Monthly Archives: October 2012

Author Versus Player

Play to find out what happens. — Vincent Baker in Apocalypse World

What does the game master or referee in a roleplaying game do? There are several different schools of thought, some of which include things like: creating challenging situations, interesting relationships, stories, and events. Whichever of these are deemed important (or forbidden), there is often a hidden assumption that the referee is the author and the people running PCs are players. Even the initialism PC suggests this (player character).

As author, the referee is expected to know what is going on. The referee is thus a kind of facilitator. They have decided beforehand about the truth of the important things (if they are a good game master in this paradigm), and these truths are expected to unfold through play, either through narration or mystery solving on the part of the players. This is independent of whether the game in question is a railroad (invalidates or circumscribes player choice) or a sandbox (respects player choice as much as is feasible given limited time and human mental capacity).

However, I haven’t been playing that way recently. I have been interested in the referee as player, not author. This is not to say that the referee does not have a special set of responsibilities or powers with respect to the setting. The ref needs to play the roles of the NPCs, run the monsters, devise traps, provide clues, adjudicate rules disputes, etc. The ref needs to know enough about the setting and scenario to do these things impartially and consistently. But they don’t need to know everything in advance. In fact, some things can be left positively up in the air (if necessary, truly uncertain things that, unforeseen, become salient during play can be determined randomly).

There is nothing wrong with a game mastering style that says the adventuring is over here (with a big neon blinking arrow pointing toward the megadungeon or whatever). It is certainly practical with regard to session prep strategy. But it seems to me that tabletop RPGs have a unique potential compared to other narrative media. They have freedom regarding not just how some questions are answered, but even what questions are important to begin with. I’ve been trying to create things that respect the logic of my setting, but also trying to let the players decide what is important. The artifacts that I create to help me run the game (monster stats, maps, NPC descriptions, calendars. etc) are tools to help me figure out what happens, not scripture regarding what makes up a fictional setting.

I do project events forward several steps. Making some decisions beforehand is required for impartiality. How can I discover what happens impartially if I am free to just make up whatever I want whenever I want? No, there must be some constraints. Examples: if nothing affects this area, then this NPC is going to consolidate power; this other group of NPCs is going to flee south as quickly as possible; demons attack this town during every new moon. I try to not decide things too far in advance, though. It is sort of like predicting the weather: there are too many potential variables to make forecasting far out practical. Who knows if the PCs will even be in this part of the world three months later?

Hexagram Treasure Overview

Excalibur the Sword (source)

There are two major categories of treasure: mundane and wondrous. Mundane treasure includes money, valuables, simple machines, NPC favors, and other such things. The most important quality of mundane treasure is that it is not connected to character traits in any meaningful way. There are no prerequisites for use. A sack of money can be used by a squire just as easily as by a powerful sorcerer.

Wondrous treasure is not necessarily more potent than mundane treasure (though it often is). The defining quality of wondrous treasure is that use is dependent upon character traits. Some traits may also be primarily concerned with using (or even creating) wondrous items. All wondrous items have a rating, from 1 to 6, which relates to a specific character trait. There are traits on every path which relate to different kinds of wondrous items.

Exactly how wondrous items interact with character traits varies by item. Some require a minimum level of a certain trait in order to function at all. For example, a certain magic sword may be inert (that is, function as a mundane sword) for warriors with less skill than 3 in melee combat. Other items may require a successful trait check (less than or equal to the trait value when rolling a d6) before the item can be used, or even per use. For example, an antediluvian gauntlet may allow reaching into stone as if it were water, but only with a successful antediluvia trait check.
The wondrous items related to the path of battle are magic weapons, which are governed by either the melee combat trait or the ranged combat trait (depending on whether the item in question is a melee weapon or a ranged weapon). The wondrous items related to the path of guile are antediluvia (artifacts left over from before the deluge). The wondrous items related to the path of wonder are spell formulae, potions or potion recipes, magic devices, and scrolls. Though anyone can use a potion, it can also be reverse engineered. Thus, potions straddle the line between mundane and wondrous treasure.
As wondrous items are keyed to specific traits, not paths, characters with points in the necessary off-path traits can potentially make use of any kind of wondrous item. For example, a sorcerer with melee combat 3 can make use of a potency 3 sword just as well as a character on the path of battle (though it would have been more costly in terms of experience for the character on the path of wonder to develop that martial skill). The most complex antediluvia might only be usable by a character on the path of guile (based on the cap for off-path traits), but other less complex items are usable by any character with the appropriate trait.
One method for placing wondrous items: roll d6 to determine if there is a wondrous item; on a 6 there is. Then, roll another 2d6 and take the lowest number to determine the potency or complexity. Finally, roll on the following table to determine the wondrous item type.
  1. Potion
  2. Antediluvian item
  3. Weapon of power
  4. Scroll
  5. Magic item
  6. Spell formula
All wondrous items should be unique to a given campaign. Though not all wondrous items need have drawbacks, they should all have quirks and idiosyncrasies. Some wondrous items may have no direct adventuring use, only being able to generate strange seemingly useless effects. Few wondrous items are both of unlimited use and without potential drawbacks.

I am building a system for generating campaign-specific wondrous items as part of the referee scenario design process.

Sorcerer Patrol

Being a sample Hexagram campaign (consisting of rewards and backgrounds).

Talisman of Saturn

There are three types of people in the world: naturals, trained magic-users, and everyone else (the bulk of humanity). Most people just don’t have the talent, instruction, or mental fortitude to dip their hands into chaos, the raw substance of creation and potentiality, and make their will manifest. A small portion, however, with study into ancient mysteries, can learn to work magic. An even smaller portion shape reality whether they want to or not. These are the naturals. They can be some of the most potent wonder workers, if they don’t go mad or destroy themselves and those nearby.

In their worst form, naturals are raw chaotic wounds on the flesh of civilization. They are dangerous, and need to either be trained or destroyed. That’s where the player characters come in, as agents seeking out these wild wonder workers. The catch? Most of the time, those best equipped to destroy or train sorcerers are themselves magic workers. However, after the great disaster, sorcery is forbidden and great college disbanded. However, small cells of the academy continue to operate behind the scenes. Think wizardly X-Men.

Short digression on mechanics for experience. I’m playing around with another variant experience system, which I will use in this post. Rather than 1000 XP required per level, 6 XP are needed. This scale is influenced by more recent games like Vampire and Apocalypse World, and “6 XP per level” obviously fits Hexagram stylistically, and allows me to present XP similarly to any trait.

However, stylish elegance is not enough; the system needs to work structurally as well. The major thing that I like about the more granular D&D method (with thousands of XP required per level) is that XP can be awarded impartially (by treasure value or monster hit dice) and small XP rewards can still provide a sense of progress even if major objectives are not accomplished. So, is that possible with a more compressed XP scale? I think it probably is, assuming that rewards remain objective and are awarded communally (XP acquired per session is totalled and then divided among surviving PCs).

It should be easy enough to translate back to the 1000 XP per level system that was outlined previously. Multiplying all rewards by 100 would work, though it would result it slightly slower progression. The previous treasure hunter reward paradigm can also be done using this system: spend 166 (round up to 200) GP to gain 1 experience point.

Let’s look again at this particular campaign idea to see how rewards might function.


  • Neutralize a wicked sorcerer: 5 XP per sorcerer level
  • Recruit a sorcerer: 10 XP per sorcerer level
  • Recover of an item of power: 1 XP per item level
  • Destroy dangerous item causing chaos pollution: 1 XP per item level
  • Discover the seclusium of renegade sorcerer: 1 XP per sorcerer level
  • Destroy a beast of chaos: 1 XP per hit die
This list of rewards is rough, incomplete, and probably needs some numerical adjustment; I just want to get the basic ideas down. More suggestions for reward-worthy “sorcerer patrol” tasks are welcome.

(Item levels range from, you guessed it, 1 to 6, and will be covered in a future post.)

  1. A natural, you were trained by an academy cell and feel indebted.
  2. You began as a “special skills” operator for an academy cell. You slowly pieced together the nature of your employer and were forced to make a choice: be disappeared, or join fully. Do you welcome this new role, or rue the day you came across the wizard hunters?
  3. Though not a powerful sorcerer yourself (you may know a spell or two), you are fascinated beyond measure by all things arcane. What led to this obsession?
  4. An ex-soldier, you began as a mercenary employed by a cell and worked your way up to full membership. Why are you interested in this line of work as opposed to other mercenary jobs?
  5. Someone you care about needs an infusion of sorcerer blood to remain stable or healthy. Are they sick in some way, or perhaps a natural themselves?
  6. You craft items of power from the bones of sorcerers. How did you develop this skill?
  7. Just being around sorcerers is a high for you, never mind when they actually cast spells. You crave that experience over all others.
  8. Wizard suprematist. For now you work within the contraints of the academy, but one day you will write your own laws. What experience in your past shaped your confidence that the wielders of magic are destined for mastery?
  9. Sorcerophage. That’s right, you eat sorcerers; you like finding the wicked ones best, because few object to killing them. Why? Is it a religious thing? Do you get power from it? Do your superiors know?
  10. You believe that naturals corrupt the flow of magic power for everyone else and are a danger to trained wizards. They must be controlled or destroyed for the safety of all practitioners and mundanes. What formative experience cemented this point of view?

Black Sun Rising

The first volume of the Coldfire Trilogy, Black Sun Rising is a book which I originally read in high school. I was captivated by the cover art by Michael Whelan (I very clearly remember seeing the slightly beat up hardcover copy at the local public library and knowing that I just had to read it). Rereading, I see that BSR has had a far larger impact on my gaming taste than I had previously thought.

The plot is not the strongest and the characterization is only okay, but where this novel shines is the setting, which seems almost tailored for a D&D type game, and in a way that does not seem contrived. Just for one example, in traditional mythology vampires fear running water. That just falls naturally out of the setting, along with many other such features. If you don’t like overly systematized fantasy, the Coldfire Trilogy might not be for you, but I would suggest that systematized settings are exactly what are needed for a fantasy game. But enough about generalizations; what makes the setting special?

The setting is hard science fantasy in the sense that the world is expected to conform to the laws of physics and is explicitly set in the far future; the characters are the descendants of Earth colonists on an alien planet. The “magic” is a property of the planet Erna which exudes an energy called “fae” naturally. The fae comes in several different variaties, the most common of which is called earth fae, which humans can “Work” in order to create magic-like effects. Additionally, there is tidal fae (protean, unpredictable, lunar, unworkable by humans), dark fae (which waxes in the absence of light), and solar fae (which is not explained in much detail but is associated with sunlight somehow). The earth fae is connected to geological dynamics, and flows strongest in fault lines between tectonic plates. Sorcerers that try to work the fae when an earthquake hits get their mind fried (and Erna is very geologically active, so this is a real and continuous danger). The fae has inspired a number of my recent chaos magic posts (the parallels between manipulating chaos and working the fae should be clear, though I would hope to present chaos more mythologically).

There are two main protagonists, Damien Vryce and Gerald Tarrant, who end up working together despite being polar opposites (the contrast is obviously supposed to be the primary thematic tension of the series; the idealism of Damien the priest and the ruthless pragmatism of Tarrant the sorcerer). Damien is probably the most cleric-like character in any fiction I have read (perhaps to an even greater degree than characters in TSR setting fiction, surprisingly). He’s a tough priest that belongs to an order of church demon hunters that believes in working the fae despite the fact that church doctrine opposes sorcery. Damien partly inspired my recent church sorcerers post.

The fae is not just power though; is is psychologically reactive. The fae gives flesh to the things that people fear, and such faeborn creatures feed on human emotions. Thus, the planet Erna creates the monsters of human myth. Such monsters are most powerful at night, and are mostly unable to threaten people during the day. They are also weakened by deep or flowing water (alluded to above) as that acts as a buffer around the earth fae. Friedman describes how fae-wraiths cluster around the walls of small settlements at night, trying to get in but being repelled by wards designed to keep them out. It’s perfect for D&D, and something that I have been using for as long as I can remember myself, though I may have originally gotten the inspiration from reading this series way back when.

Despite the rationalization and explanation of the magic system, the actual effects which characters generate with the fae are mostly rather subtle. There are few fireballs or magic missiles being hurled around (though Tarrant does engage in some rather dramatic coldfire displays in some parts; he is somewhat special though, for reasons that I don’t want to discuss here lest I spoil the plot). Instead, most fae workings are concerned with information, and are essentially “Seeing” the fae (being able to get information is also controlled by the direction of the flow; if someone is “upstream” from you, more information is available). There are also Healings, Wardings, Banishings, and many other kinds of working. Additionally, some people, called adepts, are born with fae-sight. Essentially, natural born sorcerers, whereas most people must learn how to see and manipulate the fae in a more academic manner (a virtually perfect mapping to the wizard/sorcerer dichotomy in D&D).

I feel like I could go on and on about how many of the setting elements harmonize so perfectly with the assumptions of D&D. The monotheist-style church trying to bring law through faith to the chaotic wilderness, struggling against fae-born godlings which also have their own “pagan” worshippers. But the power of the planetary fae gives these things real corporeal power. It ends up feeling a bit like a less solipsistic version of the World of Darkness Mage setting, where the nature of reality is determined by what people believe. Complicated technology (like guns) are less reliable because people do not completely understand the mechanism and fear that it will not work (and this fear is made into real danger by the fae). Once the original colonists had landed on Erna, they were stranded because their own psychology prevented their advanced technology from working reliably. It’s such a wonderful justification for a world full of adventure and danger.