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 well–knownpersons are set aflame.
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.
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
Type of festival
Deity to be worshipped
How it is worshipped
fertility frog-god, bloated, four-eyed
a sacrifice is burnt alive
the guiding twin-stars of the night
sweet goods are baked and shared on the village green
a laughing baby, personifying fortune
a full-contact race to the peak of the nearest hill and back
the great lidless eye of foresight
floating animal effigies are cast down-river
Grom the destroyer, the foe-slayer
a sun-up to sun-down day of silence with a big shindig at the end
the lady of the dead, clad in white robes
a candle-light chanting procession around the village
Event to be commemorated
How it is remembered
a local battle
a barn dance
a notable birth
a great communal feast
the death of a local hero
a good old-fashioned apple-harvest
the founding of the village
a march or parade
the defeat of a local monster
a story-telling competition
the completion of the village church
a midnight bonfire
Event to be ironically commemorated and how it is commemorated
a miserably romantic marriage proposal – a bad-poetry competition
the time an annoying lord came to visit – a parade of animals dressed in human clothes
the time someone got stuck in a rabbit-hole – the village gathers for a rabbit-themed-feast
the time someone fell of their stool – kicking seating out from under others
when the local priest said ‘dow do you who’ instead of ‘how do you do’ – ‘dow do you who’ is the greeting of the day
an absolutely dreadful pie Old Mrs Higgins once made – the villagers take turns knocking on Mrs Higgins door begging for pie
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.
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.
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
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
Hides within a drink/potion/body of water before jumping out to surprise a mortal.
Shifts to become a magnificent mare, alluring and exciting any nearby stallions.
Creates misleading signs, tracks or spoors along his target’s path.
Offers a challenge of a one mile race. The loser puts on a feast for the winner.
Creates an illusion to make nearby birds sound like wolves.
Until properly tributed, target will begin growing a goats tail and horns.
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.
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.