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Author Topic: Simplifying Nine Worlds  (Read 7284 times)
Matt Snyder
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« on: March 23, 2003, 01:33:34 PM »

I wrote this for my Live Journal, and thought I'd share here as well:


I have just spent the last couple hours actually working on re-vamping the game design for Nine Worlds. I’ve been putting this off far too long. Last week, I realized I needed to greatly simplify the game as I’d conceived it. I’ll attempt to explain succinctly.

Nine Worlds is about the Demiurgist’s (i.e. all player characters) decision to do things according to the rules laid forth by the gods and their forbears or by one’s own reckoning. Originally, I had divided this out, even mechanically, between doing things “naturally” according to Virtues -- what the god and the collective conscious of the universe says is good  -- and “supernaturally” according to your Urges – what you, the Demiurgist thinks is good or should be.

In that sense, the character sheet became almost literally divided between these two things. When you as a player entered conflict, you decided whether you’ll resolve it naturally using your own Virtue or supernaturally using your own Hubris (which is actually a good thing in the game, really). This choice determined which “side” of the sheet you’d be using for the conflict.

Needless to say, it got really confusing. It was drenched in Greek philosophical terms, many of which had subtle distinctions. Further, trying to reach some equilibrium for each side was impossible. I kept adding solutions to balance other solutions until the whole thing was too complicated.

Hence the need for simplification. With that decision came a sort of personal epiphany about RPG design in general -- I finally got over my own tendency to see things in a very traditional way. Specifically, I found no need to model actual characteristics -- mental, social, or physical -- of characters. (Sorcerer was enlightening in this regard, notably.)

Rather than modeling things like “Wits” or maybe Coordination, or even more abstract notions like Wisdom or Courage, I’ve taken a different course. And, I see no need to include things like personal skills. The game operates on a more distant, meta-game level that I find refreshing. It certainly won’t be for everyone. But, I think it’ll be something intriguing. That’s my hope, anyway.

Characters still do have attributes, I guess, but they model effectiveness overall, rather than physical, mental, etc. Specifically, characters possess Arete (excellence and virtue) and Hubris (pride and a gauge of “self”). These two are the pivotal attributes, and form the basis for the key metagame mechanic.

In addition, all player characters have four Urges. These might be thought of as magical powers, but in fact they gauge both natural and supernatural effectiveness. These are: Chaos (the urge to destroy), Cosmos (the urge to create), Metamorphosis (the urge to transform) and Stasis (the urge to make constant). These four elements indicate a character’s effectiveness at doing the work of the Demiurge. The actual actions a character performs in a conflict are purely color and therefore fodder for narration by all players. What’s ultimately important is how the character affects the universe itself, though granted often on a small scale.

So, in effect, the character’s attributes do not model his ability, but rather his potential. They aren’t predetermining an action before conflict, but rather informing what that action’s consequences are after the fact. This distinction has been helpful to me, at least, in challenging my own assumptions in how RPGs work. That alone is reason enough to create the game -- it was a goal I set out to accomplish. Should I alter one other hobbyist in that regard, then I’m a friggin’ over-achiever.
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Matt Snyder
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« Reply #1 on: March 23, 2003, 05:28:19 PM »

Cool!

I actually think I like this game even more now. It's good when the "magic" of the character is built right into the system.

So if the character wants to bust heads, he uses Chaos + Arete in an old-fashioned street brawl, Chaos + Hubris to whip out the old ball of abysmal flames. Likewise, to patch someone up in an operating room, Stasis + Arete, but to patch someone up by laying on hands, Stasis + Hubris?

If so, these Demiurgists are going to come off like Renaissance men, but I think that's a good thing for this game.
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Matt Snyder
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« Reply #2 on: March 23, 2003, 08:34:29 PM »

Quote from: Spooky Fanboy
Cool!

I actually think I like this game even more now. It's good when the "magic" of the character is built right into the system.


Thanks SF! Glad to know you dig it. I'm finally groovin' on this design thing, so I'll be posting more soon.

Quote

So if the character wants to bust heads, he uses Chaos + Arete in an old-fashioned street brawl, Chaos + Hubris to whip out the old ball of abysmal flames. Likewise, to patch someone up in an operating room, Stasis + Arete, but to patch someone up by laying on hands, Stasis + Hubris?


Not quite, but your thinking is in the right place. In fact, it's a bit more abstract. In fact, you'll not be adding Arete / Hubris to the other stuff. Rather, those two indicate how many cards you draw in a conflict 'round' (which I think is not different than what I've detailed previously).

Here's how it works: You enter a conflict. Immediately, you must decide whether you'll be using Arete or Hubris to tackle the issue at hand. Let's say you pick Arete. That means that you have the potential to improve your Arete -- it stands to gain from any rewards you might earn. However, you do so at the peril and risk of the opposite virtue, Hubris. Hubris is in jeopardy when you select Arete to resolve the conflict. But, interestingly, it also offers the potential to aid your Arete-driven goals. You can sacrifice Hubris to help the situation. All the while, Arete is protected. Because you've chosen it, it's sacrosanct. Your action, pass or fail, is carried out (in this case) with the approval of the goods. They see it as a virtuous act, rather than a selfish one.

So, all of this fairly big-picture stuff is to explain that things like, say, supernatural healing are not necessarily Arete-driven or Hubris driven. They can be either. In fact, natural-ness and supernatural-ness are now effectively color within the context of the aciton.

So, let's say you need to heal someone, somehow -- supernaturally or otherwise. You may select either Arete or Hubris, and are likely to go for the one that offers you better chances of success (so long as the other in jeopardy is not too dangerous a prospect). Once the conflict is resolved, then its up to you to narrate how the healing gets done. Your characteristics do not define supernaturalness. They just describe potential results. So, you could narrate your character calling 911 just in time or narrate that celestial light warms the gaping wound, closing it in supernatural fireworks and goodness.

It's up to you, but you should consider the context. If you had used Arete, you should explain how/why the "gods" or just the natural order considers your action virtuous.

Quote

If so, these Demiurgists are going to come off like Renaissance men, but I think that's a good thing for this game.


Agreed. That's pretty much the idea! And my above explanation -- hoping that it's not too confusing! -- should give you a hint that Renaissance man doesn't even begin to describe it, because the potential for coloring how all this natural or supernatural effectiveness goes down is great. They can possess all kinds of potential and power.

Another tidbit --this is where the Urges get really neato. Those powers indicate how you can use "Tricks" which are the currency of conflict. For example, with 4 tricks earned using the Metamorphosis urge, you can adjust four points on either yourself or your opponent. This lets you actually change your opponent's stats, or even your own! You could move all a character's scores into, say, Chaos (destruction) and you can describe it as maybe turning the character into a beast or a raging inferno, or a storm, or maybe simply just pissing him off so bad he freaks out ("You won't like me when I'm angry."). The neato thing here is that you also are reducing his effectiveness elsewhere having moved his scores from the other urges to Chaos. You can do the same for yourself.

Other means: Cosmos lets you add points from "thin air" to your attributes. Stasis sets up "locks" that act as a currency barrier that must be paid for before other effects/urges can do their work. Chaos, not surprisingly, actually destroys attribute ratings.

All these means are the crux of the game, and they can affect both Urge scores AND the two virtues: Arete and Hubris. Destroying the virtues spells elimination from the game.

And consider -- elimination from the game is quite different from death. With this simpler, more abstract system, characters can be "dead" and continue one with much the same effectiveness. They might go to the underworld, escape, inhabit new bodies, whatever. Death isn't the ultimate end, losing one of the two virtues is. Lose all your Arete, and you've offended the natural order with your hubris. The Furies come and tear your ass apart (art by Eric Lofgren). You're eternally damned, in a fate worse than Hell. Lose all your Hubris and you've destroyed your sense of self. Your existence is forgotten, and you become part of the natural order itself, a token of the gods. Not quite oblivion, but maybe it's worse.
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Matt Snyder
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« Reply #3 on: March 24, 2003, 07:50:15 AM »

Hmm. I can also see how the game gets tricky: how do you define "what the gods want" and "what is the 'right' thing to do", versus "what I want to happen?" Is it assumed that the gods talk more to you than they talk to 'regular' humans?

Is there some sort of mechanic for potentially confusing the two, or is it the GM's job to decide what the gods want to happen, and work from there? Because it seems that a character in this game could really get in over his/her head in a hurry. Don't get me wrong; that's cool! ;-)

Mechanics-wise, a question: How are things like duration, distance, etc. increased or decreased for 'magic' purposes? Are successes burned to increase them? Or is that built into the number of successes you get?

Curious: do people with wildly different, non-Western upbringings see the Eternals/Titans differently than one who is familiar with the Greek mythos? If so, (and I hope so because that would be so cool) it might be a good idea to offer suggestions on what the lady from Africa sees versus what the gentleman from India sees when both are in front of War or Death.

Odd note: I just realized that, with only the slightest shift in assumptions about the characters, some setting, and some color, you've got a really cool card-based game about Amber. Instead of the Gods/Titans, you've got Pattern/Logrus,  characters would have to default to immortality instead of mortality, and punishment for manipulating the universe would have to change slightly somehow to reflect the loss of the Furies. Hmmm. That last one would be a sticking point for Zelazny purists, but I don't think it's that difficult of a translation.
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Matt Snyder
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« Reply #4 on: March 24, 2003, 10:52:24 AM »

Quote

Hmm. I can also see how the game gets tricky: how do you define "what the gods want" and "what is the 'right' thing to do", versus "what I want to happen?" Is it assumed that the gods talk more to you than they talk to 'regular' humans?

Is there some sort of mechanic for potentially confusing the two, or is it the GM's job to decide what the gods want to happen, and work from there? Because it seems that a character in this game could really get in over his/her head in a hurry. Don't get me wrong; that's cool! ;-)


You've caught on to what boils down as the premise of this game. "What is the 'right' thing to do versus what I want (or what I think it 'right')?" That's the good news. The bad news, if we can call it that, is that I can't sufficiently answer your question, yet. That is, much "how to play the game" attention will be devoted to helping players figure out this central dilemma. I don't have a quick answer here, I'm afraid. That is not to say there won't be some mechanical means to clarify this issue, but that it's still too loosey-goosey to share.


Quote

Mechanics-wise, a question: How are things like duration, distance, etc. increased or decreased for 'magic' purposes? Are successes burned to increase them? Or is that built into the number of successes you get?


Here, I have to answers, one not so crunchy, one cruncy.

On the not-so-cruncy level, things like range or scope of effect, and so on, those are limited only be what can be reasonably described, or "colored," by narration in play. If you want to turn somone on another of the Nine Worlds into a pig, you do it if it matters to the conflict at hand. Space, especially, is not particularly interesting to me as a limitation if the conflict calls for it. That's the key point: you can work fantastic magic, but it only matters in times of conflict. If you want to do something, there had better be a dynamic, conflict-driven reason for doing something. (EDIT: There will be a bit more limitation than I've let on here. Players will need to spend "tricks" -- akin to successes -- to achieve really extraordinary effects. Turning someone into a pig on a remote world might require a series of conflicts, and might require the player to spend some "tricks" to do it in the first place.)

Now the crunchy bit: Stasis is the secret weapon for making your fantastic magical bits happen. You can work far-out magic with, say, Metamorphosis (like turning someone into a pig). But at the termination of conflict, that magical effect typically goes away. However, you could use a good ol' Stasis "lock" to keep it in, well, stasis. The effects remain so long as the lock stays in place. Demiurgists and immortals can often get rid of these fairly easily, but they still have long-lasting potential, especially on mortals.

Quote

Curious: do people with wildly different, non-Western upbringings see the Eternals/Titans differently than one who is familiar with the Greek mythos? If so, (and I hope so because that would be so cool) it might be a good idea to offer suggestions on what the lady from Africa sees versus what the gentleman from India sees when both are in front of War or Death.


Yes, other interpretations from other cultures are appropriate, and I find it really interesting that many ancient cultures have very similar cosmologies, largely in part of the celestial bodies like the seven "planets" that make up 9W). But, the game will not devote much attention to this -- it will focus on the Greek bent, and make a brief note of explaining why they're called "Eternals" and not "Gods" or "Greek gods." After publication, if someone wants to go nuts with their own re-interpretation, I'd love to support it. I think a Norse one would be neato, as would something like a Summerian take or, as you say, something out of the Western tradition entirely -- Indian, for example.

And in case I've misinterpreted you, the game doesn't really support the notion of having Joe America seeing Zeus "over there in that chair" while Joe Norway sees Odin "over there in that chair." It's Zeus. In another game / campaign, it's Odin, OR it's relative to the person if that's your preference. But the game as presented will assume the guy is Zeus for everyone, but that he's a power beyond the scope of ancient Crete, for example.

Quote

Odd note: I just realized that, with only the slightest shift in assumptions about the characters, some setting, and some color, you've got a really cool card-based game about Amber.


Far out. Yeah, purely unintentional, but it works nicely!
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Matt Snyder
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« Reply #5 on: March 25, 2003, 02:31:33 PM »

Quote
You've caught on to what boils down as the premise of this game. "What is the 'right' thing to do versus what I want (or what I think it 'right')?" That's the good news. The bad news, if we can call it that, is that I can't sufficiently answer your question, yet. That is, much "how to play the game" attention will be devoted to helping players figure out this central dilemma. I don't have a quick answer here, I'm afraid. That is not to say there won't be some mechanical means to clarify this issue, but that it's still too loosey-goosey to share.


Would it complicate matters to have the Eternals be wrong-headed about some things some of the time? To me, that would make an excellent heroic/tragic game, taking the sting of Hubris even though you know you're doing the right thing after all. But then, that might cloud the theme of the game somewhat.

As an aside, I'm glad you chose the tack you did vis-a-vis the whole Arete/ Hubris conflict. Having the dividing line between the two seemed confusing to me, although I appreciate the effort to balance the two in importance. I like the newer, more symbolic divide between "what is right" and "what is wrong," with "what I want" somewhere usually in the middle. It's easier(!) than balancing what is ordinary vs. what is extraordinary, and having the two remain of equal importance. Having the whole thing remain a thematic issue, rather than straightforwardly determined by the mechanics, was a good step. I wish I'd have thought of it myself.

I am looking forward to your rule to judge the rightness/wrongness of an action, though.


Hell, I'm just looking forward to the game! ;-)
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« Reply #6 on: March 25, 2003, 06:50:16 PM »

Of course, one thing I'd really like is if someone else besides me would show some enthusiasm in this game. I can't be the only one looking forward to this.
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Bob McNamee
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« Reply #7 on: March 25, 2003, 07:41:04 PM »

I like the more streamlined stats and stuff.
I have to admit, I stopped reading the previous threads on 9 worlds when it got heavier in mechanics.
I like this idea particularly the Hubris split- reminds me a bit of what we were going for on Enlightment.
 (a game I would like to finish, but can't seem to get enthusiasm for...still don't have a clear idea of 'what play is like')
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Bob McNamee
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« Reply #8 on: March 26, 2003, 08:03:29 AM »

I have an idea; think about it before you shoot it down.

It occurs to me, since this game explores the dichotomy between doing the right thing versus doing something wrong, that players should have some way of reliably distinguishing between the two. Maybe that should be based off of Arete.

Here's my thought: if there's a situation where it's not obvious whether or not an action is virtuous or wrong, the player can request to know. If the player succeeds with a hand (determined as the rules, but going off of Arete somehow,) the GM, if he isn't sure, draws a card:

Spades: HELL NO, that's not virtuous! If you do this, your Hubris will most likely escalate. Why this is so may not at first be clear...

Clubs: Not virtuous, but you're partly on the right track. Now, all you have to do is find out what you're doing right and extrapolate. Still Hubris if you proceed as planned.

Diamonds: Virtuous, but there is a pitfall in the way you're going about it. Avoid that pitfall, and you're golden. Arete, but be careful...

Hearts: No matter how bizarre or outrageous it seems, your action is virtuous. The Eternals sometimes move in mysterious ways. Finding out the rationale behind this could be an adventure in itself. Arete all the way.

This could emphasize the capricious nature of the Eternals, whose workings man was not meant to know. Extra successes should not equate to extra info, because there may be times when the GM is using this method and has no more info than the player why this action is right or wrong. (Ah, the joys of spontaneity!)  Plus, it would not entirely remove caprice from the character or the GM. Sometimes, there's just no time to figure it all out. Also, this is an Arete-based action, and the more the character depends on it, the more he risks losing all Hubris and becoming a soulless puppet of the Eternals. Sometimes, the torpedoes have to be damned and the tea just has to go into the harbor...

As an optional idea/stimulator of action, I like it. What do you think?
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Matt Snyder
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« Reply #9 on: March 26, 2003, 02:16:59 PM »

Couple comments, SF.

First, you're right that this is the toughest, most squishy issue in the game. But, I think I've miscommunicated one issue. The game is not one of Right vs. Wrong. That's not it. Hubris is not "wrong." It can be, but it need not be. In fact, when Hubris is "right," the game sends its most powerful, personal message and theme.

Rather, the game is about seeking approval from the powers that be vs. finding your own truth via creativity. Do you create art because you know it's what the critics will applaud or because it's what you need to create for your own soul's sake?

Now, on to your suggestion for mechanics. Here's where I see a major pitfall....

The mechanics you've put forth seem to me to be strongly Simulationist. That is, you've relegated  the issue of difficult player judgment to to a game mechanic. In effect, I think you're saying that since we as players can't really always know the virtuous, godly-approved thing to do, then let's have the cards tell us. The results of random draws dictate what is virtous.

I think this would quite fine in a simulationist game about exploring the push and pull of the gods & titans, etc. I don't think it works terribly well for a narrativist game with a premise like I'm suggesting. I think players must form judgments and answer, via play, what is virtuous and what is prideful. Enter squishiness and hems and haws.

This doesn't mean there aren't mechanics to facilitate this, perhaps even quite similar to what your interesting mechanic poses. It does mean, however, that I've got to give it some serious thought. I'm not satisfied with my "answers" on this key issue yet, but I'll certainly share once I work through it. I have to! That's the game, in a nutshell.
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Matt Snyder
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« Reply #10 on: March 26, 2003, 06:01:09 PM »

I agree they're Simulationist. They were designed to be to simulate the arcane, byzantine maneuverings and thought-processes of The Eternals.

In most cases, I think that the answer to those questions are going to be obvious. Just thought of something to use just in case it wasn't.
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Matt Snyder
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« Reply #11 on: March 26, 2003, 07:06:14 PM »

Yep, and I appreciate your feedback greatly. At a minimum, it really makes me think about what I'm designing. The feedback, criticism and suggestions you've offered are very helpful and encouraging.
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Matt Snyder
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« Reply #12 on: March 26, 2003, 08:55:42 PM »

Quote from: Matt Snyder
The feedback, criticism and suggestions you've offered are very helpful and encouraging.


And spooky.  Don't forget spooky.
And sometimes even a little creepy ;-)
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« Reply #13 on: March 26, 2003, 10:06:15 PM »

Quote
And spooky.  Don't forget spooky.
And sometimes even a little creepy ;-)


Thank you, Mr. Mazza.

Again, as always, my standard response of making moose antlers and sending a Bronx cheer in your general direction should be sufficient to convey to you what mere words cannot. %-P

And isn't there some new and exciting thing you should be working on? Why waste time here, mocking one whose simple desire for the ultimate rpg consumes his near every waking moment, spurring him on to spur those around him to create? Do you deny that my methods have borne fruit? Hah! Thought as much.

Spooky Fanboy-- who will stop now, as he has begun to realize he sounds like a bad imitation of a comic-book villain, and it's not entirely intentional...maybe sleep is in order.

But I shall be waiting for this game, Mr. Snyder. Mwuahahahahahahaaa!!
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« Reply #14 on: March 27, 2003, 10:50:01 AM »

Quote from: Matt Snyder
This doesn't mean there aren't mechanics to facilitate this, perhaps even quite similar to what your interesting mechanic poses. It does mean, however, that I've got to give it some serious thought. I'm not satisfied with my "answers" on this key issue yet, but I'll certainly share once I work through it. I have to! That's the game, in a nutshell.


There's an interesting thread somewhat related to what you're discussing here.

What it means for me, in terms of your particular game: Reconsider using a set mechanic for this.

You said it yourself: This game is Narrativist. If the players want to play, then bring them on board before play starts. Hash out with them what they believe the Eternals want, the "thou shalt nots" and the "thou musts." Figure out how the individual Eternals relate what part of reality they manage to the goals of the overall group. A good way to get them in that frame of mind would be to read the Incarnations of Immortality series by Piers Anthony, or Nobilis if they have it. Then solidify it, and make sure the Eternals don't budge. After all, the Eternals are the pillars upon which rest the whole of reality. That way, no mechanics are needed. Then re-introduce what you hammered out to the characters as needed in play. If you come across a situation you didn't cover and can't extrapolate towards, have the players vote or use a random draw mechanic similar to what I outlined.  

If you can actually build an impartial mechanic that makes things flow as smoothly as that, without devolving into randonist absurdity, my hat is off to you. Otherwise, please take my suggestion seriously. After all, if you can't trust your players to do this, why are you gaming with them?
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