View Full Version : Finding a System to fit a Story

Archpaladin Zousha
2012-12-27, 11:53 PM
I've gotten an idea for a campaign to write, but I'm not sure D&D or Pathfinder are the best systems to give the kind of mood I'm looking for. The idea comes from Mage Evolving over on the 1001 Campaign Seeds thread on the Paizo boards:

You and your group of bandits have made quite a name for themselves. However, your latest raid on a seemingly nondescript caravan has yielded some surprises. The king and young prince was in the caravan. They were fleeing the castle and they are now your prisoners. The King promises you and your men a title and lands if they could kill the queen, an evil witch.

Whether or not you agree to help or simply kill the king and prince the Queen blames you for the kings death and declares you a blight upon the lands. The bounty on your head has been raised attracting all sorts of unwanted attention. Now the forces of good and those looking to make a quick buck are hot on your tail. Do you fight for the side of good? Simply try to stay alive? Or make a move for the crown?
The mood I'm trying to convey is a sort of cross between the Black Company novels (a band of amoral thugs bound together by brotherhood trying to survive as they get dragged from one unlucky situation to another) and The Hobbit or Neil Gaiman's Stardust, stories that evoke fairy tales and such.

Because of this, I feel D&D and its derivatives don't really offer the kind of feel I'm going for. I want this sorceress queen to be something the PCs would be legitimately afraid to face, so having mages of their own kind of undercuts that feel. "Oh, so she's just an evil spellcaster? No worries, I'll fireball her into next week!" Even in The Hobbit, Gandalf wasn't an equalizer to powerful foes Bilbo and the dwarves faced, since a lot of the time he was absent, and when he was there, he tended to rely more on Glamdring than magic. And speaking of dwarves, I'm inclined to say they can't be PCs, as I want dwarves, elves and gnomes to evoke more the feel of Faerie, helping or hindering the PCs according to their whims and the PCs manners, rather than the High Fantasy tropes more commonly associated with D&D.

Plus, I'm interested in inserting the problems that come with dragons and their hoards at some point. The idea being that for some reason the PCs decide to go after a dragon and have to compete with other hunters to find and slay it, only to learn that killing the dragon's the easy part. What's hard is when it's dead, and everyone nearby wants the hoard for themselves (a la The Battle of Five Armies and the Arkenstone debacle). I've got no clue how to add that to the "Evil Queen" plot without it being a significant departure from the campaign's overarching goal (if the PCs DO choose to fight her, rather than simply flee or even try to join her).

So...basically I have a great starting idea, but it's only a start. I know the kind of mood I want to convey and the basic beginning of the story, but not where to take it from there, and most importantly, what system can accurately give the feel I want for this story, since D&D and its iterations are more about facing things like evil sorceresses and dragons head-on, rather than getting dragged into facing them through a combination of bad luck, greed, and the inability to leave something you've started unfinished, emerging as heroes in spite of yourselves.

Could I have some advice, please?

2012-12-28, 12:34 AM
I have absolutely no experience with it, but based on the other game systems that Fantasy Flight has done, and the setting of Warhammer in general, Warhammer Fantasy might work for a grittier, "The Supernatural Is Generally Mean To You" sort of game.

2012-12-28, 03:31 AM
The One Ring might work with a little effort; it obviously has playable Elves and Dwarves, but it also has 3 different kinds of Men, and frankly the non-Humans can be re-fluffed as Men with those cultures. There are no overt spellcasters, your power doesn't increase linearly like D&D, there is a fun little system of fellowship/camaraderie, a system for meeting strangers and strange creatures in the wild, and dragon's gold can do stuff to you. Obviously it is based on The Hobbit, so that seems even more appropriate.

2012-12-28, 10:24 AM
The One Ring might work with a little effort; it obviously has playable Elves and Dwarves, but it also has 3 different kinds of Men, and frankly the non-Humans can be re-fluffed as Men with those cultures. There are no overt spellcasters, your power doesn't increase linearly like D&D, there is a fun little system of fellowship/camaraderie, a system for meeting strangers and strange creatures in the wild, and dragon's gold can do stuff to you. Obviously it is based on The Hobbit, so that seems even more appropriate.
This is a very good idea. TOR would be really fun to work with. Mind you, Fellowship and Hope (and other such heroic things) are mainstays of the game as well, which may not quite work with the pitch.

You could always dip into a generic system (inb4 GURPS and Savage Worlds pitches).

This also sounds like something right up Burning Wheel's alley, though some folk are skittish about the multiple rules subsystems which you can optionally tap into.

Archpaladin Zousha
2012-12-28, 11:59 AM
Tell me more about The One Ring and Burning Wheel...

2012-12-28, 12:01 PM
The problem with WFRP 2e, other than the fact that it's not a terribly good game mechanics-wise, is that it's quite tied to the setting of the Old World. For instance, wizards need to belong to one of the eight Colleges of Magic. It might not work that well for a game taking place in an unrelated fantasy world.

2012-12-28, 12:32 PM
Tell me more about The One Ring and Burning Wheel...
Burning Wheel is the one I have a stronger grasp on, having run it for a mini-campaign. I also may or may not have plowed through the whole book in a day. I'll come back later and offer thoughts on The One Ring, if nobody else has.

It's effectively Luke Crane's love letter to fantasy RPGs. It's in its third edition now (and the different editions of Burning Wheel are more like revisions; you don't miss out on anything much by getting Burning Wheel Gold, which is the best, most recent, most-streamlined, most concise of the three), and what draws me to it is the intensity with which Luke writes about gaming. (The game, which is $25 for the latest edition, is one of the best books on gaming that I've read. I would even say that it's practically worth the price just for the perspective it offers on gaming.)

The system itself is rather simple: you roll a pool of d6s equal to your skill, and 4s and above are successes. You need successes equal to the Obstacle of whatever you're trying to do. A very simple task would be Ob. 1, whereas a much harder task would be up at Ob. 4.

The second core of the game is "artha": tangible "points" that you receive for playing your character dramatically, in accordance with their ideals and impulses. For instance, a character might hold that "It is my sacred duty to stand between the Prince and death." This character would earn artha for following up on this Belief, or by abandoning it (with appropriate gravitas) in order to achieve something else. (Afterwards, they'll have to cope with the consequences of their actions, and then reassess if they're going to change their Belief or stick to it even more doggedly.)

The same thing goes for Instincts (such as "If anyone challenges me, I make them back down."), and for Traits (such as "Rabble-rouser"), which you can earn artha for when they get you in trouble. The game is all about playing through the conflict between your Beliefs, your Instincts, and your Traits. What happens when your Instinct of "When in a new place, always seek out rumors." conflicts with your Belief of "I will get Lord Aethrin out of this city without drawing any attention."? Artha rewards you for playing that tension out, and for making the call between the two.

The system begins to get more complex as you add in sub-systems, but Luke points out that you don't technically need them. However, you can drop them in one at a time, if you so please, and I find that they make for a more interesting game. (The core rules themselves are up for free preview at DriveThruRPG (http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/product/98542/Burning-Wheel-Gold%3A-Hub-and-Spokes).) Sub-systems include the Duel of Wits (rules for handling debates/arguments as conflicts) and Fight (a tense and brutal system that requires you to out-think your opponent as you plan your tactics in advance).

I'll note that the introductory scenario that Luke generally runs for Burning Wheel, "The Sword", is this: you and your companions have finally arrived at the temple where the titular sword is kept. Each one of you has a different reason for exclusively claiming the sword. Who gets it? That's the sort of thing that Burning Wheel is meant to spark.

Oh, and the game is absolutely filled with shoutouts to Tolkien and similar fantasy. D&D isn't Tolkienesque; this is Tolkienesque.

EDIT: RE--magic. Mages are here, but to become one requires serious investment, and even then, they're actually glass cannons. They can do some cool stuff, but it's not easy to stay alive without help...oh, and it physically taxes them, and sustaining spells is not easy in the slightest. (Elves have their own magic, but they're elves, and it works out well. Again, the power balance is nothing like in D&D.)

2012-12-28, 04:35 PM
Savage Worlds is a decent match - it creates a very pulp-y fantasy game, which seems to be what you're aiming for.

2012-12-29, 03:16 AM
OK, The One Ring:

The One Ring is obviously a Lord of the Rings-inspired game, though the current material is actually catered to the period immediately following The Hobbit than the LotR. More will be coming over the next few years.

The basic mechanic is this; you roll a special d12 (called the Feat die; 1-10, the Eye of Sauron, and the Rune of Gandalf) along with 0-6 d6, depending on skill, and try to hit a TN. The default TN is 14. The Eye of Sauron is an automatic failure, while the Rune of Gandalf is an automatic success. Natural 6's on the d6's (called Skill Dice) increase the level of success (normal, great, extraordinary).

There are 3 primary systems which cover the 3 primary modes of adventuring: Journeys (a combination Fatigue/Random Encounter system), Encounters (treating with strangers you meet on your adventures), and Combat. There are also rules for extended skill checks for other things like searching an area.

Journeys are based on knowing the distance, in miles, to your destination, as well as the terrain of the area you are passing through. It sounds monotonous, but with just a little imagination it's actually one of the most effective ways to evoke that classic Tolkienesque feel of adventuring. There is a brilliant online calculator (http://www.arcdream.com/tor/journeys/) to help the GM speed along this process. The game comes with a hexed-out map of north-eastern middle-earth. For a custom campaign, you'll have to make your own map and get some ballpark figures for the distances. This is the single largest obstacle to adapting it to non-standard settings.

Encounters are the social engine of the game, but its supposed to be used largely for encountering strangers. They work like an extended skill check mixed with elements of 4e Skill Challenges. Not difficult to work out, and it gives characters a variety of ways to contribute.

Combat uses an abstract positioning system of stances. Before the two sides engage in melee, though, there is a round of volleys while you close the distance, which just seems right after all the relatively boring D&D combats. The heroes choose which stance they will be in each turn, which determines if they can attack with a melee weapon or a bow, as well as a short list of stance-specific abilities. I am quite enamored of the game's combat engine, the way it uses Armor as a defensive roll to resist critical hits, how health is recovered, and how dramatically casting off your helmet in battle helps you keep fighting longer.

There are 6 Races called Cultures; these define the foundation of your mechanical abilities. Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves, Woodmen (somewhat Ranger/Druid-like followers of Rhadagast the Brown who live in south-central Mirkwood), Men of Dale/Esgaroth, and Beornings (somewhat Barbarian-like followers of Beorn who live between Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains). Within each of these are six backgrounds that are appropriate to each Culture. In addition to your Culture you select a Calling, roughly analogous to your Class, but much smaller in mechanical impact than your Culture. It defines some Traits about you and gives you your Shadow-weakness, or what tempts you.

Each character has Hope, a resource that powers certain abilities and allows you to increase die roll results by the value of one of your attributes (Body, Heart, or Mind). Fellowship is a pool of shared Hope that refreshes per session and can be used by anyone so long as the party agrees (and if they don't agree, they can use it anyway, but take a Shadow point). In addition, each party member designates another as their Fellowship Focus; when you use a point of Hope in the defense of or to help this person and are successful, the Hope is automatically returned to you. If your Fellowship Focus is injured or killed, however, you take additional Shadow.

Shadow and Hope exist on the same scale, you might say; when your current Hope falls equal or below your current Shadow, you are considered Miserable and any roll of an Eye of Sauron may trigger a Bout of Madness, where your Shadow-weakness takes over. Similarly, your Endurance (health) and Fatigue are related; when the former drops equal to or below the latter, you are Weary and take certain penalties.

That's my not-so-brief summary. The game plays quite well, very intuitive, and definitely evokes the feeling of striking out into a vast, untamed world to overcome the forces of evil (if you survive the trip!). Through a clever use of Encounters and Journeys, you could absolutely create the "stumbling through the grand adventure" feel. There is no spellcasting, except for baddies, although several of the Cultures give you access to minor magical effects. What you'll need to do to adapt it to a custom setting; create a new map, re-fluff the Cultures slightly, and you'll have to make adjustments to the Shadow system (it's obviously geared for black-and-white Tolkien morality, not pulp fantasy amoral heroes), but that can be just a measurement of the stress of the job, which leads people to snap sometimes. So, a lot of re-fluffing, pretty much.

2012-12-29, 03:45 AM
I'd actually be tempted to do this as a full Dreaming Changeling: the Dreaming campaign; but I'm fonder of Changeling then I ought to be :)