The Open Table Chassis

Having thrown together an old school style of play for running the Combat Toolkit play tests, and having 15 players regularly continuing with open table play, it seems like time to make the game structures for this type of open table into a product.

For those interested in some detailed philosophy of open table play I recommend the Open Table Manifesto.

Just as an aside, the Stealth and Investigation Toolkits are also being worked on. As with the Combat Toolkit they will be a mix of mechanics and ruling guides. We are using the Call of Cthulhu (7th Edition) RPG as a framework for play test, obviously with the AUG mechanics swapped in for the Basic Role Play mechanics.

The Open Table Chassis is a set of rules structures to allow groups of multiple players, with multiple characters to casually play with multiple game masters, potentially each with multiple home regions in a single game setting.

For this to work each play session has a single GM, using one of her home regions, and whoever is available to play, each using only one of their player characters. A fairly “board game like” rules structure is used to break an adventure down into a cycle of 3 parts.

Prep

The players have episodes in their home location where they do things covered by fairly mechanical rules: go shopping, do training, spend growth points to grow a skill, hire people to guard treasures or accompany the group on an adventure, socialize, build reputations, acquire companions and gain quests.

Adventure

The players go off to role play in a world slightly artificially structured into areas of increasing risk, and with treasures to be gained, hazards to be faced, and factions to be dealt with.

Wind Down

The players return home, gain growth points for the adventure based on treasure gained, risks and difficulties, and for quests completed based on commitment of time, risks overall and encounters braved.

In a given session of play there will be one or more complete adventure cycles. Any adventure in progress when a session runs out of time comes to an abrupt end and the wind down is flicked through.

The chassis comes with some simple book keeping, tracking which characters are the primary quest bearers for which home town, and what the character reputations are there, and tracking things that may be transferred between GM home regions, like magic items, pieces of technology, or global rank.

The first Chassis will have a baked in fantasy genre. Its treasures will be coins, gems, jewels and works of art. There will be some generic sorcery and mysticism rules (aimed at eventually being used for Mists of the Carpathians) and a collection of play structures for dungeon, wilderness, ocean and city adventuring.

A second Chassis under development will have a baked in space opera genre, with aliens, high and low tech worlds, space ships, interstellar corporations and nations and super tech artifacts left behind by “the ancients”. This will be used to lay some ground work for the Shadow Over The Galaxy setting.

Fun times!

Much in the Way of Combat and Dungeons

I’m play testing the Combat Toolkit and trying to ensure that the way it gets used is explained clearly. Its difficult because of the dominance of the wargame style of the big mainstream game. I attack, I get a hit, you take hit points, you attack, you miss, I attack etc etc.

Here is a write up of a brawl from one of the play tests of All Us Gamers, I have added some “mechanics” and “fiction” labels to highlight the interplay. The Book of Struggles has most of the key mechanics in it other than the injury and healing rules:

Mechanics:

Player Characters

Mike – Doctor with aptitude 4, combat aptitude 0

Daph – Martial artist with combat aptitude 4

Frank – Ex military Private Investigator, combat aptitude 5

(average combat aptitude 3)

Game Master Characters – Gang

2 gang thugs, combat aptitude 3

Gang tough, combat aptitude 5

(average combat aptitude 3)

Game Master Character – Non Participant

Keith, bar keeper. Has a baseball bat behind the bar and his friend Dave the policeman on speed dial.

Fiction:

The players annoyed the gang earlier but moved on. They are in Keith’s bar, discussing their next step in the mystery they are unraveling. The gang members have decided to rush in and give the players a good pounding to “teach them a lesson”, then leave.

GM: The front door to the pub burst opens and the gang you were having words with earlier rush in with obvious intent to attack, no weapons visible. This is a struggle with two action groups, they have surprise giving them the advantage. What is your operation?

Mechanics:

(GM notes to herself that the thugs operation is to match up one on one and start clobbering, so they press the advantage my running at each player swinging fists hard and yelling, -2DN to them (10), +1DN to the players (13) )

Mike: I don’t want to fight, I will duck behind the bar.

Frank: Fair enough, we’ll screen Mike.

Daph: I’ll sweep up my chair as a shield.

GM: Mike, your still in the struggle unless your side advances. Weak link for group results on both sides.

The GM rolls for the thugs, its a poor result given the advantage and aptitudes:

Gang tough: Success, Thug 1: Failure, Thug 2: Dismal Failure

Success point pool 2, failure point pool 5. Group result is Dismal Failure.

The players do OK:

Mike: Failure, Frank: Success, Daph: Success. Success point pool 4, failure point pool 2. Group result is Success.

The players side advances.

Fiction:

GM: Ok, Mike freezes for a moment but then dives sideways behind the bar. Daph has grabbed the chair and swung it in front of the two young thugs, making them flinch back. Frank, you have got into it with the older beardy guy.

Mike: What’s the guy behind the bar doing?

GM: He has stood back away from the fight with an annoyed look on his face.

Mechanics:

GM: The attackers have used up their advantage, its on the table. Mike is not in a struggle, Frank is in a struggle with beardy guy, and Daph you are in a struggle with thug one and thug two. Daph, what is your operation?

Daph: I want to smash Thug one out of the way, holding off thug two.

Frank: And I’m going to gut kick the beardy guy so I can help Daph.

GM: OK, Mike what are you doing?

Mike: I’ll look up at the bartender and hassle him to call the police.

Daph vs Thugs

Thug one: Extra Success, Thug Two: Success. Equates to Extra Success.

Daph: Incredible Success

GM: Its a Hot Struggle. Daph, you swing hard with the chair. It shatters on Thug two, sending him reeling toward the bar with a bloody nose, Thug one gets a hit in giving you a minor wound but you strike back giving him one too. You have the advantage now, how would you describe it?

Daph: I’m free to be in fighting stance for a good kick and balanced to easily deflect thuggish blows and turn them against my opponents.

Frank vs Gang Tough

Gang Tough gets Extra Success.

Frank Gets success.

GM: Another hot struggle. You lay into each other and each get a minor wound, but the tough pushes you back over your chair and you fall prone. He now has the advantage.

GM: Mike, the bartender hasn’t called the police, but he has tossed you a baseball bat.

Daph: Mike, take a swing at Thug Two and keep him off my back.

Mike: Alright.

GM: Ok, Mike and Thug Two are a new struggle. Thug Two is dazed with a serious wound. (Thug two’s operation is to rejoin the attack on Daph from behind, unaware of Mike)

Mike: I’ll just swing for his head and knock him out.

GM: Thug one appears to be trying to push you back toward Thug Two Daph, what’s your op?

Daph: I’ll press the advantage to take his momentum and throw him to the floor with it.

GM: Frank? (The tough’s op is to press the advantage and kick Frank hard while he is down)

Frank: I’ll roll to my left and stand up.

Mike vs Thug Two

Thug Two: (aptitude loss from injury, -1) Failure

Mike: Extra Success

GM: The thug needs to save against the attack, he gets a miserable failure. That’s a knock out and a serious injury. As he is already seriously injured it escalates to incapacitated.

Mike: Oops. Barkeep, maybe an ambulance?

Daph vs Thug One

Thug One: Failure

Daph: Failure

GM: A cold struggle – Thug one rushes in, Daph grabs him to throw down but Thug One pulls Daph down with him. Your both on the floor in a grapple.

Frank vs Gang Tough

Gang Tough: Failure

Frank: Failure, uses a focus which results in Extra Success

GM: Frank the beardy guy tries for a kick, but your roll avoids him and your up on your feet facing him. You have him off guard and gain advantage.

Fiction:

GM: The guy at the bar is on the phone, talking to ‘Dave’ and suggesting an ambulance might be a good idea.

Mike: I’m a bit worried about the guy I brained, I’ll check on him using my medical aptitude.

Daph vs Thug One

Daph: My operation is to get the guy face down in an arm lock.

GM: Ok the Thug’s operation is to push you off and stand up.

Frank vs Gang Tough

GM: The beardy guy looks like going for some kind of kick.

Frank: I’ll press my advantage and go for a straight punch at his jaw.

Mechanics:

Thug One: Failure

Daph: Failure

GM: Cold struggle – you’re both rolling about on the floor trying to get at each other. The thug has a black eye, Daph your jacket is pushed up over your chin and getting in the way.

Gang Tough: Failure

Frank: Success

GM: You land a blow Frank, the beardy guy needs a save. A minor wound. He already has one so it escalates to painful.

Fiction:

GM: Frank, you can see he has been knocked about and is in some pain. He looks like he is going to run for it. Mike, your guy looks concussed. You start doing some first aid to keep him ok until the ambulance arrives. Daph and Thug One are still struggling on the floor under the table now.

Frank: if he runs for it I’ll let the main guy go and help Daph.

GM: The beardy guy backs off, and when he sees you aren’t following he runs for it out the door.

Frank: Daph, need a hand?

Daph: I’ve got this.

GM: The Thug seems to be trying to break off now, what’s your operation Daph?

Daph: I want to slam his head into the floor and knock him out.

Mechanics:

Thug One: Miserable Failure

Daph: Failure, uses a focus but it stays a failure.

GM: you both are banged about a bit, getting caught up in your own clothes, smacking into table legs with your shins.

Fiction:

Frank: I’ll tap the thug with my foot and yell “Oi! Time to give up!”

GM: You can hear a siren in the distance. The Thug scrambles away from Daph.

Daph: No way! I grab him and keep wrestling.

Mechanics:

Thug: Failure

Daph: Success

Fiction:

GM: Daph, you grab the thug as he rolls away and push him face down to the ground, and climb on top of him pinning him down. He is yelling incoherently.

Frank: I lean down and say “Stop struggling buddy, or she might break something”

At this point the combat struggle is over. Daph and Frank both have minor wounds. Thug one has a serious wound. Thug two has an incapacitating wound, but the approaching ambulance means he will be ok. Mike has another beer.

So anyway, we’ve been play testing this sort of battle, another we have is some guys charging into a room with swords to take on a slightly larger force, and it just occurred to me there and then. Classic Dungeon.

So I am revisiting the truly classic dungeon crawl with a new game mechanism. The nearby town is a menu for purchases and quests, and the place to return to after each delve. The dungeon is a vast maze, with levels that are harder to deal with as they get lower underground. Intelligent denizens have little fiefdoms and conflict with one another. Unintelligent beasts wander the corridors. And there are traps. Yes, old school traps, only the game rules make them interesting.

I’ve been designing it to help combat play tests but I think I will polish it up and put it out there.

Combat Toolkit Enters Playtest Phase

The Book of Struggles gives a complete mechanism for handling character to character conflicts. However its possible to have more detailed rule extensions for specific situations, and extended examples of using the struggle rules in those specific situations. Hence the value of the Toolkits.

The Combat Toolkit gives examples of the struggle mechanism in use for Brawling, Close Combat, Firefights and Rearguard Actions. It explains conditions that might be pertinent and complication examples.

In addition to the combat situations being fleshed out it provides some extended mechanics for handling injury and death, natural healing and medical intervention. The injury levels are Minor, Serious, Incapacitated, Critical and Mortal. Each injury level has a natural healing cycle during which the injury may worsen or improve. The medical interventions are defined as First Aid, Field Care, Hospital Care, and Surgery. Characters use their related aptitudes to carry out the interventions and if done well will improve the healing process.

This extension can add a mild layer of complexity onto combat struggles. The play testing is focusing on ensuring that these things hang together well with the narrative style of play and can be operated smoothly during the session when used.

Now Working on The Mists of the Carpathians Setting.

It is the middle of the 1400s. Vlad III is on his way to becoming Vlad “The Impaler”, Dracula and voivode of Wallachia as he leads Ottoman forces into that realm. There is much struggle ahead of him before he can gain that exalted position.


Against this backdrop the players become characters in a mist shrouded region of Transylvania, where there is much conflict between Noble Factions, the landed Boyars and the Church powers. Teutonic princes, Transylvanian Saxons and Knights Templar each have their secret plans. The Romani peoples, favoured for their skills as musicians, sadly also find themselves a favoured class for enslavement. Beyond the quiet rural areas creatures fey and fell lurk in the wilds, dragons (Dracul), giants (Uriași), werewolves (Vârcolac) and the dread vampires (the Strigoi or the much feared Moroi). The mountains are the source of sorcery, a power slowly fading from the world. Some may master this, and much which lives in the mountains or the deep woods is changed by its power.
The source book being developed describes a forgotten region in Transylvania, the political intrigues of the region, how to create your own factions and major characters for your campaign, and how to throw together encounters and adventure situations for players to engage.
The magic system builds on the skill system in On Aptitude adding sorcerous specialisations and professions, and the character sorcerous power pool. It includes magical conflict, including the ability to posses, using the mechanisms from the Book of Struggles. Those with sorcerous power and much skill may make items imbued with magic and a will of their own. Here are two examples:

The Gloves of Elaine

The beautifully embroidered, burgundy coloured, velvet gloves have the name “Elaine” stitched into their cuffs. They enhance the aptitude of the wearer by 2 whenever using agility to perform actions with their hands.

The enchantress, Elaine, was a woman of the Southern Teutons. Her powers allowed her to make fine miniatures of blown glass, stitch fine tapestries, and to emblazon enchanted coats of arms and symbols on her husband’s armour that aided in his defence and his presence.

20 years ago Elaine was murdered by her husband’s rival, Burn of Anglevise, while Elthic the Red was on crusade. The gloves seek revenge against Burn and his family, wishing to drive the master to steal from them, weaken their armour and weapons, make their surroundings unpleasant, or assist their foes in bringing them down with improved weapons, armour or alliance seeking presence.

The Horse Stick

Durriken the Horseman crafted this stick from a tree deep in the forest where the wild and most hot blooded stallions would stop to drink during the winter migrations. He carved a handle in the likeness of a wild horses head with a flowing mane. The rest of the stick he left in its natural form. The stick, when used to lightly touch a horses cheek or stroke its neck would enhance the wielder’s ability to calm and befriend the animal.

Although Durriken was a Roma leader of much renowned he fell in love with the daughter of a landed man in the township and their son, Remus Pangratiu, became a Boyar who resented his Gypsy lineage. He inherited the horse stick but spurned it, secreting it away.

The youngest of his seven grandsons, Gabriel Dragan, works as apprentice to the Pangratiu stable master. He has his great grandfather’s affinity for horses and has discovered the horse stick among the brick a brac of his late mother’s possessions. The stick has whispered to him and he found himself wielding it on horses he was breaking and has discovered its power.

The stick is urging Gabriel to leave his civilised surrounds and seek a life in the wild woods.

So Serious Work Begins

Work has been ongoing for this setting for some months but it is now starting to take shape. There has been some play test adventures already which are helping to flesh things out. There is still a way to go, we will keep you posted as it develops.

Goals and the Book of Struggles

Further to the principles of The Book of Struggles conflict is based around achieving goals or preventing opponents from achieving theirs.

In The Book of Struggles the goals will be explicitly stated, so that a success outcome will be an advancement of the goal.

Consider a combat situation. Your goal could be to kill your opponent. However it might be to bypass them to obtain something, or hold them at bay while something is done. It could be that you want to stop them from harming you or those you are protecting while convincing them to cease hostilities.

So the mechanism in the Book of Struggles abstracts out the idea of a goal, and creates two flavours of goal, a one step goal, and a multi-step goal. The multi-step goal should only be two or three abstract steps, and there are some where the character can only step forward to ultimate task success, and others where the characters position can be pushed back, even to the point of the goal being impossible.

Consider a woman who has dashed into a room with a goal of grabbing a compass from the shelf as a two step goal. The guards in the room intend to prevent her from getting to the compass and will perform single step attempts to capture her instead.

During conflict there is the possibility of “incidental harm”. That is damage of some sort, physical injury, resource loss, reputation damage and so on, depending on the conflict at hand.

In the scenario above the woman is a pirate, armed with a cutlass, and the guards have swords. As the pirate pushes for grabbing the compass and the guards try to disarm her and grab her, people may get stabbed, sliced or pummelled. These injuries may have an impact on the ability to continue the struggle.

Multi-step goals can be put on hold while a one step goal is enacted, without necessarily losing the current multi-step position. So, in the case of the woman fighting to grab the compass, when she is only one step away, she may decide to enact a goal of “knock the opponents prone”, with the idea that that would give her a clear shot at grabbing the compass, and maybe diving out the window, before the guards recover.

The Book of Struggles will have use cases, combat is the obvious one but there is also chases and races, arguing to persuade a 3rd party, infiltration against security guards, hide and seek and so on. Each use case can catalogue the common goals, harms and timings for action to give players a large repertoire of tools for handling very varied conflict and retaining player agency within the structure.


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