AWW: A Wilder Approach

So, those who’ve followed this blog and its predecessors for a long time know that I’ve spent a lot of time over the years on a roleplaying game project called A Wilder World. It’s had several iterations, none of which made it to completion. The closest one was very close. I had a rules build, I had a rich and deep character creation system, but it had a few problems. In retrospect, it was not a good system. It was three or four great ideas for systems, some of them contradictory, jammed together. I think I’ve said before on this blog that the attribute system and the archetype system both were pretty good on their own, but together it was like making the same character twice in different game systems.

I’ve been talking to fellow game and game design enthusiast Shweta Narayan about what I’m looking for and my obstacles, at various intervals. This is useful because we have close enough tastes and goals to understand each other, but different enough gaming experience to offer different insights.

After talks with Shweta in the winter and spring, I’ve been developing a less archetype-heavy version of A Wilder World. I started with the idea of what I thought of as “The Good Points” system, which would be: take a piece of paper. Write your character’s good points on a line, only mentioning the things that would stand out about them as a hero; e.g., it doesn’t matter who is stronger among Paul and Mary, unless one of them is the person who gets stories told about them for being strong. The game would have some guidelines for what constitutes a strong point, and rules for codifying/generalizing them.

The problem with that approach is that by the time you get done streamlining what random things people write down into, “Okay, that’s basically the example trait the rules describe here”, you’re left wondering why you don’t give people the traits to use as LEGO blocks.

But it got me back to thinking about defining characters primarily in terms of “what are you good at, what are you known for?” The example I used in my talks with Shweta was: if your character is an acrobat, if you are the acrobat in the party, if this is the story of you, the heroic acrobat, then the rules must allow you to acrobat, and acrobat consistently, and acrobat well.

The problem I kept running into was finding simple enough rules to allow for reasonably quick and dirty play that allow you to define acrobating well, merchanting well, alchemisting well, et cetera, in ways that are comparable but account for the difference between being good at tight ropes or being good at beakers of acid.

One breakthrough I came to on my own is that the reasons my combat systems don’t ever really *work* for me is that I’m hewing way too close to things like D&D, GURPS, and (heaven help me) Palladium when the model in my head isn’t “d00dz with sw0rds hacking 0rcz for l00t” but the cartoonier, more clever-idea-focused violence of fantasy cartoons like the D&D cartoon, the He-Man and She-Ra cartoons, the Avatar cartoons, and stuff like that. Not exclusively animated fare. You can throw the Classical Raimiverse in there, and probably a bunch of other stuff I’m overlooking.

(And just, as a pre-emptive thing, since I mentioned cartoons: I am aware that Toon exists. But it’s for emulating a very specific type of cartoon. Fantasy adventure cartoons have slightly more rubber physics than your typical D&D world, but only slightly.)

I shared with this Shweta last night, who pointed out that in a TV show, the writers and animators spend a lot of time pre-arranging the clever solutions, whereas in a roleplaying game, players have to think on the fly but definitely want those moments that make them feel clever and cool.

Shweta told me about a couple of card-based games I was only passingly familiar with, and the practice of using a card that gives a situation or move or weapon and then you have to sell the table on how it addresses the problem in front of you. This eventually led to a terrific idea for a conflict/check resolution mechanism that I’m going to talk about in a later post as it shapes up better. But it also led to a shift in philosophy.

See, it made me realize something: the one part of A Wilder World that has remained more or less the same through every iteration, is the magic system, and it basically operates on that principle (sans the cards). If you’re a green mage, you got plants. To solve a problem with green magic, you have to explain how plants are going to solve it. If you’re a necromancer, you got skulls and spirits. To solve a problem with necromancy, you have to explain how skulls and spirits are going to solve it.

And the Green Mage archetype would come with five or six detailed, rule-based special abilities to represent how plant magic is fundamentally different from skull magic (which is fundamentally different from fire magic), the core mechanic of “casting a spell” still depends on the notion that players and the Storyteller can work out between themselves what the limits of plant magic are, and how they differ from skull magic’s scope and features.

And hearing Shweta talk about combat based on “Okay, this is what I got. This is what I’m doing with it.” made me realize that this, the one thing that I have really liked from start to finish, this is the core mechanic. This is how I resolve the problem of a game that lets you be things as absurdly specific as an Elven Merchant/Acrobat or Automaton Noble/Pyromancer from level one without having you remember dozens of special abilities and all the ways they affect the rules is to define “Merchant” and “Acrobat” and “Automaton” and all the other things not in terms of 5 or 6 specific special abilities, but with a broad description of what it means to be such a thing, what such people are good at, and a few examples of applications.

And then when it’s your time to shine, you wield the special ability of Being A Merchant or Being An Automaton in much the same way you would wield the ability of Being A Green Mage: you explain how it comes to bear.

And yeah, maybe it’s easier to figure out how Having A Giant Sword And Knowing How To Use It applies to the problem of the 0rcz and their l00t than it is to figure out how Being A Noble applies to that situation. But not everybody looks for the same sort of challenge from a roleplaying game. And not every campaign offers the same challenges, especially when the rules aren’t centered with laser-like precision around whittling all the HP from 0rcz so you can absorb the precious XP spilled with their blood. And the fact that nobody is just one thing means you can take an interesting thing like Merchant or Noble alongside something that is bog-standard adventure ready.

To be clear, while this will result in a more narrative-driven gameplay experience, I’m not changing from my stance on narrative game mechanics that amount to “string together adjectives and traumatic childhood memories you just made up in order to get a bigger dice pool” as being a very game-y device very game-y games and not at all what I’m looking for. The narrative component is, “This is what you’ve got. What are you doing with it?” The Storyteller rates whether it’s definitely something you can do (basically automatic), something you could probably do (easy chance), something you could do (medium chance), or something you stand a chance of doing. (hard chance). Individual groups/Storytellers might want to reward more interesting and entertaining things with better odds, but the rules don’t dictate to what extent that is part of the game… so the game is only as silly as the group.

Of course, the other advantage to defining archetypes/broad abilities in terms of “here is what being/having this thing is all about” rather than “here are the five or six specific things that this thing lets you do in exact game mechanical terms” is that it makes it easier and less intimidating for players to define their own. They just have to come up with a scope that the Storyteller and larger group agree is not overly broad, like a Good At Everything trait. The fact that the exact scope of an ability can be negotiated through use provides for a little bit of elasticity on traits that might seem either too narrow to be useful or too broad to be fair… they can be basically refined through play.

I have a really good feeling about this direction, because my core gameplay goal with A Wilder World is a quick and simple, easy to learn system that allows you to do all the clever, exciting, wacky, zany, and/or daring stuff that people think about when they imagine a fantasy adventure, but I’ve been going about it by trying to make a quicker, more streamlined version of Dungeons and Dragons and then graft all the exciting bits on as extensions and exceptions.

Also, I’m one of the many people for whom the core of a game is really the chargen system. It’s a lot easier for me to design a kick-awesome character creation system that inspires people to make amazing characters and imagine their fantastic adventures than it is to build a detailed engine to support those ideas.

Well, my advice to writers is always to play to your strengths: if you’re great at dialogue, use dialogue to tell the story. If you’re great at detail and atmosphere, use that. Lean on what you’re great at, use everything else as needed.

So here’s an idea for a system that leans on character definition to deliver the goods. And frankly, there’s an element of “Your character should be good at this and this sounds awesome, it’s the sort of thing you’d totally be able to pull off if this were a story, so even though realistically this is a million to one shot and the rules don’t even provide for a way to adjudicate the odds, let’s roll for it.” to the way I GM most games, and that’s the style of play I most enjoy. This just canonizes it.

I’ll make more posts talking about the specifics as they develop, but I just wanted to get this out there.