[Solar System] Bending away from TSoY's assumptions, a.k.a Monsters and Stuff

Started by oliof, March 17, 2009, 07:36:14 PM

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Quote from: shadowcourt on March 17, 2009, 09:54:58 AM

QuoteI'm actually interested in crunch that bends TSoY's assumptions, as I still struggle with stuff like monsters etc. for Solar System.

Would you be willing to talk about the nature of this struggle, and the problems therein? Is it about how to make them more than cardboard cutouts in the system, or increase challenge? I may have faced some of the same problems, as may some of the other Storyguides and players around the forum.

-shadowcourt (aka Josh)

In the revised TSoY rules, we find rules for Beasts, which are limited to a subset of what "real" characters have access to. In a way, I see exactly why that is so: non-human[1] opponents are out of sync with TSoY's basic assumptions (especially just people), so there is no need to give them much crunch.

Personally, I have done animals with a single Ability (Ferocity) and a single Pool (no name) in the past,  adding secrets for special animal powers where needed.

Neither approach was fully satisfying, the main reason being that I never figured out how to tie the beast/monster into what the game is about in the first place (friendship, love, growth). My guess is that I need some kind of buffyesque approach, where the beasts/monsters mirror the turmoil the characters are in on a visceral, physical level, but I'm not sure how to get from this idea to a process. 

So, what did other people do in this regard? How? Why?

[1]shorthand for elves, goblins, humans, ratkin

Eero Tuovinen

I'm going to have expanded beast rules in the new TSoY book. The goal is to tie animalistic goblins and animal people (ratkin, whatnot) mechanically into a basic set of "animal crunch" that characterizes the property of animalness.

The basic problem with monsters is that according to the rules of the game they can't participate in conflicts, as they don't have purposeful intent to make stakes out of. When you make them participate in conflicts regardless, the results might be strange. All the more so if the conflict gets extended, as goals are even more central then.

That issue can, of course, be fixed every seven ways, so you just need to deconstruct the concept of monster and pick the solution that fits for your purposes. Qek zombies are an example of how to do this - their existence is predicated on a shaman who gave them intent in the first place, which allows them to exist as characters.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


One of the things I've been musing over with regards to the whole "monster" issue in general is their origins in the original fiction. Granted, I don't attribute all of the RPG world to deriving with Tolkien, but it's certainly the case that a lot of game conceits (the party, the dungeon crawl, niche protection, dozens of others) are pretty handily grabbed from "Lord of the Rings". That said, what I find most interesting re: "monsters" is how Tolkien's beasties are so un-D&D. The sense that this is "just another troll" was never really there for me when I was a child reading Tolkien, and I wonder how much of that was childlike wonderment and how much was a deliberate move towards something which had a more mythic feel to it. I've played in countless games where shambling monsters menaced communities, but few of those games ever tried to make the monster feel as legendary, intimate feel as Beowulf's Grendel. When I think back to the monsters in "Lord of the Rings" which stand out, they were often highly personable despite their scariness--most of them talked, told riddles, even sang, and definitely had names and motivations. Aside from obvious humanoid-enough-to-be-a-PC options like Gollum, we've got Shelob, Smaug, the Balrog, the "Watcher in the Water" outside of Moria, and plenty of others who feel like they have a history, and some greater connection to the world around them.

This is my own personal interpretation of Clinton's original intent, so caveat emptor: I like to think that "no monsters, just people" is an attempt to step away from the fundamentally boring and motivation-less monsters which pop out of the dungeon, go "boo!", take some damage, deal some damage, and we move on. If TSOY is an attempt to remedy the heartbreak of D&D, it makes all the more sense. I see dragons in D&D games frequently which are terrifying or tough, but they're rarely grandiose. I see monsters all the time in forests in the woods of fantasy games, but I don't get the chills of the Mirkwood spiders all that often. As such, restricting oneself to animals and then the humanoid races of Near might be a potential solution to the problem, as it gets us out of the bad fantasy cycle of throwaway monsters who have no dramatic impact and are just there as part of the game's resource management mechanic (Hit Points, spells, items, gear, etc etc.). However, it might just shift the problems which people were having with grells and ropers and millions of other D&D creatures to the shoulders of ordinary animals, who have even less spice to them.

One solution to this dilemma of how to handle creatures in conflicts and fiction within the game might be to make sure they're inherently tied to their environments and the people there. If you have a giant alligator that lives in the Zaru swamps waiting for PC's to face it down, make sure it's got some legendry to it, even a name. Have the slaves build it up by gossiping about it, talking about how many people it has dragged off, how perhaps it has somehow even swallowed Zu words and made them its own, deep within its leathery belly. Wild supposition isn't a bad thing in this case; sometimes rumors are wrong, but they let these monsters cast a long shadow. The Ammenite slave-owners can confuse the issue by insisting that it's just a myth, perhaps too enthusiastically insisting, giving insight into their own anxieties. All of a sudden what was once just a big lizard has got a lot of pizazz. Is the story about it eating Zu syllables just nonsense? Depends on the players, and what they insist upon in stakes, and what just works best in any given scene.

In that same sense, "monsters" which show a little cunning can have a much more impressive impact on a PC's life. Drag off someone the players care about. Have the creatures wreck the PC's homes, destroy their wilderness camps, or leave someone with a nasty scar to remember them by. The movie "The Ghost and the Darkness" focuses on two lions who seem to almost be living embodiments of death; the buildup of the legendry around them, and how nimbly the lions evade the tactics used against them, makes them memorable and terrifying. Complex relationships with human(oid) Storyguide characters are also a great choice. I once played a TSOY game with a "dungeon crawl" element to it, as PC's explored an ancient Maldorite crumbling city, complete with traps and monsters, but the stuff which worked best was always a little unconventional. We had a giant monster made of the sewer runoff of filth and the arcane pollution from an old Three Corner academy, effectively an "excremental." The monster itself was fun, partially because it was the only one of its kind, but the piece that made it distinct from just another "let's bash the monster" scene were the ratkin who almost worshiped it, and insisted on pushing one of the PC's into the arena against it, making for a huge public gladiatorial battle, and allowing dramatic flair to be as much a factor as fighting ability. An Arthurian dragon in a high romantic chivalric story is fun, but it's even more fun if it has a beautiful maiden who "speaks on its behalf" and seems to be in love with it, or enchanted by it.

Currently, I'm running a Stone Age game using old TSOY/Solar System mechanics, and one of the conceits built into the game is that the big animals of the day (mammoths, bears, wolves, cave lions, etc etc.) are almost people in their own right, because they're the children of their respective totems (Mammoth with a capital "M", Bear as the patron of all bears everywhere, etc etc.). As such, they can't simply die as a result of a single check; like any named character, their deaths come only through BDTP, which makes a hunt against a big creature like this guaranteed to be a bit of a challenge. I can always yield to their stakes at any point a hunt gets boring or in the way of something I'd rather be doing in a scene, but the threat is there of bloody combat with a wild beast. The fact that it's supported both by the game fiction (the religious myths of these hominids) AND helps support a mechanical feel that I want for the game (even finding food isn't easy in a game like this, animals are REALLY scary and almost god-like, approach with caution and reverence, don't assume you can go out hunting alone and bring back bunches of food for the tribe) makes for a balance which has mostly worked for us. It's also encouraged players to mythologize the animals in the game-- a deer which a character had failed to kill on a hunt became symbolic of the quarrel which resulted in her husband's death, and so she only began to lay the curse caused by his untimely passing and her own complicity in that by tracking and killing this sick old deer, which had somehow become corrupted (in a "Princess Mononoke" sense) with the evil of the actions involved.

This, as far as I'm concerned, solves the "basic problem with monsters" that Eero was talking about, because it gives these things a reason to participate in conflict, and some intent to make stakes out of, even if it's very similar to what Harald was talking about with a "Buffyesque" approach, wherein they mirror the inner conflict of characters.

I tend to still use Power (V), Swiftness (I), Senses (I), and Brains (R) for these creatures, but I can see how working with just a single Ferocity ability works just as well. The thing that I like about the multiple abilities is that you permit players to try out different strategies to play to a creature's weaknesses: "Maybe the rampaging rhino is strong as hell, and can run pretty well for short bursts (Ability Specialty: Swiftness, short bursts only), but is it all that bright? Maybe we can trick it into a trap, and avoid fighting it directly on its terms?" It also highlights how to mess with those same expectations--animals who represent character's vices and failings, whether it's the deer scenario I mentioned above or a dragon representing sloth or greed in a high Arthurian romance setting, should be Brainier than players are expecting. Smaug was no pushover in the intelligence department, after all, and having creatures who can plan accordingly are kind of fun and flavorful.

Harald, I take it that you don't ever give your creatures Secrets? I strongly recommend a few of the obvious ones, like Ability Specialty and Ability Enhancement, but also natural Weapons and Armor to represent just how dangerous these things are. It's rare that I send a mauling monster in to frighten PC's that isn't flashing at least +1 claws, teeth, or fists. In any situation where a monster is representing something more intimate or dramatic--Grendel, the Arthurian dragon scenario--it's probably a good idea to have weapons which are even more personalized. The corrupted deer I mentioned had antlers with a +3 imbuement against that specific character. It only ever got to use them successfully once, but it made an impact both in terms of Harm and the emotional seriousness of the situation when it did. Talons dripping poison is also a popular one, as it has nasty long-term repercussions-- we've had fun with giant snakes and the like before. The Bulk Secrets which Eero created when we were tinkering with Giants for Near are also a real godsend for the huge dragons, woolly mammoths, and other titans you want to have lumbering on stage; extra Harm Levels are really potent, but they can leave an impression, especially when something is strongly armored. Just don't make these things totally invulnerable to the PC's, or be prepared for a lot of running away.

I don't know if that was helpful or not to what you were interested in, Harald. That might've been too poetical, and not crunchy enough for what we're discussing here. Are there specific instances you can think of in game where you weren't satisfied with the approach or the results? It might be worth discussing those and brainstorming around them.

-shadowcourt (aka Josh)


That was very helpful of you both. One small remark: I did give creatures Serets whenever I used them, but I didn't use them very often due to ... lack of understanding as how to build them into the fiction.

Paul T

Josh and Eero,

I really enjoyed both your answers. Great stuff!

Anyone have a link or something for the "Bulk secrets" and similar monster-related crunch?


Oh, sorry about that. The Bulk Secrets are from the "Giants in Near" thread, which Eero and I will probably be revisiting at some point in the next few months to mesh with the new Near material, as it's developed. For the time being, that stuff is all resting here.

You've got to read way past all my initial design, so skip over the "Volatility" rules and that sort of thing, and get down to where Eero starts to rework the Stature (V) ability and do his Secrets of Gigantism and Bulk and things along those lines. Some of it's rough, but the basic mechanics of how to add a few Harm Levels for a monster which is truly huge I think are really pretty elegant, particularly in that they don't immediately favor a creature by adding a ton of "OK" and "Bruised" levels, but instead start with the onerous Broken and Bloodied levels.

As to whether there's really other monster-related crunch out there, I don't know... is there something you're particularly in need of? Odds are it's worth kicking around ideas right here, as people have them.

-shadowcourt (aka Josh)