Dungeon World or How I Learned to Stop Rolling and Love the Story

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Image courtesy of Lydia (CC BY 2.0)

I think the biggest revelation I’ve had recently, in terms of my understanding of roleplaying games at least, has come from playing Dungeon World. Dungeon World a game a friend of mine introduced me to a year or so ago, as a fast and furious replacement for some of the more standard and in-depth sword & sorcery style games (I’m looking at you Dungeons and Dragons). At first I was skeptical, but it quickly won me over through its simplicity, variety and also the way in which it pushed much of the heavy lifting of GMing back into the hands of the players.

Dungeon World encourages an experience in which the players really have as much responsibility for “running” the game as the GM does, and, as a person who had a run of being forever-GM for a long time, this deeply appealed to me. However, this isn’t a post about how much I love Dungeon World. What I’m going into today is the only substantial hiccup I ever encountered when running Dungeon World, and which almost had me discarding the game entirely; the question of when to make the players actually roll dice.

Dungeon World turns the normal roleplaying game experience on its head in a lot of ways; it often seems a lot like a case of convergent evolution, producing something that looks a lot like D&D, but plays completely differently. One of the ways it does this is by providing a list of “moves” players can perform, with predetermined, but with room to be interpreted, results, determined by the roll of the dice. Often these results, even the negative ones, are really just an impetus for the player or GM to make something interesting happen, with the most common result of most rolls being something along the lines of “you succeed, but then this happens”, with the “this” being left up to the GM to determine.

This might seem odd to a lot of more experienced roleplayers, as the standard definition of a roleplaying game tends to be that it is a game in which you can do anything you can imagine. A list of standard moves would seem to fly right in the face of this concept. Since the dawn of time roleplaying games have tended to follow a similar pattern, regardless of the dice used; the player states what they intend to do, the GM applies a difficulty to the task, and the player tries to roll high enough to achieve this.

In most games I’ve been part of, this mechanic is extended to almost everything a character does. Arm wrestle a guy? Sure, DC12 Strength check please. Bartering with a salesman? Okay, DC15 Diplomacy check to get a good price. We’re all familiar with this, right?  If it isn’t 100% guaranteed to succeed, you’ve got to pass a check to do it.

This is where Dungeon World threw me. In one of my sessions, a player decided to leap a fence. He wasn’t doing it to get away from an enemy or to reach an objective; he just wanted to be a bad-ass and walking around to the gate seemed like the chump’s way to get to the other side. Standard adventurer fair, right? So, assured that the game would be prepared to deal with this, I looked to the list of prescribed moves. None of them fit the task.

Defy Danger? Well, it wasn’t a high fence and there was no pending threat; the player was just doing it for fun and to look cool.

Discern Realities? There was no challenge to gauge how high the fence was, and there were no hidden traps to notice.

I was really struggling. My GM lizard-brain told me that the player should be making a check if he wanted to do this action; in reality such an action would contain some chance of failure and maybe even injury.  I’d normally call for a Strength or Athletics check without even thinking about it.  Sure the check would be easy, but the player would still have to make the roll. Dungeon World didn’t give me that option, and that’s when it clicked for me.

Dungeon World is a system that only wants you to get into mechanics when the outcome could affect the story. If my player were leaping a chasm, there would be a good chance he could injure himself or drop an item into the gap, and so a Defy Danger check could well have been called for, but only to see how such a dangerous act would affect the ongoing story.  On the other hand, if said chasm was simply a tidbit of description in the party’s travel through a twisting underground labyrinth, the players can simply describe how they crossed the chasm.  At the end of the day, your story requires the players to be on the other side of the chasm, so why make an issue of it, unless it’s meant to be pivotal to your plot?

Dungeon World is prompting you to run a game where the dice are rolled only when deciding something important to the ongoing narrative; where a mighty beast needs to be slain or evaded, a dire truth needs to be revealed, or a mayor persuaded to rally the townfolk to their home’s defence.  It reveals to you that making your heroes roll to perform mundane feats makes the whole game more mundane, and sword and sorcery is not the genre for the mundane.

This adjustment in thinking is achieved in two ways.  Firstly, the game only provides moves for interesting actions; it’s implicitly telling you that anything not listed in the moves is probably not something that you need to roll dice over.  Decide the outcome by other means.  Look at the characters, does it seem like something they could just do?  Consider whether a success or a failure is really going to make a difference to your game, or is it just going to slow everything down?  Let roleplay win the day, and allow your players to talk you around with interesting actions and dialogue.

Secondly, the game rewards failure.  This is one of my favourite features, since it means a roll’s outcome can never be bad; either you succeed by some measure, or your character is rewarded with XP. You learn from your mistakes.  This also has the interesting effect of rendering frequent rolls disproportionately beneficial to the players.  If you’re asking the party to roll for over and over again, to complete relatively mundane tasks, every failure is another point of XP; to look at it another way, the game is asking you, before calling for a roll, to consider whether a character would learn something meaningful from a failure.  If they wouldn’t, they probably don’t need a roll.  They are the heroes after all.

Dungeon World is also a game which is comfortable trusting the GM to determine when it’s not worth rolling because something can’t happen.  What’s that, you’re attacking the dragon unarmed?  Well, that’s just not enough to hurt it.  Unfortunately, even with the best of luck, your fists just aren’t going to cut it; this dragon is tougher than that.  Draw your epic longsword?  Come up with a daring maneuver to topple some heavy crates onto your foe?  Parlay with the beast to distract it from its rampage?  Now we’re talking.

This isn’t to say Dungeon World is a game in which the players can never attack a dragon barehanded; instead it’s to say that it’s a game where the GM is trusted to set the terms of their story.

The lesson I learned from Dungeon World is that, as a GM, it’s up to me to facilitate my players, without holding the game up.  Let them be the big heroes the character sheet says they should be, and only let chance into the equation when the fate of the world (or at least the player’s world) really does hang in the balance.  And that it’s also okay to sometimes say no, if it serves your story.

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Between a rock and a hard place

Recently I’ve encountered a number of games, both as a player and as a GM, that have really made me think about the nature of game construction, more specifically how far games should go in providing frameworks that encourage players to take certain actions, the best way to go about doing it and whether they should do it at all.  I’ll try and explain what I mean.

At a most basic level a roleplaying game can be described as a series of rules which allow people to play in an alternate world through their characters.  The purpose of these rules or mechanics is to dictate what can or cannot be done; that’s pretty much the way I have always thought about the way roleplaying games operate.  They system functions as a restriction on imagination; in a game played entirely in the mind the rules induce challenge into a scenario, they tell the players they have to roll a certain number on a die to hit an enemy or leap a gap and stop the whole thing devolving into the equivalent of the classic playground “I hit you/No you didn’t” back and forth that occurs when multiple people’s imagined excellence clashes.  I always considered them necessary to allow the hobby to be a game, and not simply friends sitting around and jiving about what would be cool to imagine (which is fine and dandy, but isn’t really an RPG).

It has occurred to me recently, however, that this understanding fundamentally ignores the first part of that description; mechanics dictate what can be done in a game, as well as forbidding players from running riot.  They provide an example to the players of the kind of actions expected of their characters, and what niches their characters can fill.  This is something I don’t think I ever considered until I started playing/running less mechanically heavy games, but now is at the core of what I think about when I start to put a game together.  When I ran Exalted, I never worried that people might struggle to envision what their characters could do, because 90% of the mechanics in that game are rules which provide examples, in the form of charms or other powers, of abilities the characters have or actions they can take in game. On the other hand when I’ve come to run Dungeon World recently, or my own cut-down version of Exalted which completely removed charms as a mechanic, the most common issue I’ve run across is players being at a loss to understand what their characters are able to do.  The lack of restrictions means that there’s nothing to tell them what actions their characters can take.

This seems inexplicable to me, at least at first glance.  The focus of these games is that players should generally be allowed to do anything that seems right (see: awesome), only rolling for a resolution when presented with a real challenge.  They shouldn’t be bogged down with a list of specific moves and techniques which are the be all and end all of their abilities, they should be doing what seems in character, whether or not it was thought of by the game designers in the first place.  These more freeform games, by their very nature, lack a lot of the structures used by other games to tell players what they can’t do, but this missing game architecture is what throws some of my players through a loop.  They want their games to list the things they can’t do and tell them the specific things they can do, because otherwise they feel like they’re at a loss as to what their character is capable of.  It’s a case of crippling indecision; if you can do anything, how do you decide what you should do?

I struggle to understand this position; if anything I always over-think my characters and feel like I’m brimming over with cool ideas that I only wish weren’t held back by the dots/numbers on my sheet.  I rarely feel the characters I build are awesome enough to really represent what I envision.  I’m trying to describe an iconic character with roleplaying rules; I’m never left with enough points to really make my character as good as he seems.  This probably leads me to more and more to love narrative games, where the character’s influence comes more from the storytelling than the mechanics.

So this brings me back, very vaguely, to my original title.  This is my rock and a hard place, my struggle to find the perfect balance.  I’m stuck between, on the one hand, systems replete with rules and mechanics that detail every possible action and exclude any other functions (without GM intervention of course), and more freeform games that encourage players to do whatever they think right for their characters, but that inevitably leave some people dumbfounded as to what they think that should be.

Unfortunately it’s a conundrum I’m not completely sure how to solve.

Welcome to the New Old School

Dungeons and Dragons 1981, by TSR

Dungeons and Dragons 1981, by TSR

My Dungeons and Dragons experience started in the first year of my university experience (some time in 2007, if I remember correctly), with me being invited to play in a D&D 3.5 game.  I’d played Exalted for years, but I was completely uninitiated into the wider world of roleplaying games.  One of my high school friends had simply asked me along to try this roleplaying thing, and I’d been hooked.  Of course, I’d seen D&D in shops and the like, but when I did buy a starter set and took it home, it seemed completely alien.

As a person who had only ever played one roleplaying game, it seemed incredible to me that other games would have so vastly different and, seemingly, more complex rules.  So I put any interest in Dwarves, Elves, Fighters and Rogues to the back of my mind, and stuck with Exalted, until late 2007, of course.

I’d been searching for a roleplaying game group to get into to get my gaming fix, and this was the only one accepting new players, so I went along and got stuck in.  I can’t say I loved my first experience with Dungeons and Dragons, but it certainly piqued my interest, and within a few weeks I had my own PHB and was exploring all the various character options and how the mechanics worked.  Discovering a new game is always fun.

Regardless, the above is all just a rather roundabout way of explaining that, as far as Dungeons and Dragons goes, I came late to the game.  3.5 always seemed old school to me, and in truth, and I never had any interest in delving backwards into D&D history.  4th was more to my liking than 3.5 ever was, and from there I’ve found other games that do a better job of hitting my fantasy adventure button (see Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or Dungeon World).

However, this changed once again when a friend who now lives quite some distance away invited me to play in a game with him over IRC, another thing that I hadn’t done in quite some time.  I used to use it quite a bit to discuss roleplaying games when I was at home and the only other people to discuss such things with in person were the people in my weekly game.  Talking your master plan over with your players tends to take some of the suspense out of it.  So when my friend mentioned the idea of playing a game over IRC, I was pretty interested.  I think if he’d asked me 4 years ago, before I graduated and all my spare time became devoured by the unwelcome beast that is employment, I would have turned him down.  Why play online with people I barely know, when I could simply call a few friends and arrange a game?  I think having 8+ hours of any weekday devoured by work has changed my perspective regarding this though, and I was actually quite excited at the prospect.

When he finally told me what we’d be playing, I was somewhat taken aback.  Dungeons and Dragons, the 1981 Moldvay edition, is at least how he described it to me.  This friend of mine has always had a penchant for more old school and brutal gaming, so I can’t say I was entirely surprised, but as I said earlier, this kind of gaming didn’t really appeal to me.  The idea of having multiple characters, because it’s pretty much accepted that one of them is going to die, or at the very least having henchmen/hirelings, not to back you up or provide skills you don’t have, but instead to either act as an ablative meat-shield, or to once again step up when your character inevitably takes one for the team, doesn’t exactly thrill me.  Wizards with 1 spell per day, rolled randomly.  Having to make a serious choice between food or a weapon.  It all pretty much sucked the life out of it for me.

But I’d like to think I’m not one to let a friend down, so defiantly I showed my face, or nickname at least, in the chat and set about creating a character, a necessarily brutally short process.  We rolled stats, slotted them in the order which we’d rolled them and then picked a class that made as good a use of them as we could.  As concepts grew, I found myself growing fond of my character, a burly but smart fighter from the cities, come to a small town as a hired sword to aid some adventurer’s raid a sorcerer’s castle.  The fondness worried me.  Every time someone spoke of long term plans for the adventure, it was pretty much assumed that one, if not all of us, would be dead at that point, replaced with a henchman or hireling who inherited their mission, and their share of the treasure.

It was as alien a game to now me as D&D 3.5 was to me back then in 2007.  Few of the concepts I held true about roleplaying games seemed to exist.  This wasn’t about the characters or the story, it was about the adventure as a mechanical device.  There was little in the way of great heroes or deeds.  We were more like a group of thugs seeking to raid a historical landmark.

I should have been dismayed and left disappointed.  Not so.  I actually enjoyed myself a great deal  The game’s lack of mechanical complexity in many areas was filled in by players interacting with each other and the landscape, and while I was certainly fond of my character, the knowledge that I could easily throw another one together in as long as it took to roll 3d6 six times and pick a class cheered me up considerably.  And if I didn’t like that character, I doubt he’d exactly last long either.

We paid a boatman to row us to a mysterious isle and disembarked on a beach adjoining a mighty castle, with a small hut and a chapel built on the sands.  Accosted by three cultists in robes carrying maces we had our first encounter.  And our first character died.  Our cleric, spell-less and who started with 2 hit points was blundgeoned to death by a crazed cultist in short order, which was something of a shock to me, but it only added to the game; we went onwards speaking the name of “Flock-Father Ignatius” as a deceased friend.  So we had 3 maces, procured from our dead enemies, and we found an ambiguous magic sword in their hut, which I, as the burly fighter, claimed for myself.  Then we went inside.

That was, by and large, our first session, and in the end, I was pretty excited about the whole thing.  I think there’s a certain joy in playing something completely new, that you don’t know enough about to be able to spend hours planning your character, or at least that’s simple enough that there’s really no planning to be done, and I think some of my enjoyment came from the fact that my first character was a pretty good one, I rolled well across the board for my stats and I ended up playing a Fighter, which is something I’ve been interested in doing for a while (I’m jonesing for some sword and board action).  I survived and I prospered, and there was something exciting about that.  The game felt less safe and I felt better for succeeding in spite of the danger.  How I would have felt had it been my character who had rolled poorly for his health and died in the first encounter, I don’t know.  I like to think I would smiled and carried on, but in reality, I think that I might have gritted my teeth and felt rather chagrined about the matter.

This isn’t really a review of Moldvay D&D, or even a send up (or down) of the session that I played in; although both were very much enjoyable, I don’t feel I have enough of a grasp on either to talk about their quality.  Instead I think I’m really just being a proponent of trying something new once in a while, even if the thing itself is something now quite old.  Getting stuck in a rut in anything, even the things you do in your free time that you enjoy can really be a death sentence.  If you’ve made it all this way to the end of this post, then I commend you and would ask you to do one thing that I think would make your last 10 or so minutes of reading worthwhile and go and find yourself a new game, or at least a game that is new to you.  Gather some friends, whether in reality or digitally, and delve into something you haven’t done before.  Even if you never play it again, I don’t think you’ll come away without having learned something.

Plot Hooks

I had a conversation with my fiance last night; we were talking about a game of Exalted she had been running for a few friends and I, since a month or so before Christmas.  She’s never been confident in running games, so I tend to push her into trying to GM, as I think she can do it (and quite selfishly, it lets me play in more games…), and we’re now at the conclusion of her Exalted storyline.

I think this is probably the first time she’s had an opportunity to actually finish a game properly.  That isn’t to say we haven’t played entire story arcs in her games before, but this is the first time I think she’s hit that GM-wall of uninspiration (is that a word… spellcheck says no, but I like it) at just the right time to be able to end a game at a satisfying point.  In other games she’s run, we’ve finished a story arc, and they’ve always been fun, but we’ve always tended to lurch straight into another story, and it’s at that point she loses momentum, which is something I think anyone who has GMed a game can understand.  There can be any number of reasons for this situation, but that’s really the subject of another post, but suffice to say it looks like we might get to the end of our Exalted storyline and be able to leave the game there, which is, I feel, always more satisfying as a conclusion than leaving your characters in weird limbo, never knowing what the end of the story was to be.

And, to be honest, I’m quite proud of her for it.  I tend towards the latter fate, with most of my campaigns unceremoniously ending when I run out of ideas, get bored with the setting, or more likely get excited about something new.  So it seems that, with the main plot of her story as she set it out, she has about 1 session or less of material to go through before the story really comes to a close.  We save a town, stole some cool stuff right from under a scary badguy’s nose and killed their chief lieutenant; pretty fun stuff.  The issue that faces her now is that there are a couple of other plot hooks brought up in the campaign, and she’s um’ing and ah’ing about how to close them off.  She doesn’t really want to run any more of this game, but she feels that if we don’t resolve the outstanding issues, the series will go unfinished.

I could see where she was coming from, and I understood her point of view, but when she brought these points up, it very rapidly occured to me that I actually liked the idea of leaving some stuff unresolved.  Sure, I didn’t want to skip this last session and never see our characters conclude their epic adventure, but I also didn’t feel it was necessary for us to wander around the world addressing every last little dilemma or issue that had arisen.  I was happy with the idea that we’d done good, we’d get our rewards and then, in some mystical nonexistant future, our brave heroes would deal with what came next.  It seemed the proper way to end the adventure, knowing that there was always another one around the corner.

And then I concluded that maybe that’s something that I miss from my games.  I tend to try and make sure everything I include is a piece of plot to be used, or something essential to the story, like a Sherlock Holmes plot.  Every single object I describe ends up being some kind of chekov’s gun (yes, I know I’m using that reference slightly wrong, but you get my point).  However, when I consider this last adventure, I feel I very much like the unresolved issues; they give the feeling of a wider world.  Not every problem is for the players to solve, and certainly not right now.

So that’s my advice to take forward; leave some puzzles unsolved, some stories unresolved, some stones unturned.  You might find you like it.

Background: Stipend

I’ve always felt it strange that Dragon Blooded use the traditional Resources background, so I created this to take its place among Dynasts.

Dragon Blooded characters have access to the background Stipend. This background is representative of the increased resources available to a Dragon Blooded member of the Scarlet Dynasty or one of Lookshy’s Gens. It provides an effective Resources rating, as described below, but is replenished on a monthly basis; as such a character with a single dot of Stipend could make a Resources 3 purchase, which would reduce their effective Resources to 2, until their next stipend arrives, generally at the start of the next month. This is rated as follows:

x – Your character receives no stipend from his House or Gens; why is this? Have you offended an elder of your family, or disgraced yourself in some manner? Or perhaps you are an outcaste without powerful family.

o – Your family gives you the smallest stipend possible, the bare minimum for a Dynast to survive. This gives you an effective Resources of 3.

oo – Your family considers your a worthy member of its House, but you are yet to do anything of particular moment. You receive a decent stipend, giving your an effective Resources of 4.

ooo – Your family is proud to count you among its ranks, and has increased your stipend respectively. You likely have a reputation, either for some valued craft, or an important deed. Your effective Resources is 5.

oooo – You are an important and powerful member of your House. Likely the head of a minor household or an important member of one of the greater. Consider what worth you bring to your family for them to have elevated you to such a position. Who covets your place, and what do you owe other family members? Regardless, your wealth is almost beyond avarice, granting you an effective Resources of 5, but also allowing you to make a number of Resources 5 purchases a month equal to your permanent Essence rating or Breeding, whichever is higher, as the greatest wealth is afforded to the most powerful of Exalts.

ooooo – You are likely the head of a great household within a dynastic House, likely one of the contenders for leadership of the House, if such a calling interests you. You cannot maintain this level of stipend without having some calling of great importance to your House, and constantly being at the beck and call of conniving and whining relatives. Nevertheless, this level of importance comes with almost unlimited access to the House’s coffers, granting your effective Resources 5, but also allowing you to make a number of Resources 5 purchases equal to your Breeding + permanent Essence rating.

General Exalted House Rules

The general rules I use for my Exalted games, in a quest to fix all the little problems I tend to find in the system whenever I play or run it.

The following also includes the 2.5 Errata changes, as adapted for use in my games

Character Creation

  • Players may raise any of their character’s abilities to five without spending bonus points.
  • Players receive four dots of specialities to distribute amongst their abilities.
  • All characters receive an additional 3 background points.
  • Virtues may be purchased for 1 bonus point each, with Virtues no longer adding to Willpower.
  • Willpower may be purchased for 1 point per dot.
  • Characters may start with Willpower + Compassion Intimacies without spending bonus points.
  • When selecting Charms, players may start with any charms they meet the prerequisites for; they are not required to select a certain amount of caste/favoured charms.
  • All characters gain an additional -4 Health Level per dot of permanent Essence they possess.
  • Charms for all Exalts now cost 4 bonus points, or 3 if they’re from a Caste/Aspect/Favoured ability.
  • Raising Essence at character creation now costs 7 bonus points regardless of Exalt type.
  • All characters receive 18 bonus points at character creation.

Charms, Spells and Martial Arts at Character Creation

  • Dragon Blooded count their default charm purchases as “terrestrial” purchases, and as such they may buy their own charms, Terrestrial Circle Sorcery and Terrestrial Martial Arts on a 1 for 1 basis. If they wish to buy Celestial Martial Arts at character creation, usually by being an Immaculate Monk, they must either buy these at a rate of 2 charms per 3 charm slots used, or pay an additional bonus point per charm they wish to learn. All typical requirements to purchase Celestial Martial Arts still apply.
  • Solar, Abyssal, Infernal, Sidereal and Lunar Exalted count their default charm purchases as “celestial” purchases, meaning they buy their own charms, and Celestial Martial Arts on a 1 for 1 basis, as well as any Celestial Circle Sorcery. If they purchase Terrestrial Martial Arts or Terrestrial Circle Sorcery at character creation, they either learn 3 such charms/spells per 2 slots used, or regain a bonus point for each one bought.

Alchemical Exalted

  • If an Alchemical Exalted starts with the Perfected Lotus Matrix or Man-Machine Weaving Engine charms, he may exchange charm slots on a one-for-one basis with martial arts charms or machine weaving protocols. He still retains the charms that would normally go into these slots, but has no slots to put them into, unless he spends bonus points to obtain additional slots.

Dragon Blooded

  • Dragon Blooded characters receive 18 background points (this includes the 3 additional points from above).
  • Dragon Blooded characters start with 14 charms.
  • Dragon Blooded now use the following formula to generate their essence pools; Personal (Essence x2 + Willpower), Peripheral (Essence x4 + Willpower x2 + Sum of all Virtues)

Lunar Exalted

  • Lunar exalted get 9/7/5 points to divide between their attributes at character creation.
  • Lunar Exalted start with 12 charms/knacks, with a minimum of 4 charms and 4 knacks.

Traits

Dragon Blooded

  • Dragon Blooded characters have access to the background Stipend.

Charms

  • Solar, Lunar, Abyssal, Sidereal Exalted and Dragonblooded no longer need to purchase excellencies. They automatically receive all excellencies for which they meet the prerequisites.
  • Infernal Exalted do not receive excellencies in the same way due to the unique nature of such charms. Infernal Exalted receive all excellencies for which they meet the prerequisites for both their Caste and Favoured Yozi. If they want to purchase the excellencies of other Yozis, then they are required to purchase the First Excellency in the normal manner (Ie. A number of times equal to their essence). This then unlocks all the other excellencies of that Yozi for free, although they must continue to purchase further upgrades of the First Excellency as per the original charm progression.Ie. Dagruda, the Slayer Caste Infernal Exalted who favours Cecylene, has Essence 2 at character creation. He automatically receives First and Second Malfeas and Cecylene Excellencies for free at character creation and need never pay extra XP to purchase them again if he increases his essence. As play progresses, Dagruda expands his potential, wanting to learn some Adorjan charms. Needing to buy at least the First Adorjan Excellency, he needs to purchase this charm a number of times equal to his Essence, so has to purchase it twice. This purchase then unlocks the rest of Adorjan’s excellencies, and so he automatically also learns the Second Adorjan Excellency too. When Dagruda raises his Essence to 3, he will automatically learn, at no experience cost, Malfeas, Cecylene and Adorjan Mythos Exultant and Invincibility Technique. However, he will be required to purchase the First Adorjan Excellency again as a training effect, as per the normal rules for Infernal Excellencies.
  • Alchemical Exalted are regarded as always having the charms First, Second and Third (Attribute) Augmentations for every attribute. This requires no charm slots or installation costs. They also receive (Essence) Augmentation-only slots for each favoured attribute, and one Augmentation-only slot for every other attribute. Augmentation-only slots can only be used for augmentation charms and require no installation costs.

Experience

  • The experience cost of increasing Essence is (7 x current rating) for all characters, regardless of type.
  • The experience cost for purchasing charms is as follows:
  • Terrestrial Charms and spells are 8xp each, or 6xp for Aspect/Favoured charms. This includes Terrestrial Martial Arts.
  • Alchemical charms are 9xp each, or 7xp for a Caste/Favoured charm. This includes Man-Machine Weaving protocols.
  • Celestial Charms and spells are 10xp each, or 8xp for Caste/Favoured charms. This includes Celestial Martial Arts.
  • God-Machine Weaving protocols are 11xp each, or 9xp if Caste/Favoured.
  • Solar Sorcery and Sidereal Martial Arts Charms are 12xp each, or 10xp for a Caste/Favoured charm.
  • The Terrestrial/Celestial/Solar Circle Sorcery charms purchased to enable a character to cast spells of the relevant level are regarded as a charm of the respective tier.

Scion: Fixed

I’ve played Scion a couple of times over the last few years, and, while the concept is one that I love and always makes me want to play it at the mention of its name, the actual execution of the game leaves something to be desired. When we first discovered Scion: Hero amongst the shelves of our local gaming store, we were pretty excited. From Exalted and World of Darkness we were pretty well associated with the Storyteller system White Wolf so loves to use in its games, and the idea of playing what seemed like a modern-day more streamlined and easier to understand version of Exalted seemed pretty exciting. However, in the first session our ship rapidly ran aground, when we ran across a number of problems.

Following here is a list of the house rules and modifications to the Scion system that I’ve found helpful when running the game, and hopefully solve some of the problems I’ve run across.

Character Creation
The first problem we ran across when playing Scion cropped up during character creation; namely that your character’s ratings in your magical attributes/powers is limited to (permanent Legend rating -1), meaning that when you build a character with 0xp, the maximum ratings they can possess in their supernatural stats is a massive 1. While I know some people will like the feel of only being sort ofsupernatural, for me it runs against the grain of what Scion is about. You’re young godlings; even at a low level it should feel epic, and I think having 1 dot being the max level of power just doesn’t provide that feeling. As such, when I’ve run games, I’ve done so with the following rule in place:

All Scions are created with a starting Legend score of 3 as standard. This is to represent at least a little time and experience with their powers and abilities, and results in a character who has enough experience to be assigned missions from gods and expect to complete them. If Storytellers want a lower powered game, where players have only just come into their powers and have had little chance to use them, then a Legend score of 2 could be allowed, but at default it starts at 3.

Epic Attributes
The second issue we experienced is the simple scale of the Epic Attributes. Obviously, the bonuses they offer start small, but because they’re on an exponential curve, they rapidly offer massive bonuses, which can mean even a small difference in the number of dots of epic attributes can result in massive differences in effectiveness, even to the point, at high levels, where there is little to no point rolling due to the difference in automatic successes. This problem also rolls over and has an effect on damage and soak, which I talk about below, but for the moment, I’ll just concern myself with the Epic Attribute system itself.

Epic Attributes do not add automatic successes; instead they add dice to the roll.

After all, everyone loves hefting huge handfulls of dice, and while, at high levels, it might be a truly ridiculous amount of dice, it at least keeps the power balance competitive. Invest in dice rollers people!

Damage and Soak
Okay, so because of the above issues with Epic Attributes, Scion’s damage system has evolved as a sort of broken version of Exalted’s system. More specifically, because characters with Epic Strength are not applying bonus damage dice but instead are applying automatic damage successes, it completely knackers the classic Exalted soak system, as traditionally soak is removed from damage dice pools before they are rolled, most often down to a minumum number of damage dice. If this was done in Scion, it’d be of no use, since Epic Strength would be added on post-soak doing a truly ridiculous amount of damage.

And so, in Scion, soak works differently as well; it’s applied after damage is rolled, which makes sense, since otherwise Epic Strength would remain unsoaked and pulversize everyone. But now we have a different problem; because the soak of most enemies needs to be of the level that it can effectively soak the damage of a character of a similar level with a decent level of Epic Strength, it means that soak values have shot through the roof compared to classic Exalted soak values, as damage has now done the same. The problem with this? Well, let’s say you’re a character without Epic Strength, and rather than 20 damage successes on a standard attack, you can expect maybe 5, 10 on a good day; the enemy with a soak of 15 is pretty much invulnerable to you now. Scion doesn’t have much of a developed combat system (when compared to Exalted’s host of charms), and so there are no options for working around this. You basically just can’t hurt the guy unless you’re real lucky, wheras Mr Epic Strength over there is doing damage every turn.

My solution to this is as follows (bearing in mind the above rule; Epic Attributes now add dice, not auto-successes):

Soak is applied to an attacker’s damage pool before it is rolled, reducing the number of dice in the pool on a one-for-one basis equal to the number of points of Soak a target has. This is limited to a minimum of 1 damage die, and cannot be reduced below this number.

Weapon Speed
Another issue that raised its head is that, using the Relic rules, it’s quite easy to create a weapon which has a speed of 1 or 2, which means that, in a game where most actions are speed 5-6, you’re taking an action around 3 times as often as everyone else. While this certainly sounds cool, especially as part of an occasional use power or boon, as an effect that is always active whenever you use the weapon, it gets a little ridiculous. As such, I always go with the following rule:

The speed value of an attack cannot be reduced below 3, regardless of source.

Restrictions in Choice; or Why I Prefer 4th Edition

I’ve written before about how I prefer D&D 4th to 3.5, and, at this point, I’ve played both enough to really have a feel for both systems. I feel like 4th Edition is simpler, but definitely more restrictive. There’s less freedom to mix and match abilities and classes, and to create something truly unique with the mechanics. 3.5 is a game that you could play in almost any fantasy setting; want a game where magic is rare and unknown to players? Then restrict it to certain classes and have everybody simply walking round, using feats and swinging their swords with max base attack at everyone. Same if you want to go in the other direction; magic users only game? Well, there’s a magic user for every possible eventuality and even just the standard wizard has enough variety in its spell choice to let you play a party of them without stepping too much on each others toes.

The same cannot be said of 4th Edition. Even with the classes that have had the most time to build up a variety of powers and feats, once again such as wizard, there is little room to have multiple members of the same class in the party. Sure, your Daily powers might be different, but 60% of the time you’re probably going to be using the same At Will powers. Even with the Essentials products or variant classes from certain sourcebooks, there’s just not enough choice regarding powers or change to the class’s base mechanics to enable multiple members of most classes in a party.

As an example of this, in my current 4th edition game, a new player was looking at his options for building a character, and was really interested in the class of Sha’ir, which I personally love and think is a great class for flavour that I’m glad they ported over from 3.5. However, we already have a classic wizard in our party, and when I looked at Sha’ir, all it really was is a wizard with a cool familiar and a few unique mechanics; fun stuff, but when it comes down to the session to session business, he’d be throwing much the same stuff out as our wizard friend.

But, I hear you cry, Sam, I thought you liked 4th Edition? And in truth, its lack of ubiquitous variety is actually the very thing I like about it. I don’t want my D&D to have the potential to be any setting with any combination of characters. I actually want my D&D to be just that; high fantasy adventure. If I want to play a game of badass wizards doing wizardry, I’ll play Ars Magica, or Mage (either the Ascension or the Awakening). If I just want to be a group of sword swinging adventurers getting by on their skill and wits, I’ll play Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. However, if I want to be a diverse party of adventurers who go questing, with a wizard, a cleric, a fighter and a rogue, then I’ll play D&D, and, in fact, I’ll play 4th Edition, because it has plenty of options but only for doing the things that a D&D game should be about, and to be honest, I feel like I could do with more structure in my roleplaying games.

One of the most stressful things for me is when I play in a game with a million different options, because I’m one of those people that wants to find the best character for me in a game; I don’t want to make something and just go with the flow. I’d actually prefer to be able to do that, but what can I say, I’m something of a perfectionist. 3.5 is a game like this for me; there are probably a hundred books for that game, each with 5+ different classes or prestige classes in there, and I can spend literally weeks of stressful late nights pouring over books and pdfs, trying to find the right class or combination thereof, to make the character I want. With 4th Edition, I just take a look at the index of available classes and pick what I want to be. I can choose which type of that particular thing I want to be, but I can be sure that whatever I make, it’ll fit comfortably within those classic roles.

Everything else aside, I think it’s this quality that draws me to 4th over 3.5; it seems like a more directed game. It knows the experience it wants to give to players, wheras 3.5 wants to be, or at least ended up being, a little of everything, and not really succeeding at any of them, at least to me.

Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to be a player in quite a few games, which is something of a novel experience for me. In the past, I’ve been the much-lamented “forever-GM”, and so being a player in no fewer than 3 roleplaying games on a weekly basis is some pretty unusual. I’m used to running 3+ games a week myself, but I don’t think I’ve ever been a player in more than 1 game at a time, and I think this strange convergence of events has made something very apparent to me that I don’t think I’d ever really come across before; GM fatigue.

For those who’re unclear what I’m talking about, GM/DM/ST/Whatever Fatigue is, in truth, the gamekiller and is probably the number 1 cause of the collapse of roleplaying games, at least in my experience. It’s when the person who actually runs the game, creates the game world, keeps track of the course of the adventure and makes the world actually come to life gets, at best, a general feeling of ennui about the adventure they’re running, or at worst, comes to hate the game and world that they have to devote large amounts to time to keeping alive. You come to care less and less about your game and its world; you stop planning your sessions a week in advance and filling all your spare time and paper with notes, and instead your sessions become hurried things you slap together a scant half hour before your game starts. You’re no longer enthused to tell your story or make your world live, and in the end you tend to simply go through to the motions so that the weekly game that’s been running now for 6 months doesn’t die a death. And then it does anyway, because eventually you get to that session where you’ve got nothing planned, and you’ve got so little inspiration for your game that you can’t even come up with something new on the spot, so you tell your players that you’re taking a break this week, or you’re not feeling well, or your parents are visiting, or whatever excuse comes to hand.

Sometimes that’s it. Sometimes, you just need that little break. Sometimes you just need to think about something else for a couple of weeks, and then your enthusiasm for the setting bubbles back up. You’re watching a film and something a character does makes you think about how you could do it better, or it just inspires you to want to finally get to your climactic conclusion. You plan a session or two, fired up again, message your players, tell them it’s on again, and everything picks back up.

And then sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes that first week break becomes two. You realise you didn’t write a session this week either, and since you’ve already skipped one week you’d rather not rush a session now. You’d rather take two weeks, but have a great session when you’ve had time to think about it. But then, you still can’t think of anything, you still can’t get inspired, so you push it back another week, and now your players are asking questions. They know what’s going on. Anyone who owns their own set of dice has seen it before. They’re enjoying the game, but they’re your friends too, so they don’t want to push. And so it ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper, as you all just stop talking about the game, and life goes on.

In my experience, GM Fatigue is a simple result of something as all consuming as world building being on such a demanding schedule as a weekly game, or even a monthly game, especially after your initial adventure idea has been used up. Once you’ve beaten the orcs threatening the village, you might have some vagues ideas about killing the orc king, or stopping the hordes attacking the kingdom, but it’s not as clear as the original idea any more, and it’s less exciting. You’ve just had your hack and slash, dungeon crawling fix, and so you either need to up the ante, or change what’s going on, or you’re just rinsing and repeating the same game again. So you move further away from your original ideas, the things that interested you about the game. It’s kind of inevitable.

So, why, you ask, have I started experiencing this so much recently? I think that, in truth, it’s because I’ve suddenly become blessed with so many awesome friends who’re volunteering to run games for me, and throwing ideas around for games, that it’s just easier for me (and some of my other friends as well) to hang up our GM hats. In the past, when I was one of the few people in my circle of friends regularly running a game, I felt that I couldn’t just give up on games, even if I, as a GM, was totally bored with them.

After all, there’d be no-one to take over. If I stopped running, that adventure, that slot in the week, that chance to get together with my friends and roll dice, would disappear. But now, if I decide to take a break (which I just have with one of my games that’s run for a few months now), one of my friends immediately steps up to run something else. It’s a pressure release valve that I just didn’t have before, and I’m not 100% sure whether it’s a good thing. Obviously, in general terms, it’s great. Having a circle of friends who share my interests to the extent that they’ll happily step in to run something is wonderful. But in a personal sense, I’m not sure if that release of pressure isn’t making me a worse GM. Am I missing out on experiences and great games that could go on longer, by taking the easy way out and ending it? Or am I just giving something it’s due and ending it while it’s in its prime?

If you’ve got any thoughts, please let me know in the comments!

Kickstarter; is it for everyone?

I got an email from White Wolf around Christmas time, letting me know that they had the release of another game-line in the pipeworks; Mummy: The Curse. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not on some inside track, I’m sure thousands of people got the same email. However, I had been looking forward to news about this gameline for a while now; it’s the first line from the World of Darkness series produced by Onyx Path, who are a group who have a truly nebulous relation to White Wolf that I’ve been trying to figure out for a little while now, and I’m quite excited to see what they can come up with. That, and Mummies are cool.

So, I cracked open then email as quick as I possibly could, to find a link to a Kickstarter, showing me all the various rewards and bonuses I could get for funding this project to completion. Now, normally, I’m quite a fan of Kickstarter. I’ve pledged to quite a few projects that I’ve either really wanted to see made or at least really wanted to get an early version of, and I really like the idea that creators can now cut out the middle man and go right to their potential audience/customers to get their funding. Great stuff. And I was completely ready to crack open my PayPal account to pledge £20 or so and (hopefully) get me an early version of the Mummy PDF or something along those lines. However, then I saw the rewards and was largely stopped in my tracks.

Firstly, and most importantly, if I want to get a copy of Mummy: The Curse, even a PDF copy, I have to cough up $25, which is pretty much just the same price I would be paying if I simply wait for it come out on DriveThruRPG (a great place to go to pick up your pdfs, by the way). Sure I’ll get some wallpapers (woo, like I don’t have enough of those already), and I guess I’ll be listed as a “Cultist”, but really it feels a bit stingy. Surely, if Onyx Path/White Wolf want our support in getting their project off the ground, they could at least give some real benefit to all those people who are going to be supporting them from the beginning and pledging their cash without even seeing anything of the finished product. Instead, WW/OP seem to be taking a cynical standpoint, only giving as much away for a pledge as it would actually buy that supporter once the product is out. It’s not even an early copy; at least it doesn’t say so if it is. This doesn’t feel to me like the creator/audience feedback loop that I’ve had from Kickstarter in the past, where a person who really isn’t sure their product is going to exist at the end of it is asking for help from their audience, but also giving that audience a bit of special treatment in return for their investment. This feels like something very different, and it was only later on, when I was thinking the idea over in that classic zone of ponderance, the shower (and yes I just invented a word, so what?), that I really hit upon what was bothering me.

What’s bothering me is that whether it’s White Wolf or Onyx Path funding the project, this isn’t a creator saying to an audience “we really need your help to get this thing going” it’s a big company, a company I actually like, but regardless a company none the less, basically saying to their prospective audience “we’re not going to take a gamble on this line guys, if you want it, put your money down in advance, cover our costs and then we’ll give you a product; a product that 5 years ago, we simply would have put into circulation for you to buy off of our own backs”. It’s asking supporters to shell out well in advance, for nothing more than the same product they would have got anyway, and you can bet this item would end up being produced regardless of whether this Kickstarter had met its goal or not. I mean, the delivery date for the product is February 2013; they can’t be using this money in order to support the writing of the book. It’s clearly already there. What they’re asking is for people to put their money on the table so that they as a company can be sure they’re going to make back their costs before really putting their hat in the ring with this product.

And what’s so wrong with that? On one level, nothing I guess. White Wolf isn’t the biggest company in the world, it’s not like we’re talking about Microsoft or IBM here. They’re probably struggling the same as most people in the current economic climate (don’t’cha just love hearing that?). Why begrudge them a chance to make some money without as much of the risk? I think my main objection in this area comes from the feeling that, to me, Kickstarter is about getting things off the ground that, without the support network of fans and interested parties, would never see the light of day. Big business wouldn’t touch some of these concepts because they just wouldn’t make enough money, or at least they don’t think they’d appeal to a large enough audience. But with Kickstarter that’s okay, you can go right to the people who want this thing and get your funding, and then everyone feels they’ve put a little something in to get out something they wouldn’t have had before. This Mummy Kickstarter really doesn’t have that same feel to me. This book would have come out regardless. Yes, it may have taken longer and people wouldn’t have got a lot of the little benefits that come from it, but they’re not asking for help to get something new and innovative done. They’re just using up the goodwill of their fans to avoid some risk themselves.

But then, what do I know; the Kickstarter just hit $75,199 out of $30,000, making them over 250% funded and they still have 7 days to go. Maybe I’ll just go take another look at the rewards…

Keyword: Battery

A keyword I drummed up mostly in order to replace the idea of attunement motes from the Exalted 2.5 errata. I felt that attunement motes made a bunch of appropriate Abyssal charms totally useless and just seemed like an awkward and silly mechanic. Hopefully this keyword would work better, allowing characters to regain motes, but only once combat has ended, rather than allowing them to essentially fight indefinitely.

Motes regained from a charm with this keyword do not immediately return to the Abyssal’s pool. They are instead stored in his anima, bloating it to higher levels of activity than denoted by his essence usage, for him to devour at a convenient time. When using this ability, it is important to denote whether the motes stolen will be returned to the Abyssal’s Personal or Peripheral pool. Personal motes stolen are stored invisibly in the character’s anima, while any Peripheral motes are added to the number of motes a character has spent in a scene to determine the level of the character’s anima banner.

The motes the character has stored in her anima banner are not accessible to the Abyssal immediately; at the end of the scene where the charm was used, the motes are emptied into the character’s essence pools. Any excess motes are lost. Personal motes dissipate harmlessly into the environment with no visible effects. Excess Peripheral motes cause the character’s anima banner to briefly flash to the iconic level as they are dissipated.