Wednesday, January 28, 2015

New Rules for Tabletop RPGs

(I started this yesterday but wasn't able to finish it due to work, so I'm posting it today in lieu of my normal "New Comics Wednseday" post). 

Tuesdays were formerly reserved for my "Design Decisions" - things I decided to include or not include my on-going World of Samoth campaign, and why. I talked about various races, "bad guys," religion, magic, and classes (three posts just on classes). While there are obviously a lot of other things that go into building a campaign world, those were the main things I wanted to talk about.

So I'm going to be turning Tuesdays over now to discussing rules or ideas from a variety of different game systems that are actually really easy to incorporate into any game system, whether you're playing an OSR type game or something more "crunchy" like Pathfinder. The idea here is to share with you some ideas that you might not have seen or considered, mainly because you might consider yourself a die-hard Savage Worlds player or maybe you're more of a Grognard-type AD&D player. In any event, these are ideas that aren't intended to make players better with "cool new powers" or to add extra book-keeping or unnecessary rules. They're more about adding things that ultimately help with world-building and character development, which is what my original "Design Decisions" were about.

Today I'll be focusing on a relatively new game, 13th Age. Before all of your diehard OSR types disappear on me, have a look and see. Maybe you'll hate all of these ideas, but you won't really know if you don't at least skim through them, right?

13th Age was written by Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo, who were some of the primary creators of 3rd Edition and 4th Edition D&D, respectively. As such, 13th Age is their answer to taking the best of both systems, streamlining it, and adding in a very heavy dose of "story first" type of mentality. Lots of OSR type people seem sometimes have a negative view of a "story-based" campaign because they equate it with railroading or DM's being too invested in their worlds. I don't necessarily agree with that line of thinking, but in any case, I think the ideas below could be incorporated into a more traditional 0E or 1E type game while still keeping it focused on the "murdering hobo" type of context.

While 13th Age has a bunch of new ideas that are easy to incorporate into any game (such as the Escalation Die, which I get but I'm not 100% sold on it), I'm going to focus on three other ideas that are easy to take, involve very little rules, and therefore can be applied to pretty much any system of your choice.

"ONE UNIQUE THING." This is a pretty simple idea to get - when each player creates their character, they write down one unique thing about their character that they share with the DM. Then it's up to the DM to figure out how to work that aspect of the player's character into the overall game. The idea here is that the DM shouldn't really say "no" to anybody's idea, within reason. One example they give in the book is a player who told the DM that his halfling character was the only halfling acrobat to ever perform himself out of the Diabolists's Circus of Hell. The DM was caught a bit off-guard because he thought, "I didn't even know there was a Circus of Hell." But, he realized, "Of course there is!" and just went with the idea. Another example is a player who said that his character is the only person in the world to brew an ale that everyone enjoys - elves, dwarves, humans, goblins, and orcs alike. It's the only ale that's equally enjoyed by anyone regardless of race. That's another example of a fun thing that can lead to lots of interesting adventuring and role-playing ideas but that doesn't give a character a mechanical rules-based benefit, which is the whole concept behind this idea.

In my game, a few of my players did this way back in 2001 when we started the game, without calling it a "one unique thing" or anything like that. My friend Brian had a multi-class Cleric-Sorcerer who was a priest in the equivalent of the Medieval Roman Church. In my world, that particular faith had outlawed any form of arcane magic as being "evil" because they said it only came from demonic powers. However, Brian's character had learned early on that he had some innate arcane powers from his mother's side of the family, but he couldn't really control them that well (he was a sorcerer, so the powers came naturally, versus the way wizards learn their spells via book learning and memorization). So, Brian wrote that down and said that his character kept his arcane powers a secret (he did a lot of things like trying to pass off arcane powers as divine, because most commoners didn't know the difference anyway). But, he was always conflicted. It was a neat idea and he sort of build it up that he was the only character in the world like this (he wasn't, but as far as his faith and part of the world was concerned, he probably was). So, he was "unique" in that aspect. I worked that into the game by eventually having his superior in the church appoint Brian's character to be a member of the church's "Inquisition" and specifically tasked with hunting down heretics and bringing them to justice. "Heretics" in this case meant anyone who didn't follow the rules of the church, such as... arcane spellcasters. Lots of very interesting adventures followed from that one little thing Brian wrote on his character sheet.

"FAIL FORWARD." This is bound to cause some controversy, especially with players and DMs who prefer a more "player-skill vs. character skill" type of game. However, with careful application, I think this can even be used in a more player-skill oriented game. The idea here is that when a player's character performs an action in a relatively non-stressful context (e.g., not in the middle of battle), then a "failure" should really just be seen as a "things go wrong" rather than "it didn't work." As an example, maybe there's a locked door that a thief character is trying to pick. The situation isn't that stressful - there's no time limit and it's not in the middle of combat or other distractions. Yet, the thief fails the roll. Rather than say "the door won't open," as the DM you allow the door to open but because the roll failed that means there's a consequence. Maybe the door makes an extraordinary amount of noise when opening, signalling some monsters (that the DM hadn't originally planned on). Maybe there are now extra traps in the room beyond that weren't originally intended. Maybe now, whatever the characters find in the room beyond were also being searched for by a powerful NPC who is aware that the PCs have the items in their possession. It could be anything. The idea is, go ahead and let the thief player enter the room and use the "things go wrong" rule to create new and spontaneous adventure seeds that wouldn't have happened had the thief player succeeded on the roll.

You don't have to do this every time, of course. Sometimes a failure really is just a failure. But it can be a fun idea-generating tool. And it can also be used in "player-skill" type games. Let's say your players are searching and a room and describing how they are searching the room (there are no mechanics on rolls for this - it's all based on the players needing to somehow know how to explain exactly in detail every inch of the room they are searching and what exactly they are searching for), and they miss something. Maybe it's a clue that you as the DM put in that room, like a bad guy's diary or a letter from a foreign dignitary or something. Rather than tell the players "you didn't find anything, " you go ahead and let them find it, but as above, that comes with some unintended consequences. Perhaps they find the bad guy's diary but in so doing, maybe the bad guy knows that the characters found the diary and therefore adjusts his plans accordingly, setting a trap for them, which is something that would not have happened had they been able to find the diary without "failing forward."

"ICON RELATIONSHIPS." This one is a bit harder to explain but the gist of it is, when players create their characters for a game in 13th Age, they choose the relationship that they character has with somewhere between one and three different "Icons" who are sort of like powerful NPCs (near gods) that the characters will pretty much only interact with via the Icons' agents. Each character has three "relationship points" that they are allowed to spend on either a positive, a conflicted, or a negative relationship with the Icons. Each relationship point allows a character to roll a d6 when called about by the DM for that relationship; e.g., if a character put all three relationship points into a positive relationship with, say, "The Emperor," then the player would roll 3d6. You're hoping to roll a 6, which means that you get some meaningful advantage (in the form, typically, of help being offered by agents of that Icon, who might provide items, information, or other stuff to help with the current quest). If you get any 5s, then you "succeed" just like a 6, but with some kind of unexpected complication (almost like "failing forward," discussed above).

Each player rolls his or her relationship dice at the beginning of each session, and the onus is on the DM to somehow try to work in any 5s or 6s into that session. That could mean that a DM might have thought that a story was going a certain way based on actions that the players were having their characters take, but a roll of 5 or 6 introduces a new story element based around a particular Icon and that Icon's desires and philosophies?

Sound confusing? I'll give a more concrete example based on my own campaign world, the World of Samoth. When I went about creating my campaign world, I created a lot of organizations that had world-spanning implications - primarily different religions and cults, but also a few "orders" (kind of like a Masonic Lodge with chapters throughout the world) and some based along racial lines, etc. It was a lot to wrap your head around and in hindsight was probably a bit too much to ask my players to read through and decide how their characters fit in. But, if I were to start my campaign from scratch today, I would pattern my organizations along the same idea as the "Icons" in 13th Age and have the players put relationship dice into their relationships with the various organizations. It would be a great way to help my players have a "hook" for integrating their characters more into the world, and also would help to generate some interesting in-game ideas and also introduce some fun "wrenches" when things don't go as planned, and introducing elements from organizations that didn't seem to be involved in the particular adventure and figuring out how to insert them and still have things make sense. I personally wouldn't roll relationship dice every single session, but more just when it naturally seemed to make sense. Still, I think it's a really clever idea.

The thing I like about all three of the ideas above is that they really involve no mechanical benefits whatsoever - they aren't "rules-based" and so they can easily be inserted into any type of game, and none of them give the players any kind of unfair, game-changing powers or abilities. They're just little mini story-generating ideas, each of which manifests in a different way. Aside from the "One Unique Thing" which evolved kind of naturally for a few of my players, I haven't actually tried any of the above ideas yet, so I'm curious to hear from people who have. Post your thoughts in the comments below.

Hanging: Home office (loaner MAC laptop)
Drinking: Club soda with lime
Listening: "Back at Dawn" by Fenomenon


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