Thursday, 31 May 2007

Pentasystem - Underground Railroad

Version 0.4 of the Pentasystem is available, this time adjusted in concert with my Underground Railroad setting. (And here's a link which will always be the current Pentasystem version.)

It was an interesting - and fun - process working on the two side-by-side, and I see why designers generally work on a setting and a system in tandem from the start. As soon as I started to imagine more tangible scenarios, it became clear that there were things missing from the system.

What have I added?

First, implied attributes. These became necessary almost as soon as I started thinking about a Mage character. A Mage (in UR) needs to have a robe, a ring, a staff, several magical skills, two elemental affinities, and a spellbook - that's part of the definition of a Mage. All of those function as attributes. But can you make people spend that many attribute slots just so they can fireball something from time to time?

And then I realized it was a general problem. The example I use in the rules text is a policeman, who has various pieces of equipment (truncheon, handcuffs, maybe a gun, radio...), relationships to lawyers and coroners and private detectives and informants, a badge and probably a uniform (emblems), particular skills... So I came up with the concept of implied attributes. If you have an attribute Mage, you have all the other stuff, and unless otherwise stated it's at the same level as your Mage attribute. (You can pay resources to raise it or get them back by lowering it.)

Secondly, groups. How do you represent a plot to overthrow the government, a political struggle between gangs, a battle between armies? Groups is the answer. Originally, though, I thought of groups because I needed a way to deal with cooperation that allowed multiple mages to work on great projects together - so that you could have cool things like flying horses or permanent teleportation gates that the magic rules didn't quite allow individuals to create, but that would make the setting much more interesting. This fed into the Assistance rules.

I got Consequences straightened out, at least enough to be going on with - I'm sure these rules will change further. At some point, something someone posted at Story-Games alerted me to the fact that there were Consequences in FATE, at which my ears pricked up, I went to the FATE SRD, and - SNARF. (Actually I only pinched the first two levels of Consequences, and adjusted even them.)

Information and Secrets - how do you find out how much you find out? There's more work to do on this, but (stimulated by the question, "How do you decide if you recognize the symbolism of another mage's robe, staff and ring and hence know his level, skills and school?") I put in place some basic rules. It's down to how obscure the information is, given your attributes.

I also wrote up the initial bits of the Personal Scenes section. Personal scenes are where you take a bit of a break from the external action and sort things out in your head, heal up, prepare for future action, work on your issue or goal, or (possibly) refresh your pools. They're the bits in the movie where the music slows down and goes more strings and less brass and percussion and you have two-shots of the hero and heroine discussing What It All Means and possibly Their Relationship. (And, if it's Hollywood, probably getting into bed.)

What about Underground Railroad? Well, most of what I did was work on the magic system, back and forth with the Pentasystem. The magic system got simplified a bit; it was just too baroque for no really good reason. I couldn't think of an easy Pentasystem way to do the "Sometimes the supply of mana in an area isn't as high as at other times", for example, so I dropped it.

I'm not entirely happy with the Healing skill. I still haven't completely worked out the injury and healing rules, and everything is likely to simplify. Perhaps Healing will just become a Special Effect.

I completely rearranged the example spell tables, splitting them up so that there's one table for each skill, with levels down the side and elemental affinities across the top. I think this is easier to refer to than the old layout, with skills down the side, levels across the top (making it necessary to go to landscape format), and differences between elemental affinities crammed into the text. Damn, there's some fun stuff there; I'd forgotten about the Icy Weapon and Fiery Weapon spells, for example. Sometimes you want to address theme, and other times you just have to set something on fire. UR caters for both.

A note on the name: It's a double reference, firstly to the dwarvish system of (literal) underground railroads in the setting, but secondly to the network which helped slaves escape before the American Civil War. I'm thinking of a similar network which helps gnomes escape their dwarf oppressors. Need to put that in the text.

(There's no reference intended to the RPG term "railroad", meaning "the GM has made up the plot beforehand and will force you to stick to it." In fact, the Pentasystem, played as written, specifically does not support this. There is even a bolded statement that "the Opposition should not prepare".)

Next steps, I think, will include making some of the play aids that I have blithely referenced in the text, now that the rules are detailed enough that I can figure out what they should look like. This will include the character sheet, the group character sheet, the consequences sheet, the magic item sheet and a few others. I'm concerned that it might seem like a bit too much bookkeeping; on the other hand, the actual system is relatively simple and has few exceptions. The play aids are really to help you apply the same system in a number of different ways.

I'd like to work out a few example templates, too, not just for mages but for Earthist shamans, and Lunar-Asterist priests, and dwarvish merchants, and dwarvish craftspeople, and gnome mecha pilots, and a few others. Also some Special Effects. This is likely to have the effect of making the rules still more concrete.

And then I'd like to do it again, with a non-magical setting that so far I haven't come up with. Pirates, ninjas, pulp, it's all been done, and done well. There's a more-or-less generic space opera game based on FATE coming out, apparently, though I may just say "To hell with it" and do one anyway, or maybe a transhuman or cyberpunk game.

I do have an idea for a setting which is a ringworld, with a sophisticated space-facing civilization on the outer side dealing with the universe at large, while a naive pastoral society lives on the inside, growing their food in exchange for minor tech, and kept deliberately unaware of the greater scheme of things. Apart from what they each know, the economic thing is a bit like the dwarves and the humans in UR, but that may not be too much overlap. I don't have a name for it just yet.

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