anger. Let our anger tell us what the next project is. Rely on our anger, even, to carry us through.
I’m looking at my own anger to see what might be next for me.
Still drawing from that idea document that I maintain, these are further game mechanic ideas that I like. Feel free to take these, use them, adapt them or hack them for your own games.
Advantage and Disadvantage with Fate Dice
As written, Fate Core allows you to use Aspects to add a +2 bonus to rolls after the fact, or to re-roll. I thought of another way to represent an advantage in a Fate roll, this time before the fact. In some of my Fate-based designs, I have a player set aside one of their four dice, and set it to a “+” or “-” ahead of time. This not only grants a bonus that is approximately equivalent to the +2 from an Aspect, it also reduces the amount of swing that is possible in the roll. With only three dice, the worst that can happen with the advantage is that three dice come up “-“, or a total of just -2. I also like how visible the bonus (or penalty) is on the table, and I think of it as similar to D&D 5th Edition’s advantage/disadvantage mechanic.
Using the Force or Magic Skill
One of the things I like about skill systems in RPGs is when you have to make a limited number of selections from a list, all of which are desirable options. (No dump stats or skills in our designs, please) One of the things I’d like to see more explicitly is treating magic, or whatever your equivalent is, as a skill, meaning that you have to commit time and practice to magic, and that time and practice does not go elsewhere. You have the super-skill, so you lack the other skills a mundane person would have.
Specifically, I have in mind Jedi in the Star Wars universe, who tend to be better than everyone at everything, and to also have magic powers. Rey is an example of this, but so is Luke, and Anakin or Obi-wan before him. They are fantastic at every action-hero thing they try, and also have the Force on top of that. I much prefer Force-users, or magic-users, as specialists who have an arcane, occult, rare specialty, and I think that games should reflect this by making the choice to have magic powers a choice with a cost.
I have an idea for a game from the point of view of elves, or of other beings who have very long lives compared to humans. In this game, there will only be three levels of skill to reflect the kind of mastery an elf might achieve (assuming D&D elvish lifespans): one year of skill, ten years of skill, and a hundred years of skill. I like there being a level of mastery that is simply unattainable for shorter-lived beings, and also reflecting the idea of some diminishing return in gaining skills. The differences in skill become very small at the highest level in any field, it seems. But I like the idea of a setting where these very long lives matter, and where the most highly skilled elves could simply clown the most highly skilled humans or others. It’s a challenge to build a game around this fundamental unbalance, but is fun to think about.
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…
I have a notes app on my phone, and a Google Document as well, that are full of little snippets of ideas for game mechanics. Some of those could be applicable in many different systems, while others have grown into games of their own or full-blown hacks.
Some of them are worth sharing, I think, and so periodically I’m going to put up a post here explaining some of these mechanics and how you might want to use them in your own games. Or maybe they’ll be a springboard for your own ideas, which I hope you’ll share in the comments!
Magical Healing and Scars
In a recent podcast interview, John Adamus, editor extraordinaire and author of the recently-Kickstarted Noir World, eloquently echoed a thought I’d had for a long time – that in most fantasy games, magical healing removes an interesting roleplaying opportunity. Adamus’ point was that violence should matter – that the consequences of violence should matter – especially in a noir game.
In a ‘traditional’ fantasy game I think this is still true, though in a lesser sense. The idea here is simple – for magical healing to leave a scar. That is, the healing is magically fast, but does not erase every mark as if the wound never happened. The body heals up, good as new as far as the rules are concerned, but the scar is still there. Now, I wouldn’t propose every single instance of damage leading to a noticeable scar – that would make every D&D character a scar-riddled monstrosity by level 3 or so. Rather, I think that serious injuries could be handled this way. Critical hits that the character receives from opponents, for example, or any injury that drops her below 0 hit points. I like the idea of scars as a lasting reminder – something of the character’s story written on their skin. And you can get cool scar-comparing scenes between heroes, like it’s Lethal Weapon or something.
Community Leveling, Or the Actual Hero’s Journey
As far as Joseph Campbell is concerned, why does the Hero undertake the Journey? Almost everyone forgets this question, I think, especially when discussing RPGs. But at the end of that big Hero’s Journey cycle is the return of the hero to her community, bearing the ‘elixir’, or the essence of what she has learned and how she has grown in her journey. The purpose is to return to where you began with everything you need to make things right. It’s why, for instance, the Scouring of the Shire has to happen at the end of the epic Lord of the Rings story.
What we get in most fantasy games are truncated, hobbled hero’s journeys because it is almost always only the heroes who benefit. I mean, in theory you are saving the world by defeating the Big Bad, but normally you’ve absorbed millions of gold pieces worth of treasure and magic items and made hardly a ripple in the world around you. You have leveled, but on one around you has.
I take this idea from The Fifth World, among other places, but I propose the idea of letting communities level up along with the characters who originate there. There is something of this in AD&D, where high-level characters end up automatically building things like towers and churches, presumably in or near their home town or home base. These things concretely change the local world, rather than saving the cosmos but leaving the local world untouched.
I would like to see this carried even further – that part of the treasure that characters would receive, they receive in the form of their improving community. This can form something of a virtuous circle, as your adventures and rescues mean that your little hamlet becomes a thriving town with even more resources and adventure seeds available for you.
Any decent GM or DM can of course make this happen, but the trick is making this part of the game’s rules, or part of the hack you create.
Random Scatter With A D8
I don’t know whether this mechanic already exists in games – it probably does, as I think about it, but it’s a good one. This is for cases when, for example, you throw a grenade and it bounces around a bit, or miss your shot and want to know where it went wide, etc. Basically, you roll a d8 once and possible twice. For the first roll, you assign north, or forward across the table from the point of view of the GM, as 1, and then go around clockwise to the other eight cardinal and intermediate directions, around to where ‘northwest’ is 8 and then due north is back to 1. If you want, you can roll another die to randomize how far the attack scattered from the center, with 1 being near the bulls-eye and say 6 for a d6 is at the edge of the range you’ve determined. Say, for example, you can roll d8 for the direction and d6 for inches, so with a roll of just two dice and a glance, you can determine direction and distance of a miss.
With a little Googling, I found that scatter dice also exist – so you can buy d8s with the cardinal and intermediate directions on each of the eight sides. But this is nice because you can determine scatter in a moment using the d8 you already have in front of you. It’s something I do at the table all the time.
More Mechanics Coming…
I have about a dozen more of these little notes to expand upon in the future, so keep an eye out of this kind of thing interests you. And feel free to comment with cool mechanics you use, or have come up with, that could work in lots of different games.
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.