A mechanism for prophecies in roleplaying games

The problem with prophecies

Prophecies don’t work as easily in roleplaying games as they do in non-interactive (or less interactive) fiction. The ‘tactical infinity’ of roleplaying games poses problems.

In non-interactive fiction (such as a book, movie or tv-show) the fiction’s creator (for ease I’ll call them all authors) can ensure that any prophecies are sufficiently fulfilled. This is easy because the author can know how the prophecy will be fulfilled before they even write the prophecy itself. The other main component is that authors maintain Absolute Control of all the events occurring in their fiction.

Game masters have no such luxury.

Suppose that in my game, one of the players eats a herb which gives them prophetic visions. If the visions are too specific then I will have to push the world hard to enable the conditions of the prophecy to be met. This can crush player agency and tactical infinity. It is the oft-feared railroad.

Conversely, if the prophecies are too vague, then, for the players, it can feel like a frustrating game of ‘guess what I’m thinking’.

Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones – A biblical game of ‘guess what I’m thinking’ (hint: It’s not good)

Now this wouldn’t be a problem if prophecies didn’t have to come true, but that solution raises its own issues. If some prophecies just don’t come true, what is the point of them? They just become possible futures which may or may not happen – who cares?

One solution would be to have an unreliable source of prophecies, such as The Oracle in The Matrix. She tells Neo that he is not The One, because she has an agenda. She told him exactly what he needed to hear so that he would be able to become The One.

Alternatively, you could do the Harry Potter solution

and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives

and make the prophecy linguistically tricky. However, without the Absolute Control of an author, a GM can run into issues. The author can ensure that Harry doesn’t die to a random encounter(and is therefore alive to be able to fight Voldemort in a duel, which), or a lucky crit, but a GM could easily wreck their game by protecting a player character from harm like that.

Continuum, the time-travelling roleplaying game presents a different solution.

Continuum and its singular timeline

In Continuum, you roleplay as a time-traveller in a society of time-travellers. Because you are part of this timeline, it is your duty to ensure it remains as you know it to be.

For example, if you know that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on the 14th day of April in 1864, and you find out that another time-traveller is planning to assassinate John Wilkes Booth on the 13th of April, so that he cannot assassinate Lincoln on the 14th it is imperative that you prevent this from happening.

The existence of this paradox (or as continuum calls it, the as/as-not) will fragment your timeline, potentially to the degree that you can no longer corporeally interact with the universe.

A second example: you see a re-run of 90s sit-com Friends, and notice that you are in the background of the episode, sipping coffee and ordering a bagel.

But this never happened to you. In fact, you were born after the episode aired.

Waves of nausea wash over you. The as/as-not hits your soul, fragmenting the essence of your reality.

To repair the damage, you will have to go back in time and get cast as an extra. Well, there are other solutions, I’ll list a few solutions to both problems at the bottom of the post.

We can model our prophetic visions in this format, but without the time-y wimey Jeremy Bearimy nonsense mind-screws.

The Oracle of Delphi

How to do prophecies the Continuum way

  1. The character experiences a clear, precise vision of an event that will happen, unless the character deliberately acts to prevent it from happening.
  2. If the character deliberately acts to prevent it from happening, they get a consequence.

This turns the prophecy into a forewarning of the future which you can stop, but at a cost.

It makes it specific enough to act directly upon, whilst allowing for player agency and the lack of Absolute Control that an author would enjoy.

Aim to make the visions poetic yet specific and clear. They can be lacking in specific detail, just like a dream, but the character should know what they experienced enough to act (or not act) upon it. Like when you’re dreaming of a place you’ve never been to before but in the dream you just know its your house. The character just knows certain details about the vision.

I would let players fulfill prophecies in an unintended way if it was within the scope and expectations of the game. However weasel-worming your way around the wording of ‘deliberately acts’ with some rules-lawyer shenanigans wouldn’t be allowed. The Fates will know you will face the consequences. The consequences should also be clearly telegraphed (or outright stated) for players.

Consequences should be really bad, hard-to-fix stuff. They should also be setting/tone dependent but I’ve listed a few suggestions below.

Consequences

  • You die
  • You lose your conscience
  • You are a ghost
  • You lose a mana dice
  • You can no longer cast spells
  • You are hit by level drain
  • You are cursed
  • Your deity/patron rejects and shuns you
  • You are hit with several levels of exhaustion
  • The devil claims your soul
  • Any of the above but to people the player characters care about
Continuum’s front cover

Solutions to the Continuum scenarios above

Abraham Lincoln scenario

  • Go back in time to 13th of April 1864 and kill the time traveller
  • Go to a point in time where the time traveller is younger and attack them before they can go back to 1864
  • Allow John Wilkes Booth to be killed by the time traveller, and get futuristic surgery and acting classes so you can replace Booth after he is killed and kill Abraham Lincoln yourself

We can get even fancier with the Friends scenario

  • Time travel to the set of Friends and get cast as an extra (by using more time travel to get yourself added to production notes as an extra)
  • Time travel to before a key member of the production was working on Friends, befriend that production member then travel forward and call in a favour, therein getting a scene as an extra
  • Travel back in time and find a good impersonator as you and then use time travel shenanigans to get them cast as an extra on Friends
  • Travel back in time, abduct the cast and crew of Friends, force them to film the scene with you, mind-wipe them and out them back where you found them, then when the master tapes have been edited, insert the version of the scene with you in it into the episode
  • Travel to the future and hire a special effects expert to make a master tape matching the scene you’ve just watched, then sneak (by time-travelling) into the modern broadcasting house which just aired the episode you watched and swap out the original episode for the fake version you have. So the paradox is resolved, and it turns out you never really were in Friends. This creates another paradox – one of information origin. However, Continuum isn’t concerned with that, just with as/as-not paradoxes

Most of the problems in Continuum fall into two categories

  1. Information Control: I know something, and must maintain the timeline. If I learn too much more, it will get harder to maintain the timeline (for instance, the more you know about the movements and actions of John Wilkes Booth, the more precise your movements in 1864 must be)
  2. Narcissists: Nefarious time travellers are trying to mess with the timeline

Because you can time travel, you don’t have to worry about money and skills. You can obtain large amounts of money and any number of trivial ways, and you can travel away, spend years learning a skill and then travel back to when you want to use the skill.

Your main restriction is your Age (spending years learning skills will catch up with you) and the events which you know must happen.

Worldbuilding/Game Trope: The Warrior, The Brain and The Utility

I think there is a (rough) trope within multi-species worldbuilding to include species in three (fairly broad) categories – The Warrior, The Brain and The Utility. Its also a gamebuilding trope to have three categories of player character – which often fit this Warrior, Brain and Utility triple.

Often species and classes actually end up as some sort of hybrid cross between these three concepts.

I think the origin of the trope is that worldbuilders and gamebuilders (new favorite word) are looking for ways to have their species differ from humans, without being some sort of uber-human. Therefore they need to find niches for their species relative to humans, and these three niches are the most obvious. Ancient and experienced Elves are really cool to have in game but (1) how do you play something so alien and (2) how do you balance something so experienced? You can do it, but its not easy.

The Warrior

I’ve compiled a few examples below. Often there are multiple entrants within a niche in more broadly built worlds. Sometimes I’ve written the name of a character when we only really see one member of a species. It’s a point in favour of the existence of this trope, that it sometimes occurs for just groups of characters not whole species.

SettingThe WarriorThe BrainThe Utility
The Lord of The RingsOrcs/Uruk-HaiElvesHobbits
Star Wars (1977)ChewbaccaC3POR2-D2
Star Trek: The Next GenerationWorfDataDeanna Troi
Mass EffectTurians/KroganSalariansAsari
Warhammer 40k Officio AssassinorumEversor/VindicareVanusCulexus/Callidus
FarscapeD’ArgoRygelZhaan
Wheel of Time AjahsGreen/Red AjahsBrown/White AjahsYellow/Grey Ajahs
D&D 5eHalf-Orc/OrcGnome/ElfHalf-Elf/Dwarf
The Inheritance Cycle (Eragon)UrgalElfWerecat

Okay so using Eragon is a bit of a cheat since it’s a composite of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings anyway but I think the point is being served.

Warhammer 40k doesn’t quite fit, but within each faction you’ll find examples of The Warrior, The Brain and The Utility, as evidenced by the 40k assassins. It’s just a matter of game balance really, most factions need to be able to do a variety of things.

The Brain

Using (and inverting) this trope

It’s a good trope.

It provides distinction between in-world groups and between players.

It’s worth being aware of it and bearing it in mind when worldbuilding or gamebuilding (I’ve used it three times so that means it’s a real word now).

Invert the trope

A nagging voice at the back of my head
  • No (or minimal) inherent specialisms
    • Some games do this – for example in Knave what you can do is based on your inventory, not a race or class
    • Continuum, the time travelling roleplaying game allows you to jump out to another time, take months learning a skill, then jump back and resume what you were doing. You’re spending your age to skill up, and everyone can learn new languages and skills.
    • Similarly, a game based on The Matrix would fit this because characters can download skillsets and just learn, for instance, kung-fu from a program. They are distinct due to their personality, destiny, fate and will.
  • Mono-class (or archetype) campaigns
    • A campaign where every PC is a Wizard (or Fighter or Bard or what-have-you) would enable the party to solve certain problems really well, whilst struggling with others. Even with the (massive) variations you get with 5e subclasses, a group of Wizards will struggle with healing whilst a group of Barbarians will struggle with utility.
  • Everyone is The Warrior
    • Games can (and do) differentiate between lots of types of warrior quite easily. From the top of my head there’s
    • The Brute
    • The Honourable fighter / The Fighter with a Code
    • The Ranged attacker
    • The Sneaky warrior
    • etc
  • Everyone is The Brain
    • When I used to run Star Trek Adventures (which I once accidentally reviewed) the players had different competencies, but everyone was a brain. They could all find solutions to problems, or clues to mysteries with treknobabble in a way relating to their character. They were actually all the utility too. I think Star Trek actually has too much utility to be easily gameable, but that’s a post for another time.
  • Everyone is The Utility
    • I’ve been working on-and-off for a while on a gamebuilding a magic school rpg. When its finished (if its finished) – everyone will be the utility, delineated by knowing different spells.
    • I’ve not played it but I understand that Mage: The Ascension fits this trope-inversion.
  • The opening to The All Guardsman Party is a classic inversion of this trope. If an Ork WAAAGH! are going to kill you all in ten minutes, it doesn’t matter that much if one player is a bit more of a warrior than another.

Let me know of any others I can add to either this list or the table further up.

The Utility

Remember, remember the 5th of November

Remember, remember the 5th of November.
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot
I know of no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot

Guy Fawkes Night

In the UK, Guy Fawkes Night is a pretty big deal. Random fireworks will go off every night for about a week beforehand. On the 5th, Brits gather at bonfires to eat, chat and bask in the warmth of the flames (whilst their back-half freezes in the autumn chill). An effigy of Guy is often burnt and a shower of fireworks will crack and sparkle overhead before the crowd slumps off home.

It gets very serious in some places, the bonfire night at Lewes (Bonfire Night and Guy Fawkes Night are the same thing) is a particularly big deal. A procession is made through the town with various burning objects and effigies of various wellknown persons are set aflame.

Pictured: two panels from Alan Moore’s Graphic Novel: V for Vendetta, wherein V blows up the Parliament.

If you’re not British (or Commonwealth) and you know Guy Fawkes Night from anywhere, you probably know it from V for Vendetta. The traditional intent of Guy Fawkes Night is to remember/commemorate a failed attempt by Catholic rebels to blow up the Houses of Parliament, blowing up the protestant King James VI and I (he was the 6th King James of Scotland and the 1st King James of England and Ireland) and the majority of the upper crust of British politicians in the process. The intent of V in V for Vendetta is to remind the people of the UK that they should strike out against tyrannical rule and rebel on-mass against the facist party which rules the UK in the story.

Ed Balls Day

On the 28th of April, 2011, prominent Labour politician Ed Balls accidentally posted ‘Ed Balls’ on twitter.

Ten years later, some British people still celebrate Ed Balls Day, wherein adherents greet each-other by saying some variation on ‘Happy Ed Balls Day‘ or remind others of that great day by typing those immortal words into their social media and hitting enter.

So apparently Brits will turn anything into a tradition.

I’ve played through startlingly few day-specific festivals in roleplaying-games. Maybe its due to the slow progression of real-time relative to the in-fiction calendar year (which can be fixed by truncating the calendar year as I’ve previously suggested). Or maybe it’s because it’s one of those things that we forget to put into games which could really add to the verisimilitude.

Tables with which one can generate annual village festivals

d3Type of festival
1worship
2commemoration
3ironic commemoration
d6 twiceDeity to be worshippedHow it is worshipped
1fertility frog-god, bloated, four-eyeda sacrifice is burnt alive
2the guiding twin-stars of the nightsweet goods are baked and shared on the village green
3a laughing baby, personifying fortunea full-contact race to the peak of the nearest hill and back
4the great lidless eye of foresightfloating animal effigies are cast down-river
5Grom the destroyer, the foe-slayera sun-up to sun-down day of silence with a big shindig at the end
6the lady of the dead, clad in white robesa candle-light chanting procession around the village
d6 twiceEvent to be commemoratedHow it is remembered
1a local battlea barn dance
2a notable birtha great communal feast
3the death of a local heroa good old-fashioned apple-harvest
4the founding of the villagea march or parade
5the defeat of a local monstera story-telling competition
6the completion of the village churcha midnight bonfire
d6 Event to be ironically commemorated and how it is commemorated
1a miserably romantic marriage proposal – a bad-poetry competition
2the time an annoying lord came to visit – a parade of animals dressed in human clothes
3the time someone got stuck in a rabbit-hole – the village gathers for a rabbit-themed-feast
4the time someone fell of their stool – kicking seating out from under others
5when the local priest said ‘dow do you who’ instead of ‘how do you do’ – ‘dow do you who’ is the greeting of the day
6an absolutely dreadful pie Old Mrs Higgins once made – the villagers take turns knocking on Mrs Higgins door begging for pie

Dealing with single character death like in Heroes of Hammerwatch

There was a meandering conversation on discord which touched upon character deaths in roleplaying games, and Undead Bob said this:

I do get that, but from a GM point of view, while an interesting and timely death of a PC might be perfectly in keeping with the style of play, single character death is often a functional game problem. If it happens near the end of a session, not so big of a deal, especially if the Party can then regroup offscreen between sessions elsewhere and pick up a new PC. In a very real way, a Total Party Kill is less annoying on the GM end than a single character death mid-session and away from some sort of recruiting site.

Undead Bob (emphasis mine)

Essentially, one player is eliminated from the game and that’s annoying. (Many classic board games also have this problem: Monopoly, Cluedo and Risk all have the potential for a bored player at the table who’s out of the action.)

I have a suggestion on how to deal with this, although it’s a niche one.

Soul-linking in Heroes of Hammerwatch

Heroes of Hammerwatch is a roguelike hack-and-slash where you delve through the dungeon.

When a player’s character dies they can be brought back to life by a different player, but when this happens the two characters become ‘soul-linked’. Now if either of them die, they both die.

If they were both to die, then another character could come and resurrect them, but then all three have their souls linked, so now if one of them dies, all three die.

So if you have five character’s in the dungeon, this gives 4 respawns. On the fifth death, everyone goes down.

How to add soul-linking into games.

It can give combat a sort of death-spiral, as if the fighter has already soul-linked the wizard and then the wizard dies again, the fighter also dies.

There is a ramping tension as more and more party members become part of the soul-link. Knowing that if one of your allies goes down then all of them go down makes your thoughts wander much more toward potential escape routes.

I imagine that groups of cut-throat adventurers might be reluctant to use this mechanism, whereas groups of heroes are more likely to be willing to take on the risk to themselves to save an ally.

I would make soul-linking about a minute long – long enough that you can’t easily do it in combat but not so long that it weighs into other time considerations the party has.

I’d also make it nigh-impossible to reset soul-links whilst out on an adventure – maybe it takes a week-long ritual to undo or it can only be undone by a priest at a temple.

Alternatively, soul-linking can come from a specific magic item which is either unique or uncommon enough that it’s not a big worldbuilding concern.

There’d have to be a reason why peasants aren’t constantly soul-linking to recover from sudden accidental deaths or illnesses (actually there doesn’t have to be, but it’s less disruptive to the setting if the peasants aren’t doing this). I’d suggest that the ritual is done to a deity (saint/god/demon) whose domain specifically covers adventuring.

You could also have rival adventuring groups use this ritual. It actually gives a higher incentive for groups to de-escalate and bargain mid-combat. It also gives a greater incentive to not let that one enemy get away – they could come back and resurrect the whole group. Similarly hiding corpses and securing side-passages in dungeons (so that you don’t get flanked and have that whole lizardfolk guardroom you cleared out storm you from behind) become more important.

So soul-linking: it’s an interesting and quite workable solution to Undead Bob’s problem. However, there are campaign/setting implications so it’s hard to just drop it in thoughtlessly. A niche solution, and perhaps one worth orienting a campaign around.

This is part 2 in a loose series I’m awkwardly calling ‘like in’ where I take some trick from video games and apply it to tabletop games. Part 1 is about Truncating the Calendar Year like in Stardew Valley.

Robin Goodfellow/Puck – recurring NPC/encounter

The roguish spirit known commonly by the names Robin Goodfellow & Puck is a recurring NPC/encounter to drop into your games if you want to add a small dash of fae mischief.

Made as part of the Fae Jam 2021

Either read all the details on this post, or click on the image below to download everything in a tidy, useable, one-page spread.

Robin Goodfellow and Puck are the dual personas of a knavish fae spirit who delights in duping and hoodwinking mortal folk. The twin forms are as two sides of a spinning coin: Sharing core personality traits, temperaments and abilities, but with differing expressions.

Capabilities shared between Robin Goodfellow and Puck

  • May move unseen and unheard through brush, thicket and brook.
  • Sprite of foot and quick as a hare.
  • Can beguile mortals with clever illusions of sight and sound. 3/day
  • Alters their size nimbly with no care for the laws of nature. 3/day
  • Instantly shifts the form or shape of either themself or a mortal. The shift back can be freely made. 1/day

Robin Goodfellow

Known as: Robin Goodfellow, Robin, Old Hat
Character: ultimately harmless, cheeky, jester, moralising reformer
Voice: chuckle, guffaw, bark, hesitating, rasping
Expression: composed, frowned
Movement: amble, totter, shrug
Preferred tribute: blueberry mead, fruitcake, gingerbread
Dislikes: infidelity, hypocrisy, silver, drums, bells

Encounters with Robin Goodfellow

  1. Hides within a drink/potion/body of water before jumping out to surprise a mortal.
  2. Shifts to become a magnificent mare, alluring and exciting any nearby stallions.
  3. Creates misleading signs, tracks or spoors along his target’s path.
  4. Offers a challenge of a one mile race. The loser puts on a feast for the winner.
  5. Creates an illusion to make nearby birds sound like wolves.
  6. Until properly tributed, target will begin growing a goats tail and horns.
Robin Goodfellow

Puck

Known as: Puck, Hobgoblin, Sweet Puck
Character: relatively harmless, rude, scoundrel, tormentor
Voice: chortle, sneer, snarl, sudden, cheeping
Expression: twitched, glared
Movement: prance, strut, snap
Preferred tribute: ice-wine, nettle soup, marzipan
Dislikes: flattery, sentimentality, gemstones, flutes, harps

Encounters with Puck

  1. Pretends to be a stump or furniture, slipping away when sat upon.
  2. Becomes a bristly and plump yet distracted wild boar, shifting to his real form only once hunted, killed and roasted.
  3. Casts borrowed magic to lull his target into a magical sleep at an inopportune moment.
  4. Offers a competition: most valuable object stolen in the next hour wins. The winner keeps all entries.
  5. Creates an illusion to make animal faeces look like edible mushrooms.
  6. Until properly tributed, target will have the head of a donkey.
Puck

Download the whole thing here.

Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearnèd luck
Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long.
Else the Puck a liar call.
So good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

Truncating the Calendar Year like in Stardew Valley

I want my game to be epic, spanning many years, with the potential for characters to grow old; for new generations to come to the fore and take up the mantle; and for nations to rise and fall.

Problem: Even with a game/system which is well designed for that kind of long-term view, everything takes about 2 to 4 times longer than I expected to play out.

Untested potential solution I have not seen touted before: Truncate the calendar year down to 112 days. (This could also serve as a worldbuilding spark.)

Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley is a Harvest Moon-like video game where you have run cute, artisanal farm. As its a farming game it wants the seasons to change so crops can rotate and you can experience the bountiful summer and fallow winter. However, it doesn’t want you to have to play out about 90 in-game days for the season to shift. That would be tedious.

Instead it uses a 28-day season. Four weeks of 7 days makes up a season. There are four seasons – Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter.

If my fantasy game is in a secondary world (not Earth), then I could truncate the world to have 4 seasons of 28 days – a 112 day year.

This would roughly third the number of days in the year, which is convenient since games take about 3 times longer than intended to play out.

Stardew Valley’s calendar, Winter edition

How to manage a truncated year

We need to change the durations of everything in the setting to fit our new 112 day year.

  • Events on the day-scale should still take roughly the same number of days as usual
    • Cows can be milked once per day
    • You eat three meals a day
    • You can walk about 3 miles per hour for about 8 hours without exhausting yourself (though you will still be tired)
    • Chickens lay eggs every couple of days
  • Events on the year-scale should take roughly the same fraction of a year as usual
    • Human pregnancies last for about 3/4 of a year (roughly 3 seasons or 84 days)
    • Humans legally become adults after 18 years
    • Lambs are born in the Spring

There are some events whose new durations will have to be chosen by you (as a game-master or as a table of players). Everything in your game is levers, and you need to decide which setting these levers are on.

  • Does health and illnesses resolve on the day or year scale?
    • Year-scale means quicker healing but quicker deterioration times when unwell or injured.
  • Do weather phenomena change on the day or year scale?
    • Year-scale means volatile sudden rains and storms. However, day-scale means a dry spell or cold-snap could have a massive destabilising effect on the crop growth of that year, as there is a smaller band of days to plant and harvest within.
  • Are settlements 3 times closer together than normal?
    • A 30 day round trip takes a whole season now (rather than a third of a season).
    • Closer settlements facilitates better trade and a more in-contact world, with closer cultural ties. It also increases the ability for centres of power to project their influence (though tax collectors and military patrols)
  • Does learning occur at the day-scale or year-scale?
    • Year-scale means skills and knowledge will match our expectations for the age of a character. However it will mean that learners progress more quickly day-to-day, probably though improved memory/retention or through increased rates of comprehension.
    • Day-scale means that everyone learns at the same rate, but it takes longer to build up a knowledge base.

There are so many areas to consider that you would probably have to discuss them a the table as they arose.

A rule of thumb is that day-scale results in a grittier game and year-scale in a more epic game.

What’s the use of this?

  • A thought experiment to help you think about how parts of your game are connected to time (and each other)
  • A worldbuilding spark (ask yourself “if this is true, what else is true?”)
  • A sci-fi world (take this idea and stick it in your traveller/star trek game).
  • A design principle. Just as DMs have talked about attacking every part of the character sheet, worldbuilders and game designers should challenge every assumption of the setting.

This is part 1 in a loose series I’m awkwardly calling ‘like in’ where I take some trick from video games and apply it to tabletop games. Part 1 is about Dealing with single character death like in Heroes of Hammerwatch

Schoolyard Pokémon Battles

I’ve talked before about children playing Among Us on the schoolyard by making up the rules and trying acting within genre expectations.

I recently saw a schoolyard Pokémon battle in the same style.

The kids, who were about 11 years old, stood opposite each other a few meters apart, and took it in turns to summon or attack with their mons. It went something like this:

Child 1: (Throws pokeball) Go Litten!
Child 2: Oh its a fire pokemon! I know, Gyarados I'm choosing you!
             (Picks a pokeball off an imaginary belt and throws it)
Child 1: (looks up into the sky at where Gyarados' head should be) Oh no. Litten, Scratch!
Child 2: Gyarados DRAGON RAGE!
Child 1: Oh dang it. Come back Litten)
             (mimes holding out a pokeball to retreat Litten from the battle)

I was loving this.

These children aren’t being immature – they were simply comfortable enough with themselves to openly play imaginative games without any concern for derision or mockery.

Though they were taking turns, there was no strict set of rules, just an unspoken understanding that they would conform to the idea of a Pokémon battle as much as possible.

Then something happened.

Child 1: (throwing pokeball) Pikachu, I choose you! 
Child 2: Awww it looks so cute!
             (dodders closer to Pikachu, doe-eyed, then leans down to pat the Pikachu)
Child 1: Pikachu, Thundershock!
             (Child 2 jolts around, mimicing being electrocuted by a mouse)

I gave them a cheer and a laugh in approval.

They were so genre-aware.

They were engaging in unbridled imaginative play with no concern for the social optics.

They were playing the world, not the rules.

True, pure free-kriegsspiel.

Ballamb, a legally-distinct-mon, air type. My concept, art by Becca_3D.

The three best spells in Harry Potter: an overly comprehensive thought-train

Mood music

The vast majority of spells in Harry Potter seem to involve

  • Aiming a wand
  • Enunciating words precisely
  • Waving the wand in a precise way
  • Exerting enough energy or power
  • Knowledge of the spell – either through learning or observation

This works great for a video game, all the precision can be timing of button presses and aiming with the mouse or the analogue sticks.

Mechanically these elements can be translated to a roleplaying game too. Investment of power can be handled by magic dice. You can also game-ify timing at the table.

And these mechanics would represent the fiction well.

But that fiction is still boring. The spells are basically fancy bullets.

Once you know what to do you just fire and forget.

There is no roleplaying-juice.

Except for Harry Potter’s three best spells.

Expecto Patronum

The Patronus Charm conjures a glowing animal spirit which lifts your mood with its presence. It’s used to defeat Dementors, spectre-like floating rags which suck all feeling of love, hope and happiness from their target.

To create an effective patronus, you need to hit all the conditions in the bullet point list at the top of the post. But you also need to bring a powerful, deeply-happy memory to mind and focus on it during the casting.

This is a great matching of theme and mechanism, since Dementors are a clear allegory for depression.

The caster has to do something (think happy thoughts) which the spell is going to amplify.

It’s also a great spell for a roleplaying game – asking the players what memory they’re thinking of, discussing what memories they could use, debating why a certain character is failing at casting the spell. There is a lot of roleplay-juice here.

You don’t choose the form of your patronus, but if you could, I would choose one of the Megatherum. Big sloths = best sloths.

Polyjuice Potion

I know its not a spell but it’s brilliant.

The Polyjuice potion allows the drinker to assume to form of another, for about an hour. A D&D analogue would be Disguise Self.

To make the potion you need a bit of the target – a strand of their hair, nail clipping, eyelash etc.

This is once again a great matching of theme and mechanism.

The caster has to get something (the body part) which the spell uses to know what you should look like.

It works well in a roleplaying game because the players will have to somehow obtain the body part. Woe betide them if they accidently get a cat hair instead of a head hair. In the books, the ingredients are also restricted (requiring stealth shenanigans to steal from the potions master) and it takes months to brew (requiring an isolated hangout to brew it in). Tasty, tasty roleplay-juice.

The spell which returns Voldemort to corporeal form in chapter 32 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Okay its another potion. The fact that my 2 of my 3 best spells in Harry Potter are potions is quite telling.

The Dark Lord must perform a ritual to return himself from a withered husk to his full corporeal body. There are three crucial ingredients to be poured into the bubbling cauldron.

  • Bone of the father, unknowingly given
  • Flesh of the servant, willingly sacrificed
  • Blood of the enemy, forcibly taken

This is a dark ritual. You need enemies, a servant who is taking care of your husk-form, access to the grave of your father and willingness to defile it. In the fiction, Voldemort also believes the ritual will be strongest with his biggest enemy, Harry. The wording of the ritual feels Shakespearean, and therein archaic and secretive.

In 5e, resurrection’s unique requirement is a high value diamond. Not very interesting, and one of the reasons why house-ruled resurrection rules are often touted.

I wouldn’t expect players to use this dark spell in a roleplaying game, unless they are meant to be baddies. However the general format of ‘get these three hard-to-obtain things so you can do the epic magic’ works well.

All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter.

Bonus best spell: Riddikulus

A boggart will take the shape of something you fear. Visualising the thing you fear in a comedic situation (the giant spider is now floundering around wearing four pairs of roller skates) whilst casting the spell Riddikulus enables you to defeat the boggart.

Making the player visualise and describe how the embodiment of their fear becomes a source of mockery is more great roleplay-juice.

This is a bonus to the list because it retreads the ground that the patronus charm covered. Visualising humour to beat fear and visualising happiness to beat depression are just variations on a theme. Good variations, but variations still.

Applying the DAQ criteria

I wrote about the DAQ criteria previously here. You can use it to look at rpg character features by asking:

  • Is it Distinctive?
  • Is it Appreciable?
  • Is it Qualitative?

Since Harry Potter does not have a class system, we should be considering whether the spells are meaningfully distinct from any other available magic.

Expecto Patronum: Is distinct as its the only spell that can beat dementors and lift your mood. It is appreciable (as its the only good way to counter a dementor, when you use it you definitely appreciate your knowledge.) It’s also qualitative – a spirit is summoned and you now feel happier (or at least, not-worse than you were to begin with). 3/3

Polyjuice Potion: No other spell allows you to take another’s form so it is distinctive. It’s quite appreciable, since there are teleportation spells which are less effort, it’s mostly useful for cons in areas of restricted access. It is qualitative, your form is changing. 3/3

Dark Resurrection Ritual: Definitely distinct as there is no other reasonably achievable way of bypassing death. Very appreciable – if you can avoid death you will always appreciate it. Very qualitative – going from dead->alive is a quality change not a quantity change. 3/3

Château de Pierrefonds

The other spells in Harry Potter

The combative ones

There are a large number of combative spells in Harry Potter are basically guns/tasers with different skins.

  • Stupefy – stuns target
  • Confundus – confuses target
  • Expelliarmus – disarms target
  • Petrificus Totalus – freezes target’s body
  • Any number of joke hex/curse/jinx spells that are included for their whimsical value, for instance, the bat-bogey hex or the slug-vomiting charm

Whilst I appreciate that whilst these spells are qualitatively different, most of the time it wouldn’t matter which one you used as they would all do the job – eliminate the target from the fight (at least for a moment).

All of these spells are qualitative and appreciable, but they are not very distinct from each other. So they probably all rate about 2/3 on the DAQ criteria.

Their main problem, for rpgs, goes back to the bullet list from the start of this post.

Once you know what to do just fire and forget

There’s no roleplay-juice here.

No added value.

The joke ones might get some humour and develop the feel of the setting, its true. Establishing the whimsy of the wizarding world (or reminding us of it) is just as useful in a game as in a novel. But they don’t give us much to speak to the character with.

The utility ones

There are many spells which exist as utility – these spells either need to exist for the setting to work or are obvious spells to write into a fiction

  • Aguamenti – water making charm
  • Incendio – fire making charm
  • Wingardium Leviosa – levitation charm
  • Apparition – teleportation
  • Obliviate – false memory/memory wipe spell
  • Accio – summoning spell
  • Reparo – repairing charm

Whilst the Harry Potter books do explore the consequences of these spells at times, they are all entirely uninspiring renditions of their concept. They’re very obvious in their execution.

Your game might need spells like this, but I’m sure you can make them more interesting.

The overly specific ones

Mostly these exist to contribute the feeling of whimsy, or to flesh out the laughably undeveloped transfiguration branch of magic.

  • Waddiwasi – summons chewing gum to fly at the target
  • Vera Verto – turn an animal into a goblet?
  • Orchideous – a bunch of flowers bursts from the wand

They are too specific to see enough use in a roleplaying game, where players are more inclined to optimise than book characters.

Given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of a game

Soren Johnson

The Unforgivable Curses

In Harry Potter, these three spells are unforgivable if used on another person, earning you life imprisonment in the wizarding prison.

  • Imperio – mind control
  • Crucio – torture spell
  • Avada Kedavra – killing spell

But other magic can seriously mess with somebody’s mind – the mind-wiping spell Obliviate and the truth potion Veritaserum.

But other magic can torture – there are loads of nasty curses and jinxes designed specifically to belittle, disfigure or abuse.

But other magic can kill – powerful destructive spells such as Bombarda and Confringo.

This category of spell makes no sense to me. There’s also no added value to them.

Divination

CURVEBALL ALERT

Divination in Harry Potter is absolutely awesome.

It’s the best branch of magic in Harry Potter.

Theme = mechanics throughout.

You want information? Discern it from patterns in random, chaotic systems.

Tea leaves

Tarot cards

Palm reading

*Chef’s Kiss gesture and noise*

SECOND CURVEBALL ALERT

Divination is so good entirely because it is a copy and paste of real-life divination techniques.

What’s the lesson in all this?

Any Harry Potter inspired rpg would do well to add more flavourful roleplay-juice conditions and restrictions to their spells.

More generally:

Any roleplaying game would do well to add more flavourful roleplay-juice conditions and restrictions.

The pseudo-contrapositive:

Stop making your spells fire-and-forget fancy bullets.

Reminder to steal everything

I’ve talked before about why you should mess about with canon, modifying it to suit your game and reskinning it between genres. You should do this with the world of Harry potter too. Within the boundaries defined by law, of course.

Death of the Author?

I want to make it abundantly clear.

I reject Harry Potter’s author’s transphobic views.

I could write an essay on the problematic elements of Harry Potter. There are many. I won’t though, it has all been said before and this is not that sort of blog.

I would hate for anybody to think that the praise of some of the magic design in this post equates to praise of views which are oppressive towards them. It does not.

Joesky Tax

I’ve already given some useable statements/rules-of-thumb but here’s something that is useable in a concrete way. I re-mastered my Hippogriff generator from a previous Joesky Tax.

Merlin’s Beard! What in the name of Dumbledore did you just say about me, you little mudblood? I’ll have you know I graduated top of my magical cookery class at Hogwarts, and I’ve been involved in numerous charity bake-offs, and I have made over 6 million confirmed pumpkin pasties. I am trained in Bertie Botts every flavour beans and I’m the top chef in the entire Department of Magical Transportation. You are nothing to me but just another student. I will pie-grenade you with precision the likes of which has never been seen before on this Earth, mark my Pottering words. You think you can get away with escaping from this magical train? Think again, mudblood. As we speak I am contacting the best aurors across the UK and you’ve still got the trace right now so you better prepare for the storm, muggle-lover. The storm that wipes out the pathetic little thing you call your life. You’re so expelled, kid. I can apperate anywhere, anytime, and I can pasty you in over seven hundred ways, and that’s just with my bare hands. Not only am I extensively trained in pasty combat, but I can turn my hands into spikes and you won’t believe what I can do with my Chocolate Frogs, which and I will use it to their full extent to make sure you stay on this train, you little goblin. If only you could have known what unholy retribution your little escape was about to bring down upon you, maybe you would have stayed on the damn train. But you couldn’t, you didn’t, and now you’re paying the price, you goddamn idiot. I will spike you with my particularly spikey spikes. This train doesn’t like people getting of it, kiddo.

Too much/not enough player knowledge and pre-existing settings

Mood Music

Suppose I want to run a game set in the Warhammer 40k universe (inspired by the Gaunt’s Ghosts series) set around a platoon or company of guardsman. They are sent to all sorts of hell-holes, battlefields and all-too-quiet patrol routes. They fight aliens, mutants, heretics and the bureaucracy of the Adeptus Administratum. It’s going to be grim, dark and grim-dark.

I ask some friends if they want to play and I get the following responses:

Cool I really liked the ghosts books, have you read the all guardsman party? Is it going to be like that? I’ve never really read the deep lore though, will that matter?

Player with the correct amount and type of 40k knowledge

Nice idea! is this going to be set before or after the indomitus crusade cos I heckin hate the way they treated cadia, cos that place was like the fortress world i mean if anyone could’ve stood up to AbAdOn ThE DeSpOiLeR then-

Player with too much 40k knowledge (cut for brevity and sanity)

40k? Is that the one with those green skeleton guys and lizard people?

Player with too little 40k knowledge

Oh cool, yeah I’ve played dark crusade, I love playing chaos FOR THE DARK GODS loved their big red demon fellas

Player with the wrong sort of 40k knowledge
A 17th century russian warhammer

The Problem

Player 1 will understand how authoritarian, uncaring and zealous the Imperium of Man can be. They don’t know all the secrets and unsanctioned knowledge which means that: Player knowledge = character knowledge. This makes it easy to roleplay.

Player 2 might notice me contradicting established elements of the setting, which could break their willing suspension of disbelief. They also know too much about all the bad guys, all the ‘deep lore’, maybe even all the backstory from the Horus Heresy. They might be able to roleplay well but when player knowledge ≠ character knowledge, it can be an uphill battle.

Player 3 has no clue, which will be fine if we make their character be from some total backwater. It might be an effort to make the grim-dark tone really clear though.

Player 4 might have the wrong tonal expectations, which is more challenging than having no tonal expectations like Player 3. I’ll need to make it clear to them that we’ll be playing a guard-focused game, and that guardsmen are even weaker in the lore than they are in Dawn of War: Dark Crusade.

All of these problems are solvable, and this game could totally work. However it’s going to be an uphill struggle. Getting the tone and knowledge of the setting over in the first few sessions without lore-dumping, whilst reining in the people who know too much might be hard. As time goes on, these issues will be lessened, but many campaigns don’t last more than a few sessions, so the better the opening few sessions are, the better our chances of a campaign with some longevity.

I can see a few solutions to these problems. Solution 3 is the most interesting.

Not actually 40k. Just imagine they all have lasguns, zealotry and even shorter life expectancies.

Everyone is Not From Around Here

In this instance, all the player characters are from some backwater. Player knowledge ≠ character knowledge but having everyone’s characters start on the same page will smooth things over somewhat.

This solution is better the less knowledge the players have of the setting.

The Mixed Knowledge Party

We could deviate from our plan and have the party be a special operations group. This way, the player who knows too much could be a scholar who has been seconded and attached to the unit. This is our best chance of player knowledge = character knowledge. We might still have trouble with the very knowledgeable player knowing more than the GM about little details.

The Reboot/Reimagining

What about if we spend Session 0 doing a reboot?

We take the core ideas of 40k and rework them so that the tone (grimdark) is retained, but the specifics are changed.

Keep the big uncaring human empire in space. Keep the FTL travel through another realm.

Yes there are dark gods, but they are not the four from 40K, and the GM will decide about them separately.

Then collaboratively redesign the power structure of the imperium (in a basic sense) and choose a naming convention for imperial weapons and vehicles.

We create three types of alien to oppose us which everyone knows exists. A truly alien species. A humanoid alien species based on a fantasy race. A twist on the humanoid alien.

We create a splinter faction relating to the dark gods and decide why people might choose to join them.

Et cetera.

There are several advantages to this method.

  • No lore dump is needed because we are creating the lore together
  • Everyone has the same knowledge of the setting (nobody knows too much or too little)
  • Player knowledge = character knowledge
  • Tonal expectations have been discussed during session 0 through the process of creating the reboot
  • Investment should be high because the players will want to see the things they created in play
  • The GM has freedom, with constraints, to use in their planning.

I can see some downsides too, mostly to do with game prep. Some GMs like to prep a lot of stuff in advance, which can be hard this way around. However, if the main thing which is prepped in advance is imperial NPCs and scenarios/problems then it should still be a goer.

All the problems I’ve raised about player knowledge can be overcome in games. But why not evade them entirely instead?

I’d love to hear any other solutions.

Eradicate external canon

Internal canon is concerned with matters in the fictional world.

External canon is concerned with how the fictional world relates to other stories.

An example of internal/external canon

As a kid I had a toybox with a mix of toys. There were some superheroes, lots of freebies from McDonalds, some wrestling federation action figures and a lot of random assorted figures.

I had a very clear and internally consistent canon. Characters changed their attitudes and views in line with the events that I played out. Action -> Consequence.

I had absolutely no external canon. I never explained how the bad guy from Mulan, Superman, WWE wrestlers, dinosaurs and three batmen were all in the same location. It didn’t matter.

Maintaining internal canon is crucial

If internal canon is inconsistent then the game can lose verisimilitude, players can lose their willing suspension of disbelief and trust in the game-masters ability to model the world can plummet.

We want to maintain internal canon. The one big exception is that when safety tools and internal canon clash, the safety tools always win.

How can I eradicate external canon?

During your session zero say the following:

This game’s canon will be internally consistent, but it will not be externally consistent.

Make sure the players understand what you mean by this. Make it clear that characters and locations from other canons may show up in this game.

Why should I eradicate external canon?

  • You can insert pop culture characters like Batman, James Bond, Buffy, Walter White, Dracula and Lara Croft into your game. You might need to modify them to fit the world.
  • You can insert objects like Excalibur, Sting, Death’s invisibility cloak, Mjolnir, The Golden Fleece and the Staff of Moses.
  • You can insert locations like The Shrieking Shack, Yggdrasil, the first Halo ring, The Emerald City and the Garden of Eden.
  • You can even remix across genres.

Have the player’s knowledge approximately match the character knowledge – the characters have heard rumours, myths and folk tales. They have a decent general idea of the character/object/location, but don’t know the specifics. Different players might even know contradictory versions of a story. Good. That means their characters have heard different versions of the tale.

Now player knowledge = character knowledge.

You have characters debating which myth is the real story.

You have lore-dumped by just dropping a name.

Your game prep has become lighter.

Canon ≠ Cannon

Design Notes

If you’re publishing your stuff, make sure you aren’t breaking copyright.

Superhero comics and movies (and Star Trek) break external canon all the time.

So do other shared universes like the kong vs godzilla one.

Reboots like the 2004 Battlestar Galactica series, or adaptations from book to tv/movie often break external canon.

Myths do this a lot – does King Arthur get his sword from a stone or from a lady in a lake?

If we can accept big franchises killing their external canon, we should let ourselves do it too.