“Be my Angel, cuz you need me…”

I haven’t always been a fan of character classes in RPGs (e.g. fighter, thief, wizard), but ultimately, my issue has been with needlessly complex leveling mechanics and the over-compartmentalization of character abilities. Yes, I prefer skill-based RPGs. But even in skill-based RPGs, it’s helpful to have a guideline for character advancement and to identify a character’s strengths, what sets them apart from other characters. For this, character classes—or roles, archetypes, playbooks, whatever you’d like to call them—can prove helpful. Character roles in RPGs can also help players by providing characters with background, motivation, even personality. In this regard, the playbooks of PbtA games work really well. Playbooks not only provide characters with unique abilities, they create the structure of a character’s purpose upon which to build a character-driven (rather than action-driven) story. Even D&D—who set the standard for character classes and leveling mechanics—flexed its storytelling muscle in 5th Edition by making backgrounds an integral part of character creation.

In Tempeste, I’ve decided to call roles ‘professions’, at least for now. (I may need to use a different word later, as the initial ‘professions’ will be subsets of a broader mercenary role, and I envision future non-mercenary roles. I may, in fact, use ‘classes’ for the broader categories, e.g. mercenary, aristocrat, civilian, etc., as social classes play a significant role in the Tempeste world. But I digress…) Although I appreciate the way that playbooks encapsulate character creation, I envision Tempeste character creation requiring a few separate questions, each carrying its own weight: What’s your character’s profession? To what mercenary company do you belong? And in what city were you born and raised?

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Attributes: quantifying the Body & Soul

bc0b7fa1d9e4041fe4c3a165733ca487I’ve always been obsessed with the number four and four-point scales (or by extension, eight-point scales). Whether rating men or movies, what further delineation does one need than 1=below average, 2=average, 3=above average, and 4=exceptional? Yes, I use half points (and therefore, technically, an 8-point rating system) because let’s be honest, I’m one of those critics who rarely awards a perfect 4 (Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, 4 and 4). Nonetheless, sometimes you’ve got to give a 3.5 where it’s due (Hugh Jackman in the first X-Men movie, for example).

So anyone who knows me well won’t be surprised if I adopt a 4 or 8-point scale or rating system for my RPG. Because I want to include superhuman, almost godlike abilities, an 8-point scale feels more appropriate, with 1-4 representing normal human abilities. (Without going into too much detail, it’s helpful to think of the scale as exponential rather than linear, so 8 isn’t twice as good as 4, it’s sixteen times better).

But this post isn’t really about numbers or statistics. The trick for creating the right “feel” for an RPG isn’t in the numbers as much as it’s in the words we use to define characters’ capabilities. How do we divide people up into universal attributes so we can quantify and differentiate their aptitudes? And more importantly for me—how do I implement my multiple-aspect soul concept while keeping attributes relatively simple? No one wants six to nine basic attributes, then four more special “soul” attributes piled on top of that. (Or at least, I don’t.) I loved the concept behind virtues and humanity when Vampire: The Masquerade was first released. But nine attributes, a health stat, a blood pool, a willpower stat (permanent and temporary), three virtue stats, and a humanity stat—it was a bit overkill. I find the more stats that comprise a character (attributes, abilities, whatever you’d like to call them), the less significant some of them become. And sadly, one or more (or all) of the virtues were often neglected by Storytellers.

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Plots & spontaneity

It’s been difficult deciding the next step. I’m torn between developing my own rules versus relying on the preexisting structure of a published game system. Even if that preexisting structure allows great versatility and customization, will it be the right fit for what I want to achieve? For instance, I’ve been reading about Powered by the Apocalypse RPGs, especially Urban Shadows (which seems to make the PbtA structure a bit more accessible—and interestingly enough, I find Urban Shadows more akin to the “apocalypse” story I want to share than Apocalypse World). Then I find myself faced with the yet unanswered question of what better suits in-depth storytelling, more traditional game mechanics like D&D and other d20 systems with which everyone is familiar, or a more non-traditional game structure like PbtA that puts storytelling also in the players’ hands? Are the “easy-to-pick-up” and spontaneous qualities of PbtA suitable to a world I want to weave thick with plots and secrets? I think ultimately, I want the game structure to grow out of the themes and setting, but complexity, accessibility, and functionality of the vehicle for a story should always be kept in mind. I also need more experience playing various RPGs before adapting anything. Who knows, perhaps I’ll return to Mutants & Masterminds.

153464So do I return to content, the humanoid and alien beings that inhabit the fictional world I want to create? Do I further delineate concepts of the soul as they pertain to the setting and such entities, so that key game mechanics emerge from those concepts? Perhaps, if I want to create a setting thick with history, plots, and secrets, I should consider—not only (or perhaps instead of) committing all such content to writing—creating game mechanics that facilitate running such a game? To take this a step further, I’ve considered how to go about the unfolding of plots and timelines, to instill in players a sense of urgency and anticipation, for events leading up to the impending apocalypse.

The conundrum to which I return over and over again is simple: How much of a story (the plot) do I clearly delineate, and how much do I leave open-ended for others to create their own stories within the world I want to create? Do I want to tell a story, or do I want to create the essence of a certain kind of story? What do my players desire?