Tuesday, January 5, 2010

EN World Contest: First Thoughts

A friend of mine pointed out this contest running on EN World right now, and I was like, "Look, I have a lot of other game-design-related stuff going on here. If it sparks any interesting ideas in me, I'll think about it."

Turns out it did, and now I am.

The parameters are really simple and open, which normally wouldn't appeal much to me. There's just a theme -- Discovery -- and a few "sub-themes," plus, of course, a deadline (February 1st). However, as a theme, I really like Discovery, and the brief treatment of it by Wik, the judge/organizer:
Discovery. Exploration, the discovery of the unknown, and unraveling mystery. An "Old school" theme of RPGs that sometimes gets overlooked in the modern era of RPGs. Let's bring back that sense of discovery in RPGs! How? Well, that's up to you!
The sub-theme that jumped out at me was "Sentient Constructs," which made me think of some alternative uses of "Discovery" besides, y'know, hacking your way through a jungle or sailing uncharted seas. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- it's just that I don't really see the need to come up with a whole new system for it. And if I'm going to make a game centered around Discovery, with a capital D, then I want the mechanics to strongly support -- and focus on -- that theme. I've also had a weird desire lately to make a game that's intended to do one thing and one thing only, that has a very tight, narrow purpose, like My Life With Master or Don't Rest Your Head Maid. Something that couldn't handle a different kind of game without significant alteration. I'm not sure why I want to do that, but there's definitely an attraction there.

That led me to this idea: A wizard has created a bunch of constructs, because that's what he does. Then he disappears for reasons unknown. In his absence, the constructs "wake up." They know nothing about themselves or each other -- their own abilities and purpose are a mystery to them. The only thing they know is that they have to find their master.

Characters would start off consisting of only a few components, called potentials, and then "evolve" abilities over time as they realize those potentials. Right now the potentials are Physical Potential and Mental Potential, although there's certainly room for a third.

Potentials represent pools of points to spend on failed rolls (the dice mechanic is up in the air right now, but there will definitely be dice). Doing so lets the player define a function -- something the construct was intended to do, or relating to its purpose. A function is a permanent bonus to relevant tasks; the bonus is commensurate with however much potential was spent to create it in the first place. It's a sort of retroactive skill purchase -- like "Oh, I succeeded at this -- I must be meant to do it."

Example: Glosk is attempting to decipher a scroll written in an ancient language (a Mental task). He fails his roll, but spends X Mental Potential to succeed instead. This lets him define an appropriate function -- say, Linguistics, but it could just as easily be Ancient Languages -- at a bonus of +X. The next time he deals with a language, he'll get the benefit of his Linguistics function.

Spending potential on a failed roll that's already gotten a bonus from a function lets the player define a specialty within that function. The specialty, like the function, must be relevant to the situation, but more narrowly focused. Again, if you're able to do it (by spending potential), then it must be because it's part of your purpose. 

Example: Glosk finds himself in the middle of a negotiation between some hostile goblins and his companions, and accurate translation is essential. He rolls the dice, applies the bonus from his Linguistics function, and... fails anyway. So he spends another Y points of Mental Potential to succeed and defines a Linguistics specialty: Goblinese. The next time he needs to translate, speak, or read Goblinese, he'll apply the +X bonus from his Linguistics function and the +Y bonus from his Goblinese specialty. Note that if Glosk hadn't applied his Linguistics function, he could've defined another function, such as Diplomacy, instead of a specialty.

It's also possible to unlock hidden potential by voluntarily failing a roll. That is, the roll succeeds, but you choose to fail. When you do this, you gain a point in a potential that's isn't relevant to your current task. You're failing because this sort of thing is not what you're intended to do -- it's outside your purpose, and that's why you've failed. Your potential clearly lies in another area. 

Example: Unfortunately, things with the goblins don't end up going so well, and Glosk finds himself locked in desperate combat. Forced to fight, he takes a swing at a goblin -- and hits! However, Glosk's player is so dedicated to making Glosk a mental powerhouse that he chooses to miss instead. That gets him a point of Mental Potential he can spend later.

An important part of this is making failure interesting and significant. If you defy the dice and say you can't read that scroll after all, whatever's on it just became that much more important.

Like I said, I'm not sure what the dice mechanic will be, but I'm digging what I've got here. I also want to include a system for letting players add details to the world -- possibly only for each other, instead of for themselves.


  1. Okay, that's awesome. I'm sold. Can't wait to see this develope.

  2. Did you know you can create short urls with Shortest and get $$$$ from every click on your shortened links.