Brancalonia: D&D Meets a Lighter-Hearted Blades in the Dark

Those of you who’ve been with me for a while know that I’m not a big fan of the systems used for D&D. The older and wiser I get, and the more I come to understand game design, the more I see the justification for the choices the system makes. It seems that a lot of times, my upset with the design choices are amplified by traditional (mis-)interpretations of the intent of those systems. At the end of the day, D&D is a game people love, and there’s nothing wrong with preferring that system over others. For me, though, I prefer my games a little harsher and grittier, and while I think D&D should best be considered a toolkit along the lines of Fate or Cortex (certainly not marketed that way but treated that way by DMs by long tradition), I find that it would take as much or more work to kitbash D&D into something approximating what I want as to design a system particular to my tastes. In fact, a few weeks ago I got some of my gaming friends together in our first post-vaccination meet-up to discuss putting together a fantasy game using highly-modified D&D rules (for all my complaints about the system, I listen to actual play podcasts and get a desire to play all the same). Instead of spending a lot of time discussing changes and systems, as I’d expected, we relatively quickly came to the decision that they’d (and I don’t disagree) that I devote my time to setting and system for Avar Narn and that they help playtest rules.

That’s a long walk to the real beginning of this post, mostly to explain that I don’t usually review or spend a lot of time on D&D-related books or systems as part of the blog. Brancalonia, though, is just that captivating.

Brancalonia is a setting (with rules modules) for 5e D&D, taking place in a “spaghetti fantasy” version of late-medieval/early modern Italy. Those of you who know my background understand that my interest is immediately piqued. Even without my deep love for the Renaissance in Italy, a mashup of fantasy and the spaghetti western genres sounds like two great tastes that taste great together. In execution, the “western” influence gives way more to the Renaissance themes of misrule, the Commedia Dell’Arte, and the best parts of early-modern humor. The fantasy is low without being gritty (think of a greasier, sleazier, ne’er-do-well with a heart of gold sort of vibe).

The mechanics of the system accomplish this in several ways. First, the restriction of characters to level 6 (a common change to evoke “low” fantasy in D&D without much fuss), though there are character advances that may continue to occur after hitting maximum level. Second, the inclusion of subclasses that evoke the feel of the setting without requiring massive overhauls of the core D&D classes. Third, a bevy of rules additions (more than modifications) that reinforce the feeling of Brancalonia. Short rests are changed to a full night and long rests to a week in line with the suggested rules modification in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The long rest is then incorporated into a downtime “Rollick” system.

Other rules include a system for Brawls (a non-lethal combat type indicative of both semi-good-natured contests between rivals and conflicts between criminals who know that drawing steel changes the context of the fight into something of interest to the authorities–to say nothing of lethality), methods for tracking characters’ bounties for their misdeeds (and the potential consequences thereof), the aforementioned “Rollick” system and rules for relationships to the characters’ band and company as well as an upgradable hideout. The standard D&D economy is changed not by complex changes to numbers in costs but by the vast lowering of the amount of gold characters are likely to have at any given time, limitations on magic items, a system for squandering winnings (reminiscent of Barbarians of Lemuria) and rules for “shoddy” equipment–what the characters will most often be using.

I make mention of Blades in the Dark in the title of this review not simply because it’s the previous game I reviewed, but because the systems in Brancalonia remind me of a (lighter) version of Blades in the Dark crew rules. Rather than managing the relationships between rival gangs as in BitD, the Knaves of Brancalonia are “Bounty Brothers” more often than deadly rivals. But the game does follow the same sort of job–downtime–job cycle as BitD, with a simple but perhaps more formalized system for managing the group’s hideout and its available amenities (described as Grandluxuries). The jobs set to a group of Knaves is implied to be a little more varied, both in context and geography, than the heists of Doskvol.

Also like BitD, characters regularly engage in their vices during downtime in Brancalonia, though the results in the latter are more often amusingly complicating than the self-destruction of the former. The best summary of the relationship between the two, I think is that Brancalonia takes itself less seriously, creating a picaresque tale of rowdy louts rather than a depressing story about desperate criminals.

Some notes about the writing itself: the game was originally written in Italian, and I get the feeling (or make the assumption) that part of the mastery of the feel of the setting is the immersion of the writers in both Italian culture and European history in ways that a Yank like myself can only dream of. The translation into English leaves a text that is clear and easy-to-understand–as well as very well-written. The book could have used some more editing, but the issues I find are typically minor mispellings and particularly the omission of certain letters in words (including within chapter titles!). Still, I found nothing that endangered comprehension or that reasonably compared with the first released draft of the latest Shadowrun rules.

I really can’t over-emphasize how well-written the setting material is. Not only from the standpoint of well-constructed and stylistically-impressive sentences, but also of language that evokes the feel the setting aspires to. I imagine both the original writers (the team of Epic Party Games) and the translator (Sarah Jane Webb) are to be commended for this feat. To boot, the artwork is amazing and highly evocative. I daresay that it’s worth the price of admission alone.

I must admit a certain forlorn agreement with all of the “What our party thinks it is/What our party actually is” memes when I see them, and herein lies another strength of Brancalonia–its tone is that sort of light-hearted foolishness often achieved by players of fantasy RPGs to begin with, so what may be considered a falling-short of the transcendent heights of “great roleplaying” in other conditions is right in with the theme and style of the game in Brancalonia. This alone is a huge strength.

If you’re a less-experienced GM looking for the style of BitD in an easy-to-run system, or a group who couldn’t care less about roleplaying as “Art” so long as everyone is having fun (always the first principle of committing free time to an RPG, I think, even if you want to make “Art” as well), a group looking for a grittier but light-hearted D&D setting, a new gamer wanting to learn to play RPGs, an aspiring designer looking for an excellent example of setting writing (rather than excellent worldbuilding–it may be that, too, but there’s so much material to draw on to create the setting that I’m not sure that it deserves that categorization), or a veteran gamer looking to do something decidedly fun and different, Bracalonia is definitely worth checking out.

Is it just me, or are we in something of a golden age for Italian game designers? I think of The One Ring as well and expect we’ll see more games of note from this group of designers as well.

Cyberware in Fate (Theory and Planning)

In my previous post, I mentioned that I’m working on some Fate hacks for Star Wars and Shadowrun. As I continue to develop ideas for those hacks, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on handling cyberware in Fate (with some ideological commentary on handling cyberware in roleplaying games in general).

Let me begin by saying that I love the complexity and diversity of cyberware and bioware in Shadowrun, even if it verges on turning character creation into “Accounting, the RPG.” Without hesitation, I’ll state that it’s the character creation systems in the official Shadowrun rules that most draw me to that ruleset. Running the game with the Shadowrun rules, though–that leaves something to be desired. I’ve spent a few evenings reading through the Cyberpunk Red rulebook (having also spent a good deal of time recently playing Cyberpunk 2077–review forthcoming), and I find the cybernetics in that game limited–frustratingly so–when compared to Shadowrun.

(As an aside, since I grew up with Shadowrun and not Cyberpunk (even before I started reading all of the fiction of the cyberpunk genre), it’s hard for me to be satisfied with a cyberpunk setting that doesn’t also include magic and elements of the fantastic. I’m tempted to worldbuild my own, fantastic, post-cyberpunk setting, perhaps for use with the RPG ruleset I’m developing for Avar Narn. Since, without a Patreon, I have some more flexibility in my worldbuilding endeavors, and since I’ve already put down the cash for a lot of functionality in WorldAnvil–a result that in my mind has been worth the whole Patreon idea even though it didn’t pan out–this might be something you see posts directing you toward in the future.)

Back to our irregularly scheduled post. Is there a good way to capture the complexity of Shadowrun-style augmentation in Fate? Of course there is–I just have to find it!

Core Approaches
The “basic” system for handling cyberware in Fate simply uses aspects and stunts (see Fate System Toolkit p. 152). Really, these are almost mini-stunts, given the difference between “minor” augs and “major” augs. This is a good start, but the Fate system can do a lot more, and, as you know, I like to play with the system and see where it might reasonably and usefully be pushed. If you’ve looked at my partial attempt at a Tom Clancy’s Division ruleset in Fate, you’ll see that I’m willing to push the envelope of the Fate system beyond its initial intent. On the other hand, it’s the initial intent–narrative focus and efficient play–that draws me to Fate in the first place, so I want to temper rules mods and modules I come up with in light of that. There’s nothing wrong with creating a new system that uses Fudge/Fate dice, but I’d like my creations to still reasonably be called implementations of Fate rather than hybrid abominations distantly inspired by Fate.

So, how do we expand on the Toolkit system? We invoke the Fate Fractal, of course! There are a few things that this will assist us with:

(1) By creating an overarching Extra, we can apply some facets of augmentation across the board. This should help implementation of ideas like Essence.
(2) By the same token, making Augmentation an Extra allows us to fine tune some of the cost of cyberware with Flaws, conditions and other character traits that can be bundled in with an Extra.
(3) While the core of stunts and aspects will easily account for many (perhaps most) cyberware/bioware/geneware/nanoware items, we’ve got other interesting options to play with.

Other Tricks
Among those interesting options, weapon and armor ratings immediately come to mind. Once I sort out exactly how I’ll handle weapons and armor, it will be easy to address augmentations like subdermal armor, integrated weapons, etc.

Even better than that (in my mind, at least), is the use of the idea of Red and Blue dice. The Toolkit describes the Red and Blue dice system on page 72. In the form presented, Red and Blue dice are used for weapons and armor, respectively. But there’s no reason they have to be. We can use the idea of Red dice as a mini- (almost micro-) stunt. “Roll a Red Die when using the Athletics skill.” This gives you a 1/3 chance of having a +1 boost to the result. Far less than the typical +1 or +2 from a stunt, but it still represents a tangible benefit (actually it’s, in raw statistics, the same benefit as a +1 to X skill in core Shadowrun, though this plays out differently because of the reduced granularity in Fate). As an additional benefit, this allows us to spread around a lot more small bonuses, allowing for characters with many different augs without having an insane character budget for extras.

Some other rules tricks I’m considering using: increase the Shift value of a Condition/Consequence; add a new Condition/Consequence; add additional Stress track boxes; modify stress box values.

Tags, Traits and Aspects
I’m also thinking about modifying the idea of “tags” in PbtA games. In Apocalypse World games, “tags” tell you something about the narrative but don’t necessarily have a mechanical component. For instance, a firearm with the “loud” tag doesn’t change the numbers on a roll when it’s used, but it should influence the types of moves the GM takes in response to its use.

Transhumanity’s Fate (the official port of the Eclipse Phase setting to Fate rules) uses a similar concept, which they call “Traits.” Traits act as “sub-aspects” or reminders of the purview and scope of the aspect to which a trait is attached. In many ways, this is that the Toolkit’s description of some “minor augs” works, like adding “low-light vision” to your cybereye.

Depending on how you look at it (or upon specific implementation), what I’m thinking about doing is actually closer to PbtA’s tags than Transhumanity’s Fate’s “traits.”

This is because Aspects actually have (at least) two functions. While an Aspect can be invoked to gain a mechanical bonus, an Aspect in Fate is also “always true.” So, at least as I understand and run the system, if someone has a Low-Light Vision trait, the existence of that trait justifies a lack of increased opposition to a roll based on poor lighting, even without the Aspect being invoked and a Fate Point being paid. This is one of those things that seems to take some settling in before new players grok Fate RPG.

If that’s how you run things, then it would be possible to divorce that “always true” portion of an Aspect from the “invoke to get a +2 or reroll” part of an Aspect. What does that leave you with? If the statement is attached to another Aspect, then it’s really pulling the duty of a TF “trait.” If it’s not attached to an Aspect, but you still treat it as “always true” for narrative purposes (we might say “for narrative positioning”), then it’s closer to a PbtA “tag.”

Implementation determines whether this is a distinction without a difference. If the augmentation system ties these “always true” statements to a stunt and not an Aspect, we’re pretty clearly in the realm of “tags.” Why would that be useful? A few reasons. Let’s look at the Fate Toolkit’s cybereye example.

The Cyber-Eye is a “minor” aug (meaning three to a point of Refresh) that gives a stunt-like effect (+1 to sight-based Notice rolls). This can be expanded by adding Aspects to the Cyber-eye, of which Low-Light Vision is one. But these added Aspects are also “minor” augs, meaning you potentially get three Aspects for 1 Refresh. Any problems that arise from doing things this way are minor at best and probably negligible, because the fact that there’s going to be overlap between many of these “minor” aug Assets and because, y’know, common sense and fair play. On the other hand, the low cost of these additions is better justified if they have only the “always true” element without the ability to grant a +2 or reroll. This helps fight the (again, potentially non-existent) problem of “Aspect bloat” but still makes those little tag-like tweaks worthwhile, because they still provide narratively and mechanically-significant information about when a roll should be necessary, what can be accomplished by a roll, and what reasonable opposition to a roll should be, all in line with the fiction-first approach of Fate. Example: having Thermal Imaging as a “tag” on your Cybereyes allows you to get information about the heat coming off of a vehicle’s engine in addition to make and model with a Notice roll–no additional mechanics needed and keeps the Fate Point Economy in check.

The only concern I’ve got with this approach is where it may require additional parsing and whether that additional parsing will add enough complexity to the system that the detriment outweighs value. Example: you can choose the “tag” Low-Light Vision for your Cybereyes, or you can choose Zoom Magnification. Should Zoom Magnification be a “tag”, an Aspect, or a stunt? Is it too weird to have sub-choices on an augmentation that vary so widely in mechanical effect? To be determined.

Essence and Humanity Loss
Both Cyberpunk and Shadowrun indicate that human augmentation directly results in reduced empathy, reduced “humanity.” I understand the need for Essence as a balancing issue in Shadowrun; I understand Humanity Loss in Cyberpunk less, since all characters have equal access to cyberware.

From a setting perspective, or philosophical or theological perspective, I find humanity loss and Essence rules to be strange, unsettling, and somewhat offensive. The reasons are many, but let’s focus on a few:

It’s extremely difficult to determine the psychological effects of human augmentation. If you read my theological or philosophical posts, you know that I’m an existentialist in my approach to both pursuits. I believe that our experience as embodied beings is very important to how we understand the world and our place in it. Our experiences with and relationships to our bodies are very complex things–we can talk about BMI, magazine covers, messaging about “ideal bodies,” anorexia and bulimia, and many more indicators of the nuanced and often troubled ways in which we relate to our material forms. But I defy the belief that someone who has a prosthetic is somehow less human than I am–that humanness is an inalienable part of their self. The argument made in Cyberpunk and Shadowrun on these grounds is horribly ablist.

Yes, a person’s humanity can be twisted and corrupted, made hard by experiences or choices. But I’m not convinced that fitting a piece of metal or a cloned and genetically engineered organ to one’s body is, by itself, the kind of experience that leads to such a loss of self. People who are benefited by prosthetics treat their experience of loss and restoration (however partial) in different ways–just like we all take different approaches and establish different paradigms with regards to how we each think about our own body. This paradigm might involve feelings of depression, despair, uselessness, failure and many other negative feelings that touch and trouble our relationships with self and others, but that’s a far cry from the “I feel 15% less able to relate to you or to feel compassion because my arm is made of aluminum” that our leading cyberpunk roleplaying games seem to expect.

The books in the Altered Carbon series (and the TV show), and the Eclipse Phase game (in d100 or Fate form) both take a more believable, more philosophically defensible and–perhaps most important–more interesting approach to the psyche and human augmentation. In both settings, psychological trauma can arise as a consequence of resleeving for many different reasons, but these are mostly involved with the experience of embodiment itself, of suddenly looking different or occupying a body that feels very different from what you expected. This is not the same as being psychologically traumatized by what is, at its core, enhancement surgery. Moreover, the psychological traumas of Eclipse Phase and Altered Carbon are treated with as much nuance (and perhaps empathy) as other types of psychological trauma, rather than being this unavoidable downward spiral of emotional intelligence.

Shadowrun perhaps goes farther in making a spiritual argument as well. The value of this is in adding complexity to the way the magical and supernatural elements of the game function, but the core assumption: that voluntarily changing your body results in spiritual detachment between body and soul, is a tenuous one. I can’t with any definitiveness say that it’s wrong, but it strikes me, personally, as wrong. Your mileage may vary.

Fortunately, the Fate system is more resistant to balance issues than Shadowrun is (which, despite having Essence, is full of potentially game-breaking mechanical constructs), so Essence issues do not need to be treated in as much detail as in the official Shadowrun rules. That leaves me with a design question: (1) cater to my own beliefs, suppositions and predispositions, or (2) adhere to fidelity to the setting and mechanical conceits of core Shadowrun for sake of fidelity to the system being ported. At this point in time, not sure how I’ll go. Were I designing this hack with more of Cyberpunk in mind than Shadowrun, I have to say I’d be inclined to ignore Humanity Loss altogether and let cyberpsychosis be a thing that happens in the world, but not to player characters.

Dresden Files Accelerated, “Mantles” and PbtA-Style Playbooks in Fate RPG

With our Innumerable Isles game, my gaming group is just starting to get comfortable with how the Fate RPG rules work, many of them coming from a strong background in heavier “crunch,” less narrative-focused (rules-wise, at least) games, like D&D, Shadowrun, WFRP and the previous generation of 40k RPGs (Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, etc.). Given that I both have a very fond place for how Fate plays and I understand the frustration of jumping around from rules system to rules system, I’ve decided (as I’ve mentioned before) that most of the games I’ll be running for the near future will use the Fate RPG system.

I am working on my own RPG system for the Avar Narn setting, with some ideas about some additional settings to build for use with my fiction and that eventual ruleset, but I also really enjoy tinkering with the Fate system without having to entirely reinvent the wheel for core mechanics and basic systems.

So, as two of my many side projects at any given time, I’m working on putting together my own hacks for Star Wars and Shadowrun, two settings I’m likely to revisit with predictable frequency. In doing so, a few ideas have been storming around in my brain.

My experience with my group and the Fate system is that, when it comes to character creation, at least, my players would like to have additional guidance–particularly when it comes to creating Aspects and choosing stunts. And then there’s my own proclivity for thinking about ways to have the ruleset reinforce tone, character and setting. The Playbook approach of the Powered-by-the-Apocalypse games goes a long way into simplifying character creation by providing a ready character idea with thematically focused abilities that, as a whole, maintain some flexibility within the character concept.

Generally, I’m not the biggest fan of character “classes,” as I personally prefer maximized flexibility in character creation. However, character classes and roles as distinct and discrete constructs have definite value in roleplaying systems–that’s why they’re so common in the first place. Among other things they: (1) help ensure each player in the group has an area in which their character holds the spotlight, (2) buttress the crafting of character concepts, (3) simplify and speed up character creation, (4) reinforce ideas about setting and theme.

Both Shadowrun and Star Wars are settings conductive to the use of “classes” or “playbooks,” having iconic archetypes to draw from. In Star Wars, we have the Jedi (of different types), the Smuggler, the Soldier, the Bounty Hunter, etc. (the FFG Star Wars system provides many different such archetypes). Likewise, Shadowrun characters tend to fall into archetypes as well: the Street Samurai, the Mage, the Shaman, the Rigger, the Hacker/Decker, the Face, the Infiltrator, etc.

PbtA would make each of these playbooks (indeed, you can find PbtA hacks for Star Wars and for Shadowrun, as well as The Sprawl and its supplements, which handle cyberpunk games with or without fantastic elements in the PbtA system).

I can’t say definitively whether the PbtA-style Playbooks influenced the writing of Mantles in Dresden Files Accelerated, but it sure seems like they did. Regardless, the DFA‘s Mantle system is a stroke of genius; it provides a great example of how to apply the Playbook philosophy to the Fate rules (whether Core, Condensed or Accelerated).

If you’re not familiar with DFA‘s Mantles, these are used to flesh out different character concepts or archetypes, both mundane and supernatural. Each Mantle includes some core Stunts for the Mantle as well as a list of additional stunts for selection in character creation or advancement. Sounds like a Playbook’s “Moves,” right? Where things get really interesting is that (since DFA uses Conditions instead of Consequences), each Mantle gives a character additional Conditions. Some of these Conditions have a track, boxes in which can be checked to power the stunts in the Mantle’s list. Others are binary and may do all sorts of interesting things–like shutting down the use of particular stunts. An example is the Law Enforcement Mantle, which has a “Police Powers” Condition that allows the character to do the things expected of a law enforcement officer as well as a “Suspended” Condition that prevents the use of Police Powers when checked–you’ve overstepped your authority and someone’s demanded you “turn in your badge and gun,” as the cop films would have it.

So, the Mantle grants thematic “Moves” and often includes thematic Conditions and even subsystems unique to that character type. If every character has a Mantle, and the Mantles are at least roughly balanced (to the extent that the game you’re playing and the players you’re playing with need balance), then there’s no need to resort to Refresh costs to apply a Mantle.

So, the Mantle carries with it the structure of the PbtA Playbook. As with PbtA, you can always allow a character to have Stunts (or Moves) not from the Mantle’s list when it makes sense for them to do so.

In DFA, Aspects and Skill (Approach, really) ratings are determined separately from the Mantle, so you get the Mantle’s structure combined with the vast freedom of creating your Aspects and the basic difference between characters of the same Mantle by how they arrange their Skill/Approach arrays. You can add to the structure of a Mantle by providing example Aspects players can choose from, suggesting or requiring apex Skills or Approaches for a Mantle, and/or building a selection of Extras that a Mantle is required to take or from which they may select (a Shadowrun Rigger needs drones, right?). Conversely, by leaving the selection of Extras divorced from the Mantle, by having a “general” stunt list available to all characters, and by leaving Aspects and Skill selection untethered to Mantles, you preserve overall character freedom while gaining the thematic and mechanical benefits of using Mantles. For a happy medium, give “suggested” Aspects, Extras, and Skill arrays that can be used by those players who want to make their character quickly but that may be modified or ignored by the players who want more freedom in crafting their particular character.

Here’s the downside: it’s a lot of work on the GM (or whomever is putting the mechanics for the game together) to build Mantles (or, as I’ll prefer to call them, Archetypes)–particularly if you’re trying to create a broad selection of Archetypes with unique Conditions and Stunts (or at least only minor overlap). I’ve found myself with the DFA rulebook open in one tab, a number of other Fate rulebooks open in successive tabs, and the Flow app open on my iPad all at once to take notes, mark things out, and generally brainstorm ideas as I list and define Archetypes. For me, it’s the kind of creative work I enjoy anyway, and I think it will improve games I run in those settings by both scaffolding players in their character creation and providing some thematic focus to character creation for the setting and particular narrative.

As I work on my personal adaptations of Star Wars and Shadowrun to Fate, look for me to post those rules, Archetypes and ideas to the blog for your use and/or modification, should you like them. At the very least, if you like Fate, go pick up a copy of Dresden Files Accelerated. It’s a great use of the Fate system standing alone, and I’ve found it to be an excellent source of ideas for hacking an already-incredibly modular RPG system.

Afterword
If you’ve followed the RPG aspects of my blog for a while, you’ll know that I previously started a hack of the Cortex Plus/Prime rules for Shadowrun (as well as posting some of my most popular articles with build advice using the official Shadowrun rules, with an eye at Sixth Edition but many of the points applicable to the 20th Anniversary or 5th edition rules as well). I’ll likely go back and finish the Cortex version at some point, as it’s another system I very much enjoy (and very much enjoy tinkering with). There are some parts of me that keep telling me that, as narratively-minded ruleset with (arguably) more crunch than Fate, it’s a better overall candidate for a Shadowrun game, and some of the same ideas in this article can likely be used with Cortex as well. But for now, I’m going to stick to Fate.

Rules for Piracy in Fate

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been running an RPG campaign of fantasy piracy in a nascent setting I’m calling “The Innumerable Isles.” I ended up doing a lot of work (drawing upon my The Fate of Piracy series from the not-too-distant past), to come up with some rules for pirate games in Fate.

You’ll find attached below a PDF with the rules as I currently have them. Within those pages, I’ve included a system for using Professions as Skills, rules for Ships as characters (as well as assembling and customizing a ship), general guidelines for character creation, rules for handling piratical particulars (a ship-to-ship combat system and some easy ways to run the ruses used by pirates to tempt unwary prey), and even some fantastical elements (including a magic system).

The ruleset should be easy to employ for either historical games or in fantasy games set in an age of sail analogue.

I’ll follow on soon with some background on the Innumerable Isles setting (although I am turning my main focus to writing down more of my Avar Narn material in preparation for my Patreon launch with the start of the new year) and with some additional tools for the rules included here (including some random encounter charts!)

Infinite Recursions

I think it was Stephen King who wrote or said that, if one wants to be successful as a writer, one needs to writing like a (second) job. I’m not one for taking people’s advice on reputation alone, especially on something so deeply personal and resistant to generalization as writing. Nevertheless, I think (maybe “worry” is a better word) that he’s right.

In light of that, I’m considering starting a Patreon. Through that medium, I’d add some focused posts on my personal worldbuilding endeavors, including fiction and roleplaying rules for those settings. Avar Narn would, of course, be a particular focus, but I also have a handful of additional settings I want to develop—especially for roleplaying (mine and others’). Posts would be at least weekly, with deep dives into aspects of setting, maps, and much more for the enjoyment and use of patrons. I don’t know if I really have a critical mass for something like that to work, but I think it would be useful to me in several ways. First, the deadlines and accountability this could bring me would, I think, help my productivity.

I’m also reminded of a story about a Russian agent working for CIA case officers at the height of the Cold War. He’d regularly ask his handlers for money in exchange for his services, increasing the amount that he wanted every time he asked. Eventually, the Soviets found him out and did what they always did to suspected spies. The CIA officers rushed to his apartment to strip out anything that could link him to others before the KGB could recover it. As they did so, they found all of the money they’d paid him. He had never been the mercenary they’d expected; the money was his way of ensuring that the information he passed to American spies was worthwhile and valuable.

I’d like to think that that’s how Patreon would work for me—as a tangible indication that people are actually interested in my creative work. It would be nice to have some associated income—either to allow me to devote more time to writing and other creative endeavors or to invest in the settings themselves—for artwork and other needs that could allow me to produce professional-grade works—but I don’t expect the income derived therefrom to be a life-changer.

One of my reservations about taking the leap, other than the possibility that a lack of response becomes a de-motivator, is some release of creative control over my productions. Which leads me to the title of this post.

As I was thinking about the prospect of a Patreon, of what it would practically look like, I realized the fallacy of thinking about absolute creative control. Once a piece of art or writing is shared with others, it irrecoverably shatters into a number of pieces equal to the number of participants in the setting.

There is no single Middle Earth, no one Marvel Universe, no absolute Star Wars (just ask Disney). And this goes well beyond fanboy-ism and head cannon—the “feel” of a setting is going to be unique in some inexplicable way to each experiencer, even before we talk about fan fiction or roleplaying games set in that world.

And that’s not a bad thing—it’s a really fascinating one to think that every fictional world becomes infinite worlds, recursions of varying degrees all riffing in some core ideas.

Like all things, that makes the creative act both deeply personal and necessarily communal if it is to be enjoyed. That dialectic speaks to my soul, if I’m going to be honest, and all my worries about whether other peoples’ ideas creep into my own creations seems stupid, honestly, in the light of our corporate relationship between a setting with all of its idiosyncrasies created by our own idiosyncrasies, and the relationship that creates between each of us.

Frankly, it makes me want to create more, write more, give others more setting to make their own in their various ways and enjoy.

I think I’ll give Patreon a shot. We’ll see what happens.

Tom Clancy’s Division Tabletop (Fate) RPG

I’d been recently gearing up to run a tabletop game (using the Fate RPG) set in the world Tom Clancy’s Division. First, my potential players asked for more granularity than Fate usually offers, so I created the attached rules for weapons, equipment and encumbrance.

About the time of getting through the first draft of the rules for character creation (and the accompanying program), discussion among us turned to the fact that this setting might just hit a little too close to home right now to fully be the kind of distracting amusement we could all use. At the same time, two of the other people in the group both offered to GM–if we played D&D.

So, this project has been put on the shelf, maybe indefinitely (I have to admit that, if I had my ‘druthers, I’d have stuck closer to the Core rules of Fate without all of the added complexity). Nevertheless, this was a very interesting exercise for me in game design, particularly in pushing the boundaries of the Fate system’s intent without (hopefully) breaking it.

Anyway, the rules I’m including here are for character creation, as I hadn’t gotten to the rest of the rules (settlements, group combat, etc.) that I’d intended to write. They could be easily adapted to any higher-granularity modern military-style game; feel free to take what you want and leave the rest.

I’ve included a character-generation spreadsheet that will help calculate all of the weapon design and encumbrance matters for you, as well as some premade weapons and archetypal character builds to provide some examples for the system as a whole.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, as I can apply comments and criticisms to my future design efforts, whether for Fate or for something else.

Division Fate Character Creation Unfinished
Fate Division Archetypes
Fate Division Character Spreasheet In-Progress v2
Fate Division Weapon Premades

 

 

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the D&D

I generally don’t like D&D as a gaming system. So how did I get here? Well, given the general downtime for everyone, I started working on a roleplaying game to be played virtually with some friends. Since the Shadowrun game tapered off, I haven’t had a game running and there’s a part of me that’s just not happy whenever that’s the case.

I suggested to my friends a game using the Fate system based on the Tom Clancy’s Division games. I spent a lot of time working on some custom rules for the setting (which I’ll post in their unfinished state in a separate post) before two things happened: (1) several of us came to the conclusion that that setting probably doesn’t provide enough respite from every day life in the COVID-19 world, and (2) two other members in the group both offered to GM/DM if we played Dungeons & Dragons. I do a lot more running of games than playing in them, so, despite my reservations, I quickly agreed and we set about negotiating a rotating GMing situation, with our first game set for this Friday.

Here are some of the (admittedly subjective) reasons I’m not a big fan of D&D:

  1. I would prefer a more “realistic” rules approach to combat, particularly than large hit point pools, armor as making one more difficult to hit and no penalties for taking damage until you’re out-of-action.
  2. I don’t like classes and levels, generally. I tend to think that these constructs detract from roleplaying and character development in their rigidity. For instance, only Rogues get sneak attack bonus damage–other characters are mechanically incapable of taking full advantage of an ambush, no matter whether they’re a soldier whose survived a thousand ambushes himself or a gutter punk getting lucky with a sudden knife attack.
  3. As a corollary, D&D is a game (like Shadowrun) with a ruleset that draws me into ours of obsessive character-building to try to find the exact build that will do all the things I want it to, even while knowing that the character generation’s economy of resources won’t allow for it and I can’t (and shouldn’t) try to play characters that are good at everything.
  4. I see D&D as a system that pushes a game toward combat and the gamist side over the roleplaying side based on its design. As you know, my preference leans heavily narrativist. Basing XP on kills makes me uncomfortable on many levels–from the ethical and theological to game design itself. G.K Chesterton once wrote (and I agree): “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” But that’s a big leap from killing 100 orcs because, well, they’re orcs and “orcs bad!”
  5. Encounter building and levels work together in a way that, if playing strictly by the rules, makes some fights unwinnable. I fully believe that some fights should be unwinnable if the players aren’t resourceful, clever and maybe a bit lucky, but D&D as written militates in favor of a straight-up fight of hit-point attrition and forces the good GM to make-up whole cloth how alternative approaches work. Yes, we can talk about “rules versus rulings,” but I’d argue that, when we have to have that conversation at all, something it lacking in what the rules are communicating. That’s not to say that rules should address every eventuality and should be rigidly followed–far from it. The problem here is that the D&D books might say that they encourage this kind of player creativity that requires responsive and flexible GM/DM adjudication, but the rules give the impression of the opposite, and few tools are provided to assist in making such ad-hoc judgments. Put another way, I don’t like that Level 1 characters (or 5 or 8 for that matter) don’t have a chance against a dragon simply because they haven’t ground out enough levels yet. In addition to the ways the rules are written complained of above, a skills-based system over a level-based one can go a long way in this regard.
  6. The assumption that combat is the way you overcome monsters bugs me. Why not more interesting possibilities? Ghosts that you don’t hit with magic swords but that must be banished or appeased in some other way that relies on wits and skills more than fighting?
  7. D&D Physics. This is perhaps my biggest gripe, and it’s admittedly about certain players rather than the rules themselves. Some players assume that the rulebooks represent the physics of the worlds D&D games take place in–if something is technically allowable by the rules as written, no matter how ridiculous, then it’s a loophole in the spacetime continuum that should be exploitable by a player. One example: the player who thinks that, as long as he succeeds at a Deception/Persuasion check, he can convince anyone of anything, no matter how blatantly untrue or unlikely. Another, from 3.5e: a ladder costs less than two ten-foot poles, but is comprised of two ten-foot poles plus some other stuff. You do the math. If I remember correctly, in the forward to The Riddle of Steel roleplaying game (an amazing game on many levels, if not the easiest to run), Jake Norwood described a game of D&D where he realized he would take fewer hit points of damage jumping off the cliff he stood atop than fighting his way through the oncoming orc horde as an inspiration for creating a game with much more realistic combat (he’s also a talented western martial artist, so he was just the type of person to write that game).

Okay, that’s a fair amount of griping, and none of it’s new to anyone. While there are alternatives to D&D (some very good ones), D&D retains the large majority of market share in fantasy roleplaying, despite decades of competition. Why? For one, it’s the only name that most would-be roleplayers know. Additionally, it’s got a special nostalgia factor for a lot of gamers my age or older and a solid place within popular culture that grows every year (2 episodes of CommunityStranger Things, the Greetings, Adventurers! and The Adventure Zone podcasts, etc., etc.). But most of all, I must admit, it’s just a fun game. I’ve played several campaigns of D&D in the past, none of them especially-long running but usually going for a few months or so, and not one of the things I’ve mentioned above really factors into my overall-fond memories of those games.

I’ve decided to enter this upcoming D&D campaign with an eye toward throwing aside some of my complaints and design differences and enjoying the game for what it is–a time-tested engine for running enjoyable high-fantasy games. The other players in my group are all fans of D&D and familiar with it (to varying degrees, but certainly moreso on average than any other system I’d choose to run) and, if all goes well, I may well commit to (personally) running more D&D for them in the future.

Okay, so how am I stopping worrying and learning to love the D&D? Some counterarguments to my complaints above I’m trying to keep in my mind as I undertake this adventure:

  1. Hit points aren’t meant to be a reflection of damage (though they often are treated that way). They’re more like Stress in Fate RPG: a narrative indicator of the leeway a character has before receiving a serious injury. A character who loses hitpoints has lost some of that vigor and focus that keeps her from being injured and comes closer to the possibility, but shouldn’t be thought of as having taken a blow (instead having barely turned it aside, etc.). There are a few points that, as a GM, I’d have go along with this: (a) narrate hit point damage as a near miss and degradation of performance but not a blow actually received; (b) use lingering injuries when hitting zero HP to drive home the fact that that’s when injuries occur; (c) use alternative mechanisms over HP to adjudicate unavoidable damage where appropriate (falling, etc.). Under this approach, it makes good sense that armor serves as a buffer to having to use up HP rather than as a dampener on HP lost, so I get a double rationalization with this mindset!
  2. Classes really are a good conceit for certain types of roleplaying games. In D&D, classes give everyone’s character a chance to shine, clear delineations of where characters fit within the team of players, and accentuate’s cooperative, synergistic play as a group.
  3. Levels can make sense, too, within the conceit of the game mechanics. If we’re literally talking about the accumulation of experience that makes adventurers better at what they do, levels are an appropriate shorthand for that, even if not the choice I’d personally make in game design.
  4. A good GM can use the rules in creative ways (or modify/ignore them) to overcome issues about the game being too combat-focused or too restrictive in the allowance of creative problem-solving, and the occasional unbalanced encounter can be a good reminder to players that discretion is sometimes the better part of valor.
  5. I tend to take a very particular approach in what I want from roleplaying games–I expect deep immersion and something approaching high art. I rarely get it, so these expectations are just setting myself up for disappointment. If I’m willing to focus on entertaining stories, interesting characters, exciting encounters and generally having fun, I’d likely enjoy running games even more than I currently do. In other words, maybe I should just get over myself. D&D is an excellent system having fun and telling entertaining stories if I forego my pretensions. I retain the belief that RPGs can lead to deep, immersive stories with significant impact on the players’ thoughts and lives–but they don’t have to be, and if my gaming friends frankly aren’t that interested in that kind of roleplaying, maybe I should lighten up and just have more fun with them! After all, I am a writer, so I do have some outlet for the deep and artistic (if that’s actually more than just pretension and something that actually pervades my writing…).

So there it is. D&D may not be my first choice of RPGs, but there are certainly things about it I like, and could potentially grow to love. Now, if I could just figure out how to build the character I want to play…

A Third View of Worldbuilding

The past month has been rather silent on the blog, and for that I apologize. I’ve got a few half-written posts that I’m letting percolate a while and I’ve spent a good deal of that time continuing to expand and refine my fictional setting, Avar Narn.

In undertaking that task, I’ve been thinking a bit about the process and craft of worldbuilding, and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts with you.

I’ve called this post “A Third View of Worldbuilding” to contrast against the two most-commonly-described approaches to building fictional settings: the “top-down approach” and the “bottom-up approach.” As the title suggests, I’m going to offer a third way in this post, one I’ll call the “archaeological” approach. But first, let’s get some definitions of the established approaches.

A Note on Historical Analogues
I think it worthwhile to have a quick sidebar discussion about reliance on examples from the real world in building fictional worlds. There seems to me to be a sense that drawing upon real-world analogues for building nations, cultures, religions, and other aspects of the setting is lazy or uncreative. I’d argue that the use of such analogy is both unavoidable and valuable to worldbuilding when done purposefully and carefully.

Reference to our world is inescapable because humans lack the capacity to create something new ex nihilo. All human creativity is a matter of taking the blocks of what we know and arranging them into new patterns that no one’s thought about before. Lean into it and cut yourself some slack.

I’ve got a quotation at the beginning of my Avar Narn worldbuilding notebook from writer of fiction and roleplaying game content Ari Marmell, and I think it makes the point as concisely as possible. He says, “Originality is great–as a tool for writing good stories and compelling characters, or as a byproduct thereof. It should never be your goal; your goals should be, well, writing a good story and creating compelling characters.”

Some examples that I think prove his point:

The Witcher setting draws very heavily from medieval history and fairy tales to provide the core of its narratives. We don’t read those novels because we’re looking for a completely innovative setting; we read them because Geralt and his companions are interesting characters and the stories they find themselves within are fascinating and entertaining. Those stories benefit from their groundedness in the pseudohistoricity of the setting.

Abercrombie’s First Law setting likewise draws upon historical analogues (though not necessarily to the same extent as The Witcher) to build the setting (and quickly clue the reader into it). Angland has its roots in England (obviously) and in Norse/Germanic cultures. The Gurkish Empire finds its footing in the historical Muslim (and particularly Ottoman, I think) states–though this footing either purposefully draws upon some Western romantic (I hesitate to use that phrase because the Western romanticism of the Near East is rarely positive) or it curves in that direction because of the narrative and setting itself. I don’t want to imply any judgment there, because I don’t think there’s an agenda behind Abercrombie’s choices except to write compelling fiction. Styria has, of course, the feel of Renaissance Italy.

Tolkien drew heavily upon Anglo-Saxon culture for the Rohirrim (it was his academic specialty, after all).

Brandon Sanderson’s feruchemy, allomancy and hemalurgy are so fascinating precisely because they contrast so starkly with Western historical magical ideas (and thus what we typically expect in Western fantasy fiction), while Jim Butcher uses those same ideas (the historical Western ideas about magic) as a starting point to establish depth and interest in his urban fantasy, The Dresden Files.

In roleplaying games and in speculative short fiction, the use of close adherence to historical analogues can quickly establish setting, useful for getting an unfamiliar audience invested quickly. John Wick’s roleplaying games 7th Sea and Legend of the Five Rings are prime examples.

All of this is to say that you should beg, borrow and steal from real-world examples to build your fictional worlds. Just do so thoughtfully and intentionally and you’ll be held in good stead, no matter how much you eventually veer from the “source material.”

The Top-Down Approach
The Top-Down Approach suggests that you start with the general, the big ideas of the setting, and work your way down to the details based upon those big ideas. This approach works well for fiction writers, where the setting ought to be considered in relation to the kinds of stories you want to tell, to the themes and motifs of the works you’re considering, and to the sort of atmosphere you want to establish for your audience.

No approach to worldbuilding is without its disadvantages, however. The Top-Down Approach runs the risk of creating generic settings that feel like the two-dimensional facades of buildings on the main street of some theme park–it’s just so easy to rely entirely on historical analogues to provide all of the details. Without reliance on reference to the real world, it can be hard to know where to begin with the Top-Down Approach and easy to end up with contradictory details as you develop different aspects of the setting and bring them together.

The Bottom-Up Approach
In this approach, you start with a limited part of the setting, developing in detail, before using that beachhead as a jumping-off point for expansion into larger aspects of the world. The Bottom-Up method is great for getting stuck right into a story or game–you start with only what you need to get going and add on only when the scope of your narrative needs to expand. There’s a reason that Dungeons and Dragons encourages GMs to create a small adventure setting first (a town or village “hub” with adventure sites in the surrounds) to begin a game. Sometimes you really only need the 2-d facade because all of the story will take place on the main street.

This is easier with writing rather than gaming, where a reader can’t spontaneously decide to peek behind the curtain. But it’s not a bad thing either, because the ability to improvise new setting details (or to offer your players the opportunity to fill in details) can add new and unexpected dimensions to the setting, which is both meaningful and entertaining.

The biggest danger of Bottom-Up creation, I think, is that you end up with a “kitchen-sink” setting, where everything needs to be pigeonholed into the setting somewhere (I’d argue that this is the case with D&D’s Forgotten Realms setting) so that the world feels more like a theme park than a living, functioning, believable world. As a corollary to that, if you have multiple Bottom-Up aspects developed concurrently before moving to higher-level issues, you end up with a mish-mash of ideas instead of a cohesive setting with central themes and ideas. I don’t mean to say that that’s wrong–our own world has no clear cut definitions of what it means, so there’s realism to be found there as well. But in terms of narrative, having cues about what you’re about (or what your setting’s about, anyway) can be helpful.

A Third Way
Now for my own point: (not the) third way for worldbuilding. We’re going to use archaeology as our analogue here (hence my calling this the “archaeological approach,” of course). When archaeologists are excavating a site, they first set up a marked grid so that the location of each object found can be carefully recorded as they go. A single archaeologist can only work in one cell of the grid at a time, but a useful interpretation of the site only develops as multiple cells are excavated. The interpretation the archaeologist had after excavating area A1 may change dramatically after excavating cell D4, so she may need to go look at A1 again to rework her thoughts. Eventually, a cohesive interpretation of the whole will develop, but only as different cells are examined over time.

The same occurs between different archaeological sites. What is discovered in one place might drastically change the interpretation of an earlier-excavated site. And, good archaeologists leave parts of the site unexcavated and preserved for future scholars, who will arrive to continue the work armed with more sophisticated tools and, hopefully, knowledge about the site and culture being investigated that the earlier archaeologists didn’t have.

Okay, this is essentially nothing new–my point is that the art of worldbuilding shouldn’t be simply top-down or bottom-up; it’s a back and forth, a jumping around–the assembly of a puzzle rather than the construction of a building. “Top-down” and “bottom-up” are merely constructs for discussing the art of worldbuilding anyway; I seriously doubt that most worldbuilders engage solely in one method, or even in a dogmatically rigid sequence of building a setting. I certainly don’t. You have to use what works best for you: your personality, work habits and creative style. I’ll follow this with some concrete tips that have worked for me.

Tips for the “Archaeological Approach”

1. Always be ready to change what you’ve established in light of new “discoveries.”
This is one of the most effective tools for originality in a setting and one of the most rewarding aspects of worldbuilding (at least when done for its own sake). This is very much like discovering new things about your characters or plot when writing a novel. In worldbuilding, as you add details to the history, geography and cultures of your world, you’ll start to have little epiphanies about the consequences of those choices or contradictions between details that develop because of them. If you’re consistently ready to take those developments and go back through what you’ve established, metaphorically ironing out the kinks, the setting will begin to develop in some unexpected ways that add depth, detail, and verisimilitude. I believe I’ve said before in a different post that my favorite thing about Max Brooks’ book World War Z is how, if you can just suspend belief for the zombies, the stories and political events that the novel describes make logical sense based on real-world political realities and history. The more places someone investigating your settings says, “Aha! X happened because of Y and Z,” the more immersive and believable your setting becomes, no matter how fantastic.

2. Put pins in things.
To try to maintain flow in the process of worldbuilding, try to avoid letting yourself get hung up on details that you’re not ready to fill in yet. Some examples, if you’re working through your setting’s history and a new nation crops up, don’t feel like you have to go define that nation’s culture and separate history right away. Put a pin in those subtopics and continue working on the task at hand.

For me, this helps in two ways: First, it helps me to stay efficient, focusing my efforts where I’m ready to make good use of my time instead of following rabbit trails that I’m not mentally prepared for. Second, when I do run into writer’s block in my current task, it gives me ready alternatives to shift to so that I can continue making useful worldbuilding efforts instead of having to put the whole thing down for a while to let it sit.

This works both for details and–especially–for names. If I don’t have ready names in hand when I come to a new character or place in Avar Narn, I tend to change my font to bold (so that I remember I need to come back to the detail) and put a shorthand description of the thing in brackets so that I can keep going with the narrative.

3. Keep lists.
Sometimes, I feel like I’m too tired or distracted to have the mental wherewithal to conduct some serious worldbuilding, but I want to do something useful to keep progress going. I’ll play around with an online name generator, taking the output and modifying it into names I like or that I think would have a place in one of Avar Narn’s languages. I’ll make lists of interesting cultural oddities, quirks or nuances that I might be able to “plug into” a culture as I’m developing it, speeding along the development of granularity of detail. Hell, I’ll make lists of topics I need to develop, so that when I’m feeling creative (or sitting myself down to be creative–damn how I feel about it!), I have options in front of me so that I can select the one that most appeals at the time and get straight to it.

4. Be Able to See the Forest.
Organizing your work is essential in worldbuilding. If you don’t, you’ll lose details altogether or have to rework some of the work you’ve already done to account for them. More important than that, though, is the ability to take a quick high-level approach to see how things are fitting together. How developed is your setting at this moment? Are you working on helpful details or just adding more to the setting that may never come into play? If you’re worldbuilding for worldbuilding’s sake–and I think it is a worthwhile exercise even if you never plan to do anything with your setting–this doesn’t matter so much. But if you’re developing a setting for a roleplaying game or for fiction and you’ve got some extrinsic or intrinsic deadline for kicking off the game or writing, you want to be able to make sure you’re not spending in the weeds–naming that delicious pie shop at the end of the world your characters will never visit.

Overall, I mean to say that you should be able to move into a temporary top-down approach when that suits you.

5. Be able to see the trees.
Modern historians no longer view history as a collection of the exploits and ideologies of the elite–they rightfully recognize that most events have multiple confluences of causes that come together to trigger them in a particular place and time. Looking at the finer details allows you to make larger-scale choices that seem to flow naturally and consequentially from those smaller choices.

In other words, be able to move into a bottom-up approach when useful.

6. Be a sponge.
Samuel Johnson said, “Never trust a man who writes more than he reads.” Fair point.

Soak up all the information you can: about how the world works, about how people work, examples of real-world history and culture, etc., etc., ad nauseam. If you accept as true that human creativity is a matter of rearranging the blocks we already have into new structures, put as many different blocks in your toy box as you can. But, don’t let sponging up knowledge be all that you do. This is an excuse I often use myself; I’ll tell myself I’m sponging up information right now, and when I have enough, I’ll get back to the worldbuilding. There’s never enough, so use what you have even as you’re getting more.

Conclusion
I won’t say that there are “a lot” of worldbuilding books out there, but there are a few. I personally find them useful for providing with checklists of things to think about as I’m building my world, but I’ve never found any of them to be a panacea or ready guide to doing the damn thing.

In my mind, worldbuilding is and should be an organic process, difficult to predict in its details or course, much less in its results. It’s a journey you have to walk, not an engineering plan to rigidly follow. Your experience may differ vastly, of course.

As a final thought, lest you think that I am blind to the downsides of the approach I’ve argued for in comparison to top-down and bottom-up methods: this organic, back-and-forth approach of worldbuilding is time-consuming and risks becoming the object in and of itself. If you’re worldbuilding for the sake of it, that’s not a problem. But if you have purpose(s) in mind for your setting once it’s “ready,” remember that at some point you’ve got to start actually running that RPG or writing that novel.

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.)