Roleplaying for Control

So on the one hand, I have Sellsword in the works, but I’d also like a way to teach the kids real roleplaying and storytelling. A tall order when you’re 11. My mind immediately went to Luke Crane’s games, which have a strong focus on story and character development, but are very procedural and crunchy at the same time.

Kids need rules in order to navigate a game. Playing something like Fiasco with them doesn’t work well, since they haven’t developed an intuitive grasp of story the way that most adults have (at least those who consume a lot of fiction.) “Purer” storygames require this sense much of the time, and it’s often too much to expect.

So, we need rules. Luke Crane’s games are too difficult for 5th graders, except maybe Mouse Guard, which is out of print at the moment, but the focus on beliefs and goals is exactly what I need. I’m imagining a system where players write beliefs and goals, and then have to play towards those goals in order to gain mechanical control.

If players want to ignore their beliefs and goals, they can, but the game becomes completely diceless. All actions are decided purely by what seems most interesting to the GM. However, when they are pursuing their beliefs, or when their beliefs are challenged they regain mechanical control. In these situations, the GM Says Yes to requests, unless failure would be interesting, in which case the conflict resolution stuff comes out.

Players can change their goals and beliefs at any time, as long as the GM approves and it makes sense in-fiction.

Sellsword Diceless Playtest

On Tuesday, I ended up running my elementary school’s RPG club by myself, so I had two groups on my hands. My usual group was familiar enough with Dungeon World that they could run it themselves, so that left me with the other group, who normally played Pathfinder.

I decided to try Sellsword, the game idea I’ve been tinkering with. I’ve skimmed the Amber rules, so I spent 20 minute drawing a character sheet and company sheet, photocopied them, and was ready to go with minutes to spare.

Took me about 10 minutes
Front of the sheet. Skull-boxes are for wounds, “Day” is for how long you’ve survived. There was also a company sheet (they named theirs The Company of the Iron Claw) with a place to draw a map of their hideout. This proved a popular feature. Unfortunately, I’m not sure what happened to it.
Back of the sheet. Write your fate on the tombstone when you die.
Back of the sheet. Write your fate on the tombstone when you die.

Playing diceless has some interesting effects. The GM has to be ruthlessly fair, since everything depends on his calls. In general, I let contests be decided purely by the greater stat, and skill based things only worked if they could describe in detail exactly what they were doing. Very player focused, as opposed to character focused. Things got hairier when people started double teaming others in combat. I decided to rule that teaming up against people gives you a huge advantage, as it would in real life, and I think it played out pretty well.

I used four stats, Strength, Endurance, Speed, and Combat. Basically the same as Amber, except I used Speed instead of Psyche. One thing I didn’t do a good job of using during the game was Speed. I initially imagined it as a way to compare characters during chases, but what I should have been using it for was maneuvers. It should be the stat for gaining positional advantage.

Many of my 5th graders started figuring out how lethal this game was pretty quickly, and began avoiding combat, even though I wasn’t going my hardest at them. I only gave them four wound slots before they died, but only one ended up in the graveyard, and that was due to PvP combat. The characters were very fast to generate, but I should have made them even easier, or rather I should have had them generate a stack of characters before hand, so that they could be replaced quickly as they died. I’m still not used to running a game this lethal.

I felt that everyone acted much more realistically once they realized that they were very vulnerable (similar to my experience running World of Dungeons), and that’s a good thing. They also tried to help each other more, and were willing to retreat from a fight.

I also made a concession to character background and had them write in a friend and an enemy  on their sheet, but this was a bad idea. It makes the characters too relatable at the beginning. Instead they should write an ally and an enemy(s?) on their company sheet, which persists as the characters die.

Everyone had a great time, and there are simmering character conflicts that would be fun to explore. The two girls in the group decided to sit in the warm tavern by the fire while all the guys trudged through the rain and mud to find the bad guys, returning wounded and exhausted. The girls were planning to get the guys killed so they could start a cloak-making shop. It was great.

I’m calling a success for a first try, and I’d like to run it again with some changes. I’m also thinking about an alternate system, where players use playing cards and script out actions similar to Mouse Guard and Torchbearer. It would provide the kind of tactics and teamwork that I’m looking for. More on that later.

Sellsword Diceless

Another option for Sellsword might be to go diceless, similar to the Amber Diceless RPG. Characters simply compare stats, and if one is superior, that character always win, presuming the contest is fair and goes on for long enough. Stats are rated by who would find your skills to be exceptional:

  • 0: No one
  • 1: Your family
  • 2: A village
  • 3: A town
  • 4: A city
  • 5: A province
  • 6: A kingdom
  • 7: A continent

The greater the difference in skills, the shorter the conflict. If the local village boxer goes up against the kingdom’s greatest warrior, the conflict is over immediately. But if a town champion goes up against a city champion, he’ll likely be able to hold his ground for a good while before succumbing.

Players can tip the odds by adding narrative advantages, either by bringing in help, changing the situations, or pushing recklessly far. Bringing in help adds player collaboration, changing the situation required creative thinking, and pushing recklessly adds a strategic sacrificial element. By making the stats of the conflict quite solid, players will have a better foundation to plan on. Too often I see my 5th grade players refusing to think ahead or plan, because the dice add so much randomness that any plan would immediately go out the window once a conflict started.

Sellsword

Let’s try and clean up that brainstorming session into something more coherent.

The heart and soul of this RPG is inventing new solutions to difficult problems through cooperation. That’s the main skill that I’m trying to impart to my 5th graders in general, so finding a way to do that in an RPG would be perfect.

The premise of the game is clear and straightforwards: players play a company of mercenaries, or sellswords, looking to do dangerous work in exchange for food, supplies, and fame. They’re a bit more professional than murderhobos but still only barely qualified. As they become more influential and better-equipped, their goals might change, but lets leave that for later.

The game should be simple and intuitive, so pretty much everything they need should be on their sheets. No magic, no classes, no restrictions on what they can try to do. It’s all about creative solutions, right? Character creation uses an array of scores that are assigned randomly to different stats. Everyone starts at the same level, but with plenty of variety in where their talents lie.

Challenges are group-participation efforts, where players come up with a plan, and then all roll at once to see if it works. The GM gives them bonuses for good plans, or can negate rolling altogether. The challenges are like a puzzle game where they have to figure out the best way to overcome things, with roleplaying in between. I’m aiming to find a way to achieve a degree of flow in an RPG. There’s probably going to be a phase structure, similar to Torchbearer or Mouse Guard.

Poor planning results in deaths. Flip over dead characters, write their tombstone, and add them to the graveyard. Success results in more fame, influence, and more options during challenges. The trick is to present a type of challenge and then re-present it several times over the course of a session with new twists, in order to keep players focused on what they’ve learned so far.

OSR-style, Simplified

I’ve been reading about the appeal of OSR (Old-School Renaissance) games over at Storygames. (For a brief primer on what sets OSR games apart from other RPGs, look here.) Since I usually run games for 5th graders in a fairly constrained time-frame, I’m always looking for ways to adapt RPG ideas to fit that mold. Here’s a brainstorming session. I’ll try and refine it later.

  • Focus on the tough, tactical choices.
  • Make the game ridiculously lethal so players are forced to be cautious and think creatively.
  • Character creation is quick and easy.
  • Everything you need to know is on your character sheet.
  • You can begin playing with very little rules explanations. The barrier for entry into RPGs is much to high. Break it down.
  • No character powers that require any reading.
  • Consequently, no spell lists. Perhaps this means no magic, perhaps it means a more free-form system.
  • No hit points. They’re too abstract. If players are injured they should know how that effects them.
  • You have a CON score, but you roll it to see how bad a wound is. You have light and mortal wound boxes, which have different penalties.
  • Character toughness does not increase significantly. You’re always close to death unless you think carefully.
  • Success is measured in power and fame within the setting. A high-level character never becomes superhuman in his abilities, but does gain property and influence.
  • Social Circles is a stat.
  • No classes. Players are all nobodies at the start. It doesn’t make sense for them to be specialized.
  • Careful tactical play is further rewarded by not rolling dice. If you are creative enough to set things up so that failure is extremely unlikely, then you simply succeed.
  • Creative solutions are key, so random tables to provide unexpected and inconvenient situations are a must.
  • Success in the game should feel earned by the players, because when players don’t work hard to earn success, they usually die. Dice are brutal, so find ways to avoid rolling.
  • Fleeing is a valid option, and recklessness is punished ruthlessly.
  • Character generation is random, but still fair. It’s hard to get 5th graders excited about playing a character who’s the worst at everything. The same array of opening modifiers gets randomly distributed among the stats. Keep it vast and unpredictable.
  • Everyone has a niche that they’re good at, and lots of stuff that they’re terrible at.
  • Players must cover each other’s weaknesses in devising plans to overcome obstacles.
  • Players are allowed to take short breaks to consult with each other before committing to a plan, even when they are surprised. Again, the focus is on rewarding intelligent, cooperative survival.
  • Combat runs in rounds where one side acts simultaneously in a coordinated attack. Affected targets can respond, one at a time.
  • Character sheets should have a tombstone on the back where you write how they died.
  • Campaigns should have a persistent graveyard where dead characters go. The death-happens aspect should be normalized.
  • You have to have a memorial service when someone dies.
  • Armor locks wounds, but degrades each time.
  • Everything wears out.
  • Detailed maps with simple crawling and encounter procedures.
  • The PC’s company has a fame stat.
  • Players are mercenaries and bounty hunters, pure and simple. There’s nothing noble about what they do, at least at first.
  • The players name their company. If all PCs die at once, the company has to start over. Otherwise, its legacy lives on.

Random Numbers Without Dice

If you want to generate random numbers but don’t have any dice, all you need is two people (with at least one hand each.) Since you’ll usually want to do this in a RPG setting, we’ll call one the player, and one the GM.

First Method

On the count of three, both people hold up one to five fingers. The player then counts up from his number to the GM’s number. If the GM’s number is smaller than the player’s number, the players counts up to 5, then back around to 1 and then continues counting up. The count between the two numbers is the result. If players both choose the same number, the result is the maximum number of fingers, in this case 5. So, for example:

Player: 1, GM: 4, Result: 3

Player: 4, GM: 3, Result 4

Player: 2, GM: 2, Result 5

This should make every result from 1 to 5 equally likely.

Change the number of fingers, and you can simulate any die on the fly.  Don’t have a d13? Well now you do! With dice bigger than a d10, I recommend both people shouting out the number at the same time. Not as clean, but it will work in a pinch.

This has some fun applications. If you use it to simulate a d6 twice, for example, you can add them together and generate the 2d6 bell curve. Play Apocalypse World without dice!

Second Method

If you want 1s to be easy and 5s to be hard, do this: Each player holds up one to five fingers. Subtract the smaller number from the larger number to produce your result. If the numbers are equal, the result is that number. For example:

Player: 2, GM: 4, Result: 2

Player: 5, GM: 1, Result: 4

Player: 3, GM: 3, Result: 3

Using this method, there’s only one way to produce a 5, three ways to produce a 4, five ways to produce a 3, seven ways to produce a 2 and nine ways to produce a 1.

Ramifications

There’s some interesting things going on with this method, assuming that the player wants a high number and the GM wants a low number. For example, if the GM always showed a 3, then he could prevent the player from ever getting a 4 or 5 result. Once the player caught on to this, he might also start showing 3, which would leave them producing a result of 3 forever.

So what if we disrupt this balance by making a 3 result slightly better for the player? Let’s take a page from Apocalypse World and say that a 4+ result means a complete success for the player, a 3 means success at a cost, and a 1 or a 2 means failure. Now, if the GM always shows 3, and the player also starts showing 3, then the player will always succeed at a cost. If the GM wants to open up the possibility for failure, he’s going to have to also open up the possibility for complete success.

This might cause too much of a headache, though. I’d say Method One is more promising.