Saturday, May 30, 2015

A comprehensive guide to using qualities - Filling the Void III (still writing the beta version for LSotN)

This third part will conclude the set of rules I used for our initial play-testing. Everything after that will be exploring new territory (level advancement, adventuring and resting seasons, magic, random clan territory, there's still a lot to do ...). after reading Part 1 and Part 2 and what I'm writing right now you'll know what I know (well, mostly) about Lost Songs of the Nibelungs. It's not finished, but it's already a game and everyone interested in seeing what Lost Songs will work like should have a first impression by now (or in a couple of minutes).

Qualities in LSotN - Introduction

I know, I'm writing and re-writing this all over the place. I have been told. And yet, it's crucial in finding an understanding and I believe it's interesting to see how it all started and where it ended, no? And writing this on the blog helps me focusing, so there is that. Anyway, here is a complete summary of how Qualities work in Lost Songs, with some new ideas and what from the original concept actually worked at the table.

Traditionally in role playing games you have a set of active stats (ability scores) and a set of passive stats (saves) to let characters interact with their surroundings. My understanding is that everything in rpgs derives from this basic concept: Skills and Combat are on the active side as things you use, while threshold of pain,  spontaneous reactions to the environment or surviving poison, to name but a few, are on the passive side of a system. There is a clear distinction and if you are aware of it, you can shape it as you see fit and as long as you keep this basic distinction in mind, you can't do much wrong.

Expanding more on that passive part is what I'm mostly doing in Lost Songs.

So how does that work? The basic idea is that all level zero characters, being young and unconsumed, start more or less with the same qualities and saves, as players distribute the values 18, 18, 16, 16, 14, 14 among the qualities Muscle, Finesse, Grit, Wits, Nerve and Fate and get the fixed saves of 12 derived from qualities with an 18, 11 derived from qualities with 16 and 10 derived from qualities with 14. Those saves are:

  • Muscle - Withstand (also Base Attack)
  • Finesse - Reflex (also Base Defense)
  • Grit - Stomach
  • Wits - Sanity
  • Nerve - Serenity
  • Fate - Encounter Reaction

There is a very close relation between Qualities and Saves as Saves are in the beginning circa 2/3 of a qualities value and when there's a permanent change of a Quality's value, it will also affect the save to some degree (but not base attack and defense).

To make this a relevant gimmick in the game, Qualities are considered pools that will be reduced during session, which might result in permanent damage that, over time, will shape each character with individual scars and knacks.

Mechanisms and subsystems

All this should interact with each other in ways that translate well from using the system to talking about the game (the narrative). When using Qualities as pools, it is important to find reasons for those pools to be used and in an ideal case it would result in a broad spectrum of uses that covers all challenges a group of adventurers could encounter and is detailed enough to allow some distinction between what just damages a character's quality and what leaves permanent marks.

This just leads back to the basic concept described above: the importance of active and passive distinctions in a system and the subsystems it needs.

More specific, characters have some sort of hit points (Health in LSotN), those are traditionally connected to some sort of Constitution (Grit, in this case) and it is not far fetched to allow damage to somehow affect Grit. So I came to see it the other way around. Health is just a necessary extension of Grit, since getting hurt is a very important part of the game. So damage reduces Health first and Grit after that.

If both is gone, it really gets dangerous for a character, but it needs some further distinction to help the narrative along (as in, the system does something and describing that effect directly corresponds with how it's described at the table ...). Getting Health damaged is rather harmless and even loosing some Grit shouldn't have longtime effects on a character, but at a certain point it's going to hurt and leave scars and beyond that damage starts being permanent. After that only death is left ...

So we got health as the extension, parts of Grit as the buffer, the rest of Grit as where the hurt is and anything more than that as permanent damage. Here's an illustration:
Not necessarily the final version, but what I'm working with right now ...

This could be a level zero character and he could take 16 damage (Health + Buffer) before it would harm him seriously (damage drops to "scars") and over 22 points of damage before it leaves permanent marks (effectively crippling the character). If the permanent damage reduces a Quality to zero, the character dies in an appropriate way:

  • Muscle - Circulatory Collapse
  • Finesse - Fatal Cardiac Irregularity (the ultimate failure of bodily coordination ...)
  • Grit - Wounds
  • Wits - Insanity
  • Nerve - Nervous Breakdown
  • Fate - Intrigue and Betrayal

All those stages have different healing rates, of course. The maximum Health value is the healing rate for Health and the buffer (every buffer, actually). So a character would be fully recovered 4 days if he'd only lost his Health and the buffer. Wounds in the "scar" stage heal one point a day (so it'd be 10 days recovery time if the character had lost Health, buffer and "scars"). This would also leave a permanent mark on the character's body after healing. It is encouraged to keep track of stuff like that ...

Permanent damage doesn't heal on a daily basis. Most of it doesn't heal at all, actually. But characters will have a chance regaining some of that between quests by celebrating, courting beautiful maidens and leveling up (to give but a few examples, the complete list will be part of a future post about level advancement and the seasons ...).

Applied on all Qualities, permanent damage will over time map a character's history. But what's easily enough explained with damage, really needs some additional rules for all the other Qualities. The solution is quite easy, I believe. When a character fails a save (a roll of d20 + save value vs. difficulty), he looses the difference between what he rolled and the difficulty needed as damage to the corresponding Quality.

Example: A character sees a tentacled monstrosity and his Sanity is challenged. DM wants to make it difficult, so he says it's a save vs. 25. Character has a Sanity value of 10 and rolls a measly 3 and comes up with a 13. The difference now to 25 is 12 and that's the damage he get's on Wits (because that's the corresponding Quality). If we go with the initial values described above, his Wits value would be 14 (with a 10 buffer and 4 "scars") and the character would definitely keep some mental scars from the experience. Taking the Grit-example above for healing rates, the character'd need 5 days to recover from that (3 days to heal the first 10 and two days to heal the other 2 in "scars").

Here's a list how all them Qualities are affected in the game:

  • MUSCLE: Endurance (as extension), Withstand (as Save) - damage through exertion (a character overexerts himself, permanent damage means he's breathing a bit shorter after what happened to him)
  • FINESSE: Reflex (as Save) - damage through immobility (a character gets his coordination wrong, permanent damage here means he's a bit less flexible after what happened to him)
  • GRIT: Health (as extension), Stomach (as Save) - damage through bodily harm (a character gets damaged with weapons or poison, permanent damage here means his physique is weaker for what happened to him)
  • WITS: Mana (as extension), Sanity (as Save) - damage through exposure to the weird and evil (a character sees something that challenges his mental health, permanent damages means he didn't succeed and has some insanity connected to what happened to him)
  • NERVE: Serenity (as Save) - damage through stress (a character is damaged by stress, permanent damage here means he'll collect some nervous ticks and addictions because of what happened to him)
  • FATE: Encounter Reaction (as Save) - damage by intrigues and by making enemies, also for avoiding permanent harm on other Qualities (a character is the target of a smear campaign, somebody hates him or a player decided to avoid some permanent damage to another Quality by reducing Fate instead)

I believe this systems maps everything a character could experience in a game. It's also always connected to what happens during the game that goes beyond a system response (something like: "Jörge just never regained his speed again, after he'd been so humiliated in that race a year ago ..." or "Since he'd shot his nerves back in the Silkhorn Woods, he always got nervous sneaking through dark woods.").

One last word about permanent damage, Saves and Fate. Permanent damage will reduce a Quality and the buffer/scar stages respectively, but the saves stay the same. Anyway, since all permanent damage is linked to certain events, it's easy to assign circumstantial deductions whenever possible (so if the character in the last example above has to enter some dark woods again, he'll get an appropriate reduction of his Serenity Save, if it becomes necessary to check on it).

Fate, now, helps a player shifting some of the damage done to other Qualities: if a Quality is reduced below zero, a player may decide to put the damage below zero to Fate instead. But this is a gamble, as a reduced Fate very well could result in some poor Encounter Reactions and long-time enemies, ultimately (that is when Fate gets reduced to zero) killing a character through intrigue and betrayal. It puts a focus on dying because of intrigue and betrayal, but that's totally appropriate for a game about Nibelungs ...

Simple Tasks and Skills

So far the system is a bit heavy on the passive interaction part of the game. How characters react to their surroundings is covered in detail now. As for the active part I'd say it's a rather traditional approach. If a character wants to do something and it's not related to a skill or combat, he rolls a d20 + the appropriate Quality versus a difficulty. If a character has a skill he may use for the task, that skill's bonus is also added to the roll.

It doesn't end with failing the roll, though. A character will always have the chance to use Endurance to fill the gap.
Example: Let's give an extreme example for all of that and make a character unhappy. After a fight a character is already in the buffer zone (5 Endurance and a buffer of 11 and 5 for "scars", lost already 14 points, so 2 are left in the buffer) when fleeing from some wolves and wants to climb a cliff to safety. It's a coordination task and a check on Finesse is needed (Finesse: 14). No skill applies and the difficulty is 25, because that cliff ain't that hard to climb. Player rolls a 2 and that really ain't enough. Since it would be worse to fail climbing that cliff and face those wolves again, player decides to burn some Endurance and forces himself to make it.
So he needs to bridge the difference between what he rolled (16) and what he needed (25) by using Endurance (9 points) and that produces a new problem: it would result in permanent damage to Muscle (-2). Player won't have that either and reduces his Fate by two instead. He reaches the top of the cliff and is save from those wolves, but he's also laying there breathing hard for some time before he'll find the strength to move on (Endurance will recover fast after an encounter, something like Health value per 10 minutes) and might even pass out, since he dropped Muscle down to zero (Save of d20 + Withstand vs. 20 or he passes out).
So the active part is kept quite simple and that's on purpose. The main work is for the DM to stem. He needs to know how the surroundings interact with the characters and needs the tools to do so, while the players just need to state what they want to do and an easy understanding how the system is used for it. Combat is a bit more complex, but that's okay since there'll be lots of fighting and I believe it needs a system complimenting that fact to make it worth the exercise.

Here's what the character sheet looks like at the moment:

Still a work in progress, but that's what we're using  right now...

Final words

That's it. That's what I got and play tested up until now. I have a very good idea how combat will finally work (damage by weapon, ranged combat, sneak attacks and two weapon fighting are all done, but untested) and the next big projects are magic and level advancement before the gaming group gets back together. I also hope to get some random clans territory system and a creature encounter table done. But there are some other projects I need to get written in June and the Goblintribe-Simulator needs to make some steps, too.

But I hope I could give those of you interested a good look at what the game looks like at this stage. It works and I'm looking forward to testing some level advancement and class abilities with this. It already does a lot, but as soon as level advancement allows for a half crazy battle wizard or a scarred warrior priest things will get really interesting around the blog ...


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks! There'll be an open beta soon and next up should be a gladiator mini game with the complete combat and conversion rules. I'd be really happy to see the game played :-)


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