2011-09-30 Solar System vs. Old School D&D

Another world… I’m not sure what to do. I’ve switched the Sunday game from D&D 3.5 to Solar System RPG. At first I wanted to switch to Labyrinth Lord, but one player expressed his reservation and so I looked for something else. Having played Lady Blackbird and having played Solar System once, I knew that I was interested.

Coming Sunday will see the third session. I’ve used the adventure preparation method suggestion in the rule book: on a blank piece of paper, put the player characters in the corners, add two or three interesting abilities, skills, gifts or paths to help you remember, and fill the paper itself with events, locations, people – anything you feel like adding. Add connections between the various elements until every player character is directly connected to at least three things.

This is supposed to provide the support structure for your improvisation as “Story Guide”.

I’m not sure I like it.

I think the word “Story Guide” is giving it away. It’s not quite a railroad, but I feel like I’m preparing to railroad the game. I wonder why this doesn’t happen in my Labyrinth Lord games.

Perhaps—and I had not realized this before—I’m missing wandering monster tables! Why is that? I’m not sure. Perhaps the list of wandering monsters is too long for me to organize events into a nice little tree of four or five scenes.

We’re still playing on the same map, thus I am falling back on a lot of D&D lore. But this grounding in D&D is not helping. We have pixies and orks, goblins riding on ferrets and a red dragon. Perhaps this mixing of D&D background and Solar System rules is leading to my cognitive dissonance?

I feel like I’ve been thoroughly trained in the ways of D&D. I like not only wandering monsters, but numbers appearing, their stats, the treasure tables. All of these help me generate the world without feeling too responsible about it.

When I’m not using D&D, I feel like I’m designing everything. It’s a choreography. Every hex has one encounter at most. Every encounter is potentially significant for the narrative. In terms of the current adventure (”kill the red dragon”) this means that the temple of Set, the snake men, the pixies, the goblins—all of them are clearly obstacles to prevent the party from reaching the dragon. If they weren’t, then in terms of the Solar System rules, there’d be no need for conflict, no need to talk, no need to roll dice. That’s the vibe I’m getting, anyway.

What are the specific Solar System rules that generate this situation?

As I read over the list, none of these points seem too compelling. It seems to be all in my head. I wonder why I’m feeling unable to run the kind of game I’d like to run. I’ll report back next week.




A friend sent me a link to this post, and as someone who has played and enjoyed Solar System I thought I could share some thoughts on your situation.

It seems you’re not having fun with the game? If you’re not having fun you are doing something wrong. And in this case it is either the tool or the task that is at fault.

Do you want to play the way you always did? Then you have chosen the wrong tool, your old D&D books (and clones) will serve you much better.

Do you want to play Solar System? Then you have set the wrong task, Solar System does not work very well with the dungeon bash/wilderness exploration-kind of games, IMO.

D&D is about the dungeon, the orcs, the dragon and the question ’Can the adventurers defeat them?’ One could argue that D&D is about the characters, but usually that isn’t the case. If one of them dies in a random encounter it’s just to roll up another fighter and let him show up in the next scene, and play progresses. Because it wasn’t about the characters in the first place, it was about that dragon that needed slaying.

Solar System is about the characters. It is not a question of ’Can we defeat the dragon?’ but rather a multitude of questions, all individual to each PC; ’Should we defeat the dragon?’,’If I defeat the dragon, what will become of me?’ and possibly ’Should I let the others defeat the dragon?’. Play is dictated by the Keys on the char sheets, and everyone should have a Key that concerns another party member. To the player the other PCs are not just a source of heals and fire support, they are the adventure, the interaction between the characters is the important thing, the hows, whys and whats. Sure, you can still go on a quest, still go to defeat the dragon, but it isn’t about the dragon, or even the quest, it’s about the people who went on the quest, and how the quest changes them.

Wilhelm 2011-10-01 07:38 UTC

Hm, good point. I like the various questions around the dragon quest. Our previous campaign was a “bad guys” campaign with goblins and elves in the party and a lot of infighting. This campaign, we decided, was going to be a “good guys” campaign and there was a suggestion that everybody take the key of the quest (not everybody did) and that at most one of us should take a “problematic” key. I had produced two lists: normal keys and problematic keys. In the end two players took the key of gold. That has led to a bit of inter-character tension. I’m not sure the players see this bickering as part of the adventure, however. There’s also apprehension whenever these player vs. player aspects come into play.

  • Ephraim (paladin): key of faith, key of war, key of the quest, key of vanity
  • Berkin (historian): key of goblin hate, key of the historian
  • Galadriel (elven guide): key of adventure, key of goblin territories (forced upon her by a goblin protector spirit)
  • Carlos (merchant and sorcerer): key of adventure, key of the quest, key of gold, key of war
  • Willibald (master spy): key of gold

Given the above keys, what would you suggest to turn the game into a game “about the characters”? Right now we have the following developments:

  • Ephraim and Carlos favor violence when dealing with things. This appropriately leads to a lot of trouble.
  • Galadriel is always willing to talk to enemies and exposes herself to a lot of danger that way.
  • Berkin’s player is trying to reign in the players of Ephraim and Willibald who like to charge into dangerous situations without preparations

Right now I’m seeing that the defeat of the dragon, the looting of its treasure and the return to civilization will give them the opportunity to buy off the keys of gold, adventure and the quest.

I think that the question is not whether I’m having fun – I am having fun. The question is: what can I change in order to have more fun. The first two sessions have left me wondering whether there is something that I had been missing. Some essential and unmentioned quality of the game. Something like the fear of death in old school D&D.

PS: I had to look at your Lulu page in order to find your family name with which to find you on Google+ ...

AlexSchroeder 2011-10-01 08:12 UTC


A friend sent me a link to this post as well. I’m one of the people who have been active in developing Solar System (the rules set of The Shadow of Yesterday), and I’m an avid fan of the OSR as well, so your conundrum is quite interesting to me. Let me free-associate on the topic a bit, perhaps it’ll be helpful:

I like both old school D&D and Solar System a lot, but they’re really different games. For instance, the axiomatic party set-up of D&D is something you simply can’t have in Solar System: SS constantly assumes that the situations and threats player characters face are personally relevant and measured to challenge the player morally, not tactically. If the entire set of player characters reflexively reacts to everything they’re presented with as a threat to overcome, then not only will the system have difficulties challenging the characters, but also there never is room for dramatic situations and difficult choices to develop. In this regard Solar System is more of a Lord of the Rings roleplaying game than D&D could ever be: you might have a party of adventurers, sure, but each character in it will have their own reasons to be there and their own personal struggles. And when somebody decides to leave the party because their interests no longer match, that’s when the story really begins.

Regarding railroading, neither D&D nor Solar System should ever be railroaded - on this I agree with you 100%. However, because the games have different purposes and techniques they use to go about things, the meaning of railroading is also a bit different. If you’ll read the Story Guiding chapter in the Solar System booklet, I write about this there a bit under the title “dramatic coordination”: although the SG is never to railroad the players into experiencing his predetermined story, he is regardless responsible for selecting game content that allows the players to actually address the things that are important for their characters. In practice this means using techniques like dramatic coincidence (”Of course the one person in the whole world who I least wanted to see just happens to visit the bathing house at the same time I do!”), but this is not railroading because the intent is different: the GM is not doing this so as to enforce his own plot, but rather because this is the next relevant thing to happen in the story. We could play through long sequences of events that would “realistically” happen in between two dramatically interesting scenes, but we opt to skip all that and just go directly into the next interesting thing. It’s the sort of “enhanced reality” you’d see in a movie, but the technique itself is no stranger than when the D&D GM decides to skip ahead through routine events to the next challenging bit.

Despite my denial of railroading in Solar System, it’s definitely true that these two games use very different GMing techniques. Old school D&D has the GM be very hands-off, using randomization techniques to pace and regulate himself. He won’t bring on the trouble unless a roll of ’1’ on a d6 is made, and he will carefully prepare the nature of the threat, or he will consider the fiction to conceive of the most realistic and acceptable type of challenge. All this is very natural and true to the creative goals of the game. Solar System Story Guide, on the other hand, is constantly on the lookout for the absolutely most interesting developments he could bring, and he will only ever keep himself under rein to pace things, to enjoy the suspense and give the players room to act instead of reacting now and then. This works in Solar System because the general procedures of play and specific mechanics of the system are built to safeguard player rights with such rigour that the SG is in much less danger of overpowering the players. For instance, consider the Story Guide responsibility of making defeat equivalently interesting to triumph for the players, even while their characters suffer; consider the strictly limited circumstantial penalties used by the system; consider the propriety limits imposed on conflict stakes; consider the player right to declare extended conflict when the dice go against them in an important situation. These are the sorts of building blocks in the system that should, when properly applied, make the game rather robust despite the lack of traditional D&D limits and procedures. They’re just different games, doing things differently.

Now, the real challenge in your situation, it seems to me, is that moving from D&D to Solar System is pretty difficult to do. People often try this, and I’m totally on-board with it personally, but often the result seems to be that the group continues to play as if the game were D&D due to force of habit. I don’t really have a very satisfactory universal solution to something like this, as it depends on the people so much. Some folks are very wedded to D&D and will play all games as if they were team-based challenge-oriented commando missions, and they’re not actually interested in anything else, to such a degree that they’ve learned to utilize the superficial vocabulary of roleplaying in their own context; of course we want “good roleplaying” and “interesting stories”, we just happen to mean the virtues of D&D with these terms. Other people are less creatively invested in doing challengeful adventure, but might lack experience with doing things a different way from how D&D does things; with these people cogent explanations and teaching by example go a long way.

Regarding practical Story Guiding, could you post a list of prepared places, characters and situations you have? As the SS booklet describes, the nature of running this game is mostly about preparing interesting events, throwing them at the players and playing the consequences of anything they might choose to do hard. There is a trick to prepping these situations (or “Bangs” as they’re often called in the scene), but once you figure it out it’s no more difficult than stocking rooms in D&D. It’s even quite possible to put your prep into a random encounter table if you want and let such a table pace yourself, at least as long as you’re willing to bring in some content when the players have dealt with everything they have on the table.

I can’t know how appropriate my ideas might be here, but here’s some prep I might use with these sorts of characters in the game, as an example of how to draw dramatic complications out of situations and characters:

  • The party is going to slay a dragon, so what if they meet somebody on the road who wants them to not do it? This could be a pretty yet naïve priestess of a dubious local cult that believes the dragon to represent the vigour of the earth, and thus slaying it would be death to local agriculture. I most definitely do not suggest that the SG arbitrarily jerks the players around, but that’s why these doubts are sown in advance; it’s up to the players to decide whether their characters care about this sort of stuff, whether they investigate to figure out whether there’s any veracity to such claims, etc.
  • What if the dragon is an incredibly dangerous foe, much stronger than the adventurers might hope to face? Will they risk failure and try anyway? Will they turn back? Will they quest for ways to gain leverage on it? When the party loses to the dragon, have it eat any characters who insisted on fighting to the last, while the rest are sent as dragon-envoys to do its bidding like knights doomed to a woeful quest.
  • The party might encounter goblins that promise to help them surprise the dragon in exchange for half of its treasure. Make sure to depict the goblins as either sympathetic and reliable, or disgusting degenerates, all depending on which of the player characters could stand to be provoked the most. Note how this sort of encounter is relevant to all those goblin keys as well as the gold keys; in general it’s a good idea to create situations that are Key-relevant and require players to make choices, as these are the spots where the Key mechanics work for you.

The bare fact is that Solar System is not a very good system for “just” adventuring; to make it interesting to use you need to be aware of the individual issues of the player characters. For this pay attention to the Keys of the characters and their heroic deeds, and to what the players seem to think their characters are about. Cast doubt upon those facets and try to make the players buy off their Keys, changing the characters. Also provide opportunities to change the characters by spending XP - don’t allow the players to just buy new Secrets and Abilities whenever they want, but rather bring in NPCs of all seven sorts, all of which want to teach their own specific disciplines to the characters. Have the dragon offer dragon magic to the paladin because the dragon perceives the necessary strength of will in him, for example.

Also, definitely check out The World of Near, the fantasy game setting book for the Solar System; it’s floating in the Internet out there and includes a lot of heroic fantasy stuff for the Solar System. Specifically, if you haven’t already done so, read the First City chapter; it’s an adventure I wrote for a very D&D-like group, so it might give you a better idea of the types of content that work in the Solar System and how to go about creating scenarios for it. You can see in it how I think up situations and content that specifically forces players to make choices about things that are important to their characters.

Eero Tuovinen 2011-10-01 09:26 UTC

Hi, Oh, you were having fun, good! I don’t know if the following will lead to more fun, but it might make the game more ... well ... Solar System.

What kind of faith does Ephraim have? Can you put him in difficult situations with it, do the other PCs share his faith?

Berkin and Galadriel seem to have different opinions on Goblins, has this come into play?

What does Galadriel really think of Ephraim and Carlos’ constant killing? And what do they think of her subjecting herself to danger?

Willibald is smoked, he only wants gold, I’d offer the player to reassign some points for him to get another Key, preferably something that ties him into the party harder, maybe Love or Fraternety. Maybe a Dark Secret would be fun.

Who is the leader of the group? Is there any dispute regarding the leadership.

Wilhelm 2011-10-01 09:49 UTC

Thank you both for your feedback! The adventure map for last session was this:

Adventure Map

I had the names of the players along the edges, each with three skills, secrets or keys that I wanted to bring into the game, as well as a three-armed giant (related to the previous campaign), the pit of Nergal (lord of disease, responsible for the three-armed giant and other mutants), dwarven merchants (should the party travel towards the orc tower), the orcs (with names for their boss, their priestess and their taxman), the dragon (with his skills and gifts), the cistern where his hoard is, the flame traps he has created in the ruined city above his lair, a dire tiger (related to the previous campaign), giant snakes (for the S&S feel), a temple of Set (lord of snakes, poison and assassins), a magic hill with pixies, and fake gold (that the pixies might pay?).

Eventually what happened is that the players met the orc toll party and the paladin decided to charge and kill their boss (the named taxman) and succeeded. Then they tried to evade pursuit and failed, so I had a punishment gang of orcs show up and fight them (Harald Wagner – he who did a German translation of Solar System – lives in town and reads this blog as well; he offered some advice on our campaign wiki). This extended conflict was born out of a D&D mind set and I’ll try to avoid these “encounters” in the future. 🙂 They reached the forest, discovered goblins, decided to avoid them, dithered, I had the dragon attack (hoping the foreshadow the final confrontation), they beat the dragon back, pursued, got charmed by pixies, Galadriel was caught and Ephraim promised to rid the pixies of the giant snakes and the Set temple in exchange for Galadriel’s freedom. In the mean time Galadriel had impressed and befriended the pixies but played along with them in order to have Ephraim help them anyway. The party then managed to confront the head priest of the Set temple and had to retreat before loosing the fight. (That, too, I’m hoping to do better next time: Right now I declared that leaving an extended conflict required parallel actions, ie. taking one last hit from the opposition and succeeding in your maneuver instead of having this be the result of negotiation.)

My previous campaign focused a lot on traveling into the wilderness, facing enemies, befriending some of them and solving their problems as well as fighting enemies with the help of allies. I think I managed to retain that flavor while picking adversity that relates to the players’ keys: taxes, tolls, fake gold, dragon hoard all relate to the key of gold; goblins relate to the two goblin keys; mysterious temples and hills relate to the key of adventure, and being distractions, they also speak to the key of the quest.

As for the ideas provided: Thank you very much. I will definitely introduce somebody interested in keeping the dragon alive. I also want to make the dragon more mythical in that it knows how to enchant people and maybe has doomed dragon knights serving him already. Excellent idea – foreshadowing the fates of those who failed to best the dragon. I also like the idea of actively offering more secrets to the characters. At first I felt like characters ought to be questing for new secrets, but having an abundance of secrets to choose from might make the game more interesting as well.

As for the questions: Ephraim’s faith lies with Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. The others don’t seem to be interested in religion. I need to think of something where neither making love nor making war is the answer. Tricky!

Berkin and Galadriel have mostly argued for the same thing: let’s avoid the goblins! Berkin wants to avoid them because he fears them, Galadriel wants to avoid them because that prevents the violent party members from killing them. Clearly, the best solution is for the goblins to find them. Good point.

Galadriel seems to treat Ephraim and Carlos’ constant killing as a force of nature that cannot be stopped, and thus she tries to talk to enemies before hand in order to avoid the violence. This works often enough (eg. it stopped Ephraim from trying to kill all the pixies).

Good point about Willibald’s single minded focus on the gold. I’ll talk to Willibald’s player.

Thanks for all the helpful pointers!

If you’re interested interested in the twelve page German summary of the Solar System rules, you can find them here: CW:TheAlderKing/Kurzfassung der Regeln.

AlexSchroeder 2011-10-01 11:08 UTC

Here’s me trying to distill what Eero commented.

Assuming a “Key of X”:

  • The D&D approach would be to place obstacles the PCs must overcome on their way to X. The question is: Do the PCs overcome the obstacles and achieve X and what will they do when they achieve it or fail to achieve it? The burden of the GM is to place fair and manageable obstacles by means of carefully balanced key encounters and randomized (hence impartial) encounters.
  • The Solar System approach would be to offer the PCs X, but at a price P that goes against an important aspect. The question is: Do the PCs pay P to get X and what will that do to them? An aspect which formulates a price P could be a second key of the same or of another PC, a relationship to N/PCs or an element of PC backstory. The burden of the SG is to have the PCs collide against the Ps in an interesting way on their journey to X.

@Eero: Is this an acceptable formulation of what you wrote above?

lior 2011-10-01 12:20 UTC

Lior, your first point certainly highlights my cognitive dissonance: placing obstacles the PCs must overcome on the PCs way, but finding that the rules aren’t very interesting when all you do is trying to overcome obstacles. Most of the charakters have a skill at the practical maximum of +3 and one or two gifts to support it. To challenge them, important enemies also have a core skill of +3 plus a gift or two. And then I start to get the feeling that perhaps I’m doing it all wrong. The question is, therefore, how to apply the second point in actual play. I’m sitting at my adventure map for tomorrow’s session as I type, trying to incorporate some ideas from what I have read...

AlexSchroeder 2011-10-01 12:59 UTC

Whoa this gets interesting!

Alex, the cognitive dissonance is that instead of giving players an obstacle and them figuring out how to overcome it, give them options to overcome it and have them make an informed decision of which path to take, which will either be in line with their keys or against their keys. Characters with dissonant keys make this an interesting choice, because the game content will switch from problem solving to a social dynamic about the solution.

Maybe I should come over tomorrow as a surprise player …

Harald 2011-10-01 13:21 UTC

Two of my six players cancelled – you’re welcome to be there at 13:00. 🙂

AlexSchroeder 2011-10-01 13:36 UTC

I can make it, I guess. is 13:00 early enough for chargen?

Harald 2011-10-01 17:57 UTC

How did the game go? Did Harald make an appearance? This is getting interesting.

Lior’s formulation is swell, that’s how it goes. I want to emphasize that doing “good GMing” is just as subjective in Solar System as in D&D, so snappy guidelines like these are of utility value, not so much objective and comprehensive truths about the whole. For example, I don’t myself usually reflect the Keys of the characters very straightforwardly against other characters in practical play, as I prefer to rather understand the setting we’re playing with and reflect all the characters against that, leaving the players to mix it up amongst themselves naturally. But these differences in focus are matters of technique, situation and artistic preference - the goal is to realize the dramatic potential of the player characters, the paradigm is to do this by allowing the players to depict and display their own characters in their moments of vulnerability and greatness, and whatever tools you need to use to realize that is just fine.

About characters facing enemies with equivalent Abilities, it occurs to me that you might benefit from approaching the game setting in a more holistic manner: instead of thinking in terms of opposition, think in terms of interesting shit to throw at the players. And when I say “throw”, I don’t mean a challenge, but merely an opportunity for the players to make choices regarding the content. When doing this, don’t try to particularly create balanced encounters in mechanical terms, but rather allow the NPCs to have exactly the statistics that are most true to life: if the dragon is a magnificent and mythical beast, then it’s definitely a Grandmaster, and if the orcs are meaningless brutes, let them be Mediocre. It is a fine thing for the characters to defeat opposition trivially if that’s the choice they make - your game-plan should be about making the choice of attacking interesting, while the actual combat is just a process of establishing consequences. It’s part of the nature of the encounter with a dragon that going against it is a grave peril - without the challenge being nigh-impossible for the characters it’s not going to feel like a moment of courage. Similarly it’s part of the nature of the encounter with some piddly goblins that the heroes are in no personal danger - without this feeling of dominance there is no room for the characters to make the choices of Lords. Thinking in terms of appropriate challenge reduces your available palette of color and content.

The problem in achieving the above ideals, of course, is in that it won’t work if the players don’t play ball. One of the reasons D&D is so very robust a game in comparison to many competitors is that it is very resistant to creative disagreements among the players; orcs are orcs are orcs, it’s not like you have any genuine choice about how to react when the GM gives you a fight. What Solar System is trying to do is more tricky to achieve, as you need some creative concordance among the group: players need to want to play their characters true to life, and they need to want cool, dramatic content. Meanwhile the GM needs to be able to entice them into things: if a player never cares about whether his character’s faith is misplaced, you will not be able to have a theme of faith; if a character refuses to ever fall in love, you can’t have romance; if a character never has shame or doubts about killing and stealing and greed, then you’ll have difficult having any traction for human drama. I’m not guessing even a little bit about the creative situation in your group, of course, but this is something to keep an eye on - I have played Solar System with players who didn’t want to do the sort of play it does, and it’s not very fun to try to drag the cart yourself. Like playing D&D with players who never step up and try to win.

Looking at the content you’ve had in the game so far, I might advice that you could probably stand to go for a bit more dramatic vigour, a bit more creative risk and a bit more personal encounters. Specifically, I advice that you should have some personal scenes for the characters too, not just party scenes. Have NPCs accost individual characters and kick them in the nuts, figuratively speaking. Kick the tires, see how the individual players react to things without having the D&D party dynamic constantly looming. Try and see if you can get the players to care about some NPCs instead of just caring about the things they “should” care about, like the dragon. Also concretely, were this my game I’d go for more “juicy” content; playing a dramatic game like Solar System is an excellent chance to just throw away certain shackles that the challenge focus of D&D causes. Where are the sexy nymphettes and strange hermits with horrible secrets? Over-the-top personalities are fun to play as a GM, and they’re easier for the players to react to. Don’t feel like you need to give them a “normal orc encounter”, do something weird and provocative instead.

Eero Tuovinen 2011-10-02 17:57 UTC

Hi Eero, thanks for chiming in in detail again! I did indeed make it to the game and it was solid fun. Consider this is the third session only with Solar System, and so far the group has dealt with a new rules set that applies dice and numbers orthogonally to how D&D does, and I would call it a huge success. Sure, there were still some discussions to be had, but that was mostly me trying to be too smart about things I wrapped my head around for a couple of years already (-:

Alex did a great job showing some quirky NPCs (like the half-monkey hippie in the beginning), and he stayed true to his credo of taking up the players’ ideas and running with them (you can find very short and crisp notes about what happened, in German of course). Apart from a discussion about how to apply keys and collect XP, most of the game was straightforward, with two extended conflicts (one to kill an evil priest, one to barter with a fairy about some treasure), but for me the most intense situation was talking to the dragon the group originally set out to kill … and learning a terrible secret.

One huge advantage Alex has is that he can build on a shared understanding of the game world from the previous long running campaign (non-humans in roughly the same area of the Wilderlands), and a lot of color and game world information can be conveyed to the players without resorting to infodumps (i.e., the players know demon blood is something very real and dangerous, the PCs did hear about it from the dragon first).

It was interesting how the game system clashed with and uncovered the dynamics of the used-to-D&D-group (fighters go fight, everyone has to follow their lead; most often because fighting is the easiest application of PC stats to a problem), and it was also interesting to see how the players took to my musings about that. After the big discussion in the middle of the session (which was neatly cushioned between scenes and was almost like a halftime break; before and after the discussions were more like requests for rules clarifications), I felt there was a discernible shift in group dynamics. I’m looking forward to see if the doubting players can figure out where those doubts come from and if we can reconcile their gaming needs.

Harald 2011-10-02 21:54 UTC

Uhhh, a blast from the past just crossed my mind because you asked about dungeons with Solar System: http://story-games.com/forums/comments.php?DiscussionID=3164

Harald 2011-10-02 22:55 UTC

Today was much better than the first two sessions!

I think letting go of D&D-isms played a big part in it. When the party fought the snake priest, they won the conflict – and so the priest died, just as Ephraim the paladin had decreed. The players then wondered whether I’d want to extend the conflict, the priest being an “important” character. I decided that the priest was not important enough. Fighting the priest had been a subplot of a subplot (the party had been led astray by pixies, one of the characters had then been kidnapped by the pixies, ridding the forest of the snake priest was what the pixies had asked of the remaining characters in exchange for their friend). Clearly, keeping this priest alive and extending the conflict was not worth it. I felt good when I shook my head and said, “nope, he’s dead and that’s it.”

Regarding challenging the players: coming from an {OSR Old School Renaissance} background, I never had the urge to balance encounters. But I needed to make sure that scary enemies remain scary. For years, the players feared the 12th level goblin priest while playing D&D. He was, after all, the lord of a big underground city and a major religious leader in the region. I gave him a +3 rating. When Galadriel surprised him the first session and fought him one-on-one, hurting him and only retreating when he awakened a sleeping hydra, we realized that our characters with a sorcery skill of +3 where equivalent to the top echelon of level 9-12 characters in our campaign world. The same thing happened the second session when I had the dragon attack with claw and fire. He had a +3 rating for fire and combat, a claw specialization, and the whirlwind gift to attack the entire party all at once with his fire breathing. And yet, he barely managed to get away alive. I knew that I needed to make the dragon tougher for the encounter in his lair.

During today’s session, the dragon had prepared well. He had placed fire traps in his ashen city (an effect for bonus dice); there was an aura of choking fear filling his lair (an effect to oppose enemies of the dragon); I had upgraded his fire rating to +4 after seeing your giant lizard in the example you provided above (even though I did not know what I’d do if I rolled a trascendent result). The dragon was tough, and I made sure the players knew it.

The pixie magic, however was +2, their fighting ability and their etiquette was +1, the goblins had a +1 rating (and didn’t dare attack until the players opted for refreshment scenes—I had the goblins shoot the horses and run away to see whether any of the players would pursue them instead of continuing to the dragon lair). Last sessions, the orcs had a +1 rating.

In short, I totally agree with Eero’s “allow the NPCs to have exactly the statistics that are most true to life.” 🙂

As for players wanting cool and dramatic developments, I’ll have to wait and see. I think this is where “interesting shit to throw at the players” comes in—people often need an external trigger for a new development. It’s how my creativity works, largely. If a random lady shows up and does the right things, suddenly my character is interested. If a random location seems appealing and within reach, suddenly my character is interested. It’s hard to plan for something specific to stick, but it’s easy to plan for throwing a lot of stuff out there in the hopes that something will stick. This is excellent advice.

I absolutely support “more dramatic vigour, a bit more creative risk and a bit more personal encounters.” I’ll need to focus on that a bit more. As I start removing elements from my adventure map, I’ll keep an eye out for those points. As Harald mentioned, the half-monkey priest of bunga bunga dancing was a hit. He definitely needs to make more appearances. Maybe I should have used named pixies instead of generic terms like faery and dragonfly rider, given them more over-the-top personalities. A good point to remember for future secondary characters.

Strangely enough, Harald’s character mentioned the undines in the local rivers in ages past to the rest of the party. These need to be somewhere, too. 🙂

All in all, it was a very enjoyable game. I managed to avoid D&D-like encounters. I managed to stick to short conflicts for most of the time. I managed to make the dragon “tough” within the realm of the rules.

I even managed to offer the gift of Dread magic to one of the players. I am very happy with how things went.

AlexSchroeder 2011-10-02 23:03 UTC

Happy to hear that you’re getting a pace on with the game! Sounds to me that the creative train has left the station and is going somewhere.

Note that as written, the rules don’t allow the Story Guide to extend conflicts - that’s a privilege only the players have. It’s one of those Magna Carta things in the system, set up to safe-guard player rights: the Story Guide is free to invoke new fictional situations, but when the dice go the way the players want in conflicts, the SG has to accept that and keep on trucking. In this regard extended conflicts are a player privilege that ensures that we can be merciless with the conflict system; even if there’s bad luck or ill-considered conflict stakes, the player veto can always take the situation into round two. The Story Guide is bestowed with the power to introduce new things to the table, while the players each have the right to grind the game down into a halt so we can spend the next hour focusing on this particular fight/argument/whatever. This can be pretty annoying when a player thoughtlessly calls for it, but in general it serves well to free the Story Guide from worrying about things; just call for brutal stakes, mixing up drastic fictional consequences and rude mechanical events (Harm, remember), and trust that the players will take it into extended if necessary.

Along the same vein, regarding Transcendence: NPCs do not Transcend, it’s something only player characters do. This means that a Grandmaster-level NPC might sometimes roll a Transcendent result on the dice, and the only way for a player character to beat that is to Transcend themselves (or lose and come back from a different angle). I usually describe Transcendent NPC checks as absolute truths of the game world, as opposed to the merely ephemeral achievements characters usually roll for. In World of Near terms a Transcendent check result is “superior leverage”, and may be described as such: the enemy brought such a big gun to bear that conflict against it at this time is actually not even meaningful in the normal sense.

As for future content, it sounds to me that you’re doing just fine. Perhaps prepare one new Key and as many new Secrets as there are players for the next session, each something interesting and setting-related, and then see about pushing these at the players over the next couple of sessions. Generally I find that the game is most exciting when the Story Guide acts like a crack dealer with various Secrets, driving character development. This is also a good angle on inventing those Bangs/situations to introduce to the players: in what situation will it be natural for a NPC to offer the dread blade Stormbringer to a player character? Act completely agnostic of individual character nature and Advance economy when you’re dealing the crack - care only of pushing it and hooking the players, and remember the Advance Debt rules; you’re doing well in your role as crack dealer if you manage to talk the players into Advance Debt by enticing them with trinkets. (My Solar System experiences very much start with 3rd edition D&D, wherein I absolutely hate the pre-planning of character development that players are supposed to do; TSoY and Solar System work in exactly opposite way as the SG pushes one-time choices at the players that they take up or don’t, all as part of the weave of the game. Players add to Abilities and Pools whenever they want to, but for Secrets they’re largely dependent on the flow of the fiction.)

I’m at my most confident as a Story Guide going into a new session if I have a solid bag of Secrets to push at the players (/World of Near/ helps in this regard a lot), some new and colorful NPCs to spring at them when they call for a refreshment scene (the prime time for starting up new plot lines), and a solid handle on the on-going developments, so that when it comes to each player I know what sort of scene to frame for them. Then I just start from one player and start paying attention to each character in turn, allowing the players to bring in their own characters as they would, but remembering always that it’s my job to challenge and provoke this specific character and his Keys each time around.

Also, speaking of tips and tricks, two optional rules to consider for a new campaign are the Gift of Dice and Key Elements, both to be found in the Solar system text. Those are optional because I find that their utility depends on group chemistry, so up to you to consider them. Gift of Dice is useful in helping and training players to be audience for each other’s exploits, but it won’t work if the players are hardcore about always siding with other player characters as a matter of principle; it requires a modicum of willingness from the players to act as impartial audience, with genuine sympathy or antipathy towards the various exploits that happen in the game. Key Elements are useful in that they’re basically ways for the Story Guide to suggest developments in the game: you can make your list of Key Elements open and just leave it lying around for the players to consider, and if it so happens that there’s a 5 xp reward in there for being the one lady Charlotte confesses her love to, that might motivate players and give them a sense for what you think might be interesting play for a session.

Eero Tuovinen 2011-10-03 05:00 UTC

Eero: My questions was Is this priest important enough for you that we’d need to go into extended conflict to kill him? because it always was my understanding that important/named NPCs get the same protection from wanton killing by single die rolls as PCs do (correct me if I’m wrong). I agree that Alex couldn’t have started it, but we might have had to leave the priest “he couldn’t have survived that sword strike” or decided to finish him off (which, going into extended conflict with 4 bonus dice, might have been easy – and hence boring). Also, often enough as a GM, I’d grant groups their victories over named NPCs from simple conflicts because going through an extended conflict did not seem to inform us on the content on the fiction any better than we already were.

We did discuss Advance Debt rules yesterday, when the Gift of Dread Magic was offered, even though this was at the end of the session and plenty XP had been generated already (easy when you’re a stranger amongst a group of ruthless killers plotting to kill you … after you helped them take out their current enemy).

I feel this group fares pretty well without the Gift of Dice – the group has six or seven regular players, and usually at least four of them are in a session; there’s tons of opportunity for characters helping each other. Yes, the Gift of Dice adds an additional dynamic, and it might do well to add it when everyone’s comfortable with the rules; there is a risk that it will cause aggravation with the player(s) that twinked out their characters.

Key Elements might help with some of the characters having chosen “hard” Keys (Key of Gold / Key of Brutality are usually simpler affairs than even Key of Adventure or Key of the Oath – depending on the Oath); but again I am not sure this is a big concern or simply something where the group still is working on finding it’s vibe.

Harald 2011-10-03 07:25 UTC

NB: Alex, I find the notion of the new group being “good guys” pretty hilarious (-:

Harald 2011-10-03 07:38 UTC

Yeah, traditional TSoY has it that NPCs are protected from death outside extended conflict as well. It’s a “propriety” issue as I term it in the SS booklet; allowing sudden, meaningless and irrevocable dead works for a certain kind of game, one that isn’t usually on the table with TSoY. And of course the “presumed death” trick is in full force, just like you write, and it’s up to the Story Guide to decide to bring the guy back or not.

Eero Tuovinen 2011-10-04 19:50 UTC

half a year later...

Today Harald was writing about Solar System on Google+ and asked me how I felt about it now that we had played a little nine session campaign from character creation to transcendence.

Here is what I wrote.

Without thinking about it too long, it seems to me that the system is not quirky enough for me. If the rules are too simple, too unified, then results end up being predictable. With results I’m referring to the game experience at the table. With D&D and other traditional systems, it’s hard to figure out how your game play will change. There are weird spells, weird monsters, all of them with little extra rules that cover their specialty. In their totality, the systems are not rules-light, even if some of them such as the old school D&D variants have simple character generation.

I think this is related to changing gameplay over time.

I don’t have much D&D 4E experience, but I’ve seen people complain online about the perfect progression of character’s abilities and monster’s abilities. Old versions had asymmetries over time such as attack bonuses growing faster than armor class, save or die effects eventually dominating hit points, higher level spells dominating lower level spells.

Furthermore, non-quirkiness promotes abstraction. Abstract combat, abstract conflict resolution, and I’m wondering whether as a gamer, I might prefer more grounding. I’ve heard the same argument from other people, too. Sometimes it is also discussed under the label of Dissociated Mechanics. I end up not liking the abstraction of chess and prefer the speculations at the table that come with such questions as “what do you see when invisible people walk through water” or “can the fire reach me around the corner?” If you have quirky rules such as how fireballs work, then you can draw conclusions as to what happens if obstacles block the fireball’s path and use them in play. If the system is very abstract, then we roll first and interpret or explain the result afterwards.

The end result, therefore, is that the game felt a bit blander than before. The story felt like epic high level D&D without all the pain that high level D&D 3.5 would add, but the actual game experience felt blander than the simple Labyrinth Lord games I like to run.

AlexSchroeder 2012-04-19 09:45 UTC

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