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With Game Chef 2010 rapidly approaching, I thought I might share a story about Little Game Chef 2010.

After I missed last year’s Little Game Chef, I had every intention of entering this year. Unfortunately, the timing of the contest happened to coincide with my vacation. So, I suspected that not only would I be unable to finish an entry on time, but I wouldn’t be able to submit my entry since I would be out of town. However, regardless of my lack of ability to enter the contest, I tried my damnedest to slap together a game with the intention of posting it here with the relevant links to the contest. As you may have suspected, things didn’t quite go as planned.

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Ever since I designed The Great Steeplejack Chase I’ve wanted to use the action/move dice pool in a roleplaying game. I think it has a lot of potential so here’s my first attempt at shoehorning it into a resolution mechanic.

The system uses a roll-under, count successes dice pool mechanic. Just like in The Great Steeplejack Chase each character has a dice pool (I was thinking d10s would we easy enough to find and would offer a nice spread of numbers).

Either the dice pool would represent on a general measure over overall character strength (sort of like one die for every character “level”) and a character’s dice pool would grow as the character develops though the campaign. Or, every character would have the same sized pool and overall character strength would be measured by the number of times in during a conflict that the character could refresh his pool. Either way, to prevent unwieldy dice pools the pool would have to be capped at a reasonable size (perhaps 10 dice). In the first option, once characters reached the dice pool cap, they could get an ability that refreshes their pool a certain number of times per scene.

The turn structure is exactly like it was in the Great Steeplejack Chase. Each character gets as many actions as they wish, but each action will either use up dice for the turn, or use up dice for the encounter.

To attack, characters roll any number of available dice from their pool attempting to roll under a governing attribute. All dice that do roll under the attribute count as successes. A defender operates likewise, choosing any number of available dice, rolling under an attribute and counting successes. The attacking and defending dice are lost for the current turn and successes cancel each other. Any leftover attacking successes knock dice out of the defender’s pool and make them unavailable for the rest of the scene. When a character runs out of dice, the conflict is over.

It’s important to note that, as far as actions go, defending is free in that it can happen at any point in the turn and it is entirely voluntary. The attacker can only attack during his turn but only attacking successes knock dice out, any extra defending successes are lost.

Of course, in addition to the simple back and forth of attack and defend, characters can spend dice (making them unavailable for the rest of the scene) on special abilities. The exact type and power of special abilities would need to serious testing, but they’d probably end up looking something like keys from The Shadow of Yesterday.

On top of all of this, I’m toying with the idea of characters being able to attack attributes directly which would lower an opponent’s chance of success in the future (perhaps a good use for special abilities). I’m also thinking of several different methods of applying temporary penalties to the dice rolls themselves. Either lowering the face value of all dice rolled, forcing a character to toss out the highest rolled die or even forcing a character to roll an extra success.

In the case of unopposed conflict, the GM would also have a dice pool. Instead of attributes to roll under, the GM would also have a difficulty level that operates on the same scale as the player attributes (1-10). Then, the conflict proceeds exactly as described above.

It’s my hope that the above mechanics (or something similar) can be the base of the two games that I’m currently working on: Tales of the Great City and Sword Mage. Previews for both games should be following shortly.

Porting Steeplejack Mechanics

Ever since I designed The Great Steeplejack Chase I’ve wanted to use the action/move dice pool in a roleplaying game. I think it has a lot of potential so here’s my first attempt at shoehorning it into a resolution mechanic.

The system uses a roll-under, count successes dice pool mechanic. Just like in The Great Steeplejack Chase each character has a dice pool (I was thinking d10s would we easy enough to find and would offer a nice spread of numbers).

Either the dice pool would represent on a general measure over overall character strength (sort of like one die for every character “level”) and a character’s dice pool would grow as the character develops though the campaign. Or, every character would have the same sized pool and overall character strength would be measured by the number of times in during a conflict that the character could refresh his pool. Either way, to prevent unwieldy dice pools the pool would have to be capped at a reasonable size (perhaps 10 dice). In the first option, once characters reached the dice pool cap, they could get an ability that refreshes their pool a certain number of times per scene.

The turn structure is exactly like it was in the Great Steeplejack Chase. Each character gets as many actions as they wish, but each action will either use dice for the turn, or use dice for the encounter.

To attack, characters roll any number of available dice from their pool attempting to roll under a governing attribute. All dice that do roll under the attribute count as successes. A defender operates likewise, choosing any number of available dice, rolling under an attribute and counting successes. The attacking and defending dice are lost for the current turn and successes cancel each other. Any leftover attacking successes knock dice out of the defender’s pool and make them unavailable for the rest of the scene. When a character runs out of dice, the conflict is over.

It’s important to note that as far as actions go defending is free in that it can happen at any point in the turn and it is entirely voluntary. The attacker can only attack during his turn but only attacking successes knock dice out, any extra defending successes are lost.

Of course, in addition to the simple back and forth of attack and defend, characters can spend dice (making them unavailable for the rest of the scene) on special abilities. The exact type and power of special abilities would need to serious testing, but they’d probably end up looking something like keys from The Shadow of Yesterday.

On top of all of this, I’m toying with the idea of characters being able to attack attributes directly which would lower an opponent’s chance of success in the future (perhaps a good use for special abilities). I’m also thinking of several different methods of applying temporary penalties to the dice rolls themselves. Either lowering the face value of all dice rolled, forcing a character to toss out the highest rolled die or even forcing a character to roll an extra success.

In the case of unopposed conflict, the GM would also have a dice pool. Instead of attributes to roll under, the GM would also have a difficulty level that operates on the same scale as the player attributes (1-10). Then, the conflict proceeds exactly as described above.

It’s my hope that the above mechanics (or something similar) can be the base of the two games that I’m currently working on: Tales of the Great City and Sword Mage. Previews for both games should be following shortly.

A while back I mentioned that I had come across Eclipse: the Codex Persona. Well, I’ve had a closer look at it, and it looks like my initial fears were baseless. Eclipse, while it tries to reach the same destination as Fluidity, takes a completely different path. That having been said, I found Eclipse pretty interesting. Make no mistake, it’s a really dense piece of reading and I would certainly like to actually see the system at work in a campaign environment before I gave it my full endorsement, but at first glance it seems to work. And, for the most part, it seems to work well. Since it’s shareware you can’t go wrong with a quick look, especially if you’re interested in point-buy d20.

Unfortunately, Eclipse doesn’t do away with levels, which was one of the initial goals with Fluidity Project. I wanted a free form point buy system that allowed for smooth (or fluid) character growth and gave the players something to purchase at least every game session. While I was checking out Eclipse: the Codex Persona, I came across a pair of systems that also do just that.  Buy the Numbers is a class-less, level-less, d20 compatible system that is significantly closer to that I was looking for when I first started designing Fluidity Project. Complete Control is an adapted and updated form of Buy the Numbers that has (from my perspective) better math behind the character advancement system. Complete Control also has a supplement called Complete Gear, which deals with magic items in a new and innovative way. Complete Control is also from the folks at Dreamscarred Press, so it contains a lot of native support for psionics.

Both Buy the Numbers and Complete Control are almost exactly what I envisioned when I started Fluidity Project, but the both have the same major problem: too much math. The CR system in 3.x (for all its faults) allows GMs to created balanced and interesting encounters, but it also walks hand in hand with an unwieldy XP system.

A quick aside, when I migrated my home campaign from core D&D to Iron Heroes, XP was the first thing I did away with. In Iron Heroes, there’s no magic items, so there’s no crafting, so PCs don’t need XP for anything other than leveling. Mastering Iron Heroes introduced the concept of Marks instead of XP. In a nutshell, characters get 1 mark for an encounter with a CR equal to their level and 2 marks for an encounter with a CR 3 or more above their level. Characters in 3.x are supposed to level every 12-14 encounters and Mastering Iron Heroes suggests leveling every 10 marks, but in my campaign I found that leveling every 20 marks was actually better for the game (as always, your mileage may vary). The concept of marks became the basis for Character Points in Fluidity Project.

Which brings me back to my problem with Buy the Numbers and Complete Control. Both systems use raw XP as the currency of character advancement and price all the character components out with three and four digit XP costs. For example, in Complete Control, if I wanted to purchase Power Attack it would cost me 100 XP if it was my first feat purchase or 2,760 XP if it was my seventh. In Buy the Numbers, if I wanted to purchase Power Attack it would cost me 50 XP if it was my first feat purchase or 2,100 XP if it was my seventh. In Fluidity Project Power attack costs 3 CP no matter when you purchase it. In Fluidity Project each CP represents a single equal CR encounter, but when using XP the awards vary depending on the party’s level and the equivalent CR of the encounter.

It’s my opinion that we should look to Occam in this case. Why force the players to play accountant with thousands upon thousands of experience points when they could quickly count out a few character points, buy a few character upgrades and get on with the game? Why offer the players different die sizes for hit dice when they’re playing a point buy game and can buy as many as they want? Of course, both games cap all purchases at 20 so that point is kind of moot. But, the larger question stands — Is staying close to the source material really desirable for any other reason than player familiarity? If there is a less complicated but fully compatible option isn’t that always the better option?

Sometimes, despite the best of intentions, my entries for Game Design Challenges don’t make it to Game Career Guide. What follows is a trio of entries that for various reasons were never submitted. The game designs are raw and largely unfinished, but are being recorded for the purposes of posterity

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A while back, I mentioned that while designing Counting Sheep (Getting into Bed), I set out to design a narrative roleplaying game that uses playing cards as the only conflict resolution mechanic, but quickly abandoned it when the write-up grew too large to submit to the contest. What follows is a quick look into the guts of the game. Design notes and a complete writeup will also be forthcoming shortly.

The Character

Each character is represented by one of the face cards in a standard 52 card deck of playing cards. Each character has a value (King, Queen or Jack) and a suit (Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts or Spades). The character’s card stays in the deck so it is available during play, but the value and suit give the character bonuses that will be explained later.

The Pools

Characters also have three pools that represent their overall mental health, physical health and fatigue. The pools should be represented by some physical counter (poker chips work well), but in a pinch, players could keep track of the pools on a piece of paper. Each pool has a value of 20, they can never be larger than 20, but during play they will most certainly get smaller.

The three pools are: Blood, Sweat and Tears.

I use red poker chips for Blood, white poker chips for Sweat and blue poker chips for Tears. When using chips, it’s convenient to count the pools from 20 (full) down to 0 (empty). But, a player using paper to keep track of his pools might find it more convenient to count from 0 (full) to 20 (empty). The methods are functionally the same, any difference is one of convenience. If both methods are being used at the same table, using phrases like “I have 10 blood left.” might facilitate player understanding.

Blood is a measure of blood loss, damage to vital organs, metabolic damage due to toxins and disease, and any other damage that is potentially life-threatening. When a character’s Blood reaches 0, they go into shock and become incapacitated.

Sweat is a measure of weariness, stress, soreness, pain, and other fatigue. When a character’s Sweat reaches 0, the character is completely exhausted and may Crash.

Tears is a measure of despair, emotional and psychological damage, pent-up feelings, and inner turmoil. When a character’s Tears reach 0, the character becomes so depressed, distraught, and/or overwrought that he is incapacitated and may Snap.

The Cards

At the beginning of each play session, the GM deals each player a hand of four cards. Between scenes player’s hands reset to four cards. Starting to the GM’s left and proceeding clockwise, players must reduce their hands back to four cards by discarding any cards that they choose. Any player who has fewer than four cards draws enough cards to increase his hand to four. At this time, any player who wishes may refresh his hand by discarding any cards he no longer wants and then drawing his hand back up to four. Players should always keep their hands hidden.

Conflict

To start a conflict, the important questions are the what, the who, the where and the how. The what concerns what’s at stake, why is there a conflict and what is there to be won at the outcome. The where concerns the location of the conflict and what’s around, this helps set the atmosphere and feel of the conflict. The who concerns who has a stake in the conflict, who is participating and sometimes why they are participating.

Conflict proceeds using a back and forth play that’s very similar to betting on poker. When a conflict is started, the aggressor chooses how they are addressing the issue and raises using two cards to back up their action. All of the other players involved in the conflict see the raise using their own cards. Once cards are used to raise and see, they’re gone and are reshuffled into the deck after the conflict is over. After one character raises and all other characters see that raise, the cards are removed and play continues around the table. The next player plays two cards as a raise and all other players must see using their own cards.

Depending how well a character sees, he might have to take fallout from the exchange. Fallout can represent anything from broken bones to cuts and bruises to mental and physical fatigue. The amount of fallout is often a key factor in determining how long a character stays in a conflict.

When a character is losing a conflict – they’ve taken some fallout or they’re running out of cards – they can push (essentially volunteering to take fallout) or escalate the conflict. Because, there’s nothing that ends an argument like pulling a gun.

When a character gives or when a character doesn’t have enough cards to see a raise and they can’t or won’t push or escalate they’re out of the conflict. Whoever is left when a conflict is done gets to decide the fate of whatever was at stake in the conflict and narrate the outcome appropriately.

Using the Cards

Once the important questions are dealt with the conflict starts and all players draw an additional four cards. While all players can discuss the stakes of a conflict, only the players directly involved in the conflict and draw cards and play cards during the conflict.

Generally the player who starts the conflict gets to choose what type of conflict is taking place. The type of conflict governs what suit is the trump suit. When the suit of the card that represents a player’s character matches the trump suit of the current conflict, that player gets to draw an additional card at the start of the conflict. The same holds true when the conflict escalates and the trump suit changes. For instance, if a player’s character is represented by the king of spades and the guns come out, that player would draw five cards instead of the normal four.

  • If the conflict involves just talking? The trump suit is Diamonds.
  • If the conflict involves doing something physical, but not fighting? The trump suit is Hearts.
  • If the conflict involves fighting hand-to-hand or with melee weapons? The trump suit is Clubs.
  • If the conflict involves fighting with guns? The trump suit is Spades. (Spades should also cover anything that’s likely going to result in serious injury or death, like battle magic, running someone over with a car and other things like that.)

The player whose character started the conflict must raise with two cards (whose values are added together). All other players in the conflict see with two cards, the total of which must equal or exceed the value of the raise. If any player can see with one card, it’s called a reversal. A player who plays a reversal does not lose the card he plays, instead, he may use it as a third card in his raise (if he acts next), or he can use it to see (if he doesn’t).

If any player cannot see with two cards and has to see with three or more cards, their character takes fallout equal to the highest middle card that they have played. If any raise contains a trump card, the all players who see must also contain play a trump or their character takes fallout equal to the value to the trump he can’t see.

During play, face cards double the value of any card that they are played with (ex. a six and a king equals 12). If any two face cards are played together, their total value is 20. In addition, if the face card is also a trump, the trump carries over to the other card (in the previous example, any player who couldn’t see with a trump would take 6 fallout). In the case of two face cards where one is a trump, the players who must see the raise risk taking 10 fallout.

At any point when a player can’t see a raise, he has three options:
1) Give and accept the consequences of loosing the conflict.
2) Push and accept a price equal to the difference between the played cards and the value required to see.
3) Escalate the conflict.

When a player chooses to escalate the conflict, all players in the conflict draw four more cards (or five if the trump switches to your suit), the trump switches to reflect the escalation and play continues.

Fallout and Price

When a character is forced to take fallout, or chooses to push a conflict and accept a price, the payment depends on the trump suit of the conflict.

If the trump suit is Diamonds, price or fallout is paid in tears.
If the trump suit is Hearts, the price or fallout is paid in either tears or sweat.
If the trump suit is Clubs, the price or fallout is paid in either sweat or blood.
If the trump suit is Spades, the price or fallout is paid in blood.

This is where the value of a character’s card comes into play, since the card value changes the type of price or fallout a character has to pay.
When his Price includes Sweat, a King can trade up to half of his Sweat for Blood or Tears.
When her Price includes Tears, a Queen can trade up to half of her Tears for Sweat or Blood.
When his Price includes Blood, a Jack can trade up to half of his Blood for Sweat or Tears.

Narration

This, of course, is just the raw mechanical method for resolving conflict. There’s nothing in this post about the themes of the game, there’s nothing about healing all that fallout the characters took as they escalated their way from stern words to a deadly shootout and there’s nothing about how the game is supposed to play around the table. In short, each player narrates his action as he plays his cards. What the character says is what happens, the cards just back up the actions. And, to a certain extent, inform the actions of the other characters. I’ll be going into much greater detail about narration methods and play styles in the more complete writeup that will follow.

The beginning of 2009 has been extremely busy for me, and I haven’t had quite the time I wanted to devote to the various design projects that I’ve been working on. In addition to being busy, I had increasingly started to think that maybe Fluidity had run its course. My first thought was to place the entire project on indefinite hiatus, but, between Threshold Magic and the psudo-level system that I’m posting below, I think that maybe I’m not as done with Fluidity as I thought I was.

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In the spirit of building upon the core foundation of the Fluidity Project, I’ve come up with a rough outline for another magic system. The system is based (loosely) on the magic in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, where mages are merely conduits for vast magical power and don’t actually hold any power in themselves. Tentatively called Threshold Magic, the system is designed to be used with magical schools or paths which contain spells and either spell based augmentation (like Psionics) or universal augmentation (or both). Threshold Magic also makes use of a Channeling skill much like Elementalism.

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Ethercraft was meant to be my answer to 4th Edition’s version of magic. All of the groundwork was done in late 2007 before anything concrete was known about 4th Ed. Of course, now we all know exactly what 4E is all about. And, as it turns out, what I extrapolated from the early reports was pretty far off base.

What the preview contains should be enough to get a feel for the flavor, terminology and structure of the magic system.

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I’ve been frequenting the forums over at Indie RPGs lately, and I’ve also been reading a lot of ORE (Wild Talents and Reign specifically) and Burning Wheel. I guess things have been percolating around inside my head. Because, sparked by this thread and the idea of gobble dice from ORE, I’ve thrown together some minimalist mechanics during my lunch breaks over the course of about a week. The system outlined below is supposed to be abstract, minimalist and gritty while still allowing for some good roleplaying and action.

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