Here we are again in the Castle! So what am I working on these days? More like what am I thinking about these days…
More Dreams of the Neath
I have mentioned before on the blog that I am a great fan of the Fallen London browser game, and I have been spending a lot of time lurking on the forums lately. The impression I get is that FL’s fan community is full of weird, intelligent, vibrantly creative individuals, many of whom also enjoy tabletop role-playing games. Good for me! A lot of fans have been expressing a desire to see a genuine adaptation of the games into RPG form for years. Some have even taken a crack at it themselves. I recently skimmed the Fate Core version by Kyle and Chris Heidtman-Thayer (it’s a fan project), and was very impressed at the layout, clear and accessible writing, and fairly decent editing. As fan works go, it’s way above average.
Something I haven’t seen anyone attempt yet, though many have proposed the idea, is creating a Fallen London RPG that uses it’s own rules, uniquely tailored to the experience of exploring the Neath. If you think of the browser game in the terms of tabletop game design, it’s a narrative-focused experience that uses a “percentile mechanic” for challenges. In other words, when you attempt something, you are shown your chances of success expressed in percents, depending on how good your relevant quality is.
Many venerable, and not-so-venerable RPG’s use rules like this with dice, including Call of Cthulhu, Runequest, and Eclipse Phase. These are, incidentally, some of my favorite games, but they have their issues. A game built around percentiles can feel limiting, and doing anything interesting with these mechanics often amounts to “+10%, -20%, divided by 3 rounding up, etc.” My experience with these systems is that they don’t do a good job of representing supernatural or science-fictional elements, and they also have the strange problem of creating characters that are really bad at everything. This is especially true in Runequest, an epic fantasy game in which your character is just as likely to trip over a log and die than anything else.
So when I approached the problem of designing a Fallen London game, I wanted to create something simple, accessible, and fun, while still capturing the feel of the browser game and Sunless Sea. I guess it helps to express these things in design goals –
- Make use of StoryNexus – The engine that Fallen London runs on lends itself well to RPG’s, in my opinion. It’s Qualities are similar to ideas like Aspects in the Fate Core RPG, or the Qualities in Chad Underkoffler’s PDQ system. You have these bullet points that sum up interesting things about your character in a nutshell, and the players get to make them up. A Fine Piece in the Game, or Plagued by Weasels, for example. This would make fans of the original game (the kinds of people I’d be potentially marketing to) feel at home with the mechanics.
- Keep it Simple/Different is Okay – So I was going off on a tangent about everything wrong with percentile systems. My first thought was to just apply a simple skill system that uses these, but then I realized that I should make a chart of rating-versus-difficulty of certain tasks, modifiers, and so on, until my head started spinning. It’s been done before, and it wasn’t done that well. I figured as long as a game can encourage good storytelling, and at least feel like the source material, it doesn’t have to be an exact adaptation. So I went with dice-pools, six-sided dice, and a “pass-fail” approach.
- Conflict can also be Abstract – I was thinking about Fate Core’s Aspects, and what they represent in the wider world of RPG design. Most traditional RPG’s follow a pattern of building characters out of stats (the character’s intrinsic and physical attributes), and skills (the things they are good at, or can become good at). Fate’s Aspects are like stats, but instead of representing a character’s intrinsic nature, they cover the things that make them interesting to the story. And they are usually created in a DIY fashion. Fate also takes an interesting approach to conflict and challenges in the story. Usually a player rolls dice against a target difficulty to measure success, but they can aid this process by creating Aspects on the fly, that are tied to the situation rather than their characters. For example, if someone is facing a tough enemy, they could just keep hacking at them, or they could create the Aspect “Swinging Wildly on a Chandelier,” to produce all kinds of randomness. This encourages creativity and good storytelling, and Fallen London has a vaguely similar system in place with some of it’s stories. In FL, if you are solving a case, or preparing for a challenging duel or hunt, you have to spend time building up a quality like, “Collecting Evidence” or “The Hunt is On.” I thought it would be fun to incorporate this system into my game’s conflicts, and make that the default method for any complex or long-term challenge.
- Dat Feel – If I ever write up these ideas in a proper document, I think it’s essential to capture the feeling of Fallen London in the writing and the art. I love the original game because it’s writing is intelligent, funny, and very strange. I may not work for Failbetter Games, but if I’m working with their world, I want to do it, and them, justice.
So here are my rough, ROUGH notes on the game system. I’m continually tweaking them, and I hope to test them out with my roommates soon. I’m including this version because I’m interested in recording my progress, and maybe a kind reader will playtest them one day. At least it’s short.