Principles of the Book of Struggles

Old school game structures, have over the years, tended to whittle down to combat mechanics and some open narrative mechanisms.

If you look at 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons you will see a strong mechanical support for combat encounters. These mechanics are of the general structure “I go, then you go”, with characters taking turns to inflict hit points on one another.

The rule books have often suggested adding more colourful narrative rather than reciting bare bones mechanical values. Instead of “I hit with my +1 sword for 10 hit points damage” a player might say “I swing my sword, glowing with a magical aura, and slice my opponent with a deep wound”. This is flavourful, but has no mechanical effect. As the rules are heavy on mechanical effect the players generally don’t do the narrative much.

All Us Gamers has a general approach that marries the narrative, qualitative approach to resolution systems that can use either judgement or a more quantitative mechanical Dice Engine, provided in the Inner Core Rules, to produce narrative, qualitative results.

Its intended that the first port of call in the resolution procedure is the informed decision. In other words the circumstances suggest an outcome and you just flow with it. The deeper character development in the On Aptitude module assists this decision making.

When necessary the Dice Engine is called upon, and then the circumstances have more concrete ways of providing aptitude and difficulty settings. Again the On Aptitude module can provide more tools for setting these values.

The Dice Engine produces graded outcomes between total disaster and incredible success, and the informed decision method is expected to produce similar outcomes by fiat. These outcomes then modify the circumstances, and play is ready to move on to another round of action or go out to extended, longer time frame activity.

In The Book of Struggles the cycle described above is used to handle conflicts between two characters or groups, with combat being an obvious subset. The Struggle Engine allows opponents to declare simultaneous actions (a “my action vs your action” structure) and then the struggle outcome is a product of the combined action outcomes.

The possible Struggle Engine outcomes include:

  • One side succeeds to some degree, applying their action to the opponent
  • The struggle hits a lull, and neither side has much advantage
  • The struggle is hot, and one side may be building an advantage.
  • “The Advantage” is a condition that may be tossed between sides, used to “press the advantage”, lost, or taken by an opponent “seizing the advantage”.

This prompts increased narrative scope as the character actions play out against one another, and the circumstances change and boil, while still allowing mechanical underpinnings to support the game flow. Either side may be subject to informed decision or Dice Engine resolution styles for their actions.

Consider a police officer chasing a suspect through a shopping mall.

The officer may “try to head the suspect off”, while the suspect may “try to get lost in a crowd and change direction”.

Some possible outcomes:

  • The suspect succeeds, the police officer gets to the cut off location at the escalators but has lost sight of the suspect.
  • The officer gets to the cut off location and sees the suspect has changed direction, so they are now further apart and the suspect has the advantage. (The officer’s next action could be to try to “seize the advantage” by calling out to the crowd to stop the suspect)
  • The suspect gets blocked by the crowd and is closer to the officer when the officer gets to the cut off point. The officer has the advantage. (The suspect’s next action might be to try to “seize the advantage” by throwing a passer by into the officers path and then dodging deeper into the crowd)
  • The suspect “dodges” straight into the location the officer picked and gets tackled. A new struggle begins with the officer at advantage to get the suspect down and in cuffs.

The struggle engine can also be used for groups, for example two military forces fighting over terrain. Individual player actions on the battle field can have an effect that feeds in as part of the conditions for the higher level conflict.

These mechanics give support to a very wide range of interesting adventure situations. Looking forward to getting some more play testing and refining done.


Continued in Goals and The Book of Struggles


On Aptitude : Words and Numbers

All Us Gamers is intended to allow a careful balance between number handling / dice rolling mechanics and the use of narrative style game play, where decisions are made based on descriptions, without resorting to dice at every step.

In the On Aptitude module that is under development this can be seen in the way character attributes are described. Here is the current table of character attributes:

AptitudeStrengthAgilityHealthPerception
2HerculeanAcrobaticRobustPerceptive
1StrongAgileHealthyObservant
0NormalNormalNormalNormal
-1WeakUngainlyUnfitUnobservant
-2PunyClumsyUnwellUnaware
AptitudePresenceDeterminationMentality
2CompellingUnstoppableBrilliant
1ForcefulDeterminedIntelligent
0NormalNormalNormal
-1RetiringImpatientSlow
-2TimidApatheticStupid

The aptitude values, ranging from -2 to 2, are to plug into the dice engine. However the descriptive names are important too. When a game master and player are working through what happens in a situation, the descriptive names provide insight into the judgements being made. Should the action or save just be determined by fiat, or would a dice roll make sense here?

For example, a wooden beam has collapsed onto someone and another character is trying to shift the beam off them to unpin them. A normal strength person could probably do it with some exertion, so a character with Herculean strength should perhaps just be given a “yes ok”. A Puny character might get a “You are going to need a lever to even try”. In between those extremes go for a roll, with disaster results perhaps giving a strain injury, and incredible success being a “You lift the beam and hurl it aside” description. For the Herculean character you might roll to see how well they do the job, and if they avoid accidental side effects. For the Puny character, if they are in dire need and have no lever around you might roll to see if they get lucky but would require some negative cost.

This is where role playing game rules differ considerably from board game rules. The RPG rules are more to act as guidelines, providing structure when needed but also allowing the players and game master to determine reasonableness in their judgements. For an excellent take on the idea of role playing game structures consider reading the extended essay about game structures at The Alexandrian.

Next: Principles of The Book of Struggles


Production Plan 2

When you use an agile development process production plans may not last long. Production Plan 1 was ok but here is where we are at on the eve of the On Aptitude Kickstart.

Our collection of core modules looks like being:

  • On Aptitude – character definition and development and necessary additions to action process
  • The Book of Struggles – handling conflict like combat, chases, computer hacking etc.
  • Of Wealth and Treasure – character and corporate possessions, assets and the power of wealth
  • Us and Them – factions and their behaviour in a low prep manner
  • Time Wise – pacing and time management structures for your games

And beyond the core there are now three settings to choose from for development:

When the Plague Came A flu like plague that sweeps the world turns out to have worse consequences as many survivors become murderously paranoid or rabid.

Shadow Over the Galaxy Mankind settled the farthest reaches of the galaxy 3,000 years ago. As the immortals of the core worlds fall into more conflict with the provinces, something lurking in the dark between the space lanes begins to cast its shadow over civilisation.

Time Roads Atlantis built a massive network of roads between eras, securing its domination over a 4,000 year stretch of history. Then the chaos wave smashed through the network, wiping Atlantis from history leaving the history we now know in its place. There are a few pieces of time travel technology and surviving time roads to be exploited by the survivors and those that stumble into it.

The Kickstarter will allow backers to vote on which of these three settings will get developed first. Only backers votes will be used to make the decision. I will obey their choice.

Production Plan 1

Happy New Year! Happy New Decade!

This is the first planned set of items being created in 2020 for the All Us Gamers collection. The Inner Core has already been released. Here is a look at what each of the other works are.

Core – On Aptitude

In the Inner Core, when your character is trying to do something, you decide your character’s aptitudes as you go. Aptitude gives a number that can alter how many dice you get to roll in the Dice Engine procedure for deciding how things turn out. This is great for playing in a very improvisational way. However it is useful to have slightly more structure than that when designing and running your character, so you don’t have to do all the mental work without support by some guiding process.

The On Aptitude module provides a more structured way to define your character’s capabilities. There are four aptitude types defined, Attribute, Culture, Profession and Specialisation. Each of these describes an aptitude level and the circumstances where it can be applied to an action or save. The guide does not list all possible variations of aptitude description, instead allowing players to provide meaningful descriptions such as Profession: Engineer 1 or Specialisation : Star Drive Engineer 2. During play the application of these aptitudes is guided by an understanding of the described aptitude spheres and negotiation with the GM and play group.

There is also a system for improving your character’s aptitudes over time through training and adventure experience. Experience is gained by achieving team objectives. The section regarding character behaviour due to “motivation” plays in to this by giving additional experience when an objective is achieved if it aligned with a character’s motivation .

This module of the Core is heavily play tested and nearing completion. It should be released sometime in January 2020.

Core – Book of Struggles

This module lends structure to playing out conflicts between characters and groups. It introduces a general game structure called a struggle, where each side in a conflict is simultaneously trying to do something to the other while defending itself. The Inner Core action mechanism underlies this, and the opposing results play out to produce an interesting conflict narrative. Its also possible for one side in the struggle to “gain the advantage”. A side with the advantage may press the advantage, while the other side may attempt to seize the advantage.

The obvious use for struggle is combat, such as a duel, brawl, aerial dogfight or clash of arms. However the struggle mechanism is also applicable to chases, where one side is trying to escape from the other. Other struggles include attempts to over come an active security system, or to persuade a potential benefactor to accept your point of view rather than that of a competitor.

This module also includes structures for handling injury and healing, and mechanical damage and repair.

There is a fair bit more play testing required for this module, and its unlikely to be released until the end of February.

When the Plague Came

This is the first specific setting release planned for All Us Gamers. It is a “collapse of civilisation” scenario based on the sudden spread of a plague that produces uncontrollable, murderous rage in its victims. The players take on the roles of ordinary people, who are friends with one another, coping with the collapse of the world they know and trying to survive and forge a new life under the radically altered conditions.

This setting carefully builds on the On Aptitude and Book of Struggles modules in the core. It is also an excellent vehicle for introducing a series of game master techniques for managing different kinds of time flow in the game and summoning encounters for players to experience. It also produces lots of guided improvisation opportunities.

The base kit and core between them will have everything needed to play. The additional modules for When the Plague Came provide more nuanced techniques for handling different time periods throughout the unfolding disaster. They lend support to a game master who wants to provide a game where the players go from the “normal world as we know it” through to the post collapse environment a year or two later.

This setting is in its infancy with some broad brush strokes laid down. We will be looking for play testers towards the end of January, 2020.

If you want to know more, join the discussion on Facebook.

Got Here, Now Go There

So the inner core rules are out at DriveThruRPG.com. There were steps to take to get there, play testing, testing on people that never did RPG before, setting up this web site, making the pdf and negotiating the artwork, working out how to publish at DriveThru, setting up a Facebook page and group and finally getting things set up at RPGGeek.

Now what?

Well the inner core is just a start. The outer core awaits. I intend to put the outer core out as a “pay what you want” set of pdf publications. There will be a section about character that covers defining character abilities, and growing through both training and adventure experiences. There will be another about conflict actions, or what I call struggles.

However to get there Cup of Tea needs some funds, so its time to look at building a Kickstarter campaign as a way of putting the cap out for some coins by those interested. However I don’t think of the outer core as an interesting project in its own right, its a growing set of universal rules, but I want to put some exciting adventures out there as the real focus.

So I’m pulling together designs for some major world settings. Each will require the creation of different parts of the outer core to support them, and its those world settings the Kickstarter campaigns will be for. There’s a zombie one, a far future galactic adventure and a time travel setting in the works.

The zombies need to be the first cab off the rank, since such a campaign draws on the struggle mechanism and the character expansion. The setting itself has multiple rule sets.

The first rule set will be for the first day when the players find themselves in a city with infected, rabid humans showing up everywhere. That first day will be hectic and need play structures for tracking time in detail, and having encounter after encounter while trying to survive.

Then there will be the following week, where survivors begin to find one another and try to gather supplies, with the introduction of an additional time tracking method where half a day at a time might pass by.

Then a section for the following month, where the mix of zombie types changes, and the players and their survivor group are finding other survivor groups that can be potential allies or a threat. During this time things start to break down as power and ready supplies dwindle.

Finally the rules for the following year (and beyond?) which allows for broader time passages and a mix of politics, down time tracking, changes to the nature of the threats faced and maybe a second zombie wave.

Each of these will be its own production, although it may all also get bundled into a print book. Maybe the extra sets become stretch goals for the Kickstarter. I’ll know more what the plan is in the new year. Stay tuned!

The Agony of Production

This is a sample of the first page for All Us Gamers – Inner Core Rules. It looks really nice. Phaedra has worked tirelessly on graphics, layout, and colour coordination.

Unfortunately you probably won’t ever see this released. Why? Two reasons.

The first is that the first release is a free pdf with the base inner core rules. That means people are going to want to print the rules out on their home printer. I printed these pages as an experiment and it killed my toner.

The second is that this layout is for A4. Everyone outside America uses A4 as a standard. Sadly US Letter is the paper size of choice for role playing games due to the US market.

You can see some discussion I have been having about this at RPGGeek.

Before We Begin

Wherein I explain why I’m making a new RPG and a bit of a plan for the future.

As I write this in December 2019 all that can be seen is a sparse home page with a “Mail Us” form. All Us Gamers does not yet exist beyond the walls of my office and the minds of the twenty or so early play testers.

When the game is finally out there what you should see is a core game system, explaining how to play role playing games that involve players that have characters as avatars within a game master’s imaginary setting, plus a set of really engaging settings in fantasy, science fiction and horror genres. That’s the future, and maybe you are there right now?

There are, of course, lots of role playing games. Some don’t have a character focus, instead they have a narrative focus, where the rules help decide who gets to write the next bit of a commonly developed story. All Us Gamers is not one of those, although narrative is an important element. In the character focus games there are the venerable giants, Dungeons and Dragons, Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, and great indi games like Stars Without Number. And there is the fabulous 200 Word RPG challenge for those that want some fun, simple but highly innovate games to play.

So why am I going to add “Yet Another Role Playing Game” to the market?

Lets get in the Wayback machine and travel to the groovy, large moustache and platform shoes days of 1974. (Yes, that was me but the photos are in a thrice locked vault where you will never see them!) My friend Grant and I played a lot of miniature figurine table top war games back then. Early that year we got hold of the game Chainmail. We were fine having little armies run around bashing one another but then along came original D&D, in its white box, to rescue me from armies and introduce me to adventuring!

In D&D, you are either the game master (or Dungeon Master as D&D prefers), who runs the game, or a player who looks after a single character in the game world. You go about exploring, encountering and fighting monsters, and finding treasures. After D&D many other games began appearing and exploring the possibilities of game design, and I have played a largish number of them. But there has often been a niggle, an annoyance with the games. Well several I suppose.

In many such games the rules tend to devolve into really nitty gritty pieces, what my friend Andras calls “rules by exception”. So for example you might want to play a character who is a military sniper, and so you find a game that has lots of stuff about snipers. Rules for caring about ammo and adjusting the sights on your weapon and how to adjust the gun balance and breathing styles for long shots and on and on. And you end up with some careful and well balanced mechanics about “snipering”. The thing is there is a balance between game mechanics that give you structure about what your character may do during an adventure, and getting detail that is so esoteric and rarely used by players that it gives poor return on the time invested.

An interesting thing about detail is that it can be attractive. If you look at Traveller there are rules about rolling dice to create the sectors of space that players will play through. The planets have a size, an atmosphere, hydrology type, colony size, law level, technology level and star port. And you romp through before playing and roll up all these planets in a sector and note them down. Only, that work doesn’t really make an adventure, it provides a structure that sometimes has some use. And there are game masters, myself included, who love to design different kinds of starships and make up rules about how planets should “really be” based on current scientific knowledge, but again it doesn’t really further the adventuring part of the game much, while taking up a lot of game master time and mind space.

As a response to these complexities people have tried creating simpler, more universal rules systems. Some are good fun, like TechNoir which is very innovative. The players collaboratively build the connections between elements of the game world as they play, so the game master has no idea what is going to be the case when things start rolling along. It relies on people having reasonable knowledge about the real world and how it hangs together and draws on that. It also does something I have always liked, top down context building.

The idea is that you start with a comprehensive description of the world. Its fuzzy, not very detailed, but provides just enough knowledge that if you threw players anywhere in the world there would be enough context to decide who the characters are and what they might be experiencing, what scenarios you could improvise. This level is not ideal for play but it does mean that there are no complete blanks in the world. (This article on incomplete game structures would give you an idea of a complete blank problem in an existing game, with this follow up regarding Plugging the Traveller Scenario Structure).

Next in context building an adventure setting there is some intermediate region of the world. Its more detailed. There are some factions of people doing things. There are important places. There are trade routes and major points of interest. Specific cultures are apparent. All of this remains consistent with the broader brush strokes at the higher, broader level, but this region only covers a small part of the large picture. Detailing this level takes more work per square foot, as it were, so you just do enough to surround the players out to some reasonable distance. If you start playing with the broad level and one area of regional level detail then you will have a pretty good time with the players, and only have to improvise details as needed.

And then the lower, local level, which is inside a region, inside the broad description. Again remaining consistent with the higher levels but getting into some clear focus on individual people, streets, buildings whatever. You only do this for places you are sure the players are going to interact with because now your effort per square foot is really high.

I created a simple system for building low preparation Traveller Campaigns in this fashion once.

And that is the approach I want to use with developing a game system. There is a very broad brush stroke game, what I call the inner core. It tells you how to imagine an adventure, a character, and have characters “do things”, sometimes using dice to decide how well those things get done, given the character’s aptitude and the difficulty of the task. It also includes saving your character from harm (the classic “save” dice roll) using the same action mechanism. This level of rules is comprehensive, gives some procedure for running the game, and is very adaptable for any genre or setting, but leaves the game masters and players to do a fair bit of heavy lifting still when it comes to running the game in detail. I have play tested this inner core a lot. It’s very satisfying and has allowed time travel adventures, adventures in mythological ancient Greece, an adventure in the middle of the Vietnam War and several other impromptu, once only games.

The next step of the plan is to produce the outer core, which has richer ways to design characters, have characters grow, and run more detailed procedures for conflict, investigation, navigation, wealth building, politics and so on. These outer core features will get developed along with specific game settings that require their specific use, and the game setting will come with extensions that are most useful for that setting. These extensions will include step by step play procedures, such as how to handle players investigating a potentially zombie infested neighbourhood, or how to explore star systems that are outside the graviton stress lanes that make up the interstellar empire.

So that’s the plan. I’m working like crazy to get the inner core out to you all for free as a pdf. We’ll see what happens with that and hopefully embark on the larger quest to RPG joy together.