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.
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.