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.  ↩
Oct 202013

So, as part of Harry Connolly’s just-concluded Great Way kickstarter, I offered up a stretch goal[1] on behalf of Rob Donoghue and myself for us to expand the Voidcallers setting/magic system found in the Fate System Toolkit to a fuller[2] RPG suitable for use with the Twenty Palaces[3] universe.

Let’s be clear about it: Voidcallers is the beating heart of a Twenty Palaces Fate Core RPG, when it comes down to it. Rob designed it as such. The serial numbers are not filed off so much as shoved hastily under the bed please don’t notice them. Harry Connolly has previously endorsed us putting Voidcallers out there as a way to support a Twenty Palaces RPG, and was happy we offered this stretch goal, so we’re super in the clear and don’t need to pretend about that the one isn’t the other! With that in mind I’m going to spend at least as much time talking about Twenty Palaces directly as I am about the Voidcallers “over-skin”.

So for today’s post let’s start with some background: we (Evil Hat) originally wanted to do a Twenty Palaces RPG, but Harry talked us out of it.[4] During our early examination of the idea we spent some time looking at the dividing-line in the setting among the folks in the know: those with sanctioned access to magic (the Peers of the Twenty Palaces Society) vs. those affiliated folks still kept in the dark (the Wooden Men used by the Peers, along with the other noncombat Investigators).

This dividing line presents the primary challenge of supporting the setting, at least as far as the construction of playgroups goes. For me, at least, there are a few distinct, separate types of games playable in the setting:

The Wooden Men: PCs are largely Wooden Men working for various of the Peers. Investigators optional, but playable. There’s a sort of constant tension at play here; Wooden Men are seen as expendable. They’re thrown into all sorts of very lethal situations by the Peers, and it’s often the death of them. But the missions themselves are worthy things: they must be completed[5] to keep the Predators involved from literally killing the world.

A Wooden Men game should feature high lethality, potentilaly expendable/quickly-replaced PCs, and a constant navigation between Scylla and Charybdis. Wooden Men would have access to some magic, but only in the form of those spells their Peers have bothered to carve into them (typically as tattoos). Surviving as a Wooden Man ain’t easy, and it’s that challenge that would particularly excite me about this kind of game. Not to mention playing a somewhat moral Wooden Man like Ray Lily would also mean trying to meet mission objectives without triggering horrifying amounts of collateral damage.

The Peers: We don’t know much about the Peers from the novels, but we do know there’s a heck of a hierarchy going on in the Society, and it’s a hard one to climb. All the PCs would know some combination of spells, closely guarded and precious even from each other, getting them in in the lower ranks of the Society. Wooden Men would be deployed as tools, NPCs created primarily as complicated obstacles while the Peers try from the shadows to outmaneuver the opposition and take down the Predators and those who called them here. Within the Society, politicking. Outside the Society, investigations-by-proxy punctuated by high-stakes, deadly, high-collateral-damage arcane throwdowns.

The Mixed Group: This is where the dividing line becomes a cutting edge. The Peers are analagous to walking, talking, thinking artillery. The Wooden Men and their allies are at best infantry. Most Peers see their Wooden Men as expendable and are just as happy to blow them up along with the threat as not. The novels offer us one mostly functional pair of Peer and Wooden Man and make it pretty clear that it’s an exception. But the series ends with an implication that this could start to change, if only the Society would start paying attention to why Ray Lily continues to be the exception, the Wooden Man who actually solves problems on his own instead of simply operating as a stalking horse.

Regardless, even if we stipulate cooperation, the trick will be in finding a way to address steep differences in character power level. There are a few ways to do this[6], and Rob and I will have to think long and hard about it if we’re going to lay a good foundation for the overall game.

So that’s where I’m starting from. Rob, you wanna do a post talking about your own starting-point?

  1. I’ve developed a bit of a feel for stretch goals, particularly in the end hours of a Kickstarter, and with the Great Way sitting at 1000 backers and $40-something-thousand, I set the goal at 1200 backers, hoping that it’d propel the project to $50,000 in the process. The project concluded last night with 1206 backers at $50,056. I am slightly smug about that. 🙂  ↩
  2. It’ll be a while because this is going to be a side project for Rob and I to do for funsies, but: likely free, wholly digital, minimal art beyond us reusing what we’ve already had done for the Fate System Toolkit.  ↩
  3. I’d seriously encourage you to start your exploration of the setting with either Harry’s self-published Twenty Palaces prequel novel (titled, indeed, Twenty Palaces), or with the first book that was published in the series, Child of Fire. But if you don’t mind some spoilers, the Wikipedia article on the series gives a nice quick overview of a lot of the elements.  ↩
  4. Harry shared his sales numbers and made a fairly good business case that the overlap of gamers with his novels added up to a potential market so small we wouldn’t be likely to recoup our investment. So we decided to squeeze our love for his series into the Fate System Toolkit.  ↩
  5. …usually by the Peer doing mop-up after the Wooden Men have drawn the problems out into the open!  ↩
  6. One way to address this, I think, is to let that power differential stand as a bit of intentional unbalance in the system. In this perspective we’d probably end up with something like Ars Magica’s division between spellcasters and grogs. It’d be rare for more than one Peer to appear in a given scene, so maybe at those times the players would all play their “alt” characters, Wooden Men and investigators and such working with the Peer. That’s not the only way to go, of course: another approach would be to examine how, say, the Dresden Files RPG handles the mixture of Wizards and Mortals in the same group.  ↩