student 20 Productions

Random Thoughts of a Game Developer

Archive for the month “February, 2010”

Roles: An Excerpt

I know it’s been quite a while since my last update… mostly because I haven’t had time to work on Elements as much as I would like.

That having been said, below is an excerpt from the first chapter, discussing the Roles that members of Elements play groups take on.  This isn’t about the characters they play; it’s about the roles the members of the group take on to make the game go.  Of special import is the role of Arbiter, which to my knowledge hasn’t been used in an RPG before (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong – I’d love to know if another game has tried to do the same thing.)


Roles are the parts you as individuals take in the game. There are two roles that must be filled for a game to be played, and two other optional roles that can be filled depending on the game and the dynamics of a game group. A number of abbreviations are also introduced here, described for clarity.

The Game Group (GG)

Game Group (GG) is the collective term for all the people that get together to play Elements. Actually, it would be all the people that get together to play any Tabletop Role Playing Game (TRPG), although some systems use more prosaic terms like “Troupe” or “Cast”. The GG can be described as a group of people gathered together for a shared imaginary experience.

Game Groups are all different, and all come together for different reasons. The one thing they all have in common, however, is a desire to cut loose and experience something different from the rat race of daily life. A GG is usually composed of friends and friends of friends. Each person in the GG has a Role to play – at the least, one member must be a Game Master, while two or more others are Players. In some groups, one of the Players may also be an Adversary or an Arbiter. All of these roles are described in more detail below.


Players control the individual characters that are the heroes (and occasionally villains or victims) in a given game. They take on the role of a character, deciding the actions and behaviors of a single fictional person within the world and events described by the GM. They also put forward ideas about their character and the world, helping the GM to define the setting.

Most people participating in any TRPG are Players. Players have the least responsibility in a game, having to care only for the creation and control of their individual characters (Player’s Characters, or PCs). Players are also, to a lesser degree, responsible for creating a comfortable game environment for all the other players: this means paying attention to other people’s boundaries and not crossing them.

Players have a lot of fun during a game, but they have limited control over the events in a story. If you want to join up with a few friends and enjoy a few hours of imaginary heroism at each game session, and you want to live a vicarious life of adventure, horror, or what have you, then being a Player is your bag. If you would rather have more control over the setting, including all the background characters and world events, and you don’t mind doing the work, then being a GM might be more your speed.

The Game Master (GM)

The GM is the person designated to “run” the game. The GM takes on the role of all the characters in the game that are not controlled by Players – these characters are known as Game Master’s Characters (GMCs). The GM is also responsible for coming up with the conflicts the Player’s characters will face, setting the scene and describing what’s going on in the game that isn’t being described by a Player.

The GM’s job is a tough one. GMs plan out events in a campaign, set up Battle Maps (see Chapter 6: The Art of Conflict), control GMCs, and perform a lot of the behind the scenes work that keeps a game going. At the same time, the GM has to work to keep things more or less fair, and provide challenges for the Players to overcome without developing a “me versus them” mentality.

This role can be daunting, but it can also be fantastically rewarding. If you want to guide the other members of your GG through a story, and if you enjoy seeing others overcome the challenges you set forward, the the GM roll might be right for you. If, on the other hand, you’re seeking the supposed power of the position, and think you might be prone to exploiting it, or you want to play an individual character consistently throughout a given story, you should give the GM role a pass.

The two roles that follow are optional – some groups will benefit from having them, others will not. Whether or not these roles exist in a given group is up to the GM and the individuals who may be tapped to take the roles. If one or both of these roles is not filled by a different individual, all the responsibilities of that role fall back on the GM.

The Adversary

In some groups, especially large ones, the GM may have his hands full running the smaller things and handling the world itself, and may not have the ability to play the “big bads” in a given situation. That’s where the optional role of Adversary comes in. When a GG has one, the Adversary plays the role of major villains in a game, controlling their actions in combat and out. Adding to the challenge, the Adversary is usually also a Player.

An Adversary is essentially an assistant GM, taking on the pleasures and burdens of being the bad guy – or the opposition, or the antagonist, if you like those terms better. The Adversary may also be responsible for actually making the characters for the opposition, if the GM so chooses. Adversaries aren’t needed or even suggested for every game; only in games where an experienced (and mature) player can take on the role, and the GM wants to have someone take it.

Being an Adversary is fun, but it’s also challenging, since Adversaries normally run a PC as well as the Adversary’s Character (AC). Some games will not benefit from having this role filled, and the final decision as to whether or not to have an Adversary is the GM’s. If you don’t mind letting your PC fade into the background occasionally (since it would be bad form for your PC to always win against the AC you also happen to be playing), and you want to relish the chance to be an antagonist every now and again, you should jump at this role when it is offered. If you want your PC to be the hero of his own story, or you can’t let your character fade into the background a bit when you’re going up against a major antagonist, or you don’t want the extra work, this isn’t your thing.

The Arbiter

Sometimes someone in a GG knows the rules better than everyone else – including the GM. In such a case, a GM might decide that the group could benefit from having that person be the Arbiter.

An Arbiter is responsible for keeping track of the rules. If something comes up where some rules mechanic or another is in question, the Arbiter makes the call as to what flies and what doesn’t. Arbiters apply the rules of the game to situations, act as a reference guide for the other members of the GG, and do their best to keep things fair.

Not every GG will have an Arbiter. For some GGs, however, one player or another will naturally fall into the role, and having one can help ease GM – Player tensions by having an impartial judge for the rules of the game.

Being an Arbiter can be difficult, since it means applying the rules in a fair, impartial, and consistent manner. If you love the so-called “crunchy bits” of a system, you know the rules inside and out, and can be fair in their application, being an Arbiter might be something you’d dig. If you’re afraid you might not be able to keep things fair, or you aren’t completely comfortable in your grasp of the rules, then don’t leap at this role if it’s offered.


The Four Elements of Elements

The name Elements actually refers to two different aspects of the system, referencing both the classical elements of western alchemy (Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water) and the elements of modern Chemistry (which are the building blocks of all matter in the universe).  In this post, I’m going to explain the Classical Elements reference, which is the portion of the system I am actively working on.  I will discuss the reference to modern chemistry in more detail when that becomes the active focus of development.

Elements runs on four interconnected systems: Action, Effort, Fate, and Resolution.  These systems handle all conflict resolution, accomplishment of tasks, building both characters and equipment, and everything else.  These four systems aren’t all that Elements is made of, however; they merely represent the resolution and balance systems of the game.

In summary, the four systems:


The Action system determines what a character can accomplish in a given round during combat, or whenever strict time constraints are applied to what the characters are doing.  The Action system can be used to resolve battles, social sparring, or any of a variety of conflict situations.  Action establishes turn order and determines how much a character can do during their turn.

At its most basic level, Actions works this way:  During their turn, characters receive 50 Action Points (AP).  Just about everything a character (or creature, or what have you) does costs AP.  Characters can continue to act as long as they still have AP to spend, but a Character does not have to spend all their AP – points can be held in reserve to perform special actions called Responses and Counters, or to take advantage of special situations during the battle.  Injury and other special circumstance can modify the number of AP a character has in a round, although this is unusual.


One of two dice systems in Elements, The Effort system is used when it isn’t a question of success, it’s a question of degree.  Any time a more-is-better scenario crops up, Effort is used.  The Effort system is used to end ongoing effects, determine Initiative in conflicts, and to figure out how much damage is done when someone is bitten by an ill-tempered mutant sea bass.

Succinctly, Effort dice (usually from 1 to 5 ten sided dice), modifiers are taken into account, and the results are totaled.  More is better.  Most of the time, an Effort check involves a single dice roll.  Some events, however, may require two or more Effort checks; this is called a Sustained Effort.  One example of a Sustained Effort that occurs regularly is the Overcome system.  Upon occasion, during conflicts, an Overcome Effect is inflicted.  When an Overcome Effect is inflicted, it has a value (often itself determined by an Effort check).  Through a Sustained Effort, the inflicted character must equal or exceed the Overcome Effect’s value in order to bring it to an end.


The Fate system is the underlying “currency” of the Elements system.  That is to say, it is used to “buy” everything a character knows how to do, making it the point system by which characters are made.  Fate is also used to build equipment, and it’s also used to make Encounters set up by the GM.  Fate is further used to improve characters (as an experience system), and it also represents a character’s “luck”.  Lucky characters spend their Fate to modify dice rolls; there will even be a system to set aside a renewing pool of Fate for a character to use just for this purpose.

Modifying dice rolls with Fate is not an exact science, and does not guarantee a good outcome.  Both of the dice systems (Effort, above, and Resolution, below) are modified in an identical way with Fate:  when a character wished to modify a roll, they buy Drop Dice (abbreviated “D”, as opposed to “d” which represents standard dice, as in 4d10) for the roll at a rate of 10 Fate per D.  When making an Effort or Resolution check, each D is an additional die rolled.  When totaling the result, a number of dice of the Player’s choice are removed for each D rolled.  For example, a player might roll 5d10+2D for an Effort check.  The player would roll 7 ten sided dice, then total the results of five of those dice that he or she selected, allowing the player to modify the result of the roll up or down as necessity required.


Resolution is used whenever the success or failure of an even is in question.  It is used to determine if a character successfully picks a lock, hacks a data fortress, hits with a laser blaster, or successfully puts one over on the Duke.  Resolution is the second dice system Elements uses.

Simply put, most of the time, a player rolls Resolution dice (5d10), totals the result, and compares it to a number on his or her character sheet.  If equal to or lower than that number, the character succeeds.  Especially challenging circumstances invoke Penalty Dice (abbreviated with a “p” preceded by a number, i.e. 2p), which must be rolled and totaled in addition to the standard Resolution dice.   If the player rolls all 1s, that indicates Epic Failure, while rolling 5 or more 10s means Epic Success.

And That’s the Basics

The first chapter of the book describes all of these systems in more detail, outlining common situations and so on in which the systems above are used.  The four systems are, as I previously said, interconnected; the most obvious connection is through Fate, but most Actions also require Effort or Resolution rolls, for instance.

For those that prefer the classical Japanese elements, or like to bring up the so-called “fifth element” of western alchemy, there is a sort-of fifth system.  This system – Structure, if you like – represents the framework upon which characters, objects, and so on are built using Fate… I, personally, consider this a part of the Fate system, but fans of Musashi can claim Fate is Void and Structure is… well, earth, metal, whatever.  I only drew a parallel between the classical elements and the four systems – I never claimed that one or the other of them was directly representative of Fire or anything like that.

Anyway, that’s one hell of a long post; I should probably have divided it up into four posts, one for each system… but hey, it’s all written now, so I hope you enjoyed reading it.

The Saga Continues

Which is a really dumb name for this post, but I wanted to share that I have worked on the Actions system off and on all day (at work… probably not the best idea, now that I look back on it).

Actions is basically the turn-order side of conflict resolution, providing a basic framework for who does what when, how much a given character can do on their turn, and so on.

At any rate, I’ve defined Maneuvers – a set of  abilities possessed by most/all characters that allow them to perform basic actions in and out of combat.  this includes things like Movement, making Basic Attacks in combat, and using skills during a conflict.

In any case, defining these abilities has forced me to think about several other things that I didn’t expect to have to deal with, and made me question a few of my earlier assumptions about how other systems in the game worked… so, in short, it’s been a confusing but productive day, and it’s not over yet…

The Elements

This is to be my dev blog for my Elements (working title) game system.  I’m hoping that with a Dev blog where I can get feedback and track my own progress, I might actually be able to finish this one.

For the record, this is my fifth attempt in the last six years to finish designing and writing my Role Playing Game book.  The original ideas have survived pretty much intact, but there have been many changes over the years to the underlying systems and philosophies.

Elements is intended to be a universal system – that is to say, it is supposed to be usable for any genre of role playing, from horror to comic-book super heroes.  I’m not sure but what this goal may be somewhat untenable… it is difficult to imagine a system that could handle playing agents in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a zombie apocolypse, and cosmic-level super hero work gracefully.

Still, one has to have hopes and dreams to strive for, doesn’t one?

For the record, you will eventually find links to my brother’s blog(s) off to the right over there, and you can follow me on Twitter if it makes you happy.

–student_20 (Eric Waters)

The Current Outline

Below is the current Outline for the book, for the interested.  Who should mark among the few, I might add.  This outline is, of course, a work in progress, and is subject to change.

1.  Introduction
1.1.   Flash Fiction
1.2.   Welcome to Elements
1.3.   How to Read this Book
1.3.1.      Book Organization            Chapter Summaries            The Least you should Read
1.3.2.      Roles            The Game Group            The Game Master            The Player            The Adversary            The Arbiter

1.3.3.      Styles of Play            Bring It! (Adversary + Arbiter)            Loose Yourself… (Arbiter)            Telling Tales (Adversary)
1.3.4.      Pronoun Usage
2.Chapter 1: System Basics
2.1.   Actions
2.1.1.      Action Time
2.1.2.      Action Points
2.1.3.      Maneuvers and Techniques
2.2.   Effort
2.2.1.      Basic Effort
2.2.2.      Contested Effort
2.3.   Fate
2.3.1.      Fate Overview
2.3.2.      The Fate of Characters
2.3.3.      The Fate of Actions
2.3.4.      The Fate of Fortune
2.4.  Resolution

3.  Chapter 2: Characters
3.1.   Designing Character
3.1.1.      Character Concept
3.1.2.      Building Background            The Classroom of Fate            Teachers and Classmates (People you knew growing up)            Graduation (Where you are now)
3.2.   Building Character
3.2.1.      Power and Accuracy
3.2.2.      Statistics (Things with Power only)
3.2.3.      Skills (Things with Accuracy only)            Skills as Action (Application Specialization)            Skills as Knowledge (Theory Specialization)            Skills and Play Style – Breadth versus Depth
3.2.4.      Elements (Things with Power and Accuracy)            Maneuvers                  Ideas (Improvised Maneuvers)                  Techniques (Rote Maneuvers)                  Abilities (always-on Techniques)            Creating New Elements            GMPCs, ACs, and Elements
4.  Chapter 3: Statistics
4.1.   What Are Statistics?
4.2.   Basic Statistics (In every game)
4.3.   Special Statistics (Arcanum, Ki, Psyche…)
4.3.1.      Defining New Statistics
4.4.   Conditions
4.5.   Statistics and Foundation
5.  Chapter 4: Skills
5.1.   What Are Skills?
5.2.   Skill List
5.3.   Defining New Skills
6.  Chapter 5: Elements
6.1.   What Are Elements?
6.2.   Element List
6.3.   Building With Elements
6.3.1.      Stats as Elements
6.3.2.      Skills As Elements
7.  Chapter 6: Art of Conflicts
8.  Chapter 7: Running a Game
9.  Appendices
10.  Glossary
11.   Index
12.  Acknowledgments

In truth, some parts of this have already changed a bit, although I must admit that until I get a little further, I don’t want to change the original outline that I was working from.


Post Navigation