AWW: The new approach to things at a glance, part I.


This is Part I of a three part post delving into my thoughts on a new iteration of A Wilder World. Parts II and III will deal with magic and combat. This part deals with the basics of the die resolution system and character creation.

First, the attribute system is basically just… out. Having twenty different axes of numerical customization right alongside the “take two or three concepts and smush them together” character creation thing, it was like having two pretty strong but unrelated bases of character generation in the same game.

While I liked the idea that you could make your Acrobat/Assassin more or less acrobatic than someone else with the same build and then choose how to spend whatever points were left over, it also meant you could make an Acrobat/Assassin who utterly failed as an Acrobat/Assassin. You can’t stop players from making borked characters if they want to, but in a “plug and play” character creation system you shouldn’t need a guide to tell you how to spend your points.

Without attributes, all we care about is notable abilities, notable differences from the norm. To use an example from D&D spin-off novels, we’ll take the Icewind Dale characters by R.A. Salvatore. Wulfgar the human barbarian has what we might call legendary strength, especially when fueled by his rage. At one point he arm-wrestled a balor (which is a balrog with the serial numbers filed off), and at another juncture he took the edges of a dimensional portal and bent them shut. I mean, it was a magical device with an actual edge so he wasn’t literally grabbing space and time and folding them, but still.

So, legendary strength.

His adoptive father, Bruenor, is a dwarven warrior, so we’ll say he has notable strength. We would expect him to win a tug-of-war with the average human more often than not, but lose to Wulfgar.

Bruenor’s other adoptive child, Catti-Brie, is a human swordswoman and archer. As a reasonably fit hero, maybe she’s a bit stronger than the average adult human even in a time and place when the average adult human is a laborer, but her physical strength is not the thing that people remember her for. If she’s the one trying to shift a heavy rock, it’s only because neither Bruenor nor Wulfgar is around and her magical piledriver bow and magical stonecutting sword are both missing… all of which is to say that it’s not terribly important for us to know exactly how strong she is because she doesn’t solve problems with brute strength. Her solutions are often Gordian in nature, but she doesn’t need as much raw strength as either her foster brother or her father to back them up.

Their friend Regis, the pampered halfling confidence artist, deals with heavy rocks by persuading very strong people to move them for him. In a team of what is basically fantasy superheroes, the fact that he’s there at all is an indication of the fact that his superpower is charm: he is friends with all the most powerful people. It is probably worth noting that strength is even more affirmatively not his area than Catti-Brie, but having noted that, it is not necessary to quantify in exacting detail exactly how not strong he is. We just know he’s not strong.

Now, we could use words to describe these levels of ability, and back around maybe January or so I was toying with a color-coded system, where average would be green, yellow and red would be one and two levels below, and then we’d use the shiny metal colors for higher levels of ability: like copper, silver, gold, platinum, mithril.

That’s a lot of levels for a system that by design doesn’t need or want to be very granular, and it also has the disadvantage of not being visually intuitive. There would be a period in the learning curve where you’d still have to look up what “copper” means, and there’s no reason to suspect right off the bat that “copper” beats “green”.

So let’s stick with numbers. We’ll call where Catti-Brie is 0. She’s probably a bit stronger than average, but not so much that the game cares to mark it, and it’s not her particular area of expertise. In most situations, she’s going to have better things to do than apply elbow grease, and allies who are better suited to those problems where only raw muscle will suffice.

Bruenor we’ll say is +1. Wulfgar we’ll call +2, with another +1 when he’s enraged. Regis is -1.

This gives us a way of referring to differing levels of ability in a way that the difference is obvious at a glance, but we also need a way of meaningfully translating it into game terms. There isn’t really a combination of die rolls where straight up adding +2 for Wulfgar’s Strength as compared to -1 for Regis’s would really capture the difference between a relatively sedentary halfling and a legendary human warrior.

So let’s borrow a page from D&D 5E’s rather elegant replacement for a lot of “stack ’em to the heavens” modifiers, their concept of advantage/disadvantage: rolling extra dice and then taking the better roll or, in the case of disadvantage, the worse.

We’ll stick with the conceit of only using 6 sided dice for A Wilder World, for reasons of simplicity, predictability, and accessibility. If we define checks or rolls by a Difficulty number that is the minimum number needed to succeed, we can have tasks defined from Difficulty 2 to 6, with odds of success ranging from 87.5% to 12.5% for the average character.

If you have a score of -1, you have to roll twice and use the worse result. If your score is positive, you can roll extra dice and use the highest one. Each additional die halves your chances of failure, without ever dropping the odds to 0.

So say that a non-raging Wulfgar is trying to kick in a wooden door. We’ll define this as a Difficulty 5 task; the average person would have a 1/3 chance of managing it. He rolls two extra dice, and if even one of them is 5 or higher he succeeds. That’s pretty close to a 70% success rate, compared to Catti-Brie’s 33% success rate. Note that I’m doing the math here, but it’s not at all necessary for players to do the math, just understand that more pluses = dice = more chances to succeed. You can roll your three dice and glance at them and if anything is 4 or higher, you know you made it.

Meanwhile, Regis has an 11% success rate. Which might seem high, and some people are doing the math in their head to figure out how many tries it would take him before his success was basically guaranteed… but the thing is, AWW goes with the philosophy that a check is not “Does it work this time?” but “Does this thing I’m trying to do work?” The random factor abstracts away all the different innumerable variables that would be in play in real life. So it’s not that Regis can try to knock down the door nine times and he’s bound to succeed once. It’s that 11% of the time, when Regis encounters a door like this, he’s able to take it down.

It still might seem odd that any door that Wulfgar can take down is theoretically within Regis’s reach, which is why there’s another wrinkle to difficulty levels. For now, let’s call it magnitude. It’s the “you must be at least this awesome to ride” filter on doing stuff. Magnitude is noted as a minus after the difficulty. Imagine a reinforced security door that is Difficulty 5-1.

What’s the minus do? It shifts your effective score, and if you’re left with lower than -1, you can’t even try.

So when faced with the reinforced door, non-raging Wulfgar has Strength +1, Bruenor has Strength 0, Catti-Brie has -1, and Regis has -2, meaning he’s out of the running.

There is a thing called Heroic Effort where you get to use your whole dice pool for check you’re awesome enough to attempt, but it’s a resource-tracking thing. It’s not too limited, because part of the idea here is that each level of ability is a whole order of awesomeness above the next plus down, but it’s also not automatic.

Now, I’ve been talking about Strength as a concept here, which seems like a stand-in for an attribute even though I’m saying that the system is attribute-less. This is why I also used Rage as an example of something that could conditionally stack with the Strength bonus, to ease into the next concept I’m bringing up.

As much as I like the smushing-together-two-archetypes system… it really contributed a lot to the problems I described in my last post. It’s a great idea, for something that functions more like D&D, but with a focus on gonzo character customization—kind of like D&D 4E’s Gamma World spin-off, or D&D 4E’s hybrid system—and with D&D 5E style “grow into your complexity” system.

It’s not great for a system like A Wilder World where part of the idea is that characters can be relatively “feature complete” at level one, or where the idea is to keep conflict resolution/risk management on a quick and easy basis.

So here’s my new basic concept for character creation: you make a list of stuff your character has going for them. Each of the things you list are considered Abilities. Most abilities are 1 Character Point, though some might wind up being 2 or 3, and some (many) of them will be available at different levels; Strength +1 is one point, Strength +2 is two points. The Storyteller can cap how high an ability can be at character generation depending on the intended power level of the campaign, and also sets how many points are available.

Me, with my taste for high-flying action-adventure at level one, a sort of cinematic fantasy feel, I’d go with something like 10 or 12 points, but it’s possible to play with a pool of 4 or 5 points.

A secondary list of the same length follows the first. These are things called Perks, which are smaller than Abilities. Knowing a language is a Perk, while being a skilled linguist who can find a basis for communication in any language is an Ability. Possessing a musical instrument and knowing how to play it is a Perk, while having an alchemist’s kit and knowing how to use it is an Ability. Having a small side weapon or light armor is a Perk, while having a full-sized weapon or metal armor is an Ability.

While Abilities and Perks can be roughly sub-divided into different categories like gear, followers, skills, advantages (advantages specifically describing things most people can do naturally but you can do better, i.e., things that would otherwise be attributes), there are only these two steps in character creation: spend points, pick perks.

The Abilities would be a lot more roughly sketched than any special abilities listed in the previous iteration. Many of them—particularly the pseudo-attribute Advantages—will basically just consist of describing the areas of endeavor they cover, as well as some rough guidelines for figuring out the fringe benefits (like being strong = can carry heavier burdens for longer). Some of them will have specified mechanical effects, including bonus perks. Points in Linguist = extra languages, for instance.

The archetypes I spent so much time lovingly devising will be included as basically packages of suggested abilities: these are good things for merchants, these are good things for nobles, these are good things for assassins, et cetera. While this makes the plug and play element a little more involved, I feel it makes character creation as a whole simpler, and also more flexible and consistent.

Under the previous version, multiple archetypes essentially had “knows special contacts” as a special ability but the handling for each one was different. Same thing with archetypes that had flexible item allotments, or the ability to summon helpers.

Of course, with attributes and archetypes gone, magic is going to work a little bit differently, though the basic structure of it will be familiar to those who read the old system. The basic ideas of “magic comes in different flavors, magic can do anything that could be done without magic plus a few extra things depending on the flavor, and magic pays for its flexibility by being costly, difficult, slow, and loud compared to the mundane way” are all there, though the whole cost of magic thing is being refined in a way that I think will be more interesting.