Oct 232013
 

As I discussed earlier, the Twenty Palaces/Voidcallers setting is likely to feature a pretty lethal magic environment. It’s dangerous out there, people. While Peers might have a better chance to withstand a showdown with a Predator or rogue practitioner, it’s not a given by far. Investigators are smart to stay away from conflict hotspots; they do their recon and then get away because shit’s so dangerous. And Wooden Men… man, Wooden Men. They’re recruited and designed to be expendable. Walking targets.

Point being, however we choose to implement the lethality of the setting, it’s gonna be lethal and that means that the risk—and actuality—of character death has gotta be on the table. Yes, PCs are probably going to have a certain small amount of plot immunity at the least, but if the PCs aren’t at actual risk of death[1] as often as not, it’s just not going to feel right, and the setting will not be served.

This, then, is a concern that’s actually separate from the lethality of the setting: expendability. When you know there’s a real chance that the player characters will get dead[2], your design goals should probably address that.

Earlier versions of Dungeons and Dragons addressed this with fairly simple character designs, easily put together, with the activity of creating a new character being a kind of solo fun of its own and thus something a recently killed player could go and do off on the side while the survivors continue the fight.[3]

In Fate Core, fights should—hopefully—run a fair bit shorter than that, and character creation shines best when it’s done in the context of and by interacting with the playgroup, so sending Bob off to do some solo character creation when his prior PC starts pushing daisies doesn’t necessarily provide the same fun.

To solve this, we might do well to look to the upcoming Atomic Robo RPG[4]. In that game there’s a kind of expendability at work, too, but it’s not because the game is particularly lethal. It’s because the game may well jump to other time periods or scenarios where your prior character doesn’t yet exist, or is too old to go adventuring, or what-have-you. As a result, it’s important for the game to make it very fast to create new characters when the situation demands it.[5]

As a result, in the Atomic Robo RPG, character creation is done in a matter of a couple minutes[6], with pretty much everything else being something you can decide as you’re playing. About to do something where a specific skill or stunt would be useful? Buy it right then, revealing the capability on your character sheet with the same timing as it would be revealed in a story or movie or what-have-you. Establish something new about your character’s backstory? Now’s the time to write down an aspect about that on your sheet — not before.

This kind of “stat your character as you need to” approach works wonders for keeping the set-up time of a game short, and so long as your options and rules for adding more detail to a character sheet are simple and clearly understood, making in-the-moment edits and additions to your character is hardly any more of a speed bump than taking a turn in a round of combat.

With Twenty Palaces, spells are contraband. They are not many in number. So, for example, adding a new tattoo[7][8] to your character will involve choosing an option from a fairly short list of what’s out there and known to you (and/or your Peer, if you’re working for one as a Wooden Man or other operative would).

Adding a new aspect is as always super easy, especially when it’s sourced from what’s already been established in play. Taking a quick stunt to represent how you’re specialized in a particular skill, also nice and fast, so long as there’s clear and strong templating available and a relevant task in front of you that needs doing. And if we keep the skill list fairly compact, there won’t be too many options to trip over there, either.[9]

So, strategically, our best move here is to address expendability not with plot immunity, but with an ease of character creation that makes it possible to get back in the game quickly, behind a new face. Knowing this should make our goals in designing the character creation process a lot more clear and, importantly, a lot more specific.

But that’s for another post.


  1. This will present some big challenges and is most certainly a blogpost of its own. At the very least, high actual lethality in a game carries some risk of deprotagonization for the players, which may be the largest actual hurdle here, especially in Fate Core, a game system that’s designed to feature highly proactive, effective protagonists.  ↩
  2. or at least permanently removed from play!  ↩
  3. And with fights running as long as they do in D&D, the ways in which creating a new character isn’t quick aren’t much of a concern: the same fight that killed you might still be going by the time you’re done.  ↩
  4. Among others, of course. There are other games out there that support or focus on character creation on the fly — it’s been a secondary character creation option for a number of Fate games in the past, and it’s not exclusive to Fate either. For our purposes, tho, and with the game coming on the nearish horizon next year, we’ll focus on Robo.  ↩
  5. a.k.a., “Okay, we’re going to do a flashback session set in the 1970s. Brian, you’re Robo as usual. The rest of you are too young to play your modern-day action scientists. Who wants to play Carl Sagan?”  ↩
  6. e.g., pick a high concept and three things you’re good at from a short list, then rank those three good things from best to least best. Congratulations, you’re ready to play.  ↩
  7. A tattoo that, thanks to the principle of dramatic revelation, was there all along, it just wasn’t seen by the audience nor relevant to the story right up until you happened to need it to be there.  ↩
  8. A lot of the “street-ready” magic in the Twenty Palaces setting takes the form of glyphs inscribed on a surface. You don’t want it to be something that washes away easy, and on a body, that surface is skin. So there’s a lot of fixed-effect power that gets carried around by operatives and Peers by way of tats.  ↩
  9. Super-true particularly if we use a skill modes implementation as was invented for the Atomic Robo RPG and introduced in the Fate System Toolkit.  ↩
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  5 Responses to “Expendability in Twenty Palaces and How That Makes It Like Atomic Robo”

  1. I am super interested to see what y’all do with Voidcallers. Having spend the last little bit working on the balance between a setting’s sense of danger & lethality and Fate Core’s sensibilities, I really want to see how you & Rob tackle such a dance. 😀

    • I haven’t entirely zeroed in on how to address it. We’ve got to figure out the baseline of how to make it properly lethal-in-fact, then address how magic completely fucks with that (more below). I’m making eyes at Conditions (from the Toolkit) a bit, because that might speed up fights (no real pondering what to name your consequence aspect) and give us some standard ways of being hurt that we can hang some magic effects off of.

      There’s one tattoo you can get which will probably make it possible for you to trade eating raw bloody meat instead of healing at a normal pace, so durations on consequences (or conditions, whatever), at the least, are gonna get fucked up a bit. Then there’s stuff that’s more like perfect armor, but only covers part of the body. Then there’s the potentiality of a ghost knife to just outright destroy the magic you’ve got on you, potentially explosively. Each spell we know about from the series seems to bring its own challenge. But that’s part of what’s invigorating about it.

    • Regarding your last line: I still remember the shield bracelet. 🙂

    • Yup. Twenty Palaces offers us stuff that’s a bit more like a specific spell list, and less like the creatively applied polyfunctional magic of Dresden, so we’re in some interesting space here.

    • Yeah. I’m finding similar with Mythos spells. There’s something refreshing about “this ritual just does X” and not “you know all about fire!”

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