Professions in Medieval and Early-Modern RPGs

As I continue to work on rules for the Fate RPG (continuing my Pirates/Age of Sail setting rules and the Fate Control Panel and Fate rules for Avar Narn), I find myself more and more drawn to the design idea of using “professions” over “skills” in late-medieval and early-modern roleplaying games (the most common historical analogues of fantasy settings).

I’m not the first to think of this concept. While not actually used in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, by using “Professions” instead of “Classes” to group skills and abilities, that system made initial steps in this direction. More recent games–13th Age, Barbarians of Lemuria and Shadow of the Demon Lord, for example–have wholeheartedly adopted such an approach. Even the latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons has nodded in that direction with its “Backgrounds,” though it still retains discrete skills.

I’m going to make a few arguments as to why I think this approach is better than using more discrete and granular “skills”:

(1) Flexibility and Creativity
One of the things I don’t like about a discrete skill list is the way it causes players to think. Skills cause players to think that their characters can only act in ways specifically described by the skills on their list. In my mind, this is a microcosm of the idea of language shaping cognition–players tend to assume that the skill list represents something about how the game is “supposed” to be played and–especially for less-experienced players–tend to think that they’re “breaking the rules” or somehow trying to pull something if they can’t directly articulate the skill they’re using for their action.

This is counter to the “fiction-first” approach to gaming. I want my players to put themselves in the character’s shoes in the circumstances at hand and, without reference to their character sheet (except as a reminder of the sorts of things the character is good at, I suppose) tell me what they’re trying to do. Then, we can go to the rules and figure out some mechanics. In other words, skills push players toward “mechanics-first” thinking.

To be fair, this complaint goes beyond “narrative” or “fiction-first” gamers. I’m not a member of the OSR community by any means, but I am given to understand that one of the factors driving the OSR is the feeling that early editions of D&D, with their attribute bonuses without skills, allowed for more creative action by players. But that only further makes the point.

A list of professions gives players the information they need (“what are my character’s experiences and strengths?”) without pushing to very granular modes of action (“I can Deceive my way out of this, or I can Jump over the rooftop to get away, or I try to Hide, but I don’t have any other applicable skills”). A player who says, “Okay, my character has been a Courtier and a Soldier, how might he try to get out of this situation?” puts the fiction first and removes barriers to the player’s creativity in selections of actions.

I personally think that this really opens up in Fate if you use the combination of Approaches with Professions (in place of Skills) as laid out in the Fate Codex, Volume 3, Issue 2 (Merging FAE and Fate Core). What’s the difference between a Flashy Courtier and a Sneaky Courtier? Drama, that’s what!

(2) Professions Build Character History
Saying that a character has the “Stealth” skill doesn’t say nearly as much about the character as the character having the “Thief” or “Scoundrel” profession. The skill does beg many of the same questions, but the profession evokes them much more fully and makes us think about a phase or era in the character’s life rather than a simple explanation for how the character acquired a specific skill.

Further, overlap between professions actually allows for character diversity. A character with the Scout profession and a character with the Scoundrel profession probably both know how to be stealthy, but they learned to do so under different circumstances and for different purposes.

If we take the ideas in the two proceeding paragraphs and apply them to character creation, we should quickly see that this pushes us into asking questions about the character and not the skills during character generation. The player isn’t choosing whether the character has the “stealth” skill so much as thinking about how the character acquired it and the other circumstances of the character’s life around that acquisition. In other words, the player is making decisions about the character to get the skills, rather than selecting the skills and then retroactively justifying them.

I think that professions support taking this even farther with character creation systems that offer greater narrative potential than simply point-buy or array-assignment systems.  Simple systems certainly have their place–character creation in Barbarians of Lemuria is exceptionally friendly and simple.

In my opinion, a profession system begs for a “lifepath” system in character creation, allowing us to build the character by moving through his or her personal history. I’ll probably talk more about lifepaths in another post later on.

(3) Professions Are Reflective of Early-Modern Cultural Rigidity
Historically speaking, even as the changes that would lead to more social mobility were taking place, Western Europeans thought of their societies as easily compartmentalized under the “Great Chain of Being”: by the circumstances of their birth, a person was positioned by God where he or she was supposed to be. A peasant seeking to become a lord rebelled not only against society but against God.

A character’s choice of profession implies something about her social status–even in the modified (and often whitewashed) settings our fantasy games often take place in. I wrote in a previous post about leaning into the medieval mindset for fantasy writing and gaming; this is a design mechanism for doing so, I think. A character who has the Courtier, Soldier and Scoundrel professions occupies a different social status than one who has the Tradesman, Scout and Farmer professions, or even one who has the Soldier, Scoundrel and Traveler professions.

One of the areas where this makes the biggest difference, I think, is in social skills. A player who has the Persuade skill (perhaps rightfully) assumes that his character is persuasive to all people at all times. That’s rarely the case in real-world experience. If that character has a high rating in the Courtier profession but no skill in the Farmer or Merchant professions, the character is likely persuasive in the rhetorical speech and etiquette of the nobility, but might well be laughed at when trying to apply Cicero to an earthier and more practical sort of folk. That difference creates verisimilitude and depth to the setting (and probably helps remind players that, no, their character cannot just persuade the guard to give him his armor and weapons simply because he has a certain number of points in Persuade).

If you don’t want to add on additional systems to your game to accentuate the importance of (and difference between) levels of social status, the use of professions by itself will go a long way.

(4) Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic
I’m thinking that I should write a separate post entirely about handling knowledge skills in roleplaying games, but for now, I want to point out another benefit of using professions over skills. In Tudor England, about 8% of women and 24% of men could read and write well enough to sign their own name unassisted–provided I’m remembering my statistics correctly. Regardless of the actual numbers, literacy was on the rise but far from universal.

Some roleplaying games seek to capture this, requiring character resources to be dedicated to the ability to read and write if the player wants her character to have that ability. That’s good for immersion in the setting, but it creates other design problems in balancing the cost of that ability versus others (and balancing against our modern prejudice against those who are unable to read and write). When using professions, you can kill two birds with one stone: characters who have put points into certain professions (or a certain number of points into certain professions) are assumed to be able to read and write; those who have not are assumed not to be able to.

This helps sidestep the need to justify the ability (though the GM should find ways to accommodate players with believable backgrounds that break our assumptions and stereotypes) by corresponding the ability with those we would (logically and historically) expect to have it (say those with the Scholar or Priest professions).

The same goes for scientific and mathematics skills. Greek, Roman and Islamic scholars (and other ancient peoples in cultures from around the world) had advanced understandings of geometry, astronomy and other mathematics even before the late-medieval or early-modern periods in Europe. Under the Tudors, “tally sticks” allowed some record-keeping even for those with a relatively basic ability to conduct mathematic operations and perhaps no ability to read and write. Differentiating the likely arithmetical abilities of different characters becomes much easier when we have some idea of their background, experience and training rather than a list of skills on a page.

(5) Professions Evoke Setting
Your list of available professions tells players about the world they’ll be playing in. A world with Duelist(s) and Pirate(s) is very different from one with Knight(s) and Monk(s) (or Pirate(s) and Ninja(s?)).

(6) Built-in Contacts
If using a system like Fate, with its “Contacts” skill, then the use of Professions gives you both specificity and breadth that (I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here, n’est pas?) increases immersion, because the professions can be used to generate contacts of the type of people someone with experience in the given field is likely to know.

In Fate, this can be supplemented by allowing the invocation of Aspects to allow the introduction of contacts a character may know aside from the channels of his place in the world at large.

Conclusion
As usual, I’ve rambled on a bit more than I originally intended to do. Nevertheless, I hope I’ve given you some good reasons to think about converting skills into professions in the next campaign you run, regardless of system.

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.

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)!

 

 

 

The Fate of Piracy, Part III: About Ships in the Age of Sail

For the previous post in this series, click here.

We’ll begin our foray into rules for ships and sailing in Fate games by addressing some of the historical difficulties of easy classification of types of ships in the Age of Sail. Hopefully, this gives you a sense of just how hard it is to create easy categories or “classes” of ships to profile.

Let’s start with the understanding that ships in this Fate hack will make full use of the “Fate Fractal” or “Bronze Rule.” Ships will be statted as characters, with skills, stunts (representing upgrades or modifications) and aspects (representing unique qualities, history, reputation, etc.). Some stats will come from the ship design itself, others will come from the crew that (wo)mans it. I’m not sure exactly on the interplay between those two facets, but that’s a subject for a later post in the series.

The English Rating System
The English (and later British) Rating system for warships goes back to the reign of Henry VIII, where it was initially related to the number of guns on a ship (or, at times to the ship’s tonnage), though the categories were not the “rates” that would come into later being. Instead, ships were classified as Royal, Great, Middling or Small. By 1626, a ranking system came into being, though this seems to have been tied to the pay of the sailors on board rather than to the size or number of guns of the vessel.

By 1660, the word “rate” had replace the word “rank” and vessels began to be measured by the number of carriage guns (that is, excluding swivel guns) carried on board. The ratings vary over time, particularly as designers were able to cram more weapons onto ships, but a generalization goes as follows:

  •             First Rate: 100 guns, usually over 2,000 tons BM (see below about “Builder’s               Measure”)
  •            Second Rate: 90-98 guns, about 2,000 tons BM
  •            Third Rate: Ships with two gun-decks and 60-80 guns
  •            Fourth Rate: Ships with two gun-decks and 50-60 guns, about 1,000 tons BM
  •            Fifth Rate: Ships with single gun-decks sporting 32-40 guns, running 700 to                  1450 tons BM
  •            Sixth Rate: Ships with 22-28 guns, and 450-550 tons BM

The rating system was designed primarily, it seems, to determine which ships could stand “in the line” of battle under the naval tactics of the time and which could not.

Most of the ships in the Caribbean were unrated ships smaller than anything above. A few pirates, like Blackbeard and his Queen Anne’s Revenge (which, having been captured by Teach in 1717 is relatively late in the period) could have classified as fifth-rate ships, but I’m not aware of any privateering or pirate vessels that were larger. Bear in mind also that only military ships were given a true rating, so ships that could have been classified on this list wouldn’t necessarily have been.

This was partly a matter of expense—warships are expensive to build and staff (a First Rate ship could have 750 people aboard!) and the Caribbean is rough on ships—it purportedly has the highest concentration of wood-eating ship-worms in the world and the lifespan of a quality hull in Caribbean waters was only about 10 years!

Another factor was the need for versatility in ships for the Caribbean—trade was more often more important than fighting, so cargo space and speed were more desirable than lots of guns and men to crew them. The galleons of the late sixteenth century and seventeenth century could be relatively-easily adapted between trading roles and more confrontational ones. And, like “frigate” and “pinnace” below, “galleon” itself originally referred to a style of design, not a size, with small galleons of a few hundred tons to the Manila galleons of 2,000 tons or more. Even in the late 16th century, the Portuguese had a ship nicknamed Botafogo, which was at least 1,000 tons and carried a staggering 336 cannons.

Sizing Ships Up
Modern ships are measured by the tonnage of water they displace, but this was not so for ships of the seventeenth century, which were measured by tons burthen (or burden if you want to get out of Middle English and into modern), which represented the amount of cargo a ship could carry.

To make things more confusing, the burthen tonnage of a ship was calculated by a formula called the “Builder’s Measure” (hence the “BM” above) rather than the reality of the design of holds and space.

The Builder’s Measure in 1678 used the following formula:

Tonnage Formula

So, a ship like the Little Unicorn (captured by the British from the Dutch in 1665 or 1666), which had a length of 72 ft, a beam and a beam of 22 ft would, by the 1678 Builder’s Measure, have a tonnage burthen of 185.19 tons. This was classified as a fifth-rate ship of despite its size and small number of guns. The British converted it into a fireship.

Names and Classification
The naming of ship types in the seventeenth century is less than helpful. The word “pinnace” was used to describe both a “ship’s boat” powered by oars or a single small sail to tend the larger ships in a group by ferrying people, messages and goods between them and to describe ships around 100 tons burthen with two or three square-rigged masts.

Likewise, the word “frigate” first denoted a hull design (long, low and sleek for speed) rather than a specific ship type, resulting in “light frigates,” “frigates,” “heavy frigates” and “grand frigates” without clear distinctions (because, when important, reference was more likely to be made to tonnage or to rating).

This was not an age of mass production, and shipbuilders were constantly experimenting with designs to find an edge. The names for classifications of ships could rely as much on the arrangement of the sails and number of masts of the ship (the “sail-plan”) as its raw size or other factors. For instance:

A sloop was a single-masted, fore-and-aft rigged ship. Having a single mast limited the size, but you could still find a wide array of sloop sizes.

A ketch had two fore-and-aft rigged masts.

The brig had two square-rigged masts with headsails.

The brigantine, however, had one square-rigged mast and a hybrid-rigged main mast (also with headsails).

The snow had headsails, two square-rigged masts and a smaller “snow-mast.”

The barque had two or more square-rigged masts and headsails with a fore-and-aft-rigged aftmost (that’s “rearmost” for you landlubbers!) mast.

Fully-rigged ships had three (later they could have more) square-rigged sails.

So, what do you call a frigate-hulled ship with a brigantine sail-plan? Your guess is as good as mine, and the primary sources from the period don’t make it seem like much concern was given to precise appellations for ship categories (notice that the “galleon” and the “fluyt,” common ships for the period, are missing from the above category).

Remember the problem with the word “rapier” in the series on swordsmanship? Yep, it’s kind of like that.

Variance within a “Class”
If confusion among classifications isn’t bad enough, let’s talk about the variations within a particular “type” of ship.

For instance, the Spanish Armada of 1588 had 22 galleons in its fleet, with some as large as 1,000 tons and some as small as 250 tons. If proportions are maintained, that means some ships were four times as large as others—yet they were all galleons. In later periods, the Manila galleons could easily reach 2,000 tons.

As mentioned about, frigates are another example of wide variance. In the 17th century, frigates tended to denote full- (square-)rigged ships, because square rigging is the fastest sail plan (at least with the wind to your back). They could have one or two gun decks, likely meaning a range of 18 and about 300 tons to 40 guns and 750 or 1,000 tons.

Later, the “great” or “heavy” frigates would be created by taking a larger ship and cutting down the fore- and aftcastles to make a lighter, leaner, ship with a single monolithic topdeck instead of one having raised areas at the front and back. This was called razée, from the French “razed” or “shaved,” though you’ll sometimes see this described in English (particularly in the 16th century) as “race-decked.” I much prefer that styling than the sometimes used razéed, the orthography and pronunciation of which gives me fits (It should be pronounced like “rah-zayd,” which in turn would be more accurately spelled razé-ed or razée-d. Y’know, it’s a mess either way).

Conclusions about Ship Classifications
For a game, if we’re going to stat out various types of ships, it is very helpful if we create some categories that are a little less flexible than the seeming free-for-fall historically used. Yes, that’s arbitrary, but accuracy must sometimes give way to expedience. For those of you who, like me, grew up playing Sid Meier’s Pirates! before it was in color, you’ll remember that that game used fairly distinct categories for its ship types. I don’t know about you, but that never spoiled my fun.

What’s important, at the end of the day, is determining what kind of ship stats are necessary and useful.

Trivia: If you’re used to the image of the captain at the ship’s wheel, understand that that’s a relatively late addition to the period we’re looking at. Based on archeological finds, we know that the ship’s wheel was in used at least by 1703.

Before that, ships were sailed by a tiller. Some ships, particularly those intended for war, might have their tiller below decks where it was protected or even have two, one on the topdeck and one below decks.

For the next post in the series, click here.

The Fate of Piracy, Part II: About Piracy

For the first post in this series, click here.

I feel like it is necessary for me to talk generally (and hopefully briefly) about historical piracy.

Morality
Obviously, piracy is an immoral thing. At best, it’s bullying and theft. At worst, there’s torture, murder, betrayal, sexual assault and many other crimes. Modern media has given us a whitewashed version of piracy, with lovable ne’er-do-wells like Jack Sparrow and depictions of gentlemanly pirate captains who mind their manners while robbing you. Maybe there was some of that, but far more often, I think, the lines of moral behavior were crossed with abandon or simply ignored altogether. There’s a reason pirates were called hostis humani generis (enemies of mankind).

This is not to tell you how to run a pirate game. There’s no reason you can’t run a lighter-hearted sort of game a la Pirates of the Caribbean and, if you’ve got young people playing, that’s probably much safer fare. You know me, though—I’m much more interested in games with the feel of Black Sails, where even the “good guys” are morally questionable at best. This is a discussion to have as a group while deciding on then particulars of the setting your players will pirate in (is that a word? Can you “pirate?”). Along the same lines, circumscribing those aspects of pirate reality that are uncomfortable to treat and determining how to handle them or whether to leave them out altogether is, I think, an especially important consideration in a topic and setting so fraught with the worst humanity has to offer.

Pirates and Privateers
Though, as a practical matter, the distinction between pirates and privateers was often a legal technicality or a matter of perspective, it’s important to know the difference.

A privateer receives a “letter of marque and reprisal” from a sponsoring nation, essentially making the bearer a private soldier in service of his country (funny to think how “modern” an idea of military privatization seems to us despite our own history). With that letter, the privateer and his ships are authorized to attack the ships and ports of those nations with whom the sponsor is at war, taking prizes and plunder, which is split between sponsor and privateers. Bear in mind, that in the early modern period, standing professional armies were only slowly becoming a thing, so the engaging of privateers provided an avenue for governments to quickly deploy wartime assets at little or no cost to itself.

A pirate does not have authorization to engage in the seizure of ships or towns from any country—they are brigands and outlaws. Still, many pirates had some scruples about their selection of prey, refusing to attack ships of their own nationality (though that’s a fraught issue, as we’ll see below) even when they were not authorized by that nation to conduct operations.

As the history of piracy bears out, the line sometimes—maybe often—blurred between privateer and pirate. Those who might have been considered pirates were sometimes given letters of marque when they were viewed as useful to their home nation; this could even happen retroactively to the captain’s activities! On the other hand, privateers would turn pirate, for a number of reasons. Sometimes the prey was scarce and the crew grew desperate, electing to go after any ship they might take. Other times, the sponsoring nation would leave privateers in the lurch when political conditions changed and/or treaties were signed.

Wars of Religion
I don’t think it can be understated how important the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism in the 16th and 17th centuries was in the rise of privateering and piracy. The war between England and Spain that included both the Spanish Armada of 1588 (and the other armada attempts) and the “singing of the king’s beard”—and really all of Sir Francis Drake’s roving—found its core cause in the conflict between a Protestant Queen Elizabeth and a Catholic Phillip II of Spain. This is also the time of the English Civil War (which one might argue was more political than religious, but the primary sources reveal a strong belief in the close association between Catholicism and absolute monarchy, to say nothing of the Puritan influence on the Roundheads), the time of the Eighty Years’ War between Catholic Spain and the Protestant Netherlands, the Thirty Years’ War and, at the beginning of the 18th century, the War of the Spanish Succession, itself about the balance of power between both rival royal houses and the Christianities to which they were aligned.

The Catholic faith of the Spanish gave cover enough for raiding their significant wealth in the Caribbean, and many of the sea rovers presented themselves as good Protestant soldiers raiding the ports and ships of the Spanish in support for the “One True Faith.” The most well-known privateers and pirates, at least in the 17th century, tended to be Protestant English or Dutch, from the Sea Beggars to Sir Henry Morgan. Whether the roving captains really believed themselves to be “good Protestant soldiers” or just found the idea to be a good excuse we’ll never truly know—the Christianity of the time, no matter the specific denomination, made easy room for slavery and violence, despite the core messages of the Gospels.

Freedom at Sea
The sea rovers came from many nationalities and walks of life, and the crews of the privateering and piratical vessels of the time were probably some of the most diverse collections of peoples anywhere in the world for the period.

One of the major draws to those who would become crew members was the difference from life at sea under a merchant captain or in naval military service. In the latter situation, the captain’s word was law and, knowing what I do about human nature, I believe it when both the primary sources and the secondary histories describe that tyrannical captaincy was somewhat common.

Things were different aboard a freebooting vessel. Yes, the captain had sole command in times of immediate danger—combat, the chasing of prey or evasion of the authorities, storms at sea, etc. But the captain himself was usually elected by the crew, and when there was no immediate threat, (most of) the crew got a vote in choosing their course of action. This simultaneously hindered some of the great expeditions from achieving much success, but also meant a type of democratic freedom unavailable elsewhere in the world, especially for those not born into the upper class.

A roving venture began with the adoption of a Code. This was viewed as a contractual agreement freely entered into by all who signed and could be both morally and ethically enforced against them if they broke it. The Code determined who would be leading (on ships or as admiral), what the split of plunder would be (and, while the shipowners—often the captains—received extra for the use of their vessel and specialists where given an extra partial share for their much-needed skills, the split tended toward equality more than disparity).

Now, all of this democracy is well and good in theory, but let’s also not think it was more idealistic and free from coercion than it was. The owner of a ship in an expedition had great leverage over his fellows—if they didn’t elect him captain, he might simply decide to take his toys and go home. Further, maintaining a captaincy was not simply about holding the justified admiration of the men; it was about getting results. A captain without the skill for finding and securing plunder, or simply with a bad run of luck, would quickly find himself at odds with his men.

Those are enough general points for now. If you want to delve into the details and specifics of piratical life, use the bibliography in the first post—to which I will soon add some primary sources for you, though in short look for the journals or publications of Alexander Esquemelin, William Dampier, Basil Ringrose, Bartholomew Sharp and Lionel Wafer. Take Esquemelin especially with a grain of salt—he seems to have hated Henry Morgan and his descriptions of events often conflict with other (more plausible) sources. I also highly recommend the Pirate History Podcast for distilling this information into entertaining and informative episodes.

Trivia: William Dampier, in addition to being a privateer, was an accomplished navigator and naturalist. He’s credited with bringing a slew of words into the English language, including “chopsticks,” “avocado,” and “barbecue.” His work describing the flora and fauna of the places he frequented, as well as the details of indigenous peoples he met (among them the Mosquito and Kuna peoples) proved extremely influential and valuable. His work on wind and water currents, especially, provided a foundation used by naval navigators for centuries.

The Fate of Piracy, Part I: Introduction

I love pirates. Maybe it’s because, every so often, I think I might just understand what H.L. Mencken meant when he said, “Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”

More likely, there’s something about men ready to stick their middle finger up to the powers of the world and seek some form of independence on their own terms. American democracy owes more to Caribbean pirates than it does to the Greeks. Look it up.

Even more likely than that, there’s something about the constant challenge of “being on the account.” Pirates and privateers may have died by blade and shot and noose, but they more often lived by their wit and cunning. As you know, I love the complexity of swordplay. Though I have few opportunities at present to indulge, I also love sailing (or at least I think I do based on past experience!).

And, even more likely than that: I grew up playing with Lego Pirate Ships, reading about pirates, playing Sid Meier’s Pirates! on the computer, watching Pirates of Dark Water on Saturday mornings.

Regardless of the reason, I am fascinated by privateers, pirates, the Age of Sail and adventure at sea.

I’ve noted in several recent posts about the “narrative sandbox” idea I’ve been working on with regards to roleplaying settings. As my Shadowrun campaign is playing out, I’m getting to test and adjust some of what was previously only theory-crafting. In the meantime, I’ve recently played a little bit of the Greedfall video game and I’m currently listening to the excellent Pirate History Podcast. In my review of the Sixth Edition Shadowrun rules system, I noticed that, while I liked the idea of the rules in the latest edition of the 7th Sea RPG, I didn’t like them in practice, either.

All of these things have led me to start thinking about (1): sticking to Fate RPG as my ruleset of choice for games and (2) working on a fantastical age of sail setting of swashbuckling adventure. As if I don’t have enough simultaneously unfurling projects to bounce between…

Nevertheless, in combining three of my favorite things—historical research and general nerdity, roleplaying games and worldbuilding—I’ve started to toy with toolkitting the Fate rules for just such a game. Think an open-world sort of game like the Pirates! computer game with enough survival, political, exploration, combat and skullduggery components to please most players of RPGs. In a more fantastic setting than the historical Spanish Main (though, with a “realistic” starting place for systems, they should be equally at home in a historical campaign).

This series is going to track my progress at creating some rules I find useful for running just such a game. I’ll start on the historical analogue side with rules development and add some fantastical aspects (no pun intended) later on. So, in some ways, this series will track something like my series on swordplay for authors and gamers, but with some special Fate crunch added in.

Unlike that last series, I’m going to front-load some of the sources I’m using in preparing both the rules and this series of posts:

The Sea Rover’s Practice, by Benerson Little
Benerson Little is a former Navy SEAL, someone with intimate knowledge of maritime and amphibious warfare. On top of that, he’s a respected historian of piracy and privateering, particularly on the tactics and stratagems employed by those ne’er-do-wells in the search for plunder. He served as an historical consultant on the series Black Sails and for the miniatures game Blood and Plunder (which might, eventually, show up on the blog once I make more progress with Frostgrave), both of which I love. I’ll be resorting to this book primarily for building systems for interesting ship-based conflict.

Osprey Publishing Books
These works tend to be concise summaries of different types of soldiers in various historical contexts, always accompanied by great illustrations. Books I’m looking at here include: Pirate 1660-1730, Spanish Galleon 1530-1690, Buccaneers 1620-1700, Blackbeard’s Last Fight, Warships of the Anglo-Dutch Wars 1652-74, Pirate: The Golden Age, The Pirate Ship 1660-1730

Seamanship in the Age of Sail, by John Harland
War at Sea in the Age of Sail, 1650-1850, by Andrew Lambert

Both of these will be used to further inform my understanding of sailing techniques for creating satisfying (but not overly complex) systems for ship chases and maneuvering as well as ship-to-ship combat.

British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1603-1714, by Rif Winfield
British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1714-1792, by Rif Winfield
First-Rate: The Greatest Warships of the Age of Sail, by Rif Winfield
French Warships in the Age of Sail, 1626-1786, by Rif Winfield
The Arming and Fitting of English Ships of War, 1600-1815, by Brian Lavery

As you’ll see in the next post(s), there’s a lot of complexity to ship types and ship designs in the late 16th through early 18th Century period we’ll be examining here. As you can see, the books I’ve lined up here are entirely devoted to warships, most of which (as I’ll explain later) were unlikely to be seen in the Caribbean. If I can find some good references for the smaller and lighter-armed ships that would have been more frequently encountered in the Spanish Main, whether in the hands of the upstanding merchant or the most fiendish pirate, I’ll be adding those in.

In the next part, I’ll include some brief notes about pirates and piracy in general to inform our games.

For the next post in this series, click here.

Post-Run Thoughts on Shadowrun 6th Edition

A ways back, when I did my set of posts on Shadowrun characters, I promised that I’d be doing a system review in the near future. I’m not sure that this qualifies, formally speaking, as a review, but I am going to share what I think about the system after having run a few sessions now.

As you might have gathered, I was excited about the 6th Edition system when it first appeared. I like the idea of Edge as something more like Fate points and, in theory, that it supplants the need for the endless lists of modifiers in previous editions of Shadowrun. I was much more forgiving than most about other complaints about the system–and particularly the problems with the first printing of the rulebook. A lot of that, really, is likely due to the fact that I got my copy in PDF, which had already been updated with errata by the time I read it, coupled with the fact that my familiarity with Shadowrun lead me to naturally assume things that were not originally included in the rulebook–things like how much Essence you start with.

Character creation is more or less what you remember being from 3rd, 4th or 5th editions with the Priority System and some amount of Karma to round things out (IIRC, more Karma than was standard in previous editions. I have developed some gripes with character creation and advancement, though.

First, I’ve noticed what I think are some balance issues in the Priority Table. Because spells cheap in Karma cost and the Adjustment Points granted by the Metatype selection on the Priority can be used to increase your Magic reason, there’s actually very little reason to choose the higher-tier selections for Magic use compared to selecting a lower tier, using your adjustment points to increase Magic, your Karma to buy some extra spells, and having more Skill and Attribute Points.

Second, I personally think that there’s too much of a gap between the tiers for Skills and Attributes–I’m not sure that you can really create a viable character if you chose Priority E for skills or Attributes.

With the amount of Karma available at chargen, it also strikes me that Physical Adepts may be more powerful than characters augged for a similar role. As an Adept, you can take three levels of Initiation, take extra Power Points at each level, and start with nine Power Points.

These balance issues would likely be resolved by using an entirely Karma-based character creation system with some limits on how much Karma can be spent where and how.

But that leads to another issue–Attributes and Skills cost the same amount of Karma to increase, and the value of some Attributes over others doesn’t necessarily give parity. Agility, for instance, applies to a lot more skills than most of the other Attributes. And, given that raising an Attribute–any Attribute, I think–increases your effective rating in more than one skill, this is problematic.

Character generation is one thing, and the more I look at it, the more the shiny new facade falls away, revealing cracks in the plaster underneath. The more damning issue, though, is that while the new use of Edge is a great idea in theory, it doesn’t really simplify things in play very well.

Now, instead of tracking lots of little modifiers, I have to track different pools of Edge, make sure I’m distributing Edge (as appropriate, without sufficient guidance from the rulebook), make sure my players are tracking and spending Edge, and keep in mind all of the different basic Edge spends and special Edge actions available. The worst part though, is how unnatural the system feels in play. With Fate or Cortex Plus/Prime, the economy and use of points is relatively straightforward and intuitive after a short time playing. Here, though, I’m supposed to hand out Edge points when using a dice pool modifier feels more appropriate and then use those Edge points at a later time–when it may not really feel appropriate or connected. Worse, I’m not sure it really simplifies much. Sure, I don’t need to track how many rounds were fired in the last turn to calculate a recoil modifier for this turn, but a simplification of the amount and types of modifiers or the use of an advantage/disadvantage system would do much more with less.

There are other places where the attempt at a more narrative approach to Shadowrun feels less than fully-realized. Spells are a huge example here. SR6 attempts to simplify spells somewhat by adding some variables that can be applied to spells rather than required the choice of a Force Level (such as expanding AoE or adding additional damage). But that system could be used to require so many fewer spells and give sorcerers so much more flexibility and the opportunity is lost. A few examples: (1) allow the caster to modify the base spell to touch or area of effect and eliminate the need for different spells with the same general effect but different minor parameters; (2) allow the caster to modify Illusion spells to affect technology rather than having two separate spells; (3) Allow the caster to add on the additional Heal spell effects rather than making her use spell selections for six different minor variations.

This is the second time recently I’ve come across a system that I think I like on reading but don’t in practice–the previous being the new edition of 7th Sea, where I find the core mechanic more limiting and cumbersome than freeing. I guess that that means that designers are taking more risks to push mechanics in new directions than has perhaps been the case in the past, but with mixed results for major titles. I see some influence from Dogs in the Vineyard in 7th Sea, the former being a game I love from a design perspective but would probably never run. But, as a smaller title, the price of admission easily covers exposure to the innovative mechanic, whereas the greatly heightened production value of 7th Sea means a much higher buy-in. That’s a discussion for a different time.

In running the past few sessions of Shadowrun, I’ve admittedly been ignoring much of the RAW, using dice pool modifiers when it seems more appropriate, simplifying hacking rolls, etc. I don’t think that, as a GM and within the art of running a game, that there’s anything wrong with that so long as what’s being done is consistent and allows the character stats to have comparable effect on results as they would using RAW. But that’s not a good sign in terms of game design, and I’m finding myself sorely tempted to go back to Fate or Cortex to run the game. Alas, I can foresee the groans from my players at the lost time in learning and going through SR6 chargen only to change to a simpler system a few games in, so I’m not sure I’ll try to make that sale.

Without getting overly technical or formal in reviewing the system, what I’m finding is (for me personally, your style of running games may achieve a completely different result) that the system is encumbering my running of the game more than facilitating it, giving me too many mechanics when I want fewer, and not enough when I could use a little more. As much as I’d like to continue liking the SR6 system, at the end of the day, I’m not sure that there’s a worse conclusion I can come to.

As I’ve hinted at in other posts, I’m really not a fan of D&D, because it doesn’t lend itself to the types and styles of games I like to play. But it’s well-loved because, despite its relative complexity (and I think it’s fair to say it’s really middle of the road as far as that goes), it supports a certain type of gameplay and approach. I’d argue that the OSR has so much support for exactly the same reason, though that approach is somewhat different from D&D 5e and at least partially stoked by nostalgia.

Shadowrun remains one of my favorite RPG settings, so I’ll probably continue to buy the books to keep up with setting material, but that doesn’t mean I’ll feel great about doing so.

Can I make SR6 work for a long campaign? Yes; yes I can. Will I feel like I’m fighting with the system all the way through? Probably.

 

 

What Writers (and Roleplayers) Need to Know about Swordplay, Part VI: Reading Recommendations and Conclusions

Reading Recommendations:
The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, Sydney Anglo
Records of the Medieval Sword, Ewart Oakeshott
The Art of Sword Combat: A 1568 German Treatise on Swordsmanship, Translation                      of Jaochim Meyer by Jeffrey Forgeng
The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship: Royal Armouries MS I.33, another Jeffrey                              Forgeng translation
Sigmund Ringeck’s Knightly Art of the Longword, David Lindholm and Peter Svard
Master of Defense: The Works of George Silver, by Paul Wagner
How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots,                   Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves and Braggarts, by Ruth Goodman (the chapter               on violence has some great social context about swashbuckling, the rest of the                     book is also great fun)

Film: Believe it or not, Star Wars, Episode III, has some of the best swordplay in film (the move where Anakin cuts off Dooku’s hands looks like it could have come straight out of a fight manual), though it should be noted that the Germanic longsword style is probably not the best way to employ a weapon that only needs to touch its target to cause serious wounds–a more subtle system would probably be warranted.

The film, The Duellists, with Harvey Keitel and David Carradine, has some pretty good moments as well. Although well outside our period, the TV show Black Flag has some decent swordplay in it, and a generally excellent depiction of the tactics and combat techniques of early 18th-century pirates. Unfortunately, I can think of more cringeworthy examples of swordplay in film than good ones.

RPGs: If you want an RPG that realistically treats medieval/Renaissance combat in all its glory and detail, then you need to look at The Riddle of Steel by Jake Norwood and Driftwood Studios (now out-of-print and the publishing company defunct, I believe). Norwood in addition so other applicable background experience, was (may still be) a (very talented) member of The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts. I got to spar with him once, more than a decade-and-a-half ago at this point, and found him to be both a fierce fencer and a gracious person.

The Riddle of Steel has a very cool system for combat that focuses on character skill but also accounts for various advantages and disadvantages in weapon selection. It’s been more influential on my own thoughts on game design for other reasons (its Spiritual Attributes are a really cool idea), but as a younger gamer, I loved the combat system, running games set in Avar Narn and the Warhammer Fantasy setting (the latter of which was a particularly good marriage of rules and setting). Now, I prefer more streamlined rules, with my knowledge of fighting techniques influencing narration more than mechanics.

There are two sucessor systems to TROS that I’m aware of: Blade of the Iron Throne, which ports the rules into a more sword & sorcery system, and Song of Swords, which I believe just published after the wait following its successful kickstarter. I haven’t checked it out yet.

Another gamer and member of the historical martial arts community built a large rules mod for the 3.5 Edition of D&D called Codex Martialis, that brings a lot of the ideas from TROS into approximated usage with the d20 system. I haven’t gone back to look at how much work it would take to port this over to the Fifth Edition (likely a rewrite of the Fighter class at a minimum), but it might be worth investigating if you or your players don’t want to leave D&D but want to find some ways to put the ideas in this series into mechanics. I personally think that d100 systems like Mythras probably provide the best middleground, but I’m personally not a huge fan of d100 systems either (picky me!). though Mythras may be my favorite of them.

Some Thoughts About Swordplay in RPGs
Following on my recommendation of The Riddle of Steel and its successors, I want to share some personal thoughts on using knowledge about swordplay in RPGs. Given my preference for simple and quick-moving RPG systems (at present I’m even thinking of laying the complexity of my in-progress Avar Narn RPG system aside for a customization of Fate to the setting), I actually don’t think that much needs to be done mechanically in an RPG to capture realistic swordplay.

That is not to say that nothing should be done. The bare minimum, as GM or player, is to get a grasp of swordplay (and hand-to-hand combat in general) so that you can describe your combats well–make them exciting and interesting with realistic detail and flow that helps to hold the attention of the players.

If you want to do more than that, then you’re talking about making some assumptions about theme and setting. A realistic treatment of swordplay means genuinely dangerous combats that don’t typically last very long. Not every fight will end in death and large-scale dismemberment, though. Here’s a thought to drive that home: it takes about 8 pounds of force to pull an ear off. How many people really want to keep fighting when someone just ripped their ear off? Probably not the majority.

Permanent/lingering wounds and a real possibility of character death will achieve this, but give rise to additional necessary considerations. You need to do one (or more) of three things: (1) give players access to improved healing (and perhaps resurrection) through the setting, (2) ensure that there are mechanical “meta” mechanics for preventing character death (hero points, Edge, whatever you’d like to call it and/or (3) get their buy-in about character death and setting lethality before play begins.

There are, I believe, some important mechanical considerations to a game with realistic combat. I really believe that a bell curve system of task resolution is best, because predictability of outcome will be a huge benefit to players and characters when they must choose whether or not to fight. A bell curve maintains the possibility that an inexperienced person will get lucky and kill a skilled combatant, but it also means that a skilled combatant fighting an untrained person will usually result in a beatdown. This, I think is realistic. I believe that a dice pool system is potentially serviceable, as you get diminishing returns as difficulty decreases (the more important part of the bell curve), but the mechanic with a Gaussian distribution will be better in the end.

If you want to take things further, damage inflicted in combat derives more from the skill of the attacker than the weapon used–in the right hands and the right situation, a dagger may be deadlier than a sword or polearm. Weapons, then, should likely give some advantage on attack tests when they would reasonably offer the combatant advantage over his foe rather than setting the range of damage he does.

Shields should be treated as weapons, not armor, because that’s what they are. Yes, they are weapons better suited to deflecting enemy blows, but they may still be used to push, bash and strike with both the shield face and the edges of the shield. A buckler, in essence, is an armored fist.

Combined with all of the above, fighting ability should probably be skill-based and not level-based. That’s debatable, of course, since levels arguably represent the experience and veterancy of a character, but surviving fights long enough is not the sole determiner of whether a character will “git gud.”

As you can see, all of this militates against D&D for the system to use if you want to run games with realistic combats–or much realism at all, I’d argue. A game where a character can survive a direct hit from a fireball or lightning strike just doesn’t lend itself to verisimilitude. I’d reiterate that that does not make D&D bad/wrong; it’s just a very different approach to RPGs than a gritty and realistic system and the availability of a variety of approaches to our games is a wonderful thing.

I will warn, from my own experience, however, that attempting to modify the D&D system into something that effectively captures some verisimilitude in its combat requires such sweeping changes to both mechanics and assumptions of the system as to be an exercise in futility. That way lies madness.

I’d also say that gritty and deadly doesn’t necessarily mean the “low fantasy” genre, though I see in both literature and games a strong correlation between the two. I would not describe my own setting, Avar Narn, as low magic, but I would certainly argue that it’s gritty.

Conclusion
My argument here is not for the primacy of historically-based realism in fiction and fantasy roleplaying–these media are far too broad to allow such an oversimplification and there are many competing goals in our fictional pursuits over verisimilitude. I do intend to argue, though, that an understanding of the historical basis is a benefit to anyone who devotes the time to it, because that understanding gives you power to manipulate the feel, genre and themes of your setting intentionally rather than wondering in blind.

The less realistic the combat, the more legendary (in the literary sense) and mythopoeic a story or game will feel, and that’s an opportunity to exploit just as the opposite is.

I hope that this series has given you something to mull over, some new opportunities to explore and consider as you create settings and mechanics for your own fiction or games. The rest, as they say, is up to you.