We’re back and looking at the implications of the mechanic
Okay, so I took a bit of a Hiatus. Basically all of fall. It’s not that I wasn’t working on anything Living Myth related, it’s just that I was busy, and uninspired to write. During the course of that time I’ve smoothed out the core mechanic, thought about its implications, and have been tinkering with writing campaign management software.
What I want to do here is revisit the core mechanic and discuss its implications.
If you recall from before the core mechanic involves two ‘input axis’. Axis 1 is your characters ‘ability’ and axis 2 is ‘how advantaged’ your character is. So a test in Living Myth involves two sides, and each side adds their ‘ability’ and rolls a number of dice equal to their ‘advantage’.
So what I want to do here is look at the details of exactly how each side gains advantage, and then talk about the implications that brings to play.
The Dice Pool (Risk Mechanic)
As stated above, each side rolls a dice pool expressing their ‘advantage’. The dice pool has diminishing returns relative to the ability. The size of the dice pool is equal to Stakes+Risk+Advantage-Disadvantage, so to determine a sides Dice Pool you:
- Add dice equal to the Stakes
- Add dice equal to the Risk
- Add dice equal to the Advantage
- Subtract dice equal to the Disadvantage
Now, you are probably wondering exactly what ‘stakes’, ‘risk’, etc. all mean. I’ll explain in detail in a moment, but ‘stakes’ represent the narrative intensity, ‘risk’ represents how risky an action is, ‘advantage’ represents an advantage a side has gained, and ‘disadvantage’ represents an impediment.
Stakes in Living Myth are used to describe general change in atmospheric tension. Whenever the Stakes go up, everyone is +1d to every action, when they go down every one is -1d every action. By default the Stakes give everyone 1d.
What is important to remember is that the Stakes represent meta-narrative accounting of the dramatic tension. It does not just represent ‘risk’. When the stakes change, it applies to everyone and everything involved in the scene. It sets the ‘default’ number of dice rolled.
To go along with that, it’s helpful during play to have a ‘stakes’ counter that everyone can see. When the stakes go up, the characters are more likely to overcome insurmountable odds, but also more likely to die horrible deaths.
The Stakes as a Measure of Intensity
Stakes 0 – Super Relaxed. The characters are hanging out, nothing is impending.
Stakes 1 – Normal. The characters are adventuring.
Stakes 2 – Tense. The characters are facing formidable challenges.
Stakes 3 – Edge of Your Seat. The characters are facing serious challenges.
Stakes 4 – Cut the Tension with a Knife. How will the Characters Survive.
Things That Can Change the Stakes
There are all kinds of things that can change the stakes. The stakes go up whenever something happen that increases the risk for everyone involved, and the stakes go down whenever something reduces the risk for everyone involved.
Changes to the environment are the most likely way to change the stakes. If someone turns out the lights, it’s harder to hit and to defend… sounds like the stakes just went up. Maybe the fight moved to a frozen lake, sounds like the stakes just went up.
A sudden change in mood is an appropriate time to raise the stakes as well. If two people are talking pleasantly, and someone suddenly pulls out a gun, it is absolutely appropriate to raise the stakes in that scenario.
Conversely, while fighting might put their sword away and puts their hand up to express an end to the fighting. Even if fighting continues, clearly the mood has shifted, and the stakes have gone down.
Though this doesn’t have to limit itself to the realm of violence. Sudden changes in the narrative that provoke sadness could raise the stakes. Comedy relief nearly always lowers the stakes. You should be able to ‘feel’ it as a change in the level of tension.
Some of the best times in a game happen when players experience that “Oh hell!” moment. Perhaps they jumped over a pit in a dungeon corridor then noticed a dark figure at the end of it. Something about it lets them know that “Things just got real”. In this case the stakes go up, and they can probably get back over that pit just as easily, but now there is more risk.
Risk is a measure of threat for each side. It is like stakes but it applies only to a single action. Weapons are a good example of this. If we’re fighting and I grab a bottle to break over your head, I have increased the Risk associated with that action.
Things happen that don’t actually advantage one side, but nonetheless change the dynamics. Whenever things get more intense for both sides, they are both considered “Advantaged”. This is referred to as Risk + Xd. Sometimes things can happen that lower the risk. In this case it counts as Disadvantage for both side and is referred to as Risk -Xd.
Risk is like Stakes but only applies to particular participants in the action. One example of this is that weapons increase the Risk.
Risk as a Measure of Intensity
Stakes 0 – Normal. The actions aren’t especially risky.
Stakes 1 – Risky. The action involves extra risk for both sides.
Stakes 2 – High Risk. The action would not be attempted by most.
Stakes 3 – Crazy. This action is very dangerous.
Stakes 4 – Completely Insane. Only someone nuts would try this.
Things That are Risky
It’s important to remember risk applies to both sides. It’s identical to both sides being “advantaged”. If a Character performs an action and the GM can say “That gives you an advantage because of X, but it also advantages your opponent because of Y” that is Risk.
When a character turns an argument into a battle, the action that did that might be considered a higher Risk.
Mutually Assured Destruction often comes with Risk. Trying to get your way in a negotiation because you’re “holding a Thermal Detonator” is obviously a Risky social maneuver.
When a circumstance or trait benefits one side of the opposition, we refer to that side as Advantaged +Xd. For example, we might say “The fact that you are full of Divine Awe means you’re Advantaged for +2d”.
It is important to note. Advantaged is not just about giving a bonus, it is primarily about raising the risk for just one side. A given side in a conflict is considered Advantaged when they increase the threat face by the opposition, or improve their chances of doing incredible things. Consistency only comes from ability; advantage exists always with an element of risk.
One Trick Ponies
Players might find something works once and try to do it over and over. For example, they might try to “swing off the chandelier hitting the opponent on the down swing” every round of every combat.
Don’t allow this. It’s completely uninteresting, and it arguably doesn’t make any sense. The Advantage gained by such actions are arguably based in part on surprise, so they can do it, it’s just not going to give them advantage after the first time.
You can often based the advantage a character gains from how exciting it is.
Things That Provide Advantage
Numerous things in the game can provide advantage. As a rule if you can say to yourself “This player has an advantage because…” and finish that sentence with something believable, then it is proper to give that side +d advantage. Advantages gained through the course of play should almost always be +1d, with +2d reserved for very strong advantage, and +3 for extreme advantage. Remember, advantages from various sources stack, and +10d is the largest possible advantage a Character can have. The rules in various sections will call out specific things that can provide advantage, but the following are provided as general guidelines.
When a Character performs an action that puts that character at an Advantage, then clearly gaining advantage is appropriate. This could be anything, but obvious things like gaining higher ground, flanking, utilizing the environment in clever ways; any of these things could gain advantage for the character. The idea here is that the Player has engaged the scene in a clever way that provides the character some sort of advantage.
In general, if a player is making a test to gain advantage, every 10 points of success should give a +1d advantage.
When a Character performs an action and gained any kind of success, they’re advantaged against that thing. Usually if it is a full success, the challenge is no longer relevant and so the advantage no longer applies. However if the task requires multiple successes, or if the degree of success was a partial success; the defending side describes the advantage gained against them. For example, if a character is trying to pick a lock and gains a partial success, the GM might say “You get a tumbler in place, gaining advantage, but the door is not yet unlocked”.
Taking Bold Actions
When a Player describes their character as engaging in an action that is above and beyond the expectation of behavior, engaging in something particularly hard or risky, that character at least gains one benefit. While the Action itself may be harder than some other option, the Character nonetheless gains advantage, because it increases the possibility for extreme success even if not the likelihood. For example the Character grabs the hostage in an airplane and jumps without a parachute. Obviously the difficulty of surviving this is very high, but the Character nonetheless gains Advantage for the bold actions.
This is likely to interact with “risk”. Jumping out of a plane without a parachute is obviously a crazy stunt to pull, so you could set the Risk on the action to +3d, and then in addition to that give a +1d advantage to the player for performing the bold action. Assuming the stakes were normal +1d, this would give the jumper with a 5d dice pool, and the ‘sky‘ a 4d dice pool.
When Players roleplay their character as being appropriately overtaken by emotion that character should have advantage for however long that intensity persists. For example, if a Character’s Father was just killed, and the player has an appropriately hysterical reaction then that character is Advantaged for those things which reflect the emotional intensity.
Less often, one side in a conflict experiences a penalty that lowers risk to the opposition. In this case that side referred to as Disadvantaged -Xd. Here you subtracts dice from that sides dice pool. For example “You are exhausted, making you less effective, that means you’re Disadvantaged for -1d bringing your pool down to 3d”
Things That Provide Disadvantage
Again, there are a number of things that can provide disadvantage, however disadvantaged should only apply when it actually, and obviously, lowers one sides risk. Disadvantages should not be applied because the Character is at higher risk, that would be Advantage for the opposition instead. The following outlines some common ways it can arise.
Sometimes things happen in a game that constrain a Character, slow her down, or otherwise impede her. These are disadvantages; they cut the risk for her opposition because they do not allow, such as, a wild swing to suddenly take someone down.
To illustrate the difference, consider someone chasing you. Closing a latched door, going over rough terrain, or casting a spell to fill an area with brambles could all be impediments that give disadvantage. However, going over mud, throwing marbles on the ground, or casting a spell to cover an area with Ice – these are advantages against the opponents movement.
While emotional intensity can give advantage, absolute calm in spite of chaos could provide disadvantage. Is the character depressed? It’s hard to be effective when your heart isn’t into something.
Characters can spend time coming up with a plan for how to tackle a situation; imagine for example a planning montage in a heist. When this happens, and the characters can all stick to the plan, all actions of the opponent are disadvantaged. However, when something unexpected comes up, the disadvantage the opposition has from the characters careful planning is lost.
Of note, the Game Master is free to take advantage of this as well. A villain who carefully plans the responses to his plans clearly puts his opposition at a disadvantage.
Effects the System has on Play
If I’ve designed this correctly, the ramifications of the “risk mechanic” should have an interesting and desirable effect on game play.
One of the first things to note, is that changes in the size of the dice pool dramatically affect changes in the deviation from the mean. With 1d on each side, the Standard Deviation is 4 points, with 2d on each side it’s 6 points. One way of expressing this is that as the ‘risk’ increases, so does the randomness. Another way to look at it is that as the ‘risk’ increases, the relative power level becomes flattened.
Power an Risk
The effect described above mean that the more powerful a side is, the more careful they should be. Suppose your protagonists are fighting someone with a 5 point higher ability. If they attempt to go toe to toe with this opponent, then the opponent will beat them 90% of the time. But what happens if they get creative and take riskier maneuvers? Let’s suppose they increase the risk by 2d for each action they take; giving each side a 3d pool? Well now they have doubled the possibility of overcoming their opponent with a 5 point lead. Similarly, if the characters are facing opponents weaker than them, their best option is to do not take risks.
Think about it… this system encourages players to take bold actions when their characters are outmatched, and be careful when they are in control. It creates incentives that not only match reality, but also match the boldness we expect from heroes in a compelling narrative.
Stakes and the Narrative Arc
One of the things we expect from a good story is escalating tension. Coming right along with that, we expect characters to overcome escalating odds. Going back to the villain mentioned earlier – should a confrontation with that character happen earlier, the stakes will be lower and the villain will more easily be able to defeat the party. Later, when the stakes are higher, the relative power will be more normalized.
Suppose, for example, at the end of the story the villain is still +5 relative to the characters. However the stakes are at 4d and the players take risky actions for another +4d such that each side is rolling 8d. Now the characters are able to overcome the villain more that 30% of the time.
Also remember that these are stacking. Assuming there are 4 Player Characters and one villain. With a 10% chance (1d) the four characters have a 41% cumulative chance, with a 20% chance (3d) they have a 67% cumulative chance, and with a 30% chance (8d) they have an 83% cumulative chance!
It’s not just things so obvious as that though. With the grater capacity to overcome progressively more insurmountable odds, also comes a greater chance that things go horribly wrong. The narrative magnitude of failure is determined by the mechanical magnitude of the failure. When the stakes are low, no one should be dying; as the stakes go up so to does the risk of death (or other bad things). That means that the “stakes counter” presents a constant reminder of the narrative intensity – one that can have a direct impact on the Characters.
Finally, the system by rewarding Bold Action and emotionally intense play discourages analysis paralysis and encourages good roleplaying.
Why The Risk Mechanic
All this is to express what we’re doing here. RPG’s have been designed largely around mechanical resolution that abstracts actions in a narrative sense. The have often ignored player incentives or the relationship that resolution mechanic has to the larger narrative arc. Hopefully the Risk Mechanic helps to address some of that.