Monday, June 22, 2020

My Radically Alternate House Rules

Once More Unto the Breach!

As those among you who have been following the successive iterations of The Temporal Toybox (my compilation of optional house rules for the Doctor Who RPG) might have noticed, the subject of Story points and their expenditure in play has always given me food for thought, ruminations and variant experimentations.

I’ve been GM-ing the game on a regular basis for more than 10 years now and I’ve finally come to some pretty definitive (and probably heretical) opinions on how Story points should be used in the game. I will not bore you with the history of how and why I came to these conclusions – suffice it to say that it didn’t happen overnight or on a whim.

While I think Story points are a great concept and work splendidly well for players, allowing them to emulate the unique logic and spirit of the TV show, I feel they do not work as well as far as GMs are concerned: having to keep track of separate pool of Story points for each NPC or monster (even if you restrict them to the more important characters or creatures) can really be tedious – and perhaps more importantly, having to decide when to spend these points (Before the roll?  After the roll?  At every opportunity until they are exhausted or on a case-by-case, piecemeal basis?) often feels like an unnecessary mental burden for the GM, distracting him from his most important task, the general running of the story itself. This can actually become quite bothersome in scenes involving many dice rolls, which is usually the case of most (supposedly) fast-paced action scenes. Of course, an experienced GM can juggle the system pretty well – but the same experienced GM is also likely to wonder: why all the hassle, when things could work much more quickly and smoothly?

For quite some time now, I’ve been working with a radical variant system – or, more exactly, a radical approach to the Doctor Who game system. And it works really, really well in play. But before I go into the specifics, a word of warning: this variant approach, while it does not alter a single aspect of how characters, NPCs or creatures are defined in game terms, changes the way the game mechanics work in actual play quite radically. It may not be to everyone’s tastes – nor does it purport to be “better” than the original system. It’s simply a variant approach that has worked very well in play and that might interest GMs looking to make their games easier to run and faster-paced… while keeping all the drama that Story points inject into the flow of the game.

But enough rhetorical precautions. Allons-y!

A Very Simple Idea

This variant approach is based on a single basic principle:

Story points and dice rolls are for players only. The Gamemaster never has to roll a single die in play – nor does he need to spend any Story point during the course of the game.

Thus, the GM can concentrate exclusively on his storytelling and story-guiding duties, which are the very essence of his job. It also means that all actions and situations are always resolved from the player-characters’ point of view – which makes the game more focused and also emulates an important aspect of dramatic TV shows, where the heroes are almost always at the front stage.

This is all very well, you say, but how the heck does it work in play?

Let’s start with Story points. Since an adversary’s expenditure of Story points is almost always symmetrical to a player-character’s (i.e. the villain making his best to foil, counter or otherwise oppose the hero’s actions), making Story points the exclusive privilege of players will simply give their characters that extra bit of luck, edge or pizzazz that scriptwriters always grant to the heroes of the show.

A villain may have style, charisma, willpower, luck or genius – but the chance to turn the tables at the last minute will always belong to the heroes of the tale. The only exception to this general principle is the “last-minute escape” ability granted to most master-villains, a specific case which will be treated in detail later on. 

But what about the DICE ROLLS, you ask?  Well, since the Doctor Who system is 2D6-based, you can simply replace them with pre-calculated target numbers, based on average rolls – and this will work just as well in play, since the element of randomness remains strongly present in the form of the players’ dice rolls.

Thus, if you want to shoot a Dalek with a blaster gun, you roll your Coordination + Marksman against a fixed target number taking into account the Dalek’s defensive capabilities, with no roll for the Dalek itself. But if the Dalek shoots at you, you roll your own defense (say, Coordination + Athletics or Coordination + Awareness, depending on the situation) against a fixed target number based on the Dalek’s Coordination and Marksman scores - again, with no roll for the Dalek itself.

That’s as simple as that!

But wait, you say, the Doctor Who RPG system isn’t entirely 2D6-based, since major villains can often roll 4D6 or even 5D6 or more by spending Story points before their rolls!  Isn’t it where your pretty little system crashes down?

No – because, as we’ll see in a few paragraphs, this element can also be taken into account by giving such unique NPCs a special status (which the rules as they stand already do, by giving them more Story points).

NPCs in Play

When NPCs (whether they are allies or adversaries) act, do not roll dice. Simply assume that they rolled 7, the average sum for 2D6. Or in other words:

NPC’s action total = 7 + Attribute + Skill

Thus, a standard Dalek (Coordination 2, Marksman 3, minor character) would have a marksmanship total of 12 (instead of rolling 2D6+5), while a standard Sontaran Trooper (Coordination 4, Marksman 5) would have a marksmanship total of 16 (instead of rolling 2D6+9).

What happens when two NPCs fight or oppose each other?  Simple: give the advantage to the one with the higher action total (taking into account all possible circumstance modifiers) and break ties according to the interest of the story. It does not really need to be more complicated!

As mentioned above, unique NPCs – arch-villains like the Master as well as long-term, recurring allies like the Brigadier – enjoy special advantages reflecting their special dramatic status.

Unique Characters

As noted above, such characters are the most important NPCs – the ones who are likely to return in multiple episodes, unique individuals like the Master, the Brig or Madame Vastra (unless she is a player-character, of course). The “unique” status should also be applied to, well, truly unique beings like Omega or the Destroyer in Battlefield, as well as to all characters fitting the “master-villain” label, like Magnus Greel or the Racnoss Empress – whether or not the GM intends to have them returning afterwards. 

Instead of Story points, such characters are now given two privileges to reflect their special dramatic status in game terms:

1) A unique NPC’s action totals are calculated with a basis of 12 (instead of the usual 7).

Thus, the Brigadier at his peak (Coordination 4, Marksman 3, unique character) would have a marksmanship total of 19 (instead of rolling 2D6+7 with the possibility of spending Story points).

Likewise, the psychic resistance of the Destroyer (Ingenuity 5, Resolve  8, +2 for Psychic Training, +4 for Indomitable) would be equal to a formidable 31 (total bonus of +19, added to 12).

2) Once per story, a unique character may perform a unique action (see below for details).

So why the arbitrarily higher action total?  To counterbalance the disappearance of Story points for such characters, who were previously given quite a lot of those points.

Here’s a bit of number-crunching to explain the whys and wherefores of this specific rule – if such things bore you, just skip to the next paragraph. In the original system, when one spends a single Story point before an important roll, the dice pool is raised to 4D6, which means an average roll of 14. This is obviously higher than the basic rating of 12 given to unique characters in the variant system. Does this mean that such characters are now disadvantaged?  No, because these characters and creatures get this basic rating of 12 on all their actions – and not just on a few Story-point-boosted rolls. This does, however, change the way they work in game terms: they can no longer ‘over-perform’ or ‘under-perform’ but remain much more constant in their abilities.

Last but not least: the ability of unique characters to perform unique actions (once per story – and at the GM’s discretion). This reflects things like the Brigadier single-handedly defeating the Destroyer in Battlefield (which, incidentally, was supposed to be the Brig’s death-scene but was hastily rewritten) or the Master’s ability to (nearly) always escape at the last minute.

In game terms, a “unique action” corresponds to those exploits and amazing feats (or moments of improbable luck) that would normally require a massive expenditure of Story points. With the simple “once per story” rule, this possibility can easily be retained in the game, without the need for random dice rolls or NPCs’ Story points. And of course, the possibility of such unique actions should always depend on the GM’s discretion and the needs of the story – just like big Story point spends in the original rules.

Last Words

While it works differently from the original rules, this variant system does not, I believe, contradict anything we’ve seen on the screen: it is just another way of emulating the same fictional reality – and one that works equally well in actual play. Why not give it a try?

A more concise version of this article will be included in the next edition of The Temporal Toybox (coming soon).

1 comment: