AWW: More About Magic

So, in a previous post I described the use of magic as having three parts: raise the energy, directing it, and dismissing it.

One thing about the three part process is that I’ve had it in my mind—especially since realizing yesterday that there’s no reason not to let quality levels stack—that different things would give bonuses to different parts of the process. So you could be someone who can raise magic at the drop of a hat but isn’t so good at directing it, or someone who’s a pro at directing it but can’t always get it to go.

Today, as I was writing out the description for the personal quality of Fury and the things that fall within its scope, it occurred to me that it could be applied to raising certain types of magic, such as Pyromancy. I started to think about how to quantify exactly what falls under Fury, and whether other qualities should have similar notes, like Tranquility for Hydromancy.

And then I realized that I had an opportunity here both for another way of customizing characters and a way of making the three-step magic system more interesting.

To wit: make it so that instead of raising magic having anything to do with how powerful/skilled you are at magic, and instead tie it to a personal quality, of your choice.

Do you raise magic through sheer force of Presence or Willpower? Elaborate hand gestures (Dexterity)? Is it connected to your Faith? Your Knowledge of lost arts? Your Intuition of other realms? Your Perception of the natural world?

Some people reading along at home but not reading and digesting every game design post I make are going, “Well, everyone will just pick their best stat.”

And sure they will. But that misses the point that these aren’t stats, they’re qualities a character either has in heroic proportion or doesn’t. A newly created character has usually one or at best two of them, and if you’re also wielding magic, it’s going to be one. Since your magic-raising attribute is always going to be at the same level no matter what you pick, you have no reason not to pick something that makes a pleasing combination for you or fits your character concept: Fury and Pyromancy. Tranquility and Hydromancy. Intimidation and Necromancy. Charm or Deception and Summoning. Dexterity and Conjuring. Or whatever fits your character concept.

People who followed the circa 2013 development version (which had a true attribute system) might remember that I toyed with the idea of substituting other specific attributes for the Magic attribute in a similar fashion, though that was tying specific attributes to specific forms of magic.

The best part of this is it can be used to inform the next step in magic use, by helping inform what exactly happens if you badly botch the control: your rage runs uncheck, your calm is disturbed, the spirits you’ve coerced rebel, et cetera. It could also have other wrinkles, as a character who uses Dexterity would have to have their hands free to raise magic effectively

I’m not 100% sure how dismissal will work, in terms of whether it will be a function of your magic-raising quality, the magic quality you’re using itself, or both. Actually, both might be the way to go, as that would make dismissal by default the easiest part to do (because an improvement to either of the preceding steps would improve it)… which, I don’t know if I’d call that realistic, inasmuch as the concept applies, but in terms of magic remaining a viable game option, I feel like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice scenario has got to be one of the rarer failure states. Even allowing that the guidelines as written call for un-dismissed magic to lash out once before dispersing into the environment most of the time, if every time you used magic to do something, something bad happened immediately afterwards, how often would you do magic? There’s “magic always a price” and then there’s “the universe clearly doesn’t want you to do this thing”.

Actually, now that I’ve thought about it, I think the raising quality—which I will now call the control quality—will be part of the whole process.

To raise magic, you use the control quality; e.g., Dexterity.

Once the magic is present, you use the power quality (e.g., Aeromancy) to make it do things.

Note that “control” refers to control over the magic itself, not the precision with which the magic performs the duties you direct it to. That’s still a function of power. Power is your ability to accomplish your will through magic; control is your ability to keep the magic from doing anything else.

Each time that you do something significant with the magic or suffer an attack or something that might disrupt your concentration, you use the control quality to keep a rein on the magic. Failure doesn’t mean the magic runs rampant, just that it does something you didn’t count on.


With this added complication, I think I’m going to do away with the idea of a dismissal roll in general cases… it’ll only be a thing if you’ve 1) previously lost control of your magic and 2) didn’t let the magic go immediately after the loss of control. The difficulty of the dismissal roll will be based on the number of control slips you had, which will also be the number of rampaging “things” the magic will do on its way out of the world.

In addition to making magic interesting and counteracting its basic “do anything” nature with added danger of complications, this also prevents any character from being *just* a wizard of any description. They’ll all have some other defining trait that is integral to their character concept. It also distinguishes between power and control (an important distinction to me) without having to monopolize a magic-using character’s resources by taking up two-thirds of the initial slots, insofar as any personal quality stands on its own as a useful adventuring asset apart from magic. If your control comes from Willpower, you’ll have all the other benefits of willpower. If your control comes from Knowledge, you’ll still have approximate knowledge of many things.

Perhaps most interesting is the ability to instantly “flavor” magic as divine rather than arcane by attaching it to a personal quality like honor, faith, or sanctity.

AWW: The KISS of Death

If there’s any design goal I have a hard time sticking to, it’s the desire to keep things simple. I’m too much in love with intricacy as an ideal, and I have such a good head for complex systems that I have a hard time realizing when I’ve crossed the line from “elegant simplicity” to “Wile E. Coyote style schematics”.

The current core mechanic of AWW in a nutshell is: when you try to do something that requires a roll, you figure out which of your qualities covers it and roll a number of additional dice equal to its level. Simple, right? Higher level equals appreciably higher chance of success without changing the range of target numbers/difficulties you can interact with.

But in the interest of keeping things on an even keel, I’ve been working with the idea that you can only have one quality applied to a problem at a time. If you have similar/overlapping qualities (like the profession/skill set quality Expert Treasure Hunter and the personal attribute quality Dexterity), you pick the one that has the higher level.

My thinking was that this would help encourage players to diversify their abilities more (in the sense of not always looking for the qualities that could cover the same thing) and also keep the failure rate at a level where it still has some significance, by cutting down on mammoth dice pools.

But at the same time I have kept thinking, “But surely you should have some advantage to being a more dexterous-than-usual thief treasure hunter,” and so, accordingly, I have been working out different mechanisms for synergy bonuses and things, all of which have the common feature of changing the core mechanic away from “one fairly simple rule for just about everything with very little to remember”.

So then I started thinking about things from a different angle.

First, I considered what the system I’m designing is supposed to do, vs. what it would reward.

If you can only apply your *best* quality for a certain action, this actually motivates you to *not* diversify your abilities… every time you have a choice between adding another quality or taking a level of an existing one, the mechanically superior choice is to take a level of the existing one.

More, only allowing you to use a single quality the idea that your qualities are not just discrete special abilities but integral components that blend together to create your character. If you have Dexterity, Expert Treasure Hunter, and Perception as your three starting qualities, the “pick your best one” leaves being dexterous and perceptive off to the side of being good at collecting valuable things that don’t belong to you.

Allowing you to combine Perception and ETH when you’re searching for traps or hidden compartments and Dexterity and ETH when you’re trying to disarm said traps or open said compartments allows them to all work together. You’re better at spotting non-treasure-hunting related things than the average person, but noticeably better than that at spotting the stuff you’re trained to spot. This makes your Perception different in focus than someone with, say, Ranger and Perception.

But what about the game balance concern? Doesn’t adding more dice to the pool quickly make failure negligible even at the maximum possible difficulty of 6 (1/6 success rate with 1 die)?

I actually sat down and did the math. If you have a pool of 4 dice (1 by default, plus 1 for each of 3 qualities), you’ll still fail just under 50% of the time at maximum difficulty. Since average difficulty (4) has a 50% failure rate for a character of no particular ability, that works out pretty slick.

You’d have to get a grand total of 17 dice for the failure rate to fall below 5%, which is what “automatic fail on 1” establishes as the lowest possible failure chance in d20-type systems.

And if too-low failure rates were a problem at higher levels, it wouldn’t really matter if players were getting their dice from one outrageously high quality or from multitudes. Any dice cap rule could easily apply regardless of the source.

Plus, no matter how low the failure rate gets, the whole point of the fate system is to add a random element of “wildness” that is not affected by skill or level. The idea of “even if you do everything right, things can still go against you” is present by the fate system, which makes even automatic success not that big a deal.

The other area where I’ve been having to fight my tendency towards feature creep/system bloat is the definition of the qualities. Again, the idea is that qualities, rather than being special abilities or collections of special abilities, are just a description of the quality’s “scope”, the “this is what this is about, these are the kinds of things it’s good for, you might use it for this”, with actual rules being very thin on the ground.

The problem I run into is I think about “extra stuff” that might be useful to a character with that quality and being tempted to put it in as a special ability. For a while I was trying to put one limited-use special ability on each quality, because some of them seemed to be super crying out for such a thing and so the balanced thing to do would be to give all of them one.

This actually steps on more than one of my design guidelines, though.

First, limited use special abilities should be an optional layer of complexity. No character has them if the player doesn’t want them, and you never have more than you want. Tying every quality to a limited use ability means you have a minimum of three of them at chargen, and they just accumulate from there irrespective of whether you want them.

Second, it means that unless you’ve got a mind for rules, you absolutely need to have more on your character sheet than the name of the Quality. Don’t get me wrong, I expect people to put some shorthand on some of them, particularly if the name is unfamiliar or used in an unfamiliar context, but an actual special ability? With mechanics to remember, even fairly abstract ones? And a limited number of uses to keep track of?

(The actual limited use ability mechanic the game uses is called Gimmicks, and they are equivalent in character resource terms to a character piece that gives a smaller static benefit. If you like resource management and having “big guns” to pull out when the going gets tough, you can use them. But you don’t have to.)

AWW: Second Nature

So, previous Largely Finished But Unworkable Iteration of A Wilder World represented the concept usually referred to as race in fantasy RPGs by the use of Folk Qualities, which were the same as any other character-defining Character Quality (the basic building block of character concept in AWW) in complexity and impact, just with some special rules regarding things like prerequisites. The basic rule was that you had to take one Folk Quality, but you could take more than one.

There were a few problems with this.

First, there was the exceptions. Some Character Qualities weren’t quite folk types, but could take the place of one: Automaton, Undead, etc. You could have those alongside a Folk Quality to be something a zombie elf or a steam-driven dwarf, but you could also *just* be an Automaton or an Undead. The reason they weren’t just Folk Qualities was one part that they didn’t have all the same external pieces to hook into, and one part that there’s a connotation to “Folk Quality” that doesn’t apply if you don’t have a folk.

Second, making folk type occupy the same level of character resource as any other quality and making every character have one means either you reduce the amount of component pieces you have to build your character or you increase the power and complexity of all characters at chargen by the magnitude of one major piece.

Third, this system forced all the myriad different types of people/beings you could play as to be defined at not just the same power level but the same approximate complexity and level. Do you know how hard it is to describe humans and halflings in terms of special abilities that look like a parity choice alongside semi-humanoid snakes and arachnids? It means making the simplest (from a human’s point of view) character types more complicated than they need to be, and trying to make the more complicated (ditto) ones simpler.

The current AWW build has you picking three qualities at level one, with a bit more of a structured approach. The recommendation is you pick one outstanding personal attribute (from a long list… we’re not talking STR/DEX/CON/INT/WIS/CHA but more like Charm, Honor, Fury, Strength, Tranquility, Valor, Perception, Intuition, Valor, Cowardice, Dexterity, Empathy, Presence, Willpower, Ingenuity, Knowledge, and many more) to represent your character’s heroic potential, one character type/skillset quality (with things like Alchemist, Fool, and Scholar alongside the more traditional choices like Bard, Druid, Expert Treasure Hunter, and Warrior) to represent your heroic archetype, and one from any category including those ones, signature gear, magical ability, etc. to represent your heroic edge.

As previously described, those qualities are all less a collection of concrete special abilities and more a descriptive rundown of “So here’s what this makes you good at.”/”Here’s what this lets you do.”

The “Folk Quality” concept does not exist. Instead, separately from your three foundational heroic qualities, you pick one Nature. This includes the standard fantasy folk types and the unique ones created for the A Wilder World setting (including the aforementioned reptilian and arachnid folks), but also the fundamentally different natures, like the undead and mechanical ones.

The only really mechanical list is a list of things that every Nature shares is a list of areas they have advantage and disadvantage in, here meaning a simple +1 or -1 bonus to result checks. Like a Quality’s scope, they may be defined rather loosely.

For instance, Humans have a -1 on perception-and-intuition related tasks compared to others, but a +1 when it comes to adapting to or withstanding environments and enduring pain or physical deprivation. That’s Humanity: a bit dull of senses compared to most beings with similar sensory organs, but can overcome anything and thrive anywhere.

And that’s really all the game needs to say about Humans, because since it’s being written for a presumed audience of human beings, there’s no need to modify your assumptions. With Dwarves, Gnomes, and Pixies, though, there has to be some discussion about stature. For characters of a non-biological and/or non-living nature, the lack of a metabolism and what it means for things like fatigue, hunger, and natural healing must be addressed.

And so on.

We could represent these things in mechanical terms, with statistics and rules that govern the statistics and then special abilities that modify them, but A Wilder World is at its core a storytelling game, even while it eschews a lot of typical narrativist components. Changing your character’s Nature doesn’t change the rules of the game, but the rules of the story.

AWW: “Cards are hard, you guys.”

In case you can’t tell, today I’m taking all the positive creative energy I have and threshing out my game design ideas. So, as much as I like the DORC (Deck of Results Card) system I have previously described, I see several obstacles.

  1. Producing a deck of cards takes greater resources than a set of game rules playable with common dice does.
  2. Purchasing a deck of cards takes greater resources than purchasing a set of game rules.
  3. Playing over the internet is more complicated.
  4. Managing a ~50 deck of cards that’s used for the resolution of every action could also get cumbersome.
  5. Shuffling cards well is a specialized skill requiring greater dexterity than rolling dice.

With that in mind… I’m going to proceed with the development of AWW using a dice model, but with the same basic ideas I liked behind the result cards. This does mean–in the absence of specialty dice, which are still easier to produce than a specialty deck of cards–that there’s going to be a die roll chart. But so long as all the results can fit in one easy access reference thing and there’s no need to dive through books, I think this is an acceptable compromise given that it better fits my goals re: accessibility, affordability, and online portability, with developing a “Deck of Result Cards” as an optional replacement/supplement for the dice as a future goal if the demand develops.

So, here are the things to be kept from the card idea:

  • The player is the one making the roll for any interaction their character has a stake in: players make stealth rolls to sneak past NPCs; perception rolls when they’re on guard against NPCs sneaking past them. Players roll to see if their spells affect another; roll to see if they resist being affected by another’s spells.
  • The results are not just success/fail, but have a chance of being “wild” in some fashion.
  • The player produces a number of “extra” results based on the combination of their ability level in the area and the difficulty of the task. If the player has a net advantage, they pick their favorite result. If they have a net penalty, the Storyweaver picks.

What I’m leaning towards is a result chart that has a 6×6 grid of results, with the rows being numbered according to the player’s result die (chosen from the dice rolled, as described above) and the columns being numbered according to a separately rolled (perhaps by the Storyweaver) “wild” or “fate” die. So you’d look at the wild die, find its column, look at the results you have available and take the best one. Generally, “best” would mean “highest numbered” for the player and “lowest numbered” for the Storyweaver, but there will be the odd edge cases.

It would be very generally the case that a result die of 1-3 fails and a result die of 4-6 succeeds, though the whole point of the wilding system is to make things more interesting than success or failure. For both sets of numbers, higher is better, so 1×1 would be critical failure, 6×6 would be critical success; each would require one more die roll on a separate table/line to determine the nature/magnitude, but other that, the table would give you everything you need to figure out what happened without a subsequent die roll.

I think this would be a reasonably quick playing alternative to cards, and easy enough to translate into a more flexible card system later on. The same element of greater ability level = more ability to control the outcome is still there.


AWW: Allies As Your Allies

The ideas in the last post spiraled out of thoughts about handling things like character pets, beast companions, et cetera, that I’d also like to take the time to thresh out in blog format.

One of the things I really liked in D&D 4E was the way familiars worked. Specifically, the fact that instead of being limited to a very small range of very small animals, they ran with the idea that a familiar is not *quite* an animal to begin with and defined it as basically a meta class of creature that fits a certain size and has certain limitations in interacting with the environment, but can be just about anything, then defined exception-based templates for many different types, with an invitation to flesh out your specific familiar’s “fluff” in ways that fit your character (crackling elemental energy auras, metallic skin, demonic or fey appearance, etc.)

The original choices were mostly limited to the familiar animal fare, but the expanded offerings included everything from pet slimes to gear-driven automata to disembodied eyes and hands.

The basic problem with such an embarrassment of wealth when it comes to choices, though, is that you have to either define everything you can think of (the 4E approach), or you have to give players a reasonably balanced set of tools to build their own definitions (the GURPS approach), and both approaches tend towards bloat over time.

Jack in particular liked the idea of a roguish character with a disembodied hand as his accomplice, so making sure this is an option has been added to my General System Benchmarking Standards along with “can do all the character archetypes D&D players would look for”. Not in the sense that any system I design would have disembodied hands added to it in order to please Jack, but in the sense that “Can it handle a player who wants to do this?” is a pretty good question given that it’s reasonably specific, reasonably limited, and interesting.

The last major draft of AWW tried to do a compact point based approach to building companion figures, and I don’t think was terrible but was out of place next to the define-by-archetypes system for player characters. Figuring out how to work them out under the Strong Points/Qualities system I’m working with now helped me refine my understanding of exactly what the system is and how it works, which is why I’m going to use the idea of animal companions and similar abilities as an example of how it all hangs together.

Your character’s major features are sketched out by choosing a number of Qualities. Each Quality has its own level. These are the only “levels” in the game. Your character does not go up a level, except within the scope of a Quality.

Your level in a Quality basically means your ability to Get Stuff Done using it. What stuff? Whatever stuff that Quality applies to. All Qualities work on the same level scale, which when applied to Qualities representing a personal attribute like strength or speed or a particular skill set looks something like this:

  1. Would be considered outstanding in a small village.
  2. Outstanding in a good-sized town.
  3. Outstanding in a large city.
  4. Outstanding in a kingdom.
  5. Outstanding in a vast land.
  6. Outstanding in the world.
  7. Outstanding in history.

This is “outstanding” in the sense of “tending to stand out”. Only outstanding abilities register as Qualities; they are the things about you that people tell stories about.

All Qualities have the same basic effect: they give you better results when you try to do something, and shift the upper bound of what you can do. Again, the “something” varies from Quality to Quality. This is referred to as the Quality’s scope, and while some will have definite exceptions, what is part of the Quality’s scope is a matter of interpretation and negotiation.

Personal Qualities like Strength, Speed, Influence, or Perception have a fairly obvious scope.  Archetypal Qualities like Alchemist and Thief, slightly less so. What about Companion Qualities, though? What does it mean to have a Level 1 Wolf, Cat, Horse, or Raven? Or a Disembodied Hand? Or Slime? Or Bottle Imp? Or Gear Thing?

Well, your level of a Quality determines how reliably you can do the things that Quality does, and how impressive the things you can do with it are. So if you have a Level 1 Raven, you can do anything you could reasonably (with dramatically flexible definitions of “reasonable”, as this is heroic fantasy fiction) expect a hero’s raven companion to do, with the same facility as if you were using Level 1 in your own abilities. Same thing with a Level 1 Wolf, or Cat, or Hand.

“So basically,” some people reading this will be saying, “you should put everything into animal companions, because a level in your companion is the same thing as a level of everything.”

Not so!

Your raven is still a raven. It’s scope is defined as things that the person across from the table hears and says, “I could see a raven doing that.” That person also gets to decide how easily a raven could do that. Having more levels of raven cancels out the added difficulty of things the person across the table thinks are kind of a stretch, but your raven remains a raven.

It’s also an autonomous creature with a will outside your own, even if we’re constructing our character in a way that suggests a mystical bond, which means anything more complicated than having your companion follow you or perform a simple trick may call for a draw, which means possible complications. Even stuff that is automatic when you do it yourself involves an element of chance when you send your monkey or imp to do it, because it’s not you doing it.

“Allowing players to define the scope by the type of creature would be seriously unbalanced, because obviously a panther is more useful than a house cat.”

It’s not obvious to me. I’d rather have a panther who was attuned to my wishes in a tactical wargame, but in terms of actual problem solving the domestic feline seems to bring a lot more versatility to the table. I mean, in real life, I would rather have the cat familiar than the panther ranger companion simply because the cat would be more of a pure bonus whereas living (to say nothing of traveling) with a panther complicates things.

Once you get your head around the idea that the Quality itself suggests a scope of things that can be done/problems that can be addressed and the level determines how often you succeed at that, I think the possibilities for creativity become apparent. Balance can be addressed on the fly.

“So why can’t players define a deity as their companion? Level 1, scope: everything.”

Actually, being a character who benefits from direct divine intervention can basically work this way. You just have to add in some limiting assumptions that puts it down to a similar level of usefulness. I mean, it’s easier to imagine a character having access to the full resources and entire attention of a dog than of a god.

While the system would encourage players to define their own Qualities, I am planning on having a list of several specific animal companion/familiar types and a few off-the-wall ones with their scope sketched out, to give people a starting point and an idea of how to keep things on a more or less even keel. As a holdover from the previous version, specific capabilities (full combat, mount, flight, articulated hands, et cetera) are mechanically limited in a way separate from scope, so you can have a Wolf (combat!), Horse (mount!), Raven (flying!), or Monkey (hands!) more easily than you can have a Warhorse or Flying Monkey, and a simple animal familiar with none of the above more easily than them.

That disembodied hand? It would be a companion with the “handy” feature (letting it do anything a human hand could do). Its scope would be “anything you can do with your hand without exerting a lot of leverage by moving your arm” (because it doesn’t have any), with some wiggle room to represent the fact that the “handy” trait normally would give you two hands. So it could work thieves’ tools in a lock, even though that’s normally a two-hand job and it only has/is one hand.

Fairly easy to define, fairly limited in scope, but useful and cool.

To sum up: the scope of a Quality is not an exhaustive list of what special abilities you have under a Quality, but a general understanding of what it can be used for. When it comes to Personal Qualities, these are basically attributes. For Magic Qualities, they’re the type of magic you can wield. For Companion Qualities, it’s, “What kind of things could I see this critter doing in a story?”

AWW: Magic As Your Ally

A lot of roleplaying games have rules that allow for characters to have a companion character who is in some ways an extension of the player character. They take up resources you would otherwise use for your character’s own abilities (points, slots, build choices) but more or less belong to you and act more or less at your direction, though sometimes they are under the game runner’s control.

The approach I’m taking to defining broad character qualities in A Wilder World encourages you to think of your character’s main defining qualities as a bit like a Green Lantern power ring to begin with. You still have to figure out which of your qualities best addresses the problem, and figure out how it addresses the problem, but the limits are the intersection of your imagination and the skepticism of the Storyweaver or group at large.

Magic takes that up a notch, in that there’s much less of a clearly defined line where “Okay, that’s just impossible.” Whether or not it’s possible to acrobat so hard you break down a reinforced stone wall is a matter of the game’s tone; if it’s at all realistic, then no, you can’t. Whether or not it’s possible to grow and animate plants with plant magic to take it down is more a matter of opinion, since “realism” and “verisimilitude” aren’t concepts that apply to high fantasy magic.

So magic needs to find its limitations elsewhere. I was talking about this back in June, and while I like the ideas I came up with there for different “magical prices”, I feel like they’re way overly mechanical in the way I imagined them being applied.

But while thinking about how to refine the idea of “low control” magic made me think of a general approach that I really like, and that is: treat magic the way you would treat an “ally” ability, one ultimately under the control of the Storyteller:

It shows up when the player character calls it, mostly.

It does what the player directs it to, mostly.

It does only what the player asks it to, mostly.

It’s the “mostlies” that matter, that make it interesting and that serve as a limitation. And the thing is, they all hinge on the idea that the magic use is successful.

Under this model, the use of magic would consist of three acts, which we might call summoning, directing, and dispersing. Each of them would have a chance for success or failure. If you fail to summon magic, nothing happens, or nothing significant. You might get a rustle of leaves when you wanted a gale of wind. You might get a brief patch of discolored air where you tried to form an illusion. You’re not left with any more problems than you started with, though.

When you direct the magic, you tell it what to do. Success means it does more or less that, but with the possibility of “wild” results built into the result mechanism. Failure would generally mean it does not do what you want it to do, with any significant negative downsides also coming from the play of cards.

You could continue to direct the magic as long as you maintain concentration on it, without having to draw or disperse it in between. This would be the normal state of affairs when a wizard is dueling or doing battle, or using magic to accomplish a large task that is actually many smaller ones.

When you’re done, though, you’d have to attempt to disperse the magic. Success signifies a clean ending. Failure would not mean your magic lasts forever, just that the magical forces you unleashed linger a bit longer and do some damage on their way out the door.

Even when magic is operating under your control, though, it would be like a charmed minion or a familiar or beast companion or cohort or point-bought ally, in the sense that you can tell the Storyteller “I have my magic do this”, but the Storyteller can interject, or interpret things a little differently according to the nature of the forces involved.

Making the equivalent of three checks to do anything with magic might be a little excessive. The concept of “trivial magic” (cantrips, roleplaying special effects, “I’m a wizard” demonstration) still exists. It’s only when you’re trying to achieve something that magic accumulates risk and price. Character gimmicks that take the form of specialized spells your character has mastered removes the need to summon magic before and disperse it after for that single very specific application, leaving only the control roll.

All this doesn’t completely supplant the idea of different “magic prices” I described back in June, but I think it makes for a better baseline approach. As always, my central idea when it comes to magic is to create an experience more like how powerful magic works in fiction than how it works in roleplaying games.


AWW: The Almighty DORC

Okay, let me tell you about the Almighty DORC, which is the system that’s going to put the desired degree of wildness into A Wilder World without having cumbersome dice schemes.

The Almighty DORC is the Deck of Result Cards.

This replaces die rolls for purposes of checks (which are now called “result draws”, to clarify that you’re being told to draw cards). It can itself be replaced by a random number generator and a chart, but the point of using cards is to offer more nuanced results without having to translate arbitrary numbers to results.

The cards come in three basic flavors: normal, wild, and critical. Normal cards are split right down the middle between success and failure. In the default deck build, there is one normal card for every wild card. Wild cards aren’t wild in the usual sense of “wild cards”; they just have wilder results.

Many of them start with, “You fail, and suffer an embarrassment in the process.” or “You succeed, but suffer a complication,” but some offer you a choice, or things that are harder to quantify.

That Was A Thing That Just Happened is a wild success that reads, “You failed, but through coincidental means, more or less the exact thing you were trying to achieve came to pass. Your arrow misses, but the target is taken out by friendly fire, or trips and is knocked out. You broke a pick in the lock, then discovered the door was just a little stuck in the frame. That was a thing that just happened.”

Its opposite counterpart, That Was A Hell Of A Thing, reads, “You succeeded, but coincidental means render your success moot. You knocked out the guard, just in time for the shift change. You picked the lock on the door, then discovered it’s barred from the other side. Whatever you were trying to do, you did it… for all the good it did you. That was a hell of a thing.”

The terms “embarrassment”, “complication”, and “injury”—the three most common meta-consequences—are roughly defined in the rules. An embarrassment is something that makes you look foolish or silly. It can spoil an attempt to impress or charm someone, or an attempt at subterfuge, but otherwise, it’s just fun (as long as you can laugh at yourself). A complication is something that makes your life harder or the situation you’re in worse. It can directly relate to what you’re doing, or be a coincidence. An injury means you take a wound, which in AWW can be either an HP loss, or the placing of one of the Qualities that defines your character into an injured state. Usually but not always such an injury will be to the Quality most applicable to the situation (pulled a muscle!)

The thing is, beyond the guidance for what constitutes an embarrassment, injury, or complication, the card leaves it up in the air. The Storyteller works it out from the situation, possibly with input from the player. Some groups may find it more fun to have players propose their own consequences. A rule variant called Parliament of Rooks means the player always proposes, and the whole group votes on it.

Critical cards actually have two parts: a card that says “Critical Failure” or “Critical Success” that gets shuffled into the Almighty DORC, and a corresponding deck of Critical Failures and Critical Successes. This allows there to be more different types of criticals, without skewing the odds in their favor.

Critical Failures include such hits as I Wanted The Opposite Of That, where you didn’t only fail, you achieved the exact opposite of what you were going for, with examples including things like spreading a fire you were trying to put out, injuring a person you were trying to heal, enraging someone you were trying to subdue, and so on. Critical Successes include things like Bank Shot, where you not only pull off exactly what you wanted, but you can accomplish another, roughly equivalent goal.

In cases where it’s hard to figure out an application for the extra consequences, the usual advice is for the Storyweaver to “bank” a stroke of good or bad luck to be dropped on your head later, though really a lot of the fun is in figuring out what it means to achieve the opposite of something.

The default DORC has 50 cards: 12 normal successes, 12 wild successes, 1 critical success, 12 normal failures, 12 wild failures, and 1 critical failure. A few of the wilds are repeats, as some are meant to be more common than others. One of the signature features of the game, though, is that you can adjust the “wildness” of the game up and down by adding or removing some vanilla success/failure cards from the deck (in equal numbers, obviously) or putting more critical success/failure cards in the deck.

Obviously, taking cards out of a deck each time you draw one changes the odds. Since there’s an equal chance for any card from a fresh deck to be good or bad, it ~*should*~ tend to stay fairly even, more or less, though players who keep a plus or minus count of good or bad cards used up might have a slight tactical edge.

The default rules call for the DORC to be reshuffled following any draw that results in a critical. The Vegas Rules variant has it keep going until the deck is exhausted. The Even Odds variant has all cards re-shuffled each time, which is likely to be cumbersome if you’re not using a virtual deck, but is the default assumption when you’re using a random number generator or dice chart.

Now, you might be wondering how this success/failure mechanism accounts for varying levels of user ability, and varying task difficulty.

Normally you draw one card and use it as your result. If you have advantage (total positive modifiers) for the draw, you take one extra card for each point you have, and then pick the one you want to use. If you have disadvantage (total negative modifiers), you take one extra card for each negative point, and the Storyteller selects the one to afflict you with.

Difficulty is just a threshold you have to reach in advantage in order to have your full points. If the difficulty is higher than your bonus, you lose one point for every point of difference. Most bog standard adventury tasks are difficulty 0, unless you’re going up against someone, then it’s based on their score (or what the Storyteller imagines it would be, if they haven’t bothered to define stats for the character). Sneaking past a sentry with +1 perception, the average person would have net disadvantage -1 (because their score of 0 is 1 shy of the sentry’s), while someone with +1 to stealth could use their one point unimpeded.

Note that result draws are always made from the point of view of player characters as the actors. The player draws to sneak past the enemy, or to spot the enemy sneaking past them. The player draws to hit an enemy, or to avoid an enemy’s attack. This keeps the player invested in what’s happening.

Now, this makes it so that each point difference effectively means you get to “try again” on a draw and use the better result. Any time you’re trying again at a thing with a set chance, you’re halving the chance of failure. So ignoring the complication that cards that come out of the deck are not immediately replaced, you’ve got a 50% of success with advantage 0, a 75% chance with advantage 1, an 87.5% chance with advantage 2, and so on.

While that’s a nice, significant difference for even one point—something that is a design goal—it does have the drawback that your odds of success change by less with each successive shift. But I feel like once you’re past the 75% mark, you’ve got a nice, reliable ability. Points on top of that are useful for helping you overcome difficulty. Plus, the fact that while the odds of success are 50% to begin with, the odds of success without hurting or embarrassing yourself are somewhat lower means that there’s always a benefit to having more points. Higher advantage not only means you succeed more often, but with fewer side effects and more control of the circumstances.

I feel like this resolution system, stacked with what I was talking about this morning in terms of how you define your character and how you describe your actions, puts the game into a flavorful, story-driven realm without succumbing to the typical “narrativist” tropes of “string together seven adjectives and three childhood traumas to decide how many fistfuls of dice you roll to win this gunfight”.

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.