Thursday, 10 May 2007

Designing in public: the Pentasystem

Inspired by a Story-Games thread on designing in public, here I am.

The other day I came up with a (still extremely sketchy) character-level game system I'm currently calling the Pentasystem, because the number 5 crops up in it a bit. It will do so more if and when I integrate it with my plot-level system, currently called Acts of Increasing Desperation. This is - I think - all a part of my Modular Game System.

The Pentasystem is kind of inspired by the Big Three Indie Systems, namely:
  • the Dogs system (as far as I know this doesn't have a more generic name, but it's now used in The Princes' Kingdom and Afraid as well as Dogs in the Vineyard);
  • the Solar System (basis for Clinton Nixon's The Shadow of Yesterday, but under an open license and hence widely used for other games, including my own Errantry and Tony Dowler's Mathematica);
  • FATE (basis for Spirit of the Century and the forthcoming Dresden Files RPG, but again, widely used as a basis for "homebrews" because of an open license).
The Dogs part of the inspiration is the smallest, partly because I don't own any of the games which use it and only know what I know about the system by indirect methods. But the key Dogs idea I want to seize on - not really reflected in the current draft - is that anything, from "Girls make me feel funny" to "My rifle" to "My relationship with Sister Abigail", is mechanically represented in the same way: a certain number of dice, which can change in the course of the game. (This is what I'm currently calling "Attributes".) Also, the concept of "escalation", that when you change how you're dealing with a situation that opens up the possibility of bringing new factors to bear. And finally, "fallout" - having a conflict will change you (though my implementation will be different; I don't know what it will be, but it will be different).

Because I've done a Solar System game (Errantry), its influence is the clearest. I like the idea of "pools", though I'm planning five of them (the current draft of the Pentasystem says 3, but it will be 5, as per AoID). I think these will also be used as the escalation elements as per Dogs.

Pools power and fund your unusual actions. At the moment, my plan is that the base level (not the current level, but the base level) of your pool determines your success number on the dice for anything connected to that pool.

Keys are commonly mentioned as the best bit of the SS. They're the things which drive you - unrequited love, a desire for glory or whatever - and you get rewarded when they turn up in the fiction, in such a way that your character can only change if the Keys turn up regularly. The Pentasystem draft doesn't have them yet, but AoID does (in the form of goals and dilemmas). I want to do more work on this, it's at a very early stage as yet. I'm not entirely sure that they won't be dealt with, mechanically, as Attributes just the same as everything else, maybe tied to the Will pool.

A bit like Keys are Aspects in FATE. The cool thing about Aspects, though, is that you not only get rewarded for playing them, but you can also not play them in a given situation, if you're willing to pay out a resource. Also, anyone can invoke anyone else's Aspect - point to it and push it, basically. That's going in.

Secrets in SS, or Stunts in FATE, are ways to do unusual things. They have a resource cost. At the moment, AoID has "Special Effects" which are equivalent. I'd like this to be more integrated with the other mechanics, but that's a want, not a design goal.

A couple of things have come from outside the Big Three. One is the "corruption"-type mechanic of dice turning into their opposites, attributes or relationships becoming "problematic", etc. This is more-or-less a storygames commonplace, probably coming originally from Sorceror's Humanity. The other is the idea of a "pool" of opposition dice, which I'm currently calling "risk dice"; one of the espionage games, I forget which, has something like this. However, I'm making some available to the protagonists as well as to the Opposition player, so that they also can give attributes to the environment.

Oh - the GM role is spread around like butter. This is my normal approach and is partly cultural. It's just assumed in NZ these days that there should be a rotating chair for most regular meetings and that other roles similarly rotate around the participants, even if someone present is, hierarchically, the "boss".

Finally, what I'm doing deliberately different from the Big Three is using only 6-sided dice. They're more familiar to people who haven't previously gamed, and they're certainly easier to get hold of. If you go into most cheap-crap-from-China shops, of which there are a plethora, you can pick up anything up to 12 D6s for $2. That same $2 will buy you one polyhedral die from the one shop I've found in Auckland - largest city in the country - that stocks them. The picture in the US is very different, of course, but I'm not there.

FATE and the Solar System are Fudge-descended and use Fudge dice, which even many long-time gamers dislike (and which you have to add and subtract every time). Dogs uses masses of assorted polyhedrals. The Pentasystem uses, at base, five D6s at a time - though you will need more dice than that, and in a couple of colours. You just count successes, which are rolls under a certain number, set by your pool. Ones are always successes (and do other good things), sixes are always failures (and do other bad things). There are no modifiers to add or subtract.

There's a very long way to go from this sketchy thing to any kind of finished game, but it's a start.

Take of these elements all that is fusible,
Melt them all down in a pipkin or crucible...

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