#RPG – Pushing Your Luck

What makes a hero in an RPG?

Classes and levels in some games, sure, special abilities and magical equipment in a lot of them, almost universally the getting caught up in more significant events of meaning and significance.

What really makes a hero, or perhaps should, is luck and experience. Adventurers put themselves in harm’s way all the time, and yet, consistently manage to escape in one piece. As they do, they learn things few other people manage to learn. They gain the kind of honed skills and situational awareness that only seasoned combat veterans typically get in the real world.

Of course, experience in the real world doesn’t count for shit when an IED goes off under your chemical toilet. Real, authentic life is horribly random and doesn’t grant plot immunity for people with good stories. Even ironic deaths are only ironic in hindsight.

Very few games really play into these ideas of luck and bitter experience though. ‘Luck’ sometimes appears as a smallish pool of money, experience usually manifests in the form of increased and expanded skills and special abilities, but not in a more ‘usable’ form. You do find it, occasionally (Over the Edge First Edition, some versions of Deadlands – after a fashion) but overall, not so much.

Various story games and roleplaying styles have tried to get around this in one form or another.

Possibly the earliest version is ‘fudging dice rolls’, either to prolong the life of an in-game villain or to spare groups of characters the indignity of a Total Party Kill (TPK). Old School gamers are often critical of this and believe you should let the dice fall where they may.

Some games add mechanics like inspiration, fate, chits, tokens and so on to shift the probabilities around to favour a more heroic narrative, but very
Even the most narrativey of narrative games doesn’t address this head-on, and perhaps some game should.

I made an attempt with my game ‘IRREPRESSIBLE!’, based (loosely) on the tales of Sun Wukong, the monkey god of Chinese myth. Well, more based on the English dub of the Japanese series about the Chinese legend of Journey to the West.

In that game, your party shares a pool of points which are represented b tokens in a bag, with one black token. As you do things, the things you’re more skilled at mean you draw fewer tokens, whereas the less skilled you are, the more tokens you draw. Draw a black token, and you fail (but all the spent tokens go back in the bag), draw one twice in a row, and something disastrous happens.

Simple, but effective, kind of like pushing your luck in Dread, which also – somewhat – addresses this.

What if, though, we had a game where your characters were relatively normal in their array of skills and abilities, compared to everyone else around them, but they had this ineffable luck. That along with a pool of experience spent, not to increase their capabilities, but as a resource, to boost rolls.

It’s a thought, but character progression is so integral to many people’s enjoyment of RPGs it’s hard to tell if it’s an idea they’d pick up on.

Chronicles of Gor – More on the System

SystemNow that the system has been revealed I can talk about why I chose it, why I didn’t choose a different system or approach and the changes that have been made.

Why The D6 System? D6 is associated with templates, since the Star Wars days, and templates are a great way to have quick, pick-up-and-play characters. They’re also a great way to reflect the caste system of Gor, hidebound as it is by caste, family, city, honour and sexual roles. D6’s templates are an obvious fit for that.

It’s my hope that Chronicles of Gor will also appeal as a gateway RPG to people new to the hobby – at least in the kind of ‘formal’ way it’s played around a tabletop or in hangouts. As such D6 is also a good fit as it has pedigree as a beginners RPG and customising a template is much easier for people who aren’t yet au fait with all the ideas involved in role-playing games.

Why didn’t I choose a more indie/new-wave approach like, say, the Apocalypse World engine? Well, let me lapse for a moment into designer speak.

I am neither of the ‘old school’, traditionalist approach, nor of the new-school approach. There are aspects of both that I like and I can see the appeal of both styles. I’m a big believer that system matters and that a synergy between system and setting produces the best sorts of games.

One thing I am not a huge fan of, however, is social mechanics. A lot of these small press indie games seem to reduce social interaction – which is often the meat and potatoes of a game – to a series of rolls that tend to rob characters of agency and make social game interactions incredibly formal. Having social mechanics can seriously screw up the social aspect of gaming while lacking them can leave you playing a socially competent character ineptly due to your own lack of social skills.

I recall a good friend who kept playing social-heavy characters in a Vampire LARP, but because he couldn’t back up his statistics with the patter in person, he kept failing horribly. Hypothetically having social mechanics enables a character to do something you cannot, just as having good combat stats helps you swing a sword in a way that you – personally – cannot.

Writing for experienced gamers is one thing, writing for (potential) new gamers is another. Many traditionalist gamers have trouble adapting to the abstract systems of indie games and many of them aren’t particularly well explained – or easy to explain. Concepts like ‘turns’ and familiar bits and pieces from computer games (it’s like playing Game X, but BETTER because you can do anything!) help sell the concept.

I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel here or smash the gaming paradigm to shreds in terms of system, but rather to create a good, well designed and accessible game.

To that end I came down more on the side of social interactions coming down more to roleplaying than rolls and away from the sort of constricted focus and structure  that you find in many indie games.

Just Some Random System Ideas

I was doing the washing up and, as generally happens when you’re doing something mindless, my brain wandered. This being my brain we’re talking about, it wandered off into RPG systems and went down a little train of thought…

FATE style d6-d6 gives a nice probability curve that zeroes out and actually favours relatively realistic system construction because of it. All the wild, pulpy, narrative action comes from the stuff that’s bolted on.

Rather than having the positive and negative dice being the same, couldn’t we make one positive and one negative of different sizes. Say D6-D4 for example. The better you are the bigger your dice, the worse you are the smaller. The more difficult something is the bigger the negative dice that the GM rolls.

So your stats would be a D4 to D12 spread (1-5 essentially, same spread as Storyteller) but you could go off the edges with penalties or bonuses representing that extra amount. So you’d have steps, for example…

D4-X
D4
D6
D8
D10
D12
D12+

To allow for the excesses of chance, allow highest roll to ‘explode’ and add one each time it does. So if you rolled a D4 and got three 4’s in a row – and then something else, your score would be 6.

Maybe a standard Stat/Skill split but the constricted range means you’d have to go Stat governing skill, probably, rather than making them additive. So if you have a Strength of D4 you could only have a Strength-based skill of D4.

You could rip the Focus system out of Xpress (in fact this whole thing could be an Xpress build) to allow for specialities to compensate for potentially low skills, so each level of Focus would step you up one.

EG: Skill: Shooting/Rifles/Assault Rifles D6/D8/D10

If you get a zero total it’s a marginal success/fail (GM discretion). The sort of thing where you barely leap the gap and end up hanging by your fingernails. Positive number success, negative number failure. The lower the worse, the higher the better.

It’s an RPG so we need to work out how people get killed (or not). I think I’d like to preserve a separate damage roll, even though it slows things down a bit and I’d like to wrench something off Silhouette (and from an old InPhobia magazine article) by going for wound levels. A good hit would step up the damage die though (one step per positive, so +3 hit on D6 damage would make it d12 damage). You’d roll your Resilience against the damage you take.

How do people get hurt?

  1. Scrape – Resilience – No effect at all, cosmetic.
  2. Light Wound – Resilience+1 – No effect but +1 to any future damage rolls for each one taken.
  3. Down – Resilience+2 – KO’ed/crippled, out of the fight, +2 to any future damage rolls for each one taken.
  4. Dead – Resilience+3.

Debilitating wounds would be special attacks, more difficult.

So if you have D8 Resilience (Average, step 3) You’d have:

  • LW: 3
  • Down: 4
  • Dead: 5

I’m thinking bare hands would have (Strength-3) damage and various melee weapons would step that up (+1 dagger, +2 short sword, +3 Longsword) and so on). I think to be realistic (if that’s your bag) guns would need to be pretty damn deadly. So I think a d8 base for a 9mm gun.

There’d be a load of other details, but you can see the basic idea here.

So, by way of example: Two average but professional swordsmen face off.

Sir Dude: Gets initiative, lashes out with his attack, he’s got a sword skill of d8 and scores 4.

Sir Sweet: Tries to defend himself with a parry (using his sword skill). He gets 6 and, so, easily deflects the blow. He counter attacks with 3.

Sir Dude: Ducks under using his agility with a roll of 7 and sweeps with his sword, getting a 3.

Sir Sweet: Tries to parry again, but this time only rolls a 1. Sir Dude has gotten right past his defence by +2. So rolls damage for his longsword, d8 stepped up twice makes d12. He rolls a 12 and a 7, so that’s only 12. Sir Sweet is in serious trouble. He only rolls a 3 for his defence which means Sir Dude hit him for damage 9. He’s so run through and so utterly dead it’s not even funny.

You’d probably need some additional safety net for PCs (it’s a bit deadly) but there’s the nub of a system in there.

Gritty FATE?

I was either going to review Airship Pirates or write something for Starblazer today but instead – as is typical – I find myself thinking on towards the next projects after the ones I am already working on.

One I’ve been ruminating on for a while is a crime/caper game called ‘Diamond Geezers’. I have been leaning towards a grittified selection of D6, if only because character templates are so quick and easy, but I do really like FATE as a go-to system. The only problem with FATE is that is it pretty much geared, as written, for heroic action, not for grit.

That said, there’s things about FATE that mean it could model differences and a higher granularity than the traditional go-to for realism, a percentile system. A 1-100 range allows for a lot of small, conditional, individual bonuses and penalties but rapidly becomes tedious. An adjective based system like FATE allows you to sidestep that somewhat by turning descriptions into adjectives.

EG: In a percentile game you might describe a rifle as having a base 20% chance to hit with a telescopic sight that adds 5% to hit at medium and longer ranges, loaded with armour piercing rounds etc etc. In FATE you wouldn’t need to worry about the statistics so much, rather the rifle would have the aspects ‘telescopic sight’ and ‘armour piercing’ that could be brought into play as and when they’re relevant.

There’s still more you’d need to do to make FATE grittier, deadlier, and here’s some off-the-cuff suggestions.

  • FATE points only provide +1 and only when an aspect is relevant.
  • Stress doesn’t heal from scene to scene but at a given healing rate (one per day?).
  • Consequences take much longer to heal. Say Minor 4 days, Major 2 weeks, Severe 6 weeks, extreme 1 season (and gain a permanent Minor injury).
  • Tighter skill definitions in expert areas. Less wiggle room for the player.

Why rip the guts out of FATE in such a way? Because in many other ways it’s such a great tool and a broad system. The capability to model societies, groups, neighbourhoods all makes it great for games with social and regional impact and influence. Games where characters are tied to a wider society and can have an impact. In many ways it easier to work with what’s already there, rather than to tack a new system onto another system.