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Black Wing: idea in the rough (long)

Started by James V. West, November 30, 2002, 06:18:31 AM

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James V. West

Black Wing[/b] is the rpg companion to my series of comic stories set in the land of Hof. These stories begin with issue #1 of Random Order Comics and Games ("Thirsty"). However, the game will not be dependant on the comic. It will stand alone and each will be enhanced and somewhat informed by the other.

I've been sitting on this idea for quite some time but I feel like now I can present a structural outline of what I want the game to be like. What I've prepared here is a short description of the idea using the five basic rpg elements presented in Ron Edwards' "GNS And Other Matters of Role-playing Theory". As you can see, the bulk of this is the System stuff, which is what I need the most feedback on. I've tested the dice mechanic quite a bit solo, but I still haven't decided on a lot of the specific values to plug in. This is still the brainstorming phase of this project--a full playtest version won't be forthcoming until Spring, at the earliest.

I'd appreciate any critical feedback you care to give. Aplogies for the length and long-windedness ;-).

darkish role-playing
by James V. West

1. CHARACTER- Black Wing[/b] characters are not normal people, they are a cut above--big, bold, and dangerous. Characters from the comic scripts I've written so far have been seekers (those who hunt and recover things for profit), assassins, swordslingers (exactly like an old-west gunslinger--chip-on-shoulder included), and other such DIY types.

Characters are made up of a Story (description with background and other important stuff including any baggage the character has to deal with), Doom (a single, important number), Rocks (four numeric ratings that spell out how much of a badass a character is at heart--they are: Cool, Edge, Grit, and Wit), and Bits (read: Traits).

Doom- This number represents everything that gets in your way. Not so much the actual thing you're currently facing (the GM actually handles that kind of opposition), but a general Me against The World kind of opposition--or perhaps Me against Myself, if you want to really get down-and-dirty with it. The lower this number, the better.

Rocks- These are the 4 scores that form the backbone of a character. The higher they are, the better.

-Cool- Casually tell the demon to kiss your butt, walk calmly past the assassin who's been hired to kill you, wipe your sword on the back of the man you just killed right in front of his own brother--that takes cool.

-Edge- When you want to kill a guy, jump over a fire, or catch a knife--Edge is what it takes.

-Grit- Spit in the face of the jerk who's branding you for slavery, fall down 6 flights of stairs and get back up...that's Grit.

-Wit- Convince a rich bastard to spend the night in the gutter so he can appreciate his wealth while you sleep in his bed. That's Wit.

Bits- These are various character elements that will help you during play, or at least make things more interesting. Stuff like a great pair of boots, a really funny statue of a naked thing, your "friend" Luggo, and, of course, your sword.

2. SYSTEM- With some elements reminiscent of The Pool, I think this game has a Narrativist slant, yet I don't think of it as a Narrativist game. I'm not a GNS theorist, so I'll leave that debate to others.

The game uses six-sided dice for Task Resolution. I consider this a mainly Actor Stance game, so I do actually mean task and not conflict Resolution. However, I'm a great lover of stance-switching for heightened narrative effect, so there are some great alternate-stance awards.

The dice themselves are important. They are essentially two-sided, being black on three sides and red on three sides (any BOC fans in here besides Rene?). A red side is called a Hit, a black side is called a Miss.

You start off with a certain number of dice in a Blood Pool--that's your Resource. You spend some of these dice to buy your initial Rocks scores--the higher the better. You also spend them to buy Bits, again the higher the better. The rest remain in your Blood Pool to be used during play. You *have* to keep as many as possible because, unlike The Pool, you won't be getting any dice from the GM.

Doom always starts the same for every new character and over time you want to decrease it. Doom is like a Target Number that you have to reach when rolling dice, so you want it low. Doom represents every nasty, evil, annoying thing in the world that you cannot control. If it wasn't for Doom, you'd be happy and unstoppable.

The GM also has a Pool of dice, aptly dubbed GM's Pool. The number of dice in his pool is set at the start of each playing session and cannot change until the next session (except in Damage Control--see below). He uses these dice to directly oppose your rolls, so the more he puts in his pool, the harder the session is going to be.

note: There will be rules for how many dice he can put in, but right now I'm not sure how they will work. One idea is that he'll start with x and subtract the sum of all the characters' Doom scores. This way, the lower the Doom scores, the more dice he has at his disposal, thus scaling the sessions to hopefully match the potential of the characters involved. For more dramatic sessions, he can bump the number up by increments of 5. Perhaps there could be a limit of 10 or 15 added dice. Likewise, he could bump it down if he wants to give you a cakewalk.

Dice are cast when a task needs resolving, just like it is in most traditional rpgs. You declare an action and which of the four Rocks you want to associate with it, plus you can link Bits to it if they make sense (roof limit of 3 Bits to modify a single roll). Adding your Rock and the scores for each Bit being used gives you a number--this is how many dice you can cast from your Blood Pool. Roll them. If you match or beat your own Doom, you succeed.

But the GM will likely roll in opposition, based on task difficulty and a limited "Story Dial". This means he'll toss a couple of dice determined by difficulty of task (perhaps based on a simple, intuitive table), and/or the challenge of an opponent (NPC entities will have a numeric score probably called a Challenge that has the effect of potentially adding Doom to a character's actions). Plus, he'll have a number of dice he can add to the opposing roll for the purposes of pacing, tension, or other such concerns. He will always declare how many dice he's going to roll after you declare your action, and before your dice are cast.

The Hits rolled by the GM cancel out your Hits on a 1:1 basis.

If you succeed, you get to add a die to your Blood Pool and your action was successful. You can describe the action with a bit of flare, but since this is Task Res, there may possibly be more dice throwing before the actual conflict ends.

If you succeed with a margin of at least 3 you get the option of forgoing the extra die and getting a Victory Dance instead. This is very similar to a Monologue of Victory, but much more limited in scope. I'll hammer out the specifics of it later, but in essence, you get to narrate your action with enough creative control to carry it into at least one more assumed successful action. For example, you might slam some jerk with your sword hilt and then, assuming you get a VD (gotta love that), go ahead and slam the guy against a wall in a classic grab-im-by-the-neck "You wanna die here, pal?" stance.

If you score double your Doom, you get the Blood Pool die plus a Victory Dance.

On a failure, you don't lose any dice and you don't get to make any narration. However, if you really want to make sure your failed roll doesn't get you into serious trouble, you can spend a die from your Pool for Damage Control. This means you can make the short narrative details of your failure. But the thing is, the die you spend goes into the GM's Pool, thus adding potential difficulty for yourself and your fellow players for the rest of the game (remember, the GM's Pool never depletes and it is the only source of external opposition).

And now the gambling.

You can declare a gamble before dice are cast. You can gamble dice from your Blood Pool (as long as you have any more to roll beyond your basic roll) up to the total amount of your basic roll. So if you have a Blood Pool of 10 and you are going to roll 6, you can declare a gamble of up to 4 more dice. If you fail, you lose any *gambled* dice that were Misses.

And it doesn't stop there.

Even after you roll, you can still make a gamble. If you do so, it is called a Blood Gamble. With a Blood Gamble you can roll up to the number of dice initially cast (not including any previous gambles) even if you don't have those dice left in your Pool. What happens is, if you don't have the dice to cast, you re-roll dice that you already cast, adding new Hits to your previous total. But if you fail a Blood Gamble, you lose every single gambled die from your Pool.

There will also be another way or two to get dice back into your Pool, but I'm not sure what they are yet. I'd like to link everything to the main dice throw, but there may be possibilities for other ways, such as buying dice by increasing Doom.

This is merely the core mechanic. This game will eventually have some fairly solid conflict rules for dealing with fights and other such activities that are inevitable given the setting. There will be distinct rules for dealing with wounds and death, mental stress and insanity and all that stuff. But everything plays off of this core mechanic.

I'm also working on ideas for rules that let players have various kinds of Authoring power. I want the game to be primarily a classic-set-up with GM on one side, players on the other, but with a lot of low-key rules that allow for shared Authoring, some shared Directing at times, etc.. This stuff will come straight out of the die roll or through the spending of dice from the Blood Pool. Incedentally, it's called a Blood Pool because if it is drained death is imminent. Rules on that later.

note: The fact that each die is 50/50 hit/miss makes it pretty easy to figure probabilities. I know that if I set it up for an average high Rock of 6, average Bits of 3 (assuming the use of 3 Bits for a total of 9) , and an average GM opposed roll of 6 the result will be an average outcome of 4 or 5 Hits (Rock 3, Bits 4.5, minus 3 GM Hits =4.5). Therefore setting the standard starting level of Doom becomes important and so does the means by which characteristics are altered. I don't want a system with any loopholes that let you "buy up" this, "sell it", and end up with more of this or that. Everything needs to be well balanced with a high risk factor.

3/4. SETTING/SITUATION- Black Wing[/b] is set in Hof, a "darkish" land that I loosely describe as Sword and Sorcery due to influences from Tanith Lee, REH, Glen Cook, and others. This is a place that is very old, and very dangerous. There is this overall feeling that maybe, some time long ago, the world was a nice place to live. But something absolutely horrifying occurred. Death came, and he's not leaving until his work is through.

Civilization hinges on three cities each in its own unique state of darkness: Seapath (youngest of the three, ruled by other-worldly Magistrates and a cruel class of Merchant Dealers and assassins); Summer (oldest of the 3, ruled over by an ancient royal family, marked by a very cold dedication to scholarship, tradition, and self-denial); and Darkmirth (a city of madness where an ancient Society Class rule and live a decadent and totally self-serving, vacuous existence based on very old money and cruel class divisions). So basically you have a city ruled by alien demons and thieves, a city controlled by stoic scholars and kings, and a city ran by the worst possible bigoted snobs.

I'm directly challenging the notion of Good and Evil by thrusting characters into a place where there are no "10 Commandments", no precept for moral order, no God or Government to slap them on the wrist for committing moral crimes. There is authority, but it only serves itself. And sure, there are gods worshipped--but those gods are pretty useless to a PC because he has seen past the illusion. That old world is dead and the only thing that has taken its place are hard, cold, and mean things. Things that are very real, but that embody no spirit of "good vs. evil"--just a kind of heartless self-gratification.  In fact, there seems to be no reason at all to not do whatever the hell you wan to do in this place. And that's where I hope the game's Premise will come into play.

The situation is that you play a character who starts out doing work for hire (often grim, bloody work, but also doing work that should offer more subtle moral challenges--such as stealing or otherwise acquiring artifacts of a distant past in such ways that either innocent people are harmed or "sacred" secrets are compromised). All this in a world where wisdom and secrets are buried, horded, or gone forever.

This setting is not populated with clearly defined races, creatures, and magic. There is the everyday world of harsh reality, then there is a shadowy overcast of the dreadful--that which mortals cannot fathom. The prevailing theme, I hope, will be that, as a mortal, you simply can't depend on anything but your own damn self. The world is a dangerous, dark place and if you give in to fear and the great temptation to blindly follow a dead religion you'll die early and miserable. Fate points to you, you cut off its finger. And if you can laugh at it, all the better.

In fact, laughing is good. Although the description I've given you for Hof paints it as a grim, black, deathly place, it's sometimes over the top enough to be semi-satirical. The comics that will be in issue two of Random Order, for example, have a humorous slant. Death is funny, fatalism, when embraced, is funny.

The average Joe of this setting is a simpleton. Cattle. Nothing. But PCs are exceptional, larger-than-life people who know they are living in darkness. Gods never answer prayers because the enlightened know the gods died long ago (at least that's the comforting thought they've settled upon). Ancient secrets lie hidden in the earth or in the greedy grasp of the powerful minority but these secrets seem to be unique, self-serving elements of a world without direction. From the ridiculous to the unsettling there seems to be no guiding light, no point of reference for moral order, no rhyme or reason, and most of all no certainties--except one: that all things die. Death is constant, death is absolute. The Black Wing is ever present.

The Premise of Black Wing[/b] ? I'm not quite ready to define this one clearly. I could say "What is good or evil when I have only myself to answer to?" or something like that. But What I'd like to do is present the game as flatly as possible, just spill it out with a show-don't-tell approach and let players pretty much decide what the Premise is on their own. Perhaps I'm looking at Premise too narrowly also--but that's a different subject altogether. For now, my description of Hof ought to inspire the right idea for what this game is about.

5. COLOR- This game will likely be heavy with color. The dice are important Color elements. You can already see that I've chosen terms like "Rocks" and "Doom" to weave setting and system together a little more seamlessly. Also, the game will sport as much art and actual excerpts from the comics as I can possibly include without derailing or overwhelming it. And, hopefully, the writing itself and look and feel of the finished thing will evoke the "darkish" mood I'm going for.

(by the way, I describe this as a "darkish" game specifically to suggest both a serious, heavy, moody atmosphere and the twisted rope of humor that underscores the entire project)

And that's about it for now.

James V. West

In the bible I posted above, I don't really mention any kind of "disadvantages" that would compliment the Bits. I didn't want anything as symetrically balanced as positive and negative traits, but I did want something to add complication. Here's what I've come up with.

In addition to all the characteristics listed above, there would also be a Hang-Ups characteristic (terminology may change, as with anything I've said so far). Hang-Ups are a character's personal links to external things such as people for whom they develop feelings (good or bad), things they desire (objects, social status, etc), ideas they come to dwell upon (such as a fear that they are going to die, or a belief that they are doing something *good*, etc), and so on. Relationships.

A new character has no Hang-Ups. During the course of a Storyline (just like it sounds, a "story arc" or sequence of related scenes and scenarios--an adventure), you can establish a Hang-Up for your character through interaction and spending some dice. What I want this to accomplish is to sort of mimic the way a story unfolds as it is being read. A character has all kinds of stuff in his past, but the only important stuff is what becomes important through the narrative, right?

Once per Scene, when you undertake an action that is directly related to a Hang-Up, you can choose to "double" the stakes, declared before dice are cast. This means that if you succeed, any rewards you get are doubled and if you fail, the penalty is doubled (more on that later).

Likewise, I'd change the rewards scale from above. When you roll successfully, you get a die for your Blood Pool. Only by scoring double your Doom would you get a Victory Dance. My hope is that VDs will be less frequent and more often associated with conflicts that are personal to a character.

I'd also expand the power of a VD, bringing it a little bit closer to full Director Stance.

I'm sure there are other, more sublte ways a Hang-Up could be used in play. I'm still working it over in my head.

My goal here is to create a system that supports full Actor Stance play and doesn't strong arm people into getting more Narrative. However, I want the rewards for getting more Narrative to be immediately recognizable (more dice, more frequent Victory Dances) so that the result is a game about swords, skulls, and spders that is really about *something else*.

Ron Edwards

Hi James,

I'm liking this a lot. Your basic design aesthetic reminds me of the mind-set I got into with Trollbabe, which was pretty much, "Premise? Oh balls, look at it. It's there."

I don't quite see the difference between Cool and Grit, unless it's that the latter involves physical pain. Let's see if I have it right.

High Cool, high Grit: real bad-ass. Clint Eastwood, Django.

Low Cool, high Grit: unstoppable whiner, gotta respect him when the shit comes down. Gollum.

High Cool, low Grit: big talker, wimpy in the crunch (at least in terms of taking hits). Mel Gibson in Maverick.

Low Cool, low Grit: not much to like here ... given a high Edge and Wit, though, perhaps Joe Pesci in the Lethal Weapon movies.

Am I on the right track here?


James V. West

Hey Ron

Yeah, that's exactly right. Cool=style and nerve; Grit=toughness and perseverence.

I tried to keep those four characteristics as pertinent to the source material as possible. Examples from the comics should help people grasp them immediately--not that it helps you right now since you've only seen one of the strips.

But look at that strip. When the swordslinger out-does his young opponent, that's a use of Edge. When he gives him some solid advice and walks away--that's Cool (even though with a character like that I'd assume no die roll needed for the last bit).

And I had some more thoughts about it today.

Instead of "Hang-Ups" I'm going with "Ties". I like the sound of it better.

There would be two types of Actions when dice are cast: Standard and Tied. Standard is just standard. You roll to hit or whatever. Tied would be directly and explicitly linked to a Tie--which is always something personal.

The rewards for a Standard Action are dice. The rewards for a Tied Action are dice and a Victory Dance. More on that later.

And on the subject of an empty Blood Pool. This really bothered me today. There isn't a mechanism right now for someone to get dice from the GM and I don't really want one. So, a Pool can be emptied totally and bang! no dice to roll. I'm having a bit of a problem getting around this one. Here are some of the obvious possiblities:

1) Players can simply give dice to other players. I don't really have a problem with this, but I'm not sure it could work as the be-all-end-all solution. Then again, wouldn't that be an interesting meta-game contrast to the stark moral vacuum of the setting?

2) If you have less than x dice at the start of a scene, you automatically get brought back up to x dice. The problem there would be scene length. What if you go belly-up early in a big, big scene? That would suck.

3) Anchor die. This would be one die that never leaves your Pool and has some kind of special mark on it. Roll that special mark and something special happens (like getting a die or something). I really don't want to go this route.

I don't mind a player having no dice for a little while. In that case, I'd say that the GM has full authority to call outcomes for the character, even though the player still controls him. Kind of a reninforcement that you don't want to run out of dice. But I don' t want players to languish in a diceless hell.