A Card Mechanic for Western RPGs

This is a smooshing together of mechanics from Deadlands and Clockwork: Dominion with a little bit sprinkled in. I’m not presenting it as a Newfangled Thing, but simply as what I think I would want to use if I was going to run a Western game, whether Weird West or mythic or whatever.

System Basics

  • Initiative and the action economy are managed by playing cards you are dealt when a conflict begins
  • Actions are also resolved by playing cards, where the number on the card is its value and more ability means you have more cards from which to choose
  • Cards that aren’t used, or are played in failed tests, can be retained by the player to store up and build hands
  • Those hands are spent for special effects in the game like introducing new NPC allies, critical hits, and activating special abilities – in this way failure leads to success later

Stolen Initiative

The initiative system for this game is straight-up stolen from Clockwork: Dominion, because that system also uses cards, and also because it is the best initiative system I’m aware of.

When a conflict begins, each player is dealt cards. Actions occur in the order of the cards dealt, from Ace down to the two. If a player doesn’t want their character to act, they can still pass.

In order to interrupt an action, a player can push two cards forward instead of one. Their character’s action is resolved before any other actions, as an interrupt. Yes, you can push two cards forward to interrupt the interrupt.

I’m thinking of maybe one free reaction, and then you spend one card to react or actively defend if someone pushes a card forward to act on you.

The GM gets cards for the NPCs in the conflict, and plays them as if she was just another player. This gets a bit complicated with more than a handfull of NPCs, but that’s true in every system (tonight’s D&D game will have a fight with 28 participants).

Building A Hand

I love when you mark xp with a failed roll in Dungeon World. The way I adapted that idea to this system is to let players retain cards used in failed tests, and maybe cards they don’t use in initiative as well, and use them to build hands to use later in the story. The hands are all, of course, poker hands, and here are my ideas so far:

  • Pair: your hit is a critical hit, or your success is a critical success
  • Two Pair: a trick shot, or a highly unlikely positive result
  • Three of a Kind: you cheat death, when you would otherwise be killed, you are simply taken out
  • Straight: maybe you can use a straight to prevent another PC from dying? You rescue them in some way?
  • Flush: you set a type of scene and stack things in your favor. Maybe even take over narration from the GM for a scene that you just want to see. The type of scene depends on the suit of the flush. Spades: you learn something, or establish something, big and decisive about the setting or situation; Clubs: you stomp the crap out of a host of foes, or embarrass a major opponent; Hearts: a social scene where you get what you want, like getting married, becoming mayor, etc.; Diamonds: you have some kind of big break, like striking gold on your land
  • Full House: add a significant, allied NPC to the story
  • Four of a Kind: rewind time and repeat what just happened, up to four rounds back. “But that wasn’t how it was meant to be.”

Luck

Instead of health, I think of Poker chips that represent a character’s luck. So much in the Old West is deadly, or at least wounding – arrows, bullets, knives, being gored by stampeding cattle, and so on. When your “luck runs out” you are liable to be killed, and there should be abilities for super dangerous NPCs to be able to bypass your luck straight to a wounding or killing attack. I also like that you can potentially spend that luck to re-try a failed test, at the risk of putting yourself that much closer to death’s door.

What’s Missing, and What’s Next

I don’t really have a damage mechanic. I’m not sure what exactly would go on a character sheet. I have the thought that the four suits could be the four attributes, where maybe spades are mental, clubs are physical, hearts are social, and diamonds might be a speed measure, or even resources available to you.

RPG Mechanic Round-Up #7

Meta-Round-Up

Progress and Drama

In the game text, instead of listing the result of a passed test in a resolution mechanic as “success”, describe it as “progress.” That is, progress is made toward whatever your goal was, or toward winning what was at stake. In parallel, instead of listing a failed test in your resolution mechanic as “failure”, call it “drama”, in that the dramatic tension increases in the scene or in the story. This could almost be the only change in how a system is written, but I think it opens up results in interesting ways.

Let’s say your D&D player does the classic thing and makes an absurd proficiency check – then they roll a 20, and even though there isn’t a “natural 20” rule in 5E for proficiency checks, they still expect something big from their absurd plan (seduce the dragon, pick the lock with mage hand, lie to the Inevitable’s face, etc.). So if passing the test equals “progress” rather than “success”, you can just describe how their absurd plan gets them closer to their goal. Similarly, for all of those proficiency checks where failure just means the story stops, if it is “drama” (or “tension” perhaps, or “threat”) instead of “failure” for a failed test, the attempt can be technically successful, moving things ahead, but they are now worse than they were.

Theme Music

Each player chooses a theme song for their character and queue’s it up on their phone. At any time during the session, they can hit play for the song, play a bit of it, and their character automatically succeeds on whatever it is they are doing. Maybe instead of Inspiration, players can gain bonus uses of their theme music during the session. Similarly, the DM can queue up theme songs for any Big Bads they’ll face, and those enable them to use a legendary save ability to choose to save on a failed saving throw, or to resist death for a round after being reduced to 0 hit points, etc.

Big and Small Advantages with Percentile Dice

This is a layer of complexity that one might not choose, but it occurred to me while listening (and enjoying) another How We Roll actual play of Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition. In CoC 7E there is an advantage mechanic, where you roll the 10s digit die more than once and take the worse of the two rolls. I thought that this made sense for big advantages and disadvantages, but for smaller advantages and disadvantages it would make sense to roll the 1s digit die twice and take the better or worse of the two rolls. This gives you an approximately 1 in 10 change of barely making, or barely missing, the roll, and isn’t a big deal, but could be an interesting tweak, maybe for when the player thinks they should have advantage but the Keeper disagrees. “Yes, but…”

Percentile Auto-Success

Rolling is not always fun. Games usually have some kind of hand-wavey rule about “only roll when it is interesting” or “only roll when there is danger involved” but even in games where that is spelled out enforcement is sporadic. It occurred to me, in particular in a percentile system, that it could be simpler and also more interesting to give each character a number of auto-successes equal to the tens digit of the applicable skill. So, again looking at Call of Cthulhu, your investigator with a Credit Rating of 57 could just have 5 automatic successes on Credit Rating rolls during the scenario (intended to be more than one session). The downside is that you don’t get any chance to advance when using one of these auto-successes, nor can you get a critical success of any kind. Maybe one could ignore this rule in combat, and of course the Keeper would be able to say that it doesn’t apply in a certain situation (like a Sanity roll, or a situation where the danger of failure is really interesting), but I like it as a rule.

Final Fantasy Action Selector

Remember old school Final Fantasy where you had the action selector when each character’s turn came up? It looked something vaguely like this:

  • Fight / Run
  • Magic
  • Drink
  • Item

I was thinking about something like this for new players. Frequently, players at my table forget all of the various things their character can do when it is their turn, especially at higher levels. What if new players had something like this, printed up by the DM, with their abilities on it? Something for a Druid might look like this:

  • Melee Attack
  • Missile Attack
  • Shapechange

And one for a Rogue more like this:

  • Melee Attack
  • Missile Attack
  • Dash
  • Disengage
  • Hide

Of course, the player can put whatever is interesting on the selector, and can always do things not listed, but it might be helpful to just have that at a glance. I’ve seen a lot of new players stare glassy-eyed at their complex character sheet when their turn comes when really they only have two or three viable and interesting options. The problem is that it takes significant system mastery for one to know what those few viable and interesting options are.

 

RPG Mechanic Round-Up #6

D&D Firearms Fix

The way that 5E D&D handles firearms doesn’t make much sense. You can look at videos of a bullet striking a breastplate and compare them to videos of an arrow striking a breastplate and see the difference. So I reworked firearms for D&D. Against a gun all medium creatures are AC 10 – your studded leather armor will have no impact on that bullet, which will also go through chain and plate armor. Small creatures are AC 11. Large creatures are AC 9, and so on up. Firearms also do double the dice in damage that’s listed in the DMG. Adamantine and mithril armor still counts against firearms, as long as it is solid (mithril chain won’t help). Shields grant +1 armor. 

To balance things out, and for some slight realism, one-handed firearms take 2 full rounds to reload and two-handed firearms take 3 full rounds to reload. That’s still quicker than people can actually reload black powder weapons, but it’s a balance between that and D&D. It means that firearms will be more like what they are in, say, the Three Musketeers or Pirates of the Caribbean – good for a deadly opening volley, and then you close and fight.

I like this hack because it makes firearms more interesting than other weapons. Firearms should be scary. As an alternate rule, you could say that any plate armor can grant its AC bonus against flintlock firearms if the armor was built by people familiar with flintlock weapons. Breastplates during the early age of gunpowder were able to deflect bullets, though these weapons quickly outdistanced armor.

An Initiative Mod: Act First or Act Last

In a system where an initiative roll determines action order, have the option of declaring that you act first or you act last in the round. The benefit for acting first is that you get advantage on your action, or another kind of appropriate bonus (+2 in Pathfinder, etc.), but you have disadvantage on all defenses for the rest of the round (or your attackers have advantage or a bonus on their attacks against you). You throw yourself into the fray at the cost of safety.

Conversely, you can declare that you are acting last, hanging back and seeing how things play out before you act. This choice gives you advantage on all of your defenses for the round, or an appropriate bonus, as you see things coming.

If more than one character declares they are going first or going last, they all receive the same bonus and/or penalty, and still act in the order of rolled initiative compared to each other. So, with initiative rolls of 12, 11, 9, 7 and 6, where 9 and 7 both say they are acting first, 9 and 7 move to the top of the initiative list, both get advantage on their attack, and both have disadvantage on all defenses for the round. 9 still goes before 7.

Alignment

For any game with an alignment system, you can use the so-called Five Moral Foundations (with a sixth one added during research on the Five due to feedback). Those moral foundations are: compassion, fairness, liberty, loyalty, purity, and tradition.

  • Compassion: define the circle of compassion, and then the DM can push that. Who is most deserving?
  • Fairness:  what is unfair that needs to be made right? Push: what will you give up in order to be fair?
  • Liberty: your own, and others. Who needs to be set free?
  • Loyalty: to whom or what are you loyal? What about when you’re asked to do something wrong? What about dissent?
  • Purity: what, or who, is disgusting? What is the poison that must be cleansed?
  • Tradition:  what traditions do you hold dear? Push: how will you deal with innovation and change? What about corrupt authorities? 

Villains and heroes have the same alignment system, because it is easy (and interesting) to imagine a villain rooted in each of these six moral alignments. Most people on both sides of every war in history has felt loyalty to their cause. Many genocides are driven by an out-of-control drive to remain pure, and purity language is found movements like Nazism for example. Compassion is hard to make the core of a villain, but could easily lead a person not to act decisively when they need to, in order to prevent more harm.

This hack also makes “know alignment” style spells and abilities more interesting. You detect a villain’s alignment, and get “Liberty.” This doesn’t tell you that they are “evil”, but it does tell you something about what they want and believe, which could be important in defeating them, or even converting them to your side.

Any cool hacks you want to share? Leave a comment!

Min-Maxing and Power Gaming are Good

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When I talked about metagaming last time, I mentioned that it was in a category with min-maxing and power gaming, in that it is very common in games, and frequently discussed, and might be a good or bad thing in a particular game. Now, I think that examples of how min-maxing and power gaming can be bad are likely to leap to the minds of most gamers who read this, so I won’t spend much time talking about that. What I do want to discuss are a few ways in which I see min-maxing and power gaming as good, and then see what you think.

Niche Protection/Time to Shine

Niche protection is, again, a thing, and not just in ‘gamist’ games, or games with classes and levels and task-resolution dice rolls. A rogue wants to be good at rogue-ing, and the story game character with the conflicted family relationship might want to have the most conflicted family relationship. Certainly more conflicted than the other characters, just as the rogue doesn’t want to be outshone by the druid or even the bard.

There are also times in a game when you want your character to shine. We don’t generally play games to portray characters who ceaselessly fail and are embarrassed – there’s enough of that in life. Except in the case of a game that is played for humor, and even then, we want to be hilariously bad, not just vaguely sad and unsatisfying. So, it is good to min-max and power game so that your character can shine, doing what you imagined your character doing when you created her.

System Leverage

As a player, especially in games with a strong GM/player divide, your main interaction with the system is through your character. That’s where all of your levers and buttons are to get what you want out of the system. If you are playing a fighter, and you want to fight and win, then a big lever for you will be your Strength score, for example. So you could certainly create a fighter with a below-average Strength for solid story reasons, but you are going to lose that lever in the system. You are going to be a fighter who fights and loses. When fights are presented as an exciting part of the story, you will have less influence on that story because you are bad at fighting.

In games without the strong player/GM divide, this principle is still in play. There are still particular ways you are expected to interact with the system and pull it in the direction you want it to go.

Story Leverage

Story leverage is maybe the most interesting reason I personally have for min-maxing and power gaming. I do this regularly with games I know well and GMs or player groups that I don’t know well – I create a really effective character. I make those levers in the system and the story as strong as I can. Then I am able to pull things in a direction I think is more fun or interesting. With a great GM and fun players, this just makes a good game better, but with a weaker GM and less fun players, it can salvage a game session.

I can think of one game in particular with a newer GM. I could see some things that he was doing that were likely to be frustrating, and I wasn’t sure where the story was going. But I had created a character, being really familiar with the rules, who was kind of unstoppable at what he did well. So when a roadblock was put up that seemed arbitrary, I could just smash it through my character and get on with something more fun. I’m even willing ride the rails in a game with a strong narrative thread, and sometimes through my character I would make the choice that seemed most likely to get the game back on the rails because that seemed most interesting. Then, since my character was so effective at influencing the story through the system, I could set things up for the other characters to shine as well.

Was this topping from the bottom? Yeah, kinda. It was also more fun than it would have been if I didn’t min-max and power game.

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Metagaming Is Good

The question is whether you are metagaming for more fun and drama, or metagaming for an advantage over the other PCs nor NPCs.

Metagaming is a perennial topic of discussion among tabletop RPG players and has been, I imagine, from the beginning. What I mean by metagaming is thinking about what to do in a gaming session from your point of view as a player, with the knowledge you have as a player, rather than from solely from the point of view of your character, with the knowledge that your character presumably has.

I hear more people speaking against metagaming than for it. It is in a similar category to min-maxing or power gaming – behaviors that are common but generally frowned upon. In all of those three cases and more, however, I think these behaviors can be a good thing in game. In the case of metagaming, I think it is unavoidable. Given that it is unavoidable, I will give some instances where I think it is good for the game, and then talk about some examples of when it is anything but.

Good Kinds of Metagaming

Thinking about the other players

“That’s what my character would do” is a statement that I have heard many times as justification for something that made the game less fun. Here’s the thing – don’t prioritize the thoughts and feelings of your imaginary person over the thoughts and feelings of the real people at the table with you. Period. We don’t play RPGs because we are stuck for ideas of what characters might do – you can always justify your character doing something interesting.

Thinking about the moment

We’ve all been playing out an encounter or a scene, and have thought, wouldn’t it be cool if a particular thing happened right now? Sometimes it is up to us to make that interesting thing happen. Even if it might feel “out of character” for your own character, people do surprising things all the time. Maybe this is a sudden turning point in your character’s life – she dramatically chooses just this moment to show something she hasn’t shown before. Seize the moment, and make the cool thing happen.

Thinking about the story

No matter what kind of story you think RPGs produce, whether Picaresque, or Story Now, or Story Later, or improv comedy, RPGs allow us to create stories together. And sometimes, it is best to prioritize the story in a given moment. Do we need to move on from this scene?

What Makes Metagaming Bad?

Doing it for your advantage as a player

Using your knowledge of the game, or the setting, apart from what your character would know so that you personally can have an advantage over the other players is just being a dick. Hopefully you don’t need me to tell you this, but laying out this distinction might be helpful if you need to call someone out for their behavior.

Doing it for your character’s advantage over the other characters

Metagaming to give your character an advantage over the other characters is also clearly also a dick move. There are always opportunities for your character to shine if you know more about the setting or the system than the other players, but all of these are better opportunities to make the other characters shine.

Doing it to shut down another player

Niche protection is a thing. Every character hopefully has at least one special thing that they are best at. The street samurai fights in the street. The bard charms and improvises. The hotshot pilot hotshots and pilots. It’s possible, but crappy, shut another character down where they would normally be strong. You understand the stealth mechanics better, so you out-sneak the rogue. You know the setting’s politics better, so you out-maneuver the courtier. A negative metagamer can shut down other characters, rather than letting them have their opportunity in the spotlight.

Bonus round: your stories

What’s the worst example of negative metagaming that you’ve seen? Or the best example of positive metagaming?

RPG Mechanic Round-Up #2

Image result for under construction

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.