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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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 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.
*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.
Any roleplaying game would do well to add more flavourful roleplay-juice conditions and restrictions.
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.
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.
An unnecessary copypasta I made some time ago which I hope effectively demonstrates my feelings about everything Potter related that has been released since about 2011
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
In part 1 I discussed some things I do and don’t like about character progression in games.
In part 2 I wrote a criteria to examine character progression with: Is it appreciable, qualitative and distinctive?
Character progression often comes out of the blue.
You suddenly know countercharm because you are a 6th level bard.
We generally just handwave this away as the character having gained experience, but the experience generally doesn’t match the new progression.
Below are three ways of improving on this.
Critical Role’s system
In lower-level episodes of Critical Role, when the players level up and are in a city, they often spend part of the next session playing out downtime vignettes showing how they obtained their new features and abilities.
For instance, the wizard and the arcane trickster might play out a scene where the wizard teaches the trickster how to cast their new spell.
Or the Monk goes to a monastery in the city, spars with her superiors and can now do a punch which stuns opponents.
I like how the progression is represented in world, it’s preferable to suddenly getting new features, because the events in the fiction are matching the changes in the mechanics.
But its a bit cart before horse.
The mechanical changes have primacy, and the fiction is played out to explain them.
The Montage System
One of the first games I ever played in was an excellent homebrew mess set in Ravnica. When we leveled up we told the GM what sort of new feature we wanted the character to get. There would then be some collaborative discussion to make sure the feature was not too over/under-powered. Then we played out as a montage a series of short narrations representing how we had gained that feature.
The GM gave us prompts and we would improv off of them.
For instance, if I wanted my character to get a new poison attack we might spend a couple of minutes describing:
Chasing a lizard around the laboratory with a giant net
Swirling a purple chemical in a flask as I pour some green goo into it
Using a pipette to drop the poison onto a slab of meat, which sizzles and deteriorates at its touch
and at the end I have a new ability.
You can also put a short 2 minute song on in the background to act as a timer, it will make things more frantic.
This is better than the critical role system because it is quicker, more fun, and the progression is player directed. I don’t get a new feature because “the rules say that when I get to 6th level I now know countercharm”. Rather I get a new feature because that is what the GM and I both agree fits the character at this point in time.
I think we can still do better though.
The progression here is not flagged in advance. It doesn’t necessarily flow logically from the recent actions of the character.
The Flag System
Put a piece of paper in the middle of the table with all the player character names on it. Write Development Goals at the top.
Each player writes by their character’s name the next bit of development they want for their character. Like this:
Dillon, Sorcerer Supreme: Magic which will allow me to infiltrate the halls of the Archmage Candlestick
Jango the fighter: A magic axe
Thrasos the Biomancer: A way to hear better that will synergise with the screeching ability I already have to allow echolocation
Jessop: An audience with the Mayor
Sally: Access to the restricted section of the town library
By writing down development goals you are flagging for the other players, and for the GM, content that you want to appear in the game.
As a GM, this is useful because it makes prep easier – just look at the Development Goals and see if there is a way to work them in.
It also makes improv easier for the GM – have the development goals on your GM screen and use it for inspiration.
It also gives the party five self-made quests/goals.
When you complete the goal, you get the progression.
You can be very precise or a little vague. The more vague, the quicker you might complete the goal but the less precise the result. You get a magic axe, but you don’t get that particular one with that particular ability.
The fiction has primacy, and the rules and mechanics follow them. The horse is before the cart.
This system could be used on top of a comprehensive rule system like 5e. That wouldn’t stop the features you get from character advancement in the rules just appearing. However, it would still be useful for other progression. You could use it in tandem with the montage system.
This could also be used wholesale as a character progression system in a rules light game.
I’ve used the word development here instead of the word progression. There was a post by Dreaming Dragonslayer about development, wherein the terms development vs advancement were discussed. I think development fits the flag system better than the progression I was using before. Progression gives me an image of a continuous march towards an overriding goal. This is more haphazard than that. I’ve been thinking about this flag system for a while but reading that post gave me the push to write it up.
If the idioms and swears are unfamiliar to the players, then they will feel unfamiliar to the characters. Use weird ones when the players are in a new or foreign region to make it feel more like they are elsewhere. Otherwise, use them in sci-fi and fantasy to remind the players of the world and its lore.
Idioms for unfamiliar regions
Not very much
cats and dogs
kicked the bucket
calm as a lake
two shakes of a lamb’s tail
tables and chairs
sharpened the wrong knife
happy as honey
quick as birth (ironic)
axes are dropping
brushed it over
sweet as apples
sneezed the lot
skipping twice over
stream of mallets
bounced it twice
count to one twice
had half again
flute, fiddle and free
a cricket’s fart
slept over and under
clear as nightingales
a life’s taxes (ironic)
old ladies and sticks
thirsty, hungry and sleeping
poured from a bucket
red and yellow
three pints gone
boats and barrels
dropped it all
bunny eyed and bunny eared
top to top and half over
If challenged on the origin of these idioms, the locals don’t know why they say them, they’ve just always been said like that. Just like in real life.
Unproved theory: most swears relate to poop, willies, sex or gods
Extension of unproved theory: most poop, willy and sex swears are ‘four-letter-words’ and most ‘four-letter-words’ are poop, willy or sex swears.
In Farscape they say frell.
In Gaunt’s Ghosts they say feth.
In Battlestar Galactica (2004) they say frak.
Some of those are five letters long but they fit the format of a four-letter-word
Roll 3d8 to get a random start, vowel and end of a four-letter-word.
Some results might be real words but you could just reroll them with little effort.
You might want to roll to decide what the word represents, or you could choose based on how it sounds.
Type of swear
Swears relating to gods and such
If a swear invokes a name, I’m going to call it a curse from here on.
Curses in English are mostly about invoking the christian god’s name.
Cursing by literally saying/shouting the name can be replaced with the names of gods in your setting. If your setting is devoid of gods you can use a legendary figure.
Sometimes curses call upon an aspect or item of a character.
In Harry Potter some characters say Merlin’s Beard!
Marvel’s Thor similarly sometimes says Odin’s Beard!
An Arthurian character might exclaim By Excalibur!
I can’t really give you a random table that will work for your setting. You just need to spend 2 minutes listing a few possible curses and stick them somewhere in your notes.
The Emperor has built a gargantuan onyx ball out of fallen stars, meteorites and caviar. And sorcery. It is rolled along great metallic rails which are constructed by teams of engineers working ahead of it. Great cables and chains are attached to the Orb and and are heaved along by teams of giants, oxen and giant oxen.
When the Terror Orb, as it is called, has travelled in a loop around a settlement three times, the walls, barracks and watchtowers within shake and sway with a mighty tremor and fall to the ground, leaving only rubble and ruin.
the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city
The alliance against The Emperor has discovered that the Terror Orb was poured into a cast mold, and that the point where the material was injected is magically load-bearing, such that a precise and volatile enough disruption would cause a complete catastrophic failure. The Emperor is unaware of the weak spot; however, it is only two inches wide and, due to the rolling of the Orb, it is not always at a height that can be reached.
Ways to breach the weak spot and cause a catastrophic chain reaction
A wand of fireballs must be thrust into the spot, then detonated by a fireballs spell.
The Sword of the Betrayer must be liberated from its burial mound and thrust into the Orb by the Heir of the Betrayer
Elven Druids from the Great Wode use a Mulch of Evergrowth to hasten growth of their crops and trees. Apply it to the weak spot as a salve.
A bite from a lycanthrope would make the Orb even more impervious than before, but highly vulnerable to silvered weapons.
Insert a parasitic wolf-fish (found only in the mouths of blue whales, giant squids and sea serpents)
Place a powerful microscope over the weak spot when the Orb has rolled so that its peak is facing the Sun, whilst the Sun is also at its zenith, directly overhead
Mr K is a golem/modron/Frankenstein’s monster who was constructed and brought to life by a wizard called Flapjack. Flapjack was quite conscientious and made sure to enchant Mr K so that he has impeccable manners, good moral fibre and a strong sense of Good and Evil.
Mr K desires to be human, in the most real and dreadful sense of the desire. He wants to experience the full spectrum of human emotion experience, but darn it, he was made to be Good and Good alone. Every lie, cheat and selfish whim is a tremendous struggle for Mr K. He wants to betray, backstab and brutalise but he he just can’t bring himself to do so.
He needs human guidance to perfect his humanity.
Stages of Mr K’s struggle to perfect the quality
telling a white lie -> lying for personal gain -> lying for lying’s sake
justified pride in an achievement -> gloating over a victory -> hubris
anger at an attack -> anger at an insult -> anger at a perceived slight
taking his fair share -> taking more than he needs -> taking more than he could use
insulting another when provoked -> casually insulting others -> actively seeking insult targets
refusing to accept reasonable doubt -> ignoring group consensus -> refusing incontrovertible facts
STEAL THE KLINGONS
A Dwarf clan who slew their gods long ago, obsessed with Honour and Victory, led by their warrior caste.
STEAL THE PORTAL GUN AND MAKE IT A SPECIAL WAND
STEAL THE JEDI AND MAKE THEM WARRIOR MONKS
STEAL FROM PLANET OF THE APES AND MAKE IT EARTH ALL ALONG
Steal literally everything, make it fantasy, and put it in your games.
This is a look at overland/campaign maps from my games, not tactical ones. I’ll note a few worldbuilding/prep lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Worldbuilding is highly connected to mapmaking. You can do one without the other, but I’ve never made a map without building the world with it.
Caerune was the second rpg I ever ran. I spent ages on this map and prepping the game every week. There are cults and lairs and dark, dangerous forests. It has theocracies, elected monarchies, tribal peoples, all of which are shown differently on the banners. The banners even tell you if the lord who resides there is a King or Duke or Count or Mayor. It also tells you which Duchy its in. I’m actually really proud of the density of political information on display in the banners.
But I always had to explain what the banners meant to the players so it can’t have been that good.
Lesson: Make player knowledge approximate character knowledge as early as possible
A lot of the time I spent on world building went nowhere, and on places that went unvisited. I don’t think it was wasted, but I wouldn’t want to do it again.
Below is an edit with a red line showing where the players actually went during our year long campaign.
Lesson: Don’t spend too much effort on distant places
Since they spent so long in Barrasin, I also made a city map.
I think the map is fine, but it didn’t see much use. when the city was about to be besieged the players got on a fishing boat and sailed far away. This was not what I had hoped for, but I learnt a valuable lesson about game prep.
Lesson: Don’t make a city map when it’s not necessary
This was an archipelago/sailing themed game. I had learnt my lessons and didn’t spend ages on deep lore, I placed some adventures I read on the map and decided some other simple things like ‘there is a medusa on this island’ or ‘this one has loads of dinosaurs on it’. The effort level was exactly as it should have been.
It’s too big. Players visited hardly any of it, but at least this time lots of energy and effort wasn’t wasted. It was unclear where the focus was meant to be.
Lesson: Don’t make you maps too big
At the same time I was running a game on the fabled Isle of Dragons. I’d learnt my lessons though. The pc’s mostly came from distant lands so the character knowledge matched game knowledge. I’d read some adventures/dungeons and crafted them together onto a map, without spending too much effort on the specifics of different places. The lore came out when relevant, aided by a festival in which there was a storytelling competition. I had obvious allies, obvious threats and dubious groups who could go either way.
I really struggle to find anything wrong about the way I set the game up. I think the only real problem was that I had 3 campaign ending threats on the board. It should have been 1 or 2. I remember the players resolving to travel to a location I didn’t really want them to go to, which was my fault as I had had NPCs present it as an option to be dismissed. They were half way stuck between being heroes and being adventurers.
Lesson: Focus the intent of the player characters precisely
Mini campaign: Thaarbi island
This game was meant to run for about 3 sessions for 2 players and ended up running for about 6 sessions. It was a character funnel using ‘level 0’ 5e characters. The premise was that an evil cleric had landed on this backwater island and summoned a shadow, which can drain the strength of its targets to make new shadows.
This was the exact correct amount of detail and it had laser focused characters, with a clear intent – survive.
The map didn’t take too long and it did its job. The lesson here is more of a ‘what went right’ lesson than learning from your mistakes.
Lesson: Maps are tools, focus on making them useable
March of Kite
This is my ongoing Old School Essentials game. The locations are all either plucked from modules and adventures or they’re reskins of places I designed previously. The player characters are adventurers seeking to maximise their treasure, and have been employed by the local baronet, Sir Jack of Kite, to help him rid his lands of various problems.
From Kite to Brighton is about a full day’s walk, with rests etc.
This is the ugliest map of the lot. By far.
It is the most functional map of the lot.
Player knowledge equaled character knowledge very quickly because Sir Jack took the players up the nearby hill and pointed out the major locations of the valley to them.
There is no wasted prep here.
This is all probably a function of having a full time job, a baby and learning where to focus my efforts.
I’ve probably put too many adventures down on the map. There are 6 or so adventures/dungeons/modules at play here. Which leads me to a lesson that I still don’t seem to have learnt.
Lesson: However long you estimate how long it will take for players to make their way through any content, double the estimation
All the lessons in one place
Make player knowledge approximate character knowledge as early as possible
Don’t spend too much effort on distant places
Don’t make a city map when it’s not necessary
Don’t make you maps too big
Focus the intent of the player characters precisely
Maps are tools, focus on making them useable
However long you estimate how long it will take for players to make their way through any content, double the estimation
In part 1 I discussed some things I do and don’t like about character progression in games.
From the observations in part 1, I’ve made a simple criteria to examine character progression, specifically, the mechanical abilities and features that characters get (I’ll be calling them all features because its a reasonably generic term).
The DAQ criteria
Is it appreciable?
When the features comes into play in the moment, at the table, do we appreciate it?
Can we point to something happening in the game and say ‘that is happening because of this feature’?
Do the other players at the table notice the impact of the feature?
For instance: if a character has a +2 bonus from proficiency, a +3 bonus from dexterity and a +2 from a feature, then all of those sources contribute to a success, so its hard to credit any of them in particular. However if the feature gave a +10 and the margin of success meant that they could only have succeeded due to the +10, then it is appreciable.
Is it qualitative?
Does the feature have a tangible effect on things in the world or is it only a numerical impact?
A feature can have quantitative effect and a qualitative effect, they are not mutually exclusive.
Just because a feature can be roleplayed doesn’t mean its qualitative. Whilst you can turn things which are just numbers into character moments but we want to know if the feature itself is just numbers.
For instance: if a character has a +1 sword that has +3 against goblins then it is quantitative. It’s just numbers. But if the character had a +1 sword has +3 against goblins, and which glowed bright white and whispered shouted hateful messages in elven whenever it was drawn near goblins, then that is qualitative.
Is it distinctive?
Is the feature something that everyone can do or is there limited access?
Can only this class do this thing? Can only this subclass do this thing?
If others can do this thing, how common is it?
For instance: if a character can cast a spell to let them fly, and another character can shapeshift into a falcon, the the flight spell is somewhat distinctive, whilst the shapeshifting is more distinctive. This is because whilst they both have ways to fly, only one of them can also shapeshift. The distinctive quality is on more of a sliding scale than the others and is more affected by having a larger pool of options.
Another way of thinking of these qualities:
Appreciable: does it make me think ‘thank goodness I have that feature’
Qualitative: does it make things happen in the world that de-genericises play?
Distinctive: is it something that helps define my character and creates opportunities to move the spotlight to them?
I’m going to apply these criteria to fighting classes from a few games to see how they fare. I’m looking at fighters because they should be harder to hit these criteria with than, say, wizards or clerics.
I’ll look at Fighters in 5e D&D , Old School Essentials and GLOG, scoring each feature out of 3.
(I’ve used Appreciable, Qualitative and Distinct as the ordering throughout but DAQ is more pronounceable than AQD so I’m calling it the DAQ criteria.)
The Fighter in 5e
I won’t explain each feature because that would take too long but you can check out their wording here.
Feature and score
Fighting Style 0/3
Most of this is just +1 or +2 bonuses. The most appreciable is great weapon fighting but its not very good statistically.
Again it’s mostly just numbers.
These features are shared with the paladin and ranger.
Second Wind 1/3
Yes – I declare that I use it and I get to heal 1d10+level hit points.
No, again its just numbers.
While Second Wind is unique, healing is pretty ubiquitous so its not really distinct.
Action Surge 2.5/3
It is very appreciable, but in my experience it is mostly used to just do another attack.
+1 action this turn is a quantity increase, but because you use that action to do something in the world, it is qualitative.
Everyone has actions. Actions can also be gained through the haste spell so its partially distinct
Extra Attack 2/3
Yes, though as time goes on it becomes less appreciated and more something you just do.
As above, it is a quantity that gives you something tangible, though that thing is generally just ‘I swing my sword again’.
Other martial classes have extra attacks.
Ability Score Improvements 0/3
It is appreciated just after levelling up but after a session or so it just becomes part of the overall modifier and is not appreciable.
Quantitative. You could trade it for a feat but that’s optional and beyond the scope of this assessment.
Everyone gets this
Rerolling saving throws is very appreciable
There are lots of ways to gain a reroll or reroll-like effect
Hit Points 1/3
Yes – I often hear ‘that would’ve killed me if I had as few hit points as the wizard’ or some variation on that theme
Again, entirely quantitative.
Everyone has hit points and the barbarian’s hit points are larger. The ranger has as many hit points as the fighter too.
Weapon and Armour Proficiencies 0/3
Because access to weapons and armour is so widespread in 5e, having access to all types is hard to appreciate.
This is quantitative because it’s saying: anyone can use the weapon but only you can get a +2 bonus
Other characters can get access to the weapon/armour proficiencies, some more easily than others.
Yes it is well appreciated at 1st level. This tails off as the party gets money and everyone gets the best equipment they can use.
This is qualitative but because the type of weapon you are using so rarely matters in 5e (past its damage dice and whether it is ranged) its a weak quality
Anyone can buy this equipment and many others start with it too
We’ll look also at the Champion and Battle Master subclasses. The Eldritch Knight has spells and so I’ll be ignoring it because as I said earlier, magic is much easier to hit these criteria with.
Improved Critical is very appreciable – the player will appreciate it every time they roll a 19. It’s a quantitative improvement for sure – though rolling extra dice is tangible for the players it is not tangible in the world. It is pretty distinctive – as far as I know it is the only rules-as-written way to crit on a 19 in 5e. Score 2/3
Remarkable Athlete reads
Starting at 7th level, you can add half your Proficiency Bonus (round up) to any Strength, Dexterity, or Constitution check you make that doesn’t already use your Proficiency Bonus.
In addition, when you make a running long jump, the distance you can cover increases by a number of feet equal to your Strength modifier.
This is not appreciable because it gets added into your tally of modifiers, and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a GM use the written rules for jumpable distance (although I’m sure it happens at other tables). The first half is not qualitative. The second part does give is a quantity but that quantity is saying ‘you can jump further than other people’ which is tangible. It is not distinctive because the Bard has a similar, but strictly better, feature called Jack of All Trades. Score 0.5/3
Additional Fighting Style is a re-run of Fighting Style 0/3
Superior Critical is also a re-run of Improved Critical 2/3
Survivor gets you some hit points back as long as you are in the lower half of your hit points. This might be appreciable in a fight, but not that much. It is entirely qualitative. Though it is a distinct method of healing, as I said earlier, healing is pretty common in 5e. Half points for distinctive and appreciable gives a score of 1/3
Battle Master is not on the link from earlier so here’s one just for it’s features.
Combat Superiority is great. You pick some ‘maneuvers’ and can expend ‘superiority dice’ to use those maneuvers, buffing their result.
Example maneuvers: Disarming Strike (chance to disarm an opponent and bonus damage); Menacing Attack (chance to frighten an opponent and bonus damage; and Commander’s Strike (forgo an attack to allow an ally to make an attack).
Many of these features are also appreciable – we all notice when Jimmy gives up his attack to let Timmy make one, or that Billy’s fighter just shouted that ogre into temporary submission.
Frightening opponents, disarming them and allowing others to move are all qualitative. Though some of the features are just quantitative buffs, there are enough choices to give this a pass.
The list of maneuvers has 16 entries, many of which allow you to do things which there is no other mechanical way to do in 5e, or things which you cannot do without casting a spell, so this is distinctive.
Student of War gives the Battle master proficiency with one type of artisan’s tools of their choice. Whilst that sounds like a flat bonus, it’s probably going to make the player buy and use those tools when they otherwise wouldn’t, and so is potentially appreciable, if the player remembers where they got their proficiency from. It is quantitative and indistinct though. 1/3
Know Your Enemy is a nearly-great feature. Essentially, spending 1 minute in a non-combat interaction or observation with another creatures grants some knowledge of its statistics. This is appreciable only if the party is going to act on the information, which is not very likely as it is all stuff that a reasonably experienced player could guess at. Maybe they couldn’t guess the exact number, but they could guess if a stat will be relatively high or low. It is quantitative which is a big shame – if it gave you knowledge about the creature’s mood or motivation then it would be so much more tangible. It’s a pretty distinct feature. Score is 1.5/3 but with a few tweaks it could easily be 3/3
Improved Combat Superiority just changes your superiority dice from d8s up the dice ladder to d12s. Marginally appreciable (because an numbers added to a check from an additional dice are more noticeable than say a flat +2 bonus which gets folded into the modifier), quantitative and not distinct. 0.5/3
Relentless also interacts with superiority dice, giving you one if you have none at the start of a fight. Appreciable when it is used but not qualitative or distinct. (the dice are distinct but replenishing things is not). I expect it would push the player to use up their dice knowing they get one back which I suppose increases its appreciability (is that a word) 0.5/3
5e fighter summary
Battle Master is better than the Champion using these criteria. Most of the features are not very interesting. I should note that the Fighter gets a lot more ability score improvements than other classes, which (using optional rules) can be turned into feats. This does allow for a fighters to get some very distinct, appreciable and qualitative features and therefore to increase the distinction between any two fighters, but it does so by accessing features from a communal pool. IE the fighter gets more interesting by accessing features that are not part of their core design. Doesn’t that say something about the core design by itself?
The Fighter in Old School Essentials
The system reference document for Old School Essentials (OSE) can be found online here. It’s an excellent tool, I generally have several tabs open while running my weekly game. As OSE is a re-rendering of the 1981 D&D rules there is less of an emphasis on class features which are gained while levelling up, and far less push-a-button style features.
Feature and Score
Hit Dice 1d8 1/3
Even more appreciable than in 5e since being reduced to 0hp kills you instantly and bonus hit points from constitution are much less generous.
The Dwarf class also gets 1d8 for its Hit Dice.
Weapon and Armour 2/3
More appreciable than in 5e again (the fighter can use any weapons and armour) because some of the other classes are so limited in their access – the magic user can only use daggers. Treasure is also more often magic weapons which the Fighter can always make use of.
Unlike in 5e where a proficiency gives you +2 at 1st level, in OSE it allows you to use the weapon. Being able to pick up and use a fallen enemy’s bow (when others cannot) is qualitative.
This is shared with the Elf class.
Fighters know the bare minimum of languages so its pretty impossible to appreciate this.
Knowing or not knowing a language is about as qualitative as it comes.
The Fighter, Cleric, Magic-User and Thief all have the same language options.
These next two features need more unpacking than the table can provide.
Stronghold: Any time a fighter wishes (and has sufficient money), they can build a castle or stronghold and control the surrounding lands.
This feature requires the context of other classes: all the non-Fighters have a specific feature explaining what level they have to be to build a base and the nature of that base . For instance a Thief can establish a Thief-Den at level 9.
For the kind of game I run I would assume that the fighter has to still contend with issues such as the supply of materials and access to specialist workers, especially in more remote locations. There is also the political concern of neighbouring factions and rulers.
So this is appreciable because being able to make a castle when others cannot, which might serve as the base of operations for the party, is going to be appreciated. It is also definitely qualitative (a castle is not a quantity, right?). It’s not very distinct because everyone can make a base and both Halflings and Dwarfs can make a Stronghold. Score 2/3
After Reaching 9th Level: A fighter may be granted a title such as Baron or Baroness. The land under the fighter’s control is then known as a Barony.
So right out of the block this is qualitative. Lets just get that out of the way.
At 9th level (or 11th, around that mark anyway) is when most classes can make their stronghold, but since the Fighter can already do that, instead they can become a Baron(ess). This is basically saying that the fighter is not just a warrior who has a keep but a noble, a recognised member of the feudal hierarchy. Skerples has a great post about what this means in a medieval society. Anyone who has played Crusader Kings or watched Game of Thrones will know the potential for gameplay to come from this. So it is definitely appreciable, as long as the NPCs in the game react appropriately to the character’s rank (including other nobles holding them to certain expectations).
It is distinct too, no other class gets to become a member of the nobility through a class feature.
Attack modifiers (THACO) and saving throws: The fighter also gets very good attack modifiers and saving throws as they level up. This is not distinct or qualitative. It is more appreciable than the modifiers that a 5e fighter gets just because there are so few ways to get modifiers. Still 0/3 though.
OSE fighter summary
There is so little in the class but once you ignore the features which are common to all classes (attack modifiers, saving throws, languages and hit dice) everything that remains meets the DAQ criteria really well.
The Fighter in GLOG
Goblin Laws of Gaming (GLOG) is a ruleset made by Arnold K and can be found here (wizard rules are here). We’re looking at the Fighter on page 6 of the Goblin Guts pdf, which is the class list. Often GLOG is played using the Rat-On-A-Stick hack (or hacks of that hack) where HP is limited to 20hp at max level, and I will be taking this into account, especially when considering how appreciable abilities are.
Feature and Score
Yes – potentially mitigating 2d12 hp in an fight is really big and might keep you alive.
Both parts of this ability are quantitative but the sundering of your shield is also quantitative so half marks for this.
The knight also has this feature, so it’s somewhat distinct with 10 classes. Half marks again
If you choose the right upgrades then they will be appreciable. +1 damage is generally not appreciable, crit on a 19-20 is.
Some of the potential upgrades to your weapon are qualitative – like with the battle master’s maneuvers I’ll assume those are the options which will be chosen.
No other class has this feature
+1 Attack 2.5/3
You will appreciate getting a second attack in when HP values stay low as your level progresses.
Like the 5e fighter’s extra attack, this is qualitative. A tangible thing is happening, not just a number change.
The Really Good Dog class also gets +1 attack features so this is at half marks.
You should appreciate the chance to smooth social tensions by winning a fight.
A +4 bonus is quantitative, but what’s really happening is that you’re getting a second chance at a first impression, which is qualitative.
Yes nobody else can do this.
When you get a free chance to trip, shove or disarm someone then you will really feel it, however I think this ability might go forgotten due to its unusual trigger conditions
The second part of the feature is qualitative but the first part is just a +2 bonus. Half marks again.
The Acrobat can also do this so half marks again. Bit of a running theme here.
Extra attacks in such a low-health and low-power game is highly appreciable, much more so than in a game with massive HP values for monsters like 5e.
Another way to get extra attacks, which are qualitative.
Whilst other classes get extra attacks, none get them this way. Half marks.
GLOG Fighters also get +1HP per level which is not distinctive, qualitative or appreciable. That extra hit point might keep you alive but you probably won’t appreciate that you are alive because of this feature. 0/3
Starting equipment for GLOG fighters is very good, though narrowly focused on combat. Having a bow or chainmail will probably be appreciated in the same way that the OSE fighter’s weapon access was. Other classes have some of the same equipment so its partially distinct. Having a thing is qualitative so that makes it 3/3
GLOG fighter summary
Some really good features here. In fact I think the ratio of really-good-idea/total-rules is part of the reason behind GLOG’s success.
I might do a post in the future assessing my own classes using the DAQ criteria.
The GLOG and OSE fighters perform very well in the DAQ criteria, far better than the 5e fighters. In general, a more niche game will perform better on these criteria as abilities will probably be more distinct and qualitative. It might be a good project to scalp the most DAQy features from the 5e battle master and make a glog class, though someone has probably already done that.
I am well aware that the DAQ criteria is just one measure of quality when assessing character abilites in games. Features which score poorly such as hit points and proficiencies may really drive the flavour of the class without being unique press-me buttons which this criteria is looking for.
This criteria wouldn’t work for some systems I’ve played such as Chaosium’s Call of Cthulu, Star Trek Adventures or The Burning Wheel. That’s fine. Character progress in those systems is handled differently, and your character is more often differentiated by you skill lists or areas of expertise.
There is no Joesky Tax with this essay since I’ve already given you something useable.
When designing a feature ask yourself:
Is it distinctive?
Is it appreciable?
Is it qualitative?
But don’t forget that the design doesn’t need to be those things to be good.