07 June, 2015

Storifying Mage: the Ascension (Part 5) - Some More Arcana and a Bit of Theory

In my vector theory of roleplaying, story follows a straight path until it faces a decision point. Such points may be injected into the narrative by the GM, by players or by mechanisms inherent within the system. Once it reaches one of those points, the specific game mechanisms governing the decision take over and divert the story on a new path. Some games use a consistent set of mechanisms to govern all of their decision points, other games use different sets of mechanisms to control different types of decisions. With that in mind, I’ll explain a bit more of the rationale behind my decisions in the development of this system.

Successes and failures are outcomes from decision points; a success seems like a decision allowing a character to continue on their intended path, while a failure seems like a road block. These are the typical decision points that a traditional system of roleplaying game rules will offer. Games with rules for multiple successes might refine this into failure (road block), minor success (proceed with caution), or major success (full speed ahead). When a system like the Storyteller System (as used in Mage) adds a ‘botch’ option, this can be viewed like a temporary reverse in the story…. “No we can’t go any further in this direction ad if we want to make progress again we have to back up ad overcome the issue that just got in our way”.  From the raw mechanisms presented in the rule text, the “botch and multiple degree of success” system is a lot more interesting and offer more options for decision point outcomes, but it’s still pretty linear. Do you proceed on the intended story path, or do you get deviate from the intended path, in which case you’ll need to back track and find the right course of action that will allow you to proceed?

Many inexperienced GMs only see a single path, more experienced GMs may see multiple paths leading to a goal point, and some may not even have a distinct goal point at all. This last group allow the game mechanisms to control the velocity of the story while human intervention controls the direction.  

A different way to look at mechanisms is through the lens of agency. Consider the story to be a perpetual game of tug-of-war. In this scenario, the rules govern who has the upper hand in pulling the story their intended direction. A skill roll failure hands agency to the GM (who may describe the result of the failure and how this manipulates the story), a success hands agency to the player (who proceeds in their intended direction with the story). Some controlling GMs use a technique derogatively referred to as railroading, because they always maintain agency regardless of success or failure (player fails, no progress on the railroad, GM describes the blockage…player succeeds. Progress on the railroad, GM describes the progress). I really addressed all of this when I designed FUBAR, where multiple dice are rolled, then three of these dice are allocated to Success (which determines progress toward story completion, or acquisition of traits to pick up the story pace), Sacrifice (which determines elements that get in the way of the characters and new twists in the narrative), and Story (which determines who gets agency regarding the descriptions emerging from this particular decision point). This current project is not my attempt to redesign FUBAR.

In this project, the aim is to pull some of that decision making out of the hands of the GM and the players, and inject it back into the system. The decisions are still present, but there is an incentive within the system to push more interesting narrative choices.

It might not make a lot of sense to have the ands and buts modifying difficulties while they already apply a narrative twist to the outcome, but bear with me. In this system, every decision point has two outcomes axes one defines level of success and one determines a quirky direction taken by the story (the “ands” and “buts”). If the story is a linear path, then the success mechanism determines the speed along that path, while the “and+but” mechanism deviates from the expected path, an “and” result directs the story forward in a random direction, while a “but” directs the story backward in a random direction. I don’t want the “but” results to completely upset the story momentum, that’s one of the reasons why I’ve thrown the modifiers in. If a player takes the “but” result, things have more likelihood of moving forward (due to the modifier), but there is some kind of unexpected issue that needs to be overcome and the player loses a degree of their agency in exchange for the added forward momentum. If a player takes the “and” result, things have less likelihood of moving forward (due to the modifier), but there is some kind of unexpected benefit gained from the turn of events; the player gains agency in exchange for the reduction in momentum.

A second metagame element has been in the back of my mind while developing this mechanism. There will always be players to try to game the system, a lot of those players won’t be drawn to this sort of game with story focus over minutiae of interconnected mechanisms that can be manipulated to the nth degree. I considered the idea of randomly determining “ands” and “buts” distinct from the success mechanism, perhaps literally playing them upright or reversed depending on how they were dealt from the deck, but if a hand is dealt to a player before they choose which cards to keep it might be hard to prevent a player from switching all of their major arcana to “ands” (upright), when half of them should have been “buts” (reversed). This could be circumvented by playing the cards openly on a table, but many of the groups I’ve played with over the years have sat around on lounges rather than around a table. Applying the modifiers incentivizes the selection of “but” results. Another way to do it might be through allocating experience/upgrade points to the attribute/ability/sphere/etc. being used when a “but” result is chosen, or the mechanism might flip the nature of the major arcana card based on the lowest card in the hand used (evens = upright, odds = reversed). At this stage, I’m preferring the idea of letting players control a bit more of the decision making process.

Upright (and): Control, will power, victory, assertion, determination
  Physical: …and you do it without any problems at all.
  Social: …and you assert you control over the situation.
  Mental: …and you understand more about the situation than you were expecting to.
  Combat: …and you demoralise your opponent in the process.
  Magic: …and any attempts to reverse this effect are harder.
Reversed (but): Lack of control and direction, aggression 
  Physical: …but you cause significant collateral damage in the attempt.
  Social: …but they don’t quite do it in the way you expect.
  Mental: …but it makes you angry and irrational.
  Combat: …but an innocent is injured in the process.
  Magic: …but side effects manifest as you lose control of the core effect.

Upright (and): Strength, courage, patience, control, compassion
  Physical: …and you feel invigorated by the attempt.
  Social: …and it feels like everything is under control at this stage.
  Mental: …and with a little more time, everything should fall into place.
  Combat: …and it looks like they have lost any strategic advantages they may have had.
  Magic: …and you feel calm and focused for your next action.
Reversed (but): Weakness, self-doubt, lack of self-discipline
  Physical: …but you’ve reached your limit and can’t continue.
  Social: …but you aren’t sure how to proceed further in this conversation.
  Mental: …but you’re sure there’s something about this that you haven’t accounted for.
  Combat: …but you think combat might not be the best solution.
  Magic: …but as soon as you do it, you feel like it might have been a mistake.

Upright (and): Soul-searching, introspection, being alone, inner guidance
  Physical: …and you maintain the edge compared to everyone around you.
  Social: …and their words give you a good idea for how to make your own contribution.
  Mental: …and this gives you significant advantage over the others around you.
  Combat: …and you set yourself up for an awesome follow up.
  Magic: …and you learn something about yourself in the process.
Reversed (but): Isolation, loneliness, withdrawal
  Physical: …but you’ll need to do it on your own to continue.
  Social: …but you feel the urge to never speak to this person again.
  Mental: …but you need more time to concentrate, away from the distractions of others.
  Combat: …but any of your allies in the area just get in the way.
  Magic: …but reality seems to fade away from you.

Wheel of Fortune
Upright (and):  Good luck, karma, life cycles, destiny, a turning point
  Physical: …and the success from an earlier results help contribute to this action in some way.
  Social: …and you discover a beneficial connection with them that you didn’t realise.
  Mental: …and you also find a clue that will surely be of use in the near future.
  Combat: …and they seriously consider turning around to avoid further conflict.
  Magic: …and it has a coincidental beneficial side effect.
Reversed (but): Bad luck, negative external forces, out of control
  Physical: …but you injure yourself in the process.
  Social: …but a previous failure comes back to haunt you.
  Mental: …but it suddenly becomes clear that there are more random forces you can’t control here.
  Combat: …but more opponents join them.
  Magic: …but it comes with a price you weren’t expecting.

Upright (and): Justice, fairness, truth, cause and effect, law
  Physical: …and you are immediately respected by those who see the attempt
  Social: …and they know it’s the right thing to do.
  Mental: …and you immediately understand the ramifications of your action.
  Combat: …and assistance arrives for you.
  Magic: …and this has drained magical energy from the area, making things harder for your target.
Reversed (but): Unfairness, lack of accountability, dishonesty
  Physical: …but there is a new obstacle that you hadn’t noticed before.
  Social: …but you discover their treachery too late.
  Mental: …but you realise that some of the “facts” you’ve been working with are false.
  Combat: …but their reinforcements arrive.
  Magic: …but a certain element of the effect backfires, and has an effect opposite that intended.

Hanged Man
Upright (and): Suspension, restriction, letting go, sacrifice
  Physical: …and any attempts to stop you are hampered.
  Social: …and any negative consequences that have been holding things back are negated.
  Mental: …and you risk pays off.
  Combat: …and if you’re willing to take a hit, you might do even more damage.
  Magic: …and reality holds no bounds for you as an influx of energy infuses the effect.
Reversed (but): Martyrdom, indecision, delay
  Physical: …but you may need to weigh your options before going further.
  Social: …but your indecision temporarily paralyses you.
  Mental: …but there is a delay that may cost you dearly.
  Combat: …but they get the drop on you.
  Magic: …but you can feel that something nasty will come back to you as a result of this.

Upright (and): Endings, beginnings, change, transformation, transition
  Physical: …and everything is now different.
  Social: …and it looks like a chance for a new beginning.
  Mental: …and new thoughts arise.
  Combat: …and that phase of the combat is over.
  Magic: …and things collapse so that something new can be created.
Reversed (but): Resistance to change, unable to move on 
Physical: …but something prevents you from moving ahead.
  Social: …but they still hold their opinion of you.
  Mental: …but you just can’t get past certain elements of the situation.
  Combat: …but you just can’t breach their defences at this time.

  Magic: …but the more things change the more they stay the same.
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