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[Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about

Started by Ron Edwards, March 24, 2010, 05:51:17 PM

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Ron Edwards

Hi there,

I've written about Legendary Lives in both Fantasy Heartbreakers and More Fantasy Heartbreakers, and as time went on since those essays were placed, I finally got around to prepping and playing a bit with this game. I'm very late in posting about it, mainly because I'd hoped we'd be able to play it for a while. As it turned out, our game was scuttled by not one but two of the group members each having his third child.

I want to talk about the essays first, because Legendary Lives helps to clarify them and also I'll be amending one claim I made about that game in them. One reason it's a good one to start with is that it's arguably the single strongest of the bunch - in fact, a genuinely excellent game.

Why is it a heartbreaker, then? Doesn't that mean "sucks, or mostly"? The answer is no. If I could hammer an iron thought-spike through the head of anyone reading my stuff on the internet, it wouldn't have anything to do with the Big Model or GNS. It'd be, "The fantasy heartbreaker games were the 1990s revolution that died in the womb. Play them, recognize and get past whatever was uncritically retained/recapitulated in them, and learn from what they are."

Regarding the definition, I can only point to my extensive clarification that opens the second essay, which includes nothing about how good the game is, or how much good there is relative to how much bad. I don't think I ever used the phrase "nugget of gold in a pile of shit," which seems to be the current paraphrase, and which in my opinion is both insulting and inaccurate as a blanket definition. (Granted, that phrase does describe a couple of heartbreakers, but which ones is probably a personal call.)

Legendary Lives is a heartbreaker because of its reliance on D&D fantasy for its foundational content and the nigh-inevitable economic consequences. That doesn't change the fact that it's a tremendous game, far at the top end of games that I think of in that category (and better than most games published right now in the independent scene), and as such breaks my heart even more than the others do.

The good news is that it's available for free at the author's website: Legendary Lives. I also recommend looking up all the Williams' games there, especially Khaotic. I have some views on his depiction of his company's publishing history and Legendary Lives in particular, but that's probably for another thread.

I missed the boat in the second essay, too, when I was critiquing the way religion was typically presented in the heartbreakers; LL is the exception in this case, not because its treatment of religion is profound or historically plausible (for those, see Fading Suns, any Glorantha material, and Center Space), but because it's uniquely fun, relevant, and playable and remarkably integrated with every other aspect of the fiction and rules.

My first setup for a game of Legendary Lives dates back to almost three years ago, with Tim Koppang, Tim Alexander, and Christ Weill, but my first play was a quick run with Ralph Mazza. The game with the three guys got steamrolled by kids being born in two of the relevant households, and I haven't been able to get back to it until a rather solid evening session at Forge Midwest last weekend.

Basic mechanics
You can pick a character race or roll for it. Each character race has a series of fixed numbers for the many attributes, to which you add the result of a 1d6 roll for a final value. So there's a little, but not much differentiation within each race. The values, fortunately, are used directly in play in a simple way: to use a skill, use the number associated with its attribute; if you don't have the skill, use half that number for most things. Resolution itself is based on a percentage roll, with the number in question setting the various ranges associated with qualitative result levels from Catastrophic to Awesome. It's a lot like the Marvel Super Heroes system, actually. A lot of the time, you roll vs. a set success level, and the relevant value is the amount of columns you make it or miss it by.

But that's not the meat of character creation, which is very nearly all roll-driven ("no fault character creation" as Chis called it). After getting your attribute values, you roll for a few physical basics like height and build (qualitatively described), and your family background which establishes your initial funds and a couple skills. Then you choose a Type, subject to minimum Attribute scores. A Type is very much like character class, with the interesting clarification that this is your character's personal zone in life, regardless of actual in-game profession. That's kind of cool, because it corresponds perfectly and only to "level 2" in my breakdown of character class in The class issue. Since that level is both crucial and the easiest one to get confused about, I think Williams was exceptional in defining Type as he did.

OK, Type gets you more skills, some useful values-based guidelines for play, and crucially, a Devotion value. More on this soon, but you should know that all characters can call for Miracles based on this score. You now know you have a Netherman Knight or a Draconian Conjurer or whatever. You can now round out your skills, and in many games, this is where play would begin. Well, it goes on a bit more; you now roll for Eye Color, Hair Color, Hair Style, what the character Values, whom he or she Idolizes, what he or she Treasures, a Distinctive Feature, and two Personality Traits. You can alter the results a little to suit your concept so far, or even reject them to pick one, but you can't just start by picking them. And in most games with this sort of thing, now you'd begin ... but ha ha, you are playing Legendary lives, and the treat is just beginning.

First, you roll on the Religion table to find out how your character relates to his or her species religion(s). In some cases this is very complex and others quite simple, but the point is that you can be "heretic" or "fanatic" or whatever no matter what the religion is, or how complex ... and most interestingly, regardless of your personal Devotion score. You then roll five times on the lifepath (called Lifelines) table, and as with the Cyberpunk and previous lifepath systems, some of the results have sub-tables. When you're done, you put the five events in order as you see fit to make a character back-story.

And before you scoff and say, "I've seen all this before," I don't think you've seen it done this well. In Legendary Lives, you get a combination of events which usually problematize and/or explain every single thing about your character's race, religion, personal socioeconomic class, emotional life, personal flair and style, and Type. I don't think I've ever seen a roll-driven character creation system which always yields a unique, perfectly functional, and interesting character. Note that the only times you don't roll are (1) optionally choosing a race rather than rolling it, (2) choosing a Type, and (3) optionally rejecting a roll about the various observable character features.

He made up a Firbolg knight, whom we promptly dropped into a cemetery to fight a ghoul. Combat is an interesting sub-routine to the general roll table (the ART as it's called in the rules), adding Hit Location, Armor Defense, and a return to quantitative effects on the hit location. But the interesting things are how they're ordered in terms of real-people action; how character actions are ordered, which seems a bit loose but works well in practice; and how foes' bad-assedness is quantified.

1. When a foe attacks, the GM rolls Hit Location first. That allows me to say, "The ghoul strikes directly for your chest with its claws!" I do not roll. You roll your armor defense for that location, which has a rating like a skill. If you beat the qualitative descriptor column for the ghoul's claws (Good, Passable, whatever), then the armor stopped it. Otherwise we do a couple more things (based on how much you missed it) to arrive at a qualitative descriptor for the injury your chest suffers.

2. Character actions are ordered quite loosely. Basically, the GM choreographs, and then uses "common sense" to say who goes first. When it's ambiguous, use a quick Quickness contest, but this is tricky because foes have no listed Quickness. So my understanding is that you do that only when player-character action ordering is under question, and the foes' ordering is simply under GM control. That's a bit too much work for me sometimes if I have to come up with it whole cloth in the middle of a fight. As long as you play with a lot of scene-description, and allow for skill checks by players in order to validate their character concepts (i.e. familiarity with this kind of terrain could factor into one's defense rolls), then it works well.

3. Foes have a few important things listed, such as how good their attacks are as mentioned above, but the main thing is a simple list of the qualitative descriptors of the outcomes of rolls. A foe might have: Passable, Good, Good, Excellent, Awesome. What this means is that your attacks have to hit one of those results to hurt it. If you roll Passable, check off the Passable. But what you really want is to get higher results, because you check off all the ones below it too. So with the list I just wrote, the foe can be taken out with one Awesome shot. It shouldn't surprise you that the list for a dragon is four or five Awesomes, and that's it.

Ralph and I were both surprised by how logically and cinematically the fight went. The knight killed the ghoul, but it was close and exciting. At one point the ghoul slammed him down on his back with a strike to his chest, and then gnawed on his leg, but when the knight got his bearings, he beheaded it cleanly. There's a nice mix of action without much damage, scary bits with damage, and occasional cool moves. This is hard to do with percentile dice systems.

OK, next post is about the first try at an ongoing game.

Best, Ron

Ron Edwards

The guys: Tim K, Tim A, Chris
I had to twist their fucking arms to get them to play a fantasy heartbreaker with an extensive character creation system. In fact, I had to say, "Look, make up your characters, and then if you say you don't want to, we won't play."

We ended up with Lisster the Draconian Demonologist, who illustrated (as also seen in the Forge Midwest game) how significant it is to have an overweight character; Yaali the Hillman Scout, who was a whole Njal's Saga of feuding and torment all by himself (note that Tim K refused to use the recommended Hillman name list like Jeb and Joe-Bob); and Emil the Gypsy Spiritualist, who to my surprise gave me a whole cool dead NPC Entomolian to play all the time as his spirit guide.

I hardly know where to start in describing these characters, but effectively, all three were on the run, there were mothers and girlfriends and daughters and lost fathers and problematic friends all over the place, and each character could easily have been a central villain in any more standard fantasy gaming scenario. I was particularly happy with each character's back-story relative to religion, including a persecuted minority-faith (Yaali), a dismissive personal split (Lisster), and a nostalgic longing (Emil).

And that's what hit me between the eyes in prepping. Whoa – all this fucking awesome Color deeply integrated with Character, a relatively clear if rather simple Setting ... and somehow, no Situation at all. That's a Big Model hiccup right there.

So how does the GM prep for play? Does he plan an adventure, complete with steps and a planned climax, for characters to be dropped into? That's pretty much advised in the text, and there are some practical points for doing so, without ever really saying it outright. Or does he comb the extensive back-stories and associated NPCs for a situation which arises from the characters' pasts? Rather than have all the characters' Color turn into only Color (the "Village People go on an adventure" effect, especially prevalent in playing Everway), I opted for the latter. Obviously, given Colorful Character and Colorful Setting, excellent Situation is possible. But constructing it was wholly from the ground up, and genuine work!

This is exactly what got me eventually to post about Color-first character creation in Endeavor; that thread was steamrolled by the bith of my third child, but some day or year, I will follow up on it. Vincent's already been doing so at Anyway, which is excellent. It's also cool that Clinton independently used an LL character for that thread, too, and I'd like to know more about the experiences he and others have had with the game.

Fortunately, there was a shared element from the characters themselves: death and more death. Yaali worshipped the Hillman death-god and his Religion roll said his personal worship was persecuted, so that translated into some Setting stuff going on. Death is easily mapped to demonic stuff, so that was a cue for Lisster, and the whole Gypsy spirit thing is pretty much necromancy anyway, so that works. Plus, Emil was raised by hill folk, and hill folk territory borders on Entomolian territory too. So at least they were all plausibly there, if not a group. I was able to reach for a couple good monsters, the zombies and this thing which traps souls, as the basic foes of the scenario.

The first session brought Lisster and Yaali together with the latter basically working for the former, going to a powerful death-shrine and running into a variety of Hillmen drama about religion. They got to fight zombies. I found there were some tricky things about playing friend NPCs, especially because they are so common. The only rules recourse is basically to use them like Allies in Hero Wars – you describe their actions and get a "bump" in your roll results, with no rolls for them.

The second session brought a bit of solo time for Tim A, playing Emil. There was perhaps too much fun with the Sanity and madness rules, which are pretty devastating. Emil was basically stone crazy by the end of the session. The spirit guide rules are really cool.

Chris noted a couple of things about running down one's Spell Points ... it ties right into the improvement system by making Catastrophic results more likely as time goes by and hence checks for possible improvement of that magic skill. So late in an adventure, magic-slingers may well be generating catastrophic results left and right (always fun for the GM) and beefing up those skills.

Sadly, that was it for the game. I have carefully preserved the notes and sheets for some unknown day in which we'll pick it up again. Next post, I talk about playing at Forge Midwest and, um, well, Jews and Arabs. But it wasn't my fault this time!

Best, Ron

Ron Edwards

Forge Midwest! me, Ben, Larry, and Willow
These guys actually rolled for the races, although I encouraged Larry to re-roll the first Viking result. Larry had Gootch the Brownie Assassin (forgetful and serious; unhappy with Luck-based religion). Ben had Ra'ed bin-Akbar the Nomad Demonologist (innovative and spendthrift, if I remember correctly; fanatic about Islam Nirin but with a low Devotion score). Willow got Ctine the Serpentine (morose and gullible; committed to a political group which gave her thief training plus generally religious).

I think character creation worked its usual magic, but I want the others to post about what they think.

Now is the time for the Racism R Us discussion. I want to distinguish between the descriptive text and how it manifests in play. So, textually, and a bit provisionally because I haven't done this with a fine-tooth comb yet, I can break the character races into groups.

1. What looks like unadorned fantasy but isn't, because it's sort of like a snapshot of white American society. The dwarves are wage-slave laborers with their upper-class exploiters, and whether the "Be productive! Work is happiness!" slogans on their factory walls are lampooning capitalism or socialism is, I think, answered by "both." There are various elves which are effectively the whole range of ins-vs.-outs American political parties, even including the National Security Council and a kind of rogue/usurper CIA.

It's notable that the Elven Empire is the social center of the setting, with a light but rather hard-hitting history; the Draconic Empire is isolated and dwindling, and the Easterling and Nomad Empires are largely off the map such that characters from there are supposed to be travelling to the game setting. Also, all the human races/cultures are fully marginal, socially, culturally, and economically.

There's also an underclass in this category, including the Hobs (orcs, and more about these later), Ratlings (thieves), and Goblins (skulking troublemakers). I'd love to play a full-on game with many players, using only these races

And also, the fascinating detail of Elfins, who are nominally half-elves but highly specified to be more human-like, in fact – modern humans, in full, including wholly modern names. I think these are the gamer "You Are Here" characters. We speculated that Williams' convention play might well include Elfin characters who just happen to have the names of their own players.

2. Astonishingly pointed ethnic stereotypes. They include the Nomads, who are orientalist Arabs to a T, more-or-less as construed by Crusaders and early-20th-cent. Brits; the snake-people Serpentines, who are the early 20th-cent. Jews (Chris read the relevant stuff and went, "Ssssshalom!"); Brownies, who are particularly cute and potentially menacing Irish as construed by the English; Easterlings, written especially to make Ben moan and gnash his teeth as the ultimate pan-Asians; and in this category as well, the Hobs, absolutely unmistakable as American black people as construed by white culture in, say, 1940. Three of which were represented in this very game, as it unexpectedly turned out. The very extremity is jaw-dropping, but there's a punchline that I'll talk about later in the post. (Also, for reference, see my comments about fantasy races and ethnic issues in [RuneQuest: Slayers] Skulls, blood, other body fluids and the embedded links.)

It's 100% clear that the current Nomad Empire, which is mainly "off the map," is the former home of the Serpentines. Did I mention that the Serpentines are mercantile masters who secretly control most of the commerce in the various cities, working through front organizations?

Somewhat along the same lines, there are also light-genre humans: Vikings (from Erik the Viking), Corsairs (Errol Flynn pirates), Gypsies (more spiritual than thieving, but still thieving), Hillfolk (hillbillies), Foresters (same hillbillies, different terrain), and Barbarians (straight from the Conan movies).

Oh yeah, and there a few interesting exceptions: the Bushmen and the Nethermen (rather accurate Neanderthals), both of whom are depicted with considerable dignity.

3. And finally the few outliers who don't really fit into the setting well, or at least not as stereotypically-fitting participants: the very interesting and powerful Draconians, the bland but reasonably playable Wolflings, the almost-entirely bland Entomolians, and the very bland and annoying Avians. I'd recommend throwing all of them out ... but then you look at the Draconians and only an idiot wouldn't want to play one someday, so I can't toss any group out on the basis of this ethno-stereotype variable.

Ben nailed it: the very pointedness of the stereotyping is not finished content, but essential setup for problematizing the stereotype with your specific play. And if you happen to end up with a basically stereotype-confirmatory character (rare but possible), then he or she becomes a foil for everyone else's messiness.

situation: putting it together – this time, I actually planned to do a more text-based adventure prep and simply decree "you're a party," but as it happened, the Color-Setting thing kicked in so hard for the characters, that we could not imagine playing anything but a dramatic, open-ended interplay based on their back-stories. In more detail, when Ben and Larry had made their characters, we'd pretty much decided on a "party" context with the Brownie being the Nomad's slave/pet, but Willow's character was riddled with too much direct conflict to shoehorn into that, so we said she and the Demonologist knew each other but weren't a team.

Well, now I had to do some thinking. We had the back-stories, we had the player goals (which I asked be very specific tasks), we had the place (Baye in Brownie Country), and we had a couple of details like the circus and a Serpentine Alley. The NPCs and goals included:

- Ra'ed's derelict friend and dead girlfriend enemy, who I decided was kind of a combination Phantom and Vampire from the foe list: his goal was to kill the girlfriend again, which Ben apparently forgot all about once his character got blue balls from their not-quite-done sex scene. Ra'ed turned out to be a chubby, bald-on-top with flowing black hair demonologist who worked in the circus, disgruntled with his family and with a bad romantic triangle in his past concerning sex with both a man and a woman.

- Gootch's debts and returned girlfriend (Hootchie Koo): his goal was to earn her forgiveness, which was an easy GM call considering he's an assassin. The target was Seth, described below.

- Ctine's Zionist political group with thief training: her goal was basically an assigned mission, to hijack a Brownie mechanical superweapon. Her boss was Asp, whom we all kept calling "Seth" and I swear it was by accident every time. Willow's whole scenario hook was that she approached Ra'ed to swindle him into using his magic to help her, even though the whole point of her political group was to ravage a Nomad village (formerly a Serpentine village).

Play is tough on GM! Or rather, on the GM I am now, as this stuff used to be a main concern for me but is now too draining relative to where I'd prefer to put my efforts. I had to move things along all the time, with rolls being a good baseline but also with NPC activity. The real signals are found in rolled Catastrophes and Awesomes, which are in fact reasonably frequent. If this is what you mean "good GMing" (and it is a skill, constant and genuine Participationism leadership), then the game knocks it out of the park.

The main thing was the interaction between Ctine and Ra'ed using the Sincerity and Lying skills.
Fun twist is Gootch successfully killing Asp (gunch! Stabbed right through the eye), and how no one quite understood that he did it, and him not knowing that Asp was central to what the other two characters were doing it until too late.

I guess it sort of turned into the plot of Pulp Fiction, if one of the characters had killed Marcellus Wallace through a series of interesting misunderstandings.

Gootch realized what a pickle he'd created and ran off with his girlfriend and Ra'ed's money. Ra'ed bound Asp's spirit into the machine (hilariously, using Gootch's knife without knowing Asp was ultimately his employer for this very job), then was killed by the vampire chick and the now-vampire ex-boyfriend (shouldn't have played such a lone hand, Ra'ed!). That particular outcome wasn't the certainty that this summary implies, but Ra'ed got hosed when the boy vampire delivered a critical to his head. Ctine did successfully steal the machine and ride it to battle and out of the story, but she also mistakeny co-opted it under her control, so her interactions with the spirit of the probably-very-resentful Asp and the machine o'destruction are left to theoretical later play.

Sadly, we all forgot about Miracles, which would have been especially interesting in the vampire scenes. The Miracle rules are universal in mechanics and effects, which I think is a nifty concept given the diversity of religions, although you're supposed to stick to the given religion's Color for narration purposes.

Best, Ron
all the edits were to add boldface to the headings - RE

David Berg

The whole "tons of material for inspiration, no ready-to-go situations" thing definitely sounds familiar.  And that familiarity's centered in early '90s publications for me too -- AD&D2, Marvel Superheroes, Rifts, Cyberpunk2020, Shadowrun, Vampire, and Werewolf, mainly.

Part of the fun of GMing these games, for me, was getting to take all that inspiration and create situations.  It was fun!  Whether that's an awesome thing these games helped me do, or a gross oversight of theirs that I bailed them out on, I couldn't say.

Things tended to work out when I pitched the game to people after I'd already decided what it was going to be about.  But on those occasions when someone else had already read the book and formed their own impressions, there was a lot of gap to bridge.

Ron, I enjoyed reading about the Legendary Lives characters and setting and factions and color, but I was stunned by what you chose to do with it at Forge Midwest!  Here I was getting all pumped for perspective clash in the pressure cooker of a group mission (a la my Werewolf game that we had those long threads about), and you guys did this maze of ordinary personal growth, color grab bag of spirit/machine/vampirism, solo bits, and killing each other?  I mean, that sounds fun, but after reading everything that led up to it, it caught me completely by surprise.

Perhaps that's one of the big risks of Fantasy Heartbreakers?  If you don't bring your own "get on the same page" skills, no one agrees on what play's supposed to be like?


P.S. I love that qualitative "hit points" list for enemies.  Sounds like it would enable you to really customize the color and experience of fighting different foes.
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Ron Edwards

Hi Dave,

I GMed as you describe for decades. I was really, really good at it. Here are some of my thoughts after all that time.

1. The more my desire for us to produce "a good story" was developed in this fashion, the less the other people's similar desires found ways to get integrated into play, aside from pre-game programmed setup. The ideal player for such a GM is acquiescent, thespian, and not particularly assertive regarding what his or her character actually wants and does. The worst possible player is someone like him or her, artistically speaking.

2. It was work that over time, did not pay off creatively. The effort "worked" insofar as my prep was so good (in this sense) that everything turned out like it should, including the subroutine bits that had been included as "well, this bit can go one way or the other without causing problems." It also worked insofar as I ran regular player polls to keep abreast of what everyone else liked and wanted to follow up on. The net effect of "working" like this is simply wearing-out, especially after several repetitions of upping the scale of the conflicts without seeing much difference in what they were like as a fun activity.

3. I hate missions. I dislike mission-based stories, generally. I don't see them as pressure cookers, but as an uninteresting venue for characters to posture at one another (Snikt! Hey, Wolverine, sheathe your claws! ... kill me now). When there's a mission in a story, and I like the story, one of the primary features I've noted is that the mission has largely been abandoned or utterly subverted by a fairly early point in the goings-on.

Now, all that said, I actually did intend for our Legendary Lives game to be pretty straightforward in terms of a few allied characters in a tight situation. When Ben and Larry made up their characters, I simply said, OK, we have a sinister foreign demonologist, and a native assassin, and the latter as a race relish being slaves as long as they get well-treated. Fine, Larry, your guy is Ben's guy pet. But when Willow came along and the luck o'the dice provided a Serpentine right here with our Nomad ... and then it turns out that she's totally a member of Irgun this political organization with criminal and violent tendencies ... well, we decided that the two knew one another, but that it would be stupid for them to be a bunch of drinking buddies and fellow "adventurers."

Your summary of our game is incorrect in one key point: no player-character killed another, nor attacked or threatened another, at any point. Asp was an NPC. This wasn't Blood Opera, and the various possible conflicts of interest that arose could well have turned in different directions in play, depending on how certain rolls, deceptions, and decisions went.

Best, Ron

David Berg

Hi Ron,

Different worlds, man.  "Produce a good story" was never a high priority in my groups.  This means I never experienced some of the difficulties you mention (like "How do other people contribute to my good story?"), but we also never had story-creation as glue to allow us to use other techniques you've certainly gotten great mileage out of.  For example, with our focus on virtual experience, it became problematic to split up the characters, because if your guy wasn't in a scene, you felt like you weren't playing any more.  I still have "keep the party together!" instincts, and it's always fun to step outside of those when playing with folks who are good at cutting back and forth between characters' scenes.

I still like my missions, but nowadays I always integrate them with character goals.  If the characters have a reason to want to do the mission, and success or failure repositions them with respect to stuff they care about, then the players can dig in and not fall back on crap like the posturing you mention.  Giving the players the option to pick and initiate missions also makes a big difference, I've found.

Sorry about the misreading on character murder.  Honestly, your Forge Midwest session sounds equally fun to me either way!

I'd be curious to hear your take on the relative virtues/vices of Legendary Lives' state of "it's up to you to decide and communicate what your game will be about, but we've given you tons of jumping off points!"  Not sure if I'm whiffing on the intended purpose of this thread, but out of the Fantasy Heartbreaker talk, that's what grabbed me.

here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Ron Edwards

Hi Dave,

My call is that Legendary Lives doesn't give you jumping-off points. There's a distinct and procedurally-bounded gap between the end of character creation and the phase that might be called "practical prep," meaning preparing to play with these characters and these people as the first or next actual session.

As a contrast, the original Cyberpunk was a little different: you had some similar stuff in character creation, with lifepaths and all - but given that the text was extremely specific regarding what play was like and what characters did, and most importantly the creative goal of doing so, there was only a little "jump" between the end of character creation and the combined prep-and-then-play phase I'm talking about. As I recall, all you really needed was for everyone to know what sort of immediate environment the characters were in, what sort of group they were in (if there was one), and who might be in authority over them.

Granted, that game wasn't entirely seamless at that point, and there were in fact breakdowns in groups whose members (meaning people, not characters) couldn't arrive at a local mix of certain fictional and thematic variables, much as in Champions. I won't list the details because there are several issues to talk about at once and that gets confusing. My current point is that in prepping and playing Cyberpunk, the characters' personal back-stories and color could conceivably and procedurally feed into the next practical step in getting to play. But in Legendary Lives, the gap at that moment yawns open into a black hole. I have no doubt that the Williamses have their own way of hopping it. But what that way is, I don't know. If the GMing text in the game itself is an indicator, then it seems to be along the lines of a fairly step-by-step adventure into which any characters can conceivably be dropped. But GMing text in rulebooks is notoriously untrustworthy in terms of what the authors actually do in their own games.

Don't get me wrong regarding the Legendary Lives text. The GMing material is very lucid and helpful if one is making an adventure into which to drop a grab-bag of colorful and eager player-characters, for players who are happy to enjoy your adventure. It's simply unknown whether that's what the Williamses do in their own games, and that's not a criticism, that's normal for our hobby.

To sum up, I think your summary is too simplistic, for a crucial bit of create-and-prep-and-play which has received almost no critical attention in discussions to date. I've just tried to describe two games which on paper look quite similar in terms of character creation and what tools are available, but in practice operate differently. If I can spot the difference between just those two, then clearly there are vast differences and a much broader range of tools to discuss.

Best, Ron

Larry L.

What Ron doesn't mention is that I almost jumped with glee when he pulled the Legendary Lives book out of his bag. I've been wanting to play this since I read a review in Dragon 195. (That's 1993!) Thanks for running this, Ron.

As fondly as I remember the lifepaths in Cyberpunk... Legendary Lives blows Cyberpunk out of the water.  Ben managed to turn a bunch of random rolls into a pretty fucked-up sexy backstory. I got a character with a ton of personality. (I missed Willow's chargen because I was off printing the very necessary character sheets.) This is stuff you don't come up with from scratch. This is old-school "emergent" table-rolling at its very best.

Hey wait... were there actually two separate Serpentines named Asp and Seth, Ron, or are you continuing to get the name confused above? Cause it occurs to me maybe I should have gotten that little detail nailed down a little more solidly before stabbing some dude in the face. Oops!

Ron Edwards

Hey Larry,

Thanks for reminding me about that! It was great to have your enthusiasm about the game at the table, and I hope this thread inspires some more people to try it out. "The further adventures of Gootch" would make a fine saga.

As far as plain content is concerned, yeah, Legendary Lives has the best lifepaths I've ever seen. But in terms of translating that material into "what're we gonna do?" at the practical prep level, the first Cyberpunk was a lot more straight-into-it (although not 100% smooth).

Asp was the character's name, going by the range of name options given in the book for Serpentines (and Willow's character's name, Ctine, was an excellent and in fact very pretty example of working with that range). "Seth" came into it when I half-exasperatedly said, "We might as well call him Ssssseth, though," strictly as an aside. There wasn't any Seth in the story actually.

So yes - you had Gootch stab Willow's boss right in the eye. The same one who instructed her to get Ra'ed to steal the machine. And whose soul Ra'ed then ended up binding into the machine from Gootch's knife, making a nice savage outcome that Asp did, indeed, get his machine after all.

My favorite part of all this concerns the various Lying and Sincerity rolls conducted among the three characters (Ra'ed and Ctine, then Gootch and Ra'ed), which in combination had everything to do with what each character knew or believed at any given moment. That's really what made our story.

Best, Ron

Christoph Boeckle

Hello Ron

You got my attention where you state that what this game's rules achieve in combat is hard to achieve with percentile dice-systems. I know you've got a lot to say about how dice are used since before the "System does matter" article (BTW, any chance we'll see the dice discussion taken from the Sorcerer mailing list you had on the old version of the Sorcerer site again?)
I suspect that you're not just saying, "percentile sucks", since Legendary Lives is a percentile dice-system. How come this one managed it despite the d%? Are there other dice-techniques that inherently start better off to achieve such logic and cinematic results in combat, given similar overarching structure of resolution? If yes, how?

I enjoyed your detailed comment on this game's very rich and interesting character creation system, and how it stops short of generating Situation.

Ron Edwards

Hi Christoph,

I'm not sure how much of the quick summary I'm about to give is known to you, or standard knowledge for everyone reading. I apologize in advance for any inadvertent patronizing. I'm also limiting the discussion to very basic, long-standing methods of rolling dice in role-playing games. So the first thing is setting up a simple contrast.

- Flat. The chance of getting any single value is the same for every value. The most common example is rolling a single die for its facing value. Using two d10s for a d100 role is flat too.

- Curved. The chance of getting a value in or near the middle of the range is higher than getting a value at either end. The most common example is rolling a fixed number of dice (more than one) and adding up the pips for a total.

(I am leaving out all other ways to read dice, especially those for which many dice are rolled and successes are rated per die and then accumulated, as in White Wolf's mechanics or Fudge dice, and also those which use highest-value, like Sorcerer and many games since its publication, and single-die rolls subject to re-rolls as in Dying Earth. They are relevant to this discussion but have various curves of their own, especially when the target numbers vs. opposed rolls issue is brought into the mix.)

I'm not saying one is better than the other, but their distinct properties are consequential. It's not surprising that both were retained through what I think of the three "tracks" of RPG design throughout the 1980s: flat in the form of d20 for various permutations of D&D, and also in the form of d100 for BRP games; curved in the form of Tunnels & Trolls handful o'dice and The Fantasy Trip's 3d6 (roll equal to or under a target), immortalized by Champions and GURPS.

Anyway, perhaps best illustrated by Rolemaster, the flat method includes a huge pitfall awaiting the uncritical game designer. In Rolemaster, the far ends of the spectrum (close to 01, close to 00) led to rolling on further tables, the critical hits and critical misses ones. And those as well featured a variety of mild-to-extreme results, with the latter at the "ends" of the numerical spectrum. The problem is that when rolling "flat," getting a number at the far end (03 out of 100, say) is just as probable as any other. If we're talking about many rolls (to hit with a sword, say), then yeah - having 75% skill is better than having 35%. But if we're talking about a single roll, not only the chance for success but especially the chance to jump to the critical tables based on rolling a particular value, then the difference in skill is totally irrelevant - especially in terms of whether you're going to the gruesome-miss table or the awesome-success table.

Early BRP had similar problems, but it's more complicated because (i) it was really a d20 roll rather than d100 because the units were always in 5% increments and (ii) the damage was a separate roll. But this is why early RuneQuest was quickly nicknamed "LimbQuest" because so many characters lost limbs in the first combat of play, and why Rolemaster's critical hit tables are so notorious. Especially since those games featured customized, rather laborious character creation, it was pretty grim to see one's guy mutilated in ways which - although not necessarily understood in full by players - were obviously orthogonal to whatever the high numbers on one's sheet were supposed to indicate about the character. The late-80s game Justifiers was insanely prone to this problem.*

(Interesting aside: this is exactly why in the brands of D&D that I played back in 1978-1982, one's roll to hit was not particularly valued as a score to want to improve - it was the damage one tried to boost and make most reliable, favoring multiple-dice damage rolls for consistency and lots of pluses to avoid the dreaded hit-for-one-point anticlimax.)

(Interesting aside II: Unknown Armies uses percentile resolution. Its "criticals" are found in doubled digits: 11, 22, 33, and so on. Since the roll is flat, the difference between this mechanic and putting the criticals at either end is negligible in terms of probabilities, but it's easier in terms of handling time. More on UA in a minute.)

OK, so for percentile or any flat-based rolling to work, here's what comes to my mind to avoid the pitfalls.

1. Since the differences in percent between two characters with the same skill/ability will be manifest only over many rolls, not a single-roll-each comparison, if you want that difference to mean something, then the consequences of any single roll should be relatively minor, allowing for lots and lots of instances of rolling without getting, for instance, decapitated on the second one. Designing mechanically-minor but narratively-forward-moving consequences becomes the primary design challenge, and if that's too hard (as I think is indicated historically), then points 3 and 5 below should be maximized.

1'. Which is also related to what die or method you'll use in the first place, specifically how many units. The rule of thumb is that you'll need at least as many instances as (for dice) sides of the die in order to discern the probabilistic differences. So this is why d100 gets such a bad rep - you need more than a hundred sword-swings to see the higher chance for success actually manifest itself between two characters. (If this seems wrong to you based on your experiences, it's likely that you perceive the higher-skilled character's success at any point as validating the higher score, and the converse with the failures of the lesser-skilled character, cognitively diminishing the contrary results as "less important.")

2. The characters' differences in ability should be expressed in terms of how many units of the spectrum are different from character to character, and this should be more nuanced than merely success vs. failure, or also, in the case of BRP, more consequential than the difference between 5% vs. 4% for a fumble. For instance, in Legendary Lives, each gradation of one's score (1 to 20) is not itself a probability; it's a line of the resolution table which expands and contracts all the various ranges of the standardized qualitative results within the 1-100 range. The link in my first post takes you to the game, so you can check this out yourself and I won't try to describe it fully here.

3. The roll should be modifiable through immediate play, whether just before or just after, to affect the chances. Legendary Lives does this with column shifts, due to played circumstances and also set-up augmenting rolls, and Unknown Armies does it too if I recall correctly (flip-flopping, but when/how you get to flip-flop, I can't remember). Any number of bonus-y techniques and associated fictional content are available for this purpose; my point is that all rolls of (for instance) to-hit are not narratively equal, so sometimes, saying, "Well, I missed this time, but in the long run, my 75% will show up as a high level of skill," is not enough. When this roll is more important, different logic applies in terms of personal-enjoyment. A lot of mid-80s play utilized a "burn experience for a roll bonus" house-rule for just this reason. Unknown Armies has its flip-flopping, for instance.

4. Deeply reconsider utilizing opposed rolls, and if you do, then have a really operational, tested-for-fun reason. Legendary Lives was one of the first role-playing games for which the GM never rolls (you know, I keep thinking I remember one before the early 1990s, but then I forget again - can anyone help with that? Or am I remembering only almost-RPGs, like Fighting Fantasy?).

5. Failure needs to be interesting. In both Legendary Lives and Halmabrea (which also uses d100), the instructions for the GM are helpful regarding (i) a failed roll may not mean actual failure of the intended action, but some delay or problematic elements along with the success; and (ii) catastrophic failures should be very distinct plot-moving moments, not merely graphic depictions of the character's ineptitude. Legendary Lives also has the skills improve with either maximal success or maximal failure, so that the latter feeds into the reward mechanics just as much as the former. A little more subtly, the ordering of successes and failures can also impact the character, as with the direction your character slides on the Madness Meters in Unknown Armies (am I remembering that right? something like that, anyway).

Anyway, that's what I came up with for now. Christoph, is that helpful or interesting? Too basic or obvious maybe?

Best, Ron

* I bring this up to point out (i) I have in fact played Justifiers by the book, for which I expect some relatives were released early from Purgatory; and (ii) I GMed a very satisfying Justifiers game at Forge Midwest, using Levi Kornelsen's The Exchange. That'll be a thread soon.

Lance D. Allen


Your last post is deeply important to me, as Mage Blade uses a single d20 roll -vs- target number (roll under, though I doubt that matters much) but I'm having a very hard time grokking everything you just said.

Most specifically, what I don't get is how on a single roll a difference between 35% and 75% is irrelevant. If you need to roll between 1 and 75 as opposed to 1 and 35, it seems like this difference, even on a single roll, is pretty important. I get that it is statistically identical to roll a 99 as it is to roll a 1, but it's not the specific number that matter so much as which side of a dividing line it's on. There are 75 possible chances to succeed in the former case, and only 35 possible chances in the latter. Please explain to me what I'm not understanding?

Also, I've heard your opposition to opposed rolls before, but I've never understood it, either. Mage Blade also makes extensive use of this.

If it's an important datapoint, in most, if not all, instances, the difference between the target number and the roll is important. This is true even in the case of opposed rolls.

As this isn't talking about Legendary Lives precisely, I'm perfectly fine with taking this to another thread if you feel that's appropriate. I have been expired to gank me a copy of Legendary Lives to see what about the lifepath system is so spectacular, though.
~Lance Allen
Wolves Den Publishing
Eternally Incipient Publisher of Mage Blade, ReCoil and Rats in the Walls

Ron Edwards

Hi Lance,

This is a fine topic to stay within this thread, no big deal.

The difference between 35% and 75% using a flat technique is indeed enormous ... given a lot of instances to compare. The trouble is that it's practically impossible for the mind to not think in terms of lots of instances; we're hard-wired to do it even when thinking about "this one time." Even saying "the chance" implies a whole bunch of instances.

If we're talking about how well a character swings his or her sword, rated in percentage terms, then I dunno what to tell you, except that the human mind snaps so hard into thinking about "over time," "in general," "overall," and basically "a single instance in the context of many," that we practically don't even have the language to talk about this one time as an isolated event.

All I can do is talk about the numbers. Craps is the perfect game for this point - you can't play Craps with just one die. It relies heavily on the minor but definite bell curve of possible results on a single roll. You can get a 7 by rolling 6+1, 5+2, 4+3, 3+4, 2+5, and 1+6. By contrast, you can only get a 2 by rolling 1+1. So within that single roll, the chance for a 7 is higher. That's what makes a curved method. It matters to that one roll. That's why you can bet on Craps as it stands, but no one, even in the throes of the various gamblers' fallacies, would bet on Craps played with a hypothetical 11-sided die numbered from 2 to 12.

I understand what you're saying about success being 1-75 rather than 75 all by itself. I'm saying that when you say, "the chance," or refer to more than one number possibly being rolled, i.e. the range, you're automatically talking about "over many instances." So everything you're saying is right - over many instances.

I get the impression you think I'm saying flat methods are bad. They're absolutely not. They simply have characteristic pitfalls if they're designed without understanding these points, at least intuitively. I even provided a number of ways in which historical RPG design has made flat methods work well - Legendary Lives is a good example of thoughtful design, and there are others. I should point out as well that in Call of Cthulhu, the most important roll, the Sanity Check, is a flat method like all other resolution rolls in that game ... and it works well because no single roll smashes the character down from max to nothing. Losing Sanity and not losing it, in CofC, is a matter of repeated rolls - which matches to my point #1 for making such systems work.

If you design Mage Blade with a good flat-method resolution rolling method, then that's excellent. I look forward to it. (I also agree with you that over vs. under is not an issue.)

I agree that using the roll for further information - degree of effect, not merely success/failure - adds benefit and makes immediate use of the existing range. That would be another whole variable to talk about too, 'cause people have done it in so many ways (with or without a second roll, for example, and if with, whether the first roll influences the second). I restricted my points in the above post almost entirely to raw success vs. failure, and the associated detail of extreme versions of either. I did not talk about degrees of effect at all.

And simply to close the door on further confusions, I could go into further detail about various hassles with the curved resolution methods too, with examples of crappy and good applications. Choosing a curved method does not automatically make the rolling mechanic good. I'm talking about flat methods in this thread because that's what Legendary Lives uses.

And since you brought it up, I don't know where you get the idea that I disapprove of opposed rolls. Sorcerer relies only on opposed rolls, as does It Was a Mutual Decision and (somewhat more slowly) S/Lay w/Me. Trollbabe and Elfs don't. I've written about how combining target numbers and opposed rolls has led to needless woes in many game designs, but that's a nuance, not a criticism of opposed rolls in and of themselves. And I've even seen some versions of that which have ended up working, as long as they have some supportive mechanisms along the lines of my #1-4 points, Hero Wars, for instance.

My advice was not to avoid using opposed rolls. It was to use them with concrete and coherent reasons for why in this particular game, they (and their associated mechanics) are fun.

Best, Ron

Callan S.

I don't think there's anything wrong with a single roll that smashes someone down from max to nothing - you just have to decide as designer if you want a game that could very well end in two minutes flat (or even less).

One would need to look at maintaining regular social dynamics though - you can't have one guy basically lose the game alone, then sit there, locked to his seat by social manners after being killed in the second minute, while everyone else plays for hours. One way out is if someone gets their head lopped off or goes entirely insane in one roll, it's game over for everyone. Again, if a two minute game session is okay for the design, then this is okay.

Though that's an interesting thing to note - most traditional game sessions end when everyone decides the session ends, rather than a mechanic saying 'this session is over'. There's alot of 'play as long as we want to' attitude out there with roleplayers, rather than 'play until the game says it stops' (though really they are the same - you can just start up another game when one session of it ends, so it's kinda a pointless attitude).

Also come to think of it, alot of boardgames and cardgames have people sit out - but it's usually not for a disproportionate time - people might drop out three quarters of a game in in something like the card game 'lunch money', not in the first minute. Also these games usually don't go for hours (though monopoly does).
Philosopher Gamer

Ron Edwards

Moderating: Callan, that post reads like free-association and doesn't contribute to the discussion.

This thread is about the Legendary Lives games I've played and various issues that crop up from that. I'd like to stick with them.

Best, Ron