Need for Speech: words have power, Hodor, OG and a new word/rune-based magic system

I started watching Game of Thrones recently, and Hodor got me thinking about magic. In some oblique ways.

RPGs are mostly a discussion. Speech and writing, in their tabletop and PBM incarnations, are almost inherent to the form. This happens because there are not enough physical game tokens to allow expression of all the subtleties of what happens in the game world. For a NON RPG, like the DND 3E miniatures game, the need for speech is absent: it’s possible to move tokens and roll dice and point at tokens, and that’s enough to resolve the game.

Note that this has nothing to do with system completeness: it’s possible to have an incomplete system needing arbitration, where the referee resolves combats by moving, changing, adding and subtracting “bits” from the table, not a word spoken.

Speech at this level is about the world. Players make statements about the world and roll dice, which are about the world. The referee adjudicates and reports the results. So, we are playing, and this is the nature of the game: making statements about the world.

There is another level of need for speech, which is the speech that happens in game: characters talk to each other. The player of Hodor has problems with that. I played a speech-impaired character once and it was funny and challenging (the system was Fate though, which was the only negative note, because all players and the GM did a brilliant job).

At any rate, Hodor can’t speak. Hodor can act though. Which would be incredibly interesting if Hodor was in a game of Diplomacy.

Hodor is a bit extreme though. Let’s talk about Robin Law’s OG.


OG is a gem. In OG you character knows how to use 3-8 words. You can unleash the very full panoplia of your extensive vocabulary when interacting with the Referee, but with other players? Stick to your own 3-8 words! If you know only “small”, “stick” and “you” you can’t say many things that do not insult virility. And that’s kind of cool because it’s a game made fun by its special player interaction.

It would be interesting if RPG magic was the same. Incidentally the first fantasy novel I read was A Wizard of Earthsea by U.K. le Guin, which has a system that is basically UG-Magic-University. You learn words for things, so that you can command them. And humans get baptized, so if you don’t know their real secret name you have to use their “common name”, which is what they use in daily life, or just use “dude”.

So, if you want a flexible rulelight magic system, one that is a bit crazy but completely not playtested, enjoy this one:

You MU begins the game knowing INT/3 names for generic things and 1 mana. When a new level is gained,  one new name is learnt and 1 mana per level is gained. You might want to use a foreign language (French? Italian? Lithuanian? Japanese? Kurdish? Finnish? Tsolyáni?) for the special names to stop your character from using them in play. They become game tokens, so you to avoid messups you want to be specific when referring to them. Or you can trace runes mid-air or pronounce the rune names. Whatever. Words have power.

To cast a spell, tell to the Referee ALL the words you are using this round. For example for Fireball would maybe be “big powerful fire blast there”, while Create Fire would be “fire”. Then, using the 5MORE system or rolling under INT or under CHA or trying to SAVE, roll once for every word you pronounce in the round. Consider every word as a different TASK for 5MORE EXPERT purposes.

You need to succeed at every word check to cast the spell. If you fail a roll, spend 1 mana to convert it to a success. If you elect not to spend the mana, all the words you are speaking in the same round get messed up and are all counted as failures. So yes you can take time casting a spell.

When you are done with words, something happens. The Referee will let you know what happens depending on the words that failed. As a yardstick, consider that a comparable D&D spell should have (2 x level) – 1 words. The referee and players are encouraged to write down combination of words of power, and the referee is encouraged to have the same combination of words have the same effect every time. Players should record combination and effects only if their characters have writing implements.

Now, this seems eminently more powerful than D&D. Surely it’s more flexible, and if you’re lucky it gives you infinite free spells at level 1.




There are two consequences for failures.

The first one is that the caster gets burnt.

  • For each word failed, the caster can’t use that word for 1d6 turns.
  • For each three words failed, the caster takes 1d6 damage OR the caster can spend one mana OR the caster can get stunned. The caster can choose which as they know how to fend off magic power. Stun duration is 1d6 rounds if chosen once, 1d6 turns if chosen twice, 1d6 hours if chosen 3 times, then days, weeks, months, seasons.
  • For each six words failed, something awful happens. Maybe the caster gets whisked away by a gate for a while, or they develop a horrible mutation. I’ll let your Referee adjudicate.

So if a caster fails seven words, they can’t use any of them for 1d6 turns, takes three times a mixture of 1d6 damage or 1 mana damage or stunned for 1d6 rounds/turns/hours, and something horrible happens.

Plus, there is the second consequence. Magic happens regardless. Referee, consider that magic has a personality. And that words have personalities. And that some words don’t like being used close to each other. Let them play. You might even have the words make reaction rolls against each other and the MU to determine if the play nice. Mispronounced words will most probably misbehave at some level, and the caster might even pronounce other words instead of the failed one.

Note that if a spell targets someone, using a generic name (like “human”) grants an additional save, while using the Secret Name forces the victim to reroll 1 succeeded save.

You can learn new words from other people

Note that you can totally use this system as rune magic too.

Enter the Dungeon Fuck Yeah

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a multiplyer online RPG for a while. It’s something I was really into ten years ago, but then I started studying again, and had to work full time too, so I really didn’t have much time to spare. Then Lost Pages arrived, and I definitely kept on not having much free time.
Anyway, today I went out for a coffee and took some notes. And now I’ll try to make some sense out of it:
Enter The Dungeon Fuck Yeah is going to be a browser game. The technoloy will be node.js for the server and a browser supporting canvas and websockets for the client. I have experience with this kind of setup (I prototyped an RTS using the same solution for 7DRTS last year), it works fine.
It’s going to be free to play. Even if I introduce donations, I don’t want to let people buy their swanky equipment with real monies.
Gameplay will be hexcrawly for the ovverland map and room-based for the dungeons. By “room based” I mean that a movement ation brings a character from a room to one of the next rooms: inside a room there’s no finer location (except in combat, described later). Basically, a pointcrawl with a location per each room. Characters can move individually but it’s possible to form a group: this way, when the leader moves, everybody follows.
The game will be the typical OSR fare: go in with your group, steal treasures from the dungeon, try to get back alive. Experience will be granted in part for killing monsters, but most of it for liberating treasure. Treasure will be a special type of object that needs to be brought out, but it will slow down the character (as does armour), which with this kind of abstract pointcrawly movement means moving less frequently. And, of course, less chances of outrunning pursuers.
Combat happens when characters stumble into monsters. At this point a mockup would be ideal, but I have nothing to show. At any rate, all participants get an action every round. The actions at the moment are:
RANK: switch between front rank and back rank. Back rank can melee only with polearms but can’t easily be attacked in melee either. If the front rank is all gone, the back rank becomes the front rank. And that would be a TPK waiting to happen.
MELEE: attack an opponent in the front rank.
MISSILE: attack any opponent. From the front rank only throwing weapons are usable for a missile attack. No bows in melee. Flaming oil will be there.
MAGIC: do magic stuff. Mechanics TBD but probably will be something similar to either Empire of the Petal Throne or something mana-based. Or both.
BACKSTAB: thieves can risk doing that thing that makes daggers appear from the chests of enemies. Or die trying.
FLEE: run away from combat. If someone is still fighting it has greater chances of working. Less encumbrance helps.

Now, the dungeon: i’ll start with something minimal. A goblin den. The den has many rooms and a bucket of goblins inside. And traps. And there are two special rooms: the LAIR where goblins spawn and the BOSS ROOM where the goblin king and its treasure is.
Now, if the king is alive, the goblins fight better. But if there are many goblins and the king dies, there’s a big chance that a new king will rise. So if players want to kill goblins and take the treasure, they are better off maybe killing some goblins to weaken the tribe, then kill the king and take its treasure, so that no other king will chase as they try to leave the dungeon. A goblin den with a king will also increase the chances of meeting goblins in the hexcrawl map.

Now, the goblin cast:
GOB: a normal stinky, flimsy goblin
SLINGOB: a goblin with a sling, second rank fighter. They attack characters at random.
HUNGOB: a goblin with a bow. They attack either the character with less HP or the less armoured.
FIREGOB: a goblin with a big jar of flaming oil. Boom.
GOBARD: a goblin bard. very lewd songs. better fighting chances for goblins.
DOGOB: a worg. chases fleeing characters and bark attracting goblins
MAGOB: a goblin mage. Uses a magic box or a magic die. Random effects are always amazing.
GOBRE: a big deformed goblin. big fists and big maws.
HOLYGOBARCH: does some holy magic, can sacrifice goblins to create cool effects
KINGOB: the king. Sits on the treasure. Bigger than other goblins, makes them more motivated.

Casters in “Wizards” – the game about the movie

Part of the “Casters In” Series (previously Empire of the Petal throne, Quest of the Ancients, DSA).

Spellcasting in wizards uses two scores: spirit (some kind of magic energy) and Magic (which is a willpower-based skill).

Wizards is the game about the movie with the same name. It has some interesting mechanics. And Nazis. It feels positively Carcosan.

sorry, no source :(

sorry, no source 😦

At any rate: players are supposed to make their own spells, and there are a handful in the book.

To cast the spell the magic user must roll under magic with a d20 and:

  • if the result is under the difference between magic and the spell difficulty, the caster loses spirit equal to the die roll.
  • if the result is above that, but under magic, the caster loses spirit equal to the spell cost.
  • if the result is above that but under double the magic skill, the spell fails and the caster spends 1 spirit point.
  • if above twice the magic skill, the caster loses spirit equal to the cost of the spell.
  • on a critical failure, there’s an optional fumble. No table, but “fumbled fireball leads to pants on fire” is the example in the book. Which is appropriate and awesome.

It’s also possible to practice and get more experience in a given spell at a cost of a fifth of raising the magic skill.

Casting spell on other people requires, in addition, a contest of Spirit: the same roll for the magic check is used for the caster, and is compared to the amount of spirit the caster had before casting the spell, while the target rolls 1d20 against their spirit. Spirit is fully regained in 30 hours, but sleeping counts as double time, so 18 hours of wake and 6 hours of sleep are enough.

As additional weird thing, it’s possible to try an Evocation just pumping magic: a spirit roll is made, and if successful the caster spends spirit points equal to the d20 and SOMETHING GOOD HAPPENS. If the caster fails, they spend points equal to the failure margin and SOMETHING AWFUL HAPPENS.

Why I like Wizards’s magic:

  • if you’re good at a spell, you can cast it cheap
  • mana points used as both “raw power” and “energy left”. The more you cast the least effective your spells become.
  • that whole Evocation “just dump mana” mechanic is simple yet amazing.

Casters in Das Schwarze Auge

Third episode of my “Casters In…” serie. Previous episodes about Empire of the Petal Throne and Quest of the Ancients.

The king of the hill of the German RPG scene is Das Schwarze Auge. Translated to English as “The Dark Eye”. This commentary on the magic system is based on my memories of the Italian translation of the first edition, both basic and advanced rules.

The review of DSA starts with the effectiveness of mages in combat, and a small commentary on the game mechanics is needed.

Each PC starts from 35 to 20 HP. The mage starts with 20, plus 30 mana (Astral Points in the Italian translation), while the Elf (race as class? yes) has 25 and 25. At each level a character raises a stat by one and either HP or mana by 1d6. Simplifying combat, every character might deal something like 1d6+3 on each hit (once every two or three round accounting for parries), but armour reduces damage. Mages can only wear padded armour (damage reduction 1) while RD 3 is common for adventurers.

Now, every magic user and elf knows a spell that deals 3d6+level, ignoring armour, and costs the same amount of mana. Consequences are left as an exercise for the reader. Back to the rest of the magic system now.

Elves and Mages are the spellcasters of the basic rules. They share a spell list of about half a dozen spells, with mages being able to cast about as many more. All spells in the handbook are known and usable from level one, except the ones found later. The caster pays the mana cost (2/round for a spell that grants protection 2, 15 or so for polymorph other, 1/HP for healing) and the spell goes off. This means that a caster can cast quite a lot, but not incredibly much less than higher-level casters. Some spells have a save, but the mechanics are mostly spell-specific. Sleep is a bit OP against weak opponents, as tradition. 😉

This is a pretty vanilla mana magic system. But the cool thing about DSA is the mage’s staff.

The staff is a normal quarterstaff. Except it’s indestructible. This is a big deal as it’s possible to break weapons on a successful parry.

At any rate, before every adventure, the mage can try to cast an Enchantment on the staff. It costs some mana, so the magic user starts the adventure with less than the maximum amount of mana, but the effects are brilliant. If failed, the MU can try again before the next adventure. Enchantments can be cast from level 2 onwards:

First enchantment: all spell costs are reduced by -2 mana per spell. This means that it’s possible to heal 2 hit points per round for free. In the next editions this was changed so that the spell cost must be at least one, which still allows to cast a number of healing spells that head 3HP for 1 mana. 3HP is not a small amount.

Second enchantment: the mage can set his staff on fire, as a neverending torch.

Third enchantment: the staff can be transformed in a 10 metres rope, controllable by the mage.

Fourth enchantment: the staff can be transformed in a flaming sword that deals 1d6 + mage level damage. The problem is that the mage can lose control of the sword: at that point the staff will try to destroy the group and then selfdestruct.

Fifth enchantment: the staff can become a nearly undetectable salamander controlled by the mage, and the mage can transfer his spirit in the salamander and perceive the world through its senses.

Staff enchantments and being able to cast a lot of different spells are what’s cool about DSA magic. In three words: “TOYS, TOYS, TOYS”.

There are also more caster classes: the game mechanics are the same (sans enchantments), but the spell list vary:

  • the wood elves (not sure about their original name, in Italian they were translated as “halflings”, but they are wood elves) cast some D&D druid spells.
  • the druids cast incredibly creepy voodoo spells (dolls? dolls!) and curses and soul-stealing shenanigans. They need an athame made of volcanic glass. Humans can change class and become druids.
  • initiates (cleric) have a common short list, plus three spells for each god. They need to pass an “invocation check” to cast spells. DSA gods are pretty awesome and shenanigan-prone.

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Casters in Quest of the Ancients

Second episode of my “Casters In…” serie.

Quest of the Ancients is an old D&D clone. It’s close enough to be fully compatible yet distinct enough to be it’s own thing.

For example, there’s a split between stamina (hit points), which are depleted first, and body points (equal to Constitution IIRC), but armour reduces body damage. And there are a bucket of classes. And the classes… well, take a look at the Cossack:


And, more poignant, the Sorcerer:


What’s the deal with these Spell Slots?

They can be spent, every day, to either:

  • to memorize a spell of a given level
  • to cast a spell of a given level

So a level 2 sorcerer can:

  • memorize a spell, cast it thrice
  • memorize three spells, cast any once per day
  • memorize two spells, cast any twice per day, including the same spell twice

This is cool as it allows more choices to players, if that’s what floats their boats.

Spells also have some other rules: a spell takes effect in the initiative order of its level, all fingers spells cast as if they were level 1.

it’s possible to cast in melee only spells that do not require dexterity (somatic components in AD&D parlance).

If a caster takes stamina damage, they must roll an intelligence check to avoid wasting the spell. For body damage, a luck check (a save) with a penalty equal to the body points lost.

QotA also has instantaneous spells. it’s possible to cast one such spell per initiative phase if otherwise non busy.

One last word on spell selection: there are many weird, interesting spells. Witches throw explosive jack’o’lanterns, druids throw corn cobs and make them explode with the Popcorn spell, sages can use candles as flaming swords by extending the flame.

And necromancers… let me tell you only a couple of level 1 spells, just to showcase how our ideas of game balance are very tied to the tradition we belong to:

  • healing: heals 4d6 stamina or 2d6 body
  • create skeleton: the spell raises 1 skeleton + 1 for two levels, permanently. No component cost.

Casters in Empire of the Petal Throne

First episode of my “Casters In…” serie.

Empire of the Petal Throne has a really interesting magic system. I got myself a copy years ago but, well, I felt intimidated by the very rich background so I never ran it. I know it’s not something I should worry about, people wrote about this EoPT-self-policing phenomenon, and I’m fully aware myself of how one should always ignore the game police.

Anyway, back to the magic system: warriors, priests and magic users classes all have a list of skills. At character generation you can pick an amount between two out of the first three and five out of the first seven, depending on a dice roll. At each new level the character gains a new skill, starting from the lowest in the list.


While for fighters the skills essentially  seem to unlock weapon proficiency (which leaves me wonder how CL and MU can use weapons without training, maybe warriors fight as MU when fighting untrained?), Priests’ and MU’s list are populated with a mixture of mundane skills (astrology, know 2 modern languages) and spells.
Most of these spells are usable once a day, and there’s a level-based chance of the spell not firing off.
The cleric list is essentially vanilla D&D, and Revivify is the twelfth skill on the list. Magic users have mostly a mixture of divination and necromancy, with at the eleventh slot “The Grey Hand”, a touch-range finger-of-death, SAVE OR DIE NO SAVE ALLOWED, IT’S WRITTEN IN THE HANDBOOK, and a -10% to resurrection survival, and even then the character is disabled for a week, because high level MU have a big “fuck you” tattooed on their grey hand.


And then there are the bonus spells. At every new level the character rolls on this swanky table to find how how many spells of which level they learn. As you can see there are only three levels, and there’s a small chance of having a level three spell at level four: the spell is chosen from a list shared by MUs and priests, and there are 18 spells of level one and two and 23 of level 3 (including a host of magic walls). Level one spells vary from “disbelieve and dispel” for illusions to “Madness”, a SAVE OR PERMANENT CONFUSION. Level three spells are things like “Invulnerability” to unenchanted metal and chlen-hide weapons, “The Silver Halo of Soul Stealing” and “Doomkill”, an SAVE-OR-DIE spell with a 240 feet area of effect. Doomkill is cool because DOOMKILL FUCK YEAH and because there’s a chance of overshooting or undershooting, and on a 2 on 2d6 the spell is cast so short the MU is caught on the area of effect. WHAT.

What to bring home from all of this?
First, characters have fewer spells than in D&D, but usually can use each of them at least daily. This is better for starting characters, as it makes chargen waaay shorter, and more spells per day is hardly a bad thing.
Then, there’s no memorization, or picking spells from a long list, which sometimes irk some players. It certainly irks me.
The bonus spells help differentiate between casters, and their random allowance, while sometimes frustrating, shows that magic is a finicky path indeed. The failure chance does that too.
Lastly, this makes spellcasters way easier on players new to RPGs. You get to choose one or two skills to be delayed a level or two, and that’s it. No tree of feats, no long list of spells and very long decisions to take. Also, these spells have cool names and do cool stuff, and the default “magic user as necromancer” seriously appeals to me.

Mysteries & Mystagogues: not your usual DM’s guide

Mysteries & Mystagogues is the Game Master’s guide for Chthonic Codex. It’s not really structured as a typical GM book. M&M is really an improv tool for running a Chthonic Codex game. This is a list of the contents:

There are two d66 adventure hook tables: one is a traditional event-shenanigan table, the other is structured as chains of events and consequences. A third table is simply a list of missing and urgently needed magical ingredients, so that your players can go bumble around looking for them. Often the PCs’ Master (their teacher) is central to the hook. But it might not. Masters are a mixture of stick and carrot, and usually are PCs’ patrons.

Then there are accomplishments: they are usable both in AFG and your Old School game of choice, and they’re supposed to be discovered in game, and when completed they give perks to characters: for example extra mana, special powers or a level (there are no XP in AFG). They work as hooks too.

Then there is what I would have called MYSTATRON had I been smart enough. It’s a generator of mysteric initiation rituals. It’s structured as a collection of nine d66 tables. It’s followed by a section of powers, usually gained trough initiation, but also in other ways mentioned in the book. MYSTATRON gives your players a structured serie of things to be found and done, and a guarantee of extra powers at the end. If they don’t die complete the initiation. A few times I was totally stuck with players rummaging in a lost library and, a quick roll of a few d66 on the first pages of MYSTATRON will give them a weird ritual to be carried out, with the relevant preparations. Basically, a few sessions of adventuring.

Then there’s a part of Laws of Reality. You know when you granny told you never let albinos spill salt, or never to lose goats at night, or never dance in a graveyard? She was right, and this section tells you what happens when you do that. It’s another way to do “magic” that is not magic. It works in parallel with other rules, and not only for spellcasters, and they are mostly based on the player’s knowledge, as they do not necessarily require magic powers! These should be rolled before the campaign starts, but don’t sweat it if you don’t.

Then there are four pages on the ritual of the Apotheosis of the Grand Sorcerer of the Valley of Fire.

CHTHONOTRON follows, with an extra section about pointcrawling in caves and canyons. It tells you how to make a chthonic pointcrawl to use in the game and populate it with catacombs, grottoes, chasms home to chthonic cods, forgotten squid settlement and their lost artifacts, shrines, monasteries, and goats. Lots of goats. GOOOOOATS.

After that, a section on the famous Hypogean treasures and curios, including the strange powers of the devouring idols. Not that any of them, like the Butyrous Sarcomancer or The Enemy ofTruth and Beauty, can do nasty things to your campaign. Some scrolls are thrown in the section too, because gaining knowledge is the biggest preoccupation characters should have. Well, beside staying alive. I mean, if their self-preservation is stronger than their thirst for knowledge, why would they study magic in a school under a desert scoured by flames? The scrolls are in because you need something interesting to put in scrolls, and you need a random table for it with results that are not “a spell” or “a treasure map”.

A small section on the value of truth follows. Tables with random names for characters and chthonic gods close the book. I added the tables because you need to give names for, you know, all these unexpected and unnamed NPCs and gods. It sucks when you can’t come up with a name for the assistant pharmacist and the god that lives in the chasm by the standing stones on that island, and I wanted the names to sound right for the campaign.

Mysteries & Mystagogues – PDF – 64 pages – 6$

The status of the Orders

A little status update:

My printer dude is really late. Their binding machine broke down. This has been going on for waaay too long. This means:
First, if you want a refund, remember its always OK.
Second, I might have to find another printer. This has been going on for toooo looong. Exactly a month. OK, in the meantime the local Art Academy went on fire during finals with all the student projects and dissertations inside,  so they had to print a whole gigantic amount of things. But now this is getting a bit ridiculous. I might have to find a new printer. This is the reason why I disabled orders for printed stuff at the web shop. PDFs are still available. The paradox about all this is that the only thing I can reliably print (well, at a quality that pleases me) is the boxed set. Using fifteenth century technology. I don’t want to ditch the local printer because, except for being incredibly late, I have total control over the operation, been a client for years, etc etc.
Third, I’m really really sorry. This lateness is an incredible downer. I’m putting together some extra material for all you people that preordered. I’m really, really sorry.



Fourth: the pictures above are from a prototype of the codex edition. That’s the baaad prototype that is used for all the experiments and ends up looking ass-ugly. I’ve been experimenting with decoration and binding and wood treatment and some interesting things have been happening. More pictures when I get back from the continent (the 22nd).
Fifth: the third book of Chthonic Codex: Mysteries & Mystagogues, is available on the web shop. Its not your usual dungeon master guide… it’s a campaign book. With almost no exposition. Or explanations. Because there is no explanation to be given. This means its almost all crunch, and it’s meant to be used at the table by the referee to make awesome happen.
Sixth, if you ordered a Codex + Boxed set edition, you will receive some custom content. You should receive an email later on today. If you do not, please write me.

So, yeah, that’s pretty much it.

CHTHONOTRON – a pictorial example

Chthonic Codex: Mysteries & Mystagogues features CHTHONOTRON, which is a pointcrawl generator for the Hypogea. Follow it and you have a serviceable campaign map for you Chthonic Codex campaign, or any similar mythic-caverns-underworld-crazy place with rivers and weird stuff.

So, this is the end result: a map showing canyons in blue, big caves are thick black, narrow caves are fine black. The marks are explained later2014-06-08 17.05.56How did I get there?

Repeatedly tossing 5 dice on the map and tracing a line through them. Starting with the first river:
2014-06-08 16.05.24



Then the second river, flowing into the first. That die went exactly on the other river randomly, when rivers intersect I recommend making them flow into each other, despite theoretically being able to flow over each other, being underground and stuff.2014-06-08 16.06.01And then repeatedly for the caves. First cave, that leads off map because one of the dice went off map:

2014-06-08 16.08.29

Then second cave and third cave.

2014-06-08 16.09.19

2014-06-08 16.10.17
And so on. Then I thickened the first caves (they be biiig caves), added more caves, thickened the rivers.

Then I added marks to show distances: but since in this setting you usually walk everywhere, they are marked in time instead of distance. And since I wanted finer granularity in some places, I used marks of different colours: the distance between two black marks is 1 hour, between a green and a black or two greens is 20 minutes. This different granularity is not in the book but it’s a very tiny yet useful hack.

The next step is to populate the caves with the Chthonic Contents section of CHTHONOTRON. I’ll leave that up for later, in another post.


[design] the rhyme and reason of dice and modifiers

Last week I was thinking about how different game systems use different dice resolution mechanics. I spend a lot of time thinking about game mechanics. As in, maybe, more than an hour a day, usually walking to and fro the office. It’s one of those topics my mind wanders to when left idle.

The point is that this time I had a little insight that might prove useful to the aspiring game designer/kitbasher/modder. It’s something I’ve never read in any of the books about game deisign I read. Here it is:

Pick the combination of random distribution and modifiers appropriate to the expectations of success for the different levels of expertise and difficulty

That’s a bit opaque. But reread it. It’s composed of many parts:

  1. random distribution
  2. modifiers
  3. expertise and difficulty
  4. expectations, which is what’s important here.

The first question is: why do we want rules?

Without them, someone has to adjudicate everything on the spot. It means rulings all the time, and a gigantic lot of trust, and a lot of effort from the referee. It’s not bad! It can be fun.

But sometimes you want rules to help players, and as a crutch for the referee. If you use some resolution mechanic the players have an easier job of understanding the risks and outcomes of their actions, and the referee something to lean on when they do not want to think too much about something. This is important because evaluation and risk assessment is something we do in a form or another all the time.

And everybody at the tables has expectations about how things should work out: being better at something means succeeding at it more often, harder tasks should be successful less often and, in case of a challenge, the best should win more often.

The trick is picking the mix of dice rolls and modifiers to make sure that the “often” is the right amount… and this varies from game to game. Actually, even more than that. Unless you’re trying to simulate a real world system, there’s no “right”. It either pleases someone, or it doesn’t, and there are many people at the table with different opinions.

Example, in D&D 3E a strength challenge between two people with strength 18 and 3 has the latter win 8% of the times, and a draw about 2%. This happens because, in layman’s terms, very high and low dice results happen often, and the two modifiers are small compared to the big spread of dice results. D&D does not use stats as straight modifiers, but halves them, because the designer decided that they did not want stats to be too relevant.

GURPS enters from the left. Ignore character building and look only at the resolution mechanics: 3d6 under the appropriate stat. There is less than one chance in ten thousand that the puny weakling will prevail. This is because stats in GURPS are taken at face value (there’s no halving the stat like in 3E) and the dice spread is way narrower, so extremes happen way, way less often.

So we have two factors impacting the result here: a less spread distribution making odd results less probable, and a greater impact of numeric stats on the roll. What’s best for your game?

Rulesets leave, expectations enter the scene and start ignoring each other. What players want differs. Some don’t want the strong to lose, because, hey, they’re stronger. Some want some kind of spread. Some want the stronger to lose only, say, in a narrow case that amounts to a critical (“I sat down to strongarm that puny weakling and pulled a muscle!”), other are ok with a game where there’s less control over the outcome because it fosters shenanigans. Expectations are not simply the “I don’t want to lose”.

(By the way, such high stats in GURPS are uncommon, but do happen, even without rolling stats at random (yes, in third edition it’s a valid way to generate a character). And, yes, there are many ways to handle checks in GURPS and 3E, please don’t remind me, thanks.)

While the above might have seen some discussion, here’s something more interesting and original: how should task difficulty be handled? For the sake of the discourse, move from strength checks to a skill. Say, climbing. And I’ll structure them out as questions because I guess at this point you can understand what I’m saying and I’m afraid I’m going to waffle:

  • should difficulty affect the novice more or less than the expert?
  • is the expert ever going to fail the simple stuff?
  • is the novice ever going to manage the easy stuff?
  • is there a ladder of proficiency so that there are many levels of expertise? so that everybody always succeeds with lower levels and fails higher?
  • what are the chance of success of a normal task? Should they always be the same for every task? and why 50%?
  • should a harder task impact worse an expert or a novice?
  • what actually happens on a failure?
  • the expert fails surely less often, but do they fail less badly?
  • and, most importantly, how does all the above impact on your game?

Let me rewrite it:

how do game mechanics impact on your game?

There’s something we need to address too: the random aspect. Dice. We use dice when we are not sure about the result. The better should succeed, but sometimes they do not, and we need that tension. The random element here is used to model factors not otherwise accounted for. It’s a shortcut that allow us to keep the game moving. Diceless games exists, and they use their own ways to handle this issue. Some other systems, including for example Ars Magica and d20 (both by Tweet), interpret extreme dice results with different outcomes depending whether the situation is controlled (almost no other factors), semi-controlled (few other factors) or completely chaotic (you are on fire on the back of a flying whale fighting a giant robot). Both AM and d20 are 1 die + modifier > difficulty:

  • fire-whale-robot scenario: in AM any 1 can be a disaster, while in d20 you have autofailures on 1, and autosuccess on 20, and critical hits.
  • some factors: both AM and d20 have the provision for simple roll + modifier, without automatic failure or disaster on extreme results. So, if you’re good enough (the modifier is big enough), there’s no need to roll.
  • no other factor: in d20 you can take 10 and take 20. no randomosity. I don’t think there’s anything similar in AM.

Ok, enough waffling. That’s it.