Is it? Yes! His dish is ready. Will the judges appreciate li hing squid with stinksauce-glazed spider tripe on the side?
It's here! The final Iron Game Chef draft of Terra Australis, the historical fantasy game set in icy islands where Australia should have been. Players assault a weird invasion, head-on, in a world created by their own collaboration.
Before you start, you need to get your materials ready. You will need six-sided dice for each participant (five or six dice per person would be good). The players will also need some marker, like stones, to represent their characters' Resource scores; you should need about ten stones per player. Finally, each player needs a character sheet and something to write with.
Your group will create the world around you through the use of Evidences. These Evidences are any facts which change the baseline reality: The reality of Earth in 1691. All Terra Australis games begin with four Evidences already in written for you.
With these Evidences in place, your group creates a new set of Evidences. New Evidences cannot contradict existing ones, but they can augment them. Your group's new Evidences need to answer the following questions:
If you cannot agree on creating an Evidence, then have the disagreeing participants roll dice. The highest roller gets to pick an unanswered question and answer it with Evidence.
These Evidences should be written down, and made available to the entire group. Try picking someone with good handwriting, or using a laptop (provided it doesn't distract anyone) for keeping track of your Evidences. Alternately, everyone has a copy of the Evidence list, and modifies it when appropriate.
Note: If the history of 1691 seems too strange for your group, try moving it to a different historical era. In this case, Terra Australis and The Bastion will likely remain the same, but you will need to invent (or pull from history) a new global organization and their leader.
Now all the players create their characters. Your character sheet should have the following written on it: Name, Nationality, Curiosity, Resource Points. Additionally, the character sheet should have an empty space for writing a list of Resources, where each Resource receives Name and Type. The first Resource is always Curiosity (which has no Type). A sample character sheet can be found here.
To create your character, you first invent a name, nationality, and (most importantly) a curiosity. It is the curiosity which makes your character a monster. Skin like stone or made of visible ectoplasm are both fine curiosities. It is this curiosity referenced by your curiosity Resource.
A starting character receives five Resource Points. Put that many stones into the Resource Points section.
Finally, you create your second Resource. This can be one of four types. You write down the Resource's name, type and strength. All Resources, including curiosity, begin with a strength of 1.
Now that your group is ready, it's time to begin!
The GM opens play by providing the group with some mission. This mission should be given a Mission Difficulty, determined by how tough the GM wants the mission to be. For a starting group, a Difficulty of ten should work fine. As your group continues to play, you will get a feel for how the players spend their Resource Points, and what constitutes a good Mission Difficulty. As a player, when you succeed at something, you may opt to turn your successes (explained later) into Mission Points, a total the entire group shares. As soon as the Mission Points equals or exceeds the Mission Difficulty, the mission can be finished with a Mission Roll (also explained later).
If the PCs are experienced (i.e., not newly created), each player gets to add one free Resource to their character sheet, or increase an existing Resource's strength by one. In addition, bring any PC's Resource Points up to five, if they aren't there (or higher) already.
Play can be divided into two separate modes of operation. The first mode is simple and common to most roleplaying games, where the GM provides the narration, exerts control over situations, answers questions, and handles player-initiated PC activity. Anything which wouldn't be interesting if the outcome was uncertain. Different groups have different ideas on this, so be sure to work this out. For example, some groups would love to have a hard time scaling an ice wall, while others would just want to skip to the temple at the top. The second mode is called a Roll, and is described further.
When in the first mode, the GM and players must adhere to the Evidences provided, but may embellish them as desired. To create or modify Evidence (and many other things), as GM or player, you initiate a Roll. During this first mode, anyone may initiate a roll at any time (within the boundaries of polite behavior).
The GM or a player may initiate a Roll. Whoever initiates the Roll tells the group what type of Roll it will be.
When someone initiates a roll, everyone rolls dice. Whoever initiated the Roll gets three dice. Everyone else rolls two. Everyone examines their dice and determines the following:
Successes: Your successes are the number of dice which turn up 5 or 6. Total: Everyone sums their numbers rolled.
Control of the Roll is then passed from participant to participant (GM and player alike) in the order of total, from highest to lowest. In some cases, control ends before it is passed. If two totals are tied, use the highest, untied die. If they are still tied, have the players roll a die against each other (these dice not used in any other part of the Roll).
If you are a player in control of a Conflict, Evidence or Resource Roll, you may spend a one Resource Point to change the type to any other. When doing this, you spend your point, using one of your Resources, and tell everyone the new type. You tell the GM how your chosen Resource allows you to change the type, and the GM narrates this happening. You resolve the Roll with its new type, as explained below.
If the Roll is a Resource Roll when it reaches the GM, the GM is skipped for this Roll. You may not spend Resource Points to augment this Roll, though you may spend a Resource Point to change the Roll type (see above). For every success, you must choose one of three things: Increase your Resource Points by one, increase a Resource's strength by one, or create a new Resource with 1 point of strength. You pick one (or more) of your Resources and describe its stress or manipulation, which the GM narrates in-game. The GM can veto a new Resource, provided he has justification (for example, if your group is stuck in a tomb, the new Resource probably won't be a new NPC).If you have zero successes, you pass control to the player with the next highest total.
If you succeed, the Resource Roll ends now, regardless of any lesser totals.
Example: Mark gains two successes with his Resource Roll. He adds one to Vedun's Resource Points, and one to his NPC Relationship with Mecher. He tells the GM, "The ground falls away beneath Mecher's feet, and is saved by Vedun."
All participants, GM and player, may take control of an Evidence Roll. You may spend a Resource Point to change the type. Otherwise, you may spend a Resource Point to roll another die, including it as a success if it rolls a 5 or 6. When spending a Resource Point, you justify it to the group (subject to GM veto) and the GM narrates.
If you have zero successes, pass control to the next highest total. Otherwise, if you're a player, divide your successes among Resource Points and Mission Points, as you see fit. You also get to alter an existing Evidence or add a new one. Any alterations or additions must not contradict other Evidences. If you are a player, you write the new Evidence, explain how it came to light, and the GM narrates this.
Like a Resource Roll, if you succeed, control is not passed and this Roll ends.
Example: Grace modifies the Robert Hooke Evidence. She adds the sentence, Projects himself astrally onto the islands by some means. "He claims to have never set foot on this island, so how was he able to describe this temple entrance in such detail?"
Only the players may take control of a Mission Roll. The GM is skipped. You may spend Resource Points to augment this roll, just like the Evidence Roll. If you roll at least one success, you not only decide how the mission is completed, but you get to narrate it as well!
If you succeed, control is not passed, this Roll ends, and play is over.
Whoever rolled the highest total starts this conflict. Look at your dice and select one of them. That dice's number becomes the Conflict Difficulty, and the group's Conflict Points are set to zero. While the Conflict Points are less than the Conflict Difficulty, whenever a participant gains control, the type reverts back to Conflict (regardless of whether the previous controlling person changed it).
As the GM, if you earned any successes, the conflict swings against the PCs but is not overcome. A failure indicates the PCs gain the upper hand. This is purely for narration purposes, and has no affect on any scores.
As player, you can spend Resource Points to roll another die. Pick the Resource, justify its use and, if allowed, roll the extra die. If it comes up a 1, subtract one point from the Resource's strength. If the strength is brought down to zero, see Damage, below.
If you succeed, even if a Resource was damaged, your successes can be divided among the Conflict Points, Mission Points and your Resource Points, as you see fit. You explain how your PC succeeded, and the GM narrates. If you fail, the GM narrates this. There are no other penalties for failure.
At the end of a Conflict Roll, if the group has not earned enough Conflict Points, another Conflict Roll is made. Whoever got the lowest total in the last Roll initiates this next Roll. For this next Roll (and subsequent Rolls in this Conflict), however, no new points are added to the Conflict Difficulty.
Example: It's Mark's turn. He has rolled a 2 and a 3, for zero successes. He spends a Resource Point, using his NPC Relationship, Mecher, and rolls a 5. He now has one success, which he spends on a Conflict Point. He explains that Mecher used a statue as a club, and the GM runs with that.
Any Resource brought to zero strength is considered damaged. Depending on the Resource's type, damage means different things:
Example: Mark again uses his PC's Relationship with Mecher. Unfortunately, this time he rolls a 1. Poor Mecher's strength is brought down to zero. Mark decides to lose half his Resource Points (going from 3 to 1) and Mecher is only pinned beneath a falling statue instead of being crushed outright.
If any of your Resources take damage, or you lose a Resource Point through damage (to Curiosity or another player's PC Relationship to your PC), your own PC may die. Whenever you are brought to zero Resource Points (or you are supposed to lose a Resource Point, but are already at zero), you cross off a Resource (except Curiosity). If you have only your Curiosity left, reduce its strength by one. If it reaches zero strength, your PC is killed and taken from play. You, as player, get to narrate the loss of your Resource or your PC's death.
Can you believe it? Here I am, all ready to watch another cool Indie Game Chef when ... my wife leaves for Vegas all week! So I'm in this thing.
Island & Ice? Break up Antarctica. Check. Assault? Teams of elite weird soldiers fighting the incursion of whatever broke up the frozen waste in the first place. Check. Fantasy? Heroes as paranormals rounded up in an 18th century attempt to curb all the rest of the unnatural things. Check. Finally, a dash of shared mythos creation on the part of GM & Players alike.
And what's this? He's using swordfish as a resolution mechanic? Does he truly believe in swordfish?
It is the year 1691. You've heard the rumors: The oceans unleashed something horrible, leviathans and serpents are found closer to Europe's shores than ever before. A punishment from God? Spawns of the Devil? It's a good thing the greatest minds have been sent to investigate. You even personally saw Robert Hooke depart on the Faithful four years ago. Things must be going well, since the only demon you've ever seen, a terrifying man-bat, swooping through Hamburg, was packed in a gigantic cage and sailed south to undergo study and exorcism.
You can't remember how long you've been caged here, the fearsome man-bat, caught sleeping after sneaking into a lord's wine-cellar. Now you're trapped in the belly of this stinking ship with only enough room to stretch one wing at a time. Your only company has been superstitious sailors, a few armed guards (who refuse to acknowledge you as a thing of reason), and one other monster. A squid-headed gentleman, something of a scholar, from whom you've learned some rudimentary mathematics. It's tough, though, since you have to communicate through iron bars and suspicious guards. That, and those tentacles muffle his speech. His name is Varun, you think.
It has grown colder, and you now spend much of your time shivering under wool blankets. The boat is still rocking, but it has come to anchor, judging from the sounds above. Three strangers, two gentlemen and a lady, descend the steps. Two of them are stifling nausea, handkerchiefs pressed to their noses. One, with a crooked back, extends his hand into the cage.
"To my right is the Lady Soraya Kiyanfar, to my left, Lord Jeong Seonggye. I am Sir Robert Hooke. Welcome to Terra Australis. Dalrymple Island, specifically."
His grip is firm, and he kneads your hand thoughtfully, exploring what lies beneath the furry skin. You soon forget this, however, as the cage is unlocked. You forget the cold, too, as you are led up to open air and the prospect of dry land.
As a monster, you are indebted to the World Royal Society, and serve them as an explorer in the strange icy islands of Terra Australis. Unfortunately, many would see you killed and buried, or killed and studied. Your only comfort comes from your fellow monsters and the few sympathetic humans you find here in the Bastion. That, and you're the only chance against the gibbering unnameable things and their wretched minions; unleashed when Terra Australis split into a million islands, prompting the World Royal Society's formation, and the judicious alliance among the civilized world to quell the assault on humankind.
Players throw their characters into dangerous and maddening situations across the islands of Terra Australis, investigating and fighting all things stranger than themselves. They take part in a joint creation of the Terra Mythos, the backstory and mythology of the world, molding it how they wish. The Mythos can, for example, become a Lovecraftian return of elder gods, an occult conspiracy begun by surviving Atlanteans, or an alien invasion from the moons of Jupiter. To this end, players extend their control beyond a single monstrous character, playing the parts of human NPCs, creating new relationships between all characters, and forming new mythologies and beasts.
Participates and guides the Terra Mythos creation, building on (and with) the Mythos to instigate problems and disasters. The GM also uses the player-driven relationships, stressing them to keep play fresh and interesting.
I tricked you all! I don't believe in swordfish! It's squid all the way down.
In this post: Example play script, with light mechanics notes, highlighting two features of play. Fighting with monsters and creating your Terra Mythos. I want any conflict to further the story; there are _no_ whiffs. Conflict is physical, emotional or mythos, without yes/no outcomes. It is more, "Do we get in more trouble? Or do we solve a problem?"
Established facets of the Mythos are called Evidences (because they are not entirely factual). The default beginning to the game are the following Evidences:
For this example, the players have established these Evidences during the "setup/social contract" phase of the game. The Evidences are required to handle the following: What are the Player Characters? What was the enemy's first assault? What is the weird globalizing science which gave rise to the World Royal Society? What is this strange enemy?
There is the GM and two players, Grace and Mark. Grace is playing Kleykir, a massive Viking brute found in Norwegian ice (who, incidentally, has a body temperature a few degrees below freezing). Mark is playing Vedun, a psychic squid-headed scholar from India who wields a cane sword in combat. There are a pair of NPCs, human companions. There have been no relationships made, yet, so the humans are handled simply by some measure of a) respect for monsters, b) fear of monsters, c) possibly some effectiveness. Their names are Li and Becher.
GM: As you descend the rough-hewn steps, you realize they are stone beneath a layer of pitted ice. The cave is growing warmer, slightly more bearable. The tunnel is bigger, now. Carved pillars, dusted with frost, rise to an icicled roof. Sunlight is thrown in by the snowy entrance, and casts weird shadows. The other end of the cavern could be an ornamented door or a giant statue; you're not sure.
Grace: It's going to be a slumbering guardian. And we're going to wake it up. [conflict mechanic: fails to create a fightable monster] Oops, it's long-dead and mummified.
Mark: [somehow gains control of the conflict, and uses this chance to add Evidence] It smells awful, and Li recognizes the thing from the library at the Bastion. It's called a [consulting Terra Australis sourcebook of weird & occult names] re'em, a terrible beast of which only two exist at one time. It gives birth before dying to a pair of twins.
GM: [Mark can give NPC Li direction, but the GM actually plays NPCs] Li lights a lamp and advances into the cave. He tells you of the re'em, and shines his lamp upon the beast [GM embellishing the new Evidence]. 'See how its three eyes see in all directions, and three horns gore its enemies?' Li grabs Becher's arm as Becher goes to touch the thing.
Grace: 'Vedun, can you feel anything?'
... at this point it can be a conflict, or the GM simply narrates. The GM chooses conflict ...
GM: Mark, Vedun feels a sinister presence, whispering in your mind in two discordant tones. You feel an ethereal stirring from the re'em! [GM instigates fighting conflict, psychic in Vedun's case].
Mark: Vedun closes his eyes and writhes his tentacles [spending some resource to bulk up success, but still fails].
GM: The re'em stirs, but only its belly. From its womb two horrors tear free! One swings its hairy paw at Vedun, sending him into a column. Vedun collapses to the ground, moaning.
Grace: Kreykir hefts his axe. Time to get rough on these guys! I'll decapitate one of them! [conflict mechanic, Grace gains ground]
GM: You swing your axe into its neck and are sprayed with black blood!
Mark: [his character is low on resources, but not out of action] Vedun rises from the column and draws his sword. He lunges at the uninjured re'em. [conflict mechanic, Vedun loses ground, sacrifices a resource, in the form of an NPC]
GM: You draw your sword, and advance to save save Becher. The bleeding re'em collapses on him, squashing him.
And so play continues. Already the group has established a particular monster and some of its features. This can be built on and changed and so on. Perhaps later, they meet more re'em, and the lore was wrong about there only being two on earth. Maybe they drag a re'em corpse back to the Bastion, only to have it give birth to two more. Or maybe the re'em are guarding something terrible, and the group continues deeper into the cavern to investigate.
A character will consist of a conflict resolution ability/resource (for using your character's abilities, whether it's fighting, shooting, whatever), and an Evidence creation/modifiation resource. NPCs also count as a shared resource. To heighten the value of NPCs, I'll say that you get more oomph by sacrificing/damaging an NPC if you have a relationship with him/her. Same with PCs, possibly.
I want to have some sort of dwindling resource to create tension. PCs should always have a chance to overcome conflict, though. I'm thinking some sort of "spend resource, reroll failure" (like Dying Earth) or "see odds, spend resource to increase odds" type of thing.
Lastly, when somebody 'fails', everyone has a chance to turn it into something else. If you fail in a conflict, someone can use the failure to create/modify Evidence and vice versa. Or you can shift the conflict into a different direction. I want all the players to be very active, so if there is no current conflict, you just create one.
RPG State Machines
What does he pull out next? A durian? Heavens, no! Oh, he's only joking. The durian goes back under the table and out comes a bucket of li hing mui! Candied squid!?
With the competition nearing a close, I need to hammer out the mechanics. To get that solid foundation, I've been pulling out every design trick I know! I've even come upon a few new ones (for me), such as What does the player/gm/character do? Another new thing for me, regarding rolelaying game design, is a state machine. What's this? The marriage of computer science and roleplaying games? And in a way that doesn't produce Rolemaster-like complexity? That's right.
The basis of a state machine is that at any point, the machine is in a specific state. The machine receives input and changes its state. You graph these states and their connections out with little bubbles and arrows. I figured, in game design, you have specific states the game is in. For Terra Australis, I initially defined the states as follows:
The connections are pretty simple. From GM control, the GM can move into a Conflict or a player can move into Players Roll. From Players Roll, the successful player moves the state into creating Evidence, Resource or Conflict (if nobody succeeds/wants, the state moves back to GM control). Here is a graphic diagram (I hesitated on including an image, but figured a schematic wins the information vs. promotion battle).
Now, after studying this, I realized that during a Conflict I want the players to be able to add Evidence and Resources. I also figured the state machine could be simplified. And it could!
With simplifying, the states are now: GM Control and Conflict, with Conflict having its own various internal states. But since I already have this early state machine prepared, I don't need another one to figure out how Conflict will play out.
Conflict, whether GM or Player initiated, consists of all the Players making a Roll. This Roll encompasses initiative (which player acts first, in the case of competing interests) and success. A Roll can be modified by expending a player's resources (relationships, abilities, etc).
Once the Conflict is over, play returns to GM Control. Conflict can be especially quick if the initiated Conflict is simply a new piece of Evidence.
With that settled, finishing up is a matter of how Rolls work, and how players use their resources to modify those Rolls.
That's my dish so far. It's nearing completion. Hopefully the delightful wafting of sickly-sweet, li hing-dusted calamari doesn't overpower the judges!
He's set aside the li hing squid for now, and is producing a variety of annuals. His assistant seems to be preparing some kind of sauce, and boy does it stink! Flowers? Stinky sauce? What will this side dish be?
I'm making my design process as transparent as I can, hoping to provide the same enjoyment for you that I get watching the cook at Thai Tom. I am ready to divulge the hearty entree of character design! It's pretty simple, actually. To define your character, you come up with the following:
Name & Nationality are simple. Just pick something or do a google search on, say, "Persian Names". Curiosity is what makes your character a monster. Vedun's Curiosity would be, "Psychic, squid-headed." Kreykir's Curiosity is, "Thawed viking, body temperature still below freezing."
The next part of your sheet has a blank space marked Resource Points. You start the game with 3 stones here (a stone is easier than writing & erasing points).
The final (and large) section on your sheet is labeled Resources. It is nearly empty, with each slot consisting of two spots, Name and Type. With a starting character, you get two resources. The first is your Curiosity (no type for this one), and is written on your sheet for you. Your other resource can be one of four types, your choice:
Vedun got NPC Relationship, Mecher. Kreykir got Thing, Icy War-Axe.
What's next? The system, which I've almost figured out. This means the character sheet/creation is in the "nearly done" phase, since a change in the system could reflect a change in the sheet.
I can't believe it, but somehow the flowered stink sauce is growing on us! The delicate pungency is breathtaking. But what will it be ladled over?
This entire document and all contents is Copyright © 2004, by Zak Arntson. Permission to duplicate for personal use and captions for review purposes is granted. You must receive explicit permission from the author (email: firstname.lastname@example.org) to use this game and any portion therein for public use, such as publication or convention play.