...or timelines aren't just a series of tubes.
Good art evokes things: feelings, thoughts, maybe something else entirely. This is true for music, painting, theater, and RPGs. A great RPG can send you into a panic as well as fill you with satisfaction. Often when we compare RPGs we describe their mechanics, but not really the result of those mechanics. Switching approach and thinking first about what we want to evoke can open up new ideas.
With this in mind, I started to think of some of the experiences I would want while playing an RPG, and what systems I could best use to get there. As I scrolled through all the different flavors of badass I would want to play, most of them had a mechanical compliment that allowed and encouraged them to shine, but one was left out. Unstoppable force has strength, the untouchable martial artist has AC or dexterity (or whatever it is in your particular system), deadly precision is modeled both in melee and at range, everyone has played or played with the rogue who can suddenly appear from the shadows, but the one experience I could think of that I could match to a stat in almost every system is speed.
I know, I know, we see speed expressed in character’s initiative or their dodge stat, but that isn’t really the feeling I want. Being difficult to hit is the ability to react quickly. Taking your turn first showcases that your character reacts to the situation first. I wanted to feel like an actual speed demon. I want that berserker to actually attack more than he did before.
Working from that feeling I was searching for, I tried to think of ways to model it, and the obvious and only solution I came up with was extra turns. My first thought was, well, this is gonna be broken as hell, but after a little math I found a way to do it. Put simply, increasing your number of turns is no more effective than increasing your damage stat as long as you start everyone at a number more like 5 than like 1.
[toggle title="BEWARE- THERE BE MATHS HERE" state="close" ]Curious about this assertion that extra turns won't be crazy powerful? First lets come up with a super generic idea to calculate the 'effectiveness' of a character. First some variables: D = average damage P = probability to hit H = health pool of enemy So, it will take a character X actions to kill their foe where X = H/PD Now I will add in one more stat, S = number of actions per round so the character will kill their foe in X/S rounds. Lets call the number of rounds R So, R=(H/PD)/S = H/(PDS) See that, damage and speed are right their side by side. Doubling damage is equivalent to doubling speed. So, why does adding 1 to damage not equate to taking 1 extra turn each round? Because there is already a base assumed damage from your weapon. So going from 1 strength to 2 strength takes you average damage from, say, 5 to 6, only a 20% increase. To mimic this in speed we simply add a base to stabilize the increases to this stat. Everyone starts at 5 speed, problem solved.[/toggle]
So now I had an idea, but, how would I actually scroll through turns and make a turn order if they each act on different schedules? My first instinct was to use a computer, but as I wrote up a script I kept having more ideas for new things we could do with this mechanic, so I kept complicating my code, which prompted more ideas, and more code. So eventually I gave up and used paper. Each character got a strip of graph paper 30 squares long. Then if a character had speed of 5 I’d divide the strip into 5 sections, speed of 8: 8 sections. Line up the strips and scroll across.
This gave me an easy way to track turns, but also gave me options I had not thought of until deep into the development. One was that mages/bards could affect the actual rate of action of allies and enemies without flat extra turns or missing turns. I could simply slide the strip of paper forward or backward. I dubbed this stuttering and accelerating. Also as I made strips for my various beasties I came up with the idea of some having odd turn orders. This wizard spends a long time preparing then unleashes a barrage of spells.
So with everything ready I gathered a couple of guys and we gave it a shot. Every other mechanic was as vanilla as we could make it. I wanted the turn mechanic to be forefront. They picked out some characters and yada yada yada, one dead wizard later we had some results.
It turned out to be a great success. The characters with high speed got to feel fast and effective, but it didn’t leave the slower characters unable to stay on their level. Seeing that wizard go balls-to-the-wall after waiting so long caught them off guard, and while he wasn’t explicitly a berserker, yet it still felt like a switch had been flipped. After playing through the first fight they had the hang of watching which turns were coming up, but it didn’t swallow up the game any more than the normal turn order does in any RPG. Having the turn tracks for the baddies turned out to be much nicer than expected. Having all their stats on one game piece gave it the feel of a token, so for a playgroup that doesn’t use a lot of specialized figures it was a nice change.
So what does that leave for you? If you want you can hack this turn structure into most RPGs. I am a strong believer of making the system into what you want, but let me lay out some pros and cons. Well, I guess more so what this is good for and not good for.
Fast and Furious Combat- I’m talking DBZ kind of stuff here. Players who actually feel that anger when they want a golem dead and game masters who pour out the description on each hit will love this. It is great as a tool for building an atmosphere of cinematic combat.
Expanding the Bestiary- It is only one more dimension to be able to vary bad guys on, but it is a dimension with an extreme range. Taking the same stat block you can make one who attacks early, then waits, finally to end with two rapid turns and another who has equally spaced turns, and they will both feel completely different.
Experimenters- If you love to try every system you hear about then you should definitely give this a go. If you are the guy who loves to homebrew up his own RPG stew, then you don’t really have a choice. What chef doesn’t try a new spice?
Social Interactions- I always drop turn order anyway when I’m running a game and the table turns diplomatic, and this was no exception. When talking with someone you have to wait for their reply, so it makes no sense to track turns this way.
Book Dependents- Whenever you go off the map there is a chance you could break something. If you can’t stand to make table rulings and go to the book to check every rule before you move on, the balancing complications of adding in something like this will ruin the experience for you.
Whether or not you try it, thinking about this dimension of play will be beneficial. Temporal manipulation doesn’t always have to be paradox-laden time travel. Timelines aren’t just a series of tubes. So if you have the gumption, add in an extra attribute, start everyone at 5. If you don’t like it take it back out and refund any points spent on it. After all it’s only a game.