For a while now I’ve wanted to play Dirty Secrets set in the Mad City from Don’t Rest Your Head. I’ve finally nailed down the ruleset application I’d use. My goal whenever I create a “hack” is to use as much of the existing rule set as possible. So what I’ve done here is try and figure out what Nightmares and Madness “mean” in a Dirty Secrets game. Enjoy.
The Mad City is a dream like version of Your Home Town, Every Time and No Time.
Violence serves the role of Exhaustion (with one exception) in Don’t Rest Your Head. The Violence rules are otherwise unchanged.
The Corrupt Investigator rules are always in play for reasons you’ll see in a minute.
Madness Die: In addition to the Red Violence Die used in Investigation Scenes, use a Blue Madness Die in similar fashion (i.e. one public, one for the investigator, one for the authority).
Unlike Violence, Madness may always be distributed.
For each point of Madness delivered to a character the assigner may do one of the following:
Apply the Mistaken Identity rules without using up a Character card.
Apply the Alias rules without using up a Character Card.
Change one demographic on the Character Card.
Run the Revelation Scene rules with that character fixed as one of the two people involved in the relationship. In this case the decisions normally made by the Investigator are made by the winner of the conflict that generated the madness, and the decisions normally made by the Authority are made by the loser.
Yes, all of the above applies to the Investigator.
Just to be clear, there is no new special “Madness Scene” similar to “Violence Scenes” (See the Nightmare rules instead).
The Madness Die is NOT used in the Finale. The Investigator needs some stability in the climax.
Nightmares: Every Crime generates a Nightmare. Whoever declares a Crime should also declare a Nightmare spawned from that Crime. During Setup the Investigator declares the Nightmare spawned from the Crime.
Nightmares may be used as the basis for a Violence scene or “show up” as the basis for converting an Investigation scene into a Violence scene (under the normal Pushing rules). When this happens their Special Ability is in play.
When a Nightmare is created it should be given one of the following Special Abilities.
Generates Violence (This means that when used as the basis for a Violence Scene it generates Violence as per the normal rules)
Generates Madness (Instead of generating Violence the scene generates Madness instead)
Generates Exhaustion (Instead of generating Violence or Madness the Nightmare causes Dice Loss as if this were an Investigation Scene)
When a Nightmare is used as the basis for a Violence Scene the Witness does NOT move at the end of the conflict.
A Nightmare can be included in a Revelation Scene (even on the random side of a Madness generated one).
A Nightmare can not be written down on the Crime Grid.
A Nightmare can not receive Madness at all.
A Nightmare can not be the victim of a Crime.
A Nightmare can not be included in an Alias or Mistaken Identity.
A Nightmare can not receive three points of Violence in a conflict until the Crime that spawned it has been resolved.
Just to be clear, a Nightmare can not be killed or otherwise destroyed until the Crime that spawned it has been resolved.
My main point of curiosity is whether the resulting narrative can maintain any kind of thematic coherency. Or if it’s just going to turn into one crazy mess.
Jonathan Walton, the originator of the Murderland contest, has kind words to say about The Extraordinarily Horrible Children of Raven’s Hollow. Thank you Jonathan!
“Premise: Players take on the roles of children, adults, and ravens in a Edward Gory picture book. The children dare each other to do things that are potentially deadly for either the child attempting it or the adult it’s attempted on. Dice are rolled and gradually move around the table between various children and the pools representing the adults and ravens (who intervene in these proceedings). The endgame is triggered when only one child is left alive.
“Thoughts: Brilliantly conceived and executed. While the dice mechanic most likely needs to be playtested thoroughly, to ensure that the endgame doesn’t come too soon or too late and that there’s a nice amount of give and take, the rules are simple, direct, and very clear. The only thing lacking — in my mind — is more formal descriptive guidelines, since the Gory tone seems as important as having children die in horrible accidents (which might not otherwise be amusing). More closely limiting players to storybook phrasings, very short, terse phrases (“So Saul placed his head in the alligator’s mouth”), seems like it would be more effective than the florid descriptive passages Jesse recommends. Honestly, I feel like the visual details of the Gory-esque landscape might be best left to the imagination. Still, that’s more of a personal preference than a problem with the game. However the events of play are described, I can’t wait to play this one.
Last night we played the first session of Silent Sound. It went well in terms of the fiction and in terms of productive play testing. It didn’t go so well in terms of the mechanics doing their intended job. Such is the perils of trying to move a game from Alpha through Play-testing.
First off I made a GM blunder in terms of starting the game off. Part of the intention of the design is to get the characters to interact with reflections not only of their own crimes but of the other character’s crimes as all. The idea is to get a cross pollination of behavior across the characters. I think my situation setup is fine in creating an interlocking web of characters that have overlap between elements of the character’s crimes.
The problem is, that in order to foster a creepier or more subtle tone I started off two of the characters encountering material relevant to their Memory rather than their Lures. It turns out that Memory and Lure do NOT carry equal resonating weight with the players. It was suggested that I reverse my thinking. My attempt at “subtle” instead turned into the players feeling a little lost and disoriented. I should hit the players immediately with stuff relevant to their Lure and their own crimes and then introduce elements form their Memory to draw them into the cross pollination. Fortunately, I think situation I created is fine for that I just have to use it differently. As I put it last night, “The instrument isn’t broken; I just have to play different notes.”
The mechanics on the other hand are not working as intended at all. They aren’t driving the fiction forward in any way. If anything they’re grinding it to a halt. Colin felt the mechanics actively support turtle-ing. I’m not sure I agree fully with that but what I did observe was that the players were very eager to engage certain aspects of the mechanics much earlier than were “necessary.” Engaging with those mechanics carry a risk and thus the players felt they were being punished for engaging in something they thought was cool.
In particular I’m referring to the Flashback mechanic. In the game you can frame Flashback scenes to situations involving your crime. Mechanically this allows you to increase your base stats. What you’re risking is an increase to your Shadow score which is bad for you come endgame. The intended dynamic was that the GM would hammer the players with opposition which decreases their base stats thus *forcing* them into Flashbacks to recover.
Here’s the thing, doing that would take probably six or seven scenes and the players, fictionally, wanted to introduce flashbacks much, much sooner. Hence they seemed like a punishment because now they were risking Shadow for no reason other than introducing cool content. I have to think about this because I like the idea of a reflective “refresh” but if that’s the case then stats need to go “down” much, much faster or I have to decouple Flashbacks from “healing.”
Possible Solution: Instead of being fixed numbers, players spend their base stats like a resource.
With regards to the GM providing opposition the system has a serious problem here. There are two scores called Town Influence and Guilt. These two scores specify the base number of dice the GM rolls in a conflict. These numbers go up and down based on conflict outcomes. From day one of my design I saw the problem of the game becoming a death spiral for the GM so I added this mechanic called the Shadow Pool. The Shadow Pool is basically a resource the GM spends to add dice to his pool.
I’ve NEVER liked the Shadow Pool. First of all, it’s always been a tacked on hack to prevent the death spiral. Second of all, I’ve never really known how large to initially set it or a good way to refresh it. If I could, I’d get rid of it and last night it became apparent that I HAVE to get rid of it.
Here’s the thing, it is providing one thing that isn’t just about the death spiral hack. I like to be able to lend “emotional weight” to my die rolls. The limited resource allows me to demonstrate how much something is “worth” to me mechanically. Even if I fix the death spiral problem I’m not really sure I’d be satisfied with a static number that I had no way to influence.
Possible Solution: The GM can just add dice to his pool, but has to give the opposing player Judgment on a 1-to-1 basis. Judgment is currently a resource players can spend to influence the outcome of other player’s characters.
Another observation is that the endgame is WAY too compelling. The game has epilogue constraints based on the outcome of the final conflict die roll. I don’t mind glancing at the state of the mechanics to decide when to shift tone or direction or how to play your next scene to setup something else. But the players were looking at the system in a way that looked like eight or nine moves ahead like a chess match and that’s getting too “gamey” for my tastes. I want mechanical choices to be about the state of the fiction and what the player wants to express in the short term.
This is largely because the system as currently formulated is a giant machine which is clearly too complex. In fact, I’m pretty sure it computes logarithms as a side effect of play. I need to reformulate the machine so that (a) the long term effects are still present and visible but are a back burner concern and (b) the immediate short term decisions are more interesting.
Part of the problem is that there are a lot of levers that I deliberately put in the player’s hands because as GM I wanted to focus on playing the components of the town and not have to worry about certain pacing concerns. The problem is that these levers when pulled set off a series of gears that have layered consequences. It was my intention that the levers were to be pulled based on the immediate emotional desires of the players and that the machine would happily do its job unregarded. Turns out this is a little bit like me placing the lever of a guillotine into someone’s hand and saying, “Pull this when you fall in love.” Their rather natural response is, “But it will cut my head off.” And me saying, “Never mind that, just pull it when you fall in love” probably isn’t going to cut it.
There are NUMEROUS examples of this through out the system and is probably the biggest design flaw. The largest is the way Shadow works. You don’t want Shadow because it reflects on your character badly in the endgame. There are two ways to gain Shadow and both are entirely voluntary. The first is the Flashback mechanic I described earlier. The second way is by taking on Shadow to earn bonus dice on conflicts while in the Shadow world.
This is where Colin’s “turtle-ing” comment is probably most appropriate. I assumed that the conflicts at hand would eventually take on such importance to the players that doing these voluntary things would become worth it. Turns out they don’t. Or at least don’t fast enough (again see my problems with pacing and opposition above).
Possible Solution: I have been considering swapping the labels of the GM stat Guilt and the player stat Shadow for some time because that more accurately reflects their function. I mentioned this and it was suggested that rather than having Shadow thrust upon the player through opposition (which was the intent) make Guilt something the player starts with and has to proactively “burn off.” I like this idea.
It goes along with that discussion in the first thread about whether or not fictionally it’s important for the characters to feel guilty about their own crimes. I realize that I setup the whole Shadow mechanic with the assumption that the character’s had largely forgotten about their crimes and now Silent Sound has shown up to “remind” them by thrusting it in their face.
Oddly, I think this comes from me misinterpreting my source material, the video game Silent Hill 2. In the game James’s crime is a reveal that happens about 3/4th of the way through the story. For some reason I had gotten it into my head that James is in denial about his crime. That effectively he blocked out what he did and the ordeal of Silent Hill draws it out of him.
But that’s not right. I’m mistaking the audience experience of not being fully in the know regarding James’s motives with James himself not being in the know about his motives. I’m further mistaking his eventual admission with remembrance. On reflection it’s clear that James’s guilt is driving him the whole time. I think that confusion comes from the weird identity confusion that can happen in third person video games. If I don’t know something James must not know something because I am James, right?
In any event, I include that as a note to other designers basing games on the thematics of established source material. Make sure you really understand the thematics of your source material.
The group is taking a two week hiatus to give me time to think all of this over and retool the system and then we’re going to take another stab at it.
So I finally got over my terror and pulled together some people to play test my game Silent Sound. The game is inspired by much of the color and thematics of the Silent Hill video game series and in particular the storyline of Silent Hill 2. However, while the video game is largely about exploration, surviving monsters and solving puzzles, my game is about addressing guilt. That’s much more fun.
Basically, the PCs are characters who have all committed a moral crime (which may or may not also be illegal). Silent Sound is a supernatural place of judgment that has lured the PCs there to face their crimes. The game is about whether or not these characters come to terms with their crimes through the metaphor of whether or not the town metaphorically devours them.
Last night we did character generation and it went very, very well. The players I have assembled are Christopher Kubasik (CK!), Eric and Colin. The first step of character creation is picking a Theme for the character’s crimes. These guys don’t pull their punches and went with: Kids. From that CK created a man who lost his son while he wasn’t playing attention. Eric created a school teacher who when he was a kid took one of friends out into the woods and then left him there, never to come home. Colin created a priest who broke his vow of celibacy and then abandoned the child that came from that.
The next step of character creation is for the players to create Memory of a time when they visited Silent Sound before and Lure which is something that has happened and compels them to come to Silent Sound right now. Both of these must imply a character who is effectively a player created NPC for the GM to play with. CK’s Memory was of playing in the sand with his son and his Lure was a letter from someone in Silent Sound claiming they have his son. Eric’s Memory was of his first kiss at the Silent Sound carnival and his Lure was that the brother of the kid he abandoned in the woods and who has been looking for him most his life thinks he may be in Silent Sound. Colin’s Memory was of fishing on the lake with his dad, and his Lure was that the mother of the child Colin abandoned has called asking to meet him in Silent Sound.
The final step of character creation involves discussing The Shadow. Silent Sound exists on two planes of existence. The normal world which may be odd or weird but not overtly supernatural and The Shadow Plane which is can be a full on nightmare. The mechanics of the game involve the characters shifting back and forth between these planes. During character creation a Look & Feel for this shadow plan is decided upon. The group went with: Rundown Coney Island-esq Amusement Park.
From that the players take the NPCs they’ve created and describe how they appear in the Shadow Plane. CK’s son appears normal except with a broken jaw, and the mysterious man who sent the letter appears as a clown. Eric’s first love appears as a doll, like you’d win at a carnival game, and the brother he’s catching up with appears as a security guard for the amusement park. Colin’s father is a carnival barker and the mother of his child is a lion tamer.
I’m very pleased with how it all went and Colin said it best: “Before I was interested in the game, and now I’m *excited* about the game.” And so am I.
Points of Consideration
One of the questions I asked was, “Do you think your character feels guilty for what he did and do you think that’s important.” There was a unanimous “YES!” heard round the table. Everyone thought it was super important not only for their character to feel guilty but that the Lure directly scratches the “itch” of that guilt. This was very interesting to me as I had intended the game to be neutral on whether or not the character felt guilt.
Last night I couldn’t quite properly articulate why but today I have clearer thoughts. First of all there’s a mechanic in the game called Judgment. Judgment is a resource pool that can be spent on *either* side of a conflict your character is NOT involved in. I’m curious with such sympathetic characters if Judgment is will ever be played against one another. I obviously won’t know until play.
Second, what the three guys created last night was three characters struggling to come to terms with what they did. I had originally intended to support a second kind of character who believed there was nothing wrong with what he did but Silent Sound has a different opinion. Such a story would be a character struggling to *defend* what he did. A character who stands up and says, “Fuck you, Silent Sound, I don’t give a shit what you say there’s nothing wrong with what I did!”
Question: Is that second idea workable?
That second character (theoretical) character concept dovetails with my second thought. The players were really excited about these characters and so am I but as I was driving home something was gnawing at me. Something seemed “off” about the characters and finally realized what it was.
In all my thinking about the game it has always been about character’s who have a crime in the past *that they have no way of ever dealing with in an external manner.* It’s over and done, with no hope of ever going back. But that’s NOT what I have with these characters. With these characters people *directly* related and involved in the original crime are still present and active in the situation.
This is an issue because I’m not 100% sure my situation creation process as formulated supports that. The basis of my situation creation system is predicated on the idea that the situations are *reflections* of the character’s crimes without actually *being* the character’s crimes. Essentially the game as originally formulated was about people confronting their crimes over and over and over again from an objective and ultimately *outsider* perspective.
That’s where that second character type above comes from. Silent Sound constantly confronting the character with situations similar to their crime and forcing them evaluate, “Would you do the same thing in this context? How about this one? How about that over there? What about NOW? Would you? Would you? Would you?!”
Now what the players did was so easy and natural and exciting I WANT to support it. In fact I’m pretty sure what they did was BETTER than my original idea. I’ve never been happy with my situation process and I think perhaps that’s because I knew this was going. In fact even BEFORE things started I knew CK in particular was probably going to do something I hadn’t anticipated because of his passion for creating these uber-focused characters. Notice: Crime: Missing Son. Memory: Missing Son. Lure: Missing Son.
Here’s the basis for my situation creation. Right now the GM is expected to create two NPCs from each of the player’s crimes. The names are dumb but I call one The Rejecter and one the Perpetuator. The Perpetuator is victimizing someone because they are committing a crime similar to that of the PC. The Rejecter is someone who is victimizing someone because they are *not* committing a crime similar to that of the PC.
So each PC has 4 NPCs associated with them. You basically then take the Perpetuator and the Rejecter and have them victimizing one of the 4 NPCs associated with a different character. Next you create a stressor which is someone or something that is putting pressure on that victimization. This yields essentially two micro-situations per PC that are reflective of their crimes. At this point you combine and collapse any of these characters. The only rule is that the original Memory and Lure characters must remain distinct but they may be combined with Perpetuators, Rejecters or Stressors.
Finally, you transform the whole thing into the The Shadow like you did with the two Memory or Lure characters during character creation. In particular at this stage Stressors become Monsters, truly horrible demonic things that are making things really bad for the situation.
I’m going to more or less stick to this process for now and see where it takes me with these characters. But all this was created with the idea that the players would be facing only *reflections* of their crimes, not actually engaging elements from their crimes.
Another thing I noticed was that the players were leaning towards making pretty much their own Monsters during character creation, the clown, the security guard, at one point Colin proposed having his father be a huge spider like thing which I clamped down on because of the Stressor to Monster mechanic during situation creation. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that instead, simply noting the fact that the players have handed me monsters and that I should simply endeavor to reverse engineer them into Stressors in the normal town.
The Role-Playing Game of Futuristic Gladiatorial Combat
The Sphere is the size of a large city. Those who walk within its layers do so with the aid of a strong artificial gravity field. From its surface can be seen an eternal night sky above and below it a flat never ending desert. No one knows where the Sphere is. No one knows who built it. No one knows why it exists. No one knows how they got there.
Every inhabitant of the sphere was plucked from their former lives and woke up here. Some survive, some die. No one leaves. On the sphere there is no government and there are no rules. A select few are different. These few wake up with a weapon beside them and a digital display device embedded in their left hand. The device constantly cycles a sequence of names and faces. The sequence ends with a simple phrase, “Kill or Be Killed…” These few are called “Gladiators.” No one is really sure what happens to the last one standing, maybe you’ll find out.
This is a game about playing Gladiators, people plucked from their former lives and forced to kill each other for an unknown prize. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. A lot more people than the Gladiators have been snatched from their former lives and forced to live on The Sphere. These people have formed their own gangs, tribes, governments and other communities and come with all the complications of everyday human life.
One of the design goals of Fight Sphere is to focus the game on the Gladiators’ interactions with these communities. The more the characters engage with the situations and conflicts found among these people the greater their chances of surviving Gladiatorial Encounters.
The primary influences on this game are the films Series 7, Cube and Escape From New York. Episodic television series such as The Fugitive and The Hulk are also major influences. The mechanics borrow heavily from the games The Pool, Trollbabe, My Life With Master and The Farm.
At the start of the game each player makes up two (or more, for longer games) Gladiators. One Gladiator will be the player’s own character. The other(s) will become NPCs. Regardless they are created the exact same way and it is recommended that the player make the characters first and then pick which one they prefer to play.
Note: There are some mechanical concepts referenced here that will not be explained until later. Your patience and cross-referencing skills are appreciated.
Who Was I?
The first thing to decide is who your character was before they were brought to The Sphere. Gladiators come from all walks of life. There’s nothing more frightening that a school teacher with a machine gun. Players should write up a 50 to 100 word summary of the character’s back story.
Whenever a detail from the character’s back story is relevant to a conflict the player gains a single bonus die for that roll.
Death wish or Reason To Live
Next the player should choose either a Death wish or a Reason To Live. A Death wish is some element of the character that drives them towards death. A character may have had his whole family die in a car accident or been diagnosed with cancer before being brought to The Sphere. Conversely, a Reason to Live is something that propels the character towards life. The character may have just found out his wife was pregnant or he may be driven to find out who’s behind The Sphere.
Gladiators opposing a character with a Death wish add a number of dice equal to the number of Relationships the Death wish character has to their Conflict Pool at the start of a Gladiatorial Encounter. However, all of the character’s Relationships are rated one die higher than their actual value.
Characters with a Reason To Live add a number of dice equal to the number of
Relationships they have to their Conflict Pool at the start of a Gladiatorial Encounter. However, all the character’s Relationships are rated one die less than their actual value.
Once per game (the whole run of play), a character may trade a Death wish for a Reason to Live or vice versa. This switch should be rooted in in-game events. The switch can not happen during an Episode.
Every character wakes up in The Sphere with a weapon nearby. The player should define what weapon the character found near them.
This has no mechanical effect whatsoever but a lot can be said about a character from the weapon chosen for them.
Each character starts out with a Conflict Pool value of 5.
The Sphere is constructed like an onion with many inner Layers that ultimately end up in The Core. Each character engages in one Episode (adventure, scenario, whatever) per Layer. There may be multiple simultaneous Episodes running on each
Layer depending on whether the PCs choose to be in the same Episodes or not (see below). There must always be at least two Gladiators in an episode, even if one of them is an NPC.
Each player takes turns in a round-robin fashion. On his turn a player may frame their character into a Scene or have the GM frame their character into a Scene. Within the Scene their must be a Conflict. The Scene ends when the Conflict is resolved.
An Episode ends when there is only one Gladiator left standing. Note: PCs are guaranteed to reach The Core. If they are defeated on an earlier Layer they are “left for dead” or “fall through the ground into the darkness” or otherwise exit the Episode and recover in the next Episode on the next Layer. NPC Gladiators are always considered dead when they are defeated.
The game progresses through Episodes and Layers until all NPC Gladiators are dead. The next Episode is the last Episode and takes place at The Sphere’s Core. This is just one single Episode and all the PCs must be present within it. Player character defeats are considered permanent at The Core and the game ends when there is only one player character left standing.
Episodes & Layers
At the start of each Layer (the first being the surface of the sphere) the players should decide if their characters are going to be in Episodes with each other or not. There must be at least two Gladiators in each Episode, so the GM should fill out any gaps with an NPC Gladiator. If there are no NPC Gladiators then the players need to collapse their episodes together until there are no more lone Gladiators. The GM is free to insert as many NPC Gladiators (from those available) as he likes but does not have to use all of them.
Alice, Bob, Cary, Danny, Elmer are all playing together. Alice and Cary decide their characters will share an Episode. Bob and Danny decide their characters will share an Episode. The GM picks an NPC Gladiator for Elmer’s Episode and decides to make things interesting and throws an NPC Gladiator into Alice and Carry’s Episode. Assuming this is the top of the game that leaves three unused NPC Gladiators who will not be appearing in any Episode on this Layer. The GM now needs to prep three Episodes that will be running concurrently on this Layer.
At the top of a much deeper Layer, Alice, Bob and Danny all decide to join an Episode together. Cary and Elmer each want an Episode to themselves but alas, there is only one NPC Gladiator left. Cary and Elmer can join together in their own Episode or one or both of them can join Alice, Bob and Danny in their Episode. The GM can assign the NPC Gladiator as he sees fit.
Scenes and Conflicts
Each player takes turns in a round-robin fashion. On their turn a player may frame his character into a Scene or have the GM frame his character into a Scene. Each scene should center around a Conflict. The Scene ends when the dice are rolled and the Conflict is resolved. Play then proceeds to the next player.
Each Layer has a Threshold Value. This Threshold Value is the number of six-sided dice the GM rolls in opposition to the player. The object is to roll more ones with your die pool than the opposing side rolls. The Threshold Value starts at five at the surface and increases by one each time the characters descend to a new Layer. Each player rolls a minimum of one die.
. Background: If the Conflict is relevant to the character’s background before coming to The Sphere then a one die bonus is granted. “Relevant” can be anything from skill sets to emotional triggers.
. Gambling: The player may gamble (see Conflict Outcome) any number of dice from his Conflict Pool and add them to the roll.
. Relationships: By spending a die from the character’s Conflict Pool the player may bring in an NPC they have formed a Relationship with. The player must narrate how the character is involved in the conflict (even as an enemy, if necessary). The player may then add a number of dice equal to the Relationship’s value to his roll.
Regardless of Success or Failure the Scene should be role-played to a satisfactory conclusion based on the Conflict outcome. Narrated details should clearly express the consequences of the success or failure as this is good material for setting up subsequent scenes.
If the character succeeds the player may do ONE of the following:
. Add one die to the character’s Conflict Pool.
. Create a Relationship with an NPC involved in the Scene. The Relationship starts at a value of two if the character has a Death wish, or zero if the character has a Reason To Live.
. Add one to an existing Relationship. The Relationship in question must have been present in the Scene but need not have been purchased as a modifier for the Conflict roll.
If the character fails the player must do ALL of the following.
. Dice Gambled from the Conflict Pool are lost.
. All Relationships used as modifiers can not be used again for a number of Conflicts equal to the Relationship’s value. These characters may appear in Scenes they just can not be used as modifiers. Also, while role-playing the end of the Scene something bad should happen to these NPCs as part of the consequences narrated.
In addition, when a character fails the GM should narrate a short cut-scene involving one of the surviving NPC Gladiators. This NPC need not be in the current Episode or any Episode at all. When doing so the GM may do one of the following for that NPC:
. Add one die to the NPC’s Conflict Pool.
. Create a Relationship between the NPC Gladiator and a non-gladiator NPC involved in the Scene. The Relationship starts at a value of two if the NPC Gladiator has a Death Wish, or zero if the NPC Gladiator has a Reason To Live.
. Add one to an existing Relationship. The Relationship in question should be part of the short cut-scene the GM narrates.
Alternatively, instead of narrating a cut-scene, the GM may opt to resume a
Gladiatorial Encounter that was previously Disengaged between the failing character and an NPC Gladiator. This happens the next time the failing player has a turn and the NPC Gladiator is considered to have the Initiative. The GM may NOT use this option to initiate a Gladiatorial Encounter, only resume one that had been broken off by Disengagement.
Relationships exist between Gladiators and Non-Gladiator NPCs. Gladiators can
not form relationships with each other. When a relationship is formed the GM continues to play the NPC as normal but should make an effort to include that NPC in subsequent Episodes that the Gladiator is involved in. However, when purchasing a Relationship to be used as a modifier for a Conflict the player has full control over what the NPC’s role is in the scene, although the GM role-plays the details.
It is legal for two or more Gladiators to have the same NPC as a Relationship.
The value of the Relationship is tracked separately for each Gladiator. However, during Gladiatorial Encounters (see below) it only requires one Gladiator to purchase a Relationship as a modifier for ALL the Gladiators to gain the modifiers from their Relationships with the same NPC.
Eventually, two or more Gladiators will meet in a Scene. When this happens the
Conflict must be between the Gladiators. The actual clash need not be physical but the fallout will always be devastating. Also, all Gladiators recognize each other on sight. Attempts to hide or disguise oneself simply fail (although attempts to do so might add some interesting color to the setup of a Gladiatorial Encounter).
Starting a Gladiatorial Encounter
To start a Gladiatorial Encounter a player must frame his character into a Scene with another Gladiator who is in the same Episode. Only players can do this. The GM can not frame Gladiatorial Encounters even for NPC Gladiators (see the conflict failure rules, for the one exception). For this reason players should know which NPC Gladiators (if any) are in the Episode with them at the start of the Episode.
Death wish and Reason to Live
The first time two Gladiators meet in an Episode the Death wish and Reason to
Live Conflict Pool bonuses should be given out appropriately. The opponents of a
Gladiator with a Death wish receive a Conflict Pool bonus equal to the number of
Relationships the character with the Death wish has. A character with a Reason to Live receives a Conflict Pool bonus equal to the number of Relationships that character has for each Gladiator in the encounter they have not previously met in this Episode.
The player who framed the Scene has the Initiative. What this means is they construct their Conflict Roll first. They declare how many dice (if any) they are gambling from their Conflict Pool and purchase any Relationship modifiers.
Then, in normal turn order, the other Gladiators construct their roll with one limitation. They can not gamble more dice from their Conflict Pool than the player with the Initiative did.
The Threshold Value is irrelevant for Gladiatorial Encounters. The winner is the Gladiator who rolled more ones than his opponent. The difference between the winner’s and loser’s number of ones is the number of Victories. The loser must do all of the following:
In addition to his Gamble the loser loses a number of dice equal to the number of Victories from his Conflict Pool. If this brings the Conflict Pool to less than zero then the losing Gladiator is dead. For NPC Gladiators this truly means deaths. For player characters this means they are out of the current Episode unless this is The Core Episode in which case they are dead.
Also, the loser must subtract from the value of the Relationships purchased as modifiers a total number of points equal to the number of Victories. This may be distributed across the Relationships used anyway the player wishes. If this brings the Relationship Value to less than zero, then that NPC dies, goes irrevocably insane or otherwise permanently removed from the game. If this NPC was shared those Gladiators lose this Relationship as well.
Alice loses to Bob who won with three victories. Alice loses three additional dice from her Conflict Pool. Alice also used two relationships as modifiers on her roll one at three and one at two. She could apply all three points to the two point Relationship and lose it or she could lose two points from the three point Relationship and one point from the two point Relationship, or any other distribution of three points across the two used Relationships.
Conflicts in a Gladiatorial Encounter are not targeted. All Gladiators are presumed to be working against each other. When there are more than two Gladiators in a Gladiatorial Encounter simply compare every possible pair of Gladiators and apply the above Resolution method.
Disengaging from a Gladiatorial Encounter
When a Gladiatorial Conflict is resolved the Scene ends as normal. However, the
Gladiatorial Encounter does not. Instead, the next time a player involved in a Gladiator Encounter has a turn he MUST frame a scene that continues that Gladiatorial Encounter although the time, location and any other details may be vastly different from the previous Scene. This, of course, means this player now has the Initiative for this Conflict.
However, a player may attempt to Disengage from a Gladiatorial Encounter by declaring that his Conflict is an attempt to Disengage. This happens after the player with the Initiative sets the gamble limit. If the roll succeeds (against EVERYONE if there are multiple Gladiators) then the character disengages from the Gladiatorial Encounter and play returns to normal for that player.
The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend
It is possible for two Gladiators to declare a temporary truce. This option is
ONLY available if the Gladiators are not the only two gladiators in the Episode. Also the truce ends the moment they become the only two Gladiators in the Episode.
Two Gladiators who have a truce can share Scenes without it being a Gladiatorial
Encounter. However, the Conflict of the Scene can not be between them and they must each face their own separate Conflicts, even if one is a subset of the other. There is no way for two Gladiators to truly “team up” or “aid another” or “pool resources” or anything like that.
Also, two gladiators who have a truce do not need to compare their rolls in a Gladiatorial Encounter. However, truces are double edged swords. If a gladiator decides to betray a truce during a Gladiatorial Encounter (the player declares this after everyone is done constructing their conflict rolls) then that player gains a bonus to his Conflict Pool equal to the Threshold Value of the current Layer.
Death, Last Man Standing and the Judgment Pool
As mentioned, if a character dies in an Episode that is not The Core Episode they are simply knocked out of the Episode. They will recover in a new Episode on the next Layer. Their Conflict Pool will be equal to the Threshold Value of the new Layer.
On the other hand, the Episode also ends if the character is the Last Man Standing (the only Gladiator left in the Episode). That character proceeds to the next Episode and Layer with a Conflict Pool equal to its previous value plus the Threshold Value of the new Layer.
Players can not advance to a new Episode and Layer until ALL the players are done with their Episodes on that Layer. This means that characters can be out of the game for a while. However, this does not mean that the player is out of the game. Players whose characters can no longer participate in the game either through knock out, last man standing, or death in The Core receive a Judgment Pool of dice equal the Threshold Value of the current Layer plus the number of Relationships their character has.
Players with characters still active in Episodes can request that a player with a Judgment Pool frame a scene for them instead of the GM or themselves. Also, players with Judgment Pools may gamble dice from it in an attempt to sway any Conflict going on in the game. The consequences for this gamble are reversed from that of the normal Conflict Pool. The player only loses the dice from his Judgment Pool if the side he gambled on succeeds.
Once the last NPC Gladiator dies and everyone finishes out their current Episode the very next Episode is the final Episode and it takes place at The Sphere’s Core. This Episode plays out exactly like the previous Episodes with a few exceptions. First of all, there are no NPC Gladiators present because they are all dead by this point. Second, all the player characters must be present in the single unified Episode. Finally, player character death is permanent. The Episode (and the game) ends when there is only one surviving player character left.
What is its Purpose?
So, we’re down to the last player character, what happens? What do they win?
What was the meaning of it all? Actually, I don’t know. The player of the surviving character gets to decide. That player should narrate an epilogue that happens after the last Gladiatorial Encounter ends. This can be as short or as complex as that player likes. Whatever he decides, he should take a moment to consider the events of the game. A good epilogue is one that reflects on the contents of the game as whole.
To better visualize The Sphere think of an extremely high powered magnet that sucked together all the scrap and junk in the universe that was even remotely magnetic. Then dump a bunch of people on it who take all that scrap and start building tunnels and cities and colonies out of it. That’s the Sphere. You can also think Escape From New York meets M. C. Escher.
Who Lives There?
People wake up on The Sphere and not all of them are marked as Gladiators.
These people must survive in what ways they can. These people and their problems make up the meat of the GM’s prep work for each Episode. Here are some ideas:
Gangs are your basic group of thugs who have banded together for mutual protection and aggressive pillaging. All kinds of gangs exist on The Sphere.
Similar to gangs but these people have banded together over a common faith or ideology.
A crude broadcasting system exists on The Sphere and some people are out to find the truth (or not) and disseminate it to the masses. And who knows, if you keep broadcasting maybe someone off The Sphere will pick it up.
Slightly bigger than gangs and (usually) less aggressive some people have opted to setup a small form of local government controlled by the usual array of tyrants and bureaucrats.
Native Sphere Tech
Occasionally, entities that appear to be native to The Sphere appear. They might be Robotic sweeper teams that wipe out a Micro-Nation for no apparent reason or floating devices that appear to be taking some kind of census. These robots, traps and other unintelligible devices appear to be under the control (or at least built) by whoever constructed The Sphere in the first place. They occur with much more frequency as you get closer to The Core.
Ask Only the Essential Questions
The Sphere is not a place designed to make sense. If you want a biker gang in your Episode you might find yourself asking, “But where does the gas come from?”
Don’t. Just don’t. From the above description of The Sphere one might very well ask, “Where does the food and water come from?” Don’t ask. Don’t tell.
Alternatively, you could make these kinds of questions central to an Episode. A biker gang invading a micro-nation because they’re running out of gasoline is a pretty good basis for an Episode. Ask only the questions that interest you.
Since ultimately The Sphere’s purpose is decided by the player of the surviving character it doesn’t do much good for a GM to nail down in advance what’s at the core or what the function of The Sphere Tech is. However, the GM might want to develop some vague notions and sprinkle pieces of those notions throughout the Episodes. Remember, that a good Epilogue is one that reflects on ALL of the game content including the GM’s contributions.
The World They Came From
It is worth noting that all of the inhabitants of The Sphere come from the same place. They are not gathered from around the universe or across dimensions or anything like that. The group should discuss what the world they came from was like. Was it already a futuristic place or was it more like our modern times?
The model here is early episodic television, like The Fugitive, or The Hulk, or even Star Trek. The idea is that there is an existing situation Out There that is rife with problematic human conflict. Then enters the main cast who quickly starts making judgment calls, taking sides and separating the wheat from the chaff. The GM’s job is to create those outstanding independent situations for each Episode and then give the Gladiators the room to start getting involved.
Something to keep in mind is that everyone who lives on The Sphere knows about the Gladiators and can recognize one on sight. People know that Gladiators bring death and destruction and some even view them them as a kind of “chosen one.” More than likely people will try and want to get the Gladiator’s involved in their problems and be that asking for special aid or trying to manipulate them to nefarious ends.
A Final Word On Engaging Situations
The initial setup leaves each Gladiator alone and without any established ties. The only apparent concern is surviving and eliminating the other Gladiators. Initially, it may be a little difficult to see why we should care about the Gladiators as characters or indeed why the Gladiators should care about anything other than their immediate survival.
The idea is to re-construct the Gladiator’s personal value system from the ground up during play. Players should decide what their Gladiator values and apply those values to the Episodic situations provided by the GM. Consider Snake from the film Escape From New York. In the beginning he only cares about getting the poison out of his system by finding the president and getting out. However, as soon as he comes into contact with the locals he starts making judgments and taking sides. Although, he ultimately succeeds in his original goal, he manages to get everyone he cares about killed in the process. Maybe you can do better.
Imagine for a moment that I put a blank sheet of paper and a pencil in front of you and tell you to write. Imagine that I tell you to write a paragraph. Imagine I tell you to write a paragraph about an apple. Imagine that I tell you to write a paragraph describing an apple. Imagine that I tell you to write a paragraph describing an apple that doesn’t use the words red or green.
Now, notice that each time I add something I limit what you can write in some way. Or if you don’t see it as limiting, I’m at least giving your writing some definitive shape or direction. My main point of this post is to point out that these are as much rules as telling you to roll dice and subtract the total from your stat. If you hand me a sonnet about a girl eating red cherries in the green trees you will have broken the rules.
Sorcerer has many, many rules of this nature besides its albeit powerful and central resolution mechanic and currency system. Descriptors are perhaps the most obvious example. Two things about descriptors is that they are chosen from a fixed list (not made up on the fly) and that the list be customized to give direction to the kinds of characters that are appropriate to any given vision of the game.
Consider, for example, the Will Descriptor from the book, “Belief System.” For my Gothic Fantasy setting there is no “Belief System” on my Will Descriptor list. In the source material, the late 18th Century Gothic Novel, Catholicism is a big deal. So in my custom descriptor list there is “Faith in The Church.” Also in the source material, nature vs. the will of man is a big deal. So I also have, “Paganism” as a descriptor but it’s not a Will descriptor, it’s a LORE descriptor. I will note that “Church Heresy” is also on my Lore descriptor list.
I’m willing to discuss why one is a Will descriptor and the other is a Lore descriptor, if you’re curious, but I’d prefer to do so in another thread. But let me say that I have given it serious thought and it’s intentional on my part. It is by design. It is a rule for my Gothic Fantasy incarnation of Sorcerer.
Another example of what I’m talking about in Sorcerer is a Demon’s Desire and Need. These are not merely, “guidelines” for the Demon’s “personality.” Unlike descriptors, which are not character behavior limiting, Desire and Need are demon behavior limiting. Like the paragraph describing the apple without using red or green, Desire and Need limit what a GM can have a Demon do.
The GM should not just wave off a Demon’s Need simply because he feels it’s not appropriate right now. That’s breaking the rules. If the situation dictates the Demon goes into Need, it goes into Need period. The GM should not have the Demon act counter to its Desire just because he feels like it. There’s a reason ordering a demon to do something counter to its Desire incurs a huge die penalty.
Now, I will grant that there is no objective timer for when a Demon goes into Need (although see the rules about Ability usage and Stamina). Identifying the situational context for proper application of the Desire and Need rules is a skill that takes practice and requires cultivation. However, I would like to assert that cultivating this skill is really no different than learning how to identify a conflict and reaching for the dice when one is spotted. For what it’s worth, applying Desire and Need appropriately is probably one of my weakest skills as a Sorcerer GM.
Everything I’m describing applies in full to all of chapter four of the core book. Chapter four gives people, including myself, a weird feeling the first time you read it because it appears out of place. It comes between character/demon creation and the rest of the mechanical rules of the game. This is because those of us familiar with other RPG texts are used to the material in chapter 4 being “suggestions” or “advice” and thus at the END of the book.
Chapter four is not “advice” it’s more rules. Chapter four provides the framework that gives everything in the follow chapters meaning. Games of Sorcerer that don’t work out can often be tracked back to a failure on the groups part to do something described in chapter four.
Example Complaint: Sorcery seemed ridiculously hard and not very useful.
Likely Cause: Failure to define the Sorcery Technicality. What’s that? It’s in chapter four and basically comes down to defining the look and feel of sorcery as well as defining exactly what can be accomplished with Lore. Without a Sorcery Technicality there is no context for earning bonus dice or roll over victories for rituals. There is no direction for how demons move and behave. Lore becomes a fairly useless and meaningless score.
Sorcerer, the game, is a much much broader thing than just its resolution system. It is a very specific narrative structure and framework all of which is outlined in the core book. Ron selected these narrative components very carefully by design. They are not just color, suggestions, advice or guidelines. They are rules. The game will not work if you do not apply them correctly.
So one of the topics it was requested of me to discuss is the application of demon abilities. Here is my number one tip for working with demon abilities: Do not look at the list of abilities while designing the demon. Start with imagining what the demon looks like an what you would like it to do, then go to the list of abilities and look for ways to combine them to produce the desired effect. When I GM Sorcerer I rarely have the players look at the list of abilities. I just ask them to tell me what the demon does and I write it up myself. After all, it’s my NPC anyway.
Playing the Build-a-Demon game is one of my favorite Sorcerer “exercises.” Let’s play a couple rounds right now. I’m thinking of little girl Sorcerer named Emily and her “imaginary” friend Billy. Billy is an inconspicuous demon that protects Emily from harm. Any damage done to Emily is done to Billy instead. So, how to best accomplish this?
Well the most obvious choice is Armor that confers to Emily. That will handle the damage reduction part but what about the transfer? The ability Link is a foundational start. I see two options for actually hurting Billy.
1) The Currency Way: For every victory converted to Fists damage by the Armor ability simply apply damage to Billy based on the original weapon chart.
2) The Ability Purest Way: Give Billy Special Damage (Non-Lethal). Every time Emily gets hit the GM simply has Billy attack himself the following round. That may sound kind of dumb but it’s not when you describe it correctly. Basically while Emily is standing there absorbing bullets, Billy is reeling around in pain. It’s kind of a creepy image.
Here’s one I got recently that was a bit of challenge. The player wanted her possessor demon (hosted in an animal) to be able to see past and future events. I pointed out the ability Hint but she felt that was overkill because she didn’t care about accuracy, reliability or deliberateness of it. She liked the idea of it being kind of dreamy, metaphorical and impossible to interpret. I realized that what she was doing was basically handing me a ready made Bang delivery system.
Here’s the core challenge: The animal host can’t talk and possessors can’t confer their abilities beyond their host. So how does the player character actually have access to this prophetic information? Well for obtaining the information itself I went with Perception (Short Range Time Stream). I noticed that Link includes a “general awareness” of the demon’s immediate surroundings so I figured that was sufficient to act as the “delivery system” for intentionally vague and dream-like “visions.” As a general note I wouldn’t have allowed this ability or would have insisted on using Hint if the player had wanted perfect “second sight” so to speak.
So, let’s get into the text of demon abilities a bit and discuss all those seemingly out of place complexities and details. First let me say that all the mechanical bits of demon abilities are just applications of the currency system used to adjudicate (the word “model” is inappropriate) “weird effects.” If your problem with demon abilities is that the mechanics of Armor converting victories to Fist damage seems like overkill relative to the rest of the system then I suggest that your understanding of the currency system is too simplistic. It isn’t that the demon abilities should be simplified to fit the rest of the system; it’s that the application of the system to other situations should be elevated to the complexity of the demon abilities. I suggest that adjudicating such things as suppressive automatic fire, grenades, lasting emotional distress, the narrative impact of “set pieces” or thematic objects, is much more akin to how demon abilities work than the simple victory roll-over mechanic. I suggest going over the rules with this in mind: All the “dice tricks” listed are not exceptions or special cases. They are examples of the currency applied to a few common situations but are no means “exhaustive” rules.
The trickier part of demon abilities is all the text that seems rather limiting compared to the customizable flexibility of the game. Examples include the size limitations listed under the ability Big, the duration limitations on Shapeshift or the speed limitations on Travel. Ron has admitted that this text is some of the weakest in the book. What I intend to do here is throw out a few basic principles that will hopefully make it easier to understand this text in a functional manner.
The first principle is that nothing in Sorcerer is instant, infinite, eternal or can be diminished to zero. The idea here is that even if your demon can teleport there is always the chance that something can interfere with that. If you go gallivanting around as a werewolf all night long that has consequences. When some action is successful it has some minimal impact and can’t be totally negated. Regardless of what an ability can do there are always opportunities for outside forces to interfere or take advantage of it.
The second principle is about understanding that the text was written with certain narrative assumptions (more on this in the third principle). Mainly, modern occult stories such as Hellblazer and The Exorcist and all the Swords & Sorcery stuff listed in that supplement. As such the abilities are all written with that particular look and feel in mind. A consequence of this is that some abilities may need customizing if your game steps outside those narrative assumptions. The text simply didn’t account for demonic black holes and virtual reality subroutines. This is really no different from customizing the list of descriptors to change the nature of appropriate Sorcerer character types.
The third principle is that the verb “model” is inappropriate when discussing Sorcerer. The rules of Sorcerer do not model anything. They do not model the fictional world. They do not model the fictional world as represented by the source fiction. They do not even model the source fiction itself. What they do is adjudicate the narrative weight of consequential action relative to the here and now fictional situation.
What this means for demon abilities is that stuff like duration and speed kick-in only when that would have weight in the narrative. If Jack Bauer can make it from Santa Monica to Downtown L.A. in 15 minutes through rush hour traffic than so can your demon moving at “normal human speed” right up until all of a sudden we’re stuck in traffic and that bomb is going to go off in 15 minutes. Those eight minutes of Shapeshift on your Power 8 werewolf demon start ticking when a character is locked in the basement and says, “If we can just make it until dawn then he’ll have worn himself out.”
So, that’s my attempt to get at the underlying principles behind Demon Abilities. I hope it has been useful.
Some people find it odd that Sorcery is disproportionately difficult to do relative to anything else in a game called Sorcerer. Other people think the rituals in the game are task resolution complete with a whiff factor. These two misconceptions are related. Let’s take a look at the most conceptually difficult ritual: Contact. Contact is a Lore vs. Power roll which in most cases make it look almost impossible to pull off since you’re often looking at ratios like 3:8. Similarly, if a Contact fails, nothing seems to happen. It can feel like a whiff.
First of all, a Contact ritual isn’t like a fireball spell in D&D. You don’t just say, “Hey, I’m going to Contact” and reach for the dice. That isn’t going to work due to the disproportionate amount of difficulty. You need to get bonus dice and helper rolls. Remember that I said those two things are about refining the details of the situation. This is key to understanding what happens when a Contact fails. You NEED those details if failure is going to make any sense which is why the game forces you to strive for them. Remember that bonus dice are only awarded if at least one person is emotionally moved by the detail which means elements of the Contact must have meaning relative to the greater narrative.
So even after you stack on the bonus dice and helper rolls, how is a Contact ritual a conflict? I can tell you right now that you are not in conflict with the Demon. Remember, in Sorcerer, Demons do not exist. What you are in conflict with is…
Contemplate that for a moment. Since Demons do not exist, if you are attempting to Contact one that puts you in conflict with Reality. Further, remember that Reality in Sorcerer is an emotional narrative construct. It is not a simulated imagined world. As such it can have an agenda just the way inanimate objects can appear to have an agenda. So question: Is there anything in Sorcerer that can serve as Reality’s agenda?
How about the Humanity definition?
When a Contact ritual fails, the Reality that demons do not exist and the Reality of the humanity definition come down on the Sorcerer in a crushing manner. You did not *fail* to Contact a demon who exists out there somewhere, there is no demon to Contact. Thus the consequences for failing a Contact ritual are tied up in the specifics of its attempt.
I played a Southern Gothic game of Sorcerer where the Humanity definition was about walking the line between respect for community and family traditions while retaining your own identity. One of the PCs was married to a woman who was related to a powerful sorcery driven family and she had put a lot of effort in distancing herself from that family. At one point the PC’s daughter was kidnapped by people the PC owed money.
The PC decided he was going to try to Contact a demon. He gathered all these ritual items, including elements he had used to contact this particular demon before (it was a demon he had banished earlier in the story), into his daughter’s bedroom. The Contact failed and the sad reality of the fact that there is no magical incantation that will bring your daughter back came crashing home. He was alone in a room with a bunch of junk and some superstitious poetry. His wife walked in on him and grew very angry! She worked hard to keep herself away from this stuff, to keep her daughter from that crazy side of the family, and now he’s brought it into her home. His daughter was out there somewhere and the BEST he could manage as a father was this superstitious BULLSHIT. How pathetic.
This post is going to be the hardest to write because in some sense this is where I stop telling you how to play chords and start telling you how to compose music. This is a serious look at how the mechanics of Sorcerer touch the narrative. Just what is the toolkit designed to DO? Here’s the answer as best as I can put it: The Sorcerer mechanics are designed to first establish non-obvious details of situation and then to transform that situation into an unexpected new situation.
Let’s look at the core pieces one at a time.
The bonus dice at first look like GM bennies awarded for good player behaviors. That is not the case. In practice they operate a little more like fan mail in Primetime Adventures. Basically bonus dice should be awarded for establishing details of the situation that in some way creatively stir the group. Yes, the GM is the arbiter of this but if something makes a player go “Oooooooo” or “Oh crap!” it’s worth a bonus die and if the GM fails to notice (as I personally am prone to do) then the players should say something.
Bonus dice are not about long winded narrations full of purple prose or sound and fury signifying nothing. The things that usually earn bonus are stuff that actually establishes details of the situation that add nuance to the conflict at hand that was not immediately obvious. Such nuances are often cool pieces of tactical and logistical texturing. This is why they apply to the immediate role at hand are not stored up like Fan Mail because they are about refining the details of the here and now situation. I’m not just hitting you with a crowbar, I’m holding it with both hands and thrusting it spear like into your chest.
These details are important because they make answering questions that may arise later easier to answer. The clearer picture we have of what the character is actually doing the less confusing interpreting later rule applications become. In some sense it narrows the acceptable narrative space.
Helper rolls as previously stated are about resolving larger chunks of ambiguous situation space. Do I know anything about the demon? Are there men loyal to me in the area? Is my dragon style better than your chicken style? The degree to which the answers these questions are useful are of course measured by the victories scored on the roll.
It should be noted if the answer to any of these questions are obvious from previously established fiction then no roll is needed. For example it might have been stipulated early on that the character has never been to this area in his life. Thus the question, “Are there men loyal to me in the area?” is pretty pointless. The answer is an obvious, “No.” This applies to things the players may not know. For example, it might be part of the GMs pre-play prep that the entire village is really a hallucination generated by a demon. It’s perfectly fine for the GM to just say, “No” because he knows that the village isn’t real. But if judgment call is needed to answer the question then it should be decided by the dice rather than fiat.
Now here’s the part where the creative context of the group matters. Let’s say I sequester myself for two hours reading the Necronomicon for two hours before performing a summoning ritual. Is this a bonus die situation or is this a helper roll situation? Frankly, it could be either and which it is depends on the groups’ investment in this bit of description. You kind of have to trust me when I say that in the context of play it is usually pretty obvious but I know that won’t be satisfying to everyone so here’s a guideline. If the purpose of the description is just to show the character’s process of summoning it’s probably a bonus die. If on the other hand, the purpose of the narration is to glean information that will then be applied in some manner to something else, then it’s probably a helper roll.
At this point we have the details of the pre-roll situation. From this point the mechanics are about transforming those in motion details into a new situation in a meaningful manner. Any single die roll gives us two pieces of information the direction the narrative is going and the degree to which that direction matters. In some sense Sorcerer die rolls are story vectors giving us a direction and a magnitude. At this stage any ambiguities in the situation can often be resolved by comparing dice or applying victories.
Example of Comparing Dice
Imagine a situation in which two characters are wresting on the ground a third character wishes to strike down on the tussle. The third character is clearly unconcerned with which of the two wrestlers actually gets struck. Let’s say that the striking character’s action comes up first. Which of the two wrestlers gets struck?
Here’s one solution: Since everyone rolls at once we can compare the dice pools of the wrestlers. Even though their actions have not happened yet we can see “who has the upper hand” at the time the striking blow comes in. That is the wrestler who gets struck because we can say with confidence that he is on top of the dog pile at the time of the strike.
Example of Applying Victories
Bob wants to shoot Carl. Carl wants to pull Alice in front of him to use her as a shield. We’ll leave Alice’s action out of it to keep it simple.
Let’s say Carl comes up first and Alice fails to defend so she gets dragged in front of Carl. The obvious application here is to take the victory dice from Carl’s action against Alice and roll them over to his defense roll against Bob’s shot. Let’s assume that Carl’s defense roll is successful against Bob’s shot. But here’s a perfectly obvious question with maybe a not so obvious solution: Does Alice get shot instead? Do we have anything at out disposal that could answer this question for us so that we don’t have to rely on fiat?
Yes, we do. We have the victories from Carl’s defense roll against Bob’s shot of which Alice’s role as human shield was a part of. We can take those victories and immediately apply them as mid-round attack on Alice. Notice that how Alice narrates her defense against getting shot herself could have a rather significant impact on the situation. If Alice says something like, “I throw myself to the ground dragging Carl with me if I have to” and she succeeds in defending against the bullet it might very well be the case that Carl is now prone on the ground, a situational transformation that wasn’t even part of the apparent possible outcomes at the top of the situation.
Some of you might be asking where in the rule book this miraculous application of mechanics is listed: A secondary mid-round attack? Where is THAT listed? It isn’t. It isn’t because this isn’t a separate rule. Nor is it something I just made up. It’s an example of the application of currency. And that is the artistry of playing Sorcerer: learning to use the currency to resolve ambiguities in the situation without falling back on fiat. That is what takes practice.
Even more so there may be more than one way to legally resolve that ambiguity and which of the options is more appropriate depends entirely on the greater creative context of the narrative. I alluded to such a situation in my post about conflicts with inanimate objects. Consider the gun lying on the ground that a player wants to pick up. When that action comes up does he just pick it up unhindered his with roll effectively only establishing when the action happens relative to the rest of the situation OR does the gun in some way oppose his attempt? The question relies entirely on the greater creative context of the narrative. Again, I can only say that it’s usually fairly obvious in play but I’ll offer up another guideline? Where is the groups’ investment in the gun? Is what’s at stake in the greater narrative just whose hands the gun ends up in? Or is it more like the opening scene of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom where we’re interested in watching the gun run around a bit like the diamond?
Now let me touch on one more aspect of the system that hasn’t been touched on: Total Victory we’re back to adding depth and detail to the situation. By design Total Victory has no mechanical effect instead it allows a player to add another level of situational detail to the outcome of a conflict. If the character was swinging a crowbar at the enemy’s head and score total victory did he break his jaw or gouge his eye out? Again, it’s about narrowing down that narrative space with more detail that will seriously inform follow up narration and rules applications.
I have no idea if I’d made things clearer or more confusing but this is my best shot at explaining how the rules and the narrative interact.
In my thread on conflict subtleties I talked about the case where a man is chasing a woman and there’s a fence between. I noted that the fence was not a character in conflict with the man but rather a modifier on his conflict with the woman. There are, however, some cases where a character can be in conflict with an inanimate object.
The key to identifying when this is appropriate is to determine if it’s possible to view the object as if it were willfully acting on some kind of agenda. Consider the scene in a lot of movies where a character is trapped in a malfunctioning elevator. Ever notice how the elevator behaves as if it were intelligent and doing everything to proactively thwart the character’s attempts at escape? That’s how you do conflict with an inanimate object.
In Sorcerer the GM just assigns the object some dice. There’s a chart in the book guiding how many dice should be assigned but Ron has admitted to defaulting to three. Then you just run the conflict as normal with the GM announcing “actions” for the object. These can even be physical attacks like, “The cable snaps and whips violently at you.”
Much simpler situations can sometimes warrant such things. Consider the example of a gun sliding around on the roof a train. The player could just roll Stamina for the purposes of ordering his attempt to grab the gun relative to the other action in the scene and when he’s turn comes up he just grabs the gun. But man, doesn’t it seem sometimes like that gun is *purposefully* crawling away out of reach? Hmmm…. Grab some dice.
If a player is attempting to do something to an inanimate object and the object can be treated as if it had an agenda that opposes the player then it’s a conflict and you should roll like any other conflict.
Physical conflicts in Sorcerer are fairly straightforward because their consequences are rather obvious from the declared action. If I’m trying to shoot you and I succeed you have a bullet ripping through you. However, social conflicts require a bit of special attention because Sorcerer preserves player (GM included) autonomy over his or her character (NPCs included). No one can force another character into action even through social conflict. The exception is when a Sorcerer orders a Demon to do something.
So how does social conflict work in Sorcerer? Again the lack of stakes helps. Let’s say a man is trying to pick up a woman in a bar. It should be noted that it is perfectly fine and dandy for the player of the man to say, “I really want her to go home with me and have sex.” In fact that helps clarify the nature of the situation at hand but it isn’t Stakes in the Dogs in the Vineyard or Primetime Adventures sense of the word. If the man wins the roll that doesn’t necessarily guarantee the woman will go home with him and have sex with him.
Now let’s add the fact the woman is an NPC and the GM knows that the woman has an abusive boyfriend but the player of the man doesn’t know that. It gets to the point where the man is being chatty and flirty with the woman and the woman is acting all nervous trying to get away. We have a conflict of interest and so a Will vs. Will role is made. Let’s say the man wins.
At this point the GM is shifting in his seat uncomfortably (a LOT of Sorcerer rules are based on this sense of unease that other games can sometimes back you into) because as a creative participant in the game with autonomy over his character, the woman, he’s thinking, “There’s just no way she’d go with this guy. She’s TERRIFIED of her boyfriend.” But the roll has gone in the favor of the man.
Here’s the key point: The GM is free to narrate ANY follow up action on the part of the woman he wants. What the dice do at this point is give the man roll over victories against that action. Here are some viable options for the GM.
The GM could have the woman blurt out something about being scared of her boyfriend. This complies with man’s win because the woman is now giving up something useful to the man. The player of the man might then choose to take the victories from his roll and roll them over to a new roll about trying to get the woman to explain why she’s afraid of her boyfriend.
The GM could have the woman try to run away. Notice this goes totally AGAINST the outcome of the first die roll in terms of the woman’s behavior but that’s perfectly fine because the player of the man can roll over his victories into a new roll, say to snag her arm and stop her from fleeing. “Hey, doll, what’s the rush?”
The idea is that rolls force the situation to CHANGE and victories describe the DIRECTION OF CHANGE. The GM can’t have the woman just sit there stubbornly resisting, he has to have her do something else but it’s perfectly fine to continue to follow his own agenda for the character, the player of the man just has the momentum of the situation going in his favor.
Here’s another point: conflicts always resolve the immediate situation at hand and only for the short term (in story time). It might very well be that the GM just says, “Fuck it, she goes home with you.” And then starts the very next scene the next morning with the woman incredibly hostile, maybe even violently so, screaming, “You bastard! Why did I listen to you! Oh my god, he’s going to KILL ME!”
Maybe he decides that the woman sees a way out in the man, goes home with him and the next morning she’s all cuddled up to him and says to him, “Honey, uh, there’s something I didn’t tell you…”
All of these are valid creative riffs off that initial die roll. This principle applies regardless of whether it’s NPC vs. NPC, PC vs. NPC or even, yes, PC. vs. PC.
In particular notice how this rather simply solves the problem of two players endlessly bickering in character about something without resorting to bullying one of the two players either socially or systematically. As soon as the two characters (in the fiction) are in an argument go to Will vs. Will. We now instantly know who has the upper hand in the argument. The loser can either go, “I lost the argument, fair enough” and comply with appropriate behavior OR if he’s STILL committed to “his way” he has to switch tactics to something other than arguing (or at minimum a new course of argument) and the winner has victory dice to oppose that new tactic if he so chooses.
I’ve encountered some people who seem to be under the impression that Sorcerer uses task resolution rather than conflict resolution. Sometimes this is because of the lack of techniques like stakes and sometimes this is because of the scale of resolution such as resolving a single whack with a crowbar. Stakes and scale do not conflict resolution make. Sorcerer does not use the term conflict resolution because The Forge theory had not yet settled on that phrase to describe the technique.
Conflict resolution means that the system operates at the level of resolving conflicting interests between characters. We only need to identify that the interests of two or more characters are in conflict and have the resolution in some way sort those interests to have conflict resolution. We don’t even need to articulate what the interests are and the interests in question can be of any level of granularity.
Example of Unarticulated Interests
A character in a bar starts getting flirty with a girl who clearly seems to be nervous about the man’s attentions.
That’s all we need to call for a Will vs. Will role in Sorcerer. We don’t know what the man wants from the woman exactly. It could be sex, information, just generally endearment. We don’t know why the woman is so nervous, maybe she’s gay or has an abusive boyfriend. We don’t know yet. All we know is that the man seems to want something and the woman seems unwilling to give it. We can establish more detail after the role decides who gets his or her way. No stakes. No goals.
Example of Small Scale
The man wants to sweep kick the legs of the woman who is about to shoot him. Clearly this is just a single moment in a much larger evolving situation. But it’s still a conflict and not a task because we have the incompatible interests of two characters. Note that we also have four possible outcomes. The man sweep kicks the woman whose shot goes wild as she falls. The woman shoots the man preventing him from kicking her. The man sweep kicks the woman but her shot lands against him as she goes down. The woman side steps the man’s kick which causes her shot to go wild. Again, notice that we have no idea what the larger scale situation is.
Contrasted with Task Resolution
A man needs to jump over a fence while chasing a woman. The fence is not a character in this situation. The man is not in conflict with the fence, he’s in conflict with the woman. To resolve the jump over the fence does not resolve the interests at hand. The fence is a complication on the conflict of the man trying to catch the woman and the woman trying to get away.
Now because there are no stakes and because conflicts can be of very small scale the result is that situation and character agenda can turn on a dime without much thought or articulation. Let me slightly reward the previous example. A woman wants to shoot a man and he wants to take the gun away from her.
After a SINGLE die roll:
The man could be bleeding from a wound as the woman menacingly advances cocking back the hammer for a second shot.
The man could be bleeding while holding a gun on an unarmed woman.
The man could be uninjured holding a gun on an unarmed woman.
The man could be prone after having just dodged a bullet.
All four of these situations are RADICALLY different from one another. I don’t know of another system that results in such RAPID changes in logistics after a single application of the mechanics. Notice that character agenda could shift immensely from the beginning of this conflict to the top of the next.
Consider that at the top of the conflict the woman could have been all about exacting revenge and by the end she might be all about begging for mercy. At the top of the conflict the man could have been trying to be sympathetic and open but by the end might decide that negotiations aren’t an option and she needs to be taken out.
Now keep in mind that the Humanity definition looms over all of this and you’ll see that the system is CONSTANTLY creating shifting opportunities for Humanity gain or loss – even mid-“combat” as unit of situation morphs into unit of situation.
Another point of confusion is the role of “helper” rolls. These can also feel like task resolution because they don’t really resolve anything at all. An example of the helper roll is the book where the character with Martial Artist Cover rolls that and then rolls over any victories to his primary Stamina roll. Another example might be rolling Lore against the Power of a demon to discover a weakness.
The reason these aren’t task resolution is because they only make sense in the context of an actual conflict. A character can only ask if his Martial Artist Cover is relevant if something else is at hand to be relevant about. Same goes for looking for the demon weakness. These rolls are a STEP in the conflict resolution procedures. They are not the resolution themselves.
I think people have difficulty figuring out when to use helper rolls. The purpose of these helper rolls is to eliminate GM Fiat when the answer to obviously relevant questions would VASTLY alter the nature of the situation. Think back to your GMing history and remember all the times a player would ask something that would require a judgment call on the part of the GM. I know these situations always made me uncomfortable because I knew my answer would greatly sway the momentum of the situation. I think some people who have been GMing for a long time have learned to shoot past that unease and make a snap judgment. I never did and now the Sorcerer rules mean I don’t have to.
Consider the situation where the player asks, “Hey, given all my knowledge of Sorcery do I know anything USEFUL about this demon?” That’s a damn good question and even if I made a judgment call we still wouldn’t know just how useful it is. The rules give us both. Roll Lore vs. Power. Roll the victories over to an action relevant to whatever it is it turns out you know. This is the idea behind the Past rules in Sorcerer & Sword. “Hey, I used to be the captain of the guard can I round up a few guys to go storm the castle?” Again, that’s a damn good question, make that Past roll. No fiat required.
The whole idea of games that take practice has been floating around my head for a few days now. When push comes to shove the game I always want to play and the game I always want to get better at is Sorcerer. So, this is a first in a series (of how many I don’t know) of posts about how to play Sorcerer better. This post is primarily about why I think Sorcerer is worth practicing.
Sorcerer’s appeal is very much rooted in my play history. I started with Red Box D&D when I was about 8 years old. As I got older I blossomed into a very story minded pre-teen and teen. My exposure to fantasy fiction was very minimal and something I struggled with in D&D was how monsters made stories. Clash of the Titans was a favorite of mine and yet the rules for a Medusa didn’t quite fit the scene in that movie. The rules for Vampires didn’t really seem to have anything to do with Dracula. I got very caught up in the confusion that the primary purpose of D&D was to create quality fantasy fiction.
Eventually, I discovered other games, most notably Chill. Ah! Now here was a game that suddenly made sense to me. In particular it had monsters that conformed to some kind of human agenda. The Mean Old Neighbor Lady being a classic. And the Ghosts! Oh God, did I love the ghosts: the spurned lover, the wrongfully executed criminal, all behaviors and motivations that made sense to me. A friend of mine once commented, “They’re villains, not obstacles.” This was the beginning of my understanding of Situation.
In my history we’re up to post-college but pre-Forge. I was running Chill on a regular basis and here’s what I learned: I must be a horrible GM. I learned this because I could not get the players to follow the plot. My clues were not clear enough and the players didn’t know what to do next or they would wander off in wholly unpredictable ways or worse jump to conclusions too soon. I could not keep the players on my clue based scene chain to properly pace the narrative from mystery to “revelation.”
Then one day I wrote a Chill scenario called The Art Gecko. Going all the way back to my D&D roots I never understood why the Chill books contained classic monsters like a Basilisk. I just had no clue how to make such a monster jive with the more human like ghosts, vampires and witches. So I set before myself a challenge. Pick one of these classic monsters and make it work. And so I chose the Basilisk.
I imagined a woman who so desperately wanted to be a great sculptor but had no talent. One day she came across an “exotic” animal shop and was sold by the mysterious proprietor a reptile he claimed to be a genuine Basilisk. Low and behold the woman was shocked to discover that the creature was indeed genuine. So she hatched an idea. First she gauged out her own eyes to protect her from the creature’s gaze and then started luring people into her home where she exposed them to the creature. Soon, she found fame and fortune as the “blind sculptress” who could, by feel alone, craft the most lifelike statues you have ever seen.
Around her I created an artist’s community rife with other problems and secrets. There was even a plain old murder over blackmail involved. I had a web of artists and the desperate things they were willing to do for success. Little did I know, I’d created a Sorcerer scenario before I’d even heard of the game. However, I was still attached to the notion that I had to pre-plot play. I threaded a very careful clue-chain through the situation I had created in order to build up suspense and work the players through the secrets of the community from least heinous all the way up to the Basilisk reveal.
It worked overall better than any of the previous Chill games I had run. But I discovered something rather amazing when I took the scenario to a con. I was concerned about the time crunch in the con environment so on a whim I abandoned the linear plot structure in favor of just handing out information and clues in any order when the players did anything remotely worthy of them. And a miracle happened.
As I had feared the players figured out the basilisk trick rather early on, about an hour into play. However, the other events in the town proved grabby enough that they ended up seeking them all out on their own anyway. They didn’t rush to take out the sculptor and call it a night just cause they knew where the Big Bad was. They wanted to know what the hell was up with all this other stuff in the community FIRST.
And that was my first real taste of the power of Situation, Premise and Relationship-Maps, and Human-Monster relationships. However, I never really put it together until much later.
Somewhere in the middle of all that Chill playing I encountered Sorcerer, Ron Edwards and The Forge. At first I dismissed Sorcerer as White-Wolf-Lite (Note: Unlike many I have NO play experience with these games). But I was extremely fascinated by Ron and his claims. Here was a man who very clearly wanted out of gaming what I wanted out of gaming but his suggestion that Theme (as the Big Model defines it) could be a function of play itself rather than preset and front-loaded seemed impossible to me. At the time I was very hung up on the idea of the Auteur and that Theme was something communicated on high from a singular vision down to an enthralled audience. In RPGs that was the GM.
So I hunkered down determined to make heads or tails of this game and its author’s radical claims. And thus I began my long in depth study of Sorcerer and the literature behind it. In that time the game and Ron have:
a) Radically redefined my experience of stories.
b) Radically redefined my worldview on the human experience.
c) Introduced me to fantasy fiction that doesn’t read like a made-up high school history text.
d) Taught me to enjoy hardboiled detective fiction as something other than an unfair puzzle.
And that doesn’t even touch on the entire “How to do Story Now” stuff. What I enjoy most about Sorcerer is that every time I play it, I learn something about myself and I learn something about those I play it with.
There are a lot game play features of Sorcerer I enjoy that I don’t see in a lot of other designs. Elaborating on these is the primary goal of these essays.
Conflict resolution with out goals or stakes.
Conflict granularity that preserves the back-n-forth fun of a struggle.
Social conflict resolution that preserves player-character sovereignty.
Resolution with massively situation altering impact in a single pass through of the dice.
A currency process that eliminates fiat by establishing narrative constraints.
Extreme uncertainty relative to adversity.
The opportunity for rapid mid-resolution change in character priorities.
And more I’m probably not thinking of.
I hope I’ve at least captured your interest.
Spirit of the 18th Century
This is rules hack for Spirit of the Century (for completeness the OGL is included at the end of this page) to facilitate the creation of stories like those found in the Gothic romances of the late 18th Century. If you are unfamiliar with the genre I suggest reading The Castle of Otronto, The Monk, The Romance of the Forest, Frankenstein and Melmoth the Wanderer. For a great look at the post-18th Century Gothic tradition, I can not recommend The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales highly enough. Also, this is pretty extreme rules hack. You have been warned.
In the gothic romance the villain is always a major figure. Sometimes the villain is central to the point of being really a tragic protagonist (Manfred in Castle of Otronto or Alphonso in The Monk). In this game the villain walks that borderland by basically being the GM’s PC. Although controlled by the GM the villain is still sketched out collaboratively by the group and is the first formal process of play.
Begin by sketching out a general idea for the villain. In the source material the villain is usually a male noble of foreign (to England) birth. That’s not required here. All that is required is that the villain be a driven individual with the means to pursue his drives almost to the exclusion of all other concerns.
Mechanically the villain starts out as two Aspects and one Trait (Sot18thC’s replacement for Skills). The two Aspects must represent what the villain covets. The love of a lady? Recognition? Money? His rivals lands? An heir? What is the villain after?
The villain also gets one Trait rated at Great (+4). Traits are Sot18thC’s replacement for Skills in SotC. Traits can be anything of thematic importance to the character. In that regard they are much more similar to Aspects. Indeed anything that makes a good Aspect probably makes a good Trait. The real difference is that Aspects are fixed and don’t change and Traits will have the opportunity to be replaced and shuffled around (more on that later). Also Aspects trace the progress of the character’s story arc while Traits represent the immediate story priorities of the character.
Once you have this sketch of the villain it’s time for the players to create their heroes and heroines. Like the villain, mechanically heroes and heroines start out with two Aspects and one Trait rated at Great (+4). Unlike the villain, however, the two Aspects must represent the Hero or Heroine’s Virtues (i.e. what makes them good and honorable people). Like villains, the Trait represents anything of immediate thematic importance to the character.
In addition to the two Aspects and the Trait the players must answer one of the following questions. How does your character stand in the way of what the villain covets? OR In what unwanted way can your character be used by the villain to obtain what he covets? If you’re feeling particularly sadistic towards your character you can answer both questions.
Finally, each player starts the game with two Fate points (one for each Aspect).
Fleshing Out, Redefining and Shuffling Traits
The heroes, heroines and the villain have space for nine more traits; two at Good (+3), three at Fair (+2) and four at Average (+1). At any point a player may simply fill in a blank Trait for his or her character. The GM gets to fill in the villain’s Traits. This is called Fleshing Out the character’s Traits.
However a player may also Redefine his character’s Traits by spending Fate points. To redefine a Trait simply pay a number of Fate points equal to it’s rating. In other words it costs four fate points to redefine your Great Trait, three Fate points to redefine your Good Traits and so on.
Finally a player may Shuffle his character’s Traits. Shuffling a Trait means swapping the ratings of two already existing Traits. To Shuffle two traits pay the difference between their ratings in Fate points. For example it costs three Fate points to swap the character’s Great Trait with an Average Trait. This merely rearranges their placement in the pyramid. You always have ten Traits in the Great, Good, Good, Fair, Fair, Fair, Average, Average, Average, Average pattern.
Just remember that Traits represent the character’s immediate thematic priorities.
The villain follows slightly different rules for Shuffling and Redefining Traits. Since the villain need not track Fate points separately (he has an infinite supply) The GM may only Shuffle and Redefine the villain’s traits just before rolling dice in a conflict. The GM then pays the Fate point cost to the player engaged in the conflict. If there is more than one player involved in the conflict the Fate points are divided as evenly possible with any odd counters going to the player with the least Fate points.
Aspects & Story Arcs
In Spirit of the 18th Century Aspects track your character’s story arc. Like Traits players are free to add to their Aspect list whenever they like. However, the aspect list must follow a very specific progression.
After the starting two Virtues the next two Aspects must reflect what tempts the character away from his Virtues. The two Aspects after those must reveal what exhausts the character and pushes him towards giving up his pursuits or falling to his temptations. The next two Aspects represent the character’s fall to corruption and must express his darkest elements. The final two Aspects represent the character’s redemption from the previous corruption. That’s it. The player maxes out at ten Aspects.
Once an Aspect has been defined it can be Invoked, Tagged and Compelled as usual. Also the player earns a Fate point as soon as the Aspect is defined. As stated the player may fill these in at any time but must define them in the exact order described. However, there are a few good reasons why the player won’t want to fill them in all at once.
The first reason is that unlike core SotC the Stress track does not refresh between scenes. Defining a new Aspect empties the Stress track. The second reason is that once a character has a single Corruption Aspect or beyond if he is ever Taken Out in a conflict he is permanently removed from the game. Finally, once a character defines a Redemption aspect he can no longer Invoke his Temptation, Exhaustion or Corruption Aspects. However, they can still be Tagged or Compelled but the player earns no Fate when they are. Yeah, Redemption is hard.
The villain follows a different Aspect progression track. After the first two covet Aspects his next two Aspects must define what powers him. The two after that must define his master plan. The next two reveal his fatal flaws. The last two reveal his darkest secrets. Unlike players all ten of the villains Aspects must be defined before he can be permanently Taken Out of the story.
Spending Fate Points
Fate points in Spirit of the 18th Century can accomplish seven things.
Earn a straight up +1 on a die roll.
Invoke your own Aspect or Tag an Aspect that belongs to something else either to re-roll or the dice or add a +2 to the roll.
Compel an Aspect to restrict a character’s behavior (yes, players can compel each other’s and the villain’s Aspects).
Resist a Compel.
Shuffle or Redefine Traits on the point buy system described earlier.
Annul a conflict by deepening The Mystery (this is explained later).
Create a Temporary Aspect that lasts until it is Invoked by you. It can be Tagged or Compelled freely until then and you don’t earn the Fate point for it.
Earning Fate Points
You earn a Fate point:
When your Aspect is Compelled OR Tagged (This is not true for Temporary or Lasting Aspects).
When the villain Redefines or Shuffles his Traits.
When you define a new Aspect progressing your Story Arc.
Scenes & Conflict
A distinction must be made between Requesting a Scene and Framing a Scene. Any player may Request a scene but the GM always Frames the scene. When Requesting a scene the player states what elements he’d like in the scene, characters, time, place, general goings on, etc. The GM then Frames the scene by establishing those elements and adding any others. The GM is also allowed to deny a player’s request and Frame a scene of his own preference. This is a rare occurrence, however.
It should be noted that all elements in a scene that ever take pro-active action are always acting in either a hero/heroine’s interests or the villain’s interests. Characters who are acting in the interests of the hero or heroine are narrated by that player. Characters who are acting in the interest of the villain are narrated by the GM. The GM is allowed to co-opt a player controlled NPC if suddenly their agenda starts serving the villain. That power doesn’t flow the other way.
This makes it possible to have scenes that do not directly involve the heroes, heroines or villains. It is perfectly legit to frame a scene that’s about the hero’s daughter confronting the villain’s vile henchman. They key here is that if a conflict arises these character’s actions are represented by the Traits, Aspects and Dice of the players whose interest they serve. More on this later.
Once a scene is established go ahead and role-play the scene out with as much narrative or thespian detail as you would like. If a conflict of interest arises among the characters within the scene use the following rules to resolve the conflict. This need not end the scene. The scene ends according to the aesthetic standards of those participating in the scene.
It should be noted that the following replaces the ENTIRETY of the base SotC system. There are no Maneuvers or Stunts or Supplementary Actions or Minions or Groups. There is only what is provided here.
First decide which type of conflict is at hand: Oppositional or Orthogonal. Oppositional Conflicts are when a character is trying to achieve something and another character is merely trying to stop them. There are only two outcomes in an Oppositional Conflict. Either the acting character gets what he wants or he doesn’t. While this may seem bland remember that a conflict can not simply be repeated so failure at an oppositional conflict cuts the acting player off from a course of action.
Orthogonal Conflicts are what happens when two or more characters are taking actions which may interfere with one another. In a two person Orthogonal Conflict there four possible outcomes. Either character gets what he wants, neither character gets what he wants or both gets what he wants.
A subtle point: It is sometimes beneficial to treat an Oppositional Conflict as an Orthogonal one if there is likely to be an immediate follow up conflict. For example imagine that Alice is shooting Bob and Bob simply wants to duck for cover. This may seem like an Oppositional Conflict. Alice wants to shoot Bob and Bob simply wants to not be shot. However, since it is unlikely that Alice will stop trying to hurt Bob if she misses it may be useful to know whether Bob makes it to cover or not regardless of whether or not he gets shot. In these cases treat the situation like an Orthogonal Conflict.
A few other thing: All conflicts are resolved via opposed die rolls. There are no Difficulties or Target Numbers. Shifts are the difference between the two rolls. There is only one Stress track and it is ten boxes instead of five. Stress rolls up as usual if it hits the same box more than once. Consequences follow the same mild, moderate and severe pattern. After the the third Consequence the player is Taken Out (more on this later). As stated earlier Stress does not go away at the end of the scene.
Resolving Oppositional Conflict
Both sides roll 4dF as a base. The defender gains an automatic +2. A player may apply ONE and only ONE of his Traits if it’s appropriate. However it should be noted that if a player applies one of his Traits or Invokes one of his Aspects (but not if he Tags something else’s Aspect) then he becomes vulnerable to Stress even if he is rolling for an NPC (which as stated earlier is just acting in his interests).
The dice are rolled. The character represented by player who rolls the highest total gets his way.
Next calculate Shifts by subtracting the loser’s roll from the winner’s roll. There are three things you can do with Shifts and you can divide your Shifts between them.
By spending two shifts you can create a Lasting Situation Aspect that persists until the end of the scene. This is a double edged sword as it can be Tagged by anyone (and you don’t earn the Fate point for that).
Shifts can be turned into Bumps on a one to one basis. Bumps let you raise a die that came up minus or zero by one value on an immediate follow up conflict. You can use two bumps to raise a minus to a plus. If there is no immediate follow up conflict Bumps are lost.
Finally Shifts can be converted directly into Stress. However, the defender in an oppositional conflict can not inflict Stress but can use either of the two previous options.
Resolving Orthogonal Conflict
Everyone states what action they are taking, freely and openly in any order. People can change their action based on what others say. However, once the dice are rolled everyone is committed to their course of action and can not change or abort it.
Again everyone involved rolls a base 4dF. Anyone taking a purely defensive action gains an automatic +2. Again you can apply ONE and only ONE Trait to the roll. And Again if you apply a Trait or Invoke your own Aspect you become vulnerable to Stress.
However, actions are resolved from highest total roll to lowest total roll. Ties being broken by who rolled the most pluses, then the most zeros then the most minuses, and finally by the highest Trait used. If that is all tied then it goes to a Fate point bidding war.
Anyone who is affected by the current action gets to roll defense. However, if their own action has not happened yet they only get to roll paired canceling dice and dice showing zero from their original action roll. For example if the player rolled, -, +, 0, + then he would roll three dice for his defense. If the player has already had his action he rolls all four of his dice for his defense. If the player used a Trait in his original roll then this defense roll is added to that original Trait. If no Trait was used for the action, no Trait can be applied now. However, Invoking and Tagging Aspects is just fine.
As each action occurs determine the outcome. The higher roll succeeds in each case. Also calculate Shifts which again can accomplish three things and can be distributed across any combination of these three things.
By spending two shifts you can create a Lasting Situation Aspect that persists until the end of the scene. This is a double edged sword as it can be Tagged by anyone (and you don’t earn the Fate point for that).
Shifts can be turned into Bumps on a one to one basis. Bumps let you raise a die that came up minus or zero by one value on an immediate follow up conflict. You can use two bumps to move a die from a minus to a plus. If there is no immediate follow up conflict Bumps are lost.
Finally Shifts can be converted directly into Stress. However, anyone taking a purely defensive action can not inflict Stress but can use either of the two previous options.
Multiple Characters Acting In Someone’s Interest
Earlier it was stated that it was possible to have scenes that do not feature the heroes, heroines or the villain but that any character taking pro-active action in these scenes were to be considered acting in the interest of the heroes, heroines or the villain. When one of these characters is acting in the interests of a given player’s (including the GM’s) character then that player rolls dice, uses their Traits and Aspects and takes the Stress for the outcome.
If there are MULTIPLE such characters then roll separate dice for each. The only caveat is that you can not apply the same Trait to two characters rolling simultaneously. If only one Trait is applicable to the situation then you have to choose which character ‘s dice the Trait is helping. Similarly when you Invoke an Aspect you have to decide which roll you are affecting, you can’t affect both and you can’t Invoke the same aspect multiple times in the round of die rolls.
Being Taken Out
When a player is Taken Out (by taking a Consequence beyond severe) he has a choice. He can either have his character exit the story permanently or have the GM frame his next set of circumstances. He might very well end up in the villain’s dungeon but the GM might also kill his girlfriend. His Stress track also empties when he is Taken Out. Thus it is possible to play the unwavering hero who never compromises his Virtues but the character is likely to suffer for it… A LOT.
The exception to this is if the character’s Aspects have progressed into Corruption. If the character has his first or Corruption Aspect or beyond he MUST exit the story permanently if he is taken out. The player shouldn’t worry about this because even if his character is taken out he continues to play in a special manner (described in a moment).
The villain is only ever Taken Out permanently if all ten of his Aspects have been defined. Until then he is only Set Back. However, when he is Set Back he MUST define his next Aspect and his Stress track refreshes.
So while this power struggle between hero and villain is going on something else is going on as well. That something else is called The Mystery. This mystery may or may not have anything to do with heroes, heroines or the villain. For the ultimate in disconnected mystery I suggest reading The Mysteries of Uldopho. In any event here’s how The Mystery works.
By spending a Fate point a player can immediately annul a conflict at any point no matter how complex or at what point in the resolution system. In the fiction this annulment is represented by an event that reveals part of The Mystery and interrupts the scene. Maybe ghosts show up, or someone falls through a secret door or all of a sudden the lights go out and a shadowy figure is seen running along the balcony.
Based on whatever interrupts the conflict at hand a new Aspect is added to The Mystery. This Aspect can be Tagged like any other Aspect thus reinforcing previous elements of The Mystery. Like heroes, heroines and the villain The Mystery is limited to ten Aspects. However, there is no obligatory order to these aspects with one exception. The tenth Mystery Aspect is called “The Horrible Truth.” The player who defines it must make sense of all the previous Aspects and explain how they add up to the tenth one. The tenth Aspect is the shocking reveal behind The Mystery.
In addition to stopping the conflict and ending the scene, adding to The Mystery does a few other extremely powerful things. It empties the Stress track of anyone who was involved in the annulled conflict and removes any and all Consequences they had accumulated. Pretty powerful stuff, right? So what’s the catch?
Remember when I said that if a player’s character is permanently taken out of the story they don’t stop playing? That’s because they now play Doom. Doom is not a character. It’s a concept. Here’s how Doom works.
Doom has all the Aspects of all the character’s who have been permanently removed from the story. Here’s where Traits being the same as Aspects pays off.
Doom’s Traits are the Aspects attached to The Mystery. Starting with “The Horrible Truth” and going backwards up the list assign the standard pyramid of ranks. “The Horrible Truth” is Great (+4) the Trait above it is Good (+3) and so on.
Doom may not Flesh Out, Reassign or Shuffle his Traits. If there are Doom players before The Mystery is fully fleshed out it continues to be fleshed out using the annulment method described above.
Players may continue to Tag Doom’s Traits as Aspects and the Fate point goes to the Doom player with the least Fate points.
Doom’s Traits may also be Compelled as Aspects to make any scene element representing Doom’s interests do something. Any Doom player may buy off the compel. If the compel is not bought off the Fate point again goes to the Doom player with the lowest Fate points.
Doom does have a Stress track and can be Taken Out but this only represents holding Doom at bay. The forces of Doom are removed from the scene in some manner and Doom’s Stress track is reset.
Doom doesn’t care about the interests of anyone but Doom. Give ’em all hell.
How To Play Doom
The easiest way to play Doom is to have elements of The Mystery show up and start causing problems in the character’s lives. However, ANYTHING can be an agent of Doom. Have the building suddenly collapse, or a fire break out or an agent of the law suddenly get on the villain’s trail. Whatever makes things worse for all the characters still standing. Declare actions for these things as if they were pro-active thinking characters and roll dice for them.
It should be noted that the GM still retains scene framing rights. Doom players however may insert any element they wish into a scene and that element is presumed to be serving the interests of Doom. That element is also narrated and controlled by the Doom player who introduced it. That Doom player also rolls on its behalf in conflicts.
How To End The Game
The game ends when the villain is permanently Taken Out of the story. Notice that this can happen under two rather different circumstances. The first is when there is one or more heroes or heroines left standing. Yay for them! Narrate epilogues for those characters.
The second happens when the villain manages to sustain himself past ALL the heroes and villains and then eventually succumbs to Doom. Congratulations this villain is one of those unique villains-as-protagonists I mentioned at the start of the game, enjoy his demise.
Rules for the Novella
As written this game will likely last several sessions and produce a pretty hefty gothic novel. If you’d like to try for a novella simply reduce all Aspect lists from ten to five and similarly reduce the Stress tracks from ten to five. Similarly reduce the Trait pyramids down to five and start the top at Good (+3).
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The Role-playing Game of Small
Spaces and Personal Conflict
What if I told you Night of the Living Dead was not about zombies? What if I told you that Cube was not about a maze-like death trap or that The Thing was not about a shape-shifting alien? These three films are really about isolation. They’re about what happens when a small group of people are trapped together under a heavy pressure situation. Whether it’s zombies, death traps, aliens, or something as mundane as bad weather the results are always the same. Eventually the true natures of the characters rise to the surface and come into fierce conflict. More often than not characters in these stories get killed not by the threat that contains them but through their own actions brought about by their inability to see past their differences.
Isolation is an attempt to build a rule system that will facilitate the kinds of behaviors seen in these stories. The rules are different from most RPGs in that they don’t try to model individual actions or real world physics. Instead the rules model interpersonal conflict between the players’ characters. You’re more likely to succeed at something if you’ve got someone who likes you helping out. However, you have to convince them to see past their biases and their own selfish agenda first. Further more just because you convince someone to help you doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got a better chance at success, that all depends on whether or not you can get along long enough to get the job done.
The result hopefully will be an intense role-playing experience where the character’s personal egos are more of a threat than whatever is keeping the group together. If a player dies because he was shot while another player was trying to wrestle the only gun the group has away from him or more hurt and injury comes from character inaction then actual effort to solve the problem then the game is going spectacularly well. The point is to enjoy watching the characters slowly descend into stress induced madness brought on by their own selfish egos.
One final note, you will need A LOT of six-sided dice to run this game. They will also need to be of different
colors. I personally recommend a set of green dice and a set of red dice. I also recommend some kind of white board or bulletin board on which to post the ever-changing character relationship map.
Characters are made up of the following statistics: Profession, Positive Descriptors, Negative Descriptors, Bias and Goal. Each of these is explained in detail below.
The recommended starting character consists of one Profession, three Positive Descriptors, three Negative Descriptors, one Bias and one Goal. It is also recommended that any character never have more than twice his Negative Descriptors in Positive Descriptors. Otherwise it is left up to the GM and the Players to keep the cast well balanced.
– This represents what the character does for a living. It is essentially a single descriptor that
encompasses all of the character’s skills. Examples: Doctor, Hobo, Student and Soldier.
Positive Descriptors – These are elements of your character’s personality that are generally likable and helpful. It is better if these descriptors are personality centric but they do not have to be. Examples: Charming, Fleet of Foot, Intelligent, and Scholarly.
Negative Descriptors – These are elements of your character’s personality that are generally unlikable and a hindrance. Like Positive Descriptors it is better if these descriptors are personality centric but they do not have to be. Examples: Arrogant, Dull Witted, Loud-Mouthed and Blind.
Bias – This represents something you are biased towards. The most obvious example is if you’re a racist. The only restriction is that you cannot have a bias that won’t come into play. In other words you cannot be a racist if no one is playing an ethnic character. Examples: Racist, Upper Class Snob, and Mistrustful of Academic Types.
Goal – This is a goal your character has that is relevant to the scenario. For example one character might be trying to kill the threat while another person might merely be trying to survive until help comes and a third might be trying to escape with his family. Again, the goal must be relevant to the situation at hand.
Building The Relationship Map
The relationship map is central to the core mechanic of Isolation. The relationship map illustrates how all the characters ‘feel’ about each other. Every character is connected to every other character in one of two
ways, either with a red link or a green link. A red link represents a reason the characters have to hate each other and a green link represents a reason that characters have to like each other. Obviously the more red links two characters share the less likely they are to work together and the more green links they share the more likely they are to work together. Links can either be labeled or unlabeled, more on that later.
An initial relationship map is constructed immediately after character creation. The process is highly subjective and is therefore best left in the hands of the GM unless your particular group is a fairly co-operative in which case it can be done as a group. However, I suggest that if your group is not
co-operative to begin with you will most likely have problems with the other core mechanics of Isolation.
The first step is to look for compatible and incompatible descriptors. Compatible descriptors form a green link between players and incompatible descriptors form red links between players. These links should be labeled with the two descriptors that form the bond. Note: Whether the descriptors are negative or positive has no bearing on the nature of the link. You are only looking for compatibilities and incompatibilities. This should also be interpreted fairly loosely so as to create as interesting a mix of red and green links as possible.
There would be a red link between two players who both had the Negative Descriptor Arrogant because most likely they would constantly fight for control.
There might be a green link between someone who had the Positive Descriptor Compassionate and someone who had the Negative Descriptor Blind because the compassionate character would feel sorry
for the blind character.
There might be a red link between someone who has the Positive Descriptor Fleet of Foot and someone who has the Negative Descriptor Dull Witted because under stress the dull witted character
is irritated by his inability to keep up with the actions of the fleet footed character and vice versa.
There might be a green link between someone who has the Positive Descriptor Charming and someone who has the Positive Descriptor Flirtatious because they would most likely be highly
attracted to each other.
Once all descriptor links have been added to the relationship map and labeled with their appropriate descriptor pairing it’s time to add in the links due to bias. A character’s bias is a stronger force than
simple personality quirks. It represents an emotional blind spot.
Therefore two links are added to the map and labeled with the bias for each character that falls under the weight of the bias. For example two red links labeled racist would be added between the racists and an ethnic character. In the event that two characters share a bias or a bias that is very similar then two green links may be added between those characters. Birds of a feather flock together.
And finally three green links are drawn between people who share a common goal and three red links are drawn between people who have opposing goals. Since these links can seriously tip the balance of play this should be interpreted MUCH more strictly than the descriptors or biases. To earn the three green links the goals must truly be the same and to earn the three red links the goals must truly be diametrically opposed to one another, not merely incompatible. For example, one character wanting to kill the threat and another player wanting to capture the threat would warrant the three red links but one character wanting to kill the
threat and another wanting to hide until a rescue team comes would not.
When this process is done the players should have a map of labeled red and green links showing the relationships between them all. At this point the GM should add any NPCs that are going to be trapped in
the situation with the players. It is difficult and cumbersome to add characters to the relationship map after play has begun. This is okay since in this genre no protagonists are introduced after the very beginning.
style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> It is important to note that NPCs should only be given the full PC treatment if they are essentially ‘in the same boat’ as the PCs. All antagonistic, neutral or other types of NPCs are treated entirely different and indeed do not have any kind of statistical data at all.
Since our relationship map has been drawn we can now get into the mechanics of the actual game. The most noticeable feature is that there is only one single die roll that is interpreted two different ways. The first interpretation determines who is working for or against the acting character and the second interpretation determines the degree of success of the action itself. As you read, this will become much clearer. I just wanted to state upfront that there is only one die roll that is being interpreted two different ways throughout these rules.
Before we get into the die roll itself however there needs to be some ground rules laid first:
1) The Default Is Conflict. You can ALWAYS choose to work against someone without having to roll. If however, you wish to work with another character or even remain neutral you most roll the ice. And even then you can always downgrade the result. For example if your result on the dice is cooperative you can choose to remain neutral or to work against. However, if your result is neutral you may not choose to be cooperative. The only exception to this rule is if two characters have NO red links
between them. If two characters have only green links between them then they have the freedom to act cooperatively.
2) What you say is what you do. The problem with running this kind of story in other systems is that players will discuss strategies and such out of character over the game table. The result is that every action that gets acted upon in the game world has been carefully planned and all the risks and consequences have been thought through and hammered out. This is not what normally happens in this brand of story. Therefore once you state a suggestion out loud that is what your character is doing. You can choose to do it alone or you can try and persuade others to help you.
However, persuading others is what this system is all about and therefore requires a roll. This rule only applies while everyone is deciding what to do. While interpreting the results of the dice, however, the point is to collaborate on just what happened so as to result in a more enjoyable story. Once the dice have finished being interpreted the game returns to the decision stage and this rule is backin effect.
Okay now that the basic ground rules have been hammered out let’s examine the basic mechanic itself. One thing to keep in mind is that you’re always trying to get more even numbers on green dice then odd numbers on red dice. If you keep this in mind these rules will seem less confusing. To further clarify things we’ll use a consistent example.
The example will have three players Alice, Bob and Eve and one GM, David. The action under consideration
will be boarding up the windows in the classic ‘small house surrounded by
For now we’ll assume that one character is trying to persuade all the other characters to do something. This case best illustrates the core mechanic. The player who suggests a given action is considered the Acting Player. The characters that the Acting Player is trying to persuade are called the Passive Players. This is slightly misleading since these players will be far from passive but for lack of a better term this is what we will call them.
So, first the Acting Player rolls a number of green dice equal to the number of green links he has between the other players. He also rolls a number of red dice equal to the number of red links he has between the players. For the first pass of interpretation the Acting Player is concerned with how many odds he rolled on the red dice. However, every even he rolls on the green dice cancels out a red odd down to a minimum of zero odds.
Every Passive Player rolls a number of green dice equal to the number of green links he shares with the
Active Player and a number red dice equal to the number of red links he shares with the Active Player. For the first pass of interpretation the Passive Player is concerned with the number of evens he rolls on the green dice. However, every odd he rolls on the red dice cancels out an even on the green dice. Unlike the Active Player there is no minimum on this reduction and the result can go negative.
Each Passive Player now compares his green evens with the Active Player’s red odds. Remember the idea is to get more green evens then red odds, at least if you want to act cooperatively. If the Passive Player has 2 or more green evens than the Active Player has red odds then the Passive Player may act cooperatively with the Active Player. If the Passive Player has 2 or less green evens than the Active Player has red odds then the Passive Player must act against the Active Player.
Otherwise the Passive Player may remain neutral to the activity.
The results can be summed up in the following manner: subtract red odds from green evens. If this is greater than or equal to 2 the player may act cooperatively. If this is less than or equal to –2 then the player must act against the Active Player. Otherwise the Passive Player may remain neutral.
Bob is trying to persuade Alice and Eve to help him board up the windows and doors of the house. Bob has two green links and one red link with Alice and two red links and one green link with Eve.
Bob therefore must roll three (two from Alice, one from Eve) green dice and three (one from Alice, and two from Eve) red dice. He gets 4 3 1 on his green dice and 5 4 3 on his red dice. For this first pass of interpretation Bob has one red odd. He rolled two red odds but his one green even cancels one of them out.
Alice gets to roll two green dice and one red die while Eve gets to roll one green die and two red dice. Alice gets 4 and 2 on her green dice and 3 on her red die so she gets 1 even since her odd red cancels out one of her two original green evens. Eve rolls 3 on her green die and 3, 5 on her red dice. The result is –2 green evens. Since she rolled two red odds against her zero green evens.
Finally we compare. Alice has one green even against Bob’s one red odd. The net result is zero the
best Alice can do is remain neutral. Eve has –2 green evens against Bobs one red odd. The net result is –3 and so Eve must workagainst Bob.
So far you’ve seen how the core mechanic works for the first pass of interpretation. Before we move on to the second pass of interpretation let’s examine the modifiers that affect the roll since these modifiers are applied BEFORE the roll is made and therefore will make more sense at this point. There are two sets of modifiers the first applies to the Active Player and the second applies to the Passive Player.
Active Player Modifiers
Add one green die if the action he is purposing directly relates to his Profession.
Add red dice equal to the current Stress Level of the situation. The Stress Level is explained in detail later on.
Add one or more green dice for exceptional role-playing. That is, if the player describes either the action itself particularly dramatically or provides a convincing performance while trying to persuade others he may roll extra green dice.
Add one red die if what he suggests goes directly against his character’s Goal or Bias.
Add one green die if what he suggests significantly relates to his character’s Goal or Bias.
Passive Player Modifiers
Add one green or one red die for each labeled descriptor link if the label is particularly relevant to the action.
Add one green die if the purposed action significantly aids this player’s Goal or Bias.
Add one red die if the purposed action goes against this player’s Goal or Bias.
Add one green die if the purposed action is included in this character’s Profession.
There is one final thing that can affect the dice rolls. Both the red and green rolls are open-ended. For every green die that rolls a six you may roll another green die. For every red die that rolls a one you must
roll an additional red die. This allows for the ‘anything can happen’ factor.
No matter the odds, disasters or miracles can still happen.
This is the same as example one with a few extra modifications. Bob is a carpenter and since he is suggesting an action that involves hammers, nails and wood, he earns an extra green die. However, the current Stress Level is two so Bob must roll two extra red dice. Bob decides to flirt a bit with Alice throwing in suggestions about how they’ll most likely be locked in alone together for a long time if they board up the
widows. Since Alice and Bob are linked with a green link that has ‘Flirtatious’ as part of its label Alice earns an extra green die. However, since one of Eve’s red links to Bob is partially labeled, ‘Jealous’ Eve earns an extra red die.
Bob therefore must roll four (two from Alice, one from Eve, one from his Profession) green dice and 5 (one from Alice, two from Eve, two from the Stress Level) red dice. He gets: 4, 3, 1, 6 on his green dice and: 5, 4 3, 6, 1 on his red dice. Since he rolled a six on one of his green die he gets to roll another green die and gets a 4. Unfortunately, he also rolled a one on his red dice so he must roll another red die and gets another 1.
This means he must roll yet another red die and this time he gets a 2. For this first pass of interpretation Bob has zero red odds. He rolled three red odds but his three green even cancels them all out.
Alice gets to roll three green dice and one red die while Eve gets to roll one green die and three red dice. Alice gets 4, 2 and 6 on her green dice and 3 on her red die. Since she rolled a six on her green die she gets to roll another green die and she gets a 2. She gets 3 evens since her odd red cancels out one of her four original green evens. Eve rolls 3 on her green die and 3, 5 and 4 on her red dice. The result is –2 green
evens. Since she rolled two red odds against her zero green evens.
Finally, we compare. Alice has three green evens against Bob’s zero red odds. The net result is three
so Alice can actually cooperate with Bob. Eve has –2 green evens against Bob’s zero red odds. The net result is –2 and so Eve must work against Bob.
The Second Interpretation
Now that we’ve determined who’s Cooperative, who’s Hostile, and who’s Neutral, it’s time to decide the actual outcome of the action itself. Remember, we use the exact same die roll to determine degree of success. However, we need to introduce the GM’s die roll.
After the player’s have finished figuring out where their characters stand on the current issue the GM needs to decide how difficult the task is. The GM assigns a difficulty no matter what the tasks is. If the players are
boarding up the windows or attacking a hostile enemy. This is why NPCs outside of the situation don’t have stats. The GM decides how difficult the task is based on whatever reasons he feels are appropriate. He then rolls a number of red dice equal to the difficulty of the task.
Guidelines For Task Difficulty:
Easy = 1 die
Average = 2 dice
Hard = 3 dice
Really Hard = 4 dice
Extremely Hard = 5 dice
Impossible = 6 dice
In addition the GM rolls one red die for every living character still in the scenario. This is added in regardless of whether or not the characters are participating or even present at the current activity. This may seem unrealistic. The point of this modifier is not to be realistic but instead to encourage certain behaviors among the players. Since the task is more difficult based on how many people are active in the game regardless of where they are or what they are doing it is in the interest of any one player to try and convince as many players as possible to help him out.
The more people he risks trying to get to help him the more players he risks having work against him. It is a
mechanic meant to sweeten the gamble.
And finally the GM rolls additional red dice equal to the Stress Level of the current situation.
So the final formula for the GMs roll is:
Red Dice = Difficulty + Living Characters + Stress Level
Since the resolution is always trying to have more even greens then red odds it should be fairly obvious that the GM simply counts up how many odds he rolls.
Once the GM has made his roll the players spring into action. We reinterpret the exact same roll as before only in a slightly different manner. The Active Player and all Passive Players who are working with him pool all of their green dice. Any Passive Players who are working against the Active Player pool all of their red dice. Neutral players contribute no dice at all. We count up all the even green dice from the cooperating players and remember to cancel out one even for each odd red die contributed from Passive Players working against the activity.
Like the original Active Player’s roll this canceling cannot yield a negative number. The minimum is zero
The finale number of green evens is compared against the GM’s red odds. The degree of success is determined as follows:
Complete Success (Green Evens Beat Red Odds By 4 or More)
Basic Success (Green Evens Beat Red Odds By 2 or More
Partial Success (Green Evens Tie or Beat Red Odds By 1)
Partial Failure (Red Odds Beat Green Evens By 1)
Basic Failure (Red Odds Beat Green Evens By 2 or More)
Complete Failure (Red Odds Beat Green Evens By 4 or More)
We now know that Alice is working with Bob and that Eve is working against Bob. So Alice and Bob pool their green dice for the following string: 4, 3, 1, 6, 4, 4, 2, 6, 2 and Eve contributes her red dice: 3, 5, 4. The result is that Bob and Alice have five green evens since Eve’s two red odds cancels out two of Bob and Alice’s original seven green evens.
The GM decides that boarding up ALL the windows and doors is a pretty tough task so assigns it a hard difficulty level. This means he’s rolling a total of 8 red dice (3 for the difficulty, 3 for the number of players, 2 for the current Stress Level). The GM rolls: 5, 4, 3, 4, 1, 3, 4, and 5. Since the GM rolled a one he gets to roll one more red die and it comes up: 6. The result is that the GM rolled five red odds.
Finally we compare the GM’s red odds against the player’s green evens. In this example the net result is zero, thus yielding a Partial Success for the players. It is important to note that had Eve remained neutral it would have been a Basic Success. But without Alice’s help it would have been a Basic Failure. So in the long run it was worth it for Bob to try and persuade others for help.
Interpreting The Results
Once the dice have been rolled and the results determined it is time to interpret and explain the result in terms of actual game events. Since the players do not have full control over their character’s actions it is important to allow them to explain and describe their actions to their satisfaction. Remember the dice
only tell you the emotional direction your character must work in, they do not dictate specific actions and neither should the GM. If the dice say the character must work against another character the PLAYER should describe WHY they are working against them and exactly HOW they are working against them.
The following is an explanation of the various success levels. These descriptions are only guidelines.
In the end everything should be resolved to the groups satisfaction.
Complete Success: The task was accomplished fully and with easy. If possible the players should be able to tack on some minor beneficial side effect.
Basic Success: The task was accomplished but without much room to spare.
Partial Success: The task was accomplished but just barely or incompletely and probably not as well as it could have been.
Partial Failure: The task didn’t work but the results aren’t as bad as expected or they could be.
Basic Failure: The task failed and the full weight of all expected consequences comes down on the players.
Complete Failure: Not only did the task fail but also in embarrassingly bad way. In addition to any expected consequences there should be some new minor unexpected complications.
The dice have told us that Bob and Alice are working to try and board up the doors and windows of the zombie surrounded house but Eve is getting in the way. The final result is a Partial Success for Bob
and Alice. The following is ONE possible interpretation of the action.
Bob and Alice start breaking up the furniture and hammering the mined scrap wood to the windows and doors. Eve suddenly realizes that the house is old and is heated by a wood-burning furnace (Note: This might be a fact made up by Eve’s player) and that it is the middle of January. Eve thinks they might be trapped here for a long time and realizes that if the wood is used to board up the windows then there might not be enough to heat the house and they’ll all freeze to death. So, Eve starts selfishly hauling furniture down to the basement mocking Bob and Alice’s foolish efforts.
The ultimate result is that Bob and Alice only have enough wood to cover the first floor’s vulnerable windows. The door locks will just have to hold. At this point the GM chimes in and mentions that indeed they do indeed begin to hear a slow steady pounding at the flimsily locked back door.
Changing The Relationship Map
Relationships are funny malleable things and can change drastically particularly under stress. There are two kinds of changes that can happen to the relationship map, temporary and permanent. Both are expressed in terms of red and green links. However temporary changes are expressed as unlabeled links while permanent changes are expressed as labeled links.
The forming and canceling of temporary unlabeled links occurs during play every time a conflict is resolved through the dice and are very straightforward. When a conflict results in a Complete Success or Basic Success two or one, respectively, unlabeled green link(s) is/are formed between the Active Player and all cooperative and Neutral Passive players. Similarly, when a conflict results in a Complete Failure or Basic Failure two or one, respectively, unlabeled red link(s) is/are formed between the Active Player and all Neutral
and Hostile Passive players. It is important to note that when adding new temporary unlabeled links you cancel out unlabeled links of the opposite color first, before adding new links. For example, if Bob and Alice already share an unlabeled green link when they earn an unlabeled red link, the unlabeled green link is simply erased and no new red links are added.
The forming and canceling of permanent labeled links occurs at the end of each play session and when a character becomes injured. Each character pair may, they don’t have to, roll their existing red links against their existing green links. If they have more green evens than red odds they may choose to either erase a labeled red link or add a new labeled green link. If they have more red odds than green evens they must either erase a labeled green link or add a new labeled red link. Note that these new links can be labeled
with whatever the players feel are appropriate and are not limited to descriptors, biases and goals. “Bonded
over chess match” is a perfectly acceptable label for a newly formed green link. However, the labels should
reflect something that has happened in the game even if that something is said to have happened between two given sessions.
When a character becomes injured a permanent red link is formed between the injured character and all the other characters. That link is labeled with the wound level. So if a character has reached the Dying wound level he would have two additional red links attached to each character, one labeled Injured and one labeled Dying. For more information see Injury, Death and Recovery bellow.
There is one other circumstance where the relationship map changes. It is also the only situation in which
permanent labeled links become temporary unlabeled links. If a character dies then all their red links are simply erased. However, their permanent labeled green links get evenly distributed as temporary unlabeled
green links among the remaining character pairs. There always seems to be a moment of camaraderie just after a member of the group dies but it is quickly forgotten.
The Stress Level
The Stress Level can be thought of as a story tempo device. When the Stress Level is high the characters will be less likely to get along and therefore less likely to succeed. Similarly, when the Stress Level is low characters will be more likely to get along and therefore more likely to succeed. There are several factors that can affect the Stress Level but largely the Stress Level is where the GM has the most input. In general the Stress Level should go up and down according to the following guidelines.
The Stress Level should go up by one to three points whenever a stress inducing events occurs. Strange noises on the roof might constitute a one point stress increase while a significant breach of the perimeter by the threat might be worth a three point increase.
The Stress Level should go down by one to three points either over time or when a stress-relieving event occurs. A few hours with no new stress inducing events might constitute a one point decrease while the arrival of a rescue team might be worth a three point decrease.
On a Basic Success or Complete Success result the Stress Level should go down by one or two points respectively. On a Basic Failure or a Complete Failure the Stress Level should go up by one or two points respectively.
At the top of the scenario the Stress Level should start at between one and three depending how deep into things the characters already are. If the Stress Level ever reaches zero no rolling is required. Players are free to cooperate and disagree as they see fit and most actions can be automatically considered to produce a
Basic Success given that nothing is currently threatening the situation.
Injury, Death and Recovery
Each character has four basic health levels: Healthy, Injured, Dying and Dead. Whenever the conflict in question is physically threatening and the roll results in any type of failure then one or more characters has been injured. The rules for determining and distributing damage are as follows.
If the result is a failure it means the GM had more red odds than the cooperating players had green evens. First subtract the number of green evens from red odds. This is the total number of wound levels that occurred during the potentially hazardous scene. These wound levels must be distributed among the Cooperating and Neutral characters involved in the conflict. Also, wounds are delivered to Dying characters first effectively killing them.
Otherwise, how these wounds are distributed and why they were sustained is to be determined during the interpretation phase of the conflict resolution. It is recommended that if possible and appropriate that the reasons these injuries were sustained be attributed to either the actions of a Hostile character or the reluctant non-actions of a Neutral character.
It is also entirely possible that the wounds themselves were not sustained by the threat directly. For example, a failure on the ‘boarding up the windows’ situation above might very well kill off a Neutral Dying character on the grounds that things just took too long and the poor fellow just bled to death.
Recovery really isn’t a part of the source material for Isolation. Once a character is injured it’s all down hill from there. However, remember that when a character is injured he picks up a permanent red link with all the other characters labeled with his injury level. Note that if a character goes directly from Healthy to Dying he still picks up the intermediate set of Injured links. A character may also remove permanent red links by rolling between sessions. If a character can remove all the red links with the appropriate injury label he is said to have recovered a health level as well. Note that if a character moves to Dying before he can remove all his Injured red links then he must remove all his Dying links first before he can remove any more Injured red links.
During the course of a session Bob is injured. He picks up a red link with Alice and red link with Eve both labeled Injured. At the end of the session Bob rolls dice with Alice and Eve but can only remove the red link with Alice. During the course of the next session Bob is injured again and moved to Dying. Bob now has one red link with Alice labeled Dying and two red links with Eve, one labeled Injured and one labeled Dying.
Bob would have to remove BOTH of the Dying links, effectively moving him back up to the Injured health level, before removing the last remaining Injured red link with Eve which would bring him back up to Healthy.
Convincing a Sub-Set of Characters
A player may declare certain characters to default to Neutral and try to persuade only a sub-set of the other characters to help his character. In this case the mechanics work exactly the same as above however the Active Player rolls only a number of red and green dice based on the links he shares with the subset of characters he’s trying to convince. The declared sub-set of Passive players roll for level of cooperation normally. The key difference is that the defaulted Neutral characters may still voluntarily down grade to Hostile. In this case the character rolls and contributes a number of red dice equal to the red links he shares with the Active Player for the interpretation phase only. This makes the decision to downgrade from Neutral to Hostile very powerful because the Active Player is not gaining the green dice from that character like he would have had he tried to persuade ALL the characters. Note: A character should not declare that he
is down grading from Neutral to Hostile until the start of the interpretation phase of resolution.
Bob doesn’t like Eve so he’s going to try and convince only Alice about boarding up the windows. As before Bob shares two green links and one red link with Alice and one green link and two red links with Eve. This means that Bob rolls two green dice and one red die. Since Bob declares Eve as Neutral, Eve’s links don’t count. Alice also rolls two green and one red die. For the sake of simplicity we’ll ignore the Stress Level and other modifiers although they apply normally for the roll between Bob and Alice.
Bob gets a 2 and 4 on his green dice and a 4 on his red die for a lucky total of zero red odds. Alice gets 1 and 4 on her green dice and a 3 on her red dice for an unfortunate result of zero green evens. Thus Alice must remain Neutral though she may downgrade to Hostile. Bob must now pit his two green evens against the red odd total of the GM.
At this point however, Eve may downgrade to Hostile. Which means that first she rolls two red dice (from the two red links she shares with Bob). Any odds on these dice are subtracted from the two green evens that Bob is contributing first before comparing to the GM’s red odd total.
Going At It Alone
It is possible for a character to try and tackle a problem all on his lonesome without trying to convince any of the other characters to aid him. In this case no dice are awarded to the player from links the character shares with other characters since no other characters are involved. Instead the player rolls a number of green dice equal to the Difficulty of the task plus any of the standard modifiers (Note this includes potential red dice that may cancel the awarded green dice). This means that without the presence of other living characters and no stress level the character has about a fifty-fifty chance of success. Bear in mind that the GM is still rolling a number of red dice equal to Difficulty + Number of Living Characters + Stress Level. Additionally, as above, characters may voluntarily become Hostile and roll and contribute red dice to cancel the awarded green dice.
Ultimately, the odds are in favor of trying to persuade other characters to help.
Acting Directly Against Another Character
Surprisingly, despite all the hostility floating around the source material, two characters actually going head to head is exceedingly rare. Most of the time characters just bicker about and hinder what to actually DO and how to go about it regarding the given threat. However, a time may come when one character wishes to try and convince the group to act directly against another character. In this case the situation is dealt with as if the character being acted against does not exist. That is, treat the Active and Passive players normally for the first and second pass of interpretation as if the character being acted against wasn’t there.
Similarly treat the Active Player exactly as above if they are going after the defending character alone. The difference is that the GM doesn’t assign a Difficulty. Instead the player being acted against rolls a number of red dice equal to: Number of Red Links He Shares With The Active Player + (Living Characters – 1) + Stress Level + Normal Situational Modifiers (this may end up including some green dice which may cancel some of the red odds in this roll.). In the end the groups green evens are compared to the defending player’s red odds and degree of success is determined and interpreted normally with one minor exception. If injury is possible then the defending character is included among the candidates for injury.
Elements of Isolation
Isolation should be a surprisingly easy game to run.
It basically requires only three core elements, a cast of characters, a small remote locale and a threat keeping the cast of characters from leaving said locale. Once these elements are decided upon the game should practically run itself. The players of course, provide the cast of characters. To create appropriate characters they will need to know the locale and at least a few aspects of the threat in order to create appropriate goals. Locales can include deserted islands, remote farmhouses, derelict space stations, roadside motels, or any other place that opens just a small gap between the cast of characters and the rest of the world. Threats can be zombies, giant bugs, a raging storm, an ensuing riot, or anything else that keeps the gap provided by the locale from being easily crossed. Of course the interplay between the three core elements can be toyed with as well. The film Cube basically collapses the locale and the threat into one. Consider a scenario in which the cast of characters in a roadside diner find a winning lottery ticket on the body of an obviously murdered man. This situation embeds the threat directly into the cast of characters.
Overall I hope you enjoy isolation and that it provides you with many hours of deliciously cutthroat entertainment. As always, feedback is appreciated.
Misunderstood: The RPG of Friendship against the Harsh Cruel World.
Misunderstood is a game about members of various fringe interest cultures trying to salvage their friendships as they seek understanding from the harsh cruel world. The game is GM-less so everyone will create a character. The game uses d6s.
First the group must decide on a peer group age range for the characters to fall into: High School (14-17), College (18-21), or by decade 20s, 30s, 40s, etc. The truly brave may want to take on Jr. High (12-13) or Elementary School (5-11).
After that, players each pick a Fringe Cultural Interest that “No One Really Understands.” No two players may share the same Fringe Culture Interest. There is at least some truth to the statement that not even your friends really get you.
Next, each player distributes 10 points between the three main stats of “I Feel Your Pain”, “I Get Where You’re Coming From” and “WTF man?”. No score may be less than 1.
Each player then writes down the names of the other characters and puts three points next to each name. These points are referred to as Friendship Points.
Finally a pool of dice is put in the center of the table. This pool is called The Harsh Cruel World and has a number of dice equal to15 times the number of players. If you don’t have enough dice just write the number down and keep track of it.
Play starts with the player whose character has the highest value in “I Feel Your Pain”. Ties are broken with “I Get Where You’re Coming From”. Double ties are broken with “WTF man?”. Three way ties are broken by whichever player is willing to take on more of The Harsh Cruel World in their first scene (see scene types below). Turns then proceed in strict order to the right of the first player. The Acting Player or the Acting Character refers to the player whose turn it currently is.
On his turn a player chooses one of three types of scenes to have his character participate in. The three scene types are “Taking on the World”, “Friendship”, and “Outreach.” However, Outreach scenes may only be chosen if the player’s previous turn was a Taking on the World or a Friendship scene and MUST be chosen if the previous turn was a Taking on the World scene. Note: As a consequence no player may choose an Outreach scene as their first scene of the game.
Taking on the World scenes are about the acting character either interacting with members of his Fringe Culture Interest or non-members about his Fringe Culture Interest. The acting player first describes the general locale and situation of where his character is and a sketchy outline of what his character is trying to achieve. Then the acting player declares how much of the Harsh Cruel World he wishes to try and take on and pulls that many dice from the Harsh Cruel World pile. Another player must then volunteer to introduce adversity into the seen by introducing something that stands in the way of what the active character wants to achieve. The active player hands the Harsh Cruel World dice to this player.
The acting player then decides if he wishes to tackle the adversity with “I Feel Your Pain” (genuinely knowing and feeling what is required of him socially), “I Get Where You’re Coming From” (understanding what is required of him socially but not really feeling it or even resenting it) or “WTF man?” (having no idea what is appropriate and acting with 100% awkwardness).
Note: For Taking on the World and Friendship scenes a player may not choose his highest score two turns in a row.
The acting player then rolls a number of dice equal to the stat they chose and totals the result. The other player rolls The Harsh Cruel World dice and totals those. If the acting player’s total is higher then he achieves his goal and is generally well received by the social environment. The acting player narrates how this comes to pass. The rolled Harsh Cruel World dice are removed from the game and the acting player gains a number of Understanding Points equal to the number of dice. If the other player’s total is higher then he narrates how the acting player’s character fails at his goal and is generally poorly received by the social environment. The rolled Harsh Cruel World dice are returned to the pile plus an additional die.
Friendship Scenes are about interacting with everything not related to the character’s Fringe Cultural Interest. Like Taking on the World scenes the acting player describes the general circumstances and what he is trying to achieve. He also decides how much The Harsh Cruel World he wants to take on and grabs that many dice out of the pile.
However, he also chooses a second player to be involved in the scene. A player who has zero Friendship Points with the acting player can not be chosen. This second player then briefly narrates how he is involved in the scene.
Similar to Taking on the World scenes a third player must volunteer to narrate adversity into the scene. The acting player then decides if he will respond with “I Feel Your Pain”, “I Get Where You’re Coming From” or “WTF man?”. Again, the acting player may not use his highest score two scenes in a row.
The second player now has the option of siding with the acting player or subverting the active character’s goals with his own goal. If he sides with the acting player the second player contributes a number of dice equal to his Friendship Score with the acting player to the active player’s die pool. If he wishes to subvert the active character’s goal with his own goal he chooses which of “I Feel Your Pain”, “I Get Where You’re Coming From” or “WTF man?” he will roll himself.
If the second player has chosen to subvert the active character’s goal with his own, the first player now has the option of spending points from his Friendship Points with the second character to add dice to his roll.
The two or three pools are rolled, totaled and compared. If the acting player’s total is highest he narrates how he achieves his goal and thwarts whatever obstacles were put before him. If the second player had sided with the active player he narrates how his actions play into the active character’s success. The Harsh Cruel World dice are removed from the game and either the active player adds the equivalent number to his Understanding Points or if the second player aided him the two players split the points between them.
If the second player chose to subvert the active character’s goal and his total is highest he narrates how his character’s actions subvert the active character’s goals to his own end. The Harsh Cruel World dice are removed from the game and the second player adds the equivalent number to his Understanding Points.
If the third player’s total is highest then he narrates how the active and second characters fail in their goals with attention to whether the second player was attempting to subvert or not. The Harsh Cruel World dice plus one are returned to the pile. Another die is added to the pile if the second player tried to subvert the active character.
Outreach scenes are the active character venting about the outcome of the active character’s previous scene (the one that occurred on their last turn) to another character. First the active character picks the character they wish to vent to. Both characters must have positive Friendship scores with each other. The active character then narrates the surroundings in which the venting is taking place (it should be somewhere relatively secluded) and summarizes the venting.
The active player then secretly chooses a Venting Mode, either Save Me (if the character is genuinely looking for advice and understanding from the second character) or Hate Me (if the character is being self-destructive and is looking to just be a pain to the second character). Then the second character openly chooses if they responding with “I Feel Your Pain”, “I Get Where You’re Coming From” or “WTF man?”.
Apply the mechanical result from the following chart:
Save Me + “I Feel Your Pain” = Active and Second Character both gain a Friendship Point.
Save Me + “Get Where You’re Coming From” = Active Character gains a Friendship Point, Second Character loses a Friendship Point.
Save Me + “WTF man?” = Active Character loses a Friendship Point, Second Character gains a Friendship Point..
Hate Me + “I Feel Your Pain” = Active and Second Character both lose a Friendship Point.
Hate Me + “I Get Where You’re Coming From” = Active and Second Character both gain a Friendship Point.
Hate Me + “WTF man?” = Active Character gains a Friendship Point, Second Character loses a Friendship Point.
Once the Outreach Scene is mechanically resolved both players involved narrate how their characters exit the scene.
The game ends when either The Harsh Cruel World is completely wiped out or a player is forced to frame an Outreach scene and can’t (due to having no mutually positive Friendship Scores with the other characters).
If the game ends by wiping out The Harsh Cruel World then the player with the highest Understanding narrates how he achieves recognition and understanding within his Fringe Cultural Interest. Each other player then narrates an epilogue for their character. If the character has a Friendship Score with the character who has the highest Understanding greater than the number of players then that player may opt to give up his own Fringe Cultural Interest and join (and gain minor recognition and understanding within) the Fringe Cultural Interest of the player with the highest Understanding. Otherwise they remain misunderstood among their own pursuits.
If the game ends because a player must and can not frame an Outreach scene than that player must narrate how his character is responsible for the disbanding of the peer group as friends. The player with the highest Understanding then narrates and epilogue for his character and has the option of abandoning his Fringe Cultural Interest for the pursuit of something else. Each other player then takes turns narrating an epilogue for their character, most likely involving how they end up alone and still misunderstood.
The Extraordinarily Horrible Children of Raven’s Hollow
The primary inspiration for this game is Edward Gory’s “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” with a dash of the comic “Lenore.” The game is intended to produce a quick grim fairy tale about horrible children who bully each other into dangerous acts that likely lead to their demise. Enjoy!
A Quick Word on the Setting
Raven’s Hollow is located in a kind of Gothic fairytale landscape. Imagine dense rickety trees, rapidly flowing streams, caves in the hills and maybe the odd swamp or two. The village itself is mostly hovels inhabited by simple people but maybe far up the path is a lonely manner house or even an abandoned abbey. Hopefully this gives you enough flavor to get started.
This game has no GM so everyone should envision the child they’d like to play. You need little more than a name and a gender but it helps to have a fairly strong image of what your child looks like. You also need a bunch of six-sided dice. Each player needs three dice of one color (I like green). Three dice of another color (I like white) sit in the middle of the table and these dice represent the adults. Finally a single die of a third color (I like black) sits on the table and this die represents the ravens.
Some Social Advice about Narration
The game is intended to be fairly visual. So when the game says, “describe” or “narrate” you should do so in as florid and creepy a manner as you can muster. Remember the drawings of Edward Gory. And if you’re not familiar with the drawings of Edward Gory… get thee to the Internet, you’ve been missing out.
Someone needs to go first. It doesn’t matter who. This player is the Active Player. On an Active Player’s turn he does the following.
Describe where their character is.
Describe what their character is wearing.
Describe what their character is holding.
Describe what activity their character is doing.
All this describing must be solitary. The character can not be engaged with anyone else. They are alone.
Next, determine which player has the least dice. If there is a tie (like there is at the beginning of the game) everyone with equal dice rolls and the player who rolls lowest is chosen. If the rolls tie, roll again. This player is called the Bully Player. Note: If at this stage there is more than one player with NO dice, then the player who has least recently been the Bully Player (among the no dice players) gets to be the Bully Player.
The Bully Player then narrates how his character enters the scene just described by the Active Player. The two players can role-play out any interaction they like but eventually the Bully Player’s character must demand that the Active Player’s character engage in a risky activity that either endangers the Active Player’s character or endangers the adults.
The Active Player then has a choice. He can either have is character attempt the risky activity or give the Bully Player one of his dice. If he chooses to give over a die then the Bully Player describes how his character either takes what the Active Player’s character was holding or somehow spoils the activity the Active Player’s character was doing.
If the Active Player chooses to carry out the risky activity the procedure is different depending on whether the activity endangers his character or endangers the adults.
Endangering The Character
Demands that endanger the character are things like, “go put your head in that crocodile’s mouth” or “cross that old log at the top of the waterfall.” The Active Player should narrate any details he wishes leading up to the actual moment of performing the risky activity.
Then the Active Player rolls his dice and sums up the values. If his dice exceed ten (i.e. rolls eleven or greater) then his character survives the risk. The Active Player should narrate his character accomplishing this feat and The Bully Player should narrate his character’s reaction.
If the Active Player’s dice fall short of ten then his character dies performing the risky activity. The Active Player should narrate this demise. The Bully Player does NOT get to narrate his reaction. At this point the Active Player swaps his dice out for black dice and adds them to the collection of raven dice.
Before rolling the Active Player has two choices that might help him out. First, he can take a SINGLE die from the adults (if there are any dice left) and roll it with his own dice and add in the result. Second, he can take a SINGLE die from the ravens and roll it with is own dice and add in the result. He can do both of these if he wishes.
When taking the adult die nothing new need be immediately narrated. However, if a raven die is taken the Active Player must narrate a raven somewhere into the scene passively observing. In either case a successful roll is exactly the same as a successful roll without having taken any dice.
If the player takes either or both of these extra dice and still fails then his character doesn’t die and the the risky activity is interrupted by the intervention of the adults (if an adult die was taken), the raven (if a raven die was taken) or both (if both were taken). The Active Player narrates this intervention.
If an adult intervenes the Active Player’s character gets punished for doing such a foolish thing. The Active Player narrates this punishment and then gives up one of his dice to the adult die collection.
If a raven was part of the intervention the raven steals part of what the Active Player’s character was wearing in the process. The Active Player gets to narrate the intervention but the Bully Player gets to decide what was stolen. The Active Player then gives up a die to the raven die collection.
These lost die are separate from the original adult or raven dice taken which go back to their original collections regardless of the outcome.
Note: This means the Active Player could lose two dice if he took both modifier dice. However, if he does not have two dice to lose from his original pool then he can not take both dice to begin with. He must choose one.
Endangering The Adults
Demands that endanger the adults are things like, “go kick out the ladder from under Mr. Thatcher while he’s fixing his roof” or “go pour rat poison in Mrs. Baker’s pie filling.” The Active Player should narrate any details he wishes leading up to the actual moment of performing the risky activity.
The Active Player then rolls his dice and sums up the values. The Bully Player then picks up and rolls the collection of adult dice and sums the values. If the Active Player’s dice exceed the Bully Player’s dice (i.e. ties go to the adults) then his character performs the risk and doesn’t get caught. The Active Player should narrate his character accomplishing this feat which should include the demise of an adult as a consequence. The Bully Player should NOT narrate his character’s reaction. The active player also gets to take one of the adult dice as his own.
If the Active Player’s dice fall short of the Bully Player’s dice then his character is caught by the adults who are so horrified that they send the character away from Raven’s Hollow. The Active Player should narrate where his character gets sent off to. The Bully Player does NOT get to narrate his reaction. At this point the Active Player swaps his dice out for black dice and adds them to the collection of raven dice.
Since this action is against the adults they can not help you and thus taking a die from them is not available. However the Active Player can still take a SINGLE die from the ravens. Again, upon doing so he should narrate a passive observing raven into the scene. Again, the consequences of successful outcome are unaltered.
If the Active Player takes a die from the ravens and still fails then the raven intervenes in some manner such that the character does not succeed in his risk but is not caught by the adults either. The Active Player gets to narrate this intervention, however no clothing snatching happens. The Active Player loses a die to the raven’s collection and returns the borrowed die.
After this sequence is resolved the player to the Active Player’s right becomes the new Active Player and the process is repeated.
If at the top of his turn the Active Player has NO dice his character is lost forever to the surrounding environment. Instead of picking a Bully Player the Active Player should simply narrate where his character becomes permanently lost to the environment. “Little Johnny lives with the bears in a cave” is a good example. A single black die should be added to the raven die collection when this happens.
If the last die is ever removed from the adult collection then the risky action taken by the Active Player’s character has caused a chain reaction that wipes out all the remaining adults. The Active Player gets to narrate this calamity. The children are now Orphans.
First of all, Bully Players may no longer demand actions that endanger the adults (there are none to endanger). Also, during actions which endanger the character no adult dice may be taken as modifiers (there none to intervene).
However, an even more significant thing happens when the children become Orphans. Without adult supervision the already cruel children of Raven’s Hollow become even crueler and may attack each other direction. The Bully Player may simply choose to have his character attack the Active Player’s character instead of making an endangering demand. Also the Active Player may choose to have his character attack the Bully Player in response to an endangering demand instead of surrendering a die.
It should be made clear that when two children attack each other one of them WILL meet his demise.
When two children attack each other, each player should narrate briefly what his character is doing. The player who instigated the attack narrates first. Then the two players simply roll their own dice and sum up the values. The character of the player with the lower roll meets his demise in the attack. The player of the defeated character gets to narrate what form his demise takes. The player of the defeated character replaces his dice with black dice and adds them to the raven collection.
In the event of a tie the struggle goes on for another round. The player who narrated second in the previous round gets to narrate what his character is doing followed by the other player narrating what his character is doing. The dice are then simply rerolled, round after round until no tie happens.
A Social Note About Direct Attacks
It is advised that the demise of a character during a direct attack be the result of an accident that occurs during the struggle. For some reason, children dying in absurd accidents is morbidly funny. Children murdering each other is not so funny. This is not a rule. Simply an observation for consideration.
You might have noticed that the ravens of Raven’s Hollow are keen observers and occasionally intervene in the affairs of children. The ravens are also fiercely judgmental. When a player has his character permanently removed from the game they become a Raven Player. Raven Players stop getting their turn as Active Player (as they have no character) but they still get to influence the game.
Just before ANY die roll and AFTER the Active Player has had his chance to take the single raven die modifier (on rolls where that is allowed), starting with the Raven Player closest to the Active Player’s right each Raven Player may take a die from the raven collection and contribute it to any die collection being rolled. The Raven Player should narrate how a raven is pro-actively intervening on that sides behalf. Continue going around the Raven Players until all the Raven Players have declined to contribute a die once or the raven collection runs out of dice. Once the situation is resolved all raven dice are returned to the collection.
Endgame occurs when there is only one child left. One of two things happens depending on whether the child is an Orphan or not.
The Adults Endgame
If the remaining player’s character is not an Orphan the adults of Raven’s Hollow finally wake up to the fact that something is not right with the children and go to confront the last child. The player who lost his character first gets to narrate what form this confrontation takes and rolls the dice in the adult collection. The player of the surviving character rolls his own dice with no chance at modifiers.
Before the roll the Raven Players take turns contributing dice to either side and narrating how the ravens intervene for that side again until they have all passed once or the raven collection in empty. The player rolling dice for the adults still gets to contribute as usual including contributing a dice against the adults. He is simply rolling for them.
Finally the dice are rolled. Ties go to the adults.
If the player of the surviving child wins the roll he gets to narrate a warm and fuzzy positive outcome of some kind for his child. Maybe the adults think it was all some kind of misunderstanding.
If the adults’ roll wins the players of the Ravens (like a jury) decide the negative fate of the child. Be as grim as you like.
The Orphan Endgame
If the remaining player’s character is an Orphan he suddenly finds himself alone in a forest full of judgmental ravens. At least SOME of these ravens aren’t going to like this child very much and decide to take action against him. The player who lost his character first gets to narrate what form this confrontation takes. He also picks up HALF (rounding down) the raven dice and rolls them. The player of the surviving character rolls his own dice with no chance at modifiers.
Before the roll the Raven Players take turns contributing dice to either side and narrating how the ravens intervene for that side again until they have all passed once or the raven collection is empty. The player rolling dice for hostile ravens still gets to contribute as usual including contributing a dice against the hostile ravens. He is simply rolling for them.
Finally the dice are rolled. Ties go the ravens.
If the player of the surviving child wins the roll he gets to narrate a warm and fuzzy positive outcome of some kind for his child. Maybe he somehow dominates the ravens and becomes some kind of raven master hermit.
If the ravens’ roll wins the players of the Ravens (like a jury) decide the negative fate of the child. Be as grim as you like.
Have you ever done something you truly regret? Does that something always come back in a flash of unwanted memory, no matter how many years have passed? Maybe you’ve mostly forgotten about it but every now and then you have a dream about it and can’t quite shake the memory when you wake. Maybe it wasn’t something all that terrible but for whatever reason you can’t quite rid yourself of the feeling that you should have handled things differently. This is a game about characters with just such a past and a frightening supernatural town determined to punish them.
Silent Sound is a “role-playing game” which means that the majority of players will determine the actions of fictional protagonists confronted by a situation created and presented by a special player called the Game Master. The rules of the game govern the outcome of this confrontation and the result is hopefully a story that everyone in the group can enjoy.
This particular role-playing game is about protagonists who have questionable pasts visiting a quiet lake-shore town called Silent Sound. Silent Sound is a supernatural nexus determined to punish the protagonists for their crimes. Over the course of the game the players will come to judge their own protagonist as well as the protagonists played by the other players. Ultimately the question, “does the punishment fit the crime?” must be answered.
This text takes a “need-to-know” approach to explaining how to play the game. Everything is presented in a minimalist fashion to get across the basic concepts and procedures of play. It starts with an overview of the fictional setting in which the game takes place and follows with a walk-though of the procedures of play. The last section is dedicated to working through some of the more advanced concepts of the game and explains exactly what the procedures of play are designed to accomplish.
Terms Used Throughout This Text
Players – All the real people at the table playing a game of Silent Sound.
Protagonist – A fictional character whose actions are dictated by the player who created the character.
Game Master – A special player who does not own a Protagonist but instead creates the situation the Protagonists will be facing.
Supporting Characters – All the remaining fictional characters whose actions are dictated by the Game Master.
Silent Sound – A Town of Two Worlds
On the surface Silent Sound resembles a quiet New England lake-shore resort town. Everyone has heard of it, some people even remember going there once, but no one can quiet recall where it is. In truth Silent Sound does not exist at all. It is a supernatural nexus that takes shape after it puts out a “call” to those with guilty pasts that have gone unpunished. Whether this is a manifestation of an external supernatural entity or the creation of the protagonist’s own guilty conscious is deliberately unspecified.
The nexus takes form on two planes of existence. The first plane is where it touches reality. Here, Silent Sound appears relatively normal. Although Silent Sound is a resort town, it is always the off season. It has local residences which go about their daily lives. The large hotel is mostly closed down, the motel has vacancies, the diner serves its blue plate special and the rare and used bookstore is open for business. This is the plane where the protagonists first enter Silent Sound. Protagonists can also meet and interact on this plane. Despite the normal appearance there is no way to actually leave Silent Sound. Roads mysteriously turn back on themselves, trees have fallen on the hiking trails, and the bridges are out.
The second plane of existence is called The Shadow. Everything that exists in Silent Sound also exists in The Shadow. However, The Shadow is a symbolic nightmare version of Silent Sound. A priest in Silent Sound could be a demonic cult leader in The Shadow. The ghost of a dead lover can be seen wandering the streets. The terrain itself is physically warped from that of Silent Sound. The hotel is a labyrinth of identical corridors and rooms, the motel is a sacrificial temple, the blue plate special bites back, and nothing but arcane tomes are to be found at the bookstore. Also, protagonists always face The Shadow alone. Entering The Shadow is usually the result of a traumatic experience in the “normal” Silent Sound.
Travel between the two planes is both possible and will happen frequently over the course of the game. However, the purpose of the two planes is identical. They are both constructed to force the protagonists to face their crimes. Indeed the seemingly normal residents of Silent Sound are themselves a weapon in the town’s arsenal against the protagonists. The town has already brought in a verdict of “Guilty” but do the protagonists deserve it?
Setup The Protagonists
Anyone playing a protagonist needs to create his character. This should be done openly with everyone present, probably in a dedicated session separate from the rest of play. Every detail created at this stage is public information. For now, the Game Master need only observe and take notes. He has a separate setup process which will be explained in the next section.
Before creating individual protagonists the group needs to decide on a theme that all the protagonists’ crimes will share. This can be something abstract like jealousy or loneliness or something more concrete like murder or money. Whatever theme is chosen the players must incorporate this element into their protagonist’s crimes. In practice this provides a basis of comparison between the protagonists’ crimes.
Everyone playing a protagonist needs to think up a crime their character has committed in the past and gotten away with. It is important to note that the word “crime” is used very loosely. The action in question need not actually be illegal but must be ethically and morally questionable. This is the most important aspect of the character. Everything else in this game is designed to get the players thinking about and judging these crimes.
Name & Concept
Now give the character a name and a general background concept. Silent Sound protagonists should come from relatively normal and everyday backgrounds. These are people you could meet on the street of any major city. Special training backgrounds such the military or police are okay but something rare like Special Forces or Black Ops CIA are out of the scope of this game. Also it is important to note that none of the protagonists are actually from Silent Sound. A good detail to add at this point is a sentence or two about the character’s outward appearance.
Each protagonist remembers visiting Silent Sound before. Each player should think up a relatively positive memory his protagonist has about the quiet lake shore town of Silent Sound. The protagonist should be at least a few years removed from this memory. The memory should also be of something the character pro-actively participated in and not something he merely observed in passing. Also this memory should be an ordinary everyday type of event, no supernatural dealings yet.
Now each player should create a reason for returning to Silent Sound. The reason should be rooted in something external that has happened to the character recently. At this point it is okay for the players to start hinting at supernatural events. Letters from dead lovers, weird dreams, and mysterious phone calls are all good lures.
At this point the group should have a pretty good idea about the character make-up of the protagonists. Each player will now create two supporting characters associated with his protagonist. The first supporting character should be derived from the information described in the protagonist’s memory of Silent Sound. Also, this character must be a resident of Silent Sound. The second character should be derived from the information about the lure bringing the protagonist to Silent Sound. This character does not have to be a resident of Silent Sound.
The creation of these supporting characters is much simpler than creating a protagonist. For each of these characters a name, a brief description of background, outward appearance, and the nature of the relationship with the protagonist will suffice. Also the relationship between these characters and the protagonist should be relatively positive.
There are five numerical statistics associated with each protagonist. These statistics allow the players to influence the outcome of conflicts their protagonists face. The first two statistics are the base statistics used in every conflict.
Exertion – Used whenever the protagonist is in a conflict involving physical stress.
Influence – Used whenever the protagonist is in a conflict involving social dynamics.
Players should divide seven points between Exertion and Influence. Both statistics must be at least one. Over the course of the game these statistics will go up and down but they cannot fall below one.
The next three statistics are resources used to augment the base statistics in various ways. All three of these statistics start at zero. The specific uses of these statistics are described in the body of the rules but a brief description of their general nature is given here.
Shadow – Used whenever supernatural methods are aiding the protagonist.
Absolution – A resource pool spent to aid the protagonist.
Judgment – A resource pool spent to aid or hinder other protagonists.
Look & Feel of The Shadow
Now that the players know who the protagonists are, what their crimes were, and what their relationship with Silent Sound is like. The group now needs to decide on a look & feel of the shadow world. This is a visual aesthetic the town transforms into when a protagonist is in the shadow world. Is it all rust and rot or the deepest of jungles? Remember that everything from Silent Sound retains its basic function in the shadow world so even if the aesthetic is vines and weeping willows, the players may find old family portraits nailed to those tress and paved roads flooded beneath those bayou waters. This is okay, it’s meant to be a dreamscape.
Transform the Secondary Characters in the Shadow
The secondary characters that were created a few steps back exist in the shadow world too. Once you have the look & feel for the shadow world each player should complete the phrase “In the shadow I am…” for the two secondary characters they created for their protagonist. Like objects, people retain their basic societal role from Silent Sound in the shadow world but in an exaggerated metaphorical form; a priest may be a cult leader or an orphan matron may be a tribal princess. If the player doesn’t know the societal role of the secondary character in Silent Sound he should just make up something that interests him and the GM will reverse the process (i.e. taking the metaphorical form created by the player and coming up with a more normal role for Silent Sound) during the Situation creation process outlined below.
Setup the Situation
Once the protagonists have been created the Game Master will need to take that information and create the situation that the protagonists will be facing in Silent Sound. This chapter describes a process for creating the state of affairs among various residents of Silent Sound. This process is designed to yield situations and conflicts that reflect the crimes of the protagonists. This process is done in private and the results are not disclosed immediately to the other players. Over the course of the game the protagonists will be confronted with these reflections and are expected to deal with them. In dealing with them the players will be expressing their judgments of these crimes and their reflections.
Step 1: The Perpetuator and The Rejector
The Game Master should go over each of the crimes created for each protagonist. For each crime the Game Master should create two supporting characters. The first, called the Perpetuator, is victimizing someone by having committed a similar crime. The second, called the Rejector, is victimizing someone because they refuse to commit a similar crime.
For now the Game Master can go ahead and give these two characters names, backgrounds and descriptions but he should leave the victims in their lives faceless. It’s okay if these situations imply or require the involvement of other supporting characters. For now, the Game Master should focus on the perpetuator, the rejector and the victims.
Step 2: Victimize the Supporting Characters
At this point there should be four supporting characters associated with each protagonist: The Memory, The Lure, The Rejector and The Perpetuator. The rejector and the perpetuator each have a situation attached to them with an implied victim. Now assign one of the four non-protagonist characters associated with a different protagonist to the role of this victim. The rejector and the perpetuator must be victimizing supporting characters created from different protagonists and cannot be victimizing supporting characters from the protagonist they themselves were created from.
Step 3: Add Relationship and Situational Links
For purposes of this process a Relationship Link is a familial or sexual connection between characters. A Situational Link is a descriptive state of affairs that connects two characters. The lines of victimization created in the previous two steps are simply special situational links. Situational links will often imply the existence of other supporting characters that have not yet been identified. Note: It’s possible for a link to be both a relationship and a situational link.
Step 3a: Add Links within Each Group of Supporting Characters
Look at the four supporting characters associated with each protagonist. Add two relationship or situational links among them.
Step 3b: Add Links between Groups of Supporting Characters
Look at each supporting character with fewer than two links. Add links according to the following rules:
If the character has no links, then add at least one Relationship Link and another link of either type.
If the character has one Situational Link, then add a Relationship Link.
If the character has one Relationship Link then add another link of either type.
All links added at this stage should be between supporting characters created from different protagonists.
Step 4: Complete The Phrase “I want… but…”
This step is about creating motivation for each of the four major supporting characters associated with each protagonist. Each of these characters wants something but something is getting in his way. This might be the character’s own internal problems or the actions of another character. For each of these characters complete the phrase, “I want… but…” Like situational links these may imply the presence of new supporting characters.
Step 5: Identify the Minor Supporting Characters
The four supporting characters associated with each protagonist are called the Major Supporting Characters. As mentioned in previous steps the links and the “I want… but…” phrases probably imply the existence of other supporting characters. These are called Minor Supporting Characters. Make a note of each of these characters. They are probably already connected via some kind of implicit situational or relationship link but if not, add one. Give them motivation by completing the simpler phrase of “I want…” There need not be an explicit obstacle to these character’s personal goals.
Step 6: Monsters
By now Silent Sound is a network of complex activity. It’s time to look at that activity through the lens of the supernatural. Revisit the behavior of the perpetuators and the rejectors. Look at the extended situation around them by following the links from them and their victims. Identify or create something that is really putting stress on this situation. It could be a symbolic object that constantly plagues one the characters. It could be an idea in one of the character’s heads, perhaps something from the “I want…” sections. It could be another character maybe someone from the “but…” phrases. It doesn’t have to be something that already exists in the setup. It’s okay to create something new. Whatever it is it must heavily reflect or stress the crime of the perpetuator or rejector from which it comes.
In the normal world of Silent Sound this thing stays exactly what it is, an idea, an object or a person. But in the shadow world this thing is given life and is turned into a monster. These monsters are the primary antagonists on the shadow world. Because they reflect the crimes of the perpetuators and the rejectors they reflect twisted versions of the crimes of the protagonists. Describe what form these monsters take in the shadow.
Step 7: Complete The Phrase “In the shadow I am…”
The shadow is a nightmarish reflection of everything in Silent Sound. All the supporting characters that exist in Silent Sound exist in the shadow. However, they take on a more symbolic dream like role. They should be identifiable as themselves but are in some way twisted. The more they are twisted to reflect badly on the protagonists’ crimes the better. For each supporting character (major and minor) complete the phrase, “In the shadow I am…”
Finally, there are three numerical statistics which the Game Master will use over the course of play. The details of these statistics are explained in the following section but a brief overview is given here.
Guilt – Used whenever supernatural forces are central to the conflict.
Town Influence – Used whenever the normal town is central to the conflict.
The Shadow Pool – A resource spent by the Game Master to influence the outcome of conflicts.
Both Guilt and Town Influence have starting values of four. The Shadow Pool begins at a value equal to three times the number of protagonists.
Procedures of Play
Turns and Scenes
Each player takes a turn except the Game Master who instead has special duties on each player’s turn. On each player’s turn the Game Master frames that player’s protagonist into a scene. The GM describes where the player’s protagonist is and what is going on around him. A good scene presents the protagonist with decisions and opportunities for conflict. A scene ends when either the protagonist has achieved what the player wanted him to achieve or when a conflict has arisen and been resolved via the rules.
Early on the GM should be aggressive with scene framing as a way to get the other players familiar with what is going on in Silent Sound. On a player’s turn, a player may request a scene be framed around something specific. In general the GM should simply accept these requests unless there is something really pressing that the GM wishes to see addressed first.
The other players are free to have their characters enter and exit scenes on other player’s turns (except scenes taking place in the Shadow). However, a scene is always about what the current player wants his protagonist to achieve. If a conflict arises that is clearly centered around the wants of another player’s protagonist the current player’s turn and scene should end immediately on a kind of confrontational cliffhanger. The GM can then simply re-frame the scene right where it left off on that other player’s turn.
When a conflict of interest arises between characters in the fiction dice are used to determine the outcome. In general conflicts are resolved by rolling two pools of dice against each other. Always remember to roll when a conflict of interest arises between characters.
However, before the dice are rolled the player needs to clearly articulate what his protagonist’s goal is in the conflict. If the outcome of the dice is in his favor then the goal will be achieved. If not then the goal is thwarted by the actions of the character he is in conflict with.
After the goal is declared determine if the Exertion score or the Influence score is being used. Exertion is used for physical conflicts and Influence is used for social conflicts. The player rolls a base number of dice equal to the statistic being used. From here the resolution system is different depending on whether the character is facing a conflict in the normal town or the shadow.
In the normal town the Game Master rolls a base number of dice equal to the Town Influence score regardless of what or how many represent the opposition in the conflict. If the Town Influence is currently zero then the Game Master rolls the Guilt score instead.
The Game Master can then add to the number of dice rolled by spending points out of The Shadow Pool. If points are spent from the Shadow Pool then the GM must narrate elements into the scene that hint at the supernatural. Only if the Town Influence is zero can these be outright supernatural horrors, otherwise they need to be subtle and in the realm of eerie coincidence.
At this point the other players decide if they wish to spend points of Judgment on either side of the conflict. A player can not spend Judgment on his own protagonist’s conflict. Each point spent on a side adds a die to that side.
The player then decides if he wishes to spend points of Absolution on his side. Again, for each point spent a die is added to his pool.
Finally, the player decides if he wishes to use Shadow. Unlike the other resources Shadow points are not spent. Instead, for every point the player wishes to use up to the full Shadow value a point is added to The Shadow Pool. Every point used adds a die to the player’s die pool. Like the Game Master’s use of the Shadow Pool the player must narrate hints of supernatural influences into the conflict. Again, these can not be overt unless Town Influence is zero.
This process is done exactly in this order. Once the die pools are fixed both sides are rolled. Whichever side has the single highest die is the winner. Die size is irrelevant, however d10s are recommended. If the highest die is tied then those dice are discarded and the next highest pair is compared. If those are tied then they are discarded and the next highest pair is compared, and so on. In the unlikely event that there is a tie all the way down the line then roll again. The following mechanical consequences are then applied depending on the outcome.
If the die roll was in the player’s favor then the player must subtract a point from Guilt or Town Influence and add it to Judgment. Guilt cannot be less than one. Town Influence cannot be less than zero. If Guilt is one and Town Influence is zero then the player simply gains a point of Judgment.
If the die roll was in the Game Master’s favor then the protagonist’s player must choose to do one of the following:
Subtract a point from the statistic being used in the conflict and add it to either Guilt or Town Influence. The statistic cannot be less than one. If the current value of the statistic is one then the second option below is mandatory.
The protagonist immediately enters The Shadow as a consequence of his failure.
In the normal town, just before a conflict begins a player has the option of narrating a flashback to the protagonist’s life before coming to Silent Sound. The details described in the flashback should be relevant to the statistic (Influence or Exertion) about to be used in the conflict and should concern events surrounding the commission of the protagonist’s crime. The mechanical function of flashbacks is to raise the value of the statistic in question.
After narrating the flashback scene the player should declare how many points the player wishes to add to his statistic. The player rolls a number of dice equal to the current value of the statistic. The GM rolls a number of dice equal to the statistic plus the number of points the player is trying to gain. Compare the results in the same manner as other conflicts.
If the player succeeds his statistic is increased by the number of points he stated and the flashback ends where the player left it. The scene then returns to the town and the pending conflict is resolved as normal.
If the player fails his statistic is still increased by the number of points he stated but in addition he also gains the same number of points of Shadow and the GM adds a complicating detail to the flashback the player narrated. This complicating detail should reflect negatively on the player and his crime.
Protagonist Aiding Protagonist
A player is free to narrate his protagonist aiding another protagonist in any conflict. However, there is no mechanical bonus or penalty for doing so. The best way to reflect this fictional event is to accompany it with an expenditure of Judgment in favor of the acting protagonist.
Protagonist vs. Protagonist
There are two conditions under which two protagonists will come into direct conflict. The first is straightforward. Two protagonists come into conflict when a conflict of interest arises between them in the fiction. However, two protagonists also come into conflict whenever one protagonist is in a conflict with something normally represented by Town Influence and another player wishes to have his protagonist side with that something.
In either of these two cases the second protagonist’s appropriate statistic is used instead of Town Influence. The rules for Judgment, Absolution and Shadow apply to both sides of the roll and the consequences for success are applied to the winner and the consequences for failure are applied to the loser.
Multiple Protagonists in Conflict
In the case of multiple protagonists facing off in direct opposition to each other, the player whose current turn it is rolls against the player involved in the conflict whose turn would come up soonest in the turn sequence. All other players simply add narrative detail for their protagonists as in the protagonist aiding protagonist section above.
In the case where you have multiple protagonists trying to achieve different things simultaneously resolve each goal as that player’s turn arrives. If more than one of these goals is opposed by the current player then that player gets to choose which conflict to confront on his turn. The remaining conflicts are then dealt with on the other players’ turns.
In the shadow the Game Master rolls a base number of dice equal to Guilt. The Game Master can then add to the number of dice rolled by spending points out of The Shadow Pool. Unlike in the town proper there is no limit on supernatural weirdness here in the shadow. Let the walls bleed, the dead walk, and the stars travel backwards.
At this point the other players decide if they wish to spend points of Judgment on either side of the conflict. A player can not spend Judgment on his own protagonist’s conflict. Each point spent on a side adds a die to that side.
The player then decides if he wishes to spend points of Absolution on his side. Again, for each point spent a die is added to his pool.
Finally, the player decides if he wishes to increase his Shadow score. For every point the player increases his Shadow score by the player can add a die to his pool. The player must narrate how his protagonist is drawing on the supernatural nature of the shadow to achieve his goal.
This process is done exactly in this order. Once the die pools are fixed both sides are rolled and compared in the manner described in the previous section. The following mechanical consequences are then applied depending on the outcome.
If the die roll was in the player’s favor then the protagonist’s player can choose to do one of the following:
Subtract a point of Guilt or Shadow and add a point of Absolution. If Guilt is one and Shadow is zero then the player simply gains a point of Absolution.
Leave the Shadow. The player can not leave the Shadow if Town Influence is currently zero.
If the die roll was in the Game Master’s favor then the protagonist stays in the Shadow and Guilt is increased by one. The protagonist’s statistics are unaffected.
Multiple Protagonists in the Shadow
Protagonists can not meet or engage in conflicts with each other in the shadow. Every protagonist faces his own nightmare alone.
Regardless of whether the scene is taking place in the town or in the shadow if the roll is in the player’s favor then his protagonist achieves his goal. If the roll is in the Game Master’s favor then the protagonist fails to achieve his goal and the Game Master should describe how the situation is the worse for it. Once the outcome is decided and described the scene and the current player’s turn ends.
Ending the Game
Note that protagonists cannot escape the shadow if the Town Influence score is zero. If all the protagonists are trapped in the shadow then endgame occurs. Each player gets one more turn. On that turn the GM frames the protagonist into a climatic confrontation in the shadow most likely involving one of the monsters. The scene should embody the full weight of Silent Sound’s judgment.
As with all other conflicts the player states his protagonist’s goal. The goal should be stated in full knowledge that this will be the last conflict of the game and that it represents the protagonist’s final efforts against the supernatural forces of Silent Sound.
Unlike other conflicts the player will be rolling three separate pools of dice simultaneously. Each pool has a number dice in it equal to the player’s Exertion, Influence and Shadow scores. Keep track of these pools individually.
Like other conflicts in the shadow the Game Master will be rolling a number of dice equal to the current value of Guilt. The Game Master can then spend points from the Shadow Pool to increase the number of dice rolled by the same number of points.
At this point the other players decide if they wish to spend points of Judgment on either side of the conflict. If they spend points on the protagonist’s side they must decide if they are adding dice to the Exertion pool, adding dice to the Influence pool, or subtracting dice from the Shadow pool. If the player spends points on the Game Master’s side they must decide if they are adding dice to the Game Master’s pool, adding dice to the player’s Shadow pool, subtracting dice from the player’s Exertion pool, or subtracting dice from the player’s Influence pool. Again, a player can not spend Judgment on his own protagonist’s conflict.
The player then decides if he wishes to spend points of Absolution on his side. For each point spent a die is added to the Exertion pool, added to the Influence pool or subtracted from the Shadow pool.
The dice are then rolled and each of the three pools is compared individually against the single Game Master pool. For purposes of determining the success or failure of the protagonist’s goal, only the Shadow pool counts. However, the outcome is the reverse of the usual standards of play. The protagonist succeeds if the Shadow pool fails against the Game Master’s pool. If the Shadow pool was reduced to zero the protagonist automatically succeeds.
However, after all the final conflicts are resolved the protagonists’ journeys to Silent Sound are at an end. Each player gets to narrate an epilogue for his character but the content of the epilogue is constrained by the outcome of the three die pools rolled in the final conflict. There are two broad categories of epilogue constraints and then four separate constraints within each of the categories.
This category is what happens when the player’s Shadow pool fails against the Game Master’s pool or if the Shadow pool was reduced to zero. All of these outcomes should be colored with the idea that the protagonist has been absolved of or otherwise atoned for his crime. It should be noted that because all players start with a Shadow score of zero all protagonists are innocent until proven guilty.
If both the Exertion and the Influence pool beat the Game Master’s pool then the protagonist returns to his former and normal life.
If only the Influence pool beats the Game Master’s pool then the protagonist returns to his former life but has been physically maimed in some way by his visit to Silent Sound.
If only the Exertion pool beats the Game Master’s pool then the protagonist partially returns to his former life but loses a valued aspect of that life.
If neither the Exertion pool nor the Influence pool beat the Game Master’s pool then the protagonist ultimately commits suicide.
This category is what happens when the player’s Shadow pool succeeds against the Game Master’s pool. All of these outcomes should be colored with the idea that the protagonist still lives in the shadow of their crime and that in some ways Silent Sound has followed them home.
If both the Exertion and the Influence pool beat the Game Master’s pool then the protagonist returns to his former life but finds himself surrounded by constant reminders of his crime.
If only the Influence pool beats the Game Master’s pool then the protagonist is murdered shortly after returning from Silent Sound.
If only the Exertion pool beats the Game Master’s pool then the protagonist quickly becomes a social outcast after returning from Silent Sound.
If neither the Exertion or Influence pool beat the Game Master’s pool then the protagonist never leaves Silent Sound becoming a permanent resident of the quiet little lake-shore town everyone remembers visiting but never quite remembers where it is.
Although players with protagonists can request scenes it is always the Game Master’s job to frame the scene. Framing a scene should always answer these questions. Where is the scene taking place? Who is present? What are they up to? The answers to these questions should always present the protagonist with choices to make and opportunities to engage in conflict.
Remember that the protagonist’s crimes are central to the game. Scenes should be framed around things that reflect, reference, question or otherwise allude to the protagonists’ crimes. Scenes should be a good mix of references to their own crimes as well as references to the crimes of the other protagonists. This provides opportunities for the players to express the actions of their protagonists in situations that are similar to the crimes of the other protagonists.
The Town as Character
It might be helpful for the Game Master to think of the town and everything in it as a single character. Remember that ultimately the town doesn’t exist. Everything from the people that inhabit the town to the buildings to the headlines printed in the newspaper are part of the elaborate mousetrap built to confront the protagonists with their crimes.
When portraying the townspeople it is a delicate balance between playing them genuinely so that the players may express their characters honestly and remembering that the only reason the townspeople have personal problems is to test the protagonists. The easiest way to achieve this balance is to have every townsperson try to rope the protagonists into his personal problems. The residents of Silent Sound see the protagonists as potential catalysts for their personal struggles.
This idea is behind all the mechanics that are in play when the Town Influence score is greater than zero. However, when the Town Influence score is zero the facade of Silent Sound is temporarily torn away. Either the facade is restored through the actions of the protagonists or the true purpose and horror of the situation is revealed and endgame occurs.
The situation creation system in Silent Sound results in a lot of secondary characters loosely connected through situations of varying complexity. This is intentionally soap opera like because the Game Master needs fuel to continue adding to the fire until endgame occurs. Endgame is entirely in the hands of the remaining players.
It is entirely possible that by the time endgame occurs much of the situation involving the townspeople will be unresolved. This is fine and expected. In the end the game is about the players addressing the crimes of their protagonists and the townspeople are merely mirrors with which to express that conflict. In fact the Game Master should treat the situation among the residents of Silent Sound as a rolling soap opera. As parts of the situation resolve new complications arise from the consequences.
However, some players may not want end game to occur until certain elements of the situation have been resolved. This is also fine and expected. Players should drive towards endgame only after they feel they have adequately expressed their characters relative to the situations presented in the town.
Monsters in the Shadow
The monsters created by the situation creation system are not intended to be simple obstacles or physical threats. Notice that regardless of success or failure the Exertion and Influence scores are never affected by conflicts in the shadow. This is because the shadow is simply a nightmare illusion designed to taunt and torture the protagonist.
The Game Master should play the monsters as antagonists relative the protagonists’ crimes. They should attack things the players demonstrate the protagonists care about. The motives of the monsters should be tied into the crimes of the protagonists as often as possible. Monsters assign blame for the havoc they cause onto the protagonists themselves whenever possible. Be ruthless and unforgiving.
Silent Sound has already judged the protagonists and the verdict is guilty. The Game Master is responsible for pushing that verdict through the situations presented in the town and through the horrors presented in the shadow. However, the ultimate point to playing the game is for everyone to decide if these protagonists deserve this judgment. Is the supernatural punishment fitting the crime?
The primary mechanic for answering these questions is the players’ individual Judgment scores. Note that during play Judgment can be spent on either side of a conflict and during the endgame spending Judgment can have a significant impact on which of the epilogue conditions a protagonist ends up with.
Notice that Judgment is earned when conflicts are resolved positively with the situation existing in the normal town. By demonstrating his character’s influence on the lives of the townspeople a player earns the right to express judgment over others.
The flip side of this is Absolution which a player can spend to influence the outcomes of his own conflicts. Notice that Absolution is earned when conflicts are resolved positively in the shadow. By demonstrating his character’s struggles with his own inner demons a player earns the right to express judgment over his own character.
Some people looking at this game and looking at the epilogue conditions in general might observe that this game has the potential to be emotionally painful. The potential for emotional pain in this game is intentional. The supernatural weirdness is meant to be a buffer against that pain. However, this game is also meant to be fun. Getting a particularly painful story out of this game is intended to be fun in the same way that a tragic movie or play is fun to watch. It can be both cathartic and enlightening. It can be a way to engage life by the horns.
But also players of this game shouldn’t discount their own narrative spin on events. Remember that even the suicide ending is meant to be colored with a tone of absolution. Sometimes the only way to win is to quit the game. The damnation endings usually carry an implicit question mark. Ultimately the value of a story lies in the hearts and minds of those who created it. If even one player sheds a tear for his protagonist, then the game has done its job.
Silent Hill – If you have any familiarity with the Silent Hill video game series then its role as primary inspiration for this game is self-evident. So much so I hope that I’ve filed the serial numbers off finely enough. Obviously the game’s setting and its existence in two realities is lifted directly from the games. However, it was the thematic of Silent Hill 2 that interested me the most and those have been blown up to be the central focus of this game. While the video games are excellent survival horror monster shooters, I hope that Silent Sound will be more about personal confrontation with inner guilt.
My Life with Master – The majority of the mechanics in this game owe themselves to this wonderful Gothic Romance game. The impact of conflicts on individual scores, the two non-protagonist characters created by the players, an explicit turn order, and endgame and epilogue conditions are central in this game. In fact Silent Sound can almost be viewed as a My Life with Master game where the whole town of Silent Sound is the master.
Dogs in the Vineyard – This is the first game I encountered with explicit situation creation mechanics. Dogs does it better than I do here in Silent Sound. Also the idea of strangers entering a town and involving themselves in the problems of the inhabitance is central to this game. Finally, Silent Sound is in some ways an inversion of Dogs in the Vineyard’s basic premise. Instead of the characters bringing judgment to the town, the town is brining judgment to the characters.
Full Light, Full Steam – A fun Victorian adventure romp in space seemingly completely unrelated to anything Silent Sound is about. However, its situation creation mechanics (also inspired by Dogs in the Vineyard) helped clarify some of my thinking with regard to how the The Rejector and The Perpetuator characters relate to the other non-protagonist characters.
Sorcerer – This game introduced me to many of the concepts that permeate this entire design and indeed many things about this game influenced my life as a whole. The Relationship Map technique described in the supplement The Sorcerer’s Soul was a major impact on the situation creation mechanics in Silent Sound.