On Challenge-Driven Game Design.
The Problem: You want to run a long-term campaign in which the players run protagonists (or even heroes) comparable to Conan, Frodo or Jon Snow. That means character death should be infrequent and failing to beat a scenario should probably be too. If your players have any experience in role-playing games, they are likely to pick up on this quickly – so where does a sense of challenge for them (the players NOT the characters) come from?
Our Solution: GMs that want to run such a campaign and still want to enjoy watching their players being challenged continually are best served by putting up scenario-wide stakes beyond survival and scenario success. To that end, you can keep track of how much luck the party has consumed during the course of the current scenario. And right before the boss battle, you take stock of the final tally of luck consumed and then shape the highpoint of the adventure according to that. This way any GM can define central stakes for each scenario and, depending on how things go, he can use these stakes to make their defeating the scenario either complete or bittersweet. These “lesser” stakes (stakes you as the GM are comfortable with seeing them fail if they play badly) can then go on to constitute exciting secondary objectives for your players, custom-tailored to their wants!
In practice, it works the following way in Knights of the Black Lily: both the GM as well as the party have each a pool of Fortune Points. These can be used by each side to bail out characters under their control – make enemy arrows miss or hit weak spots in enemy armor or even trigger scene-specific events that are beneficial. Each point expended goes to the other side’s pool. Now, if the players do well, they will require little to no luck to progress in the adventure and the GM might even be compelled to spend a couple of points to make apparently too easy encounters a ‘lil harder. This in turn will make the player’s Fortune Points pool swell. By the same token, if things go badly, they will require more luck to advance and it will diminish their pool (and therefore increase the GM’s pool).
Additionally, each scenario can (but doesn’t have to) be structured as a series of challenges around the concept of a GM’s Wager: the GM sets aside a pool of freebie Fortune Points for the encounter, the so-called Challenge Pool. If the players can beat the challenge without requiring more luck than the Challenge Pool provides, they have beat the challenge. If not, they have lost the challenge. After each challenge, the two normal Fortune Point pools will be modified, depending on which side has won and how much has been at stake – thus keeping track of how well the party is doing.
An Example: Your party fights a pack of demon-wolves. It received a Challenge Pool of 3 points by the GM, to be used to negate successful enemy attacks or to create advantages for yourselves. If the party needs more than these 3 freebie points during the fight, it has lost the implied demon-wolf challenge. The GM will deduct 1 point from your regular Fortune Pool and have, for example, the party be rescued by a group of hunters. However, if they dispatch the wolves without overdrawing instead, they will receive 1 point of Fortune, coming straight from the GM’s pool.
Note: Entire scenarios can be constructed as a series of such challenges, which is what we refer to as challenge-driven scenario design.
But it does not stop there. Fortune Points in Knights of the Black Lily are more valuable than the Fate Points, Destiny Points, Karma Points or Hero Points you may be used to from many other RPGs. At the end of the scenario, before the boss battle, the Trial of the Gods begins. Using the dark gods’ will as a stand-in for fate, both the GM as well as the players can now use their remaining Fortune Points to influence the rest of the scenario and the epilogue by buying Twists of Fate. Twists of Fate are scenario-defined events that get triggered by paying for the Twist in Fortune Points, often in the form of inflicting something bad on the opposing side.
Suppose your party had been sent on a quest to retrieve the mystic soul gem from the Dark Queen Em’ytrix of Gloren. When finally reaching the queen’s bedchamber, which holds the gem, and confronting the evil queen, your players could have the following list of Twists of Fate available to them (sample Fortune cost in parentheses):
- The Queen slips the gem once during the following encounter (1), the palace guard is delayed for 5 turns by a false alarm elswewhere in the palace (2), the soul gem turns on the queen on its first use (6).
The GM would have his own list of Twists of Fate available. It might look like this:
- There is no bonus treasure present in the queen’s bedchamber (1), the party will be eventually uncovered as the perpetrators and will be hunted in a future scenario (3), the soul gem will try to steal the life essence of any PC trying to pick it up until one of them passes an Ambition (aka Willpower) test (5).
Suppose there were a total of 6 Fortune Points in play between the party and the GM. It’s easy to see how differently things will pan out if your players manage to reach the Trial of the Gods with a distribution of 6-0 compared to 3-3 or 1-5! Clearly, trying to avoid disturbing the gods by relying on luck too often is crucial. (It should be noted here that any Fortune spent on Twists of Fate is not passed to the opposing side but removed from play instead.)
As a final note, it should be pointed out that Knights of the Black Lily addresses implicitly the age-old problem of the GM fudging the dice. Leveraging these Fortune point rules, GMs never again have to fudge the dice covertly behind the GM screen to keep their players alive – they can now openly throw in fortunate events that will be a saving grace for the party. Albeit, at a price in Fortune Points, of course, which will have future repercussions, as we have seen.
And so the stakes have been set. Grab your dice and grab your sword… for the dark gods await.
In the next installment of this multi-part series on the game design of Knights of the Black Lily, we will finally be looking at combat, specifically at how Initiative works and at the game’s action economy. Don’t miss out on it because we will show how the game ensures realistic interruptability of actions. If you got a bow and you get charged by an orc, you can see him coming and choose to shoot him first – definitely! So, make sure not to miss out because it’s gonna be good!
However, we are by no means done with Fortune yet. As part of our preparation of releasing our Fortune rules as an excerpt chapter later this month, we will be taking a closer look at how the Fortune rules can be used to solve YOUR gaming problems in new, fun and exciting ways. Check out this new series of posts!