For the past few years, I have been kicking around a pen-and-paper RPG based on Jim Butcher’s book series (no, not the Dresden Files – that already has an RPG) called the Codex Alera. It lends itself rather naturally to an RPG of that kind, and I wanted to play around with how to design an RPG and this is a useful lab experiment in which to teach myself the skill.
I don’t want to get too far into the nitty-gritty of the RPG, but to give you context for my remarks later I do need to give you context. So, with that in mind, here’s a short summary to help you get where I’m going (note: spoiler alert from this point on):
Alera Nova is set about 80 years after the last book in the series, First Lord’s Fury, and is based on carrying many of the events and changes explored by the series out to their natural end. As such, things like merit-based furycraft, citizenship for Marat and Canim, and a generation’s worth of growth in the empire back into the lands taken by the Vord are assumed. Gaius Tavarus Magnus is on his deathbed at the start of the game, and that is about to set the empire itself on edge as it was his charisma and personality which for a long time held old rivalries in check. Now that he’s gone, and his successor is far too young to take the throne, the question of how he will leave the empire in the mean time naturally arises. Also, there are escalating problems with the Vord still living in the volcanic catacombs unearthed beneath old Kalare.
As for rules, I decided early on that I wanted it to be d6-based. There are 6 elements in the Aleran cosmology, so it felt right to make 6 an important number in the game. I settled on a basic design of counting successes and failures a la the World of Darkness or Shadowrun 5th edition games, and of limiting the field of attributes to only a few things and making intentional exclusions that in my experience would make the game better. That meant that I finally settled on 6 attributes, with each attribute being tied directly to one form of Furycraft. There is Strength, the element of Earthcraft; Quickness, the element of Aircraft; Perception, the element of Woodcraft; Resolve, the element of Metalcraft; Empathy, the element of Watercraft; Passion, the element of Firecraft. Note the absence of Intelligence and Charisma. Intelligence was removed because my experience with it has been that this is particular was always almost impossible to fairly represent, especially if the player was prone to poor decision-making despite his character’s high Intelligence score. Charisma is admittedly partially covered in Passion and Empathy, because those skills relate to how one socializes and relates with others, but unlike those skills Charisma in my experience always turned into a “so now you have to like me” skill, and thereby got in the way of role-play rather than fostering it.
To go with those Attributes I designed a race and profession based system that works something like the live-action rules for Dystopia Rising, in that the primary function of either is to give you access to particular Skills which you then acquire through the acquisition of experience points. I’d like to introduce an additional system for detailing a character, like Merits & Flaws or Backgrounds or something like that, but I’ve not settled on it yet. I might take a page from Numenera on that, because I really enjoy the character typing/creation process detailed in that game.
Having said all that, I’m pondering two things that make me go ‘hmm’.
1. Perception-based ranged attacks. Bow attacks are traditionally based on Dexterity in games like this. Originally that was my Attribute for Woodcraft, but I’ve since changed it because Perception is an important attribute to have in the game somewhere and there was no intuitive combination of Attributes that seemed to fairly represent it. That rippled through the system the way foundational changes do, and it left me with the question of how to handle bow attacks. A dice pool of Perception + Archery seemed odd at first, I’ll admit, but the more I thought about it the more it made sense. Dexterity (or some proxy for it) was not really what a person used to hit things with a bow, in my experience of bow hunting when I was younger (thanks dad!). One used strength to draw the bow, but it was really an informed understanding of how fast an arrow fell from true and an accurate guess of the distance to the target that determined whether a person would hit what they aimed at, once they had the base muscular strength and dexterity it took just to draw the bow down. Thus, it made sense to make this attack based on Perception rather than Dexterity.
2. Eidetic Memory as a Flaw. Normally, all games with merits and flaws have some sort of merit representing a character who rarely/never forgets, whose memory is photographic or nearly so. This is often one of the most popular merits in the game because it lets to player tell the storyteller to tell him the stuff he has forgot without making a roll for it. Well, having done some reading about real life eidetic memory (called Highly Specific Autobiographical Memory, or HSAM), I see that many times and in many ways, it’s not really a boon on someone’s life. Neuroscientists now believe that the cause of HSAM isn’t improved neural functioning which stores memory more efficiently, but what amounts to a broken ‘Forget’ button. People with HSAM tend to live in the past, almost get addicted to simply reliving good days, and have trouble relating to other people who assume that if they remember something then that’s because it was significant to them. I’m still thinking about how best to translate that into mechanics, but I think it would be really neat to make that equivalent to a Flaw rather than a Merit, and I think I’m going to do that.