Bill White's roleplaying game design blog, with emphasis on narrativist or story-heavy games.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Fixing Trail of Cthulhu

On my brother Mel's podcast Virtual Play, I ask "Is Trail of Cthulhu broken, or is it just me?" To my chagrin, that prompted a somewhat defensive reaction from TOC's advocates on Story-Games. I actually really like the game, and the title was merely intended (a) as an allusion to critiques of Trail of Cthulhu I've seen elsewhere, and (b) to wink at the fact that I made some mistakes in running the game. I was pleased that the conversation was generally positive and constructive in tone, and I even sent my game notes to one of the participants in the thread, who wanted to run the adventure himself. And there was an admission that the game's author is writing a supplement that contains alternative magic rules "along the lines" of something I suggested in the podcast episode.

I ran the game at Camp Nerdly 3 at the end of May 2009, and had a great time; it was a very satisfying run. But I was sensitized to pay attention to problematic aspects of running the game. And a conversation I had with independent insurgent and indie game designer Rob Bohl helped me identify one.

In Trail of Cthulhu, when you have a "contest" between two characters -- one is chasing the other, or some such -- you roll until someone fails, spending your precious skill pool points on each roll. This has a number of unhappy effects, chief among which is that it makes contests largely an exercise in die-rolling and point-spending, with the edge going to the character who can outspend the other.

Fixing the Contest

It might be more fun if there were some "tactical" decision-making going on. The idea I had on the drive home from Nerdly was this: you spend for an automatic success, but the amount you have to spend goes up each round until you "reset" by rolling instead of spending.

So, for example, if you're chasing me, you spend from your Athletics and I spend from my Athletics and/or Fleeing.  On the first round, you spend 1 for an automatic success and so do I. On the next round, you roll and I spend 2 for an automatic success. On the third round, we both spend for automatic successes, but I have to spend 3 and you spend only 1, because you "reset" in the last round.

This strikes me as setting up an interesting choice for players each round. Now, I think that there should be a system for setting the difficulty of the roll based on the differential between the two pools. I think for every 3 points you are lower or higher than the opponent, your target number of 4 goes up or down by one, rounded down. So if your Athletics is 8 and my Fleeing is 12, my skill roll is 3 or higher and yours is 5 or better. 

This means that if the differential is 10 or more, the lower value automatically fails on the roll and the higher value automatically wins -- no rolling necessary. Or should there be a 6 always succeeds, 1 always fails rule? Probably yes.

You could use a similar system in combat, where a hit always takes an opponent out unless the victim succeeds on a roll of Health versus the damage.

I will try this at Dexcon and see if it works.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Whither Rune Saga? Post-Nerdly Prospects

I didn't run any Rune Saga at Camp Nerdly 3 this weekend (the run-down on what I did run ishere), but the game wasn't far from my mind, as I considered Bruce's comments in a previous thread: should I use the game to experiment with "jeepforged" structured freeform-type techniques, or develop it as a tabletop story-game. I had thought the former, but Bruce's comments gave me pause.

Bruce says:
Freeform/jeepforge is somewhat outside my comfort zone but I'm very interested in your efforts to develop "techniques to facilitate player engagement with their characters without sacrificing the narrative coherence that oracular mechanics provide." 
. . . To my mind, the tarot-based oracular game mechanics make Rune Saga unique so I wouldn't worry that In A Wicked Age occupies the same "space." I think the two games are very different despite the fact that they are both "sword-and-sorcery story games."
Whichever direction I take the game, I'd like to avoid the pitfalls of "parlor narration" -- a term of opprobrium that suggests that the game is a purely mechanical exercise with some fictional elements "tacked on" in an inessential sort of way. In other words, I want there to be a space for role-playing within the game, for engaging with the fiction to be essential to the game's forward movement: You get to the end, you've told a story, and you've felt it.

So in my last few designs, I've toyed with the idea of using emotion or attitude game-mechanically: in order to achieve this task or participate in this encounter, you have to act a particular way. Take a look at The Great City and The Perilous Realm and you'll see what I mean. My notion is that these things may give the player the freedom to act in character, rather than in purely "rational" utility-maximizing ways.

Bruce goes on:
For me a major appeal of your designs is the support they provide to situation generation during play. Generally RPGs rely on the DM and players to decide what situations the PCs are presented with. Mechanics are provided to determine success or failure and to arbitrate conflicts; guidelines may even be provided such as "threaten PC beliefs" etc; however it's largely down to the DM (or other participants) to come up with interesting situations which advance the fiction.
In your designs the participants aren't asked to determine "what happens next?" they're asked to interpret the cards. This is easier somehow and works surprisingly well considering there's no 'architect' guiding the story. There's a degree of 'magic' being employed here I think.
Yes! Magic, indeed. It's the same sort of magic that lets charlatans and mountebanks fool the unwary, but we use it for good. People's minds naturally want to impute meaning to patterns: random noise plus human perception equals deep significance, as someone once told me.

And that's why I think that when we're playing Ganakagok a card will come up as the situation or the consequence and people will laugh, because the appropriateness of the card in the context of what has gone before seems uncanny. It isn't, of course; it's just our minds filling in the blanks for us. This is to some extent a learned skill. These days, when I run the game for new players, I often find myself saying, "Now, there's an obvious interpretation of this card. . ." But it's not obvious at all; it's something I've learned how to do.
Anyway, I'm curious, did you consciously aim to target this in your designs or has the added 'support to situation generation' arisen out of other things?
I had been playing around with oracular systems prior to writing Ganakagok, but they were a solution without a problem for me until then. Then after the first run of the game in January 2005, sans cards, part of the feedback I got was that it was hard to figure out what to do. I had been relying on a kind of resource management thing to drive the action: you have such-and-such amounts of bone, oil, meat, and hide, so maybe you'd best go hunting. But it wasn't easy to tell what the numbers were saying you should do, and hard to keep track of in any case, so it was easiest to jettison those rules and replace them with a Rune Saga-like deck of cards that would serve as a qualitative  and descriptive system for coming up with statements about the world like "The people are starving." Best go hunting, then.

Since then, I've never looked back. Jason Morningstar has accused me of being a "slave" to my "house style," but I prefer to think of myself as inimitable.
Your Fourth Age D&D rules would appear to address this specifically for D&D. In your words turning it into more of a "pick-up game."
Exactly so. I'll be running a D&D mini-campaign this summer if all goes well; I'm regarding it as an experiment in "ganakagok-ified" gaming.
Thirdly, I wonder if you might divulge any elements of the process you went through to establish the card meanings in Rune Saga and Ganakagok? Do I detect some of Vladimir Propp's narrative functions? I'm intrigued and fascinated. The symbolism which you've assigned is not only very effective but resonates quite strongly with me personally.
The Rune Saga cards came first, and were created by re-skinning the I Ching's trigrams with some of the key major arcana from the Tarot (Child is really the Fool, Man is really the Magician, and so forth). The suits are thinly veiled Tarot suits assigned elemental meanings and used to create specific identities for each card. The events associated with each card are pure Propp. The interactions of card values (the "glyphs") are simplified versions of the I Ching hexagrams. 

It was a lot of work! Pleasant, puzzle-solving work, but work nonetheless.

Having done it once, though, it was easy to do it again for the Ganakagok deck. This time I simply re-skinned the meanings of the minor arcana of the Tarot with quasi-Inuit flavor, melding the Knight and the Page into the Child of any given suit when necessary. I think I extracted a Nitu numerology from the card meanings, but that came after the basic meanings were already fixed.

A few things helped me in the process: Robert Graves's The White Goddess, with its notion that poetry is the preservation of (druidic) knowledge of the world expressed in riddle and metaphor, and Algirdas Greimas's Structural Semantics, which is all about unpacking the latent semiotics of any given system of meanings.

So the thing to do, I think, is go back through these old designs and see which ideas are most compelling, interesting, or novel, and pull them in to a revised Rune Saga. In the meantime, I'll play around with Ganakagok Jeepforged to see what can be pulled from that game. Ultimately, I think I'd like the game to feel like The White Goddess: a powerful mythic connection to a time long-past-if-ever.

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Perilous Realm: An apocalyptic fantasy in three acts

Here's a game I ran last year at Dexcon; it proved a little unwieldy but has some neat ideas in it.

Act One: By What Strange Alchemy Are We Governed?

TO GET READY FOR THE GAME, the Game Master (GM) should prepare a “map” of Prester John’s kingdom consisting of an eight-by-eight grid of Tarot cards. The cards should be thought of as occupying eastings and northings, so that the southeast corner is (1,1) and the northwest corner is (8,8). 

Each square represents a province in the kingdom of Prester John, in truth an empire of many peoples spread across the regions of Sind, Hind, Zabajji, and Zanj; that is, central and south-central Asia, south-western Asia and the islands beyond, and parts of eastern Africa. The precise geography is, to be sure, not terribly important. 
  • Swords (Chole) Open Plains, Steppe, or Desert
  • Wands (Melanche) Forest, Jungle, or Valley
  • Cups (Sange) Swamp, Marshland, or Coastlands
  • Pentacles (Pneuma) Mountains, Highlands, or Hill Country
  • Major Arcana (any) Town or Island
Additionally, the GM should assemble sufficient markers, tokens, pawns, chessmen, miniature figurines, and the like to represent various characters and locations on the map—perhaps a score of such counters, all told. Pennies or poker chips may be useful for keeping track of the in-game currency of “humours” (see below), but this may also be tracked with pencil and paper. Players will need copies of the individual play sheets in any case, as well as a set of polyhedral dice (d4, d6, d8, d12, and d20, to be specific; the ten-sided and percentile dice often included in such sets are not required for this game).

Mise en Scene

The time is the 12th century. The place is the Kingdom of Prester John, the much-storied Christian monarch of the Far East, Lord of the Four Indies. His empire is divided into the four domains of Hind, Sind, Zanj, and Zabajji, each with 16 provinces therein. The many provinces of Prester John’s empire range across deserts and jungles and include sun-soaked islands in the glimmering sea as well as snow-capped mountains at the top of the world. 

This empire is ruled from the grand and glorious city of Nysse, at whose center stands a palace of marvels, in which may be found all manner of wonders and a court that is peopled by men and women from across the known world, content in the king’s service and eager for his praise.

Prester John is reknowned far and wide as a great and wise lord, ruling justly over many nations with kindness and mercy. The grandeur of his presence and the benign dignity of his gaze has caused strong men to weep and wicked men to flee. He is the latest in a dynastic line converted to Christianity by the apostle Judas Didymus, whom apocryphal legends say was twin brother to Jesus.

But the Apocalypse of Judas Didymus foretells a time when great tribulation and calamity will befall the Four Indies and the world beyond. It tells of “a star called Wormwood” that will fall upon the land and unleash beasts of war, plague, famine, and poison to devour the people. The prophecies of Judas say also that heroes from far-off lands will rise to oppose those beasts, at great cost to themselves, and ultimately to little avail, for both they and the kingdom of the Four Indies will perish from the earth.

This game is the story of that time.

Dramatis Personae

Each player creates a character who is a traveler to the kingdom of Prester John, headed there for some reason or another. It is not necessarily the case that the characters will begin the game together; in fact, it is likely that they will start quite separate in space.

Begin with your four humours (Chole, Sange, Melanche, Pneuma) each set at 3. Your humours, which together are referred to as your temperament, act as a resource and constraint in play. During character creation, each step has an effect on the distribution of your humours as well as determining some in-game facet of your character.
  • Chole (KOH lay). This humour, also called “green bile,” is associated with the digestive tract and internal organs, particularly the kidneys and spleen. Its element is fire. Its virtue is cleverness; its vice is cynicism. An excess of Chole is said to result in excitability, rage, and anger. A deficiency of Chole produces episodes of gullible foolishness. A character with high Chole is excitable, irascible, volatile, energetic, prone to enthusiasms and manias, given to angry outbursts and susceptible to rage, jealousy, and envy — but also alert, daring, keen of sense and sharp of mind. The elemental form associated with Chole is a tetrahedron (i.e., d4).
  • Sange (SAN gay). This humour is said to be the major component of blood. It is  associated with the heart and the circulatory system. Its element is water. Its virtue is bravery; its vice is foolhardiness. An excess of Sange is said to result in high-spirited giddiness. A deficiency of Sange occasions cowardice. A character with high Sange is outgoing, gregarious, equanimous in adversity and content in prosperity; but he or she is liable to placidity and indolence, and susceptible to the pressures and blandishments of ostensible friends.  The elemental form associated with Sange is a dodecahedron (i.e., d12).
  • Melanche (mel AYHN kay). This humour, also called “black bile,” is associated with the digestive tract and internal organs, particularly the liver. Its element is earth. Its virtue is wisdom; its vice is a tendency to abstraction. An excess of Melanche is said to produce fits of depression, grief, and sadness. A deficiency of Melanche shows itself as ignorance. A character with high Melanche is withdrawn and morose, given to black moods and sullen funks; he or she also tends to be strong-willed and self-disciplined. The elemental form associated with Melanche is a cube (i.e., d6).
  • Pneuma (NOO mah). This humour is associated with the lungs and respiratory system. Its element is air. Its virtue is piety; its vice is cruelty. An excess of pneuma is said to cause emotional detachment and withdrawal. A deficiency of pneuma produces irreverence. A character with high Pneuma is serene and contemplative, but often naive and impractically idealistic. The elemental form associated with Pneuma is an octahedron (i.e., d8).
The Character Creation Process

1 Pilgrim (+1 Pneuma)
2 Emissary (+1 Melanche)
3 Merchant (+1 Sange)
4 Warrior (+1 Chole)

Roll 1d4 to determine your character’s purpose. This roll will add 1 point to one humour. A pilgrim journeys to find and visit a holy site or sacred relic. A emissary is someone who comes with something to say—a missionary, envoy, or ambassador, or perhaps a wild-eyed prophet. A merchant seeks a market or a source of goods; he or she may be a caravan master or a humble peddler. A warrior may fight for love or money, and may be an adventurer or a mercenary, or have taken crusading vows of monastic ascetism out of piety.
  1. The Castle of Gathonolabe (P) +1 Melanche
  2. The Wall of Gogmagog (Kt) +1 Chole
  3. The Tomb of St. Judas Didymus (B) +1 Melanche
  4. The Fountain of Youth (R) +1 Pneuma
  5. The Firesilk Bazaar (Q) +1 Sange
  6. The Court of Prester John (K) +1 Pneuma
Next, roll 1d6 to determine your character’s destination. This is the place that he or she wants to go, or where he or she must go, or the landmark nearest to his or her true destination. Again, note that the roll affects the character’s temperament, adding a point to one humour. The Castle of Gathonolabe is a mountain fortress wherein a rich and evil sorceror trains an order of assassins, rewarding them with hedonistic and sybaritic pleasures. The Wall of Gogmagog is a fortification built by Alexander the Great across a great mountain pass which pens beyond it tribes of cannibalistic nomads prophesied to someday serve as soldiers of the Antichrist. The Tomb of St. Judas Didymus is an ornate cathedral that houses the relics of the apostle sent to the Indies. The Fountain of Youth is a clear pool of sweet water somewhere in the middle of a tangled marsh or deep within a lonely grotto; those who drink from it three times in as many days are granted youthful vigor for the remainder of their lives.  The Firesilk Bazaar is where an iridescent, multi-colored fabric of the same name is woven by women of the city of Nysse from the silk of the fire-loving salamander. The Court of Prester John is the Emperor’s throne room and receiving hall, set within a palace that is graced with wonders from across the lands subject to the Emperor and those who have pled for his indulgence.
Roll 1d8 three times to determine your character’s alchemical archetype. Each roll is read as either a 0 or a 1; together, the three rolls result in one of eight possible archetypes (e.g, 0 0 0 is read as “1” and corresponds to the archetype of the Youth, or Maiden). Use the resulting archetype or archetypes to determine a trait, feature, or aspect of the character, and assign each trait to one of the character’s humours according the the virtue or vice it best expresses. For example, a character who was hot-tempered would probably make that a Chole trait, while one who was widely traveled might make that a Melanche trait.

1 0*
2-4 0
5-7 1
8 1*

* This is a “moving line” that turns into its opposite (i.e., 0 to 1, 1 to 0) for the character’s secondary archetype.

Each roll affects your character’s humours, as does the final alchemical archetype produced by concatenating lines (the “0” or “1”) of each roll. If you get any “moving” lines (i.e., the d8 showed a  1 or an 8), the character has a secondary archetype which also affects the character’s humours. This secondary archetype is determined by reversing any moving elements and examining the result. To be clear: a character with no moving lines has no secondary archetype.
  1. 0 0 0 Youth (Maiden). Departure, initiation, potential. Sange +2, Melanche -1.
  2. 0 0 1 Knight (Priestess). Pursuit, conflict, struggle. Chole +2, Pneuma -1.
  3. 0 1 0 Mentor (Mother). Giving, sheltering, waiting. Pneuma +2, Chole -1.
  4. 0 1 1 Hermit (Witch). Gathering, resistance, obscuring. Melanche +2, Sange -1.
  5. 1 0 0 Bishop (Seeress). Judgment, revelation, command. Chole +2, Sange -1.
  6. 1 0 1 Vagabond. Seeking, failing, wandering. Melanche +2, Chole -1.
  7. 1 1 0 Hero(ine). Mastery, transformation, victory. Sange +2, Pneuma -1.
  8. 1 1 1 King (Queen). Completion, arrival, totality. Pneuma +2, Melanche -1.
Now roll your d12 to determine your character’s zodiacal aspect, or star-sign. The character’s star-sign also determines the nature of the character’s special gift, and the humour required to invoke it in play. After rolling the d12, the player describes a special gift for his or her character based on one of the key words associated with the star-sign that he or she has rolled.
  1. Capricorn (Melanche). Death, old age, failure, destruction.
  2. Aquarius (Pneuma). Magic, treasure-seeking, cameraderie.
  3. Pisces (Sange). Mysticism, religion, treachery, traveling.
  4. Aries (Chole). Strength, combat, valor, action.
  5. Taurus (Melanche). Health, rest, healing, endurance.
  6. Gemini (Pneuma). Messages, gathering knowledge, things hidden or concealed.
  7. Cancer (Sange). Fortune, luck, madness.
  8. Leo (Chole). Worldly power, justice, leadership.
  9. Virgo (Melanche). Worldly knowledge, mercy, love, sex.
  10. Libra (Pneuma). Peace, cooperation, commerce, working together.
  11. Scorpio (Sange). War, vengeance, evil deeds, scheming.
  12. Sagittarius (Chole). Laughter, teaching, protection, resurrection, rebirth.
Finally, roll your d20 to determine your origin; that is, where you come from.
  1. Byzantium
  2. Cathay
  3. Cipango
  4. England
  5. Ethiopia
  6. Fatimid Egypt 
  7. Frankish Lands
  8. Holy Roman Empire
  9. Kiev
  10. Languedoc
  11. Leon & Castile
  12. Moorish Empire
  13. Outremer
  14. Rome
  15. Scandinavia
  16. Scotland
  17. Seljuk Sultanate
  18. Sicily & Apulia
  19. Syria
  20. Venice
  • Byzantium is the hard-pressed and much-shrunken eastern Roman Empire, whose people are called Greeks by those from the Latin West and known for their subtle duplicity. The Emperor rules from the city of Constantinople. 
  • Cathay is the great kingdom of the far east, whose Song Emperor presides over an elaborate bureaucracy and whose vibrant culture produces many marvels.
  • Cipango is an insular island-kingdom beyond Cathay where the Heike and Genji noble families vie for influence with the emperor of their land.
  • England is a kingdom in the far West conquered a generation or two ago by Norman princes from the continent, who retain lands in Normandy and Brittany.
  • Ethiopia is a Christian kingdom in the far South whose ruling dynasty is descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; it has been cut off from the rest of Christendom by the expansion of Islam along with other Nubian kingdoms such as Alodia, Blemmyes, and Makuria.
  • Fatimid Egypt is the center of one of the chief powers of Islam, with important cities such as Cairo and Alexandria in its domain. The rule of its weak caliphs is supported by cunning eunuch viziers and mighty generals.
  • The Frankish lands include the Kingdom of France and its important principalities: the Duchy of Anjou, the County of Blois, and places such as Flanders and Aquitaine.
  • The Holy Roman Empire encompasses much of what is now Germany and northern Italy and comprises a network of semi-autonomous city-states, principalities, baronies, bishoprics, and other sorts of polities, united under an emperor whose authority is at most symbolic.
  • Kiev is one of the principalities that rules over the Russian steppes, and is an important corridor for trade between the far north and lands to the south. Its golden age is recently passed, and it faces pressures from rivals and nomads from the east.
  • Languedoc is the name for the regions of southern France like Provence and Toulouse where a particular Frankish dialect is spoken; its people are proud and assertive.
  • The Kingdom of Leon & Castile is the bulwark of Christendom against Moorish conquerors from the south, and is chief among the Spanish principalities that also include Valencia, Saragossa, Aragon, and Navarre.
  • The Moorish Empire of the Almoravids includes large portions of northwestern and sub-Saharan west Africa as well as southern Spain, and consists of numerous fractious and rebellious peoples ruled from the city of Marrakech.
  • Outremer is the name given to the imperilled crusader kingdoms established in the Holy Land by Norman and Frankish nobles late in the last century. It includes the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Principality of Antioch, and the County of Edessa.
  • Rome is the seat of the Papacy, chief ecclesiastical authority of the Latin rite of Christianity and ruler of the surrounding Papal States.
  • Scandinavia includes Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and the Orkneys, whose far-traveling vikings were once the scourge of the North.
  • Scotland is a kingdom in the far north of the British islands.
  • The Seljuk Sultanate is the chief rival of the Fatimid dynasty for control of the Muslim world. It has many fractious client states who owe their allegiance to the Sultan in Baghdad.
  • Sicily and Apulia in the south of Italy have been conquered by Norman adventurers who cagily play off Muslim and Byzantine influence to open up opportunities for themselves.
  • Syria includes numerous provinces and principalities nominally under the sway of the Seljuks but which seek to preserve their autonomy by subtle diplomacy; the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, and Mosul are prominent among them.
  • Venice is a mercantile city in northern Italy whose sailors move aggressively to acquire rights and privileges in markets far from home.
Character Examples

One player rolls d4:3, d6:2, d8:4, d8:1, d8:7, d12:5, d20:8. The character is a merchant from the Holy Roman Empire headed for the Wall of Gogmagog. The d8 rolls produce the archetype 0 0* 1 (Knight or Priestess), with a secondary archetype of 0 1 1 (Hermit or Witch). The d12 roll gives the character the sign of Taurus, with a Melanche-activated special gift having to do with health, rest, healing, or endurance.

The character’s humours are calculated as follows:

The d4:3 adds +1 Sange (Chole 3, Sange 4, Melanche 3, Pneuma 3).
The d6:2 adds +1 Pneuma (Chole 3, Sange 4, Melanche 3, Pneuma 4).
The d8:4 adds +2 Chole, -1 Pneuma (Chole 5, Sange 4, Melanche 3, Pneuma 3).
The d8:1 adds +2 Melanche, -1 Sange (Chole 5, Sange 3, Melanche 5, Pneuma 3).
The d8:7 adds +2 Sange, -1 Pneuma (Chole 5, Sange 5, Melanche 5, Pneuma 2).
The 1st archetype adds +2 Chole, -1 Pneuma (Chole 7, Sange 5, Melanche 5, Pneuma 1).
The 2nd archetype adds +2 Melanche, -1 Sange (Chole 7, Sange 4, Melanche 7, Pneuma 1).

So the character’s temperament starts at Chole 7, Sange 4, Melanche 7, Pneuma 1, signifying a character who may be given to alternating bouts of mania and depression. The player starts from the notion of a healing gift to decide that his character is an itinerant chirurgeon—a medieval doctor skilled with a scalpel (a Sange trait from the Knight archetype) and who has spent long hours in solitary study (a Melanche trait from the Hermit archetype) at a university in northern Italy—who has been sent to the Wall of Gogmagog by his elderly teacher in response to a letter from the general who commands there (a German in the service of Prester John who happens to be an old friend of his instructor); the general needs a physician to tend to the chronic illness of his daughter, and the local doctors are stumped. Selling his services as a chirurgeon satisfies the requirement that the character be of the merchant type, and his character traits are sufficiently connected to the archetypes generated by the d8 rolls. The player defines his special gift as medical expertise; it requires no further definition at this point. He also gives the character an Italian-sounding name: Dottore Giacomo Abbrenzi of Milan.

A second player rolls d4:4, d6:3, d8:2, d8:8, d8:7, d12:4, d20:3. The character is a warrior from Cipango with the primary archetype 0 1* 1 (Hermit/Witch) and the secondary archetype 0 0 1 (Knight/Priestess) who is headed for the Tomb of St. Judas Didymus. The player likes the idea of a ninja assassin for a powerful warlord or daimyo of whom he is the sworn servant (a Sange trait from the Knight archetype) and in whose service he has grown cunning and cruel (a Pneuma trait from the Witch archetype) sent in pursuit of a thief whose location he has been told will be indisputably revealed in the waters surrounding the tomb. As a ninja, he is of course deadly with or without weapons (his special gift, from his star-sign of Aries). The character’s name is Tanaka Ichi, with the temperament Chole 8, Sange 4, Melanche 5, Pneuma 2.

A third player rolls d4:1, d6:3, d8:5, d8:1, d8:5, d12:2, d20:13. The character is a pilgrim from Outremer journeying to the Tomb of St. Judas Didymus with the primary archetype 1 0* 1 (Vagabond) and the secondary archetype 1 1 1 (King or Queen), with the star-sign Aquarius. The player decides that his character is Baldwin the Leper, prince of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, traveling to the saint’s tomb to visit its healing waters. His Melanche trait of leprous taint comes from the Vagabond archetype, and that of regal bearing (a Sange trait, the player decides) from the King archetype. His special gift is the companionship of three loyal retainers: a stern knight-at-arms to guard him, a wise monk to teach him, and a clever squire to be his friend (all justified by the cameraderie motif of the Aquarius star-sign). His humours are Chole 6, Sange 3, Melanche 4, Pneuma 6.

Prester John and Wormwood

The “metagame” or background against which the character’s actions take place is the apocalyptic struggle between Prester John and Wormwood, representing the forces of good and darkness respectively.

Create two grids representing the resources available to Prester John, Emperor of the Four Indies, and to Wormwood, Angel of the Apocalypse, during the game. 

Prester John begins with 16 of each humour while Wormwood begins at 0. During the first part of the game, however, Prester John will expend some of his humours while Wormwood will accumulate them. Once the final stage of the game is reached, the relative disparity between Wormwood and Prester John in each humour will shape the nature of the calamity that befalls the empire and the characters, and the difficulty of escaping or remedying it.

At the beginning of the game, all squares are under Prester John’s control; as the game progresses, squares may fall under the control of Wormwood.

Initial Position

Give Prester John and Wormwood their initial resources. The current state of Prester John's empire is determined by which of the pair has greater resources of the given type. So, for example, so long as Prester John has greater humours, the empire is in a state of peace, happiness, plenty, and harmony. Once Wormwood has higher values in a humour, the state changes to war, plague, famine, or discord. 

Chole 16 PEACE
Melanche 16 PLENTY
Pneuma 16 HARMONY

Chole 0 WAR
Sange 0 PLAGUE
Melanche 0 FAMINE
Pneuma 0 DISCORD

Place a token representing each character on a square along the edge of the game-map. Roll 1d4 to determine the map edge from which the character enters (1 North, 2 East, 3 South, 4 West) and 1d8 to determine the specific square in which he or she arrives, reading from the eastern or southern corner as appropriate.

For each destination, roll 1d8 twice (first for the easting, and then for the northing) to determine its tentative initial location and place a token representing it in that square.


At the end of Act One, all the important characters have been described and have made their entrance upon the stage. Each character comprises at least a temperament of four humours; the ones controlled by the players (as compared to the ones controlled by the Game Master, or GM) also incorporate (a) one or two “alchemical” archetypes that in turn give shape to character traits, and (b) an astrological aspect or “star-sign” that is used to define the character’s special gift. Each trait is associated with one of the four humours, as is the special gift.

Act Two: We, In Some Unknown Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line

AS ACT TWO BEGINS, the characters created by the players have just entered the stage; that is, they are at the edge of the game-map, having entered severally from various directions. We already know a little bit about them, but the main function of Act Two is to develop the characters via role-playing their interactions with each other and with the Kingdom of Prester John. In addition, the progress of Act Two develops the apocalyptic metaplot as the power of Wormwood grows and that of Prester John weakens.

Order of Play

Determine the order of play by comparing characters’ temperaments: highest Chole goes first, resolving ties in order of highest Sange, highest Melanche, highest Pneuma. Keep this order throughout the game, even though the temperaments of the characters will change.

For example, in a game involving the three sample characters created above, the order of play would be Tanaka Ichi, Dottore Giacomo Abrenzi, and Baldwin the Leper.

A Character Turn Begins

A character turn begins with the active player (i.e., the player whose turn it is) selecting an interlocutor; that is, another player with whom to interact via the medium of their characters. Usually, or at least at first, the interlocutor will be the GM, but when player-controlled characters are in the same square, the active player may choose the player of a co-located character as the interlocutor. Additionally, the player may choose as interlocutor any other player with whose character his or her own character has a tie (i.e., a connection of love, hate, fear, or reverence—see the rules below), even if that character is not in the same square.

Each player then secretly chooses one humour whose interaction will determine the “plot point” that begins the scene (see the table below). EXCEPTION: The GM chooses openly and randomly, so that the player knows which humour he or she faces when making his or her choice. The GM uses Wormwood’s humours against the players and Prester John’s humours in their favor, except when it makes more sense narratively to do it the other way.

There are ten different plot points, each of which is broadly defined so as to potentially incorporate a wide variety of fictional events and which also specifies possible game-mechanical effects.

HUMOUR Chole     Sange     Melanche  Pneuma
Chole    Struggle  Loss      Victory   Masking
Sange  Arrival   Obstacle  Pursuit
Melanche  Departure Recognition
Pneuma  Remedy
  • Arrival (Sange-Sange). The active character arrives at a destination; the active character overcomes an obstacle; the active character is joined by or reunited with companions. Move the character one square in a cardinal direction chosen by the active player, expending humours for direction and terrain; OR add a trait reflecting the event; OR move Prester John or another non-player character to the character’s square; OR move Wormwood to the character’s square if within the apocalyptic region (see below). Negate the effects of Obstacle.
  • Departure (Melanche-Melanche). The active character begins or continues a journey, is dispatched by some authority or by his or her own initiative on a mission or other endeavor, or slips free of his or her current circumstances.  Move the character one square in a cardinal direction chosen by the interlocutor, expending humours for direction and terrain; OR add a trait reflecting the event. Negate the effects of Obstacle. Choose a new destination for the character, if desired. Leave pursuers and other characters behind, if desired.
  • Loss (Chole-Sange). The active character loses a fight; something valuable is stolen or taken from the active character; the active character is hurt or injured. Define the character as in a physical (Chole), intellectual (Melanche), social (Sange) or moral (Pneuma) conflict. Remove a tie or a trait or reduce one humour by an amount depending on the interlocutor’s relevant humour: 1 to 3, 1d4; 3 to 8, 1d6; 9 to 15, 1d8; 16 or more, 1d12.
  • Masking (Chole-Pneuma). The active character dons a disguise; the active character is marked, scarred, or branded; the active character hides from pursuers or other foes; the active character is forbidden to undertake some action or is otherwise constrained. Give the character a new trait or tie reflecting the event.
  • Obstacle (Sange-Melanche). The active character faces a challenge, obstacle, obstruction, or other constraint; the active character is separated from companions; the active character is captured by foes. The character cannot move until Arrival, Departure, or Remedy is played. 
  • Pursuit (Sange-Pneuma). The active character is chased, tracked, followed, or shadowed by foes. Create a new pursuer or move an existing pursuer into the character’s square. Until Masking, Struggle, or Victory are played, expend an additional Chole humour in order to move, and the pursuer follows.
  • Recognition (Melanche-Pneuma). The active character abandons a disguise; the active character reveals a flaw or weakness; the active character’s brand, mark, or scar is noticed or otherwise proves in some way consequential. Add a new trait or tie to the character reflecting the event; OR tie another character to the character; OR remove any trait added by Masking.
  • Remedy (Pneuma-Pneuma). The active character girds for war; the active character receives a useful gift; the active character learns how to overcome an obstacle. Add a new trait to the character reflecting the event; OR give the character a new special gift; OR negate the effects of Obstacle; OR restore a trait, tie, or special gift removed by Loss, OR add to one of the character’s humours by an amount depending on the interlocutor’s Pneuma: 1 to 3, 1d4; 3 to 8, 1d6; 9 to 15, 1d8; 16 or more, 1d12; 
  • Struggle (Chole-Chole). The active character comes face-to-face with a foe or otherwise becomes engaged in some kind of conflict. Define the character as in a physical (Chole), intellectual (Melanche), social (Sange) or moral (Pneuma) conflict. Reduce one of the active character’s humours by an amount depending on the interlocutor’s humour: 1 to 3, 1d4; 3 to 8, 1d6; 9 to 15, 1d8; 16 or more, 1d12. The character cannot move until Loss, Masking, Pursuit, or Victory are played.
  • Victory (Chole-Melanche). The active character defeats a foe; the active character receives a reward; the active character gains the respect, admiration, or love of another character; the active character is transfigured or transformed. Add a new trait to the character reflecting the event OR tie another character to the character OR add a new archetype to the character. Remove one apocalyptic designation from the square, if any.
Characters move when “plot points” (see below) permit; movement requires the character to spend humours based on the direction moved and the terrain entered.

to move south— -1 Melanche
to move west— -1 Pneuma
to move south— -1 Sange
to move east— -1 Chole

into Swords (Open Plains, Steppe, or Desert)— -1 Chole
into Wands (Forest, Jungle, or Valley)— -1 Melanche
into Cups (Swamp, Marshland, or Coastlands)— -1 Sange
into Pentacles (Mountains, Highlands, or Hill Country)— -1 Pneuma
into major Arcana (Town or Island)— -1 of the player’s choice.

Expended humours are recorded as such on the character sheet, and then added to Wormwood’s temperament.

The player of the moving active character can choose to take other characters with him or her as long as that is warranted or supported by the game-fiction.

If there is no other character in the square available to the interlocutor (i.e., if no character is in the square that doesn’t already “belong” to someone other than the interlocutor), the interlocutor must generate one on-the-fly for the active character to interact with. Roll 1d8 and 1d12 to generate a character with an archetype and a star-sign. Use the results of these rolls along with the terrain of the square and the plot point shaping the scene to inspire the beginning of the scene. 

Kibbitzing from other players is encouraged, as is soliciting the input of the active player about what challenges and risks he or she is interested in having the character pursue. 

The scene framing shades into a bit of “open role-play” between the interlocutor and the active player in order to more fully get at the heart of the scene. The interlocutor is trying to get the active player to commit his or her character to a course of action whose resolution will engage the game mechanics as well as move the action of the game forward.

Scene Framing Example

Tanaka Ichi begins his turn in a farmland square. His player chooses the GM to be interlocutor, as he must. The GM secretly chooses Chole while Tanaka’s player secretly chooses Pneuma, resulting in the plot point of Masking (the active character dons a disguise; the active character is marked, scarred, or branded; the active character hides from pursuers or other foes; the active character is forbidden to undertake some action or is otherwise constrained). The GM rolls a 2 for the interlocutor character’s archetype and 10 for the interlocutor character’s star-sign, making that character a Knight/Priestess of Libra, one whose activities involve pursuit, conflict, or struggle associated with peace, commerce, cooperation, or working together in some way.

In the GM’s mind, a “knight of commerce” associated with farmland is a wealthy land-owner, with many bondsmen in service to him working the fields. Since Tanaka Ichi is a ninja, the GM absolutely wants him to don a disguise for this plot point, so the question becomes what sort of disguise would best drive the scene, and what rationale for that disguise would make the most sense. The GM tells the Tanaka’s player, “You’ve arrived at the fortified home of a wealthy farmer with many servants who is preparing to go on a pilgrimage to the Tomb of St. Judas Didymus; your plan is to join his party in disguise so that you can make your way to the tomb more easily and avoid alerting the thief you’re after, because he has has powerful friends in Nysse. How did you disguise yourself so that the wealthy farmer—his name is Panil Veda—will accept you as a member of his pilgrimage?”

Tanaka’s player says, “I disguise myself as a blind beggar who thinks that the relics of the saint can cure him, and play upon the rich man’s sympathies so that he’ll take me along.”

The GM tells Tanaka’s player to add disguised as a blind beggar to the character as a Chole trait (i.e., something that helps the character when he’s trying to be clever). He says, “The scene opens up with Tanaka Ichi coming at dusk up to the great mansion where Panil Veda makes his home. There is a great big front door, wide enough for a chariot to drive through; it is ornately carved and inlaid with panels of ivory. Around the back is the kitchen entrance, a small doorway at which beggars gather to receive whatever largesse the head cook is permitted to distribute to those who wait. What do you do?”

“I knock on the front door with my stick and wait to be admitted,” says the player of Tanaka Ichi.

“Okay,” the GM replies. “Let’s see what happens. Roll your dice.”

The Dice You Roll

Each participant in the scene rolls his or her d4 (Chole), d6 (Melanche), d8 (Pneuma), and d12 (Sange). He or she may also roll a d20 if during the “open role-playing” of scene framing, the player wove in the character making use of his or her special gift; in this case, the d20 is called the player’s “Quintessence die.” The Quintessence die may be used in place of any other die during the scene.

Playing Out the Scene

Once the scene is set, participants play it out by describing their actions and giving their words and deeds mechanical weight by assigning dice associated with their humours to the “scene grid” that characterizes those words and deeds.

The Action Round  Beginning with the active player, each player describes his or her character’s deeds or words and moves a die to the appropriate box on the scene grid, role-playing appropriately. The action round continues going around the table until all dice are placed or everyone has passed (i.e., one may refrain from playing a die if one does not wish to characterize one’s actions as it requires). If, when playing a die, one can narrate in a trait associated with the same humour (whether that trait belongs to your character or not) to one’s own advantage, one may use that trait to “roll up” (or roll down) one’s own die by one point. You may also spend points from the corresponding humour in order to increase your roll up to the maximum die result.

Words and Deeds

During the action round, when you place a die, narrate or role-play your corresponding behavior as either words (i.e., expressions intended to convey something to a hearer) or deeds (i.e., actions with some sort of non-expressive physical purpose). Note that there is some overlap between the two types of behavior—e.g., a physical action not intended to signal anything but which in fact does, albeit inadvertantly)—and clever players will leverage that overlap to their advantage when necessary.

A Note on Ties

Ties are a special kind of trait that characters may gain as a result of their travels in the kingdom of Prester John. A tie is an emotional relationship with another character, categorized as either Hatred, Friendship, Fear, or Reverence and associated with Chole, Sange, Melanche, and Pneuma, respectively. Whenever that other character is present in a scene, the character with the tie may use it as a trait to add one to the die for that humour when it is played during a scene.  Ties are unilateral (they go from one character to another), potentially multiplex (a character may have more than one kind of tie to another character), and may be reciprocated asymmetrically (hating another character does not prevent that character from loving you).Depending on the value of the die, the words or deeds being described need to be able to be characterized in a particular way. In general, when the die shows its highest value, the behavior should match the positive aspect of the corresponding humour; when it shows its lowest value (i.e., a 1) it should match some negative aspect of the humour, associated either with a superabundance or a deficiency, at the player’s option.

If your Chole die shows a 1, your words are either foolish or cynical.
If your Chole die shows a 4, your words are clever.
Otherwise, your words are honest.

If your Sange die shows a 1, your deeds are either cowardly or foolhardy.
If your Sange die shows a 9 through 12, your deeds are brave.
Otherwise, your deeds are prudent.

If your Melanche die shows a 1, your words are either ignorant or abstruse.
If your Melanche die shows a 6, your words are wise.
Otherwise, your words are innocent.

If your Pneuma die shows a 1, your deeds are either blasphemous or cruel.
If your Pneuma die shows an 8, your deeds are righteous.
Otherwise, your deeds are proper.

When you expend humours for any reason, you record the expenditure on your character sheet; it becomes important during Act III (end-game).
As you narrate your action, move the relevant die to its proper place on the scene grid. 

If your narration invokes any of your traits or ties listed under that humour you may increase the relevant humour; traits and ties may be invoked once during any given turn and must be narrated in a different manner each time they are subsequently invoked. Invoking a trait or tie gives you a +1 to the relevant die result.

The box on the scene grid in which you place your die to characterize your words or deeds will also show if you should raise or lower the humour associated with the die. 

Furthermore, you may gain humours depending on the way you role-play:

If you roleplay fierce rage or intense passion, +1 Chole.
If you roleplay giddy elation or childish high spirits, +1 Sange.
If you roleplay deep and woeful sadness or black depression, +1 Melanche.
If you roleplay serene and dispassionate placidity, +1 Pneuma.

After the final player in the round goes, the player with the highest die result gets to choose which dice of those played determine the outcome of the round. If there are only two participants in the round, then this is no choice at all, of course.

Use the humours associated with the dice chosen to determine the plot point that results from the actions of the round. The player with the highest die between the two selected narrates the plot point; the GM adjudicates the game-mechanical result.

If you narrate in your special gift, roll 1d20 and use its result to see whether you (a) get to choose which dice determine the plot point for the round, and (b) get to narrate the plot point.  

As a plot point (Departure), the character may be assigned a new destination. This may be (a) a location already on the map; (b) a new location invented during the scene or prior to it, or (c) off the map by a specific map edge.  The character may return to the map on his or her next turn, or may take one or more scenes “off the map,” presumably in his or her home country, and return with an Arrival or Departure plot point.
At the end of the action round, the narrator of the round may choose to end the scene or let it continue for another round, if there are still dice to play. If the result of a plot point is to move the active character into a new square, the scene ends.

At the end of the scene, record the dice played as expenditures of humours.

Making Progress

When a character enters a square containing a destination, roll 1d8 and consult this chart:

1 2 3
Origin (8) 4
7 6 5

If the die roll is an 8, the destination is in the map-square as supposed. Otherwise, it is potentially in a different square. If the number on the die corresponds to a square that has not been entered by any character yet, move the destination to that square. If the corresponding square has been entered, the destination remains where it is.

When a character finally arrives at his or her destination, the player may immediately spend his or her humours in order to introduce a plot point that resolves or brings closure to the character’s journey. This plot point may be taken as an extension of scene framing or as the resolution of the scene.

At the end of each turn, turn over the top card remaining in the tarot deck. 
  • If the card is a 2 or 3, transfer 1 humour from the relevant suit from Prester John to Wormwood (Swords = Chole, Wands = Melanche; Cups = Sange; Pentacles = Pneuma). 
  • If the card is between 4 and 8, transfer 2 humours. 
  • If the card is a 9 or 10, transfer 3 humours. If the card is a face card, transfer 4 humours. 
  • If the card is a major arcana, transfer 5 humours from Prester John’s highest humour to Wormwood.
Act III: Well Met Are We Upon Megiddo Plain

As the game progresses, humours from Prester John’s temperament will diminish and accrue on Wormwood’s plexus; i.e., his grid.

At the end of every scene, check to see if any of the dark angel’s humours exceed Prester John’s. When this happens, randomly select a map-square and designate it as the center of the apocalypse.  Place a token representing Wormwood in that square, which becomes the center of the “apocalyptic region,” which consists simply of those squares upon which the evils of war, plague, pestilence, or poison (that is, malicious strife among neighbors as well as an unclean and debilitating environment) have been visited.
  • War squares require an additional Chole to move out of.
  • Plague squares require an additional Melanche to move out of.
  • Pestilence squares require an additional Pneuma to move out of.
  • Poison squares require an additional Sange to move out of.
Place another token representing Prester John at the court of Prester John (or, if he’s been determined to be elsewhere, where ever he’s been determined to be, or in a random location).

Have each character on the map declare for Prester John or for Wormwood. Players of course decide for themselves. Other characters declare based on their ties to the players’  characters, siding with the character if they have ties of friendship or reverence and against the character if they have ties of fear or hatred.  Characters without ties remain neutral until they have ties.

At this point, the remaining cards in the deck are no longer used to transfer humours from Prester John to Wormwood. Instead, at the end of each scene, the apocalyptic region increases by up to four squares (roll 1d4), no more than one square in any given direction, and Wormwood gains a number of humours equal to the number of squares added, divided as the GM decides. In no case may any of Wormwood’s humours exceed 16.

A player whose character declared for Prester John may choose whether Prester John moves or not, and whether to expend their own humours or the king’s in order to do so, during his or her turn. Wormwood may move or not, paying his own humours in order to do so, as the GM decides, during each turn.

If a character is in the same square as Prester John, the player may expend Prester John’s or his or her own humours in order to introduce a plot point before or after his or her turn.  The player must have declared for Prester John in order to do so. The “active character” for the plot point may be any character.

If a character is in the same square as Wormwood, the GM may expend Wormwood’s humours in order to introduce a plot point before or after the player’s turn.

If Prester John and Wormwood are in the same square, then at the end of each scene, have the active player and the GM secretly decide how many humours to expend, from one to five, and then roll a die based on the amount expended (1=d4, 2=d6, 3=d8, 5=d12). Each side must lose humours equal to the opponent’s die roll; non-player characters may be sacrificed, counting as 1 humour each.

Each time one of Wormwood’s humours exceeds Prester John’s, randomly determine the square in which the new evil originates. But Wormwood can only add a total of up to four squares to the apocalyptic region at the end of each scene, divided among the various centers.

A character is defeated when his humours are reduced to zero. During this phase, if a character leaves the map, he or she may not re-enter.

The game ends when (a) Wormwood is defeated, (b) Prester John is defeated or leaves the map, or (c) all the characters who’ve declared for Prester John are either defeated or have left the map.

Once the game ends, a final round of narration takes place. The player with highest Pneuma narrates the outcome of the apocalypse, based on a comparison of Prester John’s and Wormwood’s humours:
  • If Prester John has higher Chole, then peace comes; otherwise, war will spread across the nations.
  • If Prester John has higher Sange, then the people obtain health and happiness; otherwise, plague devastates the nations.
  • If Prester John has higher Melanche, then there will be a time of prosperity and plenty; otherwise, the people face famine and starvation.
  • If Prester John has higher Pneuma, then the people live in a spirit of harmony and good-neighborliness; otherwise, there is internecine strife and secret murder.
Each player then narrates his or her own final fate based on a comparison of his or her expended humours with each other.
  • If expended Chole is greater than expended Pneuma, the character is doomed to hell; otherwise, the character is granted heaven.
  • If expended Melanche is greater than expended Sange, the character faces death; otherwise, the character is blessedwith life.
Note both that these fates may be regarded as metaphorical (i.e., “life” may mean a legend that lives on after the character dies) and that they may be informed by each other (i.e., “life” and “hell” may suggest a character doomed to a life of servitude—in other words, a living hell).

Once each player has narrated the final fate of his or her character, the game ends.

References and Inspiration
  • Calvino, Italo (1974). Invisible Cities (William Weaver, Trans.). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  • Chabon, Michael (2007). Gentlemen of the Road. New York: Del Rey.
  • d’Ormesson, Jean (1974). The Glory of the Empire (Barbara Bray, Trans.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Eco, Umberto (2002). Baudolino (William Weaver, Trans.). New York: Harcourt.
  • Philips, J.R.S. (1988). The Medieval Expansion of Europe. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
  • Wright, John Kirtland (1925/1965). The Geographical Lore of the Time of the Crusades: A Study in the History of Medieval Science and Tradition in Western Europe. New York: Dover Publications

The Great City

This is my design from last year's Game Chef. At Dave Berg's prompting, we tried it out at Dreamation last year; it broke, but could be fixed:

The Great City Walks

The Great City walks above the world, rising from the back of a mountain-sized spider-creature, epitome of the art of the entomosynitheist.1 Its aristocratic youth revel in stately pavanes and sprightly galliards while around them proceeds the work of the city. Wealthy families sponsor the experimental endeavors of learned scholar-breeders in return for cadres of newer and better servile insects: hardier servants, fiercer warriors, more beautiful and elaborate ornamentals. Diligent and perspicacious merchants rent or buy the servile insects for their labor, or use them to produce raw materials: exotic silks, medicinal venoms of great potency, carapace-carvings both light and strong.

The city is borne on spider-back above a strange and fecund landscape of almost grotesque fertility, a jungle of incomprehensible vastness in which isolated communities of human beings live in uneasy tension with the untamed land around them. To these provincial colonies, the Great City is a beacon of civilization and grace, the chief destination for their balloon-ships and the cargoes they carry.

But the Great City walks in a world of peril, and one misstep may mean its fall.

The city is rife with simmering class tensions, held in check by the elaborate codes of politesse that govern social relations. The power of the nobility rests upon its control of the breeding stocks of servile insects as well as the battalions of myrmidons maintained by each family. But an increasingly wealthy mercantile class grows in influence, and may soon challenge the foundations of the Great City's political order. And the innovations of the entomosynitheists may lead to unanticipated consequences.

Meanwhile, to alien eyes, watching from the depths of the jungle, the Great City represents an implacable threat, suborning the very substance of their species to create its soldiers, its domestics and its pets. 

The peril mounts, and the city walks on, oblivious. Will she stumble, or will she be saved?

 What You Will Need To Play

This is a roleplaying game for two to five players plus a Game Master (GM). Each player will need three chips or other tokens, one each of three colors or types (these rules assume you pick the colors blue, white, and green), marked heads and tails or otherwise having two distinct sides (use + and –, 1 and 0, H and T, or whatever other scheme suits you). These tokens are known as "triad stones." His or her three stones are the player’s "triad." The GM will need on the order of a half-dozen triads for the Great City and for other characters.

Additionally, you will need a fourth kind of token (e.g., red chips, pennies), but these do not have to be marked; they are merely counters, called "scarabs."

We can imagine the scarab as the currency of the Great City, coins minted in the form of ornate beetles. In the game, scarabs also serve as a kind of currency, albeit an abstract one. During play, one or more scarabs are sometimes placed under a triad-stone; such scarabs are called "vested" scarabs, and are distinct from the "free" scarabs held in the player's "purse."

Each player should have an opaque container such as a box or bag to serve as this purse; the brown paper bags in which lunches are carried will do. Two additional purses, one marked "Yea" and the other marked "Nay," are also needed.

You will need a handful of eight-sided dice (d8), as many as three per player but fewer will do if you're prepared to share. The GM will also need a six-sided die (d6). Finally, pencils and paper are needed upon which to record character information, a "character network" of relations among characters, and the Great City's situation.


The Symbolism of the Stones

There are three types of stones, each representing a dimension of the ordering of the world in the oracular cosmology of the Great City. They are always arranged in order: blue, white, green, and have two sides, a face (marked +, heads, or 1) and an obverse (marked -, tails, or 0). In the world of the Great City, we can imagine these stones as smooth circular carapace-carvings with a lordly profile on one side and a fierce myrmidon2 on the other.

 Table 1. Symbolism of the Stones





Face of Peril
















 The Symbolism of the Triads

 A triad is a sequence of three stones (blue, white, green) that has a specific divinatory meaning in the Great City oracle.

 Table 2  Symbolism of the Triads




THE VOID Nullity, Emptiness, Negation


THE QUEEN Singularity, Primacy, Autonomy


THE MYRMIDON Duality, Opposition, Conflict


THE NYMPH Synthesis, Growth, Emergence


THE WEB Existence, Being, Stasis


THE CHRYSALIS Change, Transformation, Concealment


THE HIVE Multiplicity, Complexity, Interaction


THE WORLD Totality, Completion, Wholeness

 To generate a triad, roll 1d8 three times in sequence, using each roll to set each triad-stone in sequence: blue, white, green. In other words, you never actually "flip" your triad stones; you roll a die that tells you to what value to set your stone.

  • 1 equals "minus becoming plus" (a moving minus)
  • 2 through 4 equals "minus"
  • 5 through 7 equals "plus"
  • 8 equals "plus becoming minus" (a moving plus)

A moving stone is in flux; it affects the interpretation of triad-pairs and has other game-mechanical effects as well, described separately. It is represented by placing a scarab under the stone; such a scarab is called a "vested" scarab, and is distinct from a "free" scarab, possessed by players as part of their "purse" or pool.

 The Symbolism of the Triad-Pairs

Triad-pairs result from the juxtaposition of pairs of triads, as the name suggests. The first triad is the one that represents or otherwise stands for the "active character"--usually the one who is in the spotlight in the given scene. The second triad represents the "responsive character" in the scene.

Each triad-pair has a name, representing its overall thrust, and a judgment, detailing in a single sentence the oracle's meaning or specific import. The judgments of the oracle are admittedly cryptic, and often one must rely on their component triads as well as one's own unfettered imagination to make sense of them.

Table 3 * Symbolism of the Triad Pairs * 



Name. Judgment.










Initial Difficulty. Foolish actions cause problems.

Inexperience. Wisdom & knowledge are needed here.

Windfall. There is good fortune & gain.

Gathering. You must assemble your resources.

Falling Apart. Your means are inadequate to your ends.

Restriction. You are held back; no gain or progress.

Contemplation. Introspective thought is required.

Change of Heart. Pettiness recedes; greatness advances.










Good Omens. There are signs of progress.

Thunderous Noise. Progress requires concentration.

Reversed Fortune. Gains slip away or are taken.

Self-Reliance. The help of others is of little use here.

Stalemate. No progress is possible.

Nightmare. Your worst fears haunt you.

Increase. Gains are realized.

Unrequited Desire. You do not obtain what you wish.

 Table 3, continued



Name. Judgment.










Contentiousness. A strong leader mends factiousness.

Reserves of Strength. Vigorous action removes obstacles.

Perils Abound. Sincere effort avoids many dangers.

Oppression in Plenty. You are bound by material things.

Heartache. You have cause for grief.

Irrevocability. Striking changes take place.

Homegoing. Your path leads you toward home.

Conflict. You are met with strong opposition.










Coming Together. Circumstances align in your favor.

Weight of Ambition. Your aims overreach.

Self-Restraint. You are held back from excess.

Listening. Useful knowledge is revealed.

Respite. The strong falter; the weak strengthen.

Quick Thinking. A rapid shift avoids disaster.

Sincerity. Indirection and irony prove fruitless.

Careful Advance. Progress slows, danger presses.










Modest Refuge. Safety lies in humility.

Vertigo. To descend is better than to ascend.

Standstill. Your efforts prove fruitless.

Suasion. You are swayed by words.

Entrapment. Forces act to slow your progress.

Rapid Advance. The way forward is now clear.

Expansion. There is growth and increase.

Dignified Retreat. A careful withdrawal is in order.










Darkness Comes. The position is difficult.

Difficulty. The position is perilous.

Wracking. Much is lost.

Novelty. Unanticipated events occur.

Empty Victory. Action brings no advantage.

Obedience. You must be humble and subservient.

Family Matters. Familty interests require your attention.

Good Company. You find aid in your efforts.










Ascent. You move toward fulfilling your aspirations.

Perseverance. Firm and consistent efforts bring progress.

Generosity. It is advantageous to be open-handed.

Perception. A weakness is now discernible.

Sanctuary. It is advantageous to cross the threshold.

Cauldron. Ferment brings change.

Discernment. Nuanced judgment is needed.

Confrontation. You face a foe who is bold & strong.

 Table 3, continued



Name. Judgment.










Triumph. The humble, exalted; the mighty, brought low.

Kingliness. The great become strong.

Waiting. Past efforts now bear fruit.

Breakthrough. The strong displace the weak.

Stealth. Indirection proves advantageous.

Command. You must be firm and forthright.

Delirium. Your senses are not to be trusted.

Fulfillment. Greatness penetrates and brings closure.


 The Situation

 The Great City is in peril. Take the Great City's "Nay" purse and add one scarab to it for each player in the game, including the GM. The "Yea" purse begins empty.

 In this phase of the game, the players determine the current situation of the Great City; inherent within that situation is the nature of the peril that the Great City faces.

The GM generates a triad-pair (see above). Use two sets of triad stones to represent this triad-pair, placing them in the center of the table.

This triad-pair represents the initial situation of the Great City, and must be read or interpreted by the players (the GM acts as facilitator) to determine specific details.

For example, if the triad pair is +-+ -++ (101 011) or "Novelty: Unanticipated events occur," formed by the conjunction of the triads "the Chrysalis" and "the Nymph" in that order, it seems clear that the situation involves the unexpected development of a new form of servile insect by the scholar-breeders of the Great City.

If any of the stones for the triad were moving, they are flipped simultaneously and the new situation read to ascertain the trajectory or other implications of the situation. For example, if the second stone were moving in the triad-pair above, flipping that stone from minus to plus transforms the Chrysalis into the World (with its implications of wholeness and totality) and the entire triad-pair into "Breakthrough: the strong displace the weak." It seems likely that the new kind of servile insect has been created by an entomosynitheist of profound abilities patronized by a very wealthy aristocrat, and that the innovation is sufficiently advantageous that rival scholar-breeders cannot compete. Or perhaps the new breed is cannibalistic and preys upon other servile insect breeds, to the dismay of the people of the Great City. In any case, the players must reach consensus before proceeding further. Let us imagine they like the first option better.

The nature of the peril to the Great City must also be determined. Reduce the triad-pair to a single triad by matching corresponding elements of the first and second triads and creating a new triad with a plus (+) where ever the corresponding elements are the same and minus (-) where ever they're different. So in the case of the example triad pair above, the reduced triad is --+, or the Queen (having to do with singularity, primacy, and autonomy).

Imagine that the players agree that this can only mean that the danger to the Great City is that the servile insect innovation has given the new breed a sense of individual identity and self that will militate against their submitting to servitude. A bug rebellion is afoot!

However, the reduced triad also signals the "face of peril"--what is generally known or assumed to be troublesome or problematic in the world of the Great City. 

  • Blue +: The face of peril has a political dimension.
  • White +: The face of peril is a natural or scientific phenomenon.
  • Green +: The face of peril has an economic dimension.

So in the case of our example, the face of peril has an economic dimension. Imagine that the players agree that thus far the bug rebellion has taken the form of work slowdowns and sabotage in the spider-silk mills.

The Character Network

Use a piece of paper to record characters and their relationships (i.e., the pattern of their connections to each other). This "character network" consists of nodes (i.e., distinct labeled points) connected by ties (i.e., connecting lines). Ties are marked with a plus sign (a positive tie) or a minus sign (a negative tie). Ties are directional; they start from one character and end at another. Ties may be reciprocated, in that one character may have ties to and from the same other character, and multiplex, in that one character may have both a positive and a negative tie to another.

The Agents of Peril

The first characters you will record on the character network are the "agents of peril"; that is, characters implied by the situation whom the players envision as their own (as-yet-undefined) characters' antagonists.

As a group, create one to three characters as the agents of peril and note them on the character network. At this point, those characters need only be described in approximate or general terms. For example, in the case of the bug rebellion situation from the example above, imagine that the players decide the agents of peril are the Insect General, hidden mastermind and instigator of the rebellion, and the Rich Bug Merchant, who unwittingly aids the insect rebels by selling the new breed widely across the Great City and perhaps beyond. While the other players are creating their characters, the GM will set the attributes for the Agents of Peril.


 To create a character, roll 1d8 three times to set your triad stones. This is your "character triad." If you have any moving stones, take scarabs and place them under the stones as described above in "The Symbolism of the Triads." This is called "vesting" the scarab in the stone; the function of vested scarabs is described below.

Human Characters

 First, allocate your +'s and –'s to the following traits:

  •  Age: old (+) or young (-)
  • Experience: urbane (+) or rustic (-)
  • Attitude: cruel (+) or kind (-)

Second, choose your class. If you have any "plus stones" (i.e., stones with the heads or + side up) or moving stones, you can choose to be a member of the class corresponding to the color of the stone. If you choose not to be a member of a class to which you are allowed to belong, you are a commoner (note: since commoners receive no game-mechanical benefit, the only reason to become one is if you are standing on principle).

  • Blue + : You can choose to be an aristocrat.
  • White + : You can choose to be one of the learned class.
  • Green + : You can choose to be of the mercantile class.

Next, determine your character's "intent" for the end-game. This is the player's answer for his or her character to the question, "Will you save the Great City?" The player may answer either yes or no, justifying or rationalizing that answer based on the throw of his or her triad stones. In other words: pick one of the stones you used to create your character. If that stone showed a plus, your answer is "yes"; if it showed a minus, your answer was "no." The reason for your answer must be based on the color of the stone, as follows:

  • Blue: Justify based on (proposed) deeds or actions.
  • White: Justify based on knowledge, beliefs, or perceptions.
  • Green: Justify based on relationships or interactions.

So, for example:

  • Blue + : "I will save the Great City by destroying its enemies."
  • Blue - : "I am not strong enough to save the Great City."
  • White + : "As the last bastion of humanity, it must be saved!"
  • White - : "For what we do to our slaves, we deserve destruction."
  • Green + : "I will defend the Great City to save my sister."
  • Green - : "No one here cares about me; why should I care for them?"

Give your character a name. Use the table below for inspiration; the names on that list evoke a rather alt-Victorian ambiance. Alter or replace that list with one of your own choosing to change the atmosphere to one you prefer. 

Table 4 * Great City Names *

Male Names

Female Names


 1 Alonzo

 2 Ambrose

 3 August

 4 Barnabas

 5 Bartholomew

 6 Clement

 7 Edwin

 8 Eldon

 9 Ezra

10 Gideon

11 Hiram

12 Horace

13 Leander

14 Lucian

15 Marcellus

16 Ninian

17 Obadiah

18 Simeon

19 Ulysses

20 Victor

 1 Almyra

 2 Eva

 3 Fidelia

 4 Helene

 5 Jessamine

 6 Leah

 7 Lila

 8 Mahulda

 9 Mercia

10 Minerva

11 Orpha

12 Parthena

13 Philomena

14 Preshea

15 Rowena

16 Rufina

17 Sophronia

18 Viviana

19 Zona

20 Zylphia

 1 Alcorn

 2 Blackmore

 3 Clune

 4 Doak

 5 Frewen

 6 Gullifer

 7 Hyem

 8 Jessup

 9 Kothe

10 Luckett

11 Mellor

12 Nornan

13 Oke

14 Polmear

15 Rouwe

16 Shinnick

17 Swais

18 Threlfall

19 Touzel

20 Urwin

Bug Characters

 Allocate your +'s and –'s to the following traits:

  • Motive: hungry (+) or curious (-)
  • Ability: cunning (+) or strong (-)
  • Nature: self-aware (+) or instinctual (-)

Choose your class. If you choose not to have the insect belong to a class to which it is entitled, the insect is a worker.

  • Blue + : This insect may be a myrmidon (warrior).
  • White + : This insect may be a drone (thinker).
  • Green +  This insect may be a queen (leader).

 Give your character a name. Depending on your conception of bug society, this may be a human name, a pet name or work designation used by people who interact with the character, or it may be a bug-language name, taking the form either of an unpronouncable series of syllables or a rough human translation of the name.

Character Resources and Connections

Place your character as a node on the character network.

Each player takes 3 scarabs as his or her starting resources. The GM receives 4 scarabs per player (not including himself or herself) and 2 more per agent of peril, plus additional scarabs for the attributes of those agents.

  • If your character is an aristocrat or a myrmidon, you may vest a scarab under your blue stone.
  • If your character is learned or a drone, you may vest a scarab under your white stone.
  • If your character is of the mercantile class or a queen, you get two additional "free" scarabs. Additionally, you may vest a scarab under your green stone.

Once all characters are on the character network, go around the table and give each player the chance to connect his or her character to one other character on the sheet and label that tie as either positive or negative. The GM does the same for the agents of peril.

You may spend scarabs from your purse for additional ties on a one-for-one basis. It is permissible to have both a positive and a negative tie to another character, and for ties to be reciprocated by each other.

  • If your character is an aristocrat or a myrmidon, you get one additional tie, either positive or negative at your option, to any other aristocrat or myrmidon on the sheet.
  • If your character is urbane or self-aware, you get one additional tie of either kind.
  • If your character is cruel, you get one additional negative tie to any other character on the sheet. If your character is kind, you get one additional positive tie to any other character on the sheet.


The game proceeds in scenes, each of which focuses on a single character. Other players may participate in that character's scene, even if their characters are not present in the scene.

The Mounting Peril. Put a stack of scarabs in the middle of the table; this is the "peril pool" for the game. When this pool is empty, normal play ends and the end-game begins. The size of the stack depends on the number of players: two players, 12 scarabs; three players, 24 scarabs; four players, 40 scarabs; five players, 60 scarabs. Any more and the game becomes unwieldy.

Initiative. Each player rolls 1d8. The player with the highest result starts the first scene. Resolve ties in class order (aristocratic/myrmidon, learned/drone, mercantile/queen, commoner/worker). Roll off if necessary. Play then proceeds around the table from the winner, with the GM coming at the end of the sequence (i.e., immediately before the winner's second and subsequent turns).

Running A Scene

(1) Start the Scene. The player declares his or her intended action for the scene, advancing the narrative line as desired from what has already been established. "I want to find the Bug General's hideout," or "I want to go about my daily activities, oblivious to the troubles around me."

Each scene involves an encounter of one sort or another between the focal or spotlight character and some other character, his or her foil. This should be construed rather broadly, however. So in the case of the first example given above, the scene may be framed as an encounter between the character and the Bug General, while in the second example it may shape up as an encounter between the character and the Great City in general (alternately, the GM may create a new character to personify exactly those troubles to which the spotlight character wishes to remain oblivious). There is room for negotiation, as when another player desires to interpose his or her character into the scene because he or she wants something from the spotlight character, but the preferences of the focal player take precedence.

(2) Ante. Take 1 scarab each out of the Mounting Peril pool for the foil and the spotlight character. Place them in the "ante," a pot of scarabs that will go to one of the players who participates in the scene. A player is allowed to ante from his or her own pool if taking from the pool is not desirable to him or her (typically, because he or she wishes to stave off the end-game).

(3) Establish the Initial Situation. Once the relevant characters are identified, the corresponding players throw their triad stones or, in the case of new GM character, the GM's dice. The GM reads the resulting triad-pair (focal character's triad first) as an indicator of the initial situation, describing that situation to the players. Other players must "buy in" to the scene for their characters by paying 1 scarab each to the ante.

(4) Flip Randomly. The GM then randomly flips one of the stones in the triad-pair to its opposite, using a six-sided die. The GM reads the name of the resulting triad-pair to the players, but not its judgment.

(5) Conduct Reaction Rounds. Starting with the spotlight player and going around the table in order (with the GM being situated at the end of the rotation, i.e., immediately prior to the spotlight player's turn on subsequent rounds of action), each player may:

(a) If his or her character is not in the scene, the player may ante a scarab and narrate his or her character's arrival.

(b) With or without a character present in the scene, the player may pass.

(c) With or without a character present in the scene, the player may affect the judgment of the oracle by flipping a stone via the use of traits, ties, and resources.

(d) With a character present in the scene, the player may accept the judgment of the oracle, and take the ante of scarabs into his or her purse. The  GM reads the judgment of the triad-pair, and the player assigns the right to interpret the judgment and narrate what it means to any other player who participated in the scene.

Using Traits. A trait can only be used to flip a stone if the character is in the scene. In order to use a trait, you must describe your character's deeds, thoughts, or words to flip a blue, white, or green stone respectively. Your description must fit the characterization in Table 5. For example, if you want to flip a blue stone, and your character is a kind, old, and urbane, you must describe deeds that are either helpful, cautious, or skillful. You can use a trait up to three times per scene, once each for deeds, thoughts, and words.

 Table 5 * Traits in Action *





Young (-)

Old (+)

Rustic (-)

Urbane (+)

Kind (-)

Cruel (+)



















Curious (-)

Hungry (+)

Strong (-)

Cunning (+)

Instinctual (-)

Self-Aware (+)



















Note that "deeds" refer to any physical action, however subtle or overt. "Thoughts" refer to perceptions, beliefs, insights, and other acts of cognition. "Words" refer to utterances of all sorts, including inarticulate ones, so long as they can reasonably be construed as bearing meaning (so signs and written language count). Note that there is a grey area between deeds and words, at least: is pronouncing a couple husband and wife merely words, or a deed as well? The linguistic issues involved should be hashed out on a case-by-case basis by the players.

Using Ties. Ties can be used to flip a stone of any color belonging to the character to whom the tie is directed, but positive ties can only be used to flip a minus stone to the plus side, and negative ties can only be used to flip a plus stone to the minus side. The character from whom the tie emerges does not have to be present, but the player must show how the relationship (which should be described in line with the characterizations in Table 6) affects the current situation, preferably by role-playing an appropriate interaction.

So, for example, if a kindly aristocratic myrmidon-owner wishes to influence the efforts of an artisan (of the mercantile class) to obtain materials to craft fancy war-spurs, and the aristocrat has a positive tie to the artisan, the aristocrat must describe or act out his benevolent patronization of the artisan, perhaps something along the lines of, "You remember me saying to you, 'There, there, my good man, I'm sure this task is well within the range of your capabilities, even such as they are. Keep at it!'"

Note that there is some leeway in terms of deciding whether a character is socially inferior, superior, or a peer. In general, aristocrats are peers to each other and superior to everyone else, while commoners are peers to each other and inferior to everyone else. Members of the learned class are usually at least peers to mercantile class members, and often superior, though the richest mercantile-types consider themselves peers of all but the noblest aristocrat.

Table 6 * Human Ties in Action *

From (Type)

To Inferior

To Peer

To Superior

Aristocrat (+)



Aristocrat (-)



















Learned (+)



Learned (-)





















Mercantile (+)



Mercantile (-)





















Commoner (+)



Commoner (-)





















Bugs are more limited in their range of social relations.

Table 7 * Insect Ties in Action *

Insect Class

Positive Tie

Negative Tie













You can use each tie once per scene.

Using Resources. You can also flip stones using scarabs. You can flip any one of your own stones or another player's by spending a free scarab from your purse. You should describe how your character uses his or her wealth, possessions, or other resources to influence the situation.

You may spend a vested scarab to flip the stone under which it's vested.

Spent scarabs go to the ante.

No one may re-flip a stone (i.e., flip it back again) until at least one other stone has been flipped subsequently. Note that this means that if someone has the wherewithal to flip all six stones on their reaction, no further flips are possible. However, if a stone has a scarab vested in it, the player who owns the stone may interrupt to move the vested scarab to the ante and immediately undo the flip, describing the character's impressive defense as he does so. The stone is still treated as flipped for the purposes of this "no immediate re-flip" rule.

After the player finishes his or her reaction (which may include multiple flips), the GM reads the name of the resulting triad-pair, but not the judgment.

(6) Take Rewards. At the end of each reaction round, each player who didn't pass and who has a character in the scene takes one scarab from the Mounting Peril pool. Additionally, a new scarab is added to the ante. Note that this doesn’t happen on any round where someone accepts the judgment of the oracle and takes the ante.

Ending the Scene

The player with narration rights has a lot of freedom to interpret the final triad-pair and affect the in-game situation. The player who won the ante has the option of distributing any amount of scarabs from his or her purse to a variety of places at this time.

  • to another player.
  • to be vested in one of his or her stones.
  • to the "Yea" or "Nay" purses.
  • to flip any stone in the Great City situation triad-pair.
  • to vest in any stone in the Great City situation triad-pair.


Normal play ends when at the end of a scene the Mounting Peril pool is empty. At this point, the end-game begins.

The player with the most scarabs in his or her purse wins the right to narrate the fate of the Great City in the face of the peril, in line with the judgment of the Great City's triad-pair and the distribution of scarabs in the Great City Fate box--if there are more Yea scarabs than Nay scarabs, the City is presumed to survive the peril; otherwise, it is presumed to succumb.

In order from fattest to thinnest purse (resolve ties with a die roll), each player narrates his or her character's final fate in line with the judgment formed by combining the character's triad with either the first half of Great City's triad pair (if the character was committed to saving the Great City) or the second half of the Great City's triad pair (if the character was not committed to saving the Great City).

Nothing in later-occurring end-game narration can contradict narration that occurred previously.


1. Say "EN tuh MUH suh NITH ee ist"; literally, "insect user": one of the learned scholar-breeders whose careful cross-breeding and genetic manipulation of insect species is responsible for the prosperity of human society.

2. Say "MEER muh don." A class of fierce warrior-insect, bred into fantastical new forms by entomosynitheists and trained in elaborate martial evolutions and demonstrations by the aristocrats of the Great City.

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A communication Ph.D., I teach public speaking and media-related courses in the middle of PA. I do research on scholarly/scientific communication, and I write & play roleplaying games.