05 June, 2015

Storifying Mage: The Ascension (Part 2) - Starting with the Character Sheet

The first fundamental in my design project has stated that I wish to to keep the existing character sheet. When rebuilding a system from the ground up, this may seem like a pretty controversial move, but in light of my last fundamental (remain generally compatible with existing Mage sourcebooks) it makes sense not to deviate to far from the established system of attributes/abilities/spheres/advantages.

Sure, I could have drawn my basic inspiration from the stripped back game system used in the Mind’s Eye Theatre version of the product, but that game is designed for political intrigue between mages, not about urban fantasy adventuring in a dark world where belief is your primary weapon. Besides, if I used the Mind’s Eye Theatre version of the rules, that would render most of the sourcebooks obsolete. 

So, let’s look at the commonly available character sheet for the game…

That’s the standard 1 page sheet, similar to most Classic World of Darkness games.

It doesn’t say you need to roll d10s (even though the game does), nor does it say that you need to combine an attribute and an ability to make a roll (even though you do this when you normally play the game). Based on this alone, you could easily play the game with d6s. But many of the sourcebooks refer to different effects with different difficulties on a scale of 1 to 10, or having the active player add together an attribute and ability to form a dice pool, while the defending/passive player adds together an attribute and ability to determine a difficulty for the roll (or maybe to 1-10 willpower scale is used, or maybe a flat number standard difficulty for some tasks).

There’s a range of 33 abilities, 11 each in Talents, Skills and Knowledges. This character sheet doesn’t include room for secondary abilities, which are less common quirky actions that some characters specialise in. In fact, there’s a lot of stuff that this character sheet doesn’t have, it’s basically the most common numbers you need, it doesn’t really say a lot about the character as a person at all.

Let’s switch to the version available from one of the prime repositories of character sheets on the internet, Mr. Gone…

This particular one is clearly for 3rd/revised edition mage. It includes resonance, which was a far more vague concept in earlier iterations of the game. It includes an “other traits” section, multiple times, and expanded backgrounds (which is really good when we’re looking to make these features more prominent in the game). But with this character sheet, there is still plenty of room to play with mechanisms. We need a good core that allows players to drive the story with the facilitation of the Storyteller.

One of the constant problems in the Classic World of Darkness was the idea that if you faced something with a difficulty of 10, then having more dice wasn’t actually an advantage. A 1 always counted as a botch, so a difficulty of 10 meant that every die had an equal chance of succeeding or botching. At least with a difficulty of 9, every die had twice as much chance of succeeding as it did botching, and at lower ends of the scale you had the chance that every die might end up with a success, and you might have seven or eight successes (while in most cases 5 successes is considered phenomenal). Things go weird at the edges in Classic World of Darkness (CWoD).

So we could basically play the whole game with 2d10 used for every action if we really wanted to, and it wouldn’t screw up the system much more than the issues already inherent. Here’s what I’m thinking, it’s basically the old Cyberpunk 2020 system (sort of)… Attribute + Ability + 1d10 vs Difficulty (on scale of 1-10, or made from opponent’s Attribute + Ability) + 1d10. Acting character wins on ties.

If you’ve normally got an attribute + ability score of 1 (in other words you’ve got a crappy attribute and you don’t have any proficiency with the task you’re attempting), and are confronting something with a difficulty of 10 (the most difficult thing a human could feasibly attempt); in this system you’d need to roll a 10, and the GM would need to roll a 1 before a success is achieved (that’s a 1 in 100 chance of success). Arguably a 1% chance of success is more realistic than a 10% chance of success in the regular Classic World of Darkness Storyteller System.

If you’ve got an attribute + ability score of 2 (in other words an average attribute and no proficiency, or a rubbish attribute and some basic proficiency), and are attempting the difficulty 10 task, the CWoD system gives you a 19% chance of rolling at least one 10, but it also gives a 19% chance of rolling at least one 1. Under the variant I‘m initially proposing, you’re looking at a 3% chance of success because…if the player rolls a 10, the GM could roll a 1 or 2 and a success would be granted, and if the player rolls a 9, the GM could roll a 1 and success would still occur. As you get to the middle ranges (attribute + ability = 5, vs difficulty 5), the proposed system generates success 50% of the time (the player just needs to roll higher than the GM).

That’s where things get wonky. A difficulty 6 is considered average in CWoD, a die has a 50% chance of rolling 6 or higher and thus gaining a success. A few elements of the game are based around this. Luckily I’m not quite finished.

I remember reading somewhere (years ago) that a player enjoys a game when they’ve got roughly a 75% chance of succeeding on common actions, roughly a 25% chance of succeeding on hard actions, and suitably less chance of succeeding on even tougher actions. Players like to feel that their characters are good at something (and can generally sweat the small stuff with no problems). At the time Mage was released, the big thing in gaming was “Rule Zero” (Feel free to change anything in these rules), it was something most people did anyway, but I remember it being something new and exciting to see it actually printed in the text of the book. In the years since Mage was released, the concept of “Say Yes, or roll the dice” came along (in “Dogs in the Vineyard” if I remember correctly), and many games have since adopted this principle. Again, it’s something that a lot of us had been doing for years before it was specifically printed in a book. Now we’re seeing things like “only roll dice if there is a risk or if the random chance drives the story in some way”. It’s all basically the stuff I’m trying to achieve with this project. I want die rolls that give interesting results, not just whether the character failed or did good (and how good), but also whether any unusual side effects occurred.

I want to add in the idea of “and” results which add a bonus effect to the result, and ”but” results which detract something (or add a penalty effect). For Mage this is great…
...a magical effect “and” it ripples into another beneficial side-effect, a magical effect “but” it causes extra paradox…
…a combat hit “and” it causes bleeding or hobbles the victims movement, a combat hit “but” it breaks your weapon…
…a negotiation “and” you know have a sidekick for the rest of the scene, a negotiation “but” they’ll never deal with you again…

This might need some kind of cheat sheet containing a few sample “and” and “but” results that might be appropriate in activities relating to different attributes, as well as a few generic “and” and “but” results that could be appropriate in a range of situations. But how do we get those results?

That’s where I’m looking at the ideas of +Kyrinn S. Eis, and her “Yes & No + Unexpected” system (and some of the ideas I had when I discussed it with her), as well as Otherkind/Ghost/Echo ideas, which basically means I’m vaguely linking it back across to FUBAR (because I know it works).

Every conflict roll uses 3 dice, two white, one black. Let’s call the white ones “good” dice, and the black one becomes the “bad” die. The good dice determine the character’s actions to complete the goal (choose one and add it to the attribute + ability total), the bad die determines the resistance to those actions (add it to the opposing difficulty, or victim’s attribute + ability total). Choosing the better of 2 ten sided dice to beat another ten sided dice gives a closer result to 75% success on those “average” actions.

What about that other white die? We could just ignore it, but that feels like a waste of potential. We also need something that will generate the “and” and “but” results, so why not mesh those two fragments together? How often do we want these “and” and “but” results? All the time? Half the time? Occasionally? Rarely?

We could get the effect all the time if we say the discarded die generates an “and” result if it’s even and a “but” result if it’s odd. We could get the result occasionally if we say that either of the white dice produces a 1, it generates a “but” result and if either white die produces a 10 it generates an ”and” result. I think we need more conscious choice in the matter, so that a player can choose between a good result that has a “but” aspect to it, or a barely adequate result with an “and” aspect that makes it more interesting for the story.  

Needs more thought.
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