Gravity Sinister Gameplay

mage avatarFirst order of business: I have a real name now for the JRPG Basic game, Gravity Sinister. The blog tag will be shortly updated to reflect this, though I’m not going to bother changing previous post names. Hope that’s not too confusing.

This part of the rules took a surprisingly long time to write, despite the simplicity of the underlying idea, and I suspect it will still require more polishing (though I don’t expect to modify the approach in any substantial way). The structure formalizes the idea of a referee turn, which has a slightly different manifestation in each turn type, but should hopefully be easy to understand, and make the time cost of actions (at all time scales) salient.

In addition to having an easy to remember, generalized approach to gameplay at all levels of detail, the method described below has some interesting corollaries, such as automatically and mechanically increasing danger by taking a separate referee turn per group if the party splits.


Gameplay consists of turns. A turn can represent a very short time, such as an exchange of blows during combat, or a longer time, such as a week of recuperation in town between excursions. There are four such levels of detail: haven, travel, dungeon/exploration, and combat/tactical. The game moves between these kinds of turns as appropriate, moderated by the referee.

The basic turn structure is similar at all four levels of detail. Everyone playing the game gets a turn (including the referee), and then the whole process repeats, perhaps at a different level of detail depending on the fictional events. Sometimes (for example, during combat) turn order matters, but often it’s enough to just make sure that everyone gets a “go” before the next round starts. The rules for the different turn types explain when order matters and how to handle it.

The referee takes a turn during every round, just like other players. Referee turns work a bit differently than player turns, as the referee has to manage the entire fictional world. In combat, the referee’s turn is to act as the foes (attacking, running away, pleading for mercy from the PCs, and so forth). During exploration and travel rounds, the referee’s turn includes making random encounter checks. During haven turns, the referee updates the state of the world at large.

It is suggested that all dice (even random encounter checks) be rolled in the open and transparently with regard to underlying mechanics. There is no reason to hide the fact that an area is dangerous from the players, and rolling dice in the open will increase the sense of impartiality, which is important for a fair and challenging game.

Random Encounter Checks

Many referee turns require rolling for a random encounter, and the process is handled the same way irrespective of the turn type. The referee rolls a die (by default, 1d6), and a random encounter happens on a roll of 1. Other die sizes may be used to reflect differing levels of danger (thus, 1d4 or 1d3 might be used for a very dangerous place, as the chance of rolling a 1 using those dice is higher than with 1d6). If party members separate, the referee will need to alternate between the various player groups, and will take a separate turn for each (thus increasing the danger).

Combat Turns

Combat turns are used for handling fighting, pursuit, and other situations where minute to minute or even second to second actions are important. Turn order in encounters is managed using initiative, and acting prior to enemies in a given round offers several benefits.

Characters not yet in melee may make a ranged attack or engage in melee. Retreat from melee is more involved, and is covered in combat positioning. In addition to attacks, any conceivable action may be attempted; success or failure is adjudicated by the referee, and may require various attribute checks as appropriate.

The referee may take multiple combat turns, to represent different groups of NPCs acting at different times, but will usually only take one turn for ease of play. During this turn, the referee takes actions for all NPCs involved in the combat.

Exploration Turns

Exploring dangerous, unknown areas is handled using exploration turns. If an area is well known, or safe, don’t use exploration turns. Instead, jump to the next fictional situation where one of the turn types applies.

Each player takes an action for every exploration turn. In many cases, the entire party will take the same action (such as move to the next area), but this is not required (some characters might stand guard while others try to force a door, for example). Character actions during exploration turns are expected to be careful and deliberate; it is thus appropriate for players to ask as many questions as desired about the environment and situation before deciding on an action. All players should declare their actions before the referee’s turn.

The referee’s exploration turn is used for making a random encounter check, which represents the dangerous environment reacting to PC incursion. Random encounters usually take the form of encounters with the locations’s denizens (for example, a patrol). Random encounters may also be used to represent countdown timers for events like slowly-flooding tunnels. Referees must either prepare beforehand for potential random encounters or improvise as necessary.

Some exploration actions include:

  • Searching an area carefully (with the search skill)
  • Forcing a door or breaking open a locked box (with the force skill)
  • Picking a lock (with the open locks skill)
  • Moving cautiously to an adjacent area

Many of these actions correspond to basic skills, but player options are not limited to those covered by the skills available. Other actions should be adjudicated as necessary by the referee, perhaps using ability checks.

Examining a specific feature in an area is often not a full turn action. For example, opening a cabinet might not require a full turn (unless it is locked and needs to be forced). The exact length of an exploration turn is not important. Turns are just an abstraction to encapsulate the chance of complications arising.

Travel Turns

Overland exploration is handled with travel turns. Generally, there is one turn per day and one turn per night, though rough or dangerous areas may require more turns per day or night. Resolve travel turns much like exploration turns. The referee should first present various movement options, including any landmarks, and then all players declare an action. Players may either travel to a new area, or search the current area for hidden features. The referee makes a random encounter check on her turn, just like with exploration turns.

In the common case, the travel round following a day is a night. If PCs do not rest every other travel turn, they become exhausted. Players may choose to travel during the day and rest at night, or vice versa. Different kinds of encounters may occur during the night. Night encounters are often more dangerous, though this depends on the specific area, and they may also offer different kinds of reward.

Players may decide to explore any feature discovered during travel in more detail, and it may be appropriate to switch to exploration turns in such cases, as determined by the referee. Just as with exploration turns, if the party separates, the referee should take a turn for each group, increasing the relative danger.

Haven Turns

Haven turns represent time spent away from adventure, usually in a refuge like a town or stronghold, where PCs can recover, gather information, recruit retainers, and perform other such actions. Like other turn types, exact durations are usually not important, but a haven turn most often represents several days or a week of in-game time. Haven turns may only be taken when PCs are in relatively safe, protected areas. In addition to a standard haven action, PCs may re-roll their HP, to represent rest and recovery, taking the new roll if it is higher than the previous total. Specific classes may have special options for haven turn actions, such as crafting items.

Taking a haven turn is not without cost, as, like with all other turn types, the referee takes a turn during every haven round as well. During the referee’s haven turn, the state of the game world is advanced. Active situations are processed and dungeons are restocked. Doing this thoroughly can often take time, and thus is best handled between game sessions. This will give the referee a chance to think about the repercussions of PC action on the wider world, and generate more adventure locations if necessary.

11 thoughts on “Gravity Sinister Gameplay

  1. Dave Bapst

    Neat! I’m curious what your motives for this structure was, from a design point of view. I see you’ve discussed this a little already on G+, and you mention the goal of sort of prompting the referee to take actions parallel to the adventurers. Clearly, having this structure will be a big neon sign reminding referees that there is a cost to the players for wasting time throughout the gameplay hierarchy, not just in battle. Was that your main design goal or does this structure serve other intentions too?

    1. Brendan Post author


      The main goal is to have a transparent framework that should make it easy to hang various options on, while giving every choice the potential of mattering. Basically, suggestive without being too rigid. It’s also supposed to plug into some of the other referee tools, like the uncommon and rare items for sale in towns, and other such things. Once I’ve collected all the basic systems, I hope to have a nice set of checklists that can be easily used to move the game to the next turn (I see this being most useful for the haven turns, because most RPGs don’t have many systems for helping referees to manage those tasks, and I find it tricky myself).

  2. Max J

    Wow, Brendan, wow! This is really great – simple yet robust writeup of the back and forth that is smooth referee-player action. I will surely keep these principles in mind for my game and for my personal ruleset (a mishmash of OD&D, Holmes, B/X, and various OSR tidbits)

      1. Max J

        No, sorry. It is mostly just my private thing, and so isn’t entirely complete (not everything makes it to my files; in addition, I don’t have a lot of “how to play/basic rules” stuff since I just explain that to players as they come.) You’d be able to interpret all of it, though: four classes, rules for XP and treasure, spells, etc. I’d be happy to send you my documents if you’d like to read them, once they’re more complete (they’re organized by name, but not collated into a pdf)

      2. Max J

        Using these rules gives me an interesting idea for Rope Trick: it grants players a guaranteed Haven Turn, plain and simple (although probably with the classic caveat of being sure to pull up the rope after climbing.)

      3. Max J

        Replying to the above: wait, that doesn’t make any sense, woops. Maybe a limited sort of Haven Turn, allowing for the HP reroll (and possibly allowing spell re-memorization.)

      4. Brendan Post author


        Yeah some sort of limited haven turn might be usable in that context. Something like “haven turn with no town resources” might be appropriate (though upkeep would have to be handled with rations and so forth).

        As I pull these parts together, I’ll be smoothing out the edges so the various parts fit well.

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