Monday, 11 June 2007

Pentasystem: Setting and Situation Mechanics

What? Setting and situation mechanics?

Yup. This may be a really stupid thing to do; I won't know until I try, of course. It's a development of the idea I had when I read Tony Dowling's Mathematica.

I was trying last week to shoehorn setting elements, like ideas, institutions and "sets" (physical locations), into the same mould as characters: attributes, rated 1-5, set out on a 5x5 grid of the five categories (physical, mental, emotional, creative and quintessential). It wasn't working very well. There are a number of problems with taking something designed for characters and using it for an entirely different purpose. Firstly, the categories don't necessarily match up all that well. And secondly, the 1-5 rating is too restrictive; it implies that an individual character can go up against (for example) a global ideology, attack one of its attributes as if it were just another character, and bring it down.

What I'm groping towards now is keeping the attributes system (which is flexible and intuitive), but allowing the players to collectively rate the attributes of the setting, not by strength, but by how interested they are in engaging with them. This then feeds into the design of the situation. (Kind of a loop back to Situation Engineering from Full Light, Full Steam, which has been an influence in several ways.) The Opposition then gets to assign a budget of points to those elements of the situation which the players want to engage with, and build each one out into characters and objects that they can interact with, notably by having conflicts with them.

Steps towards this for me will include writing down, for each kind of setting element, the sort of attributes it might have, without regard to the 5x5 grid. I may invoke the awesome brainstorming power of Story-Games on that one. So, for example, an ideology can have detractors, defenders, heretics... I'm looking for objects, people and groups, which can then be statted up as opposition. These then become "handles" by which characters can affect the larger setting. It's a revolutionary RPG, is really what it is, which fits nicely with the premise of Underground Railroad.

Unformed as yet is the connection to the various kinds of situation I have already laid out in the text, such as a chase, guarding a valuable item or person, or seeking revenge. I have vague ideas about specifying roles in each such scenario and offering the players the opportunity to fit their characters into them, while the other roles get taken by (representatives of) elements of the setting. Potentially, this is going to be very front-loaded and high-prep, which wasn't necessarily a design goal. However, there's nothing to stop people ignoring a large swathe of the rules in order to play a more pickup kind of version. Some pregens would also be a good idea.

The other thing I need to work out is how the various bits of setting relate to each other. A religion, for instance, can be an idea, an ideology, a worldview, a group and an institution, all at once. Each of those aspects will give it certain attributes. I think this may turn out to be another job for "templates" - after all, if templates give you the derived attributes from being a dwarf, a mage, and a meditator and allow you to combine them together into one character, why not use the same principle? Setting material will then consist of both prose and also template blocks of attributes. (Not stat blocks; there are no numbers involved at this point.)

While I'm babbling on I'll mention the changes I've made since last time. I've put in a quick system summary upfront, based on one of my earlier blog posts. I've talked about the process of characters becoming enmeshed with each other and with the setting and situation (which, obviously, will change when I work out the issues mentioned above). I've written up the beginnings of a secrets mechanic, based on the Story-Games "Secret Mechanics" thread, but that, too, will likely change because finding out secrets about someone or something is an excellent way to get leverage.

I've also put together an early draft of the attributes sheet, which I'm sure will change further. At the moment it should work for characters, groups and important objects; it was going to be for everything, but - see above.

And I found the AutoREALM map that I had made ages back for Underground Railroad, and uploaded it here.

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