Sunday, 7 July 2019

City Dark proto-system

(a lot of words about vague/possible game mechanics)
Interesting thing happens when something – a game, a book, a comic, occasionally a song or a movie – leaves a sharp impression: for some time it acts as a layer upon perception, a tinted lenses through which all other things are interpreted. A while ago I played 'Tokyo Dark' (a point-and-click/visual novel video game about which I wrote here in too many words), and, despite all its underwhelming aspects, it left an impression.

So when a couple of days after playing that game back in May I also read "Beyond the Fence, Below the Grave" by T AKW (which is RPG about Scandinavian mages doing supernatural investigations in pre-Christian Scandinavia, very well-done for this purpose), it immediately overlapped with Tokyo Dark and its own Crisis Ritual, and I thought I can do something to those parts of SPIN system from 'Tokyo Dark' that I liked to make them more playable.

I don't know yet how to implement these mechanics well numerically, but the idea goes like that:
– There are three base stats (Professionalism, Phantasm and Shape) which you roll or assign normally; in the course of the game each of these stats might go up or down the way abilities go up or down in regular DnD (due to damage from hazards, spells or monsters, or through the actions/inactions of the character).
– Peak and near-peak values of each stat require some maintenance, usually done through downtime (attending conferences and qualification exams, working on your spirit, going to gym); it is impossible to maintain all three at peak values and still have a normal life. Negligence to maintain them diminishes peak and near-peak values, although not below 'it is still good' threshold.
– Each of basic three stats also has a connected Stress stat (Neurosis, Sin and Burnout respectively); each stress stat has sort of permanent accumulation level which is very difficult to erase but beyond than can also jump up and down more rapidly and healed (until it becomes permanent) more easily. This is a player choice if to start with no Stress or some Stress: if Stress stat overwhelms the Base stat, some kind of Bad Thing breakdown happens, but before that high levels of Stress do convey some benefits as well.

The guy with the glasses reported his scruffy partner to Internal Affairs | Sebastian and Joseph from 'Evil Within'

Three base stats are:
Professionalism: the measure of composure, detachment, patience, willingness to abide by governing laws, follow procedures or acceptable code of behaviour and not to upset the social order. Think of Professionalism in modern sense, as of quality we ascribe to layers, doctors, by-the-book police detectives, bureaucrats, customer support people or assassins with strict personal code. Low Professionalism favours immediate, impulsive, risky, direct, gratifying and less society-reliant approach such as doing break and entry instead of finding a proper key to abandoned building by going through research and acquisition. It kind of doubles as Order/Chaos alignment scale, at least on surface social level.
(note here that Professionalism in large degree is socially perceived stat; people could be utterly corrupt or law-breaking but as long as they manage to keep it well-hidden and maintain a acceptable profile, they still have their reputation intact)

Neurosis accumulates if the character acts erratically, tries the same actions repetitively or experiences social/mental/emotional stress conditions. High Neurosis eventually leads to breakdown, but before that it also helps to keep the character obsessively alert (adding to initiative), and difficult to sway socially or supernaturally.

It is friendly and helpful, I promise | Art by Jeremy Famir

Phantasm: the supernatural integrity, hidden reserves of psyche, protector spirit, the embodiment of personality, measure of supernatural power. To people with appropriate sight Phantasms look like grotesque and whimsical familiar spirits (as if patronus, persona and personal psychic pokemon) but on mundane level it is unseen. Powerful Phantasm not only protects against otherwordly influence, but also capable of bending reality to your favour, granting a strange kind of luck. Weak Phantasm makes the character less noticeable to the Dark or magic, allowing them to 'dissolve' in the human noise, or even disguise their Phantasm as somebody's else entirely, getting the assess to the personally attuned tools of other mages and places usually unwelcoming to outsiders.
Sin (or, how many modern occultists prefer to white-wash it, Stain) accumulates with exposure to supernatural, using magic and with cruelty done to other beings (such as murder, torture, rape, active malice or driving somebody to utter ruin). High Sin eventually makes the character consumed by otherworldly influences and turned into a monster under the drive of their now-distorted Phantasm (figuratively if not literally), but before this happens, the accumulation of Sin gives better awareness to supernatural, insight into its flows and smoother, more powerful use of magic.

Guess which one has better chances of jumping over fences | From movie 'Hot Fuzz'

Shape: the healthiness of the body, stamina, athleticism, regeneration and fitness. Higher Shape makes a character better at various physical activities, recuperate faster and have somewhat more attractive effect (in the reality of this setting, at least, however ugly the mug and abrasive of manners the person might be it is difficult for many people to fully ignore rocking 6-pack abs and movements of dancer). Low Shape means that the character's body is already under some kind of permanent duress or sickness, and various supernatural maladies (who act better from idealized human template) have a harder time to get a grasp on this deviating organism.

Burnout is a measure of active neglect or self-abuse such as fatigue, lack of nutrition, drinking or working in a crunch. Accumulated Burnout leads to hospitalization or death, but high Burnout also pushes the body to function on a resolve/adrenaline alone, and be less susceptible to fear and pain.

I don't yet know how to elegantly implement this system mechanically. Ideally: 
– it won't require to roll under and higher roll is always better;
– high base stats give better effects overall but low stats also give benefits for certain specific situations;
– peak and near peak values offer non-linear advantage over more average ones;
– stress stats have a sort of permanent and temporary parallel scores: permanent one accumulates slower and is very difficult to lower back down, while temporary might jump up and down more often and rapidly, and, with due care, healed before it becomes permanent. Hence Stress stats cannot require any complex calculations tied to them and should be used as close to their base value as possible.
– the high Stress stats should be able to offer some benefits as well (better initiative, more powerful magic, certain resistances)
– preferably as close to DnD/1d20 mechanics as possible;

Non-linear advantage and permanent/temporary Stress stats makes me think something close to Storyteller system but it isn't as straightforward approach as I would like it to be.

HP and wounds:

Humans don't really have hit points and thus die easily – if hit with a bullet and it is more than a glazing touch/isn't protected by bulletproof vest, it is very appropriate to go to the hospital with all haste so not to be dead. Mechanically, it will employ Horrible Wounds tables from Emmy Allen's Esoteric Enterprises with numbers slightly tweaked to allow for chances of lighter wounds. Armor is damage soaking/deflecting. Mastery over melee weapons works as an armour in melee fights. There are some basic powers that might prevent lethal injuries (one is called 'Bullet-eater' and it makes your Phantasm 'eat' a possible wound by the cost of one permanent point of the stat) but they are costly, and the most effective protection, beside military grade battle dresses, is supernatural in origin. Magic injuries to humans are also infectious on supernatural level.

Supernatural entities do have extra wounds/HP (and often invulnerable to some forms of normal-world damage), and in direct confrontation without knowing their weaknesses are exceptionally lethal. Getting into random fights is, generally, discouraged. Hostage situations are lethal. Getting into uneven fights is lethal.

Unlike in original SPIN system, not featured as a stat. I think it would be better for players to actually do investigations and come to conclusions themselves than for it to be some kind of numerical trigger.

It always has consequences/price/effect, some are mitigatable with effort but there are no absolutely safe-and-free ways to interact with it. Low-power Phantasms could be as useful as stronger Phantasms for certain approaches. Successful serial killers and sadists become instinctively attuned to Dark. Occultists might become attuned with less moral degradation, although this is walking a thin line; they heavily rely on personalized, attuned tools to interact with Dark on less dangerous level and the access to such tools is exceptionally valuable.
Old magic died somewhere early 1917. All current magic, in one way or another, comes from Dark. Some occult philosophies/factions pretend this didn't happen.

Other stuff:
I wonder if I can go without relying on skills much, but vaguely, I imagine PC's parts coming from background, training, profession and hobby, which defines their areas of expertise and relaxation. I am inclined more to frame them as 'Things you can do for sure' than just 'Number that grows higher', or, at least one in conjunction with the other.


  1. A 3-stat system with separate stress tracks always makes me think of Cypher. In this case, the stress tracks could be more the more accumulation-like mechanic you're describing, with a regular HP or wounds track bolted on top.

    The idea that there is a tradeoff between the accumulation of stress and abilities makes me think of Tenra Bansho Zero, a system I have never played and likely never will, but it's Karma system has always intrigued me.

    In Cypher, special abilities cost points from your stat pools. In this system, you could have some maximum value, and if the stress exceeds that value, the character dies / goes into some critical stress state. Rather than a player being impaired or incapacitated if their pools deplete, instead it just means spending more points after a pool has depleted adds to the pool / stress. So on the one hand, it means you're more powerful in future encounters, but on the other hand, you're closer to that critical point.

    Also, this could kinda-sorta let you have your cake and eat it too, where there's still not a traditional HP system, but certain kinds of encounters can lead to stat pool damage rather than immediately resorting to wounds (or it would work well for non-combat encounters or skill challenges).

    Anyway that's just off the cuff, but I'm liking this idea. Haven't played Tokyo Dark or Beyond the Fence Below the Grave, will give them a look!

  2. maxcan7, I somehow completely forgot about Cypher System. And I will certainly take a look at TBS.

    Stress is certainly grows by accumulation, and I envision trade-off of not burning stats to power up abilities as in Cypher, but walking a tightrope on Stress abilities being kept high enough to be useful or even very useful but dangerously close enough to breakdown to be care-free or too useful. Your idea is very good, kind of pouring stats between normal and bad state.

    And very good idea of non-physical damage being resorted as penalties to stats instead of going to wounds, thank you.

    To clarify, City Dark is not supposed to have HP system for humans at all. The table for this or that weapons damage, for example, just tells how badly the PC in question is wounded if hit, so it is more like zero-HPs-only-wounds-table, than a HP track. There are some light wounds for lighter kind of wounds, but it is impossible to survive direct bazooka hit without supernatural means.

  3. I like your take on health / life here for shorter investigation games.