Slapping Together a One-shot for an RPG About Young Wizards Learning Magic

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This week Ursula K. Le Guin died. A fantastic writer; a creator of unexpected and original worlds; a feisty and prickly champion of decency.

Hearing the news this week I kept thinking about her work. Specifically about A Wizard of Earthsea and the original Earthsea Trilogy.

At the same time we have a two-week slot available for a quick game in my Monday night group. (We are in the middle of an Edge of the Empire game, but the guy running it needs to head off to the Superbowl for two weeks for work.)

So I sent off an email to the gang asking if anyone would like to set up a quick game about kids in a school for magic. I’ve been itching to play something more character driven than many of the mission-based sessions we’ve been playing and this seemed a perfect fit.

I hopped around the Internet looking for a rules set that might serve me well for a couple of weeks of apprentice wizards.

Countless games can be hacked into creating Earthsea, of course. But I knew I didn’t want a system that was going to get into the weeds for the magic. I’d really rather have an abstracted system so we could focus on the notions of story and character — which is what I think about when I think of Le Guin and Earthsea. I wanted to be something to apply as needed for solid moments of story–not something we were going to spend six weeks trying to figure out how to model on a character sheet with die rolls. If the magic worked within the logic of the setting and story I’d be a happy man. Fortunately, I have players I trust to use such a system to those ends.


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The first game I found was Archipelago.

It is a true “story game” in which everyone at the table adds details to scenes for characters belonging to different players.

The rules begin like this:

ABOUT ARCHIPELAGO
Archipelago is a story/role-playing game where each player controls a major character. Player take turns directing and playing out a part of their character’s story, leading them towards their selected point of destiny, while other players interact with and influence that story.

Who is this game for?
If you like the story-telling part of games, and enjoy the creative challenge and inspiration that comes from working with others, this game is for you. If you like tactical mechanics, resource management, or player-vs-player competition, there are other games that might work better for you.

The vibe I’m aiming for
I wrote this game trying to capture the feeling of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books. I wanted a game of grand destinies, that at the same time had time to dwell on the details of plants, words, everyday lives. I wanted a game that was about great conflicts, but at the same time treated its characters’ stories with respect. I wanted not a steel framework, but a spider web of thin threads creating subtler stories.

This game works best if you play it slow. Sometimes, the best thing to do is wait a little and see how things unfold. Ged stayed with Ogion for years, learning about the old language, the names of flower petals and bugs. There’s time to let the characters evolve.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Take your time.

Each player character has a destiny (or destinies, for longer play). Not a motivation, but a destiny. The characters make their way toward their destinies.

The characters don’t need to have a relationship to each other at the start and there is no “group.” And they might never meet. But each player character must have at least one “indirect relationship” to another player character. An indirect relationship means both characters are emotionally tied to a third character, event, place or other element in a strong and meaningful way.

The rules are only 17 pages of text in a 6″x9″ format. (And you already read the first page above.) The rest of the PDF’s page count is art and Fate Cards that can be drawn for inspiration if a player wishes.

If you are looking for a solid story game I really recommend Archipelago.

So I sent out an email with the PDF and talked a bit about the game. The notion of playing in a school of magic for kids seemed to strike a chord. But I realized the loosey-goosey nature of the game might not hit the sweet spot for everyone in the group.

 


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I thought, “You know, a Powered by the Apocalypse game might do the trick if someone has already done the hack. The effects of magic would be abstracted to someone either pulling off a spell in a moment crisis or conflict… or not. But the game really hangs on the qualities of the stats. What sort of person are you?

So I dug around and came across Simple World, which is a smartly stripped down version of PbtA.

The moment I saw the blank character sheet — shazam — everything fell into place. I whipped up my “Young Wizards” hack immediately. I whipped up an email for my players describing the basic setting (as seen below) as well as the blank character sheet and the basic rules


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THE OAK

In the center of a great forest is a mighty oak tree, wider than most houses, taller than most castles.

Inside a wizard (perhaps two? three?) gathers students in the magical arts and teaches them. Some of the children he finds. Some find their way to him. Others are dumped on his doorstep. They are his apprentices, his wards, and his staff. Each child carries the responsibility of caring for the magical home where they live and study.

The children range in age from 8 to 14, each with their own temperaments and abilities. It is world similar to a dark ages Britain, with faerie courts and demonic dangers, but also joy and love and a strong friendship between the students.

They live apart from the world, but also live in it. The troubles of those who do not dabble in magic seem very far away–but those troubles sometime rush right up to the heavy steel door built into the base of The Oak

The characteristics for the Player Characters are Innocence, Magic, Ferocity, Clever, and Unnatural. The stats are elastic and open-ended, so one can confront the Horned-King or whatever with Innocence, Ferocity, Magic, Cleverness, or Unnatural. One can use them for action or perceiving or research. What interests me about the PbtA system is how the stats are about how a character approaches a problem in a given moment. I’m happy to lose the Basic Moves and really focus on the players stating action and going directly from what is described to the appropriate stat.

Magic is the point between Mankind and the Unnatural. Magic will handle any magical disciplines the players come up with. If it is something standard, like a wizard wanting to sail using weather control with no impediments, he just does it. But if he’s trying something complicated or under stress, he makes a roll. Why I like this for Earthsea is that people are overreacting in Earthsea all the time — and there is always fallout from it.

Tapping Unnatural means tapping the stuff wiser people never go near, almost no one understands, and often leads to grave danger. It is also where the greatest power lies and the mysteries of magic revealed.)

Friendship is the relationship stat. It goes up and down based on how the characters treat each other. Friendship is used to help other characters do something. If you successfully make your Friendship roll then you offer a +2 bonus to the person you are helping. Since PbtA games use a coarse 2d6 bell curve a +2 bonus is a big deal! Characters are better served working together and helping each other on focused moves rather than making a bunch of scattershot actions on their own.

You assign the values to your characteristics and create three Character Moves for your character based on a list of templates. I didn’t have any Character Moves involving XP because I don’t feel like taking the time to sort that out for a one shot. Also, there are no playbooks. (My players can whip up interesting characters on their own.)

You’ll notice on the character sheet that if a character runs out life in the game the character doesn’t die (which would be in appropriate I think, genre-wise) but can come back from the injuries weakened or fucked up.

That’s my take on a quick PbtA hack. Which is based on what I’ve taken from the Earthsea books. I’m sure other people will see something else in them and would build it a different way.

Interest in this peaked because of the Friendship stat.

So now I have two low prep to zero-prep games to bring on Monday night. I’ll expect we’ll be playing one of them. We’ll see how it goes!

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CLASSIC TRAVELLER: What “The Traveller” Adventure had to Say About Situation Throws–Personal Characteristics

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In this post I quoted in full a passage from The Traveller Adventure, which describes how to handle Situation Throws in Classic Traveller. I’m following up with a few more addressing specific portions of that passage. None of this is any sort of declaration about how people are “supposed” to play the game. This is my approach, based my thinking after digging into the original Traveller rules.

In this post I’m addressing this portion:

Personal Characteristics: Many cases can be resolved by looking at the character’s personal characteristics (strength, dexterity, endurance, intelligence, and so on) which are appropriate to the situation. For example, in lifting or forcing large objects, strength might be most appropriate; a more delicate situation could depend on dexterity.

The referee should instruct the player character to throw the characteristic or less on two dice. The higher the characteristic, the greater the chance of accomplishing the goal. Relatively easy situations might call for rolling the sum of two characteristics or less; harder situations might have a positive DM to reduce the chance of success.

I can see the ease of rolling 2D6 under a Player Characteristic’s characteristic. However, as I outline in this post I am not fond of using characteristic rolls. There are several reasons, each explained at length. The short version is:

  • I don’t like systems where you roll under a target sometimes, and roll over a target other times. It means positive DMs are sometimes added, and other times subtracted, while negative DMs are sometimes subtracted or added, depending on whether or not one is trying to roll high or low. I find all of this inelegant and honestly can get confusing at the table as one has to keep remembering if the roll is high or low and if positive or negative DMs or added or subtracted.
  • I want a system where the odds of a success vary based on the situation at hand and are not on a fixed characteristic. For example, if one rolls against characteristics, the odds of solving a situation based on Intelligence is the same for a given character in every situation. Yes, one can apply DMs. But as stated above, that can produce roll high/roll low special cases and confusion.

However, characteristics should apply to a given situation. We know this because the rules as written in Traveller Books 1, 2, and 3 make it clear they should. The skill descriptions make it clear that characteristics should often affect Throws. We also know that certain high or low characteristics trigger positive or negative DMs for weapons.

What I want, then, is a set of procedures grown from the examples already set out in the original rules. I want this because the original rules are strong and it keeps the game consistent.

One possibility is to have the Referee create specific DMs based on characteristics situation by situation. This is perfectly viable. The problem, as I’ve seen it in practice, is that the Players want a more consistent sense of how their character’s characteristics will affect gameplay.

After thinking about it a long while I came up with my own solution. I offer the following procedure. It is built from the original Traveller rules, but makes sense for the kind of game I want.

  1. We start with our basic formula of Situation Throws
    2D6 +/- DM ≥ Throw Value equals success
  2. If an applicable characteristic is 9+ and higher than the Throw value, the character receives a DM +1 to the roll
  3. For every two points the characteristic exceeds the Throw value, the character receives and additional DM +1 to the roll
  4. If the Throw value is 15 or higher, any applicable characteristic of F will receive a DM +1
  5. If an applicable characteristic is 4- the character receives a DM -1 to the roll
  6. If an applicable characteristic is 2- the character receives a DM -2 to the roll
  7. The determination of what, if any, characteristics are applicable is determined on a situation-by-situation basis.

Notice what this gets us:

  • Players have a consistent sense of what their characteristics offer
  • Higher characteristics offer better +DMs, and exceptional characteristics (in the 12-15 range) might end up offering exceptional benefits
  • Sometimes the Referee will want a Throw value that requires exceptional DMs. As the passage in The Traveller Adventure states: “It is even possible for a referee to make the situation number greater than 12, thus making success impossible unless the players can provide necessary skills or tools with DMs to get their throw also above 12.” With the method above, a character caught up in a situation with a Throw Value of 13 or higher will receive at least a DM +1. This means rolls that might otherwise be impossible might be possible–though other DMs wrangled from other fictional details and circumstances might be required as well.
  • Low characteristic provide -DMs in a consistent manner, so the character’s handicaps can come into play but not feel arbitrary.
  • Unlike the later Task systems introduced to Traveller, a characteristic is not a presumed or required part of a Throw. If the characteristic is applicable, if applies. If it does not, it does not. This feeds into my general philosophy of original Traveller Throws: They are not a “skill check” testing the character, but rather an impartial, random resolution in which the character’s abilities are only a part of the situation’s outcome.
  • The system also means that even if you have a high or exceptional characteristic you can still be outclassed by the problem. If the PC has a strength of B, but the Throw value is 12, then the PC can’t depend on his strength to change the situation for the better. I understand this might be non-intuitive to many people (“If I’m really strong, why doesn’t the quality of my strength help every time strength can help?”) But we’re looking at those times when the airlock is jammed so much you would need an even higher strength of it to help. In a 2D6 bell curve a +1 to the roll is a really big deal. I want those DMs for when a characteristic can help crush a problem. In other circumstances, the PC will need to find other methods of getting DMs if he or she wants to change the odds. For gameplay, I really like how this works out.

I completely understand that the methods above might not work for other people. And once I put them into practice I might well make adjustments. But given the premise I started with in my Traveller: Out of the Box series (that the rules in Traveller Books 1, 2, and 3 do work; my job was to start with that premise rather than assume they needed to be fixed; and to extrapolate any further applications of the rules from the text in those books) I’m very happy with where I’ve landed.

Using Original TRAVELLER Out of the Box — E. Tage Larsen’s Alien Legion Inspired Setting

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The premise of the Traveller: Out of the Box series is that the original Traveller rules were a framework to allow a Referee to create his or her own settings to share with friends. Here’s an example of this in action:


Over at G+ E. Tage Larsen wrote up some notes about a Traveller game he ran. The picture above shows a collection of items and notes he used for the game.

He wrote:

Reffed my first Traveller (in a few decades) game on Saturday night and had a great time! Used my own universe, rolled up a subsector, stuck to the ’77 books and went with an ‘Alien Legion’ comic book theme.

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For those of you note familiar with Alien Legion, here’s a description from Wikipedia:

“The original concept was the ‘Foreign Legion in space’ and all the legionnaires were human. … Then I created the humanoid/serpentine design that later became Sarigar and decided that the Legion should include a wide variety of species. This was in the early ’70s. By the time I got around to developing the idea further in the early ’80s, Star Wars obviously became an influence. The Alien Legion universe is a giant extrapolation of the American democratic melting-pot society where different races and cultures work together for the common good while dealing with the pluses and problems that the nation’s diversity creates.”[1]

Larsen continues…

I had the players all roll from “The Metamorphica” to create aliens. The +Johnstone Metzger book is wonderful and I’d been itchign to use it. It’s pricey though even on sale at Lulu. I almost went with the generative tables from Maze Rats which would have worked really well too. Also, tons of love on this coast for the TRAVELLER: Out of the Box Weapon Cards… I’m not the only one. I almost flagged you in this post but wanted to keep the fan boy to a minimum.

The Metzger book is enormous. So, first i had to sort of put the brakes on the tables and decide how much stuff i wanted to leak into play. I settled on letting them roll if they were mutations or more animal type creatures. Gave each player two body mutations and I think one additional physical and mental modifiier. I was running an additional Corruption mechanic that modified the Saves so they could buy into addl mutations for added Corruption.

The Metamorphica can be used in countless ways, but Larsen used it to build out aliens from countless species. Here is a sample table…

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And here is a couple of tables devoted specifically creating aliens…

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You can find a thorough video review of The Metamorphica here.

Larsen continues…

Character 1 rolled up: Birthmark, Bug Eyes, Super Charisma. Character 2: Big; Gaseous; Long legs: Multiple Personalities. Character Three: One eye; Cilia; speech impediment.

These were all friends and hardcore Story Gamers for a one-shot. Mostly we just used the Alien factor for color. Though the gaseous form and multiple personalities of Character 2 had a lot of show time. If I’d been doing a campaign or thought this through better, I’d have given them some sort of auto-success or something 1x per game on their powers. One time the charisma came up and I gave the player a dice modifier but it wasn’t a very successful resolution.

The second character had no problem losing the final conflict and narrated losing a contest as getting a hole in his vacc suit and his gaseous form being vented out into space.

Larsen pulled his game together using G+’s RPG Roulette.

So, in the tradition of the early days of the hobby, Larsen started with the kind of setting he wanted, then kit-bashed the rules to create rules that would support what he wanted. He didn’t limit himself to Traveller Books 1, 2, and 3, but grabbed material that was even outside the Traveller line to help inspire and support the kind of setting he wanted.

 

Classic Traveller Rules In Action, But Not In Space

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One of the main themes of my posts about Classic Traveller is to look at the rules found in the box and to focus on how to play the game. (This is in contrast to not looking at the rules and how to play, and focusing instead on years of yammering about a setting and how it doesn’t make sense but could make sense if only everyone argued about it for another 40 years.) It is has been my belief that Classic Traveller has an excellent system for running loose and fun RPG sessions–independent of anything to do with starships or the implied setting found in the basic rules.

Recently, at a local convention, I had a chance to give this notion a test drive.

I decided to run an RPG session one evening on the fly. I hadn’t planned to run Classic Traveller but two of my friends and one of their friends who had never played an RPG all wanted a game and I volunteered to run something. I had a dice bag, index cards, and whatever PDF I had posted on this blog.

I decided to use the Classic Traveller rules as my framework. They are simple, flexible, and crazy easy to run if Old School Referee-driven-adjudication is your thing.

I established a setting: A mythic kind of place in Eternal Winter and Eternal Night. The Sun had been taken away generations ago. The PCs would be from a village along the coast where fishing still took place. A few scattered communities existed across dark, snow-covered lands. Trade existed, as well as marriages across communities.

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I handed out an index card to each player for characters: “Assign the values 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 to STR, DEX, END, INT, EDU, and Social Status. Add +2 to two of those, or a single +4 to one. Give yourself a profession and write that on the top of the card. You character can do all thing things that that profession can do. Then add three more skills, the things you are really good at, which might tie to your profession or be something else. Assign a +1, a +2, and a +3, respectively to each of the skills as you see fit. Tell me who your character cares about in the village. Tell me about the god your character pays homage to. Give your character a name.”

We ended up with the chieftain’s bard, the chieftain’s thane, a whaler who loved his sons, and a witch who lived outside the walls of the town with her ailing sister.

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I came up with a situation: There had been a kin-killing on the seas when two clans fought over the kill of a whale and The God of the Deep had stopped sending fish up to the surface from the ocean’s bottom. The village would die.

The PCs ended up going to the underworld to find the dead man who had not been given proper burial and returning him to the mortal world. While they were in the land of the dead the PCs saw the sun in the sky (for it, too, had died long ago) and brought back new hope to their village that the sun might return.

I ran the game a little bit like HeroQuest in that a single roll generally handle a full conflict and then we moved on to fallout and new choices. (We had only four hours and had spent some time creating the setting. I wanted to keep things moving along.

I didn’t use a single rule book or reference anything but some notes I scribbled while the Players made characters.

It was kind of RPG Convention Gold. We had a blast.

In essence, I approached resolving situations as I’ve outlined in two posts I wrote a while back. As I discovered while running my Improvised Classic Traveller Convention Game at the previous convention, my assumptions about how robust and effective the Classic Traveller are seems to be paying off for fun times at the gaming table.