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…

RPG Mechanic Round-Up #1

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

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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.

Difficulty Settings in TRPGs

It’s a common thing for video games to have variable difficulty settings. Usually it’s some kind of slider you can move from easy to hard, or maybe hardcore, or insanity mode. There might be a setting that includes permadeath, or removes the ability to save your progress.

Very similar things exist in a lot of RPGs, whether they are noticeable or not. It occurred to me clearly when I was explaining Mage: the Ascension to players who had not played it before. They asked about Avatar – an optional background in the system. In MtA it represents the ability to absorb Quintessence, magical energy that makes doing magic easier, and also provides hints as to how a character can advance. The Avatar Background is, in effect, a difficulty slider for Mage the Ascension.

I thought about Vampire the Masquerade’s Generation Background, which functions in a similar way. More points allocated to Generation give a vampire character more blood to spend, the capacity to spend more blood at a time, and even limited immunity to one of the vampiric Disciplines, Dominate. As with Avatar, more points in Generation is like setting Vampire the Masquerade to easy mode. Without points in Generation, and especially taking a Flaw like Thin-Blooded, is like playing Vampire on hard mode.

Many other classic games have difficulty settings built in. D&D 3.X fixed a lot of the flaws with AD&D 2nd Edition – one of which was to un-break thieves and make them rogues. Rogues remained a more challenging choice, however, needing to focus on skillful play in a lot of cases. Tactical play to make use of the sneak attack ability and planning ahead to make effective use of character abilities.

Previous editions of D&D did this the wrong way, I think. Both editions of AD&D punished thieves by making them terrible at being thieves, and punished metahuman players by adding arbitrary level caps (I’ve read the arguments in favor of level caps and they’re just not convincing).

Why is this the wrong way? Because it is the wrong design choice to simply make some choices poor ones. Every player in a Vampire game can take points in Generation, but not every player in a D&D game can normally play a cleric. Having a difficulty setting and having some choices simply be less fun are two very different things.

In a game about advancement, it is a poor design choice to put limits on some player-characters’ opportunities for advancement and not others. Really, this is true in any game that features advancement at all. Level caps, or experience point caps or whatever, are a terrible way to add difficulty to a game. A game shouldn’t be challenging because it is more fun for the other players than it is for you.

Difficulty Settings in Your Games

Many video games have difficulty settings. These are easier to include in single-player games, and are probably not the right choice for competitive games. But tabletop roleplaying games are different, obviously. Each person at the table can be playing a slightly different game. We know this is true in terms of preferences – some might be playing a tactical combat game, and another might be playing a storytelling game, and another might be playing a skill-based puzzle game.

Further, the actual game they are playing might be slightly different. This is already the case with Mage players whose characters have high Avatar ratings, or Vampire characters who have lots of dots in Generation.

There needs to be some cost to setting the difficulty to “easy.” In Vampire and Mage, that cost is that Background dots are placed in Generation or Avatar rather than something else; some other advantage that is still an advantage. It’s important for the players at the table to know that the difficulty settings exist and that they are an option.

So look at your game, or your game design (assuming it isn’t a World of Darkness game, or another game that has a difficulty setting built in). See where parts of the system can be flexed one way or another. If you have classes, are some classes clearly easier to play than others? If you have races or species, do some have killer special abilities or advantages?

There are three things I’ve noticed that can affect the difficulty of a game: damage resistance, immunities, and extra actions. You can look for these three things, and others, keeping the following in mind.

Damage resistance is powerful, especially in a game where it is rare. It is a big advantage in GURPS, and in 3.X D&D, and is rare for that reason. Damage resistance is like multiplying a character’s health by the number of times they are struck in combat. It’s like sparring with pads, and exists for the same reasons pads do.

Immunities are even more powerful than damage resistance. Immunity provides not only protection but also new story opportunities. A fire-immune character can walk into a burning building, or cover themselves in fire and hug people to death. It is a point of leverage that almost no one else will have. (Example from above – lots of dots in Generation makes a vampire immune to Dominate, most of the time)

Extra actions, as has been pointed out many times, are game-breaking in a game with an action economy. Speaking of Vampire, Celerity is a nightmare. The haste spell in D&D, and similar spells, have to be nerfed, or carefully managed, because they easily double the effectiveness of anyone it is cast upon. In Mage, it’s the Time sphere. But one thing for having extra actions, it is a way of playing on easy mode. The downside is that players interact with the game through their characters’ actions, and giving one player more actions than the others is just like doing the same in a game of chess – it might very well cross the line into unfair.

Why Choose Easy Mode? Hard Mode?

Difficulty modes exist in TRPGs for the same reasons they exist in video games. A player might want a more story-centered experience, or might be a new player who isn’t confident with the game.

Players who want more of a challenge, or who want to demonstrate their skill in play, can set the difficulty to hard for their character. A character overcoming difficulties and limitations usually makes for a more exciting and interesting story than those who are played out on easy mode – and it gives players something to aim for when they play the game a second time, or a third.

Building in a difficulty setting can increase the replay value of your game, same as video games. That’s part of the fun, and it is one of the values of such a system, to be compared to other values, such as game balance. But I definitely see value in having ways for a player, in character creation, to signal what sort of game they want to play – easy, or hard.

Making “Failure” Interesting in RPGs

Image credit: https://www.fantasyflightgames.com/en/news/2012/11/19/at-the-core/

I had an idea come to me as I was listening to a review of the Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPG. This particular review was from someone (Dan Repperger of Fear the Boot) who was enjoying the game he was playing in but was simply baffled by the game’s mechanics – specifically, the custom dice mechanic.

I feel like I have an OK handle on it, having run the intro adventure for friends and read through the Edge of the Empire book. The dice system is complex, giving six different interacting results: Success, Triumph, Advantage, Failure, Despair, Threat). Basically, when you roll dice, the result of the roll gives you a lot of information:

  • Do you succeed or fail in your intended purpose? (Success and Triumph versus Failure and Despair)
  • Does your success or failure cost you any stress, or allow you to recover stress? (a use for Triumph and Despair when there isn’t something else to do with it)
  • Does the situation overall get better or worse? That is, you could succeed but the situation could worsen for you overall, or you could ‘fail forward’ where you don’t succeed but your situation improves through some unforeseen windfall. (Advantage and Threat)
  • Does your success or failure trigger some kind of special effect, like the equivalent of a critical success or failure perhaps, or a special ability. (Triumph and Despair)

But this post isn’t primarily about the dice mechanic in Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPG. Rather, it is about failure, and how to make failure more interesting, which is a challenge in any RPG that features a success/failure mechanic.

The thought is a simple one, derived from the complexity of Fantasy Flight’s dice system – that a failed roll can either mean 1. you don’t get what you want, or 2. you succeed and get what you want, but the situation worsens for you. This is a variation on the “succeed with a cost” mechanic, but it is rooted in the narrative, in the player’s decision to accept greater overall peril in exchange for succeeding on a key roll. In the FF dice system, this is kind of like rolling Success and Triumph paired with Threat, but without all of the complexity of six different colors of dice with multiple custom symbols on them.

For example: your fighter is surrounded by a gang of goblins. She activates her special ability that lets her attack a group of lesser targets with one roll – you roll, and miss. So, instead of just whiffing on your cool ability, your ability succeeds, but just as you mow down the fourth goblin, you look up to see that the fighting has drawn the attention of the Goblin King…and he looks angry. 

What do you do in your game to make sure that failure is still an interesting part of the story?