The Fate RPG “Control Panel” v0.5

I made a mention in a recent post about a project I’ve been working on. It’s far from finished, but I’ve grown too excited about it to wait until it’s finished before I post it for initial use, review and comment.

As I’ve also mentioned before, there’s just so much I like about the Fate RPG ruleset (in its various incarnations) and its adaptability that I intend to use it to run all the games I run for the foreseeable future (you can see my post on (Roleplaying) Gaming as an Adult). The Bronze Rule (or Fate Fractal, depending upon your preference) and general modularity of the system makes it a prime candidate for seamlessly running a wide-variety of game genres, from soap-opera drama to the farthest-flung speculative fiction and everything in between.

Having read a good number of Fate RPG settings and system tweaks (from the official toolkits to community-created content), I understood that this system is highly customizable while retaining its core fiction-first and efficient-play philosophies. Until I began this project, I did not fully understand just how customizable the system really is, Working on this project has given me an even more profound respect for the system and its writers, but has also really helped me to grok how things can (and should) fit together and how the rules may be manipulated–large scale or subtly–to accentuate different parts of the fiction being portrayed at the table.

The project itself is a responsive Excel spreadsheet that uses drop-down menus and stacked levels of questions to guide the user through customizing the Fate ruleset to a desired setting. This allows the user to efficiently make selections without having to sort through the (rather voluminous) books using the Fate System to find various systems and ideas that can be “borrowed” for your own game while keeping a high-level view of the overall ruleset in mind to avoid losing the fiction-first and relatively-light crunch of the core system (unless you want to turn Fate into a fiction-first, high-crunch system, which it can also do!).  Use of this system is likely to do for you what it has done for me–give you a profound respect for the innovations that make the Fate system so versatile and efficient while also being highly-evocative of setting and theme.

I think that the system is in shape to be very functional as it is, but I have a lot more in mind for it. Additionally, as I use it to build rules configurations for my own use, and as I post my own Fate rules concoctions on the blog, I’ll add presets to the selections to allow you to easily incorporate those same systems into your rules modifications. For existing settings, I do so only by general reference to the setting to avoid any copyright issues, but you’ll still end up with a set of configurations that will allow you to create a rules booklet particular to your setting more efficiently than collating everything by hand.

So, here it is in all its premature glory: what I’m calling the Fate RPG “Control Panel.” I very much look forward to hearing your reviews and criticisms, understanding how you’re using the Control Panel, and hearing your suggestions for modifications, expansions and improvements. Note that I have not yet added full explanatory notes, so you may have to guess a little at what certain selections mean. Additionally, not all Extra sheets, skill lists, weapon/armor lists etc. are complete.

Fate Control Panel v.5 Public

(N.B.: Please download a local copy of the spreadsheet before making selections or changes. Also, you will need to enable Macros for everything to work.)

Roleplaying Mental Illness

I’ve been thinking about this topic a bit recently (for no particular reason recognized by my conscious mind, and nothing decipherable from my dreams, at least), and I thought I’d contribute my personal thoughts and opinions on the matter. A few prefatory notes:

  1. If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you may remember that I’ve now lived with clinical depression for fully half of my life (thankfully well controlled so that its effects on me are minimum or none). I know what it’s like to struggle against mental illness, and I understand the stigma that still, unfortunately, exists in the minds of many. But this post isn’t about my experience. I believe that this is an important issue for all roleplayers, not simply on an awareness basis (though that, too), but also because mental illness, if handled well and by agreement of all involved, can add depth and drama to a story–but also runs a high likelihood of being offensive, misguided, and ridiculous when the topic is not handled with care.
  2. You’ll probably also note that my writing on gaming has been focused on Fate RPG at present. The Fate Accessibility Toolkit has been recently released, and my understanding is that it has a treatment of this topic as well. I have not read it, so I don’t know how my opinions fit with the approach therein. Regardless, I can’t imagine that reading multiple opinions and approaches on the topic would be harmful–likely it would be helpful.
  3. I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist; I’m a lawyer, gamer, writer and aspiring theologian. None of my comments here should be taken as an attempt at serious medical commentary: we’re not talking about the pathology of actual mental illness here; we’re talking about fictionalized mental illness portrayed for dramatic and narrative effect in games we play–and portraying said fictionalized diseases and disorders in a way respectful to and mindful of those who live with the reality every day.

Getting It Wrong
I don’t have any particular instances I can think of where I had a player roleplay a character with mental illness in a way that was anything other than cartoonish, and that’s perhaps part of my basis for writing this post.

Let’s take an example many of us will be familiar with–a character playing a Malkavian vampire (or Malkovian if NWoD) in Vampire: The Masquerade (or Requiem, if you prefer). I have only seen players portray such characters as a bundle of nonsensical nonsequiturs intended to justify chaotic randomness and the player making all decisions by whim or, even worse, a roll of the dice. This is painful to all involved, except perhaps the player of the character, which is bad RPG group dynamics.

Not to offer criticism without an alternative, here’s how I think a typical Malka/ovian character should appear at the table: entirely “normal” most of the time. Then, occasionally, the character says something off, but in a way that might be a miscommunication, a bad joke, or something else that’s weird but only disturbing or threatening according to a certain interpretation. It’s only occasionally that mental malady truly overtakes the character, triggered by elevated tension or specific events, when it becomes painfully obvious that the character is gripped by beliefs or motivations that simply do not match with reason or the facts of the world. That inability to let go of incorrect beliefs or to overcome unwanted and unreasonable compulsions is where the horror of mental illness is found–for sufferer and for those around him or her. Vampire is a horror game, however, so that’s the point of portraying mental illness or psychological conditions in such a game–whether as a vampire who inevitably suffers from such or as a different type of character who suffers from the same for reasons mirroring those in the real world–unfortunate genetics, after-effects of injury or physical illness, unhelpful thought patterns maintained over time, mental trauma, etc.

The Age of Diagnosis by Committee
With the availability of Google, Wikipedia, WebMD and the like, there’s a growing habit among we who lack any significant training in psychology, to attempt to diagnose personality disorders or pathological mental illness in others. Most often this is our political figures (there’s even a current research trend to analyze sociopathic traits in the types of people who run for or are successful in political office, even if otherwise seemingly mentally healthy) and our celebrities, but it just as easily infiltrates our gossip about the people with whom we work and live.

In some ways, this is nothing new. Since the birth of neuroscience and psychology/psychiatry as well-respected fields of academic and scientific inquiry, historians have jumped at the opportunity to diagnose major figures in our past (particularly those whose behavior was erratic or who had a reputation in their own time for being mentally ill) according to modern psychological theory. There’s George III of England, who likely suffered from porphyria, any historical figure who claimed to have visions from God, who are most often retroactively diagnosed with either temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE-X) or schizophrenia, and plenty of persons we’d like to think of as having a mental illness to explain their crimes against humanity.

Of course, except in limited circumstances where DNA testing might be available and a mental illness had a wholly or mostly genetic cause, we really can’t know what historical persons did or did not suffer from. This trend is less about those analyzed and more about us, about the human tendency to want to categorize things into neat boxes to avoid ambiguity and uncertainty.

There is also a tendency to use this tactic to elevate our historical milieu over the past. We can says things like, “There was so much violence in the middle ages, a sociopath wouldn’t just find it easier to survive, he’d find it easy to thrive!” i.e., thank God we’re so much less violent and so much more reasonable now than people used to be. I doubt that very much. In the case of the TLE-X explanation, the point is most typically to apply a materialist paradigm to the past so that we can laugh about how backward and superstitious people were then and how much better we are now for embracing “reason” over religion (despite the obvious logical, philosophical and epistemological flaws in such arguments, which I’ve addressed elsewhere on the blog).

It’s precisely in the uncertainty and ambiguity inherent to mental illness where we find narrative drama. For several reasons, I’m going to suggest that we put down our DSM VI’s and focus on narrative.

Why Diagnosis is Unhelpful For RPGs
(1) It causes us to use stereotypes.
It’s likely everyone reading this (or nearly everyone, at least) has read or played in an RPG with a sanity system. I’m not going to point out any offending games specifically, but these systems tend to play out in one of two ways: Most often, the system involves preset categories of mental illness (usually given the names of official categories that might be found in the DSM) and prescribed behaviors for each category as a mechanic for something that, by its very nature, defies easy mechanics and particular expectations. Alternatively, the system relies on discrete behaviors rather than full categories.

Here are some of the problems with these systems: First, if the result of the “insanity” (a problematic word for such systems anyway) doesn’t match the instigating events, the disconnect makes the system lack any verisimilitude, which most often causes players to lose any interest in believability and play the system and its effects for laughs. Second, these systems often focus on limited behaviors, which builds idiosyncrasy in a character, but not necessarily serious character development. When the behavior, rather than motive, is the issue, the risk of cartoonish roleplay becomes exponentially higher.

This kind of system further pushes us toward caricature rather than character because it operates as a shorthand to approximate mental illness without much care toward our actual proximity to the truth of experience. My players love to roleplay, but most of them are not interested in doing a lot of research to play their characters. I cast no aspersions on that; every roleplayer has different goals in approaching the game and I suspect that most gamers want to focus on the game without having to do “homework.” But it means sloppy roleplaying on issues that require great research or experience to do well, like mental illness.  This is poor form on its own, but when you have someone at the table who has experienced mental illness, personally or in close loved ones, and who potentially continues to struggle with those issues, such a lackluster approach shows a disrespect and lack of empathy destructive both to relationships and to a safe gaming environment.

(2) It makes us rules lawyers of character.
I’ve played with enough gamers who believe that the rules as written constitute the “physics” of the game and trump everything else–fun, good narrative, drama, efficient play, etc. My personal opinion is that the culture, if not the history, of D&D pushes people toward such a belief (I understand that Old School gamers will vehemently disagree; this is a debate for a different set of posts).

When we translate this approach to a set of rules describing a mental illness a character may have, then the rules of the mental illness become a permission for bad behavior by the player. This is not a result of roleplaying mental illness itself, rather it is a prioritization of discrete values and prescribed results (i.e. rules) over the reality of mental illness. “The player argues, ‘because I have…uh, kleptomania…I have to steal everything I can from the Baron. And because I have schizophrenia, I believe that the rest of the party members actually did it, so I blame them.'” Not fun for those other players, probably not relevant to the narrative, not a development of the player’s character in any meaningful way and not a cooperative approach to roleplaying in a group–in other words: annoying, unrealistic, and offensive.

Despite the categorizations of the DSM VI and its predecessors, every presentation of mental illness is different (it is, after all, an expression of a unique soul and psyche), so pigeonholing a disease into a set of rote behaviors is contrary to experience.

It is commonly said that naming a thing gives you power over it. This may be the exception that proves the rule, where naming the thing gives it power over you as you feel obligated to meet a culturally–not experientially–based expectation of the thing so named.

(3) Human behavior is based on a complex interaction of beliefs, the matrix of preferences and thought structures that constitute personality, and experience. Not on hard and fast rules.
Again, I’m not an expert in psychology or psychiatry. But my training as a foster parent has opened my eyes to the complexity of behavioral motivations in children, particularly those with traumatic backgrounds, and I can’t imagine that the same is not true of adults.

My point here has a common thread with my two points above, but I’d like to think that the first point focuses on our respect for others, the second focuses on our approach to gaming, and this one focuses on our approach to narrative.

When we put a name on a mental illness, there will be a temptation to judge every choice a player makes in consideration of his character’s condition against the rubric of our expectations on the disease or disorder specified. Where above I discussed the problem of a named mental illness providing an excuse for a player to dump on his fellows, the opposite is also true–the other players may feel compelled to weigh in every time the player whose character has a mental illness touches on the mental illness as a factor in the character’s behavior and choices.

Sometimes, limitations foster creativity. Here, they only stifle a player.

Psychosis Because of That Which Should Not Be
The descent into madness is a well-tested narrative trope as well as a key feature of the Cthulhu Mythos–and I’d dare say that it was Call of Cthulhu that first broached the issue of sanity systems in games (but I haven’t done the research to verify).

But that’s not the only place that we see such a theme; there are many narratives–often horror–that center on such an idea. Losing the ability to discern reality from fantasy is an existential terror. Perhaps, though, that’s actually something separate from what’s going on in the Cthulhu-verse. There, it’s an exposure to a hidden reality that fragments the psyche. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t treat the results in a similar way, because the source of drama is the inability to differentiate between real and unreal (or meaningful and meaningless).

And this result, this slippery slope, this descent into a darkness in our discernment, has nothing to do with using shorthand diagnoses to act out a caricature of mental illness, nor does it need any name to work its drama and tension upon narrative.

The key here is having the player feel the same ambiguity and terrifying uncertainty that his character does–this lies wholly in the realm of the gamemaster, without need for reference to rules and dice. It begins subtly at first, with the GM giving a certain detail of a scene one way at first and differently later. Maybe it was an honest mistake, but maybe the player can’t trust everything the GM tells him. With a proper basis of trust between players and GM, the player will quickly come to understand that this is part of the story unfolding upon his character, not the GM being absent-minded or a jerk. As more important details get changed on the character, as he acts to devastating effect based on misperceptions fed to him by the GM (as the arbiter of the character’s sensory input), as the chain of events from a mistaken perception or belief becomes longer and longer before the player is able to realize that something isn’t right, the deeper the descent, the direr the desperation, the more doubtful the decisions made. This captures the experience of an unraveling mind without the need to diagnose schizophrenia or some other illness and then feel hidebound to its definitions. Furthermore, by not diagnosing anything, you increase the ambiguity about the character’s plight.

If necessary or useful, you can associate this system with some mechanic for measuring the abstract and relative loss of reliability in a character’s beliefs and perceptions–this can be done with a Fate-style stress track (though a use of Consequences may run into diagnostic issues), with a PbtA “countdown clock,” with a pool of points, or any other method used in RPGs to track condition, so long as the mechanics are used as a guide to how the GM portrays the character’s interaction with “reality” rather than a strict codification of behaviors or named psychoses.

It is popular now to have as many of the elements of a tabletop RPG as possible be  “player-facing.” This should not be, because that knowledge allows for extended metagaming and undercuts the effect of the distrust of the GM’s communications by giving the player something to compare or judge from. As I mentioned above, this requires a relationship of trust between player and GM and an agreement that everyone wants this to be an element of the game. The player needs to be willing to accept the discomfort and frustration that naturally accompanies this type of situation as a worthwhile experience (because it’s interesting from a “what if” standpoint, allows a safe exploration of an experience dangerous and terrifying to have in reality, or satisfies some other goal of the gamers coming to the table).

When It’s Not Me; It’s You
The horror game need not be the only genre in which mental illness may play a meaningful role in the game; nor does a descent into irrationality need to be the game’s focus, as it must surely be when the system described above is employed. How then, can we represent mental illnesses in a more balanced way that benefits the story but does not consume it? Particularly if, as I’ve argued above, any diagnosis of a mental illness is a Thing-Which-Ought-Not-Be-Named?

The answer, I think, is a relatively simple one. We focus on character beliefs that do not match with reality (as reality is generally accepted, I suppose). This could be a debunked conspiracy theory that a character unrelentingly clings to in spite of the evidence. It could be a wrong belief about some fact in the world, an impossible expectation, a delusion of self, a magnified fear, or a perceived relationship between things that anyone else would see as causally unrelated. These beliefs may be small ones that only rarely come up in the game, or they may be so fundamental that they almost always have some effect upon the character’s decisions.

If we focus on beliefs instead of behaviors and let the behaviors flow from the mistaken beliefs and perceptions, the character behavior will have a higher verisimilitude, greater fidelity in both dramatic interpretation and depiction of realistic characters and events. The risk of caricature remains if the beliefs in play are not carefully considered and crafted by the player(s) and GM, but even if the portrayal of the belief devolves into parody, that parody is farther divorced from any particular person who has been labeled as having a particular mental illness, somewhat blunting its offensiveness, at least.

This provides better guidance for the player than a set of strict “rules” of behavior to follow, is likelier to result in behavior more related to and helpful to the overall narrative of the game (or at least not obstructive thereto), and matches more with our experience of mental illness in others (at least mine).

Unless someone gives us a label to use or we fall into the game of armchair diagnosis of people who annoy or offend us (dangerous on many levels), we don’t experience other people as exemplars of particular disorders or diseases. We might call someone “crazy,” but in the colloquial and lay use of the term we mean exactly that the person acts in a manner we believe to be contrary to common sense, rationality, and the facts as we understand them to be, not that the person exhibits particular quantifiable markers that seem to indicate a particular differential diagnosis. We are better equipped to name a mistaken belief someone seems to have than to diagnose them, particularly when the illness is one of conscious and interior experience, not something plainly writ upon the body.

The focus on beliefs over expected behaviors also gives us a fuller view of the experience of mental illness. If you’ve watched The United States of Tara, you’ve seen at least one successful narrative that captures both the heartbreak and suffering involved in mental illness and the times where its effects are more lighthearted–perhaps even amusing. Likewise, centering our systems of “(in)sanity” in games on beliefs may allow us to more safely laugh at absurdity without laughing directly at a condition suffered by real, living people. That is my hope.

Corruption Systems and Sanity Systems Are Not the Same
In fantasy or otherwise “grimdark” settings, there is a tendency to have a system that represents the idea of “corruption,” though the meaning of that term is often ambiguous at best.

The term, I think, has its basis in the sense of “moral corruption,” as with the corrupting influence of Tolkien’s One Ring as a vessel of the corrupted and evil will of Sauron. Other roleplaying games and settings have used that term, but not necessarily the meaning. The roleplaying games for the Warhammer settings, for instance, typically have corruption systems. But these systems amalgamate an idea of moral corruption (usually, though, through the eyes of themselves corrupt societal structures) with the body horror of unwanted mutation (perhaps problematic for its symbolic portents for ideas of “purity”) and with the Cthulhuverse idea of a degradation of sanity and moral fiber that results from seeking out those Things-Which-Should-Not-Be!

I have numerous problems with conflating ideas of sanity and judgments of morality. On the one hand, there is a tendency going back at least as far as the 19th century, to call immorality or criminal activity a form of “insanity.” This dehumanizes those who commit criminal offenses, simultaneously insinuating that they cannot be held fully accountable for their choices because of mental illness and yet classifying all antisocial behavior as abhorrent and inhuman and thus allowing us to ignore the possibility that, under the right (wrong) circumstances, we might engage in just the same kind of behavior. Neither aspect of the argument is logical, philosophically or theologically sustainable, or even useful in a societal sense.

Perhaps I’m overthinking here (although I reject the existence of such a thing altogether), and I understand that some will respond, “Get over it; it’s just a game! What are you making such a big deal about?”

Regardless, both the would-be game designer and the aspiring theologian in me must protest the conflation of these ideas. If you want your game to have a conceit that exposure to certain things is damaging to the psyche, great; that’s what sanity systems are for.

If you want to have a system for the degradation of a character’s morality, fine, although my personal preference is that such ideas are a matter of roleplaying more than mechanics (though there are excellent ways to manipulate changes in character Aspects in Fate if you want a middle-ground).

If you want a system for body horror resulting from exposure to dark magics, that’s cool, too, if it suits your game and your players are on board.

But aggregating all three into a single system dilutes the effects of all of them, not to mention the philosophical problem of determining what the numbers mean for each of the influencing factors. Suffice to say, while mental illness may lead to immoral behavior, that behavior should probably be viewed in light of the mental illness as a mitigating factor in determining the extent of culpability, so morality and sanity systems should probably remain separate, unless you intend to make the argument that sanity and morality are closely intertwined, which I reject.

Conclusion
Like good fiction, good roleplaying allows us to explore difficult existential or experiential issues in a safe place where we can imagine the consequences that flow from particular troubling situations and then leave them at the table when we’re ready–or need–to walk away. Like other difficult issues–racism, religiously-motivated extremism and hatred, poverty, violence and all other manner of social strife–has a place in roleplaying, at least for those groups who want to struggle with “serious issues” over the course of their play (and not every gaming group, player, or campaign needs to). But when we choose to dive into such difficult topics that are also very real experiences for people who may or may not be sitting at the table with us, we have some moral responsibility, I think, to do so in a respectful and at least semi-realistic way. Not only is this good ethical roleplaying (which term now makes me want to think and expound more on the morality and ethics of roleplaying games), but without it we’re missing the point of including tough issues in our games at all.

When properly addresses, dealing with those tough issues in a roleplaying game opens up our eyes to things we may not have thought before, deepens our understanding, and increases our empathy for others. And that, in my mind, is roleplaying at its finest–when it entertains us, teaches us, crafts meaningful narrative and helps us to become better humans.

I’ve got a friend who is a gamer and fellow writer and who works professionally in raising awareness of, compassion for, and competency in dealing with mental illness. I’m going to ask her to at least comment on this post, if not write a follow-up (or perhaps rebuttal!) with her own ideas which, given her training and experience, likely have more weight than mine on this topic.

Nano-Update: Final!

It is finished.

Last week, both of the kids had the flu, so between trying to get work done and staying home with them, it became difficult to put all of the time into writing that I had hoped to. Neither K and I seemed to have caught it (thank God!), but I think we’re both still feeling a bit exhausted in scrambling to make sure they were comfortable while meeting work deadlines and trying to plan for the holidays.

Nevertheless, while I didn’t write as much as I’d wanted to, I did get enough in to hit my 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo. Yay! I win! Although, I have to admit that I don’t actually feel much at all about hitting that deadline. The things I feel good about–a constant schedule of writing, feeling productive and creative while writing, reaping the benefits of the massive amount I’ve time I put into plotting the novel–really don’t have much to do with the event itself. And, given that the novel is looking more and more like it’s going to be right at 150,000 words when complete, 50,000 doesn’t feel like quite the big milestone it might be. I realize that this kind of treatment of NaNoWriMo might make me an asshole (I feel like it does given that completing NaNoWriMo is a significant achievement on the way to finishing a novel for aspiring writers such as myself). But, as they say with unassailable logic, “It is what it is.”

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m trying to finish (the first draft of) the whole thing by the end of the year; while I’ve previously been optimistic about this, the events of this past week especially have made me wonder whether I’ll be able to keep that up in light of all of life’s competing demands (though I do now believe that, if I didn’t have to work a “day” job, I could be a prolific writer). In order not to stress myself out overmuch, while I will continue to try to get the draft done by the end of the year, I’m going to focus more on making time to constantly work on it until it gets finished than worry too much about the deadline. We’ll see how it goes.

I’ve got a few side projects that will make their way to the blog in the near future. One, a set of optional rules for cybernetics and human augmentation in the Fate RPG system, should be out in a week or so.

Another (which I’m quite proud of) is an Excel spreadsheet to make adjusting Fate’s “dials” easy for planning new settings and campaigns in the system. There is a single-page Fate worksheet for this, but the dials it includes are relatively basic and do not account for many innovative rules mods that have been added by the many books that have been published since Fate Core first released. This spreadsheet will incorporate (by reference only–I’m avoiding any copyright issues by providing explanations of the rules referenced) sources from the Fate Toolkits to the Fate Plus and Fate Codex periodicals to rules from various published settings (like Transhumanity’s FateTachyon SquadronInterface Zero 2.0, etc.)

“Dials” will include variables such as number of character aspects, general category each aspect should fit, special aspects rules, whether you’re using Approaches or Skills (or both!), what your skill list will be (from options I’ve developed for my own games), what starting Refresh will be, how magic, gear, weapons, armor and human augmentation will be treated (if they need to have special rules at all), how many and what type of stress tracks you’ll use (and how they’ll be calculated), whether you’ll be using rules for Resources and Contacts, how consequences will be factored, how recovery will work, how character advancement will work and much more. It makes me excited to plan out different potential settings and games, and I hope to share that excitement with you. It is certainly possible to do all of this planning without the kind of tool I’m working on, but the spreadsheet (I think) allows you to look at the “big picture” and think about various rules mods you’re going to use will all fit together. I know one of my issues with the customization of the Fate system is that I get tempted to do too much when simpler methods can often accomplish the same results (or similar enough) while better keeping to the elegance and efficiency of the system altogether.

Spreadsheets with automatic referencing and drop-down menus is about the closest I get to computer programming, but I do enjoy it when I need something a bit more rote and that doesn’t take too much brain power to work on. This has been a little respite for those times when I’m too tired to write creatively but not ready to sit still and passively watch TV or something (at least not without multitasking, a bad habit of mine).

All of this is to say that I’ll be returned to doing some more regular posting on the blog in addition to trying to keep up with the novel’s progress. More to come soon!

Nano-Update 3

I’m in the home stretch. As of this post, I’m at 40,588 words written, and that’s still after having some of my worst days writing this NaNoWriMo (one dismal 600-word day and an 1100 word day this week).

At my current average pace and goal, I’ll finish by the 20th or 21st. With NaNoWriMo at least. More and more now, though, I’m thinking about the goal of having the whole thing finished, in first draft, before the end of the year. If I can keep up this pace, I can do it. As I’ve mentioned, it’s looking like the novel will be somewhere between 125,000 and 150,000 words when finished, so that gives me somewhere between 35 and 47 days to the end of the novel. As of today, there are 44 more days in the year.

I worry about keeping up that pace, though. I’m worried that I’ll do the same thing I do when I’m running–I’ll push too hard to fast and then tire myself out early and be unable to run the entire distance I’d planned for. I’m not a distance runner by any means (and I like having run much more than I like running), and I’d like to think that I’m a much better writer than runner (certainly I write much more consistently than I run), so maybe this isn’t the best analogy. But, having not attempted to write at this pace for that long before, its the uncertainty that threatens. Isn’t that always the way of things?

On the other hand, though, there’s a part of me that thinks that maybe this pace is relatively easily sustainable. The goal I’ve been setting for myself is to write 2,700 words per day, and I’m hitting that more days than I’m not. It’s been taking me about two hours to hit that word count when I’m focused, and I’m finding it a bit easier to focus each time I sit down to write.

What’s more, I’m finding that, at the conclusion of a session, I still want to write. I often want to work on some side project rather than continuing the novel, some of which will make their way to the blog in the near future, I’m sure, but I don’t feel that my creative juices are exhausted at the end of a session. I’d almost equate that feeling to the runner’s high–it’s a damn good feeling.

Of course, trying to maintain this pace likely means fewer posts on the blog until I finish that first draft, so I’ll beg your forgiveness in advance.

On the other hand, I’ve repeatedly requested readers for the novel-in-progress, so if you’re just dying to read something of mine in the meantime, you have that option!

If you’re a fellow NaNoWriMoer, I wish you the best of luck. Put up a comment and let me know how you’re doing and how you feel about it!

Nano-Update 2

It’s 10:45 am on Sunday morning. I’m at home while K and little Marshal are at church; Hawkwood has been sick the past few days and is, thankfully, resting comfortably at present.

Writing has been good. I’m now at 27,293 words and beginning to focus more on my goal of finishing the first draft by the end of the year than the fifty-thousand-word goal of NaNoWriMo, which now seems like it will not be any issue. This is nine-and-a-half chapters into a text that is plotted to forty-something chapters, so I’m also feeling pretty good about the likely end length.

Also, I have a (very early) working title: Things Unseen.

What’s more, I’m finding the writing easier. I’m averaging about 2,700 words in two hours of writing each day, and that feels very sustainable. The first time I did NaNoWriMo, I finished, and early, but I seem to remember having a tougher time dragging out the words and spilling them onto the page, spending more time in the writing altogether, and more of that time frustrated.

I’m still having the ups and downs of going from “I’m a brilliant writer!” to “This is crap, why am I spending my time on this!” but I’m more comfortable with the struggle than I have been. I’m learning to forgive myself (and my writing) a little bit more. The biggest part of that is rejecting the myth that brilliant writers get it right the first time, can write something down once and be done.

Some of the things I write do feel really good in the first draft (hence the highs), but I’m reminding myself that writing a novel is a long journey and there’ll be a lot to clean up, rewrite, rework and improve on subsequent passes through the manuscript. In some ways, it’s like a sculpture. At first, I’m getting the general shape of things, the suggestion of the lines and contours of what I’m chiseling away at. But there will be additional sessions necessary to bring all the details into focus and then to smooth the lines so that everything flows together as it should. I’m becoming comfortable with that idea. This is also helping to put me in the mindset that writing a novel is a marathon and not a sprint. Pacing myself is important, which is why I haven’t been pushing to write more faster given that I’m at a pace that is good, comfortable and sustainable.

Another influential factor is accepting the fact that I have to write. It’s just part of who I am. Yes, I very much want to write things that are good, that people want to read, that give me a way to send my voice, ideas and stories to thousands of people are more. I want to write things that would allow me to be a writer, full-time. But those desires are not the point. I write now because I must; because I’m not me–and I’m not happy–when I don’t. Even if it doesn’t turn out as well as I hope, it’s still mine, part of me in an essential way.

So far, so good, but we’re only ten days in. We’ll see if I still feel the same about the pace and sustainability next week.

Who else out there is participating in NaNoWriMo? I’m sure some of the people who read my blog are. Let me know how you’re doing! And, if you’re brave enough to read along with my first draft and want to give me some feedback, please reach out! You can email me at FaithFictionFatherhood@gmail.com.

Nano-Update 1

Three days in to NaNoWriMo 2019 and I have 10,443 words in the bag, which is almost my first four chapters done.  It’s been about 2 hours a day to hit that pace, which I’m extremely happy with. If I could find time to keep that pace and write three or more hours a day, I’d be very satisfied. Alas, so far I have not been able to achieve that.

I’m trying not to self-edit too much in this first-draft run through so that I can focus on getting the complete story to paper (or screen, as the case may be). I can clean it up after the first draft is done, and since that will be unavoidable, no sense trying to forestall it by editing as I go. Still, sometimes I can’t help myself.

If I can sustain this writing pace, then I can reasonably expect to finish the novel by the end of the year. It’s plotted at about fifty chapters, so I’m expecting somewhere between 125,000 and 150,000 words when finished. Any more than that, and I’ll have to seriously take the scissors to parts of it. Yes, A Game of Thrones is 298,000 words, but I’m not going to pretend I’m Martin on the first go-round. Not from a writing standpoint and not from a marketing standpoint.

Nevertheless, I’m finding relatively few moments when I’m stymied about what to write next, which is new for me. Hopefully it keeps up!

If you’d like to read the first chapter, click here. If you’d like to be a reader and journey along with me as I write, please be in touch!

NaNoWrimo 2019 – First Chapter

As a little taste of my NaNoWriMo 2019 project (still untitled), I’m posting the short introductory chapter (in first draft and unedited) here. Hope you enjoy!

 

One evening in the month of Tengas, by the Ealthen Calendar, when the nights remain hot even under the moons, I found myself on the road from my home in Ilessa to the castle-town of Vaina at the southwestern end of the Nysas Hills. Some acquaintances I’d made in the Old City had asked me to visit their brother Aryden, lord of their house, at their familial holding. Brother and sister—after several glasses of wine—whispered to me that their home had become haunted, that their brother’s wife in particular suffered greatly at the hands of some undiscovered spirit.

Knowing my profession—if it can truly be called that—they’d asked if I might see what I could do to remedy the situation. I proved reluctant until they assured me that my efforts would be well rewarded; I had heard that the amn Vaina family enjoys great wealth. Were it not for my habit, I could live simply and not hurdle headlong into the sort of otherworldly dangers to which my erstwhile friends had directed me. What habit is that, you ask? Books, of course. Even those from the printers are expensive enough, but the ones that hold the greatest interest for me cannot be found in print; they must be discovered and transcribed by hand.

And so, I held a minor incantation alive in my mind, softly illuminating the well-trod dirt path with preternatural light, nudging my borrowed horse along carefully, lest an injurious misstep cost me more than the value of the job before I’d even arrived. Windborne, my mount had been named. Once, perhaps, she had been fast enough to earn such a name. Now, though, only her ambling gait recommended her to me.
In the nearing distance, the firelights of the small castle-town of Vaina shone like a beacon, the fortress itself glowing on the hill above the nighttime fires of the town below. Food, though now only as hot as the air around me, waited for me there, and wine for the frustrations of the road.On these things I thought as Windborne plodded along only slightly faster than I could’ve walked, and I returned my eyes to the ground to watch her hooves.

In my reverie I’d not noticed the two men stepping onto the path before me until one of them cleared his throat, startling Windborne ever so slightly, I imagined that, dulled with age as her senses were, there was little she perceived clearly enough to find truly terrifying.

Men who greet a traveler in such a way have only one thing in mind, and I should’ve known to pay better attention on the road.

“Don’t you know it’s dangerous to travel the road alone?” asked the first man?

“Especially at night,” the second added.

Desperation marked every aspect of the mens’ appearance, from the travel-stained and road-worn clothes to the small patches of rust marring their drawn steel, poorly-crafted falchions better suited to chopping wood. But I’d seen men killed by far less, and the two carried themselves with confidence enough that I believe that they’d put their blades to nefarious use before.

A scraggly beard partially covered the pock-marked face of the first man, middle-aged and possessed of the sort of sinewy muscles that speak to service as a soldier or farmer, hard work with meager returns. Hard living had likewise ruddied the flower of the youth of the first man’s teenaged companion; dark circles around the boy’s eyes and cracks at the corner of his mouth told the all-too-common-tale of hornroot use.

“Highway robbery’s a pretty dangerous pursuit as well, I hear,” I told them, casually, hoping nonchalance covered over the disquiet in my mind. “You never know who you’re going to chance across. A wandering knight of legend, some noble’s assassin, bounty hunters, a thaumaturge.”

With the last words, recognition dawned upon the faces of the two bandits as they realized that they could not identify a natural source of the light that currently illuminated us. “Fucking witch,” the first one said.

“I think they call the menfolk ‘warlocks,’” the younger man corrected, earning a sidelong glance from his elder.

“Not in the Sisters,” I said.

“We ain’t in the Sisters, is we? We’re in the heartlands here, where the true and honest folk live. Those who fear the One as they should. Those who wouldn’t dream of doing the Evil One’s bidding with sorceries and mutterings and the like.” This from the older fellow.

“Two birds, one stone, innit?” The companion added. “Do a service for the One by killing us a warlock, and I bet he’s got some good shit to sell, too. And a horse.”

“Two birds with one stone? A trivial matter. Perhaps you’d like to see how two stones are killed with one bird?”

Almost simultaneously, they cocked their heads at me, like puppies trying to sort out something new. Given that precious-short pause, I split my mind between the effort of maintaining the thaumaturgic ball of light and weighing my options. With a quick sorcery, I could turn the illumination into a brief flare, blinding, or at least distracting, the men and galloping past them in their confusion, but the ensuing dark would leave me barreling blindly into the darkness at as least as much risk as standing still. I could draw the sword that hung languidly at my side: a thin, quick blade in the Altaenin style equally suited to cut and thrust, equally at home in the duel or on the battlefield. I have some skill in its use, to be sure, but two against one are never fair odds regardless of skill. Even if I managed to fell one of them quickly, his friend would likely injure me as I did so. Once cut, I’d have little chance of straight-on success with the survivor. I needed something better than violence.

So I released the incantation of light, letting its structure fall to nothingness in my mind, the ghostly illumination returning to darkness as I did. For a brief moment, we squinted at each other, waiting for our eyes to adjust; clouds had obscured the moons above and little light reached the darkened Avar through them. In that time, the darkness proved a friend.

I squeezed my legs delicately to urge Windborne to step slowly backward, creating some distance against my would-be robbers in case my ruse failed. And then I began to chant loudly, my voice booming with feigned wrath as I shaped nonsense words bereft of the Power or any chance to effect change in the world outside of me. It was an idle threat, to be sure, but with the fatigue of the road upon me, not to mention my inability to see the foes in front of me, I dared not call upon some working lest it fail miserably and make a difficult situation worse. Even if successful, my inability to control the Flux bleeding off of the working might accomplish something I hadn’t imagined—and wouldn’t welcome.

I settled on the blind bluff, chanting louder and quickening my rhythm, allowing my own nervousness to interject a reckless passion into the manufactured syllables. A lack of confidence in my trick drove my hand to the hilt of the blade; useless as it might actually have been, it at least provided a false sense of comfort. When my eyes had finally adjusted to the dark of the night, I could not make out the robbers on the road.

The movement of two dark shapes, pushing through the tall grass on the left side of the road, caught my attention. Smiling to myself, I ceased my babbling, remaining still to listen as the men’s grunts and their rustling in the underbrush faded into imperception.

Thinking it best not to reignite my thaumaturgic lamp, I dismounted, leading Windborne the rest of the way by her bridle, testing each step along the way with my own feet, adjusting for the rises and falls of the trail, circumnavigating the rocks embedded in the path. This made for slow going, but Windborne didn’t seem to mind. I could feel the pulses of air from her nostrils on my hand, beating out our marching time like some invisible drum. The sensation might have annoyed me under other circumstances, but the draining of adrenaline from me left me giddy, the night smelling sweeter than before and my feet feeling light along the path.

Midnight must have come and gone by the time I reached the outermost buildings of Vaina, the limits of the newer portion of the town that had sprung up on the wrong side of the fortress’s wall. Judging by the age of some of the buildings, this “newer” part of the town might itself be several centuries old.

NaNoWriMo Eve

I’ve mentioned before that I have a (probably unrealistic) goal of finishing a first draft of a novel I’m working on by the end of the year. If you’ve been following the blog for a while, this is not the same novel I was working on the last time I did National Novel Writing Month (hence NaNoWriMo)–I will return and finish that novel, but not yet.

The novel I’m currently working on is, of course, set in my Avar Narn fantasy setting; it is a noir-ish story following a thaumaturge’s investigation of a haunting in the castle of the town of Vaina inland from the Seven Sisters (seven major cities on an island in the central sea famous for their independence, importance to trade, intrigue and “loose morals”). Our protagonist, Iaren, hails from one of the Sisters, Ilessa, and finds himself in a very different world in the noble estates that fill the interior of the island. He’s in a race against time before the haunting drives the Lady amn Vaina to death or insanity in a town where everyone has a secret to keep. It’s a little bit Dresden Files mixed with the grit of Joe Abercrombie or Glen Cook, some of the intrigue of Scott Lynch and a developed magic system much more “traditional” than Sanderson’s feruchemy and allomancy, but just as detailed.

I’m excited to write it and have high hopes that it will turn out to reveal that I’m a pretty skilled writer of fantasy fiction after all. Of course, it will surely need a good bit of work after the first draft, but I’m optimistic and that’s better than the alternative!

Practically speaking, here’s where I’m at: I’ve got a pretty detailed plot outline for the entirety of the novel, though there are still some details I haven’t fully resolved. I’m having to replot the last several chapters to adequately close what could be plot gaps and have the major issues tied up at the end (though I’m a believer that not everything should be satisfactorily concluded by the end of a novel–it never is in life). I’m currently importing my outline notes from Word into a fresh Scrivener project (after doing my initial work in a different Scrivener project and then using Word for the separate detailed outline; that’s not the most efficient way to do things, I know, but it kept me more in the flow).

So, my prep is not as complete as I’d like it to be (I let myself get distracted by other projects this month), but it’s good enough to instill confidence. We’ll see how it goes.

If there’s not much posted on the blog over the next month, it’s because I’ve got nose to grindstone on the novel; my apologies in advance. I further apologize that this means you’ll have to wait for the rest of my series on running piracy games in Fate Core (if that’s something you’re eagerly anticipating).

If, dear readers, you might be interested in reading along as I write and providing some continuing feedback, I could certainly use a few people to look over my shoulder and see things I might not. Send me a message and we’ll sort out logistics–it would mean a lot to me, and be exceptionally motivating, if some of you journey with me.

The Fate of Piracy, Part IV: Statting Ships

For the previous post in this series, click here.

Deciding what “skills” to assign to ships is incumbent upon some understanding of how ships will be used in the narrative of the game. In pirate narratives, whether or not based in fact or fiction, there are some core things that pirate ships “do”: they give chase and flee, they fight (by dealing and taking damage), they weather storms, they carry cargo, they travel.

We’ll use these common situations to determine what stats we need for ships.

Since I like my games gritty, I’ll be using the One-Shift Boxes rule from the Fate Toolkit (this also helps speed fights along!). For ships, I’m going to track Hull damage and Sail damage on separate tracks; the crew will also have a damage (representing numbers/size really) track and a separate morale track.

Barring special rules (which I’ll include later), I’m going to allow the defending player to allocate stress boxes between their Hull, their Sails and their Crew. This will give some longevity to ships while still making every shift of damage received sorely felt, I think.

Ship Aspects
A ship will have three Aspects: a high concept, a trouble, and a crew aspect. For the historical 17th century, we might have a ship with Aspects that look like this:

Converted French Warship
Loose in Stays
Protestant Brethren of the Coast

 Scale
At the outset, I’m convinced that the Scale rules (p. 67 of the Fate Toolkit) need to be used for ships—a four-gun sloop and a 120-gun man-of-war are very different things, even if they both sail the seas.

In the 17th Century, First-Rate through Fourth-Rate ships were “Ships of the Line,” that is, ships that could participate in toe-to-toe battle with the enemy (where the prevailing tactics was to get all of your ships in a single-file bow-to-stern line and sail past the enemy’s similarly-arranged line of ships, trading broadsides until one side or the other became unable or unwilling to continue the fight. By the 18th Century, only ships of the third rate and above were “Ships of the Line;” increases in the number of guns carried and the size of ships meant that fourth-rate ships were too undergunned to participate directly in the battle line.

By that token, in the 17th Century a fifth-rate ship should not be able to stand up to a first-rate ship and have much chance of survival. Remember that a first-rate ship in the 1600’s would have between 90 and 100 cannons, while a fifth-rate would have less than half of that.

If we make unrated ships Scale: 0, and first-rate ships Scale: 6, then a fifth-rate ship attempting to fight a first-rate ship would, according to the Fate Toolkit, take 8 more shifts of damage and deal 8 shifts fewer.

With these things in place, let’s return to our First-Rate versus Fifth-Rate combat. A single successful volley from the First-Rate ship is almost certainly going to cause the Fifth-Rate ship to take at least one consequence, while the fire from the Fifth-Rate ship is likely only to dent the First-Rate ship (I’ll include a minimum of one shift of stress caused no matter the Scale discrepancy, I think).

That’s devastating, but I don’t think it’s unrealistic. Particularly if we’re looking at a Caribbean sort of setting. First, remember, there really weren’t many (if any) ships of Third-Rate or higher deployed to the Caribbean under most circumstances. Second, historically, pirates tended to favor smaller, faster ships for just this reason. Though pirates had to be willing to fight when it came to it, they weren’t soldiers first. They needed enough guns to scare or overpower merchant ships, to be sure, but they needed more speed to make sure that they could catch their prey and evade any military ship that represented a threat to them.

So, I’m going to use this port of the rating system for Scale.

Size
This isn’t the most glamorous of the Skills, nor will it be the most oft used, but there are several purposes for a Size Skill. First, it will determine the additional Stress Boxes for the Hull. Second, it can be used as an attack skill for ramming other ships (not an oft-used tactic in the Age of Sail, and one borne of desperation to be sure, but always an option).

Sailing
Sailing a ship is a complicated business, and certain rigging types are allow for faster sailing with the wind or better sailing against the wind (when “tacking”), but never both. Thus, we could, potentially, break down any sort of “Sailing” skill into a number of subskills that take into account the relative wind direction (and how close to the wind the ship can sail), the raw speed the ship can achieve, and the maneuverability of the ship. Ultimately, though, I don’t think that subdividing the skill is in line with the design philosophy of Fate or helpful to telling good stories—especially when we can handle some of these minor aspects with stunts or, well, Aspects.

Once I’ve got some systems in place, I’ll revisit this to work out details. For now, each ship will have a Sailing Skill.

Cannons
The running broadsides and, worse yet, the raking fire that passes straight from bow to stern, are staples of pirate fiction (and the historical reality that spawned them). In Fate, you’ve got to have a Skill to shoot the enemy with.

Like the Sailing skill, there are a number of components that could factor into the rating of the Cannons skill—the quality of the crew firing them, the size and power of the cannon carried (these could range from three and four pounders up to forty-two pounders) and, of course, the number of cannon carried.

The beauty of the Fate system (one of the beauties, at least) is that, at the end of the day, two ships could both have Cannons +2 for different reasons. Perhaps one has a few large-bore cannon and a crew very-skilled at using them, while the other has many smaller cannon that, together, make an equally-formidable volley. The mechanics only care about the end result or effect without us having to get bogged down in details.

In my mind, the Cannons rating is based primarily upon the number (for its size/Scale) and quality of the guns that it carries, the speed with which they can be fired, and the ability of the crew to effectively use the weapons. Thus, a sloop with Cannons +1 may have six six-pounders, while a brigantine with Cannons +3 may have sixteen eight-pounders—they’re ships of the same Scale (O/Unrated), but the brigantine has a definite advantage in both numbers and power.

Bear in mind the number of men needed to crew a gun: a thirty-six pounder needed 12 gunners, a chief gunner and a powder monkey (a boy to run powder from the ship’s magazine to the gun). Additionally, the heavier the gun, the lower in the ship it needed to be mounted to preserve the ship’s balance in the water.

One example of modifications that could enable faster firing was the gun carriage itself. Apparently, in the 16th century and even for a while into the 17th, the Spanish continued to use two-wheeled gun carriages (with a long wooden “tongue” extending behind them to stabilize them—think of an artillery piece) while the English used four-wheeled carriages. The Spanish guns recoiled less (because of the friction from the carriage), but the English guns could more easily be moved back and reloaded (and moved themselves back with their own recoil), allowing for faster firing.

 The Crew
The heart and soul of a ship is its crew. The Sailing and Cannons skills already incorporate crew skill as a factor in their rank. But, there are things that the crew will do that don’t necessarily involve the ship’s systems, so we need a skill to handle that.

I had first thought to separate out the crew’s abilities into separate skills, but I decided in the end that that kind of granularity was unnecessary, for two reasons: (1) the general competency of the crew is fine to cover most tasks and (2) we can rely on the PC’s skills in leading the crew when differentiation is necessary. This allows us both to keep things relatively simplified and to keep focus on the players.

Bear in mind that the crew’s size is also abstracted into the Crew skill rating, with Scale used to accentuate the difference in size of crews where it truly matters.

Stress and Consequences on board the Ship
I’ve mentioned the Morale Stress track for our ships, but we need several others.

Hull
This stress track will represent the integrity of the ship’s hull and its ability to stay afloat. Its number of stress boxes will be determined by the ship’s Size rating. A ship that takes more Hull damage than it has Stress boxes has been destroyed and is sinking.

Sails
This stress track will represent the integrity of the ship’s sails and rigging; its number of stress boxes will be determined by the ship’s Sailing rating. Being taken out by Sails stress indicates that the ship is adrift and without power.

Crew
This represents the remaining numbers and fighting strength of the men and women aboard the vessel. Its number of stress boxes will be determined by the Fighting rating. Being taken out by Crew stress means that the crew has been injured or killed to such an extent that it can no longer fight as a group or man the ship.

Morale
This stress track follows the general mood and discipline of the crew; it’s number of boxes is determined by the Ship’s Resolve skill. Being taken out by Morale stress means the crew has mutinied against the player characters.

Consequences
I think having the four separate stress tracks is necessary for differentiating the different types of threat (and injury) the ship and its crew will face. However, having separate Consequences for each stress track could quickly prove unwieldy and deleterious to play. So, A ship will have only three Consequence slots that will apply for all of its stress tracks. This means that the players will have to choose very carefully when to use their Consequences to avoid stress to their ship.

The Hold
The Hold is an oddball among the ship’s stats. It’s kind of a stress track, but not really. It’s a track. The Hold represents the amount of space available to the ship (after accounting for guns, crew and basic supplies) for cargo and plunder. A ship may not have more Hold boxes than its Size multiplied by its Scale (count Scale as 1 for Scale: 0 ships), but it may have fewer. I’ll explain how the Hold is used later.

In the next post in the series, I’ll give particular stats for types of ships as well as stunts to modify a ship.

My Favorite RPG Mechanics (That I’d Actually Use)

I’ve made a few attempts in the past to write my own roleplaying game rules, especially to suit my fantasy setting, Avar Narn. While that project is currently on hold while I work on others and I intend to rely mostly on the Fate and Cortex Prime/Plus systems for games in the near future, I’m sure I’ll return to the endeavor eventually.

In light of that, I thought it might be interesting to collate and describe some of my favorite mechanics from other rulesets I’ve played. Maybe this gives you some ideas to lift for your own design ambitions. Maybe it turns you on to same games you’ve never played before. Maybe it just gives you a chance to see some mechanics that make think, “oh yeah, that’s one of my favorites, too!”

Without further ado:

Fate Core – Bell Curve Mechanics
I’ve written elsewhere about my fondness for Gaussian distributions in RPG results; it allows players more predictability when planning a course of action and less fickleness of luck. Since I like my games gritty and dangerous, this is almost a necessity.

Fate Core – Aspects
Perhaps the core of Fate Core, Aspects as narrative descriptors with mechanical effects are a great innovation. To a certain extent, this is what we were doing previously with all of our situational modifiers without understanding it–and while limiting them to various canned possibilities.

The true brilliance here is in combining aspects into narrative fact, signalling descriptor, and opportunity to influence outcomes. In other words, what Aspects do is translate mere mechanical modifiers into narrative gold.

Fate Core – The “Fate Fractal” or “Bronze Rule”
Intuitive and adaptable subsystems that use the same core mechanics as the base game? Yes, please! This ability, along with the easy adaptability of aspects and the small list of skills in Fate Core, is what makes Fate Core such a toolkit and endlessly-hackable system. As I wrote about in my advice on tabletop gaming as an adult, this proves maintaining a single rule system for all of your games.

As an added bonus, it allows players to intuitively use new subsystems without the need for learning lots of nuanced rules.

Fate Accelerated – Approaches
As I’ve written on other posts, I love the idea of Approaches over Attributes. When a player uses an approach, he or she is signaling to you the nature of the action and therefore possible consequences and side effects. I think this adds to both sides of the table: for the players, a character’s approaches define more than just aptitude, they include personality, style, perspective and preference; for the GM, the narrative cues provided by Approaches (especially if combined with something like Apocalypse World’s “Discrete Fail Forward” Mechanics, discussed below) take some of the load off of the GM while enriching the story itself.

Dungeons and Dragons 5e – Advantage and Disadvantage
A brilliant alternative to tabulating lots of modifiers to address situational nuance, the Advantage/Disadvantage system in D&D5 is a brilliant streamlining mechanic. I’d love to see it employed effectively in more games. Unfortunately, there’s not much else from D&D that I like in terms of its mechanics.

Gumshoe – Investigation Rules
It seems to me that the Gumshoe rules were designed almost entirely to address a common problem in roleplaying games–how to make sure that players get the clues they need to effectively pursue and complete an investigation without getting stalled (and bored). Simply put, the GM is instructed to allow the PCs to find the necessary clues without having to roll, because a roll where success is necessary to the advancement of plot is not a roll that should be made. This is not to say that a good GM can’t or shouldn’t allow failure to be a thing, or that there’s something wrong where the players’ failure provides an important plot point–both of those can make for great games. But if there’s no contingency plan for what happens if the characters aren’t successful and you give them a chance to be unsuccessful, you’re shooting yourself in the foot as a GM.

Gumshoe manages its task without making skills or character abilities useless. A character may spend points from relevant skills to gain additional clues, further allowing the development of a theory and providing new opportunities for investigation. From a design perspective, this provides baked-in opportunities for each character to shine.

Apocalypse World – Discrete Fail Forward Mechanics
The core mechanic of Apocalypse World strips down the dice roll to its very essence–did you succeed or fail, or (the most common result) did you succeed at a cost? If you’re unfamiliar, “Powered by the Apocalypse” games run like this:

Roll 2d6 + Stat (which is not going to be higher than +3, typically):
-On 6 or less, you fail (and the GM should make a “move”)
-On a 7 through 9, you succeed at a cost (the “move” you’re making may indicate
particular costs, or the GM may need to create one on the fly)
-On a 10+, you get what you want (usually without cost)

This efficiency allows for interesting and quick-running games that support the GM with cues for how the plot should develop. Bear in mind that this is not a degrees of success mechanic (though abilities that grant Hold or other effects on a 12+ could rightly be seen as such). I will say that this can put a lot of pressure on the GM to constantly invent new twists and consequences for the story, but that’s something you can get used to.

Now, I will admit some reluctance regarding the static nature of PbtA difficulty numbers. I have no logical argument for this preference (or lack thereof, I suppose)–the explanation that the moves made by the GM in response to failure or a cost can be adjusted to represent the difficulty of the task makes perfect sense to me. I really do think that’s a brilliant take on RPG difficulties. But, I’m a child of the 80’s and 90’s who cut his teeth on the second and third editions of Shadowrun–the need for scalable difficulty is embedded deep in my bones.

Apocalypse World – Free-Form Combat
Another innovation from the Apocalypse: willful ignorance of initiative and turns. I think the best RPG combats work this way–we jump from character to character like the camera in a film or TV show, spending time where the drama is highest and shifting before anyone gets bored rather than becoming a slave to turn and initiative tracking. The tracking of initiative itself is more drudgery than benefit anyway, and a gaming group with established trust can handle things like holding and triggering actions without the need to maintain a count and do a lot of housekeeping.

Although they’re not running a PbtA game on the show, the HarmonQuest GM uses this style with great effect.

Cypher System – Burning Points
I’m not a big fan of the way the Cypher system plays, but I do love the idea of “burning” points from a pool to gain advantage. In Cypher, points may be spent from a pool to reduce the Difficulty number before rolling the dice.

While I don’t generally like games where characters must “spend” their skill points to be effective (this goes for both Cypher and Gumshoe), I do very much like the idea of characters having resources that must be managed but that can be spent for bonuses. This kind of risk/reward mechanic reinforces the drama in games, while giving those gamist players another mechanical aspect to strategize over. I just think that pools used for this purpose should be separated from the character’s base abilities–health, fatigue, willpower (like the World of Darkness games)–all of these can make good candidates (as can other things) without the necessity of diminishing returns over time for characters being a core mechanic.

I’d also note that the Fate Toolkit has a mod allowing you to spend Stress to do just this. That, I think, is the sweet spot for this kind of mechanic. Blades in the Dark also allows you to spend Stress for similar effects.

Apocalypse World – Play to Find Out
I very much appreciate the idea that the GM is playing to find out what happens as well, rather than chaperoning the players through the branches of a pre-planned adventure. This is where tabletop RPGs excel as a form of entertainment, and especially beat video games–story can develop organically and move in unexpected–and often more satisfying–directions.

This, of course, requires a GM willing and able to extemporize. This is an intimidating prospect, and one that takes practice and thought to do well, I think. But it also removes (for me, at least), some of the stress of having to meticulously plan a game session (and then fearing running it when I inevitably haven’t had the time to do all the planning I intended).

The “narrative sandbox,” which I’ve teased quite a bit now without writing a full post on (I will, I swear!) meshes perfectly with this idea by scaffolding the game with ready-made narrative elements (characters, events, locations, background, etc.) the GM can draw from without having to make things up whole clothe on the spot while maintaining the “anything can happen and you’re character can try anything” magic of RPGs at their best.

Traveler, Burning Wheel, Artesia: Adventures in the Known World RPG (Fuzion), etc. – Lifepaths
A lot of players struggle with creating a detailed background for their characters. A lifepath system gives a player a framework for thinking about her character by detailing familial relationships and important events, the origins of certain skills and abilities, and other life details that bring a character to life narratively at the same time it builds the character mechanically.

There are caveats here. A system that is too simple (Rogue Trader, for instance) doesn’t really satisfy and feels restrictive. A system that will kill your character during chargen (Traveler) will be talked about for years to come, but that’s not a criterion for being good. A system that is too complex (Burning Wheel…maybe) tends to intimidate players more than guide and help them.

There is also the question of whether the lifepath system should be random or each stage and determination should be willingly selected by the player. For games with an “old school” feel, random generation may be a good option. On the other hand, that requires a shared philosophy of gaming between GM and players, and no good GM should hold a player to a character they don’t want to play (so long as not wanting to play that character has a reasonable explanation).

Personally, I’m a fan of splitting the difference, with rewards for selecting a randomly generated result but no penalty for choosing a result instead. Your mileage may vary.

Blades in the Dark – Downtime Systems
I love giving the players the chance to describe what their characters spend their time doing when not adventuring/investigating occult occurrences/engaging in planned criminal conduct/whathaveyou. I like it even more when those choices can have later effects on the narrative.

Blades in the Dark takes this a step further, with chances to indulge a character’s vice to relieve stress, try to acquire equipment for later use, work on a long-term project, train skills or reduce a crew’s Heat. There are enough choices to give variety and enough competing demands on players to make the choices mean something.

Blades in the Dark – Progress Clocks
This idea is adapted, but broadened, from Apocalypse World’s “countdown clocks,” used there to track damage. These allow for easy tracking of obstacles, damage, and, yes, timing to an event. They provide simple mechanism for damage tracking and a visual marker of impending doom. I love that.

Cortex Plus/Prime – the Doom Pool
Like Fate Core, Cortex is an eminently hackable system. The system is a hack of the “basic” system wherein, instead of buying and immediately deploying the consequence dice the GM purchases from player rolls they get added to an increasing opposition pool to all tasks undertaken. This is admittedly a pretty clever way of mechanically representing the increased tension and danger as a group moves deeper into a dungeon, fights farther behind enemy lines or ventures nearer to the summoning of that elder thing.

This idea really shines when used as a “Crisis” pool. Instead of a single Doom pool, it’s split up into several smaller pools that each represent a discrete obstacle or threat to the players that must be overcome over time. Using the core mechanics of the Cortex system, players can attempt actions (supported by narrative, of course) to reduce the dice in the Crisis pool until there’re none left, at which point the obstacle has been overcome. If the GM buys dice back from player rolls to continue to fortify and reinforce the various Crisis pools, we get a back-and-forth struggle that can provide the entire basis for a narrative.

13th Age has a related mechanic to the Doom pool in its “escalation die.” The longer a fight lasts, the deadlier it gets. I tend to think that that’s realistic–or at worst a great narrative conceit–that should be used in more games, and not just for its propensity to speed up combat.

Torchbearer – Explicit Rules for Conflicts and Combat Where the Goal Isn’t “Kill Everything”
Most RPGs view combat as the time when everything else has failed and it’s time to kill and destroy everything. Sometimes that is the point of a combat, but things are often a bit more nuanced than that. Sometimes, the goal is to drive the enemy away without necessarily killing him, or to hold ground and delay the enemy, or to complete some secondary objective before the enemy does, or simply to escape alive.

While you don’t need mechanics to tell you the above, or even necessarily to model the situations I’ve described specifically, mechanics are often a cue as to what a game as about. So, when Torchbearer includes rules for “Capture,” “Drive Off,” and “Flee/Pursue”  in addition to “Kill,” it’s a signal that this game might be harder on PCs than say, D&D. Sometimes you’ll have to settle for less than completely overrunning your enemy, and you might want to think about clever options before brute ones.

And, to be fair, a number of the things I’ve mentioned don’t need mechanics to implement them–fail forward is a philosophy that can be applied to any game, and the Gumshoe approach to investigations needs no mechanics to be applied to another rule system. But the point is that these systems make a point of these ideas, not just setting them apart from other games but also pushing the industry forward for future games.

The Burning Wheel – Bloody Versus
Luke Crane’s The Burning Wheel is a thing of art from a design perspective–but in my mind, it’s a work of art more than an accessible roleplaying game. I know, there are plenty of people who have run successful campaigns with the system, and I freely admit I’m jealous of Luke Crane’s design genius. But there’s just so much there that I know I couldn’t convince my gaming friends to learn the system, nor do I have confidence that I can hold in mind at once all of its various parts to successfully run it. Every part of The Burning Wheel is well designed; the gestalt is just too much for me.

Actually, I do have one gripe with the system–the mechanic of scripting melee combat under the “standard” rules. Under this mechanic (assuming I completely remember correctly), each participant in a combat privately scripts three actions in sequence. Then, the scripts are revealed and the results worked out. This is time consuming, kind of annoying, and not very realistic–hand-to-hand fighting is a back-and-forth of action and reaction, of judging and decoding cues from the opponent’s body position and stance. Nothing happens in a vacuum or blind.

One the other hand, The Burning Wheel also gives us the “Bloody Versus” option. Bloody Versus streamlines an attack round into two rolls. Each of the two combatants divides his dice pool into attack and defense and then each attack pool is rolled against the corresponding defense pool. Overall, there are three potential results–one side hits, both sides hit, neither side hits. We don’t worry overmuch about positioning, timing, etc.; this is all abstracted into the single roll. It’s fast and relatively decisive–especially given The Burning Wheel’s steep death spiral.

I think there’s a lot to be said for roleplaying games that, at least upon occasion, treat a combat like most other tasks: we make a single roll and determine the results. This isn’t always appropriate, of course, and we have to make some consequential determinations as to whether such a test can kill a PC or not (I’d strongly recommend against that), but it does help us to readjust focus so that combat as a game aspect is more on par with all of the other typical aspects–exploration, intrigue, clever plans, sneaking around, etc.

WFRP 3rd Edition
As Fantasy Flight Games’ first release using its custom dice system (which would be followed by their Star Wars offering and now channeled into their generic GeneSys System), the 3rd Edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay rubbed a lot of people the wrong way–it completely redesigned the system and moved away from the percentile-based combination of “old school” and 80’s gritty realism that people loved.

FFG dove in headfirst, though, doing some fascinating work in combining board game elements with the RPG basis (in a far more successful combination than D&D 4e’s combination of MMO-style mechanics with RPG elements, in my opinion). Although the many tokens and character cards ultimately proved annoying and and more fiddly than helpful. Still, I applaud the creative experimentation, and I liked a lot of the innovations it made, with the dice providing cues that helped me narrate some of the most frantic combat scenes I ever have.

By far my favorite of these innovations, however, was stances. You could take a neutral stance, using the dice your stats gave you, or you could move so many spaces into a “reckless” stance (with more successes marked on the dice along with more negative effects compared to the “standard” dice) or a “cautious” stance, converting attribute dice into green dice marked with more side benefits (“boons”) but also more symbols indicating that the action required more time.

The custom dice made the ease of using stances possible, but the ability to incorporate a risk/reward dynamic into standard dice rolling by having a character adopt an aggressive or conservative stance is a really cool idea. In some of my own design experiments, I’ve come up with a few ways to implement the idea with standard core mechanics (dice pools in particular), but certainly not as smoothly as in WFRP3.

Conclusion
Okay, as usual, what I’d intended to be some brief notes turned into another verbose commentary, so let’s hang it up there for now. I hope some of you managed to stay with me all the way through, and I hope some of you found some mechanics and ideas you weren’t already familiar with.

Leave some comments–I’d love to hear what your favorite TTPRG mechanics are (and the games they’re from)!