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-Cover

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.

But.

Failures.

Bite.

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.

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Concurrent Campaign: many groups, one weaving continuity

Concurrent campaigns happen when two or more groups play in the same campagn settings AND the actions from both groups impact on the setting for both groups. While its common for a DM to run the same setting for many groups at the same time but with none or very limited crossaction, or to run the same continuity for years over many campaigns, running many groups at the same time is both taxing, due to the increased effort and problematic. The outcome is a much more vibrant campaign, with many more details growing organically from play.

Concurrency 101

Here is the core of concurrency: play the same setting with more than one group and let players change the setting in a way that other groups can perceive and interact with. If you run a sandbox it’s going to be easier than in other styles of campaign, but then again, sandboxes are easier to play with. Easy peasy. You will soon realize though that the whole practice is fraught with problems. Or you might discover that it’s fantastic without any hitch. Anyway, here’s a small list of the problems I found and remedies to mitigate them.

Not enough Content

Two parties go through content twice as fast. And you’re a really busy person. In fact, they don’t. What happens is that, in a sandbox, they will either drift in different directions and stop interact (and then will go through content quickly) or will instead mooch about the trail of devastation and/or consequences left by the other parties. But this trail is, unless you are a consistent shit-hot designer and writer, much better content than most of the stuff you write, so the two groups will faff about in each other’s trail of devastation. Why is it better, though? Mostly because its fully coherent: it’s bourne out of a real story that unfolded itself, leaving bashed doors, mutilated corpses, destroyed fortresses and broken hearts following the criteria that a group of murderhobos would follow. Second, its corpses, ruins, and survivors are interesting because they come with their own drama already. And you dont have to prep it, because the previous parties will have provided all the shenanigans your poor npcs will ever need to have a terrible existence. Third, early groups will follow the most interesting bits of prep and improv you throw at them, and there’s a big change following groups will follow them too.

In short, having a band of adventurers play with your setting is the best prep you can muster, especially if many groups trampled through your campaign already. So, scratch that fear away, multiple parties create a lot of content by themselves.

Timelines & Paradoxes

Different parties do go through in-game time at different speeds. This will cause you headaches and possibly blow your mind open with paradoxes. But it will only if you care about the Game Police.

Let me explain better: it’s not mandatory to completely have the parties act in 100% coherent worlds, and for many reasons.

The first reason is that there is no Game Police telling you that you’re doing it wrong. So try to chill out and enjoy.

Second, most importantly, only the relevant stuff is worth to synchronize. Players are known not to care or notice or misinterpret small details anyway. It usually does not matter if one of the two timelines has an additional three months long trip unless someone cares or its somehow important (and, in that case, you can nimbly reshuffle events between the two campaigns unless there is a post-hoc event).

Third, in case it gets excessively problematic, just bluntly tell the players that, for the purpose of a single adventure or limited time or action frame, you’re taking the liberty of keeping the sessions not synchronized. Just tell them. This is so meta that some of your players might be turned off by this breaking of immersion but, if you want, don’t even tell them. Ultimately concurrent campaigns are a crutch to help you, the DM, run more interesting games. You dont have to justify how you run different groups unless you have a very very complicated social contract with your players. For what they know, the other party is not even real, of its actions are used by you as a suggestion.

Incomunicability

The two parties will probably never meet: for logistic reasons, while the PCs live in the same world and maybe in the same city and maybe even work for the same master, they will never meet unless the players happen to be playing at the same time. This can be fixed by careful meta-discourse, the GM running PCs ar NPCs and understanding that the campaign has some brittle spots that are better not be prodded. On the other hand this does not stop players interacting indirectly by, for example, setting each others house on fire. Apparently wanton destruction on absent PCs’ properties is a sport with a tradition of more than 40 years, and who I am to deal a blow to such an important traditional sport?

How to start

Start a steady campaign and, on the side, play one shots in the same whereabouts with different groups, or in nearby places with the same group. The fire and forget nature of one shots make players risk prone and extremely propense to create the trail of consequences described above. Pit them against the mob. Have them disappear up in the mountains. Let them set the woods on fire. Rob a caravan. Murder the Major. Collapse bridges. Destroy dams. Kidnap princes. Make volcanoes explode. Make sure that they super-piss-off NPCs. Let them seed new adventures, then reap the results with your core group.

Once youre fine with random acts of wanton campaign vandalism, simply go bananas with many groups at the same time. The most I had were three groups at the same time: while two adventuring locales were kept effectively separated, the rest of the setting was fully synchronized. This happened even when I was running Western League for two of groups weekly and for the third once every three months. Just dont feel constrained by the relative incongruences: even if two of the groups meet they’ll be busy discussing shared lore, interesting details and experiences and what a douchebag Lord Dude Mc Duderson is rather than nitpick at your shoddy treatment of the calendar or shopkeeper inventories.

Be brave.

Game Police: the Beginning

 

Edit: added video content below (and many thanks to Roger the GS).

The dream police, they live inside of my head.
The dream police, they come to me in my bed.
The dream police, they’re coming to arrest me, oh no.

[snip]

‘Cause they’re waiting for me.
They’re looking for me.
Ev’ry single night they’re driving me insane.
Those men inside my brain.

 

Fantasy F*uckin’ Italy and the Game Police

Saturday I ran my first Google Plus hangout game, set in Fantasy F*ucking Italy. The setting, more specifically, is Milan in May 1491 and the game system is Adventure Fantasy Game. Fun was had, liberties were taken and Saturday we are going to play again.

But I’m not going to write about the setting, or the game, or the period. I’m going to write about the Game Police.

The Game Police stops you from having fun your way. Because your way is not proper. Because you’re not allowed to walk off the path. Because our pasts are full of shipwrecked campaigns and bad games, and surely these suck sewage. And the Game Police knows what’s good for you and wants to protect you.

The Game Police first weapon is Nagging. It might be from people on your social network of choice, on RPG.net, your friends. It might even be your inner self-criticizing voice. Nagging mostly consists of reminding you that you are not doing justice to the material or the rules by not being 100% accurate in preparation or execution. If you’re not accurate you’re engaging in some kind of lame, distorted version of the proper setting or game. The Game Police frowns on that.

The Game Police second weapon is Fear. Fear that you might fuck up and it’s gonna be your fault if it’s horrible. The problems might happen now or later if you’re not conservative. Fear stops characters from messing with your setting, stops you from exploring and stretching its boundaries, stops everybody from being daring with toys. Because you might ruin everybody’s game now and in the future forever.

Nagging and Fear are terrible weapons, and the Game Police knows it. They keep you away from fun by threatening you with terrible consequences, stopping you and your group from hopping off the steep Cliff of Failed Campaigns and the Crevice of BadWrongFun. Keeping you safe. Nagging delays you, forcing to prepare so much that it’s not feasible and making gameplay clumsier in playing rules as written. Fear stops you from being daring with your material, your setup and with in-game consequences.

It’s for your own good, really. Truth is the Game Police also stop you from being utterly & freakin’ awesome.

Ignore the Game Police: nobody ever reached the summit of Mount Awesome without risking anything.

The best way to the top of Mount Awesome is a magical trebuchet.