(+)Theorycrafting: Systemic Cultures and Questing

Recently I've been doing some considerable overhauls of what I've been working on, and I ended up going down a design rabbit hole of sorts, if the name of this topic doesn't make that obvious. This topic is going to go into this idea and where I think its going to go, as it is theorycrafting, and so one shouldn't expect a highly polished system you can hack into some other game. Anyways.

Systemic What?
Systemic Social-Questing Networks. This is my absolutely convoluted name for this overall system I imagine, that arguably doesn't capture the full scope but was the best I could come up with. In a nutshell, its a set of interconnected systems that work together to provide a heavily reinforced systemically driven narrative engine.

Once upon a time, Ken Levine of Bioshock Fame spoke about a system for emergent storytelling he called Narrative Legos. This system is informed by and incorporates a number of his ideas, and I think with time it could be considered a heavy refinement of what he presented.

The Design Problem
So the first question that should be answered is what the design problem is; in other words, what are we attempting to do with this system? There's a few answers to that given this is technically several systems of mechanics rather than a single mechanic.

  • It is desirable to form a simple, easy to run social interaction mechanic that avoids incongruence with improvised dialogue between Players and the capabilities of their characters (re: skill checks), and which will minimally interrupt freeform dialogues.
  • It is desirable to form a highly reactive gameworld in the social sphere, meaning that the NPCs of the world are able to systemically react to the Players actions or inaction.
  • It is desirable to support not just systemic, goal-based gameplay but also traditional Questing, using the same overall system.
  • It is desirable to form, under the limitations of tabletop gameplay, a living gameworld.
  • It is desirable that Players are afforded true agency. They must be able to fail, even catastrophically, and the consequences, whatever their Actions must be delivered on. NPCs must also be afforded this same agency.
  • All solutions for the above must be as heavily Integrated as possible.
Approaching the Theory
Fortunately, for small parts of this design problem, I had already begun touching on what I was looking for here and there. For example, part of the overall solution is strict Timekeeping; that is already the root mechanic of my system, so its perfectly set up to accept what comes of this system.

I also already came up with my solution to the issue of incongruence between player and character skill in regards to improvised dialogue, which not everyone here appreciated nor seemed to get what I was trying to do. But thats okay; I'm not here to rehash that mess. Parts of this also has roots in my Debate experiment from way back, and a more refined take on it is also integrated here.

But, the mentioned design rabbit hole came when I ended up getting introduced to a small trove of unlisted GDC Talks, and Levine's talk on Narrative Legos was one of them. Obviously, I was pretty readily enraptured by what he was going for, as it speaks to exactly the kind of game I'm seeking to make.

From there it was around 8 hours of bashing my neurons together as I started refining the ideas and considering how I could build it into my game. And indeed, this has been such a formative experience I actually upended a lot of what game had grown into to help accomodate it.

But anyway, lets get to the juicy parts.

The Core Mechanic
At the smallest level, we need a core mechanic that serves as a backbone to how Players will interact with this system. Social Interaction is well placed for that, and so that identifies our core.

Social Interaction is made up of two mechanics designed to act in unison: Improvise Dialogue and Saving Throws.

Improvise Dialogue is pretty simple to do; to resolve a given dialogue, talk. But it can be mildly complex, as it is based in Improv. You do need to adhere to Yes, And, and that has specific considerations when its Dialogue as opposed to a Scene. (Improvise Scene is the Oracle mechanic from my Exploration system, if anyone's read that)

Namely, during improvised dialogue you're not going to be adding to the "reality" of the scene, or the Fiction, or what have you; yes, and in dialogue is not about establishing new facts about the world. Instead, yes, and in this context means you should be reacting in accordance to whats said to you, and shouldn't be denying what the other Player is offering you in terms of the dialogue.

If they call you a coward, for example, it'd probably be inappropriate to them start ranting about the weather. There would be exceptions, naturally, but the point is, don't hang every conversation up with superflous and unrelated things. Your conversation is about something, so stick to it and resolve the dialogue.

Saving Throws meanwhile are what provides the linkage between Improvised Dialogue and the Skills of the character speaking, and eliminated the incongruence.

Firstly, some assumptions taken from how my system is designed. Each Player's Charisma is actively tracked by the World Keeper (GM; Keeper for short), and each Charisma Skill utilizes the same modifier as Charisma itself. Eg, regardless of what specific values you have in the 4 Skills, you use your Charisma mod when using them.

Those four Skills are Provoke, Appeal, Deceive, and Charm. Additionally, Insight (Intuition) plays an equal role here as well, not only in its own right but as a gatekeeper for invoking other Skills in social interactions. The Intuitive character will be able to leverage their skills to great effect in social interactions, even if they aren't particularly Charismatic.

With these established, the final piece of the puzzle lies in when these Skills become relevant during Improvised Dialogue. Essentially, any time a Player (be they a regular Player or a Keeper) wishes to Influence the person they are speaking with, one of these 5 Skills will come into play, and should be easily signaled, though when in doubt, the Player making the attempt can always call it out directly, even if it interrupts the flow of the conversation.

When the Player attempts this towards an NPC, the Keeper will have the NPC make a Charisma save, and the target number will be based first on the Player Character's Charisma score. Additional bonuses to this TN will come from a light grading rubric.

Not, as that might imply, on individual acting ability (though that should be encouraged, but by design it shouldn't obligate those who'd be uncomfortable. Whether or not to incorporate individual acting is up to groups to hash out) but on the actual "skill" involved in the attempt. Ie, how you influence them.

This will mostly favor physical actions. Holding a knife to someones throat will add a bigger bonus to the attempt to Provoke versus shouting a threat from the other side of a canyon. Likewise, Appealing to someone by flashing some coin might well do better than simply appealing to their good nature.

And if you have Leverage, blackmail, a hostage, etc, you could well get an even bigger bonus. In essence, you're rewarded for getting to know the people you wish to Influence.

Players meanwhile, are also able to make these Charisma saves when an NPC attempts to influence them, but this is strictly optional. Instead, they could opt to simply Improvise Dialogue to resolve the attempt, reacting in whatever way they see fit. But if the Player isn't sure how their character would react? Make the Save, your Keeper will tell you the TN. Players could even do this with each other if they like.

At this stage, though, we reach a big crossroads in the system, as in order to explain how the Saving throws are resolved and what they effect, I'll need to elaborate on how NPCs and Reputation will be designed.

The Reputation system is going to have two tiers to it. The first is the Party's Reputation. This first level will, as the name implies, represent how well known the Party has become throughout...wherever.

In my game this would be interlinked with the Exploration mechanics; the gameworld is broken up into different Explorable Areas, and the Region and City EA's will be the main ones this system will integrate with.

The Party's Reputation would be made up simply of a number from 0-100 that, as the Party goes adventuring, will grow in accordance with their accomplishments (and failures). This number defines a threshold for Being Recognized by NPCs. Essentially, whenever an NPC meets the party for the first time, if there is need to determine if they've heard of them, the Keeper will roll 1d100, and must roll under the Party Rep. Simple enough!

The Party Rep will affect more than just recognition however. Party Rep may also be leveraged to gatekeep certain Quests and would be another avenue for a different sort of reactivity with Encounters. If a group of bandits rolls up on a +79 Party, they're probably going to soil themselves running the other way.

Party Rep, however, isn't permanent. It can and will degrade over time if not maintained. The Party will be able to do this in a lot of ways. If they keep Questing, thats one way. They can also Carouse; cozying up to Bards (or having one in the Party) can spread the Party's fame. They can also just spread rumors, even just straight up lies.

Lying about the sort of people the Party are, however, has consequences, and that plays into the second tier for Reputation, but is also something the Party would need to be aware of. NPCs will be just as able to spread lies and rumors about themselves, and the Party.

The second tier for Reputation is Personal Reputation, which is much more detailed and applies to the individual Player characters (and certain NPCs, more on that in a moment).

Here, each PC will, upon becoming "active" in the gameworld, will begin to accumulate certain Traits as a consequence of their individual Actions in front of other NPCs.

Each Trait will designed as a zero-sum sliding scale, probably from -9 to +10, with rach extreme representing opposing ideas. Dishonor to Honor, Belligerent to Friendly, Cruel to Merciful, and so on. At this theoretical level, I'm not certain how many pairings there will be, but there's not necessarily a limit. Most likely, this will be a fairly constrained list, just to keep things practical and snappy.

Whenever a Player takes some sort of action that would provoke a change in one of these Traits, the Keeper will roll a d10. How the result will be Interpreted depends on what sort of action it was. If the action trends towards the negative, the d10 must be less than the current value on the Scale. If the action trends towards the positive, the d10 must roll over the current value. However, if you have a Negative Trait, then that value gets substracted from the roll if you do something Positive, and a positive number has to be rolled to get the change.

For example, say the PC is at +3 Merciful, and they in a moment of absurd cruelty rip a Fairys heart out and eat it raw in the middle of the busy townsquare. The Keeper will then roll a d10, looking for either 2 or 1. Given how bad this was, they could even do this at disadvantage. Either way, if the 2 or 1 is rolled, the scale drops to +2.

Now lets say they're at -3 Cruel, and they decide to give an orphan their last Healing potion. The Keeper then rolls the d10, and gets a 4. This gets modified to a 1, and as this is a positive number, they go to -2 Cruel. But say the Keeper makes the same roll, but they're at -9 Cruel. That modifies the result to -5. They don't get the +1.

If they did any of these actions this in private, their Personal Reputation wouldn't be affected; they need third party witnesses. Likewise, if they proceeded to massacre the town to kill all the witnesses, that'd also stop the impact to their Personal rep. Though this will cause problems, as you'll eventually be hunted down for such an act regardless. This also places value in having your exploits spread, and makes lying quite potent.

But, this can backfire. If one hypes themselves up as Honorable, NPCs will expect that to be true. If that truth is violated, this could even cause direct modifications to your Traits; it could flip to the negative. And the same works going the other way, but it'll never be as good. While disproving that you're awful to one person will make them ignore your Personal Rep, it'll take more effort to rid yourself of that rep entirely. But, like Party Reputation, these Traits can diminish over time. Eventually people forget you exist.

Done this way, the Trait scales produce a dynamic where it gets harder to be better known for a particularly Positive Trait, and it becomes very easy to lose it. Conversely, it becomes very easy to become known for a Negative Trait, and it becomes that much harder to shake it.

Back to Saving Throws
So, coming back to Saving Throws, whether it is an NPC or a PC, they are always eligible to disregard the results of the dice. They have the agency.

But, this causes a problem in their Personal Reputation; ignoring the dice means that you're effectively ignoring someone making sense to you, and others witnessing this is going to reflect on you rather poorly. Belligerent, Ignorant, etc.

Players in general won't be as affected by this unless they are speaking while in the presence of an audience of other NPCs. In such cases their Personal Rep would potentially take hits where applicable.

The neat part is, that NPCs, even without any other NPCs around, can be influenced pretty heavily by this, assuming the PC has some other party members around; your fellow Players are witnesses from the NPCs perspective.

This makes for a subtle encouragement of teamwork in social interactions; this system systemically creates and enforces the concept of Peer Pressure, and for some NPCs this will be enough to tip the scales regardless of what they'd rather do (though they may not appreciate you strongarming them).

But not all NPCs will be made the same, so lets move on to the next big system.

NPC's and KPC's
NPCs will be designed with two tiers: Non-Player Characters, and Keeper Player Characters.

NPCs are your typical random riffraff and temporary characters. Those that only exist because the scene demands they be there, and not because they're actually important. Most of your sapient enemies would fall under this category, but so would the vast bulk of implied population that exists in the gameworld, but has no reason to be specifically created as anything more than an NPC.

NPCs will be those most susceptible to peer pressure, and as such will generally get out of the way of the Players when being interacted with. (And yea it isn't lost on me how, funny that is, but makes sense!)

Keeper Player Characters, meanwhile, are more substantial. These are fully fledged characters, and could even be as developed mechanically as a PC is. They will have Reputations, and the Keeper could in fact play them as their own PCs if they wish.

But their role is more substantive than merely being something more substantive for Keepers to play as. KPCs will not succumb to peer pressure all that easily, and will stand up for themselves in social interactions.

KPCs can also initiate a Debate, if there is something specifically crucial at stake.

A Sidebar on Debates
Debates as I imagine them now, are considerably easier to deal with. Hinging on the same Social Interaction mechanics as related earlier, KPCs and PCs will begin to "Debate" (argue, discuss, whatever) and will compete on making Charisma saves. From there, its the basic Skill Challenge (I like to call them Bouts) framework, hit so many successes before so many failures.

The threshold here would be defined mostly as a factor of whatever is at stake. I think with time I could write up a solid advice column, but I don't expect a more codified rubric; the Keeper will have to trust themselves to make the right call.

Meanwhile, Traits will be very important for defining how both NPCs and KPCs will react to certain attempts at being influenced. Someone who is Belligerent might respond better to being Provoked or Charmed, but might be hostile to someone who tries to Deceive them.

This produces a useful and efficient dynamic in the system; what for Players is just their personal Reputation and sort of a reflection of personality (but without binding them to it), is for NPCs and KPCs a defined personality system.

Social Networks
KPCs, as noted, have a significant role in the system beyond their pure mechanics, and this where we approach another crossroads, the first building blocks of another word salad.

Ken Levine called characters such as these "Stars" and KPCs serve the same purpose. They will have specific "Motivations" (Passions, per Levine) that govern what they care about in regards to the greater gameworld, and what they will react to, not just in accordance with what the Players do (as Levine imagined), but in accordance with what happens in the world.

KPCs will be mostly tied to specific Cities, and groups of Cities will make up a Region, with occasional straggler KPCs only being tied to the Region.

In Cities, KPCs will collectively define the "Culture" of that city, and will effectively confer their Motivations to all NPCs that reside there. Ergo, if a KPC is a terrible racist and has absolutely vile opinions on Gnomes, and that KPC is the only one in the backwater city of Hopskipatown, that city will be known for being racist and hostile against Gnomes, and will react accordingly whenever something happens with Gnomes.

If your PC should happen to agree with these types, and you go on to burn down a Gnome village, sending the Gnomes fleeing for their lives, this city will likely have heard of you if your Party Rep is high, and either way, once they learn what you did, they'll welcome you with open arms.

Meanwhile, if you are a Gnome, well, expect the worst.

But, these Motivations wouldn't be limited to things such as that. Motivations can be quite complex, and can even be personal to the KPC. As Levine notes in his talk, you could easily foment a Romeo and Juliet dynamic with this system, and with a good variety of Motivations spread across the KPCs of a City, you could develop a very potent location for different quests to emerge, that collectively, through the systemic foundation of the KPCs, will be just as reactive. You could turn entire Cities against you, or become their Hero.

And groups of Cities will allow for even more complex dynamics as entire Regions define a new overall Culture. Crossing from the Deadly Desert into Munchkinland isn't just set dressing, as these Social Networks serve to make the world feel more alive.

A Sidebar on Player Motivations
For Players, Motivations will mostly be an Improv matter. Ie, you say what your character does and doesn't care about and how they react to things, and thats that.

However, there are a few interlinked systems that will elaborate on these. Firstly, the PC's Birthsign.

Birthsigns, in my game, primarily govern the mechanics of Luck, one of the 9 Talents (Attributes). Each Birthsign, at chargen, defines what if any kind of initial Luck your character begins with, and then also defines how you'll both gain and lose Luck.

These methods will effectively be a form of Motivations, and a lot of the time these will be reflected in KPCs. Spitballing an example, those born under the sign of the Gambler would gain Luck any time they win a game of chance, but would lose Luck if they ever let someone else win. Luck meanwhile touches a little bit of everything, from crits to loot and so on.

The second system though comes with Settlements and Domains. As Players will be able to build up their own Cities and establish Dominion over them, their Motivations, however they define them, will start informing the Culture of their Cities and Domains. When the Party at this level becomes the Alliance, assuming they occupy the same Region, will start combining their Cultures.

This creates a heavily emergent system where the Players could passively influence the world just through their individual actions. Rebellions could rise against those that go tyrannical, and the people may well be willing to follow their heroic leaders into the depths of the 9th Hell Dimension.

This, in turn, also integrates with Bloodlines. Player families will, in the long term, be bound by the cultures established by their progenitors. If the Player is now playing their original characters Son, and they turn into a Tyrant, despite their Parent fostering a more democratic or at least benevolent Culture, then they will likely find their subjects rebelling against them.

All of these systemic interactions would be driven by the Keeper; their role as World Keeper is to pay off the consequences of the PCs actions, and there's no need to go into extensive, explicit rules for something like a Rebellion. The Keeper just needs something to trigger the prompt, which is served by the Culture, and they can take it from there. Thats the beauty of systemic design; you don't need complicated mechanics if you can get those complex interactions to emerge on their own.

Time Flexible Narrative Chunks, or Acts
I do like my word salad don't I? Now, what we have so far is a system that allows for emergent narratives to start cropping up as the gameworld ticks along. But! This lacks a rather critical element, namely that while this system could theoretically combine to a point where whats happening resembles a more classical narrative, it won't always.

And thats not actually a bad thing; the emergent narratives don't have to have plots.

But even so, it is desirable to have something more classical, something thats straightforward to just seek out and do. But how do we do this in a way that maintains the agency of the Players and their Characters, and the KPCs, and doesn't just throw people on a railroad? And another question; how do we make the world even more alive??

Fortunately, I came up with the answer years ago though I didn't know what the question was.

Ken Levine only somewhat touched on what this solution would be in his talk. He called them "Events" and they were rather simplistic. Simple things that just happen because reasons, serving the purpose of shaking up the gameworld. Obviously, its desirable to have something more robust.

Enter me as a still newish GM running 5e, and finding myself gravitating more and more towards Sandbox style play. I needed a way to do big adventures, but I didn't want to railroad people into doing them, and I also didn't want them to just sit in a quantum state until the Players happened to care.

I came up with Time Flexible Narrative Chunks, or Acts, as I've simplified the name into, which have been a great success for me so far.

These Acts are essentially a grouping of singular narrative events that are written at a baseline with the Players assumed entirely absent, even from merely witnessing them, and are also written to be time flexible, meaning that the time each Act takes to play out is not fixed, and can be randomized.

Acts are then tied together into a larger Questline, or might simply just occur and thats that.

Each Act will be designed with a specific die and a Timescale; the die will be rolled by the Keeper, and this will tell them where in a Calendar to place the Act's Resolution. If the timescale is in days and its a d4, roll 1d4 and thats how many days will pass from the date of the Act being "activated", either by Keeper fiat, by another Act, or through an emergent trigger from other systems, before the Act Resolves.

When the Act Resolves, and assuming the Player's never get involved or otherwise come to directly observe the Act's events, those events will backfill into the timeline as canon. They will become history, and if the Players get involved, they will be approaching the events from that perspective. From here, rumors of these events, if significant enough, could circulate.

If the Players, however, do get involved, then the Act will be designed to allow the Keeper to accomodate any level of involvement. If they merely try to observe, and are able to, then the Act will play out as it would as history.

But if they start changing things, getting involved in the Quest, then the Keeper will have the tools to pull on to accomodate this. The Act itself would give advice in this regard, and Improv would naturally play into making it work, with the knowledge of the overall Quest providing the Keeper with a lot of material to draw upon, even if the Players should happen to completely upend the quest. No matter what, the Keepers job is to guarantee the consequences, whatever they may be.

While the Players would have significantly more impact on how the overall narrative of the Act proceeds compared to something more strict, all of the elements would be there to deliver that experience, so it'll be up to the Players to see it happen.

As these Acts resolve, though, whether the Players get involved or not, they won't be the only ones with eyes on the Quest. Depending on the circumstances, KPCs could plausibly have a Motivation that compels them to get involved, and Acts would be designed with that assumption, building in how KPCs might get involved and to what degree. If such KPCs exist and are in position to do so, particularly if the Players aren't getting involved, then they'll start pursuing the Quest per the Acts design (ie, their experience in the Quest is more or less pre-written). If theres a classic Slay The Dragon Quest, the multitude of dead Knights might not be set dressing. Those might have been actual characters that are now dead. You could well have a rival adventuring party!

Done this way, we not only get to utilize more classical narratives, but also maintain the same agency we want the system to provide Players, and deliver more of what we need to foster a living gameworld. Things will happen in the world regardless of what the Players do, and their choices will ultimately always matter, whether they want to be simple Bakers in the big city, or if they want to be the dominating Faces of the Forces of Good (or Evil).

In Conclusion
So this was a big ol' post, and I commend you for actually reading it. And shame you if you skipped here looking for a TL;DR.

Anyways, overall, this system is still in its infancy. I know the mechanics involved, and I know the overall scope, but still to be seen, aside from testing, is realizing more of the Content. Designing Traits and Motivations, and formalizing the writing methods involved in constructing Quests out of Acts.

Absent too is a more solid "trigger" mechanism for keeping the interactions going; a lot of this is still on the Keeper to do by fiat, and while that will still be a part of the overall engine, it'll be desirable to have more than that, especially ones that will be more or less automated; something happens, the Keeper automatically knows things should be happening behind the scenes. The Time mechanics will partially help here, as resolving Acts can easily have Interaction checks appended to them.

And I imagine I could find more all over the place, given the entire game is ideally going to be systemic in this way, so the Integration between this system and the rest will be where that has to come from.

Overall, its rather exciting. What Ive been working on has been necessary to driving gameplay, and now we're going to see a more robust development. Things to actually do rather than to exploring and fighting.

Frequently Asked Questions

I don't get why Saving throws are better?

This was contentious when I originally proposed it. The point, as noted, is to eliminate the incongruence of dice rolls and improvised dialogue (whether thats actually acted out or not is immaterial). Saving throws place failure squarely on the target resisting the attempt, rather than on the Player Character not being as competant as the Player (and vice versa for that matter, hence why acting isn't assumed)

Isn't this overly complex?
Not really. In terms of the actual mechanics involved, they're all very simple and require a little bookkeeping on part of the Keeper, which isn't too egregious in my book, given these are the sorts of notes that are worth keeping up with. Trait tracking would be the most extensive thing to track, but as these would not be engaged constantly, it shouldn't be too bad as long as the list doesn't go out of wack.

I actually envision there being some Player sheets that the Keeper will utilize for this, as well as tracking other things that might be relevant. (I recently designed the games Disease system, for example, and that'd be another thing that could go there)

It is a complex design, but that doesn't make it complex to engage with, even as a Keeper. The complexity will mostly come in designing your own settings and Acts, and thats where I'd come in as the game designer. When I pivot to fully realizing this system, I intend on keeping an exhaustive track of the methods I use, so that I can translate that into best practices to make it easy for others to do.

It'll still take more effort than usual, but thats just the nature of the beast, and why you'll always have the default setting to utilize; a sandbox is still a sandbox, and you'd be free to reskin it as you need to as a shortcut.

This just sounds like video game mechanics!
I don't care; full stop.
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PART II: Refining, Implementing, and First Observations

So it's been a hot minute, and I've been plugging away at this. Attached is the current draft of what was described, with some of my refinements and initial observations already integrated. Also attached is the full "Adventuring" document, which includes these rules as well as the bulk of the others that will be integrating

The big thing I've had to come to grips with is that this system is deceptively complicated. Its a lot to take in, but in practice it is absurdly simple.

As noted in the Adventuring document, this system assumes the use of the Time Pool mechanic being utilized to govern the turn to turn of the game. As such, just by playing the game normally, the group is already doing 90% of the effort required for this system.

The remaining 10% is the Keeper's management of the Calendar and Culture sheets. The Calendar itself would just be a literal calendar, filled in with Questlines and anything marked for Global updates, as well as anything else the Keeper thinks should be tracked. Easy enough.

The Culture Sheet is basically going to be the reverse of the "Character" sheet for the relevant area. Regions and Cities will already have their own sheets as part of the Exploration mechanics, and while I haven't put much work into it, it makes all of the sense that Domains will have their own sheets. So already we have a useful organizational tool thats conveniently compressed into already existing (or soon to be existing) tools. +1 for my integration mantra.

What the Culture Sheet will include is already described in the document, essentially listing all of the KPCs and their Passions, which will incidentally serve as a handy quick reference for those KPCs, and then setting aside a space to list out and rank the shared Passions.

Most likely there will be a few variants of these sheets; as described, there should be plenty of room to cover virtually any size Culture. But many will be smaller, and so it might be worth it to have variant sheets that include other information that might be relevant. And others might indeed be bigger than a single letter page can realistically hold. I don't personally shy away from mega settings, so I could see a variant thats more of a packet than a sheet.

Between these sheets and the Calendar, managing the system in the aggregate should be pretty simple, and thats shown out in testing. As noted in the document, the system does its work in the long term, so even with rudimentary organization tools, it proved to be very manageable.

However, it did become apparent that care has to be taken in terms of how Quests and Questlines are designed, written, and included.

Hence, the core tool here being the Quantum Quests, which once realized should help this. The Quest Blocks will be critical for reference and for integrating with the Calendar (as while digital would make spacing concerns irrelevant, I do want to support a full paper environment), providing short hand so that Quests can be easily recognized, and also so it doesn't get out of hand if Quests end up being gated on the same dates.

Another critical issue thats revealed here, perhaps the most critical with the entire system is visibility. As it stands, the bulk of this system is invisible to the players as it does its thing. Part of that is necessary, as the point is for a living world to live regardless of whether the players are there to see it first hand.

While seeking rumors and such will be an obvious gimme in terms of letting the players seek out the goings on in the world, I think it'll be prudent to increase the visibility. Reactivity, as shortly covered in the document, speaks to that. Further iterations are probably going to see Questlines in particular introducing unique Complications and Encounters (as covered in Adventuring), but I believe Passions and Motivations will also be doing this as well.

Indeed, most likely the Encounter and Complication section is going to be overhauled take in and integrate these ideas, and it'll be on the Keeper (and more often me as writer of what I'm calling the "Campaign Builder", which will basically be the setting/adventure book for this system) to prep these ahead of time.

Hopefully, this should increase the overall visibility while also driving the desired Reactivity needed to sell the living world.

Another observation is that Motivations, funnily enough, ended up being a tabletop reinvention of the Wants and Fears mechanics from the Sims games. Which actually makes a lot of sense, given the Sims is actually doing a lot of what this system is aiming for, up to and including the desired "AI" functionality.

As its desirable to see KPCs acting on their own in this system, up to and including acting as adventurers in the same way that players do, Motivations and Passions are going to have to be carefully designed, and as such thats why they're not as elaborated on in the rules document as I'd like just yet.

In general though, I expect it should work out. The uncertainty right now is mostly on whether or not the system is going to involve a fixed number of generic Motivations and Passions, or if it'll be completely open ended and arbitrary, or something inbetween.

Given what I've already explored with the Quantum Quest, most likely that inbetween is going to be the way to go. That could involve a healthy variety of generic typed Motivations and Passions, that can then be elaborated on with specifics by the Keeper and the Campaign Builder.

For example, a simple Motivation, and one that'd be marked as a Global, would be To Adventure. What the KPC would pursue is entirely open-ended. They could be pulled by the Keeper arbitrarily to fulfill other Quests and/or Questlines, or, if the KPC happens to have another Motivation centering a Quest, the Adventure Motivation could be used to say the KPC does their own Quest. If none of these are options, the KPC might be open to being hired by the Players as a mercenary or some such.

During Domain play, that KPC could also be employed as an adventurer, with the Player having the KPC complete Quests within their own Domains.

What would be very interesting though, is exploring what an entire Culture that carries the Passion To Adventure would do in the gameworld. I could very easily see such a culture basically becoming Viking-like. How neat is that?

Overall, at this stage, the system is more or less solid mechanically, which is where I want to be at the moment. The next stage is going to be content development, which will see the full design and creation of the Motivations and Passions, as well as Quest Blocks and eventually the slow work of writing Questlines to populate the gameworld with.

In the long term, it will become apparent that theres going to be shortcoming to this system, in that while Quests are more or less endless (the intent is going to be for Quest Motivations to roll over into new Quests; basically a radiant quest system but less stupid), Questlines will eventually run out.

But, thats not necessarily a bad thing; just means that further supplements focusing on adding more will be a valuable product.

Suffice to say, this is an exciting time, as getting this to this stage has been occupying my design time for just too long lol. I am looking forward to getting into some of the even juicier parts of my game that I've been sitting on.


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  • It is desirable to form a highly reactive gameworld in the social sphere, meaning that the NPCs of the world are able to systemically react to the Players actions or inaction.
  • It is desirable to support not just systemic, goal-based gameplay but also traditional Questing, using the same overall system.
  • It is desirable to form, under the limitations of tabletop gameplay, a living gameworld.
  • It is desirable that Players are afforded true agency. They must be able to fail, even catastrophically, and the consequences, whatever their Actions must be delivered on. NPCs must also be afforded this same agency.
In relation to your last point: am I right in thinking that player agency, in your design, mostly consists in responding to, and "manipulating" via the game mechanics, elements of the fiction that are introduced by the GM and are under the GM's control?

Each Act will be designed with a specific die and a Timescale; the die will be rolled by the Keeper, and this will tell them where in a Calendar to place the Act's Resolution. If the timescale is in days and its a d4, roll 1d4 and thats how many days will pass from the date of the Act being "activated", either by Keeper fiat, by another Act, or through an emergent trigger from other systems, before the Act Resolves.
Further to the above: this seems to be a system which puts most of the fiction under the GM's control. It's not clear to me how this fits with player agency.

A more technical question is, what is the point of the dice rolls? Why does the GM, in writing up the Act, not just decide what those time intervals are?

The Reputation system is going to have two tiers to it. The first is the Party's Reputation. This first level will, as the name implies, represent how well known the Party has become throughout...wherever.
What if the players don't want to play their PCs as a party, but as a group of (perhaps interacting) individuals?

The Party's Reputation would be made up simply of a number from 0-100 that, as the Party goes adventuring, will grow in accordance with their accomplishments (and failures). This number defines a threshold for Being Recognized by NPCs.
What if a PC is not an adventurer but (say) a wizard like Yara in REH's story Tower of the Elephant? Yara had a reputation, but not one earned via adventuring.

This will mostly favor physical actions. Holding a knife to someones throat will add a bigger bonus to the attempt to Provoke versus shouting a threat from the other side of a canyon. Likewise, Appealing to someone by flashing some coin might well do better than simply appealing to their good nature.
I'm not sure why physical actions are being favoured here. I mean, the knife-vs-shouted threat thing seems to be about proximity of the threat rather than physicality of the threat.

But why should the offer of coin always be more effective than, say, a profession of undying love, or an offer to swear service to another? I guess I'm not following your implicit theory of human nature that's baked into your rules.

I guess the overall thrust of my questions is: your rules seem to rest on some pretty strong presuppositions about (i) how the gameworld works, and (ii) how play will work. I think you could make your rules, and your approach to design, clearer by spelling out some of those presuppositions rather than leaving them as an exercise for the reader.

Theory of Games

Disaffected Game Warrior
Jeff Goldblum What GIF by The Late Late Show with James Corden

Yep, I'm lost.

Jeff Goldblum What GIF by The Late Late Show with James Corden

Yep, I'm lost.

In a nutshell, whats being described is a means of generating a living world thats easily managed in tabletop. You can have NPCs off doing quests and, well, "living" with little to no overhead other than some more robust notes than the typical and a Calendar. The Calendar runs off of the strict timekeeping thats assumed for the game, which is just the Time variant of the Tension Pool, which the entire game runs off of.

That system is then being integrated with the rest of the game by layering it as the end goal of the overall social system, creating one big feedback loop that exists amongst the other big ones in the game, with its contribution to the game experience being (ideally) rich and non-arbitrary reactivity.

As the goal is to support a true sandbox, this system is what makes the gameworld reactive to the impossible to predict whims of the players, providing the necessary consequences to their actions. GMs of course can just do this on the fly, but that is seldom as satisfying (and not to mention a lot of work) as its arbitrary, and it in additionally depresses their position as a player in of themselves. The system is aimed at reducing the work so more play can be had.

Put another way, with this system you're trading slightly more prep and more involved gameplay for not having to write or otherwise produce any content of your own. The system is still designed for and encourages you to do so anyway, but it isn't going to be required to get satisfying gameplay, as you also gain a much more enhanced ability to be surprised not just by your players but by the game itself. Thats why the time pool is a core mechanic, and why Im working on the more elaborate encounter and complication system go with it.

These systems are also being designed with an eye towards GM-less play, either co-op or solo, and so that too is a factor in what the system is doing.

bro is creating a TTRPG based on imsim philosophy, which was invented to recreate the TTRPG experience without a DM.

and so it comes full circle

bro is creating a TTRPG based on imsim philosophy, which was invented to recreate the TTRPG experience without a DM.

and so it comes full circle

Its certainly in the same train of thought, but there is a key difference in that immersive sims are limited in scope, and most don't do living worlds (reactive narratives aren't the same thing).

And as far as the GM goes, its worth questioning if this, supporting a reactive gameworld, is something the GM really needs to be saddled with. I don't think they do, and thats as someone who enjoys it in conventional games.

More play and less writing is a worthwhile goal, I think, given that the role is consistently avoided for how much rote work it introduces into what should be a hobby.

Good reason for a bump, as I have a rudimentary play example to Share in regards to Quest Blocks:

For example lets say we have a very simple, but bespoke Quest where someone has to go to the Western Watchtower, and report back to the Jarl about the supposed dragon sighting in the area.

The bespoke Acts for this would be:

  1. Consult the Soldier
  2. Meet up with the Scouting Party
  3. Travel to the Western Watchtower
  4. Investigate the Area
  5. Slay the Dragon
  6. Report to the Jarl

As you'll notice, each one has a clear "Verb" that signifies the overall idea of that Act, and this is more or less how the Generic Quests will work.

Now, lets say the players never get involved. This quest would trigger immediately after returning the Dragonstone from Bleak Falls Barrow, so lets say the players just bamf out and aren't immediately shuffled into the new Quest.

How this would be handled would be Time Based. The Keeper, as part of their Prep, would have already rolled some dice to determine how long each Act takes before it progresses into the next. The Blocks for the Quest would note the dice to roll and the Time denomination; in this case, we're talking minutes for pretty much every single Act, and so we'll have the dice be 2d20. 40 minutes max between each Act, which seems reasonable even for a more realistically sized Skyrim.

So, if the Players bamf out, they'll still be playing, and so time will progress as they do so. As this Quest in particular happens within a matter of an hour or two, The Keeper will probably be tracking this just using the Blocks. For more longer term Quests that could have days, weeks, or even months in between Acts, they will use a Calendar to track the Quest and mark that its advanced to the next Act. (And notate when the next Act triggers, if they didn't already predetermine it)

For Bespoke quests, what occurs as a part of each Act will be pre-written, meaning that regardless of the level of player involvement, the events of the Act that aren't affected by the Players will simply backfill into the Canon when the Act triggers. (Generic Quests are more open to interpretation and improvisation in this regard)

Now, as to what happens. The Players have Bamf'd, so no one had technically taken up the Quest. Lets say that Irileth, the Dunmer Housecarl to the Jarl, is what's called a Keeper Player Character, or KPC. KPCs are essentially a variant NPC who, in collective with all the other KPCs of their Region/City, basically form a systemically created "Culture" for these places. But in terms of Quests, depending on the KPC's personality, they will have a chance to take up any Quests that are pending in these areas.

Because this is a bespoke Quest, and because this specific KPC was already a part of the intended Scouting Party, we'll say that she takes up the Quest and there's no check involved on the Keepers part to see if they or someone else does it.

From there, each Act continues, as its obvious at this point what I'm talking about, we know what happens. The scouting party meets up, they travel to the Watchtower unimpeded, and only have seconds to try and investigate the area before they're beset by the Dragon.

Personally, I don't think they'd have had a problem taking down the dragon eventually, so we'll say that Irileth eventually lands the killing blow on the Dragon.

From here, obviously, the overall Questline this Quest is a part of supposes that the Player (or one of them) is the Dragonborn, and this likely would have been predetermined when they all created their characters. So while we could try to say that Irileth becomes the DB, lets say for this example she doesn't.

So, now comes whether or not the Players opt to get involved.

At each stage, the time to trigger the next Act serves a second purpose in giving the Players a, relatively, broad window to intervene or, at minimum, witness the Quest in action.

Lets say, then, that this whole quest happens, but then the Players happen to be travelling back through the area and come up on the Dragons corpse. The Quest would, in its reference material, say what happens in this sort of circumstance.

The people of Whiterun started to carve up the Dragon, but struggle with it, and as the Players come upon the scene they'll be witness to, lets say, the town beggars being put to work trying to cut into the dragon's hide.

As soon as the intended Dragonborn approaches, and lets say, touches the Dragon, cue them absorbing its soul, and then this triggers the whole Greybeard thing.

The reference material would also say, in this instance, to re-open the original Quest's last Act, and have the Players report to the Jarl.

Each Act would have guidance like this; for example, if the players crash Irileth reporting to the Jarl, this might open a new kind of Generic Quest to Harvest Dragonbones from the Dragon. And it can go on and on like that.

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