Ok, Echo Bazaar. It’s the hot new game which everyone is talking about, but I see surprisingly little discussion of the actual game design. Since I am interested in game design, it seems like I should post about it. So I will!
I’m going to probably post this in a couple sections. This first one is just an introduction to the game for people not familiar with it; you can probably skim if you’ve played already.
This post about spells in FATE got me thinking about FATE/Nobilis mashups. I couldn’t decide which way to go so I decided I’d do them both.
I realize there’s virtually no demand on this blog for system hacks for pre-4e D&D, but I didn’t let that stop me before, so I don’t see why not to proceed now. Plus I still see people talking about this on enworld when I go there, since they are basically permanently stuck in a 4e-vs-3.5e turf war, so I’m still thinking about it. Right, then.
One of the main things that strikes me about magic in Conan (and other sword & sorcery properties like Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser) that isn’t represented well in most role-playing games is how physical it all is.
Ok, the game ran two sessions and seems to have hit a good stopping point, so perhaps I will write a little about it. As usual the original GM notes didn’t end up having more than a vague resemblance to the final product, but that is pretty much par for the course so I didn’t have too much invested in them. Anyway, let me talk about this in a couple of different ways.
Ok, what you need in this kind of improv setup is a vague idea of what’s going on, a list of names, and some power groups to interact with and start trouble. I’m going to try to get a little more tactical here so I also intend to make some zone maps.
So what’s going on is up for change as the game goes on, but the working hypothesis is going to be that Captain Danvers is a bad guy, that he intended all along to cheat his crew and keep the gem for himself and, furthermore, he is now up to something nefarious with this party. But that could change: he could have lost his memory, been replaced by a doppelganger, or just genuinely believe his crew is dead (but this last seems a little uninteresting unless then he turns out to be in trouble and need their help or something — clearly he can’t just hand the gem back to them).
Anyway, power groups. I figure I want at least a half-dozen and ideally more like nine, and obviously they should be linked to each other. Thus:
- Captain Danvers:
- Map: his estate
- Minions: estate employees (guards with swords, etc)
- Wants/plans: not clear; likely candidates including turnaround robbery on the guests, or doing some weird sorcery with the gem and the house and the guests’ souls
- Notes: has the Sea’s Blood; estate has five guarding aspects of various types (dogs, guards who are watchful and loyal, voodoo spirits (?), exposed (and hence hard to sneak across))
- Seven Blades (out-of-town thugs):
- Map: warehouse by the docks
- Minions: thugs with daggers, fists, and crossbows
- Wants/plans: Perhaps Danvers stole money from them and they want it back; or perhaps they’re muscling in on the local smuggling trade; or both (maybe they don’t know who Danvers is — that might be why he stays at home)
- Notes: Probably from Vodacce; named like Orio and Pipo and Lara and Gino and Isa
- Local smugglers:
- Map: smugglers’ caves? tavern?
- Minions: smugglers (not very tough, but might set up (non-lethal?) traps)
- Wants/plans: Worried about getting busted, worried about outsiders muscling in; don’t really care about Danvers (or does he have a deal with them to bring him in stuff? or is his estate on the smugglers’ tunnel, perhaps unknowingly? Or perhaps he knows about the tunnels and intends to use it to escape down to meet somebody?)
- Notes: Are sort of good guys; smuggle to Vesten (“it’s an old family tradition!”); Tom and Ned and Sal and Meg
- Map: pirate ship
- Minions: pirates with cutlasses and hook hands and belaying pins
- Wants/plans: Why are pirates in this area, anyway? Are they chasing someone? Or desperate?
- Notes: Perhaps their ship is called the Golden Parrot. Wouldn’t that be enticing? Named like Bloody Dave and Pete the Peg and No-nose (he’s got a nose, but he’s a biter!) and Perkins
- Old Money:
- Map: ball (social map)
- Minions: various nobles, old and young, who are arrogant, drunk, hot-tempered, bored, giggly, stone-faced, or hoity-toity
- Wants/plans: Irritated by new-money folks like Danvers coming in and buying up the estates, but with land prices falling and blah blah; anyway, they want him gone, probably; but some probably also want to buy the gem if it’s awesome
- Notes: Hoity-toity! Lord Roderick wants to buy the gem at the urging of his daughter Madeline; Colonel Williams leads the want-him-gone movement; Lady Genevieve is conciliatory but her son Arthur is hot-blooded and gets into trouble; Lady Samantha is young and cute and bored and dangerous (perhaps she knows thugs?)
- Map: ball (social map), auction (social map)
- Minions: various merchants, avaricious, ingratiating, sharp, friendly, drunk, social-climbing, eavesdroppy, sensible
- Wants/plans: Want to make trade deals, want to buy the gem if it’s a reasonable price, don’t want to offend the nobility who they need to buy the wool from
- Notes: Rachel is the top trader looking to buy the gem; Johannes is looking to bump her off his pedestal — they don’t get along (perhaps Johannes doesn’t even want the gem, he’ll just bid it up); Dominic is working with the smugglers
- Local Farmers and Shepherds:
- Map: tavern (social/combat map)
- Minions: semi-rustic folk but come into the city a fair amount, dumb, quiet, watchful, quick to anger, get drunk easily, looking for a sharp deal, willing to cheat strangers, honest, clannish
- Wants/plans: Think they’re being overcharged by the nobility, want someone to ask Queen Elaine to get rent prices dropped
- Notes: Jim and Hank and Emma and Zeena and Nate; probably working with the smugglers
Recently our group finished the Helvetica campaign that I was a player in. Overall it was pretty awesome — there was plenty of fighting and disguising and lying to NPCs and burning stuff down and crashing through the gates at the last minute (there was a good bit right at the end where we’re fighting over a book on the second floor of a building, and finally one guy grabs it and tears out of the room, and everyone else jumps out the window and we’re wrestling over it in the streets and then my guy rolls up in a carriage and we make tracks out of the city).
Going by the principle that anything with dice you can build an rpg around (with fuzzy dice, for instance, you could play a rousing game of Desert Bus), how about using a Magic 8-Ball as a resolution mechanic?
Looking at the standard 8-ball answers, they have a couple useful properties. One is that you succeed about half the time, which is nice, and another is that some portion of the non-succeeding time it’s not a failure either (“Ask again later”). In addition, although they break down roughly into 10 successes, 5 failures, and 5 neutrals, the actual wording is different enough you could do some amusing arguing about them with the GM, or throw in some “yes, but” and “no, but” partial successes/failures. Like “Yes – definitely” is clearly a total success, whereas “You may rely on it” means you get the intent of what you asked for, but the other person can throw in a little something extra. The neutrals could mean a variety of things depending on the situation: a tie, or the situation changes such that the contest is no longer important, or even a cue to cut dramatically to another player’s scene and ask again about this one later.
I’m not sure how you’d handle skills in this system. Perhaps something new where skills define how much you can attempt to resolve and the mechanic tells you whether you get it or not. Like, a novice fighter can ask the 8-ball “do I wound the orc with my sword?” and if it says no, well, then, I guess not (though you could perhaps still stun the orc or something). But the expert is allowed to ask “do I behead this entire legion of orcs with one sweep of my broadsword?” and if it says no, then they have to fall back on some more minor effect, but they have more room for a partial success: “I guess not, but I can do it in a few sweeps, it just takes longer” or “I guess not, but I do behead half the orcs”
And, of course, the major advantage of using the magic 8-ball for an rpg is that arbitrating divination spells becomes extremely easy.
One of the memorable things about earlier versions of D&D is that every level has an associated title — first-level wizards are Prestidigitators, fifth-level fighters are Swashbucklers, third-level assassins are Waghalters (not really all that intimidating). But with the exception of “name level”, when you top out the title system and (in 1e, at least) can build a stronghold and start accumulating followers, none of the titles mean anything: just because you’re a Swashbuckler doesn’t mean you’re actually swashbuckly in any way.
So why not fix that? Earlier editions don’t have much of a skill system, so you generally end up using ability or skill checks if someone wants to do something. Well, take that, and then if the character’s doing something related to their title, give them a +4 to the roll: fifth-level Swashbucklers get a bonus if they’re trying to make the ladies swoon or disarm a troop of guardsmen, but once they hit sixth level and become a Myrmidon, then they get bonuses for bodyguarding and military formations.
Note that this plays well with the old-school tradition of characters dying frequently and starting off again at first level: now there’s actually a reason for you to want a second-level magic user around even though the rest of the party is fifth level, because the second-level guy is an expert Evoker and that might be just what you need. This also helps compensate some for weak fighters, another common complaint: they’ve got titles like Hero and Champion that can be applied to a lot of different situations.
This is pretty simple but I imagine there are a lot of other interesting things you could do with level titles. I haven’t even mentioned cleric titles, for instance, which clearly imply steady advancement up a religious hierarchy and the wealth and power and politics that leads to..