Saga of Recluse RPG Ideas

I’ve been testing some of the books that I enjoyed as an adolescent, and I’ve gotten to re-reading some of L.E. Modesitt’s Saga of Recluse. I read a few forum comments by the author himself, though from 17 years ago, about how he has approached more than one RPG publishing company about a Recluse game, but that they gave up at some point because of the complexity and difficulty. Now, I can see this happening, talking to an author about their 19-novel series that spans 1900 years of history, but I don’t think an encyclopedic style game would make sense for recluse. I think a Recluse game would have to mirror the kinds of stories that the novels are – first-person narratives from the point of view of a nascent order-master or, sometimes, chaos-master, and then more broadly about how the repercussions of actions ripple through time.

So, what would a Recluse RPG need?

  • A system for chaos and order magic, including the interactions between the two, the balance in a given place or person, etc.
    • Also how chaos and order magic can be used to augment or even replicate skills
  • Tools for running single-player RPG sessions. There aren’t a ton of those out there, but I think there is a lot of potential here. Maybe you and your spouse want to game. Maybe you only have one friend who wants to play a RPG. I ran single-player games for my best friend for a few years in Middle and High School.
  • A system for playing out the repercussions of the character’s actions over time, affecting other stories
    • Maybe even taking Modesitt’s approach and placing the stories at different points along the timeline, with later events asking the question – how did things get this way. Something Microscope-ish
  • This could also be a GM-less/GM-full game, with one protagonist and then the surrounding characters in each scene played by the other players at the table. Maybe one handles order-chaos interactions, and one handles history and culture and call-backs to other events, one handles opposition, etc. Your standard GM-less/GM-full fare

There, I Fixed It: The Wish Spell

Image result for wish aladdin

Updated and re-released for your reading pleasure!

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.

Possible house rule: total the words in the wish, and that number becomes a percentage chance of failure for the wish. So if you say “Make me a prince!” Then there is a 4% chance of failure, but if you write out a mini contract rife with legalese then it could easily become a coin-toss.

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.

Another Solution

After I posted this, I came up with another interesting idea for wish-fulfillment. In this version, you make your wish, and then genie is bound to do whatever they can to fulfill that wish, using their own abilities. So if a dao gives you your wish, and you wish for a million gold pieces, then that dao has to do all it can to get you a million gold pieces. They don’t have the power to just wave their hand and fulfill the wish, but they will interpret it according to their alignment and their capabilities. Probably, in this case, disguise themselves, break into a vault, and abscond with their gold pieces.

The way that a genie fulfills your wish will vary from genie to genie. A marid, being chaotic neutral, will be quite different from the dao mentioned above, who is neutral evil.

This situation could be handled as if the genie was under the effect of a powerful geas.  They would have 30 days to accomplish your wish by any means they could, or to work toward it as far as they can by the end of the time limit. As an added bit of interest, and the end of the time-limit, the charm effect ends and the genie might have a chip on their shoulder.

Personally, I like this idea, and want to try it for my world of Alaam.

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

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.

In terms of 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

Camp differs from being in town, because it is a time with particular traditions like setting watches and rolling for night encounters. 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.