A Game-Designer’s Sketchpad

Lately I’ve been spending more time than is probably healthy poking Legendary, the homebrew fantasy tabletop RPG that I’ve been tinkering with since, oh, 2003. Initially inspired by 1st Ed. Exalted’s concept of stunts, built around problems of mechanically representing social interactions and knowledge rolls, and first played at the 2003-4 New Year’s party as a kind of Dungeonworld game several years before Dungeonworld existed, each iteration has been informed by the games I’ve read lately and my own ever-evolving gaming preferences. Sometimes it has reflected the larger gaming landscape, and other times it has been almost prescient of what is to come for the hobby (in accordance with the confounding rules of parallel creativity).

Legendary isn’t so much a game in itself as it is a sandbox where I build and play with systems. Maybe one day I’ll do something of consequence with it, but mostly it’s my game design sketchpad. Several of the powers I wrote for Flowers of Hell began as Heroics I invented for Legendary, most of which were inspired by mechanics in other games I was reading or playing at the time. Play Possum sprang in part from the concept of Dissolves, which had a concept from Buffy the Vampire Slayer at its root (with the ability to spend a Drama Point to end combat immediately but not necessarily in your favor – handy when you’re losing anyway or you don’t feel like devoting two hours to a combat you aren’t really into). Call Out is a direct reference to a Heroic that forces the actual enemy to face you in combat and prevents his mooks from interfering. Open-and-Shut Case similarly springs from a Heroic meant to allow the “badass manipulator who has bought the local constabulary” to eliminate – or at least greatly inconvenience – her enemies. The list goes on.

One of the concepts I’ve been toying with a lot this time around is the idea of skills as a prerequisite for cool powers. Traditionally, games have expected players to purchase skills in order to represent a generalized competence in a discipline, and many games make a certain amount of skill a prerequisite for the purchase of remarkable abilities (i.e. cool powers). Legendary does this backward. Each skill has a bunch of cool powers associated with it, but you don’t buy points in the skills. Instead, whenever you buy a cool power within a skill (a Heroic), you get a permanent +1 bonus to all rolls with that skill. I figure that if your neat trick is “shooting arrows super-fast,” you probably mastered the basics of archery a long time ago. It’s a very simple solution to something that has always irked me in games – where you want to spend XP to do more interesting things, but you still end up having to spend a lot of XP getting your stats to the point where you can purchase or successfully use your nifty powers.

Another idea I’m tinkering with but still have quite a lot of sketching left to do on concerns the way optional mechanics come into play. Legendary is almost hyper-focused on giving players a lot of control over the events of the game without entirely eliminating the role of a GM who helps provide narrative structure so that it doesn’t become a free-for-all narrative. The idea I have is to create a very simple set of rules – bare bones mechanics that don’t really offer many tactical options. However, many of the Heroics players purchase for their characters add new mechanics that affect the game as a whole. No one bought any combat-related Heroics? Combat is quick, easy, and fairly predictable. But if one or more players made an investment in being good at fighting, all of a sudden combat mechanics are more dynamic and offer advanced tactics. The Heroics you choose literally change the game you are playing – not just in that “you’re conveying information to the GM about the kind of game you want to play” but by introducing mechanics that affect everyone and for which your Heroics give you a natural advantage.

Several years ago, it was trendy for games that focused on resource management to reward players with resources when they suffered some setback due to a flaw/weakness/disadvantage/whatever coming into play. You couldn’t do cool things unless something bad happened to you first. While I understand what game designers were trying to accomplish (you can’t be a badass 100% of the time; sometimes it’s okay to fail), these systems tended to punish quieter players while giving more aggressive players more reason to hog the spotlight. It got even worse when the game tied character advancement to the accumulation of Suck Points (which were never called that), and our table either pooled the resulting XP or used flat rewards devoid of the constant need to suck.

Legendary has always had a resource management component at its core, and rewarding a player for her willingness to suffer ignominy and defeat (Complications) in order to heighten drama isn’t a bad idea per se. However, when a player uses a Heroic to create a Complication, her character isn’t the one who benefits; instead, another player’s character receives the Heroism reward. Moreover, while Experience is pooled, the only way to earn it is by spending Heroism. The feedback loop this creates is pretty simple. You earn points that let you do cool stuff when your fellow players make bad things happen (i.e. make themselves and their problems central to the scene), but you have to spend those points to advance your character (and the rest of your party’s characters, too). You can’t do all the cool things all the time, because you’ll eventually run out of Heroism, at which point you have little choice but to yield the spotlight to other players so they can recharge you. Not that a character is powerless without Heroism, but her big guns are.

At the center of Legendary are Definitions (and Complications). These were the first seeds from which all of the game sprang. Definitions were meant to solve the problems of knowledgeable characters and socially adept characters. Most players of smart characters tend to spend a lot of time asking the GM what they know and then repeating that information with artistic flourishes for the benefit of the other players’ characters. Some groups (my own included) will let a player ad lib additional details and expect the GM to either “make it be that way” or veto it, but I’m not sure how common that experience is at other tables. In a similar vein, characters with extensive social connections and skills are quite often played by people are not quite so socially adept (or who can’t read the mind of GM as he plays an NPC).

Definitions give players whose characters should know a lot or have a lot of friends a means to seize some control over the game world. If the history scholar’s player spends Heroism and describes the epic battle that took place on this very plain, that event actually happened, and it is the GM’s responsibility to incorporate that information into her game’s world. This can range from cosmetic details that don’t cost the scholar Heroism at all to staggering revelations that could bring swift resolution to a major plot. Most of the time it introduces a solution to an immediate problem in the current scene or opens the way to the resolution of a larger challenge.

Similarly, players of socially adept characters can use Definitions to arrange convenient encounters with old friends. Not only are these allies more inclined to help the character, they are also less likely to take…dubiously worded requests and observations the wrong way. As with knowledge Definitions, the GM is expected to work these people into the story as best he can. Even if these convenient friends meet a grisly end, it isn’t as though the player can’t Define and introduce more. He’s wielding a Heroic, not working from a list of childhood/academy/professional friends.

All of this just scratches the surface of the mechanical concepts I’ve experimented with in this game over the years, but I think you get the idea. Whenever I’m feeling too left-brained to focus on my fiction, I find myself coming back to Legendary. Even if it is almost certain that nothing will ever come of it, I enjoy tinkering with it from time to time, and this last couple weeks has just been one of those times.

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