Cortex Prime: Small Unit Combat Rules, Part I

Small Unit Combat for Cortex Prime

This article is a work-in-progress subsystem for Cortex Prime games. I’ve formulated these ideas while working on my Shadowrun Cortex Prime hack, but this system in particular would have usefulness in any modern or futuristic game where small force-on-force tactical engagements are a key part of the game.

These rules will be updated after playtesting. If you have suggestions, leave a comment!

System Assumptions

The below has not been tailored for the Shadowrun ruleset yet, but is formulated for an international espionage/military thriller game I’ll be running for some friends. I’m using a “simplified” (compared to the Shadowrun work) Cortex Prime that starts similar to the Leverage system in Cortex Plus with some of the Shadowrun ideas previously-described incorporated. Trait Sets are Approach, Aspects, Role (rather than Skills, which Shadowrun will use), Specializations, and Signature Assets.

Approaches are: Covert, Expedient, Dynamic, Cunning, Deliberate, Daring.
Roles are: HUMINT, SIGINT, Tradecraft, Direct Action and Analysis.
Relevant Specializations: Direct Action: CQB and Marksmanship; Analysis: Tactics 

This system is using a Physical Stress and Physical Trauma track to account for injury.

What is Small Unit Combat?

When I use the term “Small Unit Combat” in this post and for these rules, I mean localized tactical engagements at the fireteam level, where there are only a handful of combatants on either side. Specifically, these rules were designed with close-quarters battle (breaching, room-clearing and short distance engagements) in mind. Further revisions and additions will be necessary to use these rules on a larger scale or to employ them reliably outside of CQB scenarios.

In CQB situations with trained combatants (we’ll assume that the player characters at least fit that bill), individual operators work cooperatively and closely in fireteams. The fireteam executes its maneuvers, attacks and actions as a cohesive unit, with each person in the unit having pre-assigned and well-drilled responsibilities during each maneuver or action undertaken by the team. For instance, as the team navigates, it does so in a predefined formation, with each fireteam member having not only a designated spot within that formation, but also a designated “field of fire,” an angle or scope of the battlefield around the team in which that member is responsible for engaging targets.

When the team breaches a room to engage the targets within, these roles take extra significance and are determined by the tactical approach decided upon by the team leader. If the team leader determines that entry will be made through a locked door, then the team’s roles might look like this: one person is designated as the breacher—the person responsible for eliminating the door as an obstacle (this might be done by the use of a breaching shotgun to blow the door of the hinges, a breach charge to explode the door inward, or by hand tools like a sledgehammer or battering ram); a second person standing by with a flashbang or explosive weapon to surprise and soften the targets in the room; and the rest of the team who will move into the room immediately after the detonation of the device deployed by the second person (the first of whom is usually referred to as the “point man”. As each assaulting team member moves in, he must make a decision about how to turn and which angles of the room to engage. The team will have painstakingly drilled beforehand on the individual process of room clearing, the priority of target engagement and the positions within the room in which each assaulter will conclude the assault (if all goes well). But as the first assaulter enters the room, she must determine which side of the room she will engage; those who follow cue their own engagement strategies off of the person in front of them. This allows for a combination of well-drilled maneuvers and extemporizing to address the realities of actual contact with the enemy.

Numerous examples of these techniques can be found on the internet, movies and TV. An understanding of the techniques and tactics of close-quarters battle will greatly assist in the use of these rules in a way that creates exciting and fast-paced combat encounters that may be resolved in a matter of minutes.

Fireteams as Characters

These rules assume that the number of player characters involved in the game are roughly the size of a fireteam or breaching unit—typically four to five people, but we’ll assume 3-6 to be accommodating. If there are more PCs than that, they should likely be divided into two (or more) fireteams for the purposes of the combat. Enemy fireteams should be of comparable size.

Like the Fate Fractal, this system models fireteams as characters to “zoom out” from individual actors slightly, simplifying and speeding up combat without depersonalizing it for the players (hopefully). The rules for determining the Trait Sets for fireteams are given below.

Traits for Fireteams

NPC Fireteams: The core of NPC fireteam dice pools are composed of one die for each combatant in the fireteam. The die type correlates with the combat effectiveness of each combatant (later on, I’ll refer to each member’s added die as their “Quality Die”). A combatant with no training and no experience likely uses a d4, while a combatant with training but no real combat experience probably uses a d6. A combat veteran would typically add a d8 to the pool, an elite operator a d10 and a top-ten-in-the-world type combatant a d12. This however, is just a suggestion—you can adapt these rules to skew more to the “hardcore” realistic side or to the more cinematic side by the weight given to combatant skill and experience in dice selection.[1]

I’m going to suggest that NPC fireteams be given no more than six combatants—use multiple fireteams to handle additional combatants. I will likely, in the future, develop some additional systems to address other specific combat scenarios—holding out against overwhelming assault forces, for instance.

Player Fireteams: A player fireteam’s dice pool is composed of the team’s Tactics Die and its Operator Dice.

The first die in the Fireteam’s Pool is their Tactics Die. The Tactics Die is equal to the Tactics specialization die of the fireteam’s designated leader.

Operator Dice: Trained operators in a CQB fireteam communicate primarily about when to take action, not how to take action—each member of the team is expected to know his role and be able to function effectively without getting in the way of his teammates. Each teammate in the fireteam contributes his Direct Action die to the dice pool. If a character’s CQB specialization is higher than his Direct Action skill, he may use that die instead. If the character has the CQB specialization but it is lower than the Direct Action skill, the character may step up his Direct Action die by one (the usual maximum of d12 still applies) when operating in a fireteam.

Other Fireteam Factors

Injury: The highest Stress or Trauma die for any fireteam member who is injured but not out of the conflict is added to the opposing dice pool, per normal combat rules.

Technology and Equipment: If a fireteam is using vastly superior technology to its opponents, give the fireteam an Asset that represents the scale of the difference. For instance, a special ops team operating at night with thermal and/or late-gen night-vision goggles and top-tier weaponry after cutting off a building’s power and facing opponents armed with only improvised melee weapons might get a d12, whereas a fireteam with standard military technology of the most developed nations fighting against a fireteam using outdated but functional firearms and tech might enjoy a d6 bonus. No specific guidelines are given for this die so that it is adaptable to particular situations—but this means consistency in its use is paramount.

Other Assets: As with any Conflict under Cortex rules, a fireteam with time to prepare may create Assets to assist impending combat. This uses the normal rules for Asset creation and must also make narrative sense. These Assets should typically represent good planning and preparation for a maneuver (Covering Fire, Multiple Breach Points, Overwatch) or bringing special equipment to bear (Breaching Charges and Flashbangs). It may be assumed that a fireteam equipped with particular equipment will be using it per standard operating procedures even when Assets are not in play, so Assets should represent especially-effective applications of those tools and equipment.

Combat Effects

The most common goal of an engagement is to stop the enemy, whether by pacifying them, driving them off, or inflicting sufficient injury that they can no longer fight back. In general, fireteam combat operates like combat between individuals (with Effect Dice as damage), but the following changes are necessary to bring the system into greater focus.

Inflicting Harm-the Characters

When a fireteam containing one or more PCs takes damage, we need to know which operator has taken the specific hit. Doing this is relatively simple. Each member of the fireteam is assigned the numbers 1-12, for simplicity sake, you may just assign the numbers arbitrarily, making sure to assign a number to each member of the fireteam before assigning additional numbers to any other member of the fireteam. The numbers should be as evenly distributed as possible, i.e. in a fireteam of four each member should have three numbers assigned. If the numbers don’t divide evenly, or for greater realism even when they do, start with those characters taking the most exposed roles in the team (first in, rear guard, etc.) in assigning numbers.

When an Effect Die is selected, apply it to the character corresponding to the number shown on the die. Each injury die assigned to a character in the fireteam is added to enemy fireteam dice pools.

Given the lethal nature of close-quarters battle (and the benefit of not dealing with armor rules in a complex manner), injuries inflicted by successful enemy/opposition rolls will be counted as Trauma, whereas injuries applied as Complications (see below) will be counted as Stress.

Inflicting Harm—NPCs

Most NPCs in fireteams will be nameless combatants. Therefore, it is not as important to keep specific track of injuries for individual members of a fireteam. To remove an NPC from combat, an Effect Die equal to their Quality Die. For each Effect Die equal to or greater than a combatant’s Quality Die, an NPC combatant is removed from action. If the fireteam has members of mixed Quality Dice, I recommend removing the lower-quality combatants first. Note that this simplified damage system is not based necessarily on killing enemy combatants, but rather, rendering them combat ineffective. That could certainly mean that they have been killed, but it could also mean that they have fled, surrendered, been too injured to continue fighting or that some other circumstance has intervened to prevent them from fighting further—this is intentionally left to narrative freedom.

If the Effect Die assigned against an NPC fireteam is less than the lowest Quality Die in the group, apply that die as a Complication to the NPC fireteam. When a subsequent Effect Die is applied to the fireteam, if the steps of the second Effect Die added to the Complication Die would meet or exceed one of the Quality Dice in the group, remove both a Quality Die for the eliminated combatant and the Complication die. Each Effect Die assigned may injure or eliminate only one enemy combatant at a time—dice steps over the threshold to eliminate a combatant are lost.[2]

A Side Note About PC Injuries

As these rules are currently written, multiple PC injuries will quickly put a PC fireteam in extreme danger. Playtesting will be necessary to make sure that this works in practice (the alternatives I have in mind are to apply either an “average” of the current injury dice or simply the highest injury die in effect as the bonus die to the enemy fireteams). The rationale for the current system is to make combat difficult for characters and to make them focus on good preparation and execution to avoid stumbling into massacres. After playing with these rules some, I may change to one of the alternatives. If you happen to try out these rules for yourself, your input and criticisms are appreciated.

Extra Effect Dice

In some of my previous posts on the in-progress Cortex Shadowrun design, I’ve introduced the idea of applying multiple Effect Dice from a single roll (although I’m sure I’m not the first person either to think of or to implement this or something similar).

One of the goals of this system is to provide a simplified combat system for larger-scale combats (as a supplement to individual-based combat, which may be more dramatically appropriate in certain cases). As such, a limit to only taking out one enemy at a time doesn’t make a whole lot of sense—it artificially slows the pace of combat.

So, I’m going to allow the use of multiple Effect Dice on a successful roll. My current thought (before playtesting) is to allow an additional Effect Die to be applied for each three full points the successful party’s roll beats the opposition’s roll. I also intend to allow a Plot point to be paid to allow one additional Effect Die to the result. Both options assume that an Effect Die is available to be used.

Complications

When Complications are invoked against the PCs in this CQB ruleset, the easiest application is to apply the Complication as Stress to one of the characters—representing that character taking a hit stopped by body armor (but painful, scary and distracting nonetheless), being lightly injured in a hand-to-hand scuffle, or suffering an environmental injury while maneuvering.

One complicating factor here is the determination of which character should suffer the Complication. For this, I’m going to implement what I’m tentatively calling “the Hotseat.” In brief, a different player rolls the team’s dice pool each turn; the character belonging to the rolling player is “in the Hotseat” for that turn and is the one who suffers the (personal) effects of the Complication if one is taken (although, for purposes of the team’s rolls, the entire team will suffer the effects of the Complication Die as it’s added to enemy fireteams’ rolls).

Conclusion and Moving Forward

This system is, as mentioned, currently theoretical and without playtesting. I’ll post about my experiences playtesting it and make modifications to it based upon those experiences.

Additionally, it is not yet complete. Here are a few things I’m already thinking I’d like to add:

-Rules for Sniper Teams
-More guidance for objectives that are not simply combative (we’ll start, I think, with some of the classic video-gamey objectives—bomb disarmament, hostage rescue, etc.)

I’d love to hear from you guys—criticisms, alternative rules or approaches, or things you’d like to see added as well!

 

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[1] It should be noted here that by “hardcore,” I do not mean incredibly mechanically detailed or overly concerned with the minutiae of combat—whether a .45-caliber submachinegun is a better weapon in a particular situation than a short-barreled assault rifle, for instance. Instead, I mean the feel of the combat and thus the game. Is this a game where every combat action carries a serious risk of death or where the player characters are expected to steamroll standard infantry like an 80’s action movie? The nuances of combat are many and, while they make excellent details for the narration of firearms combat, typically only to stall progress and make a fight boring when it should be exciting if incorporated into the mechanics of the system employed.

[2] Of course, you can change this rule and count surplus dice steps against subsequent combatants for a more cinematic game.

Shadowrun Cortex Prime, Part V: Conjuration

For the previous post in the series, click here.

This should be a relatively brief post since it builds entirely upon the previous post in the series.

Conjuration
Conjuration is the practice of summoning, binding and banishing spirits. The types of spirits summoned depend upon the tradition of the mage doing the summoning.

Types of Spirits
I’m going to leave it to anyone using these rules to determine the types of spirits a particular character can summon by refernce to the Shadowrun rules. I will say that I find it unnecessary to create a list of abilities and powers for spirits–just allow what seems sensible for a spirit of that type. If you want to use the Shadowrun base ruleset as a guide for making any calls at the table, that’s not unreasonable.

Spirit Stats (Force)
Summoned spirits have a dice pool of three dice equal to the effect die used in summoning them.

Summoning and Binding Spirits
Summoning and binding spirits takes a single roll, thanks to the use of multiple effect dice.

Dice Pool: The dice pool consists of an Approach (appropriate to the method of summoning the spirit), the Conjuration skill, the character’s Magical aspect (to be discussed in a later post), any applicable assets, Signature Assets or Specializations.

Resistance Pool: The resistance pool should be determined primarily by the circumstances of the summoning: is the character pressed for time or under fire, does the character have adequate resources for ritual magic/summoning, etc.

Primary Effect Die: As mentioned above, the primary effect die from the caster’s pool is used to establish the “Force” or dice type in the pool of the summoned spirit.

Additional Effect Dice
Services: For each step in the die assigned to services, the Spirit will perform one task for the summoning character (giving a total of 1 to 5 tasks).
Drain: As per Sorcery.

N.B. – Yes, this means that it takes a minimum of four dice to summon a spirit (except in the case of a d4 Force spirit, in which you can have only three dice and use the “free” effect die for your primary effect die). In the games of Shadowrun I’ve run using the original rules, the sudden summoning of a spirit in the middle of a fight is a game-changing force-multiplier; I’ve had magicians summon spirits of air to down pursuing helicopters, spirits of fire to hold off massed security squads, etc. I do not want to eliminate those moments–they are part of the fun of the Shadowrun setting and create stories the players talk about long after leaving the table. At the same time, I want to make sure that such a feat is impressive not simply because of the effect, but also because of what it takes to pull it off. Summoning a spirit while minimizing Drain will typically require some preparation (i.e. the creation of preparatory assets) and a little luck (or an Edge Point).

Spirit Services
I want to intentionally leave this somewhat broad, in part because negotiating what counts as a service and what doesn’t can make for interesting roleplaying. I won’t leave you without any guidance, however: in general, a service is a discrete function provided by a spirit, such as attacking a target, using an ability to create an effect (asset or complication), sustaining a spell, etc. The biggest difficulty in determining services is in deciding whether a command constitutes more than one service. As a general rule, a single command counts as a single service unless that service is provided over multiple scenes, in which case the action is one service per scene (and requires the magician to spend a point of Edge, see below). A detailed command that consists of several discrete activities should require one service per discrete portion of the command.

For example, “Knock over that command vehicle and attack the people inside,” is two services in my reckoning.

Longevity of Spirits
A spirit stays with the magician long for one scene. The magician may spend an Edge Point for the spirit to persist for the rest of the session; otherwise, any unspent services are lost at the end of the scene.

Banishing
Banishing a spirit is simply an attack against the spirit using the Conjuring skill as the applicable skill. Results are factored like attacks against any character.

Quick and Dirty Review: The Witcher RPG

I only found out about a week ago that R. Talsorian Games would be putting out an RPG for The Witcher, so I fortunately only had about that amount of time to wait before sinking my teeth into the new game. This stands in contrast to Netflix’s upcoming Witcher TV show, which seems to be coming to us only at a laborious pace.

Regardless, I’m a big fan of The Witcher books and setting, and I’m a firm believer that The Witcher 3 video game is hands down the best video game made to date. So an official RPG for this world certainly caught by attention. Not only for the setting itself–my own Avar Narn setting is a gritty fantasy world and I’m always looking for innovative design ideas that might influence my own eventual RPG design.

A brief caveat: this game was (as far as I could tell) just released on DriveThruRPG.com last night (at the end of GenCon, where I believe that hardcopies were available). I picked up my PDF copy on DriveThru for $24.95. A hgher price than many RPG PDFs I’ve purchased, but not as high as several others in my collection.

I do have a day job, so this review is based on a quick read of the book. Take that as you will.

R. Talsorian is known for the Cyberpunk RPG, a classic in the development of roleplaying games as a whole, though a game I’ve never played. The rules are derived from that system, though crafted to fit more particularly with the dark fantasy of The Witcher.

I will say this about the rules–they are sensible, and relatively easy to grasp in their various parts, but there is a complexity to them that makes me think, “Ugh. A fight’s going to take forever.” The attacker rolls for damage, the defender rolls to dodge, the difference between the numbers is compared to determine a hit or critical hit. Hit location is rolled. Damage and critical hit results are rolled (criticals make use of charts that vaguely remind me of The Riddle of Steel RPG and its successors). Those things are all great for creating a gritty feel for combat, but there are a number of ways that all that dice rolling for a single action could be made more efficient.

Still, if D&D is your go-to, I don’t think that you’ll find that this game plays slower than that. And, between the two, I’d take this combat system over D&D and its derivatives any day. It may have a lot of rolling, but its somewhat intuitive and at least interesting under its own mechanics. Sorry, I digress.

I will say, though, that tracking weapon endurance points is a bit much. It’s one thing to have weapons break at dramatic moments, or to have a system that encourages players to have their characters maintain their equipment, it’s another to have to knock off a point of reliability every time I use it to block (though there are exceptions that allow for blocking without sacrificing weapon endurance in certain circumstances).

The other gripe I have is not necessarily a gripe with the rules but a potential pitfall for any RPG that does this setting justice–players who have characters who are not witchers or mages may find themselves greatly overshadowed. Careful planning and discussion before a campaign begins may be warranted to ensure that players are all on the same page.

To me, a “regular” guy (to the extent that RPG player characters ever represent average people, even within the game world they occupy) forced to deal with monsters is perhaps more interesting than a witcher who does–Geralt excepted, mostly because I don’t believe it’s his being a mutant monster-killer that makes him most interesting.

The rulebook misleads on this front a little, I’m afraid. While continuously making clear that most monsters take half damage from non-magical or non-silver attacks, it seems implicit within the writing that the designers just don’t believe that non-witchers would ever have access to silver weapons. I just don’t find that plausible.

It should also be noted that the game is licensed from CD Projekt Red, and thus based on the video game Witcher 3 rather than the books directly. There are some optional rules to bring the game more in line with how things work in the books when that divurges from the game.

As for the look of the book: the layout and artwork are exceptional; the end result is surely a thing of beauty. Combined with fairly extensive background information on the world of The Witcher, I think that this book is a must-have even for a fan of the setting who doesn’t have any interest in roleplaying games.

But for those who do, the gamemaster section of the book has some excellent advice for gamerunners. There are plenty of roleplaying game books that are valuable in particular for their advice to the GM (and a growing number of books dedicated solely to that task), but this is a nice additional benefit.

The Witcher RPG releases at an interesting time, I think–the early draft of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition just dropped recently. Both are gritty fantasy settings full up with desperate surivors over heroes, where adventuring is not a glamorous or desireable profession. Both are intricate settings with deep history and a rabid fanbase. Both games have, I think, pretty similar levels of “crunch” to them (though, to be honest, I hate the terms “crunch” and “fluff” attributed to games). In other worlds, they fill the same niche, a more mature-by-design setting for fantasy games compared to D&D and other “epic” fantasy games.

Is the RPG market big enough for them both? On the one hand, I’m not sure that it matters. They’re both out and I wouldn’t expect a whole lot of supplements for The Witcher RPG (though I won’t mind being surprised). If history is any indication, WFRP4 will have more supplements than the biggest guy at the gym. Certainly, there are loads of high-fantasy games and no shortage of designers trying to make it with new ones (or their own particular flavor of OSR games, for that matter).

In some ways, The Witcher RPG reminds me of the Artesia: Adventures in the Known World rulebook, a RPG that uses a pre-existing-ruleset-that-is-fascinating-but-more-complex-than-I-really-want-to-run to bring to life a fantasy setting born out of traditional fiction that I very much love.

Given that, I expect that The Witcher RPG will fill a similar role in my collection–an RPG that is fun to read but that I’ll probably never run.

Shadowrun Cortex Prime, Part IV: Sorcery

For the previous post in this series, click here.

I’m admittedly skipping around here, but I thought that perhaps the next subject to tackle would be Magic in the Shadowrun/Cortex Prime hack. The way I figure it, some of you will determine whether the hack as a whole is worthwhile based on how I handle this topic (as well as the Matrix and Cyber-/Bioware). So I’ll try to save you some time in making that evaluation by somewhat frontloading that information (if Part IV can fairly be called frontloading).

Admittedly, I struggled a bit in figuring out what I thought was a good way to handle all of the aspects of Shadowrun magic (particularly sorcery and conjuration) in a single roll of dice, which is, of course, essential to the efficiency of the Cortex Prime system, one of the things that I love about it. In the end, I decided to resort to the following rule mod:

New Rule Mod: Multiple Effect Dice
Some tasks may require the use of multiple effect dice; these are marked with Limits denoting the additional required or optional uses of effect dice after the first. When additional effect dice are required or are optional, the failure to assign an effect die to one of those “slots” means there is no effect associated with that slot. In other words, effect dice that could be or must be assigned after the first do not get a free d4 effect if there is no die to assign to the slot. If the only effect die available is assigned to an optional slot, the character may receive the free d4 as the effect die for the primary slot.

This rule mod, I think, handles a number of issues, as you’ll see. It allows Drain to be addressed in the same roll that establishes the success of the spell (without resorting to Consequences, which I wanted to keep free) and gives those wizkids with plenty of dice to their pool something to do with those dice (while consquently putting some pressure on magic usage that has some mechanical “balancing” effect, I hope).

Sorcery
Sorcery is good, old-fashioned spell-slinging. Rather than resort to the categories of spells in the actual Shadowrun ruleset, I’ve elected a more flexible approach. Spells may be used to accomplish the following: make attacks, create/enhance/diminish assets or complications, or take actions to overcome obstacles. The following is always true of a use of Sorcery:

Dice Pool: The dice pool consists of an Approach (appropriate to the type of spell effect), the Sorcery skill, the character’s Magical aspect (to be discussed in a later post), any applicable assets, Signature Assets or specializations.

Inherent SFX/Limits:
Drain: A character using Sorcery takes either Stress or Trauma. If the primary effect die is equal to or less than the Magician’s Magic Aspect, the Drain is taken as Stress. If the primary effect die is greater than the Magician’s Magic Aspect, the Drain is taken as Trauma. The Magician may assign a second effect die to reduce the Drain suffered, reducing the Stress or Trauma by one step for each step in the die assigned (i.e., d4 = 1 step, d6 = 2 steps, etc.)
Additional Effects: Additional effects of spells should be created as Complications resulting from the defender’s roll. For instance, a fireball might set an enemy on fire.

Suggested Complications:
Auras: A magical afterglow remains in the wake of spells cast by a magician. Casting a spell can create an “Aura” Complication on the location that can be used by any character with Astral Perception to gain information about or track the character who cast the spell. The asset created is created in the usual manner of complications. The complication can be reduced by further sorcery or dissipates at one step per hour.
Side Effects: Unintended side-effects of spells–inspired by the spell’s true purpose, of course, make excellent Complications. Think of Harry Dresden accidentally setting fire to, well, lots of stuff when he uses combat magic (not the same setting, I know, but still a great example.

Sustaining Sorcery:
          Without the intervention of some additional force, a spell’s effects (but not the complications it produces) dies after the turn in which it is cast. Whether a particular spell can be sustained (attach spells should not be sustainable under most circumstanctes) is up to the GM, but the following are ways to extend a spell’s effect:
Concentration: 
A magician can sustain a spell through focus, keeping the spell active for as long as the magician suffers a “Concentration” Complication equal to the spell’s primary effect die. When the spell’s effect ends, so does the Complication.
Foci: a Sustaining Focus Signature Asset will sustain a spell effect equal to its rating. See Signature Assets.
Metamagic: The proper Metamagic can be used to sustain a spell effect. See Signature Assets.
Spirit Aid: A summoned spirit may sustain a spell effect up to its rating as a service. See Conjuration.

Counterspelling: By spending a turn defending his comrades from magical harm, a magician may allow nearby companions to add the magician’s Sorcery die to their rolls to defend against magical attacks or effects directed against them.

Cortex Prime Shadowrun, Part III: Distinctions as Fate’s Aspects

For the previous post in this series, click here.

Distinctions in Cortex Prime already function in a similar manner to Fate’s Aspects. Both have the capacity to help a character: in Cortex Prime, an applicable Distinction that provides some advantage to a character is added to the player’s dice pool; in Fate the player may spend a Fate Point to “invoke” an Aspect and add +2 to a roll’s result. Likewise, both can provide a hinderance as well: a player in Cortex can use a Distinction to add a d4 to the opposing dice pool and gain a Plot Point; a player can compel an Aspect in Fate to have some inconvenient event occur to the character (or have the character make some decision that makes sense for the character but results in misfortune) to gain a Fate Point.

While I love the idea of Aspects in Fate, the use of the Fate Point Economy to drive them–the necessity of spending a Fate Point to invoke an Aspect in particular–has always irked me a bit. I must acknowledge that this is a personal issue and not really a design flaw of the Fate System. The Fate Point Economy provides some very desireable benefits: it gives some mechanical balance to the game, means that (as in conventional narrative) a character’s traits don’t always come into play, and, most important, it forces players to resort to compels to use their Aspects beneficially at later points. This last factor both helps the gamemaster in a narrative game by giving cues and assistance in driving the story forward with complications that are sensible and meaningful to the players and adds interesting, spontaneous and unexpected knots to the conflict that simply could not have been planned. It is this last factor, which meshes well with the Powered By the Apocalypse mantra that the GM should “play to see what the characters do” (or perhaps it’s “play to see what happens to the characters;” I don’t recall perfectly offhand), that I very much want to capture in my Cortex Prime Shadowrun ruleset.

By design, the Cortex Prime system sidesteps my complaints about Aspects and the Fate Point Economy–Cortex Prime’s Plot Points are used differently and are not required to invoke Distinctions under normal circumstances but still provide incentive for players to complicate the story by reference to their character’s Traits.

With a very simple modification, we can make Distinctions even more like Fate’s Aspects and underline a grittier tone for the game (perfect for cyberpunk, but probably at home in just about any setting I’d be wont to run a game in).

That modification is this: Instead of a d4, when a Distinction (which I’m going to go ahead and just call “Aspects” in the CP Shadowrun ruleset) is used to gain a Plot Point, that Distinction/Aspect adds its full die do the opposing pool. So, if I have the Aspect Street Samurai d10, it will sure give me that extra oomph to take down mooks like a hot knife through butter, but it also gives me an opportunity to make my supposed adherence to Bushido matter in the game.

I think that this practice also fits well with gritty fantasy (whether or not combined with cyberpunk a la Shadowrun). In fact, it reminds me greatly of heroes of Celtic myth–there’s always a weakness, always some downside that accompanies greatness. Players will (and should) think twice about whether they really want to have that Street Samurai d10 Aspect. Yep, it’ll help you be a combat monster, but is the cost ultimately worth it? This kind of mechanically-supported and inherent game balance goes a long way for me.

You’ll see more about how Aspects will be assigned (and change) when we get to conversations about character generation and growth. For now, though, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this relatively minor but far-reaching modification to the Cortex System.

Cortex Prime Shadowrun, Part II: FAE Approaches in Cortex Prime

For the first post in this series, click here.

Rather than use Shadowrun’s attributes, I’ve opted to use Approaches as introduced in Fate Accelerated. There are several reasons for this choice. First, Approaches are exceedingly helpful to a gamemaster running a fiction-first type of game—by its very nature an Approach suggests potential Consequences and results of particular actions. Second, I think that Approaches provide more guidance for players about the characterization of their in-world persona. That a character favors a “Dynamic” approach over a “Covert” one tells us more about a character than a high Strength attribute and lower Agillity attribute does. There is a versatility to Approaches that, at some level, tells us how a character views the world, or at least how that character prefers to solve problems. And rolls in narrative fiction should be resorted to for resolving actions intended to solve particular problems more than anything else. Otherwise, narrate a result and move on.

There is a much-discussed downside to the use of Approaches—that some players will “Approach Spam,” arguing for the use of their highest-rated Approach for every action. This is narratively appropriate and realistic: as rational beings, humans prefer the path of least resistance, choosing to employ their best skills and aptitudes to solve their problems and only resorting to their weaker abilities when forced to by circumstance.

And this suggests the remedy to players who resort only to their “best” Approach: show them that “best” doesn’t mean “highest-rated.” Remind them that, just because you have a hammer and everything is starting to look like a nail, not everything is a nail and treating a non-nail as a nail can easily result in catastrophic consequences.

“Yes, Player, your character can use Dynamic to try talk his way out of a Lone Star vehicle search. But what does that look like? The Dynamic Approach is about force, sudden action, and overwhelming the problem. In a social context, I bet that looks like screaming and yelling, pretending to be crazy, or trying to scare your target into submission. Is that really how you want to deal with these Lone Star officers?”

Whether you have this kind of conversation and give the player a chance to change his mind or you let it ride and narrate consequences the player never considered is a matter of the style of the game you run.

The specific Approaches I’ll be using are as follows:

Covert

The Covert Approach emphasizes stealth and subtlety. This could              include “Hacking on the Fly,” “Spoofing,” and other Sleaze-type Matrix actions, dissembling and verbal deceit, infiltration, etc.

Expedient           

An Expedient Approach focuses on speed above all else, favoring clever tricks and finesse over brute force (which falls under the “Dynamic” Approach). Use Expedient whenever you are trying to act before another character or in the quickest manner possible.

Dynamic             

The Dynamic Approach represents the application of direct force—whether physical, social, Matrix, magical, etc. When the action relies on strength or direct confrontation with an obstacle (or person), the Dynamic Approach prevails.

Cunning              

An action using the Cunning Approach focuses on outmaneuvering and outwitting your opposition. Where Covert represents the lie with a straight face, Cunning is the mixture of half-truths and misinformation to confuse the opponent into belief. Where Dynamic represents the hardest, most aggressive response to an obstacle, Cunning relies on applying force to the target’s vulnerabilities for maximum effect. Where Expedient operates with a concern for speed, Cunning focuses on maximizing the end result without concern for the time it takes to get there.

Deliberate          

The Deliberate Approach takes its time, considering possibilities, using awareness and focus to reduce risk. Deliberate actions take more time but result in more predictable outcomes and fewer mistakes. When there are a million ways a task could go sideways and the “slow and steady” strategy seems best, choose a Deliberate Approach.

Daring                 

The Daring Approach relies on audacity, surprise, unpredictability and more than a little luck. Feats of debatable bravery and stupidity and unorthodox tactics use the Daring Approach. Examples might include: fast-talking or intimidating a security guard, charging headlong into a room spraying gunfire wildly, or winning a race by taking the more dangerous (but shorter) route.

For the next post in this series, click here.

Cortex Prime Shadowrun, Part I: Initial Rules Summary

I’m finding that I’ve got a lot of work to do in putting together the coherent and comprehensive guide for using Cortex Prime to run Shadowrun games that I’m currently working on. Because of this, I thought I’d provide some teasers of what I’ve got going on to tide you over some before I post the entire document.

What follows is a broad-strokes summary of some of the major rules selections I’ve made so far. The text is mostly taken word-for-word from the draft document for the ruleset, though I’ve made a few adjustments for clarity.

This is a work in progress, so questions and criticisms will help refine the end product!

Cortex Prime Rules Selection Summary

The following is a bullet-point summary of rules (or mod) choices that underpin the game:

• Prime Traits Sets are Approaches, Skills, Aspects, Assets and Specializations. Of course, temporary or scene-related Traits will also be included.

• SFX (and Limits) will be used. SFX are most often attached to Aspects and Assets. As will be explained below, this ruleset will make a distinction between Inherent SFX and Limits, which are automatically a part of certain Aspect or Asset choices, and Permissive SFX and Limits, which may be selected by characters in character creation or character advancement. Additionally, this ruleset uses Hardwired SFX and Limits, which are SFX and Limits that are always in play and applicable to certain situations. Hardwired SFX are described below and used primarily to translate some of the important setting ideas of the Shadowrun Universe to the Cortex Prime System—things like the difference between Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality while hacking.

• Character Injury is tracked by stress (called Shock) and trauma (called, coincidentally enough, Trauma). Per the Prime rules, this supersedes the “High Stakes” action rules. See the “Damage and Injury” Section below for more information.

• Characters are created through the “Priority Chart,” described in “Character Creation,” below.

• Plot Points are referred to as Edge when in the hands of players and Threat when in the hands of the GM. Edge and Threat are generated per the standard Prime rules except that the “Using d4 in your roll rule” to gain Edge is changed to the “Use Aspect as Complication” rule described in the “Custom Rules” section.

• The Test-Created Assets Mod is used.

• None of the Prime “Plot Point Mods” is used. Plot Points are stored in the Bank.

• Characters improve through the “Session Histories” rules.

• The standard “Effect Die” rules are used.

• Standard “Random Difficulty” Opposition is used.

“Custom” Rules

• This ruleset uses Ryan Macklin’s ideas for “Dice Cracking,” mostly during character creation. Under this rule, a die may be “cracked” into two stepped-down dice, i.e. a d8 can be used as 2d6. During character creation, this allows for more highly-skilled but specialized builds, jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none builds, and a number of steps in between.

• As mentioned above, additional rules involving SFX and Limits are used—Inherent SFX and Limits allow the feel of certain aspects of Shadowrun to be incorporated inherently into certain power sets. Additionally, Hardwired SFX and Limits help to reinforce the setting.

• Rather than Distinctions, this ruleset uses Aspects. Aspects are treated much like Aspects in Fate RPG—they may be added to a player’s dice pool when the Aspect is beneficial, or the player may gain 1 Edge by adding the die to the opposition dice pool when the Aspect hurts the character. Aspects may have dice of any step rather than always being relegated to the d8 of Distinctions, but because the same die is rolled in negative situations (rather than a d4), having a higher Aspect cuts both ways. The intent of this rule is (other than using Aspects from Fate) to play up the gritty and noir-ish feel of Shadowrun (where characters are often their own worst enemies) and to mechanically reinforce the narrative description of a character’s important qualities. Aspects may have SFX associated with them, but none are Inherent.

Fiction & Fatherhood Update and Roadmap

Most of what I’ve posted about lately has been theological in nature, so I thought it might be good to give some of my readers more interested in other aspects of the blog an update and information about what to expect in the future. Here we go:

Fiction

I’m currently working on the following for my fiction:

Avar Narn Novel

By the end of NaNoWriMo last November, I’d put on paper what I estimate to be about 40% or so of the novel. I’ve been editing and slowly rewriting scenes and plot lines for this portion of the book and have the intention of attempting to finish the first draft during NaNoWriMo this year. I may be looking for early readers of drafts, so contact me if that’s something you’re interested in.

Short Stories

I’d like to put some more short stories on the blog to give readers a better feel for my writing. I’ve got one currently under way set in the world of the Worldbuilding Example Series. Not currently sure whether most of what I work on in the near future will fall into that setting or into Avar Narn; we’ll just have to see. I’m also not sure whether I’ll try to submit the short stories anywhere before posting them here–that may depend on how good I feel they are. Again, if anyone out there is interested in critiquing and helping to edit some of these, shoot me a message.

Dark Inheritance

I’m a pretty big fan of the Warhammer 40K universe. While the logic of the setting is highly questionable at times, it’s a science fantasy setting I spent a lot of time in while I was younger, I respect the depth of accreted material over the years since, and it’s just plain fun. Also, there’s a new 40K roleplaying game (Wrath & Glory) due out about August, and I’m excited about that.

Dark Inheritance will be an expansive campaign for Wrath & Glory. It will be posted here in PDF format for any gamemaster who wants to run it for their players. I’m excited about this project as a different form of writing (for public consumption) than I’m used to, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to be writing full story arcs for the RPGs I run rather than building stories on the fly in the last minutes before it’s time to game.

Since the ruleset won’t be out until August or so, the campaign won’t be published until after that. But I’m working now on the story arcs, flow of the campaign and locales and dramatis personae, so it hopefully won’t take me long to add the rules-based information after I have it in my grubby hands.

Cortex Prime Shadowrun Ruleset

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I’m a big fan of the Shadowrun setting. Not so much the rules. I am, however, a big fan of the Cortex Plus system and its soon-to-be-released successor, Cortex Prime. So, I’m working on a ruleset for Shadowun using the toolkit that Cortex provides.

This has been done before by others, but I’ve never seen a conversion done that I really liked, so I’m doing my own. Cortex Prime has also not been fully released yet, but I expect that it has enough in common with Cortex Plus that only minor tweaks will be required after I have the new rules.

The Cortex Prime kickstarter said to expect a first draft of the rules in the next week or two nearly three weeks ago, so I assume I’ll be able to wrap this project up sooner rather than later.

Yes, that’s a lot of projects. Yes, if I focused on one at a time I’d get at least something to you faster. But that’s not how my creative side works, so it is what it is.

Fatherhood

Tonight, K and I begin several days of refreshing our training as foster parents. We are currently scheduled to renew our home study on July 5th. If all goes according to plan, we should be fully licensed for a new placement shortly after that.

We’re not yet decided on the timing of a new placement, but I would expect that we will take one sometime between late July and early September.

When there are kiddos back in the house, I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to write about in the currently-on-hiatus “Fatherhood” section of the blog.

Kingdom Come: Deliverance – Playing at History (an early review).

I backed Kingdom Come (KC:D) a long time ago–maybe more than two years. An open-world historical medieval RPG? Yes, please! Just the sort of thing that pulls at the desires of a person whose favorite video game is the Witcher 3 and who, for a time, was a professional student of the medieval.

There was, of course, a long roller-coaster of development that followed–teasers, delays, the realization that my computer wouldn’t be able to run the game, the revelation that it would be released on console and so my computer didn’t matter, etc., etc.

Finally, it arrived this week, and I’ve spent some significant time becoming immersed in the Bohemia of 1403. With the caveat that I’m nowhere near finished with this game, this is what I have to report to the present:

If you are the type of person who plays Fallout and Skyrim on survival mode, this game will appeal to you. You must sleep and eat. Your food rots over time, and spoilt food will make you sick. Eat too much and you’ll be sluggish. Take an injury (whether in combat or not!) and you might begin to bleed. Fix it with a bandage quickly or prepare to die. Keep your weapons and armor in good repair or they’ll become ineffective. Get your clothes bloody or dirty and people will notice–and they don’t take you as seriously when they do. Carry weights are (relatively) realistic, and you improve your skills by using them–not easy to do when it comes to using a sword.

The game is relatively “on rails” for the first few hours of play–while you can do your own thing for long whiles at a time, only advancing the main quest will get you to the point where you can seriously begin to play the game. It’s a slow start that left me, at first, with an unfavorable impression of how gameplay with develop that is still being dispelled as I move through the game.

So far, the game doesn’t feel as “open world” as I had hoped. It is true that there are sidequests (and perhaps I just haven’t discovered many of them yet) and you can easily spend hours just “living” in the medieval world–practicing a trade, acting as a merchant, traveling and fighting bandits, etc. In a certain way, I think you could ignore the quests altogether and simply view the game as a “medieval emulator.”

Further, there seems to be an intimation that the world will be expanded and even more opportunities for self-directed tasks will become available as the game progresses. Despite my several hours of play, I’m sure that I just have no gotten that far into the story yet.

And that main story is, at least, an interesting one. Set within a discrete historical event–King Sigismund of Hungary’s invasion of Bohemia on “behalf” of his half-brother King Wenceslaus IV (“the Idle”), who Sigismund had kidnapped, you are thrust into the world as the son of a blacksmith and the vassal of a lord loyal to Wenceslaus and targeted by Sigimunds’ invading army.

The attitudes and motivations of the characters seem deep. You get the expected behavior of some nobility toward the peasantry (particularly in Sir Hans), but this is never flat or without nuance:you earn the friendship and respect of Sir Hans as the story progresses and he is–in private at least–willing to admit his own faults and the shortcomings of his behavior. The struggle between adherence to duty and ideals when faced with the grim necessities of the day plays out on multiple levels, both personal and political. No assumption of medieval life is treated as straightforward, with a range of different lifestyles and living situations that more accurately portrays the era in a way we often miss in movies, dry history books and, especially, fantasy roleplaying, where the “medieval” is more often a pastiche or a facade than an actual description of setting.

Despite this, at least as far as I’ve played, the real joy of the game is in the way it immerses you into the historical world with a sense of realism and reasonableness. For instance, fighting several poorly armed bandits by yourself is difficult; attacking multiple well-armed or well-trained enemies (to say nothing of those who are both) is near suicidal. Unless you use tricks, like stealth, surprise and ambush, weakening the enemy with ranged weapons, hit and run tactics and any other approach that generally makes the fight less fair. This was the reality of the middle ages, just as it is today–no matter how good you are, fights are brutal and deadly, and fighting honorably will likely just get you killed.

Each fight is, however, very interesting. As a student of historical medieval martial arts myself, as both scholar (my Master’s Thesis was entitled “Shakespeare, the Sword and Self-fashioning”) and a martial artist (mostly with the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts or ARMA), I’m especially keen on in-game fighting that captures something of the speed, grace and precision of actual swordplay–something very difficult to do in a video-game because of the infinite array of techniques, maneuvers and responses in combat with a blade. KC:D does the best I’ve seen yet, with the combat not only accounting for the directionality of attacks, but incorporating parries, feints, grappling, counter-attacks and animations that perfectly capture some of the techniques used. This is no clumsy hack-and-slash; the only video game that has even come close to this kind of swordplay was Mount & Blade (whose new edition should be out later this year). While satisfying, this also means that combat is difficult and partially based upon your own twitchy-skill. It should be noted that there is only one difficulty mode for the game (so far as I’ve discovered): realistic.

As a side note, I am note a fan of the Dark Souls games. I just feel that should be said when I communicate how much I’ve enjoyed the difficulty of the game.

For the first few hours of the game, I was very frustrated by the save system. The game automatically saves when you sleep, complete an important quest step, or drink Saviour Schnapps. Saviour Schnapps is expensive, takes up inventory space, and can get you drink. At the beginning, when your skills are low and the game is at its most difficult, you will die a lot and have to replay moderate sections of the game (at least I did). As I progressed into the game and got into the mindset, I actually began to enjoy the save system. In a game that strives for immersion and realism, this save system reinforces these without becoming full-on rogue-like. You cannot get lucky for a minimal gain, save, and replay until you get the next minimal gain and save again. Three men in armor down that path? Best just to go a different way. This goes a long way into breaking the hero mentality we usually carry with us into video games; I particularly respect that.

This is not to say that playing heroic (or superheroic) characters in games is not appropriate, good design, or fulfilling–it certainly can be. But the occasional game that makes us live in an alternate world as a regular person–even one who may be an exceptional fighter (though still clearly mortal) provides a truly rewarding exception as well. In some sense, I do wish the game had some aspect of the fantastic to it, but that’s really only because I’m such a fan of fantasy. Realistically (and more sensibly), it’s great to see such an enjoyable game and interesting world and narrative created without any need to resort to the “unrealistic.”

As is probably indicated by the amount of words I’ve dedicated to this preemptive review, I’m really enjoying this game. If you’re willing to devote the time to acclimate to this game’s approach to play–and you’re willing to accept the design principles on which the game was built–I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.

In some ways, at its heart, this game is a history lesson you play–one about everyday living in the medieval world.

Rules Versus Rulings: Failing Forward, Difficulty and Gaming Theory in Mechanics

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve recently been running Apocalypse World (and have also run several sessions now of its derivative Dungeon World). Meanwhile, I’ve been (re-)reading the 7th Sea 2nd Edition rules, and this has got me to thinking, as I’m wont to do, about RPG game theory and design in general and what sorts of selections and conceits I might use myself in designing my own ruleset (particularly for Avar Narn).

The first pen and paper RPG I played was the old West End d6 Star Wars RPG. This was in late elementary school—well before I had much thought on system mechanics at all. My later youth was spent with the White Wolf games (Old and New WoD), with my perennial favorite, Shadowrun, and reading through—but never actually playing—Rolemaster. Surprisingly (and this is another story for another time), I didn’t play Dungeons and Dragons until college (aside from one abortive attempt at a game of AD&D during a Boy Scout campout).

Most of the games I played or was familiar with growing up were heavy on the crunch, with far more rules than were strictly necessary. As I’ve GMed more and more games, I’ve come to look for “Goldilocks” games that have just the right about of rules, erring on the lighter side. I try to read all sorts of rules for design ideas, but there are many I just would not run a game of. I really like Burning Wheel, for example—it has a depth to it that builds genre and atmosphere. At the end of the day, though, I would never run BW—I have too many minor nitpicks with the system (“scripting” combat for example) and don’t want to have to use that many rules.

As I’ve also mentioned in other posts, I’m quite a fan of the Fate ruleset and of Cortex Plus, though, as I’ll explain, I certainly have my concerns and gripes about these rules as well (I can’t say I’m ever completely satisfied by a ruleset, which is probably why I spend the amount of time I do thinking about RPG rules).

But this post is not really about the rules “lightness” or “crunchiness” of gaming systems. Nor is it about the “GNS” debate—which, while a useful construct for thinking about designs, probably shouldn’t have the level of concern about it that it does.

What I want to talk about instead is how much the metaphysics of gaming (or, more appropriately, design priorities and theories about rulesets) should be hard-coded into the rules of a game. Which returns us to the Apocalypse World Engine/PbtA games and the second edition of 7th Sea. I’ve heard both John Wick and Vincent Baker called pretentious by gamers for their approach to games, but if they’re pretentious, I’d be happy to be in their company all the same.

Baker’s games (not just Apocalypse World but also the excellent game that I’d never actually play Dogs in the Vineyard) and Wick’s new edition of 7th Sea are emblematic of a late trend in roleplaying games—games that know what they want to be and are unabashed about it. It’s not simply that these games are “rules-lighter” or more narratively focused, it’s that they are built on specific design principles.

I don’t want to confuse (in fact, quite the opposite is the point of this post) the theory of running a game and the theory behind mechanical choices. Baker’s agenda for Apocalypse World (barf forth apocalyptica, view every NPC through crosshairs, etc.) is not the same as his design theory.

Here’s a design principle used by both 7th Sea and AW that has become something of a byword in design lately: “fail forward.” This idea behind fail forward is that every action, success or failure, should move the story forward. Another way to put this is “no whiffs.” A statement that “you fail,” by itself doesn’t progress the story and just isn’t interesting. Adding a complication as a consequence of failure, or interpreting failure on the dice as “success at a cost” does and is.

Mechanically, this is hard-wired in both Apocalypse World and 7th Sea. The very resolution mechanic of AW provides various costs for failure and presents a result range that is specifically “success at a cost.” 7th Sea has a sidebar about the lack of a Dodge skill—because simply dodging and being missed isn’t fun or exciting (by the theory of the game). In 7th Sea, your approach is to use obstacles, climb the walls, defend yourself with your weapon, throw sand in the enemy’s eyes and otherwise create exciting and innovative maneuvers to avoid being struck—maneuvers that likely manipulate the environment in addition to stopping an attack, thus pulling double duty.

Having run AW and Dungeon World, I will say that the system’s mechanics do push the story inexorably forward, giving the GM a chance to complicate the story without having to prepare this in advance. My reading of 7th Sea seems to indicate a similar drive, with the additional qualifier that the generation and spending of Raises in that system creates a sort of bargaining system where failure and its consequences are not accidental. As an aside, I strongly suspect but cannot confirm that the Raise system used by 7th Sea drew heavily on Vincent Baker’s dice-bidding in Dogs in the Vineyard.

While some form of “fail forward” mechanic could be converted into use with any RPG’s core mechanic, the question I ask myself is whether this is necessary. In a Dungeons and Dragons game, a skilled GM can do the same thing without needing a mechanic for it—“Your sword strikes true but shatters against the mail of your enemy. Roll your damage and count your sword as a dagger from now on.” Success at cost. On a bad lockpicking test: “You manage to pick the lock, but the time it takes you to do so means that you’re exposed for too long—a guard notices you just as you slip through the door.” If you look, this idea, this reluctance to mechanically codify the theory of roleplaying into hard rules is at the heart of the OSR—you’ll see many OSR players say something like “Yeah, that’s the way we’ve always done it. That’s why 3rd, 4th and 5th edition move in the wrong direction—too many rules and not enough flexibility for the players and GM.”

To add to this, Apocalypse World reverses this pattern with the difficulty of tasks. In “traditional” games, like D&D, there are rules to modify the probability of success by shifting the target number for a skill roll—a mechanical effect for the narrative difficulty of a task. In Apocalypse World (and derivative games), the GM is supposed to narrate the outcome of the roll based on the narrative difficulty of the task without ever changing the percentage chance of success. The GM simply determines that a success means less for a difficult action than it would for an easier one, or, conversely, that failure means more for a difficult action than for an easier one.

It’s in this reversal, I think, that we find something we can latch onto in this discussion. Either approach (with either “fail forward” or difficulty) works; even though there’s something that intuitively bothers me about static difficulty numbers, I have to admit that I don’t think either me or my players notice it when running a game. At the same time, I’m wholeheartedly unwilling to admit that system doesn’t matter; it most certainly does, and this discussion is probably, more than anything, my argument for that fact.

That’s because the choice of mechanics you include in an RPG ruleset tells players and GMs what’s important about the game and establishes that ever-intangible “feel” of a system. This goes well beyond, “a game about pirates without any ship rules has a problem,” though the scope of the rules you include in the ruleset and the areas you leave to GM interpretation is part of the same equation.

Let’s look at editions of D&D, for instance. Early editions of Dungeons and Dragons were, in many ways, closer to Dungeon World than later ones. Admittedly, with only that one attempt at pre-3rd edition D&D I’m relying on “scholarly understanding” instead of experience, but the whole “rulings not rules” idea that we hear about—particularly from the OSR diehards (no aspersions cast)—is based in the idea that the rules provided a framework to support the narrative, allowing for creative problem-solving. As D&D “matured,” the agglutination of rules brought about a focus on knowing the ruleset to exploit it and on complex character-planning (mechanically) rather than the creative and explorative wonder of the early game. 5th edition has attempted to go back toward the beginning, but with competitors like 13th Age, 7th Sea, Dungeon World, the entire OSR, Shadows of the Demon Lord, Barbarians of Lemuria and even more “universal games” like Fate and Cortex Plus, I’m not sure that there’s any going back—for me, at least.

Of course, there will always be a place for players who want massive libraries of rules like Pathfinder has constructed (aspersions cast this time). I’ll admit that I enjoy reading Pathfinder rulebooks because they are full of interesting ideas shoved into rules, but I’m sure that, if I’d ever run Pathfinder, I ignore 95% of the rules, probably throwing out some of the baby with the bathwater (not my best analogy). So, what’s the point?

But I’ve diverged from point here, rambling again about rules-heaviness rather than design choices (this, I fear, is representative of many of the gaming theory discussions I’ve seen lately—they’re about how “crunchy” a system should be overall—or how much it should cater to each aspect of GNS theory—rather than what the point of this or that particular rule is).

Again, this allows me to circle back to 7th Sea and PbtA. These are systems that know what they want to be and the mechanics push the game to fit the niche the designer(s) had in mind. Agree with those design choices or not, I have to have a lot of respect for that. The static difficulty system in Apocalypse World tells players and GM that consequences and results are more important than difficulties—we’re telling collective stories that are exciting and fast-paced rather than attempting to simulate a fantasy world in excessive detail. This merges well with the PbtA position that the GM should be playing “to find out what happens” as much as the players are—if the GM doesn’t have influence over difficulty numbers, the GM has less narrative control for railroading players and is therefore freer to play “to find out.” Here, the rules influence the style of the game.

Similarly, the (new) 7th Sea system, with its generating and spending Raises for narrative effects (whether in scenes of action or drama) supports the narrative feel of the game. Having been watching the BBC Musketeers (why so much leather?) at the same time as reading 7th Sea, I can’t but conclude that the RPG does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the show, which itself is of course drawing upon the tide of swashbuckling adventure in the works of Dumas and others. The rules support the game the designer wants you to play. I cannot wait to run a 7th Sea game. One question remains for me, though: could the new 7th Sea rules just as effectively run a game in the style of Black Sails? I think so, but I’m not quite sure.

Not to rag too much on D&D, but the major problem I have with that game—the conglomerate of my distaste for Vancian magic, classes, levels, etc.—is that the rules become the setting of Dungeons and Dragons, rather than the setting influencing the rules. We can talk about gamer nostalgia or market demand as causes of these things, and I’ll concede there’s some truth to that, but in the end I’m just of the opinion that a good RPG ruleset facilitates the underlying (and overarching—it’s that important) narrative rather than forcing a narrative to conform.

To make clear that this is not about the “rules heaviness” of D&D (whatever your position on that might be), let me look at a “crunchier” game that accomplishes something similar to 7th Sea and PbtA: The One Ring.

Having run a small set of adventures in The One Ring, I’m impressed by the thoughtfulness of the rules in evoking the feel of Tolkien’s world rather than adding Tolkienesque elements to a setting that’s really higher fantasy. The Journey rules in TOR are probably the best I’ve ever seen—a brilliant mix of zooming in and out of the narrative to make journeys important and exciting rather than tedious or the entire focus of the game. As I’ve said before, I think the aspect of journeying in the wilderness is vastly underrated in both roleplaying games and the fantasy genre as a whole.

Additionally, the battle mechanics for TOR require players to work as a team—an archer can’t be an archer without front-line fighters to protect him; the positioning of player characters, while abstract enough to not require tokens, minis or a map, still has a tangible tactical influence on a fight (since the difficulty to hit or be hit is determined by position within the party). This is not the careless, reckless heroics of other games (7th Sea and Dungeon World perhaps included), this evokes the sense of a dangerous world where people survive through teamwork and fellowship.

Here’s the insight I glean from the long thinking-out-loud above: those concepts that are core to the principles of design adopted for a roleplaying game probably ought to be hard-wired into the mechanics themselves. At the same time, some concepts—fail forward, for instance—are just good advice for how GMs run their games. Do they need to be incorporated into the rules? No. Does it say something specific about the game when they are? Absolutely.

If, like me, you’d really like to create a marketable RPG, whether independent of or in conjunction with a setting you intend to write fiction in, I’d suggest you start with these questions: “What is this game about? What is it trying to be? How should it make players and GM feel?”

The answers to those questions may help answer what kinds of rules your game needs, how they should work, and—most important—why they work the way they do. This sense of purpose is the only way I know of to cut through the analysis paralysis of the infinite possibilities of game design and to avoid simply stealing concepts that worked for other games.