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Author Topic: [GRAY MAGICK] My fantasy heartbreaker design work, approximately 1994  (Read 2545 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: December 13, 2010, 01:30:40 PM »


I recently found an old folder full of my RPG design work from the early-to-middle 1990s. The first game I made up and played was in 1987 or so, all in notebooks, and although I still own them they're not immediately accessible. So this folder is the earliest stuff I have on hand. There are some neat things in there.

I was writing at an important flip-point in my thinking about role-playing: after I'd read Over the Edge and Prince Valiant, after I'd been into Magic: the Gathering and a couple of other similar card games for a solid year, and after I'd picked up my Sorcerer project again with an eye toward abandoning a great deal of my original Cyberpunk-centric assumptions. This was actually a second step in that process. I'd already written up and playtested something called "BSL" which I'll write about later, but realized it was well off the beaten path. Perhaps this one was a deliberate my-own-heartbreaker project that sought to stay within the confines of familiar fantasy-RPG territory. Well, some of them anyway. You can definitely see the impact of GURPS.

The influence of Magic: the Gathering is probably the strongest, though. (1) The mechanics are what they are without crazy layering, in sync with my other main general-- influence, The Fantasy Trip. (2) All opposed conflict is handled by the "clash" notion based on juxtaposing combatants' offense/defense simultaneously. The important thing about this is that it overrides order set by personal quickness, as I'll discuss later. (3) My role-playing had been on hiatus for a couple of years as I built speed-metal black-and-red Magic decks, and when I and a few others got back to it, we were wretchedly bad at it. What this really meant was not that Magic had impaired us at role-playing, but after playing CCGs (and I should mention Wyvern, which I liked a lot), we found that our assumptions and habits about role-playing stood naked to our current view - and were definitely found wanting. (4) The color and token thing, although it's White Wolf style fill-in circles in the game rather than tokens, but you can see how they're really tokens. It's hard to believe today that we used to role-play without any such stuff, considering how useful they are.

If you get a chance, find a copy of Epiphany from BTRC, a role-playing game published around this time. I've been hanging out with Greg Porter once a year for almost ten years now, and I never got around to talking with him about it, which is silly - if I'm not mistaken, Epiphany was written from a similar mind-space.

What else before looking at it ... well, there are certain things about it that are more about my rejection of D&D fantasy than about "fixing" it heartbreaker-style. There are no races, for instance; everyone's just a human person. There's no divinity at all. There's a skill list which is quite limited, and all numbers are based on the attributes rather than skill values. I think it's kind of neat that one chooses one's character's professions in any combination and then infers social class and status,rather than the other way around. It also has a specific fantasy look-and-feel which wasn't very 80s AD&D, more of a weird cross between psychedelica and medievalism that has more in common with the Arduin Grimoire.

This bit's kind of interesting in light of today's standards:

The player must provide the Game Master with a Key Event for this character. It should be written as a short story or anecdote, perhaps no more than a paragraph or a single page. A Key Event may have occurred long before the beginning of play, or it may be the most recent thing to have happened to the character. The character must display his or her Traits in the Event, and it must involve at least one other character (whether that is a player-character, one provided by the Game Master, or made up by the player). If the character is a wizard and/or has sworn any oaths, the Key Event should include these issues in some way.

I probably picked that up from Amber, Over the Edge, and Everway; what strikes me is how common such phrasing is now, whereas back then, it was entirely absent from anything except deliberately exotic, non-standard-fantasy settings.

You can check out the raw scanned manuscript here at the Adept Press site, where I'm building an on-line archive of whatever old notes and designs I can find. (Yeesh! I received one-page scan files, so there are 31 fucking files for Gray Magick. I'll try to fix that soon.) One warning: the combat example is completely wrong, having been written for an earlier less-functional version of the rules. The corrected example is included in the Zip file, using the same rolls and the rules-as-written.

Some mechanics notions
I found that the core concept for attributes and bonuses was solid for various genres in terms of inspirational Color. You have the four fixed attributes (Brawn, Quickness, Wits, Charm), you choose six highly relevant character descriptors, and you assign each one as follows: +2 each to attributes A-D, then +2 to attribute B, +2 to attribute C, +2 +1A/+1C, +1B/+1D, with A-D corresponding to the four attributes. Note that the +1/+1 combinations are limited to two specific groupings; the point is to leave certain possibilities unavailable. A character has two of these descriptors, which cannot be doubled-up.

This was intended to have two consequences. First, it makes a customized framework out of the four attributes, rather than a mere list, without any need for derived attributes. Second, it identifies important thematic distinctions and combinations for characters' psychological and physical descriptors, with enough (15) to choose from to keep from being too canned, and limited enough to create a profile of heroes suitable for this setting.

I developed a few other settings using this framework in my tiny-scrawled notebooks over the next couple of years, but never tried them out. However, more generally, I have run with the above two principles quite strongly since then.

I really, really wanted fighting to be consequential and risky-feeling, so that no one sees combat as a comfort zone. I was struggling with the devil of imposing real damage with the deep blue sea of assassinating characters; and even more so, I was grappling with getting offense and defense into a quick one-roll comparison. Today, I'm a little surprised by how much this work corresponds with the foundation of The Riddle of Steel's combat system. Looking it over, I find it intriguingly fun - although much higher in picky-arithmetic math handling time than I find practical.

As for magic, I was going for serious thematic emphasis - this was my first real magic system. I had learned from TFT that energy resource, damage, spells known, successful casting, could not all be on the line simultaneously (see TFT: Wizard and Sorcerer origins), especially with the added variable of thematic consequence. So for this design, I locked a few of these down and restricted others' range, e.g., limiting formal Brawn cost to 1-3, relating this cost to thematic consequence, partly decoupling spellcasting Brawn cost from damage, restricting the chance of failure to oppositional situations, and most importantly, breaking open a major FRPG assumption and making all spells known to all wizard characters. In other words, if cost and consequence were to be brought forward, then I wanted the tactics regarding which spell to use to be fully available at all times.

A few obvious rules tweaks
1. In character creation, if your chosen professions both have money multiples, then the multiples add. So a merchant (x3) artisan (x2) multiples his or her base starting funds (1d6 crowns for a townsman, presumably) by 5, not by 6. This is not really a rules tweak, merely a clarification.

2. The rule which deprives a character reduced to 0 Brawn from inflicting damage with successful strikes is pure ass and needs to be junked immediately.

3. You'll note that weapon size within a category has no rules effect, despite TFT-style Brawn requirements for wielding heavier weapons most effectively. I had pretty solid reasons for wanting to avoid the standard heavier = Brawn requirement = more damage model based on TFT and Tunnels & Trolls. However, having only the first two parts of that equation sitting there with no consequence is not good. The problem is that the rules do not enforce a suggested feature of play that I naively expected would be used in every fight, and which ought to be obligatory. This feature is a bonus die for having the right weapon for the current fight, as judged for every single combat situation.

This is a big deal! If the fight occurs while tangled up in bedsheets, the dagger gets a die and the battle-axe doesn't. If it occurs in a ballroom with everyone else backing up to give the two duellists room, then the rapier gets a die and the battle-axe doesn't. If it occurs in a melee of armored opponents, then the battle-axe gets a die and the other weapons don't. There is no "wooden post" comparison in this game regarding damage. Nor is there any such thing as neutral ground, weapons-wise, in which no bonus die is granted. It's always granted.

The most savage application occurs when the combatants are wielding weapons deemed to be equally useful to the situation, so that both get the die (not neither. Looking at the combat rules, what this means is that the range of possible damage (due in part to the difference between the rolled values) is suddenly expanded considerably. Therefore duels, informally defined as evenly matched weapons on neutral ground, impose a specially-dangerous situation rather than a leveled-down one.

4. The oath rules stink and need to be revised for real bonuses, so that one is not merely regaining what one has bartered away. They also need some more color-based consequence. This is actually a big deal; if these rules dont work, then every player-character should be a wizard.

Here's a possible correction: when you swear an oath, 2d6 and fill in that many color points of the relevant color, and treat that as a spendable bonus pool for oath-related actions. In other words, they're used up, but the coloring-in doesn't get reversed. Also, perhaps you even continue to fill in points as they are spent, hence ultimately gaining twice the rolled value in color points. So if you roll 8 or more on 2d6, and if you spend them all, then you've filled in the whole chart and get a tally. That seems perfect.

(Note: When I use color in small caps in this post, Im talking about the game mechanics; when I capitalize it "Color," Im talking about the Big Model term.)

I ran some short sessions with some different folks, nowhere near enough to see whether the material gelled, but enough to check out some mechanics. The most extensive one was with my friend Margie Klugermann and a few other folks from her regular play-group. I remember her character was a lean, scarred Rbaja type looking for a better life, and another character was a young knightly type; I seem to remember that one or two other players were involved but can't remember their characters.

I was especially happy with the conflict ordering system, what I would later call IIEE, which worked well. The idea was that characters went in order of Quickness ... but "went" only meant completing the action in question if it was unopposed. If it was opposed, then it (and the oppositional action) were kicked to a later phase of resolution called "clashing," in order of the Quickest character involved in each if there's more than one. So being faster meant you got to start your action earlier, and it meant your clash gets resolved before slower-starting Clashes, but it doesn't mean you can get away with doing stuff just because you're faster. If someone wants to stop you, they always get a chance.

Magic worked great! The color points were all kinds of fun, and pumping Brawn was too, especially because it took no game time. I got some of my design-love for TFT scratched very well, especially the idea that if every magic-practitioner knew every spell, then the resource and consequences issues would pop out dramatically during play.

The actual in-fiction situation was a different kettle of fish. I had prepared a fairly cinematic horror-fantasy scenario, in which the characters were present at an inn which would be besieged by some scary Rbaja-mutated wolves. Basically a stressful fight situation, high in Color, with some social dynamics among the NPCs. I seem to remember some spellcasting directed against the characters (otherwise the Pumping rules wouldn't have been observd, and I do remember those), so maybe there was a villain character too. Conflicts of interest among player-characters wasn't really on any of our radar, so the sort of sinister magical character and the knightly character as well as the others threw in together as a team, as expected. In terms of plain old adventure-scenario functionality, this worked fine. The characters teamed up and defeated the menace.

Issue #1
The odd or offputting part, for me alone, concerned a bit of fun Color that I'd inserted based on the story The Boarded Window by Ambrose Bierce. The innkeeper's wife had just died, or seemed to, and when the characters arrived, her body was being prepared for burial. I'd been planning to end the adventure with finding her much as described in the final paragraph of the short story, for nothing more than a frisson-filled punchline, to end on a high note. (You should read the story, but the point is that the woman was being prepared for burial when not quite dead, due to the preparer's ignorance. Very Poe if it weren't so Bierce.)

But I was a gamer, playing with gamers. I delivered my punchline, "... Her teeth are clenched in the animal's ear," expecting it to be the last line of the game, accompanied by pleased horror on the parts of all playing. Instead, Margie sat straight up and role-played ruthless, determined sorrow, narrating her character seize the woman's body, hack off its head, and set head and body afire. The knightly character grimly informed the innkeeper and NPCs that this simply had to be. Because obviously she was undead. Because obviously this was my GM-imposed capstone. Because obviously it was "that story" which I had just signaled us to be playing, and as good role-players, they knew what to do.

Which in gaming-fiction terms was a great ending! It's Call of Cthulhu with a human twist, it's zombie movies homage, it's "good story." But the trouble is, which I never mentioned to anyone, that as I'd prepped it, the wife character wasn't undead. She'd been not quite dead, tragically mistaken for dead, partly prepared for burial, and then recovered consciousness just long enough to fight the wolves before being killed for real. She was supposed to have been acknowledged as a fellow hero and the real horror was supposed to have come from the fact that people in low-tech situations are not always dead when buried. But no. Human horror doesn't happen in role-playing, at least not of that time. Horror meant zombies. "Braaaains!!"

I'm not saying anyone did anything bad or stupid. Margie's instincts for play were spot-on and fully functional for that time and place in our hobby's history. I'm saying that there was no way for us, at that time, to understand collectively that I was signing off, rather than initiating new conflicts; nor that the information delivered by a GM of that era could be received to reflect backwards upon the events to cast them in a slightly more nuanced light in purely human terms. This event and my private musings about it bumped me entirely out of the zone of trying to fix RPG-fantasy from within. I returned to designing Sorcerer with a vengeance, and my fantasy designs over the next five years, a brief bit called (badly) Talisman and its stronger heir Fantasy for Real, would be quite radical.

Issue #2
Looking at it now, the fact that everyone fell back on familiar fantasy-gaming tropes is no wonder: the setting is a mess, with no emergent or intuitive situations at all! The points I made in [The Shadow of Yesterday] Drugs, hugs, knives, and Zu are definitely not in evidence in the Gray Magick draft.

What does a character in the Gray Magick setting do? What goals do they strive toward? What dangers or opportunities loom at them unexpectedly? What geographic, political, and social concerns are evident in their daily lives and encounters? There is nothing about this in my draft: zilch. I can't say it loud enough, "This sucks."

This makes me wonder, because I did understand that stuff for Glorantha and Stormbringer, without fail, and also in my superhero and cyberpunk games which have always been strongly political. But here, somehow I'd lost touch with it. There's something important here concerning game-driven fantasy, hard to pin down. It's a feature of all the heartbreakers except for those (to their coherent credit) absolutely dedicated to dungeon-looting.

How I'd conceive and introduce the setting today
First, Rbaja is a blasted wasteland right here in the landscape, with distinct areas, some of it disconnected. So you could chart its limits on an ordinary map ... but if you go in, don't expect those boundaries to make sense from the inside. Whereas Amboriyon is up there in the clouds. You never actually see Rbaja or Amboriyon, and they don't yield player-characters.

The Gray Lands are the liveable part of the landscape, composed of various areas and countries, distinctly European medieval in tone. Think of the areas which became Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, eastern France, and western Germany, around 1400 CE. Its history is mainly warfare and civil strife; the "country" designation is more a matter of culture and claimed territory and no map-drawn border really exists unless it's something like a river or a ridge-top.

Rolke would probably geographically correspond to Switzerland, although I stress that I would not use the actual geography, designated names, or even an intimation of alternate history.

As a footnote illustrating my extreme naivete, I bundled up a draft and sent it to Wizards of the Coast; unsurprisingly, I received it back almost immediately with a boilerplate letter saying "We didn't read it and have no interest in reading it, bye bye."

I strongly desire to play Gray Magic now, including the rules tweaks listed above and setting text as I described, and see how it goes. Who knows? Maybe it it's fun, I'll work up an official version, with art & all. In fact, feel free to try it yourself and let me know how it goes.

I also encourage anyone who has extensive old game-design work sitting around, especially from before the Internet Era, to make it available. Paul Czege did that with a high school design which blew my mind, although at the moment I'm failing to find the link. It's enlightening stuff.

Best, Ron
Ron Edwards
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Posts: 17707

« Reply #1 on: December 16, 2010, 01:21:13 AM »

Larry Lade took pity on us all and made a single file out of it. The Adept webpage link again: Role-playing games.

Best, Ron
Paul Czege
Acts of Evil Playtesters

Posts: 2447

« Reply #2 on: December 16, 2010, 07:05:16 AM »

I also encourage anyone who has extensive old game-design work sitting around, especially from before the Internet Era, to make it available. Paul Czege did that with a high school design which blew my mind, although at the moment I'm failing to find the link. It's enlightening stuff.

It's back: In A Dimension Syncopatic With Ours


"[My Life with Master] is anything but a safe game to have designed. It has balls, and then some. It is as bold, as fresh, and as incisive  now as it was when it came out." -- Gregor Hutton

Posts: 2984

« Reply #3 on: December 16, 2010, 09:10:27 PM »

What does a character in the Gray Magick setting do? What goals do they strive toward? What dangers or opportunities loom at them unexpectedly? What geographic, political, and social concerns are evident in their daily lives and encounters? There is nothing about this in my draft: zilch. I can't say it loud enough, "This sucks."

This makes me wonder, because I did understand that stuff for Glorantha and Stormbringer, without fail, and also in my superhero and cyberpunk games which have always been strongly political. But here, somehow I'd lost touch with it. There's something important here concerning game-driven fantasy, hard to pin down. It's a feature of all the heartbreakers except for those (to their coherent credit) absolutely dedicated to dungeon-looting.

Fantasy conventions say the opposition is in the form of monsters, not people (not even aliens), and that much of who and what you are is tied up in race.  The invasion of the orc hordes is not something you can be conflicted about, you can only deal with it.  Bugbears, ghouls, dragons etc, these are all objective problems, they don't require any subjective anlysis.  Glorantha, anyway, is a fundamentally human world, and that applies to the superhero and cyberpunk genres too, while fantasy always sets Humans vs. Others, with "humans" broadly defined as "the Good races".

There are sometimes attempts to give the likes of orcs and goblins an ethnology of a sort but this tends to make the very concept of race and otherness either irrelevant or dubious, at which point the pregression tends inevitably toward something thats not conventional fantasy at all.  And genuinely bringing a medieval-tech society to life is much harder than it appears.

edited to fix quote format - RE
« Last Edit: December 17, 2010, 06:38:27 AM by Ron Edwards » Logged


"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci
Ron Edwards
Global Moderator
Posts: 17707

« Reply #4 on: December 20, 2010, 11:10:54 AM »

Last week, I wrote an extensive post about playing Gray Magick at the Dice Dojo. The post was detailed, insightful, fascinating, relevant, and inspiring. You'll have to take my word for that,* because due to an ill-advised keystroke, I accidentally consigned it to oblivion. I have been rather grumpy ever since. The value and clarity of what follows will simply have to limp along on whatever motivation I can muster to overcome my bitterness and dismay.

How character creation went
Peter made up Otto, an older, grizzled wizard-knight type, who although he'd fought against Rbaja-backed forces in the past, had sworn a black oath against a fellow Amboriyon-supporting lord who'd killed his family. During the write-up process, Peter asked, "These ultra-good guys, do they put the greater good so high above everything else that they harm the human good sometimes?" "Yes," I replied, "by definition. That's what Amboriyon is all about." Peter smiled. Otto was Tough and Noble, as well as scarred, stoic, and fierce.

Megan made up Aturak, an adult wizard-scholar-merchant who clearly favored a measured black-ish approach to magic. She had not sworn an oath although Megan specified that she was, in fact, quite driven and determined to kill those "holy men" who'd killed her lover. Aturak was (interestingly) Noble and Cunning, a study in ethical tensions; also, pale, fierce, and elegant.

Sam made up Pch, a young priest of Amboriyon without magic abilities, who had sworn a white oath to contribute his blood, when shed in a good cause, to his mentor. Sam also liked the idea of sinister twinges of the white-magic side of things. Pchwas Noble and Romantic, as well as fierce, elegant, long-legged, untailored, and unornamented.

A fierce, noble bunch! Interesting imagery all around, I thought. It strike me now that a slightly more coherent table-concept about what "Noble" means might have been helpful.

How prep went
Clearly, the existing text suffers from an endemic problem with such games: prepping for play starts with character creation rather than specifying some localized, setting-centric situation to any extent at all. I submit in fact that setting only matters insofar as it contributes to such situations, usable in play. We of course had no such thing, and given the character-centric rules text, I found myself doing what I always have to do in such situations, finding some way to retrofit a situation to the existing character features.

(All of the above point is specific to a certain setting-heavy thematic tension, as found in Gray Magick. It does not apply to games which rely primarily on character-centric thematic tension, such as Sorcerer or My Life with Master; the settings in such games are important but exist to be snapped by characters rather than to snap them. FreeMarket affords an interesting case of ambiguity between these approaches, which is why the memory-mashup is so important, as it shifts prep into a functionally character-centric mode.)

OK, what to do with these three characters? Well, as I told them, this was merely a fun session for a single evening and we'd have to get a lot of stuff established that in ordinary play would have been combined in handouts and also established through play itself. I thought for a moment and in retrospect I realize I drew a little bit on Salmonson's novel Thousandshrine Warrior. The idea is that the area had experienced a savage war among fief-holders (the political situation is too wracked to call them "nobles" or "gentry" although they might do so), all within a context of Amboriyon-backed power struggles. So Otto's family had been killed in that context, and so had Aturak's lover. I suggested that the victors, over one area at least, had established such a "Heaven's kingdom on earth," that the local people and ecology were literally wasting and disintegrating away in the blinding holiness emanating from the main castle fortress. We also suggested that the three player-characters had become invested in getting hold of some magic McGuffin together, never mind the details. I decided not to fold in Pch's oath too tightly, in the interest of not being ridiculously contrived.

I then simply mandated an immediate fighty-fight scene, basically "an encounter" which we kind of pretended had in-play back-story and consequent emotional resonance, in which they might be able to get the McGuffin. Imagine a hilly landscape split by a gorge, with one side being higher, and on that higher side, halfway down the gorge's cliff-face, a ledge. On the ledge is the McGuffin magic-thing that the characters want, and they're on the lower side of the gorge. On the high side is a lammasu, all gorgeous and righteous and winged. Behind the characters, and bearing down on them fast, are a couple of lance-wielding warrior-type guys characteristic of the area, looking all spindly and freaky as they're no longer quite of this world, and their horses' hooves are actually running an inch above the ground. I set them at B 5, Q 5, W 5, and C 3, with light armor; and one of them was a wizard. Just to cement things in a little further and to see the oath rules in action, I said the lammasu was Otto's enemy, now transformed.

This worked out OK. Thankfully no one pretended intense emotional commitment in a fake way, the Color was generally fun enough to enjoy for its own sake, and everyone's imaginations seemed engaged enough to commit to the immediation situation, such that characters were not moved into action solely to examine the system. Granted, it was only a straight-up fight scene.

The rounds
First round announcements, in order of Quickness: the lammasu will take to the air to find a drop-on point for its next target, Otto will summon a nightmare, Aterak will magically shatter a horseman's lance, the horsemen will skewer Pch and Aturak, and Puch will attack a horseman with his staff to foil the charge.
First round resolutions: first, the unopposed actions take place, including the lammasu and both spells; so the lammasu flies, the nightmare appears and the staff is shattered. Everyone moves into position as dictated by the announcements. Second, the clashes take place: Pch mixes it up with the horsemen, with both dealing damage, although Pch gets the worst of it.

(Note: for announcement-ordering purposes, Quickness is adjusted by wounds, but not by armor; for dice-resolution purposes, it's adjusted by both)

Second round announcements: the nightmare and lammasu will tear into each other, Otto will attack the horseman mixed up with Pch, the other horseman will cast Dazzle on Aterak, Aturak will cast Reflection, and Pch and the other horseman will continue to fight.
Second round resolutions: it's all clashes this time. In the first, the nightmare gets a vastly superior roll and rips the crap out of the lammasu, who drops into the gorge. In the second, it turns out that the horseman is clashing simultaneously with Pch and Otto, and he gets hit by both and defeated. In the third, despite a chancy moment or two, the wizardly horseman gets hammered by his own Dazzle.

(quick check: does the nightmare rebel? it does not) (quick other check: does the Dazzled horseman get hit with the Quickness penalty? he does)
Third round announcements: the nightmare awaits orders, Otto will banish the nightmare by giving it what he promised, Pch will take out the Dazzled horseman, Aturak will scramble down the gorge's side to the ledge with the McGuffin, and the lammasu will crawl up to that ledge.
Third round resoluions: Otto offers the nightmare the soul of the barely-living defeated horseman and it vanishes, Aturak tumbles ignominiously down the hillside, fetching up at the ledge's edge to come eye-to-eye with the lammasu, and in the only clash, Pch does smite the second horseman grievously.

Fourth round announcements: Otto will get down the hillside to join Aturak. This is pretty much it for the action, as the lammasu is in no shape to fight. So we moved through the resolution of the descent and to the point of Otto casting Blast to kill the lammasu.

At this point, too, Otto gained enough Black points to fill up his matrix, earning a Black tally.

Too easy?
Clearly the PCs did quite well, despite a certain amount of wear and tear. Otto came through it totally unscathed. Now, it's true that I built this game so that the GM could fling truly monstrous, truly powerful opponents at the player-characters, and it's also true I might have stepped up the opposition in this fight by about one more solid notch.

However, looking at the events in detail, it could have gone differently quite easily. The main moment was taking out the lammasu so thoroughly, which was based on the dramatic difference in rolls between the two monsters; in other words, not guaranteed. Another aspect to this was that I dropped the ball concerning demon-summoning, all of which is supposed to rely on a problematic deal, which we forgot. I probably should have had it demand the soul of one of Otto's companions, or something like that. Also, I'm not too worried about the outcome for Otto, who was rolled and built at the top end of the system's capacity for starting bad-assery, and so unless I were to slam him with insane nastiness in ambush, this outcome is reasonable at least some of the time.

Thoughts on sequencing
At the time I wrote the manuscript, I was deathly sick of the Champions and GURPS model of announcing and carrying out actions - basically a pre-set sequence in which, on your turn, you said what the character did and had them try it. It led to a stop-motion, weird fictional effect in which time stopped for everyone except the one in action, and in which information and perception were very hard to parse. As I tried more and more systems, I learned that it wasn't the pre-set sequence, as opposed to re-rolling for "initiative," that was the problem; it was the stop-motion thing in which you waited your turn in limbo, then said-and-did in a heartbeat, then waited again.

One solution was first illustrated by the game Sun & Storm, in which players announced their characters' actions slowest-to-fastest, then resolution was carried out fastest-to-slowest. I found that this actually worked really well in concept but not so well in practice, at least not as well as I might like. For Gray Magick, I was trying to hit a middle ground between this method and the "everyone at once" T&T method in which individual details were effectively blended and blurred. I was intrigued by the implications of early BRP mechanics which were very "clash" oriented but later evolved in a direction that interested me less.

In practice, the Gray Magick sequencing works pretty well! It's procedurally still a little tricky to learn - people have to get used to not having their actions "go off" the second they state them, but as early as the second round, it was flying fast and easy. The learning curve is apparently real but quickly surmounted. I really like the whole clash concept, which basically means that you can't sneak an action past opposition just because you're fast.

Incidentally, this technique was used in earlier Sorcerer, up through the 1998 version, where I called it "mutual carnage." However, upon playing Zero, I found its method to be profoundly well-suited to Sorcerer resolution mechanics and adopted that instead.

How fighting went
I found the physical combat to be very satisfying, both in terms of in-fiction logic and visualization. It was brutal, yet even taking a solid shot didn't prevent a potential turnaround, as seen with Puch's fight with the horseman. If one keeps one's head, allocates offense and defense sensibly, and seeks advantageous circumstances, you've got a fighting chance. I will say, though, that this is not a system for those who like to see their characters waltz through straight-up fighting. Foes can hurt you.

I really, really liked the bonus die for weapons' circumstances. In the first clash between Pch and the horseman, the bonus went to the latter as he was charging on level ground with a lance, against a target on foot. But after that, it was a matter of a rearing, suddenly-halted horse, a rider with a long lance, and a standing opponent with a staff, a weapon notable for being useful from any momentary position. So the bonus die went to Pch after that, in a satisfying blend of current fiction meeting mechanics.

The mutual bonus die for an even match was horrifyingly brutal, too. I was a little bit disappointed to see the lammasu taken out so quickly, but as I mentioned above, it could well have gone another way. As is, this event only whets my appetite to play lots more conflicts, interesting and tense ones with any luck, to see how such clashes pan out over time.

How magic went
All the resources, Color points, effects, and Brawn cost were fun, just as I remember from those long-ago playtests. However, the magic sequencing rules are a problem! I don't recall this being a hassle seventeen years ago, so I think the text must have some legacy problems relative to what I actually did in play back then.

Rather than outline the problems in detail (I'm getting really tired!), I will simply list my new thoughts on the rules for sequencing magic.

1. Magic may be opposed by either countering magic (a set of specific spells) or by a physical attack on the caster (including other sorts of spells); either of these means the magic resolution must be treated as a clash in terms of sequencing.

2. If magic is opposed by an interfering action, the wizard has the following options, prior to the rolls:

i) ignore the interference and get the spell off no matter what (as if it were unopposed), but taking whatever damage or consequences the interfering act imposes, with no defense.
ii) abort the spell and use full defense of whatever sort is appropriate
iii) (magic only) conduct the clash mechanics using Wits, with the results only determining whether both spells, one spell, or neither succeed

Two wizards casting attacking magic upon one another must take option (iii). Note that neither spell technically affects the other.

3. If magic is countered by magic, then the wizards match the Brawn spent and may spend more in a bidding war.

As I mentioned above, the demon issue was too soft-pedaled in this session. It's supposed to be more ethically problematic and in-the-moment.

How Color stuff went
It was fun to see Otto's matrix get blacker and blacker, ultimately to earn a tally. However, I need to make it clearer to players that the results of the tally roll are permanent additions to the sheet. Peter was briefly  confused when I told him, "You can now inflict a disease on a person," interpreting it to be one-time thing that he got to do at that moment. I had to explain that this was actually an ability that Otto now commanded, to be used whenever he wanted from this point forward.

We were using the quickly-conceived oath rules I'd written a couple of weeks ago, which may need further work. For instance, at present, there are no consequences for a character to swear an oath and then ignore it, or even contravene it. Upon learning that, Peter gave me the look. The thing is, though, I don't want a standard system that penalizes characters for failing to accord to anything in behavioral terms; the essence of this entire setting and design is that one must constantly grapple with the interface between black and white. And I really don't want any kind of constant monitoring of characters' behavior with point-based consequences; I want all ethics to be divorced from mechanics for this game. So I have to think about that a little bit.

Another, related point concerns what bonus points from oath pools can be used for. I'd conceived that they'd be used to boost rolls, but the Blast spell didn't require a roll and Peter's concept that the points could be spent to boost the Blast damage seemed reasonable. Clearly I need to consider the parameters for these points' applications.

I definitely want to pla the game more extensively. Aturak in particular was a well-conceived character who demanded real play, with situations and NPCs and trade-agreements, in order to shine.

I probably need to start thinking about art! Given no particular crowbars stuck into my spokes, I might have a lot of fun working this into a usable strong-setting document, probably making it available for free or perhaps with donations. It's not exactly in line with my design interests today, but as a historical item, it's very interesting, and also as a genuinely playable, Color-strong hunk of fantasy role-playing, it might be just right for any number of people.

Best, Ron

* Note to the credulous: I am kidding. I'd put a lot of time into it, that's all.
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