Yesterday, I began to brainstorm a roleplaying game designed to tell heroic stories based on the 3 Questions (+1). I covered what this game would be about, and began to explore how my game would do this.
My original intent in writing this article was twofold–to examine the value of the three questions, and to imagine what a heroic RPG might look like (going on the assumption that D&D is not conducive to stories of heroic journeys.) Since beginning it, I’ve not been able to get this proto-game out of my head. It’ll be interesting to see where that goes.
For now, I intend to finish stepping through the questions, outlining my heroic game, and concluding with a critique of the questions.
In case you didn’t (or don’t want to) read yesterday’s article, here’s the summary. I want an RPG system that fosters heroic play. For the purposes of this proto-game, I understand this to mean “[telling] stories of courageous heroes called by the gods to fight the forces of evil who threaten the liberty and life of all humanity.”
This game needs to reward sacrifice (and needs to offer great gains to players to set up opportunities for sacrifice). Death can’t be considered a “loss” in this game–yet players should be encouraged to keep characters alive. These characters are going to wield superhuman powers to fight superhuman foes.
I need mechanics to represent humanity, liberty, security, and mercy. I need a combat system. And I want to make use of the notion of the heroic flaw–I’m considering a mechanic that hides the flaw from the player. Though I’m not sold on that yet.
So how will this game reward this sort of gameplay?
My biggest challenge here is giving players a reason to keep their characters alive, while simultaneously encouraging characters to make life-threatening sacrifices in defense of their virtues. I’ve translated this in my mind to “small but continuing rewards for living, large rewards for sacrifice.” Obviously, all rewards stop when a character dies.
The Western understanding of the Eastern concept of karma comes to mind when I consider this. By this, I mean the mistaken understanding that “karma” represents rewards for good behavior and punishment for bad. I bristle at this misunderstanding, but this is not a theological blog, and the misunderstanding is useful in the concept of game rules. So, for my own peace of mind, I’ll use “Virtue” as a proper noun to describe this concept.
This system will reward “heroic actions” (more on what that means later) with virtue, and potentially punish cowardice (though no reward is often punishment enough, and I don’t want to discourage good roleplay opportunities by mechanically punishing characters). Certain actions mechanically describable as “self sacrificial” should earn an award equivalent to the sum of the “heroic action” rewards gained in a typical evening. Thus, the greatest reward will be reaped by the player who earns lots of Virtue through heroic action through the adventure, then ends the adventure by taking a self-sacrificial action and thus essentially doubling his earning of Virtue for the adventure.
What’s the point of virtue? Er… I mean, “Virtue?”
If “Virtue” is the currency of this game, what does it buy? It has to be something expendable after character death, otherwise sacrifice becomes disincentivized again. And, since it is potentially earned in great quantity at the end of a session/adventure, it must be transferable to the next game.
This is, in truth, what initially brought the idea of karma to mind. The proto-game features godlike spirits of the heroes’ ancestors, and it stands to reason that the heroes might become ancestors to a future generation. Therefore, the primary purpose of Virtue will be in building the character for the next game.
I think Virtue probably needs a shorter-term purpose, too. It drives me crazy when games expect a player who gets killed in an unlucky combat early in the evening to just sit by and watch the rest of the game. (Seriously, why isn’t this dealt with in D&D’s Player’s Handbook?) I’m thinking that a character can expend a certain amount of Virtue to resurrect. After all, the greatest heroic journeys are the ones that come back from the underworld!
Again, in rewarding heroic gameplay, I think it should cost more virtue to come back immediately than it does to have a good story-appropriate resurrection. So, you can come back in a critical combat if your allies need you, but it’s “cheaper” to sit out the fight, have your allies give you a hero’s burial, and return to life on the third day. (Or something like that.)
Having said that, there’s an intriguing concept that a slain character could use Virtue from beyond to aid her allies–think D&D clerical spells, but granted from another player character. There seems to be lots of potential for earning/spending virtue.
But will it be fun?
I hope it’s starting to sound like it. For me, “fun” is wrapped up in a good story–so I want the rewards of the game to be focused on that. I like the notion of a game that isn’t stopped by death. Beyond that, I imagine a story-focused gaming group would have a blast designing a set of characters for Campaign #2 that are spiritual descendants of the heroes of Campaign #1, and even live in a setting where their old characters are revered as divine.
Ultimately, this is an impossible question to answer in the affirmative at this stage of prototyping. I think the potential for fun is there, and that this idea is worth further exploration.
On a scale of 1 to 3 (+1), rate the 3 Questions (+1)
Full disclosure: I did not attend the panel where the 3 questions were originally discussed, nor have I listened to the podcast Chase encouraged me to hear when I started writing this article. So, this critique comes from a fairly naive standpoint.
These questions obviously do not create a playable game–I don’t suppose that was their intent. What they have done is sharply focused my thinking about game design. In the past, I’ve started by saying “I want to build a game that uses this mechanic,” or “There should be a game like D&D but with garden gnomes!” It is far more helpful to start with a purpose, and then to really consider how mechanics can reward that purpose.
The 4 questions have left me with a lot more questions about what this game might look like. I don’t think that is problematic. Finding answers to these questions is where a game might start to emerge.