A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

A while back in the Alma Mater Magica series I’ve been running we came across an unusual situation not covered by the DramaSystem procedural rules. A wizardly confrontation pitted at least three player factions against each other. I polled the players to find out what their characters hoped to achieve, but couldn’t boil the conflict into two clear, opposing objectives. Some players had sorta-kinda-but-not-necessarily opposing goals. One didn’t know what he wanted, but still felt obligated to do something.

So here’s the new procedural system I came up with to resolve an inherently chaotic multi-sided showdown. P vs. P vs. P, if you will.

Each player with a participating character spends a procedural token. The token spent determines the total number of cards the player will get in the coming resolution: three for green, two for yellow, one for red. The GM does not draw cards or spend tokens. If the GM determines that story logic calls for one character to start the action, she designates that player as the first to draw. Almost invariably this will be the player who called the scene.

In the first round, the GM draws a card from the deck for each player in turn. When the card comes up, the player narrates what his or her character is doing, to an effect that depends on the card drawn. Face cards mean awesome results. Cards between 10 and 6 advance the character’s agenda a little. Cards between 5 and 2 indicate a disappointing outcome.

If at least one player spent a yellow or green token, this continues to a second round, omitting all players who spent red tokens.

The third round includes only players who spent green tokens. If no one did, it is omitted.

At the end of the final round, the player who got the highest card played at any point then narrates the final outcome of the encounter. To resolve ties between cards of the same value, use the suit order (from best to worst): spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs.

However, if at any point a player gets the Ace of Spades, the highest card in the deck, the procedural immediately ends, with that player then describing the ultimate outcome.

For example, Aaron, Babs, Clea, Dev and Maya are all playing semi-divine entities who have just graduated to the big leagues. They just slew the titans who used to rule the celestial peaks and now (mostly) want to seize the throne of command for themselves. Their characters, respectively, are called Adder, Banshee, Chimera, Dwarf, and Minotaur.

Everyone except Maya spends a green token. Those who didn’t have green tokens in hand spend bennies to get green tokens. Minotaur, however, as befits her Dramatic Poles of Competence vs. Insecurity, won’t let herself step up and seize the mantle of rule that really only she deserves. Maya decides that it’s fitting to spend only a yellow token.

Aaron called the scene and is the first to shout “And now the throne is mine!” So you as GM decide he should go first.

Then you continue around the room, where our hypothetical players have conveniently arranged themselves in alphabetical order by first name.

Aaron draws a 6, a merely middling result, and narrates, “I slither at speed for the still burning throne.”

Babs draws a hard-to-beat Queen of Hearts: “With a piercing scream, I force you all back, taking my rightful place upon it and grabbing the Scepter of Cronos.”

Clea draws an 8: “Chimera changes into a deaf white cat, immune to sonic force, and creeps up behind you, batting at your tresses.”

Dev gets a pitiful 4: “Dwarf has been completely bowled over, the Helm of Might that has previously served him so well now wedged over his face.”

Maya, however, gets the King of Hearts: “Affronted to be buffeted over when I wasn’t even trying to do anything, I use the blunt side of my axe to topple Banshee from the throne.”

Round two begins with an Ace of Clubs for Aaron: “I release a cloud of poison vapor, which only I can breathe. It shrouds the throne, which I now slither onto.”

Then Babs gets an Ace of Diamonds: “I sing the poison smoke into a ring of honey, easily step over it, and squish Adder beneath my diamond heel.”

Clea gets a 7, okay but no match for the face cards already piling up: “I leap at Banshee, but slide on the honey and get nowhere.”

Dev gets a 9, likewise: “I finally join the fray, war hammer swinging wildly. I land a solid blow against Banshee.”

Maya draws her final card, a 10: “Minotaur sees that none of her so-called friends deserve to rule. I swipe at the throne itself, attempting to destroy it.”

Aaron starts the final round with a mere 5: “I free myself from Banshee’s heel. I try to bite her as I go but don’t quite manage it.”

Babs only gets a 3 this time: “I stamp at him as he goes, then recover my dignity.”

Clea gets a 10: “Chimera becomes an owl and knocks Banshee from the throne into the ring of honey.”

Dev draws a Jack of Diamonds: “Dwarf smacks her a good one with his hammer and hops onto the throne, performing a victory jig.”

Maya doesn’t get a third draw so that’s all the cards. Although her rivals have described themselves getting a few shots in, the overall best card, the Ace of Diamonds, remains in Babs’ stack. So she gets the final word: “I rise, razor-edged musical notes flying from my throat. They slash at my friends turned rivals, driving them back. Dwarf tumbles from the throne as I reclaim it. A nimbus of light surrounds me as I achieve apotheosis, becoming mythic ruler of this new pantheon.”

The problem this solves is an edge case to be sure, but if it came up in my game, it might in yours.

Robin Laws’ multi-award-winning Hillfolk is a great game in its own right, but its DramaSystem engine includes a toolkit for describing and dissecting characters that can be used in other games. One of these tools is the concept of dramatic poles.

To quote Robin: Driving any compelling dramatic character in
any story form is an internal contradiction. The character is torn between two opposed dramatic poles. Each pole suggests a choice of identities for the character, each at war with the other. Events in the story pull the character from one pole to the next. Were your character’s story to conclude, her final scenes would once and for all establish one of the identities as the dominant one… In many cases, you can conceive your dramatic poles as your desire, on one hand, and, on the other, the character trait that makes you least likely to attain it.”

In 13th Age, the player characters have relationships with one or more Icons – rulers and other powerful NPCs who shape the world from behind the scenes. As a relationship can be Positive, Negative or Conflicted, a well-designed Icon is always divided on some level. Even the most heroic Icon needs a little hint of darkness; even the vilest villain needs some redeeming quality. In the Dragon Empire setting, for example, the Lich King may be an undead tyrant who wants to conquer the lands of the living and restore his lost empire, but he still thinks of himself as the rightful ruler and has some sense of obligation towards his prospective ‘subjects’. The Priestess may be the mystic champion of all the Gods of Light, a shining vessel for their blazing kindness, but her overwhelming niceness might be hiding a secret agenda.

A well-designed Icon, therefore, is torn between two dramatic poles – usually, one that might draw the player characters to serve or support that Icon, and another that makes the Icon seem suspicious, dangerous or destructive. Evil Icons flip that around, so they’ve got one pole that makes them villainous and ghastly, and another that doesn’t redeem them, but makes them more nuanced and interesting than straight villains.

For the default Icons, I usually go with the pairs of poles below. Your own interpretations may differ, of course – and if you’re creating your own Icons, then you may find these helpful as inspiration.

Archmage: Benevolence versus Hubris – is the Archmage building a utopia, or a house of cards?

13th Age icon symbolsCrusader: Necessity versus Humanity – what does it profit a man to raze Hell to the ground, but still lose his soul?

Diabolist: Power versus Self-Interest – does the Diabolist have the courage of her convictions, or it all just a game?

Dwarf King: Tradition versus Friendship – can the dwarves move past the grudges and debts of their ancestors?

Elf Queen: High versus Wood versus Dark (yep, three poles) – which aspect of Elvendom holds sway?

Emperor: Law versus Truth – can the Emperor save the Empire from the intrigues and double-dealing of his courtiers and governors

Great Gold Wyrm: Heroism versus Sanity – mainly for the Wyrm’s followers, when does divine inspiration become indistinguishable from madness

High Druid: Nature versus Humanity (the concept that of Icon – and its followers – being pulled between elemental forces and humanity shows up a lot in my games).

Lich King: Death versus Obligation – what do the dead owe the living, and vice versa?

Orc Lord: Destruction versus Destiny – is the Orc Lord a disaster, or an opportunity?

Priestess: Divinity versus Humanity – can a mortal embody the gods and remind human?

Prince of Shadows: Anarchy versus Civilisation – what’s beneath the Prince’s mask?

The Three: Hunger versus Intrigue versus Malice (three poles again) – which head of the Three is dominant?

Next Entries