12 June, 2015

Storifying Mage: The Ascension (Part 12) - Addressing the Dross

One of the key elements of this project was to rework some of the aspects of age that really don't work for me...stripping out the things that just don't feel right, and replacing them with new parts (or integrating "upcycled" parts from other systems) that actually promote story and narrative potential within the game.

Other elements of the core system redesign are bogging me down, so it's time to start digging at the peripheral parts of the system that exist independently of those redesigns that are proving elusive.

Naturally, that leads us to experience.

Most games in the storyteller system have a general mechanism for experience. It is gained by players when they jump through the storyteller's hoops, there are typically five criteria for gaining experience at the end of each game session, and another three criteria for gaining experience at the end of each narrative arc. For the five standard categories of experience in Mage 20: one XP is given for just showing up, one for rolplaying or getting into character (pretty subjective), one for showing that the character has learnt something new (that one's basically a freebie, like the one for showing up), one for engaging in heroism (this is hugely subjective, because heroism and stupidity are often closely linked in many of the games I've played), and one for focus (which is basically the same as the one for roleplaying, but this one shows that we're "really serious" about or roleplaying). For the tend of story/narrative-arc categories, Mage20 adds an extra XP category: one xp for success (obviously working on the assumption that you earn more from succeeding than from failing), one for facing danger (which is about as subjective as the session point earned for heroism), one for wisdom (where a character shows exceptional brilliance above and beyond what might normally be expected, again highly subjective), and one for drama (awarded for, and I quote,  "especially deep roleplaying, dramatic self sacrifice or other memorable moments", if this ain't subjective I don't know what is).

Except for that automatic point for showing up, and maybe the point where a player explains what their character learnt during the session, pretty much everything is basically up to the subjective whim of the Storyteller. Some people love that style of game, and for the time it was pretty innovative. Two of the game systems I remember at the time the Storyteller System was released were the massive AD&D, and the number two contender Palladium. AD&D had experience gained from vanquishing specific monsters (you'd get the XP and treasure if you succeeded, nothing if you didn't), Palladium had a curious list of things that might earn you experience in a more subjective way (sometimes earned for simply attempting skills, other times for confronting enemies lower, equal or greater than your strength, and big hits for potential self-sacrifice). Both experience systems promoted a certain type of play, both systems seemed to actively prevent some character types from improving.

Ten years later, "The Shadow of Yesterday" appeared. The concept of experience keys took much of the power from the GM, and put it back into the hands of the player. This made the game more democratic and open, players could choose the kinds of things their characters gained rewards for, and they'd have a distinct quantifiable way of measuring their progress with respect to those goals. This concept cascaded across many other games, especially in the "indie" scene, but even seeping into certain contemporary versions of D&D and it's clones.

That's the kind of things I'd like to go for in this rewritten way of playing in the Mage world. We've got a few things to instantly hook this type of system onto. As I write this, I'm reminded a bit by Werewolf: the Apocalypse, and the system of renown used to rank up characters within the narrative. Different types of characters re expected to perform different types of actions and as long as they embody these concepts they advance within their society, but if they break the traditional taboos of the society they get reprimanded...this is a system that exists alongside the experience points.

Mage 20 introduces the concept of "Practices" which is a clear thing to attach an experience point system like this onto. A practice contains a range of commonly associated abilities, a variety of paradigms for understanding the world, and common instruments used when this practice manipulates reality. Practices aren't specifically linked to different factional groups in the setting, but they do have a tendency to be related in this way.

The specific Factions (in this case, the "Traditions" of Council Mages, "Conventions" of the Technocracy, and assorted "Crafts") might also be a fertile ground for attaching this to. Each of the factions has a favoured way of doing things, and in a way similar to the Werewolf description given earlier this might reinforce a party line and put characters in a specific context with regard to their chosen organisation.

The other option might be linking characters to their nature archetype, this would exist as an internal contrast to their external social interactions (the factional relationships) and their external interaction with the mystic world (the practice relationship).

Which might arguably line up with the Werewolf notion of Tribe (the Faction), Auspice (which originally stood in for nature in Werewolf first edition), and Breed (which doesn't exactly line up with practice, but it should certainly shape the way a character thinks...trying to push an analogy too far just shows the ways it isn't perfect, so I'll leave it there.)

If we run with the concept of experience derived from "Practice", "Faction" and "Nature", I'd like to temper the output with a system specifically linked to the actions undertaken through the course of play. This idea can be seen in a lot of computer RPGs, where every time you engage in an action with a skill, a tiny step of advancement is taken with that skill. Eventually you perform the skill enough times that you get better at it.

I'm a big fan of the idea that you actually learn more from failing at a task than you gain from succeeding. When you succeed it just reinforces what you already know, when you fail it requires more thought and reflection to consider how things could be done better next time. Besides, from a game perspective, when you succeed you get closer to the goal or you get a reward of some type from your action...it takes some of the bite out of the failure if you gain a bit of knowledge in the process.

I'm currently working off the idea that every failure earns the character an "advance point" to either the attribute or ability (or, the arete or sphere) used in the attempt (the player chooses which one). Once the player earns enough of these, the statistic improves by a degree. The "Practice", "Faction" and "Nature" paths provide "bonus points" to the specific statistics associated with the respective paths. A statistic may be improved by a combination of these, but at least half the points used to improve a stat must come from the advance points earned through it's use.

(All of the names of these experience point substitutes are subject to change).

I think this needs a bit more clarification and thought, especially with regard to the costs of the various point increases. But it's aiming in the right general direction for what I'm after.

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