Alternative Combat Systems in Cortex Prime, Part III: Holding the Line and Coordinated Actions

For the previous part of this series, click here.

In this part of the series, I’m going offer two (sub)systems for handling particular types of combat situations; the first riffs off of the “Bloody Versus” while the second utilizes a nuanced form of “Narrative Combat.” Let’s get to it:

Timed Defensive Actions

“Mal: Zoe…are you here?
Zoe: Do the job, sir.
Mal: You hold. Hold till I’m back.”

Serenity, 2004

This system can be used for situations where the characters are fighting a defensive battle against waves of attackers while keeping mechanics streamlined compared to character-by-character combat.

The GM needs two things at the start of the engagement (which can be set in adventure prep). The first is the dice pool used to represent the attacking force. Create this as you would any opposition, starting with a pair of difficulty dice representing the base quality of the attackers and adding dice for a Distinction and other applicable Traits. If the size of the attacking force warrants it, consider using the Scale rules, but bear in mind genre as well as the close narrative—if you’re playing a game involving special operations forces in an 80’s-style action movie, they’re probably expected to absolutely wade through the enemy and Scale would not be appropriate.

The second preparatory item is a mechanism for tracking the enemy’s fighting ability or the amount of time the PCs must hold out before help arrives. Depending on your damage system, the enemy force may have a die step that is whittled down, may have a Stress or Trauma die that is stepped up, or may have a damage track. If the conflict is a matter of holding out for time, you can set up a track or a “clock” in the style of Powered by the Apocalypse games.

Variant: Random Timing: If you want to add additional drama (and stress to your players), you can take a cue from miniature wargaming and have the conflict last for a random number of turns. To do this, decide upon a definite number of turns the conflict will last (e.g. “at least 3”). After the predetermined amount of time has run, roll a die at the end of each turn to determine if the event that would end the conflict (air support or reinforcements arrive, another team manages to destroy the attackers’ path to the characters, etc.) occurs. Use whatever die size you’d like and start with a chance of occurrence you feel comfortable with given the difficulty of the engagement for the characters. For example, you could start with a D6 and the conflict ends on a result of 6. For each time this die is rolled and does not meet the threshold, reduce the threshold by one. In the example above (d6 vs. 6), if the conflict doesn’t end on the first post-turn roll, in the second turn you roll d6 vs. 5, and so on.

In each turn, each player character rolls the appropriate pool against the Opposition Pool. For each PC who fails, that PC takes stress, trauma or injury depending on the damage system you’re using and how deadly your game is overall (I’d personally not recommend immediately applying damage that takes significant time to heal unless your setting has ways to circumvent that—magic or tech—or this defensive action takes place as part of the climax of the story where the stakes need to be turned all the way up.)

Assign the PCs their own track that represents their ability to hold their position. For each failure against the Opposition, mark a box along the track. When the track is full, the PCs are overrun by the enemy.

Variant: King of the Hill: With a slight modification, this system can be used to simulate a “king of the hill” scenario where both sides of the conflict are attempting to take and hold the same location. In this case, build a track with a center point, and have the character’s net successes or failure move the track in their favor or against their favor. When the track has filled on one group’s side, they have managed to seize the terrain with a strong enough position that the other group may not immediately attempt to take it back. If you want to limit the amount of time the conflict can last, remove a box from either side of the track every so many rounds as attrition and exhaustion take their tolls. Of course, one side or the other may take injuries enough that they abandon the field, and that’s okay, too.

One potential issue with this system is that it does not necessarily spotlight the actions of any particular PC, but this is relatively easy to overcome. You can plan certain events between the collective rolls in certain turns and give a particular player a chance to address that particular event before it affects the overall situation.

As an example: say you’re running a modern military campaign with special forces operators holding their position until requested air support is able to decisively end the confrontation. Between the collective rolls representing the characters’ defensive actions, let’s say a tank rolls up and begins to train its main gun on the characters’ position. The player character with the anti-tank weapon gets to take a shot to eliminate the newcomer before it becomes a problem. If this character’s attack roll is successful, the tank is destroyed and does not factor into the opposition in the next collective test. If the attack fails, add another die to the opposition pool representing the need to take cover from tank shells in addition to the rest of the assault. Obviously, the specifics of such opportunities should be drawn from the various abilities and foci of the characters to give each a time to shine, if not in the same engagement then over the course of the adventure.

If the characters have time to prepare for a this kind of defensive action, allow them to create Assets or Resources (i.e. expendable assets) for the conflict. Instead of applying damage to a character who fails an opposition test, the opposition pool’s success die could be used to eliminate or step down an Asset or Resource. In this way, not only do these Assets and Resources provide some benefit to the characters’ rolls, but some additional “armor” to keep characters in fighting shape for future conflicts. Whether an Asset or Resource applies to all PCs’ rolls in a turn or to only some is a judgment call for the GM to make based on context.

Variant: Defend Actor: This system can also be used to simulate situations in which some of the PCs are providing cover and defense for others to complete a non-combat action. Perhaps one or more of the characters needs to complete an ancient ritual while the rest of the party defends from attacking orcs. In this case, rather than keeping a track for the timing of the defensive action, create a track for the number of successes needed for the necessary task to be completed. For each character addressing the non-combat task, a success checks one box on the track and a heroic success checks two. If multiple characters could reasonably be assigned to either defense or the non-combat action, modify the defensive opposition pool (in conversation with the characters so that they can collectively decide where they want to put everyone) based on the number of defenders. You can use scale to do this, but the addition or removal of a die will probably be best for most situations.

If the characters are overrun, they must retreat from their position without completing the appointed task. If the task is successful, it should have ending the onslaught as a narrative consequence (in addition to the story-moving effects).

Coordinated Actions

“Either you’re part of the problem, or you’re part of the solution, or you’re just part of the landscape.”

-Sam, Ronin, 1998

This system is suited for those perfectly choreographed operations that depend on everyone completing their individual tasks at the right time so that the entire operation goes off without a hitch. These are your Mission Impossible montage ops, your small-unit actions to waylay a traveling vehicle and extract a VIP before making a getaway, your high-intensity but short action scenes where everyone has a particular role to play.

I used to love RPG sessions (particularly in Shadowrun) where the players would sort through maps and security schedules, lists of equipment and mission objectives to come up with an elaborate plan. But two things would either happen: (1) the plan needed so much detail that one of the players got tired of it all and decided to kick down a door and start shooting, or (2) playing out the elaborate plan took us three more sessions and everyone got tired of it. These rules are designed to condense the planning to the most exciting parts and play it out with the kind of speed and intensity usually reserved for film.

And really, it’s just an adaptation of the Narrative Combat rules from the previous post, with an added cue from the “Engagement Roll” of Blades in the Dark.

Here’s how we do it: the player characters have their objective. They’ve gathered the necessary intel and the equipment necessary to achieve the objective (perhaps setting up Assets for their various rolls). Then, the PC team plans the op, assigning discrete actions to each PC, like so:

It’s a snatch and grab on a moving vehicle with a target guarded by professionals. PC #1 is the driver, both approach and getaway. Number 2 is the bag man, tasked with extracting the target. Numbers 3 and 4 are shooters to provide cover for the extraction. PC #5 is a hacker whose task is to change streetlights to the advantage of the group, to jam any communications from the target and bodyguards, and to wipe any surveillance footage from city cameras. So, each character’s actions might be described by the following:

  • PC 5 modifies the street lights to box the target vehicle in.
  • PC 1 drives at high speed to block the target vehicle from escape.
  • PC 5 jams communications.
  • PCs 3 and 4 engage the bodyguards, suppressing them or eliminating them as necessary.
  • PC 2 engages the target and pacifies him.
  • PC 2 puts restraints on the target and gets him into the PC vehicle.
  • PCs 3 and 4 make a fighting retreat to the vehicle and get inside.
  • PC 1 drives off at high speed and uses evasive driving to lose any tails.
  • PC 5 wipes security footage to ensure that the PCs aren’t followed by the authorities.

As with Narrative Combat, each individual PC’s various actions are given sequential difficulty thresholds, and then each player rolls against their opposition (I think the best way to do this is for the opposition pools to be created in dialogue with the players, but the opposition roll results to be withheld until the GM narrates the results).

If all players meet all thresholds, the operation goes off without a hitch—the PCs have nabbed their target and taken him to their hideout without anyone being able to identify or follow them.

If any of the players fail, however, there are consequences. If there are only some minor failures—perhaps Player 3 fails his final threshold to return to the vehicle, then you can assign a Complication or injury and the operation remains successful as a whole. If a major threshold is missed (say PC 2 fails to pacify the target), or if there are multiple missed thresholds, then we use the collective rolls in the style of Blades in the Dark’s “engagement roll.”

If you’re not familiar with that mechanic, the engagement roll is a single roll intended to move past the boring bits of a heist and straight onto the excitement, its result sets the narrative positioning of the players as we jump in media res into their action by establishing whether things are going very well, very poorly, or middling at the time play of the heist begins.

In our situation, there’s a bit more complexity for the GM as she’s interpreting separate roles to create a cohesive narrative position for the transition into another type of mechanic to continue the action—this may be turn-by-turn combat, another alternative combat, or some sort of contest or conflict to represent the characters’ escape after things go wrong.

In the example above, with PC 2 failing to subdue the target, the GM might determine that the situation is thus as play moves out of the narrative combat system and into the alternative format: The target, though groggy from a blow to the head, is escaping on foot through a crowd of innocent bystanders. PC 2 is giving chase. PC 3 and 4’s successes mean that at least none of the bodyguards are following after PC 2, but now the rest of the group needs to get out of the middle of the road, evade detection, re-establish communications with PC 2 and find a way to meet up before the local authorities or reinforcements find PC 2 and/or the target first. Had the other PCs missed significant thresholds as well, additional complications would be added to the narrative as we “zoom in” to the aftermath of the botched operation.

Unlike the “generic” Narrative Combat system from the last post, there’s no need to establish consequences for each threshold of each roll in this particular use of the mechanic. The GM can wait until seeing all the rolls to weave together the results, assigning consequences only where necessary.

This system can be used for all sorts of character actions that are planned and prepared in advance. In addition to examples above, generic heists, ambushes, coordinated cons and other exploits can use this alternative to turn-by-turn resolution.

Conclusion

Two more tools for the toolkit in the bag. I think that both ideas are flexible and adaptable enough to accommodate a wide variety of narrative needs. Still, I’ll be adding to this series as I think of additional systems to streamline various types of action sequences or combats.

Again, I can’t stress enough that these are tools to be used alongside the conventional methods for resolving combats and conflicts based on what best fits any particular situation and the play style of the table.

Alternative Combat Systems in Cortex Prime, Part II: Bloody Versus and Narrative Combat

For the first post in this series, click here.

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, we’re going to look at my adaptation of two systems borrowed from other writers: Luke Crane’s “Bloody Versus” from The Burning Wheel RPG and Peter Rudin-Burgess’ “One Roll Combat,” appearing in Lowborn: an Independent Grim & Perilous Fanzine for Zweihander RPG’s first issue.

Both systems intend to use a single roll to determine the end result of a combat, though the Bloody Versus (by my read, at least) is more focused than One Roll Combat. Let’s take a look at some adaptations for Cortex Prime based on the two.

Bloody Versus

Like most aspects of The Burning Wheel RPG, the core combat system in that game is relatively complex. I’m personally also not a fan of the “scripting” system for close combat, the conceit of which ignores the fact that a fighter makes choices about actions in combat based on cues from the other fighter(s), and not completely blind. But that’s besides the point since we’re looking at Bloody Versus.

Bloody Versus distills combat into a single opposed roll between the fighters. At first blush, a player may complain that this gives too little control over the outcome of a fight, but I’m not sure that this isn’t just a variation of the gambler’s fallacy; whether the statistics are compressed into a single roll or several, they’re still statistics about likelihood of winning, and it’s arguable that any Assets or other things set up for a single-roll combat have greater value than in a turn-by-turn combat, so it may all be a wash. Again, this is just one tool for your toolbox, and it may or may not work to the satisfaction of your table. But I’d judge it based on its narrative usefulness and whether you’ve got players who really want the nitty-gritty details of combat rather than on comparative statistics.

Here’s the issue with a Cortex Prime Bloody Versus: how do you set the stakes? How do you determine if a fight is a lethal one or just a good, old-fashioned donnybrook that results only in bruised faces and egos? Partially, this depends on how you’re handling damage and injury in your game—if it’s a light-hearted game then scaling should look different than if you’re playing gritty dark fantasy.

It should also be noted that the basic rules for Conflict and being Taken Out in a scene are essentially a Bloody Versus (or maybe a Bloodless Versus) depending on circumstances. There’s nothing to say that you can’t just bounce between those rules and turn-by-turn combat. But I’d like to offer something a little more substantial—that doesn’t necessarily preclude the occasional use of the “core” Taken Out rules.

We’ll do that by a bidding system. If you’re using the “Stress/Trauma” system from the Cortex Prime Handbook or some variations I’d described in the series on making Cortex Prime gritty, you’ll need to first determine whether the conflict is a lethal or non-lethal one.

With that determined, we’ll turn to the “Risk” die. Each character chooses a step for their Risk die—this is added to their Pool, but also becomes the Stress/Trauma received if they are on the losing end of the conflict, giving characters some added agency even in a one-roll combat.

Bear in mind that the use of the “Risk” die inverts the normal scheme for Effect Dice—each character is essentially setting what the Effect Die against them will be if they fail, while the selection by the opposing character sets the same. This focuses player agency on the risk rather than looking for the best possible Effect Die after the roll. For me, this seems narratively appropriate, with the added bonus that you won’t spend time looking for Effect Dice after the fact.

As a consequence, though, you’ll need to decide whether the ability to spend a PP to add a second Effect Die is available. For my own games, I’d rule that this expenditure may be used against any “average” opponent but not a PC, an Elite fighter or a prominent NPC. It’s plot armor, yes, but in a relatively unobstrusive way. If you want to go all out, by all means—so long as your players are all in agreement.

It should be noted, also, that this system, as written (and barring the use of PP for additional Effect Dice as described above), does not allow for a character to be killed outright by a Bloody Versus test. If you want to step up the relative danger, you can rule that a character automatically receives a Plot Point if any 1’s are rolled, but that each 1 rolled steps up the Stress/Trauma received by 1 step. This, of course, adds additional risk and unpredictability a part of a Bloody Versus test. And it reflects reality—even the best of warriors can make a mistake that leads to his demise, even against a less-skilled opponent. This rule also means that the winner may take some damage from the test, even if victorious. As with the above, this also matches reality and deepens the risk (and therefore drama and meaning) of even a Bloody Versus roll. On the other hand, you’re playing a game where a death necessarily means a particular part of the story (probably a part of the story important to at least one person) also dies. If you’re using a damage track (as in my posts on making Cortex Plus grittier), you might actually get some additional protection here, depending on the length of the track compared to the “six steps to death” you get under the “Stress and Trauma” rules of the Cortex Prime Handbook. Don’t forget that your system for Armor may effect the overall balance as well.

The Group Bloody Versus

The rule above works well for one-on-one combat, but perhaps less so for larger-scale engagements. Let’s look at some ways we can scale up.

The easiest method is to pair PCs with combatant NPCs. This is cleanest, of course, with an even number of PCs and enemies, but you can also use Mob rules (if appropriate based on the enemies) to further condense the fight.

Bloody Groups

If a one-to-one match-up isn’t possible, then we need to get a little more creative. As I mentioned in my series on swordplay for writers and gamers, it’s really only practical for about three combatants to face a single opponent at once; add more people in and the likelihood that allies injure one another increases exponentially.  This does not mean that you can’t put a group of five enemies on one PC, but you should bear in mind that such an arrangement probably means that two of those enemies are hanging back until there’s an opening for them to switch out with one of their fellows.

To use this method (which I’m calling Bloody Groups): first, group fights as you would for one-on-one fights, assigning additional combatants to each PC as necessary and as matches the positioning of the characters. Then, select a primary actor for the group. To that character’s pool, add the highest dice from two of his allies pools. Roll this against the PC’s pool. From the PC’s perspective: (1) on a failure, the PC takes damage per Bloody Versus; (2) on a success, the primary opponent takes damage per Bloody Versus; (3) on a heroic success, the primary opponent and his two allies all take damage per Bloody Versus. Here’s the kicker: any opponent fighting a PC, whether the primary actor or his two allies, adds any injury/Complication die to the PC’s pool, as any injured party gets in the way of his fellows, and it’s likely that, if there are additional troops standing by, they’ll switch out to allow the uninjured to continue the fight. For ease (and additional realism), establish the injury level at which enemies flee or are no longer combat effective; once they reach this level of injury, remove them from the fight (or, if it’s that kind of game, potentially allow the PC’s the opportunity to kill the fleeing combatant as he attempts to withdraw).

Bloody Skirmish

We can zoom out even further, as necessary, keeping the core of the Bloody Versus system. For an all-out melee where we don’t necessarily need to track each exchange individually, we can use what I’m going to call the Bloody Skirmish system.

To begin, establish a base difficulty for the group opposing the characters—this should be based on the skill of the combatants, not their number. Add dice to the pool for group Distinctions, Assets or other Traits in play as you see fit. Add a Risk die to determine how aggressively the group fights. Lastly, if you’re using a track for damage rather than the Stress/Trauma system, determine the length of the track for this group and when the group suffers a Consequence die due to losses.

Each PC rolls a Bloody Versus against the single opposition pool, applying damage to the opposition as a group or to PCs individually.

If the group greatly outnumbers the PCs (and your genre and narrative fit with this approach), use the Scale rules (Cortex Prime Handbook, pp. 99-100). This should make players reconsider plunging headlong into overwhelming odds (but there’s no accounting for what certain players will do, never tell them the odds, damn the torpedoes and all that).

Narrative Combat

And now we come to my adaptation of Peter Rudin-Burgess’ “One Roll Combat” system, which I’m going to call “Narrative Combat.”

Where Bloody Versus handles conflicts that are focused on the violence itself, the Narrative Combat system is better suited for quickly handling situations where combat is incidental (supplemental?) to the PC’s goals.

The system works like this: after the situation is defined and everyone understands who and what is in play, each player sets out a set of three to five actions (the GM should specify the exact number) that the player wants to accomplish. These actions must be in logical order and in the order in which the player wants to accomplish them. Players and GM should converse to clarify intent, methodology and likely effects for each action individually and as a whole.

Once there’s agreement on these points for a player and PC, the GM establishes difficulty thresholds, with the lowest threshold representing success in the first action, the second threshold set a certain distance from the first and representing success or failure in the second action, etc. As Rudin-Burgess is writing for a d100 system, these thresholds are linear and fixed; making for an easy port if you’re using Static Difficulty (Cortex Prime Handbook, p. 25). The first action might be at difficulty 8, the second at 10 and the third at 13 depending on the nature and difficulty of each action.

Alongside each threshold, the GM establishes a consequence for failure. This may be Stress or Trauma (or some other damage inflicted depending on your system), a Complication, an unintended consequence or change in the scene, etc.

Then the player rolls his assembled pool (again the GM and player should collaborate to determine the most applicable Traits to include in the pool based on the overall sweep of the actions declared). For each threshold met or exceeded, that declared action is successful. For each failed, the associated consequence is applied.

When all players have rolled, the combination of successes and failures is used by the GM to narrate the overall result of the conflict scene. It’s an efficient and creative system.

If you’re using opposition dice pools as per the usual in Cortex Prime, then some modification of Rudin-Burgess’ system is necessary over a simple scaling of difficulty thresholds. As this is true for the majority of my Cortex games, I’m doing the following for my Narrative Combat System:

We start with a base difficulty of two dice for the first action. If there are any other applicable Traits for the pool, those are added in. This initial pool is rolled and establishes the first difficulty threshold (per the usual of taking the two highest rolling results and adding them together). For each additional action, a die of an appropriate step is assigned; it’s result is added to the total from the initial roll, so three dice are totaled for the threshold of the second action, four are totaled for the third, etc.

For this to work, the opposition pool should stick to lower-stepped dice at each step: unless there’s significant justification for doing so, I’d stick mostly to d6s and the occasional d8. If this is feels too imprecise for you, add some techniques from Powered by the Apocalypse games: instead of modifying the difficulty itself to suit narrative positioning, scale the consequences to suit the difficulty (your GM “moves” as it were).

If you want to make things even more efficient, have all players roll against the same opposition pool. If their plans are more divergent, it may be more appropriate to use different opposition pools.

Conclusion

So, there you have it: a system (and variations on a theme) for condensed handling of conflicts in which violence is the focus and a system for conflicts in which violence is much more of a means to an end than an end in itself. You could, in theory, stop reading this series now and have two tools that could cover the vast majority of situations for your game (tweaked only slightly for genre and power level) without having to resort to man-to-man, turn-by-turn combat except where you want to.

But I hope you won’t stop here. In the next post, I’m going to provide some systems tailored to specific types of conflicts/combats, starting with a system for holding your ground against assault.

For the next post in the series, click here.

Alternative Combat Systems in Cortex Prime Part I: The Rationale

Combat can be the most exciting—or the most excruciating—part of a gaming session. It’s easy to get bogged down in the minutiae: checking particular rules (and exceptions), contemplating the potential results of every available action like you’re Deep Blue, clarifying who’s where, what conditions are in effect and what happened on previous actions.

We’ve all been there. The active player is taking minutes to determine his turn while everyone else is playing on their phone. The combat itself is necessarily a matter of slow attrition punctuated only rarely by decisive blows. Rinse and repeat, potentially for hours. I don’t want to say that the conventional style of RPG combat, with its sequential individual turns and actions for each character involved doesn’t work; it can result in exciting and enjoyable combats. But if we take the example of D&D in particular, as the originator and exemplar of this system, the smorgasbord of titles both amateur and professional available on DriveThruRPG.com to “make combat more exciting” indicates that there are many cases where the system doesn’t work as well as we’d like.

And this figures, given that D&D (and therefore RPGs in general) developed out of wargaming. The turn-by-turn system is an artifact of, and beholden to, the miniatures wargame.

Some Alternatives

There are a number of ways that games or homebrews have tried to address this, with varying degrees of success. Making a game deadlier necessarily condenses combat and makes clever tactics (and/or use of rules) even more important.

The Riddle of Steel is one of my favorite examples of this. Its visceral combat system attempts to closely model the actual mechanics demonstrated in the fight manuals of the medieval and Renaissance periods. It does so quite successfully. When I ran games in this system I was simultaneously a study group leader for the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts (ARMA); I’d spend hours as a “Session -1” with wooden weapons showing those players who weren’t in ARMA with me what the techniques in TROS actually looked like. But the system is not without its faults, either: it had no significant guidance for an overall initiative system, leaving players to judgment calls for a number of situations commonly addressed in other games. To me, it’s a prime example that no RPG combat system can do everything, even if it does some things exceptionally well.

Knowing that, why do we expect a single system to effectively cover all combat situations equally well? The result, as with D&D, is that we have a combat system on top of which we add the occasional non-combat goal for flavor and variety. But shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t we have systems, plural, each focused on different types of situation. Some combats are about injuring or killing the enemy, yes, but many resort to violence in service of a goal that is, ultimately separate from the injuries inflicted on the opposition. This is true even of military operations. As commonly as they are deployed simply to destroy the enemy, they are directed to capture and hold valuable locations, to destroy enemy resources, to drive the enemy from a particular area, to infiltrate an area to perform reconnaissance and surveillance—or to provide forward observation for targeting airborne or artillery-based weapons. In many of these cases, the enemy will be engaged only to the extent necessary to accomplish the mission, because simple attrition is not a great way to win a war (as the American Civil War and, especially, World War I demonstrated).

The Torchbearer RPG keeps this in mind, at least on an abstract level, where the various “intents” (such as Capture, Drive Off, Kill) in a conflict determine the character traits used for rolls.

“Powered by the Apocalypse” systems ultimately treat combat no differently from the rest of the rules, except that consequences and GM “moves” may more frequently cause Harm to the characters. There is no set initiative system, and each “combat test” remains more about the development of the narrative than a tactical mini-game. It leaves much flexibility for how the GM interprets player cleverness, creativity and innovation without needing rules to explicitly do this. On the other hand, for those who are more Gamer-oriented (if you subscribe to Ron Edwards GNS Theory) may find this less than satisfactory.

This Series

This series will present a set of systems for Cortex Prime for particular types of combats, not as an obviation of or replacement for the standard “man-to-man” general RPG combat approach, which has its appropriate uses, but to work together with that system based on the narrative needs of a particular game and the desires for depth of tactics for players.

Elsewhere on the blog, I’ve provided some rules for streamlined military/modern combat engagements. Those will not be repeated in this series, but could be added to the list of options provided here if so desired.

Some of these systems will be taken from the ideas and creations of other writers (and credit will be given where due) and adapted to Cortex Prime, but most of them will be my own creations.

But let us begin with some theory about the role and nature of combat in RPGs.

What is War For? What is it Made of?

Combat is an essential feature of most (but certainly not all) RPGs, whether or not they fall into the “traditional” camp. There are, I think, a few reasons that this is the case. Let’s look:

First, there is the simple fact that many people play roleplaying games because they are a way to experience adventure and danger in a safe way. Most people do not want to be punched in the face, much less risk their lives without extreme need. But they do want the thrill of such stakes, which is why video games, combat sports (whether martial arts, paintball and airsoft or competition shooting), action movies and combat in RPGs are popular.

Second, satisfying narrative requires conflict. Armed (or otherwise) violent confrontation is conflict in its barest sense; it necessarily poses questions to drive a story: Will the characters prevail? Will they survive?

Third, as Louis XIV had cast on his canons (albeit in Latin) and as Joe Abercrombie used as the title of one of his novels, violence is “the last argument of kings.” Or, if we’d rather resort to Heinlein, who has his Mr. Dubois the teacher of “moral” philosophy in Starship Troopers remark to a student who tells him the “violence doesn’t solve anything,”

“I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that….Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst.”

When two sides refuse to compromise, and a situation must be resolved, violence may sometimes be the only available course of action. I don’t think I enjoy that fact as much as Heinlein did, but I agree that it is sometimes an existential truth we must face. In the adventures of our heroes in particular, violence may be the logical (narrative) result when all other means fail.

Fourth, some gamers really enjoy the challenge of combat, of making tactical decisions and outmaneuvering the enemy. And that’s as good a reason as any.

By way of transition from what combat is for into what it should do, the astute GM should bear in mind that that means that combat should be actually challenging—otherwise you’re depriving your players of the satisfaction of victory. The good GM should be a student of war in all its forms (this does not require one to be a practitioner of war, which is perhaps another matter altogether, discussed on other portions of the blog). So, number one—combat is another type of puzzle, problem and challenge for the players to address, and one with stakes higher than many others they’ll face.

As Apocalypse games make plain, combat should drive the story forward. This does not mean that every combat need be decisive; a battle in which the two sides fight to a standstill and must withdraw heightens the conflict and must necessarily make the players question whether they are powerful enough to prevail by force and whether another approach might be preferred.

Combat, when done well and used well, at least, provides options for high drama. What will the character’s fight for? What won’t they fight for? What is significant enough to a character that she is willing to kill (or die) for it? The cliché that you truly learn who a person is by seeing them in a fight is true when it comes to crafted (even when collaborative) narrative—combat need not be just a matter of mechanics; it can become an opportunity for deep roleplaying.

As much, combat is a useful tool for pacing a Roleplaying Game. There is, of course, the old gaming adage that if things slow down too much, have the bad guys suddenly show up to kick things back into gear. But it goes far beyond that. There’s not room to go into the full details of this subject (which can easily be a blog series—or book—in its own right), but good narrative swings back and forth between high-intensity scenes and low intensity scenes. This gives the audience both excitement and pauses to reflect on what the occurrences of the “high points” mean for the narrative moving forward. Think about the Fellowship in Khazad-Dȗm—they flee from goblins and Gandalf confronts the Balrog in a high-intensity scene. The scene that follows the rest of the Fellowship’s escape slows down so that the characters can reflect on the loss of their erstwhile leader and what it means for their quest.

Here’s the issue, though: when combat slows to a crawl as you play out each second by second, it fails to provide the high-intensity sort of scene that it should. When a low-intensity scene follows, as it naturally should, the energy at the table remains low and everyone loses immersion and attention. This is fine if the players enjoy intricate combat for its own sake, but it’s been my experience that I only have one or two of the players in my group for whom the gaming or simulationist approaches to combat are a particular draw.

Conclusion

I think all of this gives us a rubric by which to judge the utility and value of some alternative combat systems. Any system that replaces turn-by-turn combat must: (1) make at least enough logical sense to be acceptable to gamers and simulationists, given the caveat that they must necessarily be more abstract than turn-by-turn systems, (2) following the first point, be at least somewhat satisfying to use, (3) move the story forward in a meaningful way, regardless of specific outcome, (4) allow for meaningful choices, which in turn allows for drama and character development, (5) have stakes high enough to match a “standard” combat system, sometimes softened to account for less control on the part of the players as to outcome, (6) must provide a useful tool for maintaining pacing.

The flexibility of the Cortex Prime system allows us to create a number of different approaches to combat, as you’ll see.

What’s Next?

In the first substantive post in the series, we’ll look at two general systems I’m adapting from other games: Luke Crane’s “Bloody Versus” from The Burning Wheel RPG and Peter Rudin-Burgess’ “One Roll Combat,” a brilliant article written for the Zweihander roleplaying game and appearing in Lowborn: an Independent Grim & Perilous Fanzine for Zweihander RPG’s first issue.

After that, we’ll look at some systems for particular types of engagements created by yours truly.

For the next post in this series, click here.

Augmentation in Cortex Prime

The following is a system for handling (para)human augmentation, primarily for cyberpunk and other sci-fi settings, but adaptable to steampunk, fantasy settings or any other setting aspect involving implantation and supplementation of natural body systems to achieve spectacular effects.

While the base Cortex Prime Abilities or Powers systems could be skinned to cover the same material, this system attempts to unify this mechanical aspect of Cortex Prime under its own subsystem to both accentuate this component of setting and to provide for a more narratively cogent method of addressing (para)human augmentation.

Using Talents for Augmentation

Rather than using a Trait Set, as the mod below does, to represent Augmentations, you could simply create a list of Talent SFX, with each Talent representing a particular system. This might be the preferred system where augmentations are present in the setting but not a central feature (for instance, Star Wars has cybernetics, but they are typically background dressing).

Grit and Power Levels

At the simplest, these systems can be made a Trait set available to all characters, with a set number of dice to assign between specific traits. This works especially well with cyberpunk settings that have no mystical or magical aspects to balance against.

The relative power of each augmentation system can be adjusted narratively. For instance, does a d8 in Strength systems mean that a character can punch through concrete? Throw a car? Or simply that the character has a level of strength on par with world-class body-builders? Does a character with Cognition d8 have intellectual skills on par with natural geniuses (perhaps a more complex designation than once thought given developing neuroscience) or superhuman skills of calculation and analysis? Of course, the step of the system’s die can be factored in as well—dice at steps d10 or lower may be within the realm of natural human ability, while dice at d12 represent augmentation beyond natural human potential.

These narrative factors can be combined with mechanical effects to further define the relative power of available augmentations. If you are using rules like a Limited Dice Pool, you could have an Augmentation die not apply toward the limit—this will accentuate that augmentation really does allow someone to achieve beyond normal standards. If you’re also using a track for Stress and/or Trauma, you could also allow a player to voluntarily take a point of Stress or Trauma to add a third die (perhaps specifically the Augmentation die) to the result rather than spending a Plot Point to do so. For a middle road, allow the expenditure of a Stress/Trauma “point” to have the Augmentation die not count toward the Dice Pool Limit. I’d map this as an SFX that automatically applies to each System, much like the “Use a d4” mechanic for Distinctions.

These options may work especially well in settings where human augmentation is an important aspect of genre—such as cyberpunk or certain science-fiction. As a more specific example, this might work especially well in a setting like Eclipse Phase, where characters can “resleeve” into different bodies and you want to accentuate the importance of body selection.

The System Itself

The system itself is relatively simple. Rather than seemingly infinitesimally granular selections of particular upgrades and augments, this mod looks at the sum total, classifying the Traits in the Augmentation category as “systems” that represent the overall effect of upgrades. The systems I would recommend using are: Athletics, Charisma, Cognition, Perception, Reflex, Resilience, Stealth.

Whether you use the categories I’ve designated or substitute your own, you should give a general description of the system that explains what sorts of capabilities a person with that System has as a guide to when the die from the System might apply (or when possession of the system grants narrative “permissions” that may not be reflected in mechanics but in the sorts of things the character can do.

Specialized systems providing more discrete and specialized functions can be mapped as SFX. You may consider giving characters a certain number of SFX for free at each dice step or provide that certain SFX are automatically gained at certain dice steps.

If you’re using other Traits that have SFX, or if you’re using Talents, you’ll want to carefully consider whether your choices will lead to “SFX bloat” that will complicate gameplay inordinately over the value they provide. Additionally, you’ll want to think about just how much you want to accentuate Augmentations versus other Trait sets.

If you choose not to use SFX, then you might provide short narrative descriptions of the kinds of capabilities a System has at each die step.

I’ve provided sample write-ups and SFX for my Systems below. Given the length of the article (and constraints on my time), I’ve only included a few sample SFX in each System. When I am able, I’ll supplement those SFX in a subsequent post.

Systems Descriptions

Athletics: Athletics Augs enhance the strength, flexibility and endurance of a character (but not their reaction times, which are enhanced by Reflex Systems). These are the most-commonly thought-of augs for the average person, because they are at once those most obvious in action and those with the most directly frightening consequences.

  • Oh Yeah!: Spend a PP to smash through a wall, even if made of brick or stone.
  • Optimized Cardiovascular System: Spend 1PP to step up or double any Endurance Augs when taking an action. If the action fails, shutdown Athletics Augs. Recover by activating an opportunity in a Bridge scene.
  • Hyper-oxygenated Blood: The die step of any Complication of Difficulty die accounting for fatigue from physical exertion must exceed the Perception Augs die or the character disregards it. For any such Complication that does apply to the character, step it down by one step.

Charisma: Charisma Augs enhance a person’s social capabilities through a number of means. This may include pheromones or other chemical signals, analytical systems providing feedback on observed body language, voice modification for a more mellifluous sound, etc.

  • Empathic Analysis: When including Charisma Augs in a social Reaction, double or step up Charisma Augs. Pay 1 PP to do both.
  • Mood Stabilizer: Spend 1PP to ignore penalties from social or mental Stress or Trauma, or Complications, for a Test.
  • Halo Effect: Spend 1 PP to step up or double Charisma Augs on a test to persuade others. If the action fails, shut down Charisma Augs and recover by activating an Opportunity in a Bridge scene.

Cognition: This System covers augmentations that enhance the computing or analytical power of the human brain. Subsystems tend to enhance object identification, pattern analysis, sensory interpretation, creativity and intellect: human methodologies for competing with the power of artificial intelligence (whether or not that means “sentient and conscious” artificial intelligence or the complicated computing algorithms already in use today).

  • Multitasking: Split Cognition Augs into two dice at one step down or into three dice at two steps down.
  • Flow State: Step up or double Cognition Augs for one action, then step back to two dice at one step down. Recover by activating an Opportunity during a Bridge scene.
  • Probability Analyzer: Spend 1 PP to add Cognition Augs (or step up by one if already in your pool) and reroll all dice on a Reaction.
  • Efficiency Optimizer: Use two or more Systems dice in a single dice pool, reduce each System die for one step for each Systems die added beyond the first.
  • Overclock: Step up or double Cognition Augs for a scene, or spend 1PP to do both. While active, take Mental stress equal to the step up the second-highest-rolling die.

Perception: This System represents augmentations that heighten or expand the sensory perceptions of the individual—the ability to see in other parts of the light spectrum, to filter certain sounds and focus on others, or even the addition of senses that (para)humans don’t normally have—a snake’s heat-sensing pits or a bat’s sonar.

Depending upon the nature of the System, a character with a Perception die may have an image link that can display a sort of Heads-Up Display (HUD), along with video, text and images, directly into the view of the character. They may also have the ability to record photos or videos.

  • Digital Zoom: The die step of any Complication or Difficulty die accounting for distance from the visual must exceed the Perception Augs die or the character disregards it. For any such Complication that does apply to the character, step it down by one step.
  • Enhanced Resolution: In a pool containing Perception Augs, replace two dice of equal steps with one die of +1 step.
  • Flash Suppression: The die step of any Complication of Difficulty die accounting for blinding lights must exceed the Perception Augs die or the character disregards it. For any such Complication that does apply to the character, step it down by one step.
  • Enhanced Spectrum Targeting: Add a d6 to your dice pool for an attack against an opponent at near range you cannot see and step back your highest die by one step.
  • Threat Identification: Spend 1PP to add Perception Augs to your pool (or step up by 1 if already in your pool) and reroll all dice on a Reaction.
  • Multispectrum Vision: The die step of any Complication or Difficulty die accounting for poor visibility must exceed the Perception Augs die or the character disregards it. For any such Complication that does apply to the character, step it down by one step.

Reflex: Reflex augs reduce reaction times through increased sensory-processing speed, reduced muscle-response times, and added speed and power for transmissions through the nervous system.

  • Enhanced Fine Motor Control: Spend 1PP to ignore Complication dice applicable to a test involving dexterity.
  • Reaction Enhancement: Step up or double Reflex Augs for a test involving Initiative. Spend 1 PP to do both.
  • Synaptic Acceleration: If a pool includes Reflex Augs, you may replace two dice of an equal size with one die one step higher.

Resilience: Where Athletics Augs cover enhancements to physical endurance, Resilience Augs models systems intended to protect the body from harm, whether from toxins, disease, environmental hazards, or direct physical injury.

  • Subdermal Nanoweave: Your Resilience Aug die (or its equivalent step depending on your damage system) functions as armor against physical attacks.
  • Toxin Filters: In a test to resist toxins, whether airborne, injected, consumed, or otherwise, double or step up Resilience Augs. Spend 1 PP to do both.

Stealth: Stealth systems conceal the user from detection or from identification. This may range from lubrication of joints and the strengthening of muscles and tendons to allow for quieter movement to complex augmentations that allow the user to change the color of their skin, the length of their hair and the shape of their facial features, with various specialized components to provide various kinds of stealth.

Because of the wide variety of possible stealth functions, use of SFX or a solid description of capabilities at various dice steps is essential for this System. For example, if not using SFX: at d6, the System’s focus should be on the avoidance of detection by the senses. At d8, this expands into defenses against sensor detection and perhaps “active camouflage.” At d10, shaping of physical features and appearance becomes possible.

  • Active Camouflage: Spend 1PP to double Stealth Augs against an attempt to detect you visually or by light-spectrum-based sensors.
  • Impersonation Protocols: Step up double Stealth Augs for one scene to mimic a person for whom you have detail information about appearance, physical attributes, habits, vital signs and behaviors. Then, step down Stealth Augs by 1 step. Recover after a scene in which you do not use Stealth Augs.

The Limits of Ascension

You may want to put Limits on these Systems, either to reinforce how Augmentations work in your setting or as a sort of mechanical balance against the SFX (especially if some or all are free) attached to various systems.

Some RPGs separate out different types of augmentation—genetic engineering from cyberware or organic augmentations, for instance. If that is the case in your setting, you may want to use different Limits to represent the specific nature of the augmentations that comprise a particular System. For additional complexity, you could restrict certain SFX to certain classes of augmentation, ruling that a character must choose one Limit when first selecting that System and that, if the character wants to add an SFX that has a Limit related to a different class of augmentation, the character must have both applicable Limits added to the System. So for instance, if a character started with a “wetware”-based System, they would have the corresponding Limit. If that character’s player wanted to add a “cyberware”-based SFX, the Limit related to cyberware would have to be added to the System as well.

For a simpler approach, you could simply assign set Limits to each System, potentially using one or more Limits to offset the automatically-granted SFX associated with the System.

Digression 1
Again, the more complexity you put in this system, the more you need to think about whether the benefit of the added complexity is really worth it. As a concrete example, I started a Cortex Plus/Prime conversion for Shadowrun some time back on this blog (to which I’ll likely return). To capture the feel of Shadowrun, at least the way I’ve approached it, adds a good deal of complexity to the Cortex Prime system, taking it somewhat away from what it was intended to be. Does it end up as complex as Shadowrun? No, but it is substantially more complex than Cortex Prime, and, at that point, it may be worth thinking about whether this is the right system for a conversion, or whether so much of the complexity needs be converted into your Cortex version. With Shadowrun in particular, there already exists a simplified version of the ruleset (called Shadowrun Anarchy) that may fit the bill for you. For me, that system swung the pendulum far too far and ended up with a system that feels inadequate to account for enough complexity to capture the feel of the Shadowrun setting in a streamlined manner.

Digression 2
As best I can tell, in reality, it looks like, by the time human augmentation because truly available, augments will combine both biological and technological aspects of design into a unified whole, making the sorts of distinctions Shadowrun cares about in its treatment of Augmentation a mostly moot point. Of course, there’s a good argument that humans will resort to wearable devices for augmentation rather than surgical intervention (except in the case of prosthetics, injury or lack of natural function, of course), but that’s not quite as fun to imagine, is it? If that suits, though, this mod could be adapted to different Signature Assets to represent that reality.

With those (admittedly characteristic) digressions taken care of, here are some discussions of potential Limits to use with this mod.

Essence
Since I’ve already opened the Shadowrun can of worms, let’s start here. There are a few ways to handle Essence as a Limit. The simplest is to add the highest System die to the opposition pool of someone trying to use beneficial magic on the augmented character. For a harsher scenario, add each Augmentation die, or, like Dehumanization below, create a single Complication die based on the steps of the System dice.

Dehumanization
If you want to incorporate the idea of lost humanity as well (something I’m personally not a fan of in RPG treatments of augmentation—lookin’ at you Cyberpunk and Shadowrun), then use one of the following: (1) When the first System die reaches d10, the character gains a permanent Complication die at d6 that is added to social tests. For each additional System at D10 or increase to a d12, step up the Complication die. If the Complication die exceeds d12, the character becomes a cyberzombie. Adjust the die step at which the Complication comes into play or is stepped up to suit; or (2) Simply add any System die at d12 to the opposition on social tests.

Hackable
A few options here:

  • A character with this Limit may have Stress or Trauma to both physical and mental tracks caused by hacking attack;
  • Hacking may be used against this character to create Complications or Conditions;
  • A System with this Limit may be stepped down like an Asset or Complication through the use of hacking. You’ll need to choose a method by which the die is recovered;
  • If you have a specific Stress/Trauma track for Augmentations or being hacked, you could tie steps down or shutdown of Systems dice to that; or
  • Some combination of the above.

Complex Biology
Add the highest System die to the opposition against tests to recover or heal from damage through medical intervention.

EMP Vulnerability
This could likewise be modeled several ways:

  • EMP devices that affect this character can apply Complications or Conditions;
  • A System with this Limit may be stepped down like an Asset or Complication through exposure to electromagnetic interference. You’ll need to choose a method by which the die is recovered;
  • When exposed to electromagnetic interference, shut down this System to gain 1 PP;
  • Some combination of the above.

Conscious Activation
As written.

Glitchy/Prototype/Bleeding Edge
Convert the System die to a Complication for a roll to gain 1 PP.

Systems Stress

You may want to consider giving characters a Systems Stress Track, particularly if using rules for Stress/Trauma Tracks like those I mentioned in my series on adding grit to Cortex Prime. If you do, a few additional options may open up to you. For one, you get a way to track the condition of Systems, whether they’re affected by overuse, by hacking, by electromagnetic interference, or some other factor. If the Systems Stress Track is filled, you lose access to Systems dice. You can set up Complication/Condition dice for various stages along the Track and/or step down all Systems dice at various points along the Track, depending on the effects you want to achieve. As an additional benefit, you can allow characters to “push” their augmentations, activating associated SFX, by adding a point of Stress to the Systems Stress Track in lieu of paying a PP. In such a case, you can allow a PP to be spent as usual, or, if you want a “push your luck” sort of system with augmentations, you can require Systems Stress to be used to activate augmentation SFX. If you choose this path, you’ll have to determine how Systems Stress is recovered.

Conclusion

So there you have it, a system for handling (para)human augmentation in the Cortex System without resorting to the Powers/Abilities given in the core game. I’ve tried to include enough options in my write-up to let you fine-tune this system to suit your particular setting. I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this, see the additional SFX you add to your lists, and generally hear about how the system works out for you if you use it!

Back to the Mud: Putting some Grit in Cortex Prime, Part II: General Difficulties

In Part I of this series, I offered some methods for modifying the core rules options in the Cortex Prime Handbook for damage and injuries to get a grittier feel. In this follow-up, I’m going to talk about some hacks for difficulty in general, because “grit” is about far more than death and dying.

As I mentioned before, Cortex Prime favors generally capable characters from the get-go and that I believe that making characters inept is the wrong way to add grit to mechanics. So we’re not going to change characters; we’re going to look at some alternative approaches to assembling pools, calculating results, and determining effects.

As a note of acknowledgment, the ideas about limiting the dice pool and the use of “Forced Dice” came from a friend of mine during a conversation we were having about adapting Cortex Prime to serve as a ruleset for my Avar Narn setting. If he gives permission, I’ll update this article to give him credit by name.

No Effect Dice, Expanded
The Cortex Prime Handbook offers a mod that removes Effect Dice from the mechanics. Unfortunately, the mod as described gives no replacement method for full degrees of effect, simply replacing all Effect Dice (where they would be used) with a d6, stepped up for a heroic success. There are plenty of games that offer varied degrees of success based on a single roll, and we could also point back to Rob Donoghue’s note about five steps stacking with the five die sizes of Cortex Prime to fill in the gap.

Rather than dividing results into “normal” successes and “heroic” successes, we can simply establish four or five sections for a granular map to convert a roll total to an Effect Die where it’s useful or necessary to do so. If you want to skip d4 Effect Dice, then you’ll have four success categories, five if you include them. I think there’s a good argument to be made for starting with d6 as the “basic” success level for mechanical ease of use, as d4’s are only supposed to be used once and then removed. On the other hand, including more d4s in dice pools increases the likelihood of Complications and Opportunities (and may further reinforce the gritty nature of a system when basic results provide only fleeting advantages).

An additional benefit for mapping mechanics to grit is that higher Effect Dice are reached less often, but this can cut both ways. It might turn many conflicts into more attrition-based slogs than the faster-moving action of the core system. A statistical analysis of the core rules for Effect Dice against the “Degree of Success” conversion described herein would need to account for many variables–average pool sizes, relative frequency of the various dice types being in pools, etc. I have neither the training nor inclination to perform such analysis for my own end systems in Cortex, much less those you might formulate for your own games. There may need to be some trial and error here.

If you’re using one of the “Damage Track” mods from Part I of this series, you can address some of this with the length of the damage track. If using weapons that add to damage inflicted, you can further tune whether weapon selection or skill rolls are most important in determining the damage of an attack. Of course, if you’re willing to make things another step of fiddly, you could have particular weapons set the thresholds between Effect Dice results (or damage inflicted) for an interesting combination of weapon and skill as factor in end result.

Personally, I’d likely skip the d4 result, starting a “basic” result at the equivalent to a d6 Effect Die, with the step of the die increased according to the following degrees: “beating” the other roll by 1 or 2 is a d6 equivalent, by 3 or 4 is a d8 equivalent, by 5 or 6 is a d10 equivalent, and by 7+ is a d12 equivalent. If you don’t mind more complexity (and more “average” results on the whole), you could increase the range of each successive step (i.e. 1 or 2 would be d6, 3-5 would be d8, 6-9 would be d10, and 10+ would be d12).

In the core rules for Conflict (or the Action-Based Resolution mod), the advantage goes to the acting character, because the reacting character must beat the acting character’s result to be successful. Many “gritty” roleplaying systems (or at least RPG systems attempting to fall into the amorphous category of “gritty”), have ties go to the defender. It’s worth considering whether to use that approach or to keep the core Cortex approach that the acting character has the advantage. I don’t think there’s a right answer here, but because this ruling applies when things are down to the wire, I expect your players will recognize the difference, even if only intuitively.

Another effect of this system is that certain “dice tricks” available with the use of Plot Points or SFX collapse into one another. For instance, the ability the add a third die to your total would now both increase your chance of success and your degree of success (whereas, under the normal rules, adding a third die to your total would make that die unavailable to be used as an Effect Die).

Limited Dice Pools
Under the core Cortex Prime rules, a character may add one die to their pool from each applicable Trait category (with some additional judgment necessary for Signature Assets and similar Traits, where having a rating within that general Trait category does not mean that it will be universally applicable). But what if they can’t? What if a character can only use a maximum of four dice in a dice pool, even if there are five Traits that might contribute a die? If this only applies to characters (players or NPCs) but not opposition rolls from other sources, this allows a great deal more fine tuning of difficulties (again, with the complexity of statistics for the Cortex Prime system, the exact steps of granularity added by such a measure is not exactly known, but we can generally surmise the difference between adding an additional d10 versus adding 2d6 to the pool–assuming we’re still only talking about using the two highest-rolling dice for the result).

To best jibe with the way the Cortex Prime system works, dice that fall outside of the character’s innate Traits should not apply to the limit–essentially, an Asset (other than a Signature Asset), an opposing character’s Complication or Condition, etc.–don’t count.

This idea also creates a new space for Traits, SFX, or Plot Point expenditures that break the rule. The ability to spend a Plot Point to add a die to the pool over the normal limit of dice should, of course, be added. Certain Trait sets, if they apply, may not count toward the dice limit for the pool–this is a great way to put added emphasis on a particular Trait set–accentuating Signature Assets, Powers, or Abilities, for instance. For a more limited version of the preceding, consider an SFX with a non-Plot-Point cost as permission to add the die to the pool regardless of the limit. I’ll be working on a post with an approach to modeling human augmentation in Cortex Prime in the near future; it will include some examples of employing these ideas for breaking the Limited Pool Rule.

This mod, I believe, also adds additional power to having higher-stepped dice in a rating. Not only does a d12 increase the total result you might reach, but it brings up the average result as well–something that you can do by adding multiple dice of a lower step when there is no limit on the pool.

“Forced Dice”
This mod works only with the Limited Pool mod above, and it’s something that I’m still wrapping my head around, so it will likely be expanded in a future post. For now, I’m just going to mention it. The idea, in general, is to create situations in which a character must accept a d4 in their (limited) dice pool. Part of determining the ultimate usefulness of this approach is finding a reason to use this method rather than the normal methods for adding disadvantages and negative conditions to the opposing pool.

Where I’m currently thinking through using this idea is where certain conditions precedent must be satisfied to undertake a particular action at full effectiveness–a character can still take the action without having first (or simultaneously) satisfied those conditions, but they must accept a “Forced Die,” a d4 added to the pool that counts toward their Pool Limit, to do so. This could be employed for taking simultaneous actions during conflict (the “multiple-action” penalty used in other games) if relevant to the way you track initiative and your action economy. It may also be used to accentuate certain conditions from the “run-of-the-mill” conditions represented by Complications.

As I mentioned at the top, I’m working on a full set of mods for Cortex Prime to run games set in Avar Narn. I’m sure there will be additional posts on this subject and others related to that ruleset on the blog soon (with the referenced post about human augmentations first among them).

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.

Blades in the Dark: A Different Kind of Fiddly

As I’d mentioned before, I’ve been, off and on, playing in a campaign of Blades in the Dark over the past few months. I’ve played or run several other iterations of the Powered by the Apocalypse system, but this has been my first foray into actual play of a Forged in the Dark Game. Rather than give a traditional review–as so many have already done this capably–I’m going to leave some remarks about specific “issues” with the game (read “nuances” rather than “deficiencies”). Most of the things I’ll talk about are really aspects of the same issue: BitD requires a very skilled GM to run well.

All Improv, All the Time

That may be an overstatement, but, as with PbtA games, the “freeform” and “narrative” focus of the BitD system puts a lot of pressure on the GM and requires a lot more from them. Every roll requires some level of interpretation, and there is less scaffolding for that interpretation or how to work out the consequences of certain actions as with other, rules-heavier games. There is, of course, an upside to this; otherwise, John Harper’s game would not have become such a successful system being adapted to so many other games.

The benefits mostly accrue to the players, however, at least in practice as I have experienced it. In D&D, for instance, the existence of certain feats and class abilities implies restrictions on characters who do not have those abilities. Not a rogue? You can’t Backstab, so you’re not as likely to choose to sneak up on someone and stab them in the back. Yes, BitD does have “classes” and “abilities” in the playbooks, but these tend to give added bonuses to certain actions without depriving others of meaningfully taking those actions that a more tactical game does not. I’m always telling players, “don’t look at the rules; tell me what you want to do and we’ll figure out how to use the rules to do it.” PbtA and BitD naturally push in that direction. But that also means that the GM has to be ready for anything and can’t be too committed to any particular expectations.

With the game’s mechanics focused on creating “success at cost” results, the GM is constantly forced to, on the fly, come up with reasonable costs and reasonable degrees of success under the circumstances. Likewise, the importance of “positioning” within the game, somehow both a rule and a complete abstraction, gives the GM a shove into the deep end of GMing. Clocks can make for excellent pacing tools and representations of certain obstacles, but if they’re not used regularly and with consistency between uses, they serve only as a doodle representing GM fiat.

I want to be clear here: BitD doesn’t make it hard to run a game. Quite the opposite. It does, however, put a lot of extra responsibility on the GM to make the game go well, and if the GM doesn’t either have a virtuoso intuition for such things, or a good deal of experience with games that have more support for interpreting results, things can go sideways very quickly. When things go well, though, the player freedom and the pace of the narrative created by the system makes for excellent gaming.

So Many Rulings

This is, perhaps, only a specific instance of the general issue of the above, but here it is: There needs to be a discussion of what “success at a cost” means and consistency in the application of that very common result. Starting characters in BitD start with only a few dice in a smattering of skills. While there are very well-designed resources that allow characters to push past their normal limits, the resource-management of which underscores the desperate feel of the setting, the skewing of results toward success at a cost means that the GM has great power (and, thus, of course, great responsibility) for how capable the characters seem to their players. If costs for successes are relatively low, the characters feel capable, triumphing in the face of overwhelming odds. If costs are always made significant, the characters feel like imbeciles, way out of their element and having no business trying to pull heists in Doskvol. This quickly becomes frustrating to the players, and not much fun.

This is, I think where “positioning” comes in. A “properly” paced heist in BitD begins with small costs for success but allows those costs to add up over time until new and significant complications arise. Likewise, there should be an “aim small, miss small,” mentality, where cost is directly proportional to the risk of the action undertaken. The rules explain this, and do a pretty good job of doing so, but the devil is in the details, and when the GM is worried about coming up with a new cost for that unexpected action, keeping track of all this pacing, tension-building, and consistent rulings begins to feel like juggling chainsaws (at least, if you feel that your players are as volatile as chainsaws).

There are a few techniques that may help here. First, of course, is practice. Second is maintaining the “conversation” of the game with the players–it’s completely okay for there to be some back-and-forth between GM and players to establish consequences and costs of an action before the player makes the final decision to take it. This is a game about calculated risks more than overwhelming surprises; so using the “conversational” form of narrative roleplaying is, I think, exactly what is intended here. For bonus points, get the players to make suggestions about results. “I want my character to try to climb the building. I know its raining and dangerous, but the storm also masks his movements. How about a clear success is climbing without issue, the cost is knocking free a loose brick that makes the guards that much more suspicious, and failure means a fall?” If everyone is participating like this, the game becomes (a) much easier to run and (b) more interesting in the telling.

I’ll admit that, even as someone very interested in narrative style games, my background in more “traditional” GM roles sometimes makes it difficult to switch into that other style.

Seduction by Mechanics

Here’s something that hit me quite unexpectedly in playing BitD. The rules for managing your crew, its relationships, holdings, and lackeys is very cool. But there’s an issue with having mechanics for these systems that seems more defined than those for playing through character scenes: it’s easy to fall into the trap that the rules are the sum total of Crew management. Go on a heist, calculate results, make decisions according to the rules, plan next heist. That’s clearly not what’s intended; the crew rules are there to facilitate story, to bring to mind more plotlines and character arcs aside from playing heist after heist after heist. BitD should have a fair amount of Gangs of New York or Peaky Blinders in it–dealing with the shit your lackeys get into and the beef you start with rivals should form a substantial part of play of the game beyond the processes, mechanics and selections that facilitate the crew section. While BitD does have an innovative approach to running heists (or at least a very cogent and elegant iteration cobbled together from the ideas of previous games), it’s not just about the heist. This is evident in the fiction and examples interspersed with the rules, but leaving many of the details of Doskvol to mere implication may subconsciously reinforce the tendency toward a focus on heists rather than other interactions with the world. Again, added weight on the GM. Maybe not unlooked for; worldbuilding (even fleshing out the framework of a provided world) can be an extremely satisfying aspect of GMing in the first place.

Conclusion

All of this is to say that BitD is probably not the sort of game to cut your chops as a GM on. Unless you’re very confident in your ability to run the game well, it wouldn’t be at the top of my list to introduce new players with, either. Running the game well requires a working knowledge of the GM’s narrative and practical toolbox; some familiarity with story structure, tension-building and drama; good improvisational skills and adaptability; and more theorycraft of roleplaying games than most competitors require. But, for some thing, you only get what you give.

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.

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)!