Roll for Fluency

My friend Crypt Thing from Swords Against Dungeons gave me a shoutout in an article about fantasy languages last month, so I figured I’d chime in on the subject. CT’s post touches on a lot of topics, but I’ll just pull out a few of them.

Keeping Common

First and foremost, “Common” is replaced by regional languages.

Common gets a bad rap for at least two related reasons, both of which are reasonable reactions to the way Common is used in many classic fantasy settings.

First, there’s a family of arguments that say that glossing over linguistic differences harms the setting and makes the game world less “rich” or believable, because language should be one of the most obvious markers of difference and interest in games where travel and travelers otherwise take center stage. I’ll call this the “Common is unrealistic” argument.

The second family of arguments takes this further and says glossing over language in this way is actively harmful because of how easily Common can make one culture or set of viewpoints the default. Under this view, it’s not just that Common is unrealistic, or even boring, but that Common has a homogenizing effect that erases differences.

To the “Common is unrealistic” camp, I’d say that there’s more precident to this than you might think: Throughout history, disparate groups have settled on common languages to use for trade or government purposes while still retaining their native languages. This is often called a lingua franca. (The TVTropes page on the Common Tongue actually covers this fairly well.) If you imagine your setting’s Common as a trade language, or the language imposed by an empire that fell a couple hundred years before, it’s totally reasonable that many people would speak it, at least in the circles that adventurers tend to move in.

To the “Common is homogenizing” camp, we need to retcon Common so that it becomes a reminder to celebrate differences instead of ignore them. This post offers a nice fix along these lines to avoid falling into the trap of human = common = default, suggesting that you make Common a trade language that developed from a pidgin of multiple major languages in your setting. If you must have languages that are named after fantasy species, then just adding “Human” alongside “Elven” and “Dwarven” (as separate from Common) can be a step in the right direction.

The magical language faculty

[S]tart thinking of other factors in your world: magic, monsters, and the influences they will have in language as a whole

Mateo Diaz Torres’s A Most Thoroughly Pernicious Pamphlet has my favorite take on fantasy languages in a gaming book. It’s also fun to see how the inventory of languages evolved over time.

In particular, I like the idea of painting the world with language the way that we paint it with magic. What if mortal children could speak the language of the Fey? What if it were impossible to learn Thieves’ Cant until you’ve committed an irrevocable crime?

Language in play

Does this mean you could get a party where nobody speaks the same languages? Absolutely. […] I think that, unless the player wants that challenge, that it’s something to avoid.

I’m in favor of rolling in the open, sharing information with players that their characters don’t know, and generally doing whatever I can to keep information flowing around the table. To that end, I agree that characters ought to be able to communicate with one another, and tend to make it a requirement that everyone speaks mutually intelligible languages, on par with the requirement that the characters start with a reason to work together, rather than just having them meet up in a bar. (“You look trustworthy!”)

That said, navigating the world and conversing with NPCs is another matter, and I’d have no problem with the party deciding that they don’t really speak the language where they’re adventuring.

One alternative to making that kind of decision up front is to let the dice decide. This is how language skills work in Lamentations of the Flame Princess; language knowledge is determined at the time the language is encountered in-game. For some related thoughts, Necropraxis has a good article.

There’s also some article out there which I haven’t been able to track down, but I recall it makes a point about identifying languages, and how any adventurer worth their boots would have at least passing familiarity with the languages that are prevalent in their world.

Recluse: A Solo Engine

Here’s a simple question-answering dice mechanic with a focus on two goals:

Quick interpretation
No arithmetic, large table lookups, or state tracking to understand the results of a roll. Instead, we only do value comparisons between dice and a high/low judgment. After a test roll or two, this can be done with a glance.
Surprise
Lots of tools like this inject randomness in the form of plot twists, but the twist is usually introduced in the course of answering the question, or after it’s been answered. If you’re GMing or playing solo, that means you’re adding elements that your narration that you didn’t expect to, but it’s not really surprising, the way that players get surprised when they think they know what’s going on and it turns out they don’t. This tool tries to mimic that feeling of surprise by making the GM into an unreliable narrator; whenever you ask a question using this mechanic, it’s possible that the question itself is wrong, which fosters less predictable twists.

You can use this as drop-in replacement for the oracle in your favorite GM emulator. (I like so1um and the CRGE.)

Consulting the oracle

You’ll need 2d6 in one color, and 2d6 in another. I’ll use black and white.

To resolve a yes-or-no question, roll one black die and one white die. If white is highest, the answer is Yes. If black is highest, the answer is No.

To find out if the answer is more nuanced than just a plain Yes or No, also look at the value on each die. If both are low (3 or less), add But. If both are high (4 or more), add And.

Example

You ask, “Does the vampire catch fire?” You roll one white die and one black die and get 5 4. That’s a Yes, because the white die is higher, and an And, because both rolls are 4 or higher. If the black die had come up as 3, it would have been a plain Yes instead.

Likely and unlikely events

Yes and No are equally likely if you use one die of each color. If circumstances are different, include an additional die in favor of the more likely outcome when you roll, but only keep the higher die of that color when you compare.

Example

You ask, “Does Lydia make it over the fence?” Unlike the werewolf that’s after her, she’s just a puny human, so it’s pretty unlikely she’ll succeed. You roll one white die and two black dice. You get 3 3 5. You ignore the black 3, so the answer is a plain No; she doesn’t make it over.

Note: If you do the math, you might notice that you’re about three times more likely to get And than But on an uneven roll, since you’re throwing out low dice. This means more extreme outcomes for extra drama.

What if I roll doubles?

If the dice are equal, some presupposition behind the question is wrong! This means that you’re taking something for granted that makes it impossible to answer with “Yes” or “No.” If it’s obvious how you’re the question could be assuming something, change it and ask something else. You can also use your favorite plot twist generator if you need to, but keep in mind that the question itself was wrong; you’ll need to revise your assumptions about the situation and the world, not just add something new.

If you’ve never thought about questions this way, it can be tricky to recognize what one presupposes. One approach is to imagine what would have to be the same about the scenario if the answer were either Yes or No. For example, if I ask, “Does the villain’s sidekick escape before the train explodes?” there are a lot of things that would have to be the same under either answer, the most obvious one being that the train explodes! (This is a presupposition introduced by the use of before.) There are other presuppositions in there too, like that the villain has a sidekick, and even that there’s a train.

Example

You ask, “Does Sam grab the gun from the thug?” and roll 4 4. This means it’s not possible to answer “Yes” or “No,” but why? You think, “Well, maybe the thing that the thug is holding only looks like a gun,” but decide that can’t work because it was fired just a minute ago. Instead, you realize the thug isn’t a thug at all, but an undercover cop! You follow up with a crucial question: “Does Sam know he’s interrupting a sting operation?” Fingers crossed…

Notes

This is v0.2 of this tool, published on 2019-03-24. The first version had less discussion about presupposition.

Risks and rewards in Starfinder

Here’s a thought experiment in narrative control. The GM of my biweekly Starfinder campaign asks of my previous post:

I’m not familiar with DRYH and how the dice pools work but this looks really cool. Something similar to a Raise the Stakes concept. I’ve always liked allowing players to accomplish more if their willing to take some risks. Do you think it would be possible or practical to use DBYP in a Starfinder game?

I’m a big fan of the supplement linked in that quote, which provides additional mechanical hooks for players in d20 games to control the narrative. In games with lighter rulesets, you can usually get the same kind of creative contributions from players just by encouraging them to ad lib, but in D&D/3/3.5/Pathfinder/Starfinder, I’ve always had more luck by (paradoxically) introducing extra rules of this sort.

So what would it look like to mash up Don’t Rest Your Head and Starfinder (or another d20-derived game), and what would you gain from it?

DRYH rules in a nutshell

For the uninitiated, Don’t Rest Your Head is a game where you play an insomniac whose sleeplessness has let them see through the world’s illusions. They have a weird power as a result (a Madness talent) and are hunted by nightmares given physical form. A partial rules summary:

  • You have three pools of six-sided dice: Resolve (3 dice), Exhaustion (1 to 6 dice), and Madness (up to 6 dice), which you roll together against the GM’s Pain dice pool when you want to do something risky. Every die that comes up 1, 2, or 3 counts as a success. The side with more successes wins…
  • …but that win is accompanied by consequences depending on which pool dominates the roll. The dominating pool is the one with the highest single value. (Drop tied dice until you have a winner, then go in the order that the pools were introduced above if there’s nothing left.)
  • It’s only a good thing when Resolve dominates; otherwise, your Exhaustion will start spiralling out of control, your Madness will trigger a fight-or-flight response and/or consume you, or the situation will become increasingly painful for your character and the people they care about.
  • You always roll Resolve and your current Exhaustion, but you can choose how much Madness to use; those dice sit in front of you, every turn, waiting for you to decide whether the action warrants the risk that using them poses.

I’m going in a different thematic direction with DBYP, but as an emergent property of the sytem, both are games of hard choices with a strong resource-management component that’s a little like Yahtzee: You can accomplish almost anything, but how much are you willing to push your luck to do it?

Torches vs lighter fluid

This kind of resource-management stands in contrast to games in the tradition of the original fantasy game (including its rules-heavy children like Starfinder), where you tend to be counting down to oblivion: Consumable items like torches, spells, and especially hit points all represent scarce resources that the player must deploy judiciously to prevent their character from dying.

In DRYH, you’re not in danger of running out of light in a dark place. You’re in danger of burning the place to the ground while you’re still inside. So let’s turn up the heat in Starfinder.

Drift, Health, and Void dice

To model an ability that a character can use to an unlimited degree but at great personal risk, assign it a pool of six-sided Drift dice. (I’m using that name because the Drift is a big unknown in Starfinder, and so is a reasonable source for weird powers, but feel free to look elsewhere for inspiration.) Assign at least three tiers of effects to the pool, e.g.:

Drift-ability: Cross-dimensional resonance

Your exposure to the raw energies of the Drift let you peer for a moment beyond the edge of time and space, into other times and spaces. As a standard action, channel the Drift for any of the following effects.

Pool size Effect
1-2 dice Cast Mirror image on target touched creature. It lasts 1 minute.
3-4 dice Flood target touched creature with memories of another life. Will save DC 20 to act normally.
5-6 dice Replace target touched creature with their double from a mirror universe. Details up to the GM.

I think the most critical aspect of this subsystem is to tie the consequences back to the original system, which in this case means hit point depletion. Starfinder characters have two-tiers of health (Stamina and Hit Points), so we’ll define the Health dice that the player rolls alongside their Drift dice to correspond to different levels of health. I’ve chosen not to include a pool like Exhaustion because it models a longer-term resource and would mean tracking extra bits for this subsystem.

The size of the GM’s opposing Void dice pool is left to GM fiat, but I wouldn’t recommend going over 4, and you should tell the players what you’re going to oppose with while they’re making their decision to roll. Keep in mind that they’ll only have a 50/50 shot to succeed if your Void pool is the same size as their Health+Drift pool. Here’s the final proposal:

Channel the Drift

When you channel the Drift, assemble your pools of six-sided dice and roll against the GM’s Void dice:

  • Start with one Health die. Add a second if you have all your HP. Add a third if you have all your stamina.
  • Pick up as many Drift dice as you need to get the desired effect.
  • Roll all your dice and count up every die that comes up 1, 2, or 3.
  • The GM will also roll some number of Void dice (usually 2-4), and count successes the same way. If you have the same or more successess, the effect takes place, otherwise it doesn’t.
  • Figure out which of the three pools dominates the roll.
    • If Health dominates, nothing more happens. (Whew!)
    • If Drift dominates, act randomly for a number of rounds equal to the size of your Drift pool, probably not in your own best interest.
    • If Void dominates, you lose health: If you have stamina, drop it all. If you don’t, drop to 1 HP. If you have no stamina and you’re at 1 HP, drop to zero.

Drift domination is a pretty punishing rule, but since the player decides when it’s worth it to push it and the possible outcomes are known prior to the roll, I don’t think it’s unfair. The player also has Resolve points that they can use to recover – characters are pretty resilient in Starfinder.

Inspirations for mystic heroism

Don’t Break Your Pact is my house-ruled hack of Don’t Rest Your Head for stories of mystic heroism. From a mechanical perspective the bones of the hack are pretty simple; Discipline, Exhaustion, and Madness dice pools from DRYH become:

Soul
Represents the core of who you are. You have 3 dice in this pool, and if you lose them, you’re likely to lose yourself and what’s important to you.
Guts
Represents what makes you exceptional. You start with 2 and can push yourself to gain more (max 6). Having a lot of guts dice means you’re near your limit and you’re in danger of having the situation get out of control, whether that means losing your nerve or going into a frenzy.
Pact
Represent fantastic power granted by a patron. You can have access to up to 6 pact dice total, possibly from multiple patrons.

There are some differences in how these pools work, but it’s basically still the case that you have a “safe” pool (Soul), a “push it” pool (Guts), and a magical pool that you can exploit at great personal risk (Pact). Games of this sort allow the characters to accomplish a lot as long as their players are willing to take risks, and so the drama often comes from the danger of collateral damage to things the characters value.

I’ve been trying to hone in on what kinds of stories DBYP is supposed to help tell and build an meta-setting that supports it. In terms of inspirations, I think the list below is as short as I can get without leaving out anything essential. I might delve into each of these in separate posts as a way of collecting my thoughts.

  • Dragon Ball (Akira Toriyama)
  • Le Monde d’Edena (Mœbius)
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender & The Legend of Korra
  • Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
  • Chrono Trigger
  • The Earthsea Cycle (Ursula K. Le Guin)
  • The Old Kingdom series (Garth Nix)
  • The Broken Earth trilogy (N. K. Jemisin)

Bonus: There’s also a visual inspiration album on Pinterest.