Probing the Enemy, Anime Style

If you enjoy anime, you may have noticed that sometimes people are in a duel with one another and they spend most of their time talking. A significant portion of time will sometimes be spent with a close up on one character, while their inner monologue provides an in depth analysis of their opponent. When done effectively, this is enjoyable because it shifts the genre slightly away from action and into either drama or mystery. In an action story it is largely arbitrary who wins. If the enemy’s hidden weakness is mostly psychological the action scene ends up being shifted towards a drama, and character development becomes the means by which the combat is decided. If the enemy’s hidden weakness is part of their tools or combat style, it becomes a mystery. Many stories use both, simultaneously.

The director and writer have a difficult task in keeping the audience interested. Often the dialogue during the fight is actually about the protagonist finding sufficient motivation and obtaining sufficient status (the theater concept of status, not the sociological one) to fight without restriction. This is the kind of battle where the main participants often have philosophical discussions during the fight. Lets call this a drama-fight.

This can largely be contrasted with the “mystery fights.” Here the director and writer have the difficult task of pacing the delivery of information about an opponents fighting style, powers, and tools. The information must be relayed quickly enough that the audience can make educated guesses about how the protagonist will defeat the enemy, and the information must be relayed subtly enough that it doesn’t become overly obvious what the writer’s intent is. This is the same challenges that confront mystery movies. The role of detective in these stories tends to be replaced by a martial artist. The climax where the detective reveals what happened is replaced with the martial artist explaining how they’re defeating the opponent. This mystery-fight is resolved much more quickly than a normal mystery, as the story relies more on the spectacle of the resolution after the climax than the gradual increase in tension prior to the climax. This makes sense: martial arts stories have a lengthy and amusing martial art battle that ends the story, and mystery stories have a long and stressful investigation with a short resolution.

For extreme ways to incorporate these into games, look at these:

Less Extreme Example: My Mage Game

While initially my mage game used a lot of “trump battles,” once I decided to start incorporating damage and health values it ended up being exactly the same as standard M:tA combat. This happened largely because white wolf is a minimalist system. My mage game now uses no house rules that pertain to combat, but I turn every battle into a “mystery-fight.” This change happened largely by accident, and it is quite enjoyable.

This is accomplished by making the enemy much stronger than the players, but making it so that all their powers fit into a narrow theme. As soon as the players figure out what that theme is, they can start to turn the tide of battle. To figure out what the theme is, the players make a variety of attacks and seeing how the enemy defends themself, and analyze how the enemy attacks them.

This works because, in M:tA, magic operates under (minimal restrictions) that vary from mage to mage: paradigm and focus. These are largely narrative restrictions, and largely designate what a mage needs to be able to do magic. There are also the thematic focus I put on the magic as the GM, and the game mechanics of spheres. It might sound abstract, but that’s Mage for you. It’s a lot easier than it sounds.

The most recent example is a fight against a Void Engineer (a statement that means nothing unless you are one of the few M:tA players still out there). The more important part is that this character had the power to understand the location of people and things with a degree of precision that is positively superheroic, and manipulate them with an equal degree of precision. The theme was precision in space. Their magic was all “correspondence 3,” which means they could sense and manipulate the location of themselves and other things. Their paradigm only allowed them to use magic if it could be explained away by luck or skill, and their main foci are observation or large movement. The fight was in a cramped office.

The void engineer’s opening move was to dive over a counter and kick a display table of fliers, in such a way that the fliers spray up into a perfect wall that obscures vision perfectly for just one second. He then launches a surprise attack from behind this cover. During this moment of brief invisibility, one player used luck magic to shoot him anyway, and the other PC uses life magic to transform into some kind of hulking, bulletproof muscleman, and attempt to grab the void engineer. The void engineers second move was to dodge to the side in such a way that a PC ended up “falling” into another PCs line of fire. The PCs, having figured out that this guy was just too darn mobile, decided they needed to stop him from moving so much. One of the PCs is a time mage, so he decided to slow down time the next time the void engineer attempts one of their fancy magical maneuvers. A different PC decided it was time to try and wrestle and pin the void engineer to the ground. The void engineer was going to try and escape outside where, with a gun in hand and lots of space, he would have a significant advantage. Unfortunately, time slowed just as he attempted to make a break for it, and then he was pinned to the ground.

Note how all the actions were pretty normal combat actions for a game of Mage, but by providing a powerful but narrow theme to the enemy’s magic it was possible to treat it like a mystery to solve. Once the players figure it out, the problem is really easy to solve. This makes it quite different to play than a “trump battle,” where it plays more like a puzzle.

Space Navy Action Scenes

I was reading a different blog a while back, and it mentioned a problem with sci fi spaceships in RPGs. Generally speaking, they follow the model laid down in Startrek. Each member of the crew has a specialty: one operates weapons, one operates sensors, one is the pilot, etc. The problem for a game that operates on this model is that the vast majority of choices are made by the commanding officer, and everyone else just gets to role. Most players don’t get to make decisions, and this is unsatisfying.

The Problem

How can decisions plausibly be divided up amongst the players without interfering with the specialized roles on board a ship?

The Solution is Social

Each character’s specialization comes with social roles. A sensors operator is supposed to inform the rest of the crew about what is going on. A weapon operator is supposed to shoot at things, and maybe operate defensive equipment also. The commander is supposed to tell everyone what to do. With that in mind, lets look at social behaviour to find a way around this problem.

With this in mind, each action will involve multiple players. This overcomes the problem of overspecialization removing choice from players not in the command role. The next trick is to allow characters who would normally be suboordinate to declare their actions independently. This is primarily a social problem, and is overcome with roleplaying and the use of improvisational theater concepts. It is also a problem for action economies and time management systems (ie. Initative), but this is much easier to overcome.

Offering, Endowing, and Yielding

I am fond of improvisational theater, and to work our way out of this problem we need some improvsational theater concepts. I have written on them before, and I will cover them briefly here again.

Offering: doing or saying something that invites a reaction from someone else. Often, an offer introduces something new to a scene, but it does not need to.

Endowing: adding characteristics or definition to something already in the scene.

Yielding: responding to an offer.

Often a single act will fit into more than one category. Often the act of endowing actually doubles as an offer, in so far as it invites a response from someone else. Sometimes a yield also invites a response from someone else, thus making it simultaneously a yield and an offer.

Note how the actions taken by each role can be fit into each of these categories. Sensor operators offer by detecting new things in space, and endow by discovering the properties of the things in space. For example, a sensor operator might say something like “Captain, the enemy ship is leaking radiation.” and, in so doing, they are endowing the enemy ship and offering something for the other players to react to. A weapons operator might respond with “Programming missiles to track the radiation. Firing in 3. 2. 1.” In so doing, they are yielding to the sensor operator.

Note how this sounds remarkably like something that happens on the bridge of the enterprise during a battle. These exchanges occur quickly and independently of the captain on the enterprise, who will usually occasionally interrupt the process to assert that they should follow the plan proposed by someone else, or to shout “belay that order!” The commander role is almost unnecessary for these action scenes to play out, however. Most of the time the captain is just a yes man, and the rest of the time the captain’s role is to stop someone from doing something.

Broad Turn and Action Format

Initiative systems remain largely unchanged. The key part is that each player gets one turn per round. However, when it’s a players turn they must always offer or endow. Their offer or endow must line up with their specialized role. Any other player may respond to this, and it doesn’t even need to line up with their specialized role. However, they will tend to be more effective if it does line up with their role just because odds are good those skills are raised.

To keep the flow of the game at a faster pace, I would suggest making it so that the offering or endowing person doesn’t roll at all. However, it might still be desirable to have an effect that increases as the character becomes stronger at their specific role. The specifics of this would depend on the system. Alternity is pretty clear on how this works: at rank 1 it is a step 1 bonus, rank 4 it is a step 2 bonus, 7 it is a step 3 bonus, etc. In GURPS, I would suggest that the bonuses are +1 at level 11, +2 at level 13, +3 at level 16, and +4 at level 21. I came up with these numbers by using the usual values for degrees of success (0, -2, -5, and -10), and assuming a roll of 11 all the time.

The yielding character is the one who gets to roll. They get to decide what they are doing, of course, but it must be a reaction to the offer. Their results are determined normally. If someone totally ignores the offer they automatically fail their attempt. Note that there are ways to act against the spirit of the offer that do not ignore it.

Note that is far easier for some roles to offer than it is to yield, and vice versa. Players should take this into consideration when choosing what they would like to play as.

Enemy Initative

Since the players will quite plausibly end up taking 3-5 actions, which involve the actions of 6-10 characters, it can be quite cumbersome if the GM acts with a similar attention to detail. It is also potentially problematic in that this system could result in weapons being fired 3-5 time, before the enemy ship even gets to respond.

A nice simple way to handle this eventuality is to count the number of times a player yielded since the enemy ship acted, and give the enemy ship that many actions. If there are 4 players, and the enemy ship goes 2nd, then on the enemy’s first turn it only takes 1 action. On the enemy’s next turn, it takes 4 actions.


We have 3 player characters: Captain Charidee, Noah the Weapons Operator (and Saurian alien), and Chief Engineer Fancy-Bowtie. They are all aboard the spaceship Marengo, a mighty warship. They are battling an enemy flying saucer.

GM tallies everyone’s initiative. It is as follows:

  1. Chief Engineer Fancy-Bowtie

  2. Captain Charidee

  3. Flying Saucer

  4. Noah the Saurian Weapons Operator

Chief Engineer Fancy-Bowtie says “Redirecting power to lasers.” Noah the Saurian Weapons Operator responds with “We need time for the lasers to charge. Beginning evasive maneuvers.” Noah makes an appropriate piloting roll, adds the bonus from Fancy-Bowtie’s engineering skill. The result is good, and the ships defenses go up. Note how Noah acknowledged what Fancy-Bowtie said, but chose to do something totally different than what Fancy-Bowtie obviously intended.

Captain Charidee analyzes the enemy. “They’re holding back. They’re prepping something big.” Fancy-Bowtie says “I’ve got a trick up my sleeves: flaring the engines. The radiation will mess up their tracking.” Fancy-Bowtie makes a check related to ECM, with a bonus from captain charidee’s tactics skill.

The flying saucer gets to take two actions, because two players have gone. It attempts to scan the ship to find a weakness in their defenses, and then shoot them with a plasma blaster. Fancy-Bowtie’s ECM causes some severe penalties on the sensor check, and the Flying Saucer fails. The attack roll must be made without the aid of a sensors operator and the players have the benefit of evasive maneuvers. The flying saucer fails its check, and thus does not hit.

Noah the Saurian Weapons Operator says “Lasers fully charged.” Captain Charidee says “Fire!” Oddly, in this situation it will end up being the captain that determines whether the attack hits, and the Weapons Officer skill is only for buffing the attack. They never got a target lock, so they’re lacking the significant aiming bonus. The players are lucky, though, and Captain Charidee rolls a hit with the weapons operation skill.

Hogging the Yields

It is certainly possible that someone will jump in and always take the yields. By virtue of being faster and more assertive than everyone else (and by the vice of not caring enough to share), no one else will ever get to roll. This problem can probably be solved by the GM reminding them to share, but if you prefer a system that uses special game mechanics, I have a suggestion: at end of every round, if no one has yielded twice or more, the captain gets a use of a special ability of some kind. I would suggest borrowing a page from GURPS: Action, and have the captain earn a use of Good Luck. Note how I said it is earned if no one yielded twice or more, and that this is different than if everyone yielded once.

Threat Control, “Tanking,” Pathfinder, and MOBAs

A tank is a character who is so tough it is better for that character to be attacked than other players. Threat control is the capacity to control who an enemy can attack. Threat control can be accomplished in several ways, and the most simplistic is “aggro control” powers from games like World of Warcraft or the “mark” mechanics from 4e D&D. Threat control is an integral part of tanking because, without it, there is no reason for a character to attack the tough character.

Yet, there are significant problems with the aggro control model of threat control. If threat control is used on players, it denies the players’ the freedom to make choices. While concerns about the GM’s freedom is rare, it matters also, and if the players have aggro control powers it gets in the way. If we ignore this, and only give aggro control the players, then there is an imbalance between what the creatures of the world can do under the rules and what the players can do under the rules. This interferes with creating a believable setting.

Yet, many people I have spoken to feel there is no alternative to aggro control powers. For them I have a plentiful source of examples: MOBAs. Whether in League of Legends, DOTA2, or any of the other, newer ones. To a lesser extent, competitive strategy games (tabletop or otherwise) accomplish the same thing in a slightly less clear cut way.

The Concept of Threat

In this article, a threat is something that forces a response from an opponent. If the opponent does nothing, something really bad happens to them. The goal of a Tank is to impose a threat where the best response from the opponent is to attack the tank (and not someone else).

Examples of Threats

Single Target Damage: Being able to do severe damage very quickly can pull this off. This is very common in 3.x because the various warrior classes do more damage to a single target than any other class. In fact, it is so common in RPGs that the various warrior classes are all considered strong against powerful, singular opponents (such as a dragon or a giant), but weak against groups of opponents (hordes of orcs or goblins). In MOBAs it is very rare for a tank to be able to threaten with single target damage.

Area of Effect Damage: In MOBAs when a tank has an area of effect that does damage, it is usually an “aura” centered on the character. This works as a threat when the aura has duration because it means the enemies’ options are to either accept the ongoing damage or attack the character causing the aura (in which case they must implicitely not attack the other characters). In D&D this kind of threat is very rarely available to classes with sufficient hit points to be Tanks. In MOBAs it is fairly common, which makes a lot of sense because it is a simple and intuitive way to impose threat in a real time game.

Disables and Debuffs: In MOBAs disables are effects like stunning or silence. They completely remove a type of action from an opponent (movement and spell-casting, respectively). Debuffs, by contrast, impose penalties but does not completely remove an ability. In a competitive strategy game, the difference is actually quite minimal: a severe enough debuff makes a course of action so impractical that it might as well not even be an option. In a tabletop RPG, however, the difference between “not a choice” and “a bad choice” is more significant.

Full Attack Actions as Threats

From level 6+, full attack actions from fighters have the highest single target damage in the game. This makes them a threat that an opponent must respond to. Appropriate responses are to move away, or to gang up on the fighter with multiple weak opponents instead of one strong opponent. In the case of a ranged fighter, the threat will instead force opponents to close into melee range to prevent ranged attacks.

Threatened Area and Attacks of Opportunity

Consider attacks of opportunity for a moment. So long as a character is capable of doing significant damage with a single attack, they impose the threat of single target damage. They also impose this threat in an area around the character, making it in some fashions similar to an area of effect. Further, enemies normally cannot move through the character in question (unless they are ghosts or otherwise insubstantial), so it is also a minor debuff on movement.

For this reason, the easiest way to impose a threat that forces opponents to attack a character is to get close enough that the enemy is within the Tank’s threatened area. Combine this with the Step Up feat (if playing pathfinder), and that’s all it takes. This will be sufficient from level 1-5, but will gradually become less useful once the weapon wielding classes depend on using full attack options to do significant amounts of damage. It will never be completely useless, however: taking one attack of opportunity can be considered equivalent to at least a 20% increase in damage at even the highest levels. For contrast, before level 6 it is equivalent to doubling damage output.

Combat Maneuvers as Threats

As far as threats go, combat maneuvers are all debuff or disable themed threats. They are also frequently ignored by players. This is because the threat of debuffs and disables are very rarely as important as the threat of damage. However, I can think of at least one place for them: a ranged tank. A bow wielding fighter (for example) imposes significant threat of damage so long as opponents are not in melee range. This will force the opponent to close with the fighter, and engage them in melee. The bow fighter has several options about how to respond: fight in melee (a less than ideal option, because the ranged fighter probably has low strength), retreat and fire again (an acceptable option, but it gives up the benefits of having the enemy within one’s threatened area), or use combat maneuvers (the best option, in my opinion). By using combat maneuvers, the ranged fighter can significantly reduce their enemies’ ability to cause harm to the fighter or anyone else, while enjoying the benefits of threatened area, and enabling allies to attack the target with impunity. This works with ranged fighter builds because of the Agile Maneuvers feat or the Weapon Finesses feat (weapon finesse applies to disarm, trip, and sunder only, making it only useful against humanoid opponents).

Opportunity and “Initiating”

One way to ensure that a character is attacked is to be the only option. One way to accomplish this is to have everyone other than the tank to wait somewhere safe until after the Tank takes their turn. The tank moves out, the enemies take their turn and attack the tank, and then the rest of the team all goes afterwards.

In such a case, the best thing that could possibly happen for the Tank is that the enemies all delay their turns until after someone other than the tank appears, and the tank’s allies all don’t go until after the bad guys go. When both sides delay, both sides skip their turn. The tank just took a turn for free: a significant advantage. given that most combats only last 3 rounds this could be considered a 33% increase in effectiveness. You would be hard pressed to find any feat or spell that could accomplish something similar!

In MOBAs this is often called initiating. For relatively intuitive reasons it is normally done by tanks, but in some situations it is done by characters filling other roles. Sometimes an opportunity is too good to pass up, after all.

Pacing of Combat and the Goals of Tanking

In MOBAs, it is worth noting that often the tank only successfully forces the opponents to attack them for a short period of time. This allows more vulnerable characters to get into positions where they can contribute to the combat more effectively. Translating to terms for a game like Pathfinder (where combat only lasts 3 rounds most of the time) successfully imposing threat for just one round will have a similar impact. Successfully imposing the threat for 2 rounds should pretty much win the combat. Note that successfully imposing a threat does not mean that they chose to attack the tank. It could also mean they did not attack the tank, and suffered grievously as a result.


The key feature that ensures tanks are drawn almost exclusively from the warrior classes is that they have high hit points. All of the classes can impose threat. Even bards. Only the warrior classes have high hit points and armor class without suffering a significant opportunity cost in terms of feat selection or ability score distribution.

In MOBAs survivability is often calculated with “effective hit points.” This is the amount of damage a character can sustain, after damage reduction from armor or magic resistance are applied. This is complicated in RPGs because armor does not cause damage reduction (in D&D at least). It instead reduces the chance of taking damage at all, and this “all or nothing” relationship makes it so that luck can play a significant factor in the short term. However, I lack the knowledge of statistics to calculate bunching. Inspired by “effective hit points,” I will suggest this: Take a character’s hit point pool, and multiply it by (AC/20)+1. In other words Effective Hit Points = HP x (1+(AC/20). Higher numbers are better. This is a decent way to approximate and compare different characters’ survivability, but it stops working at extreme ends of AC and HP values. It also does not work for spell damage.

Unorthodox Tanks

Non-warrior classes classes can be tanks too. They just require feat and ability score distribution that makes sure they don’t die when attacked, and the capacity to impose threat. For now, you’ll just have to take my word on it. However, soon I will post an update that has my builds for very unorthodox tanks. My favourite is my wizard tank build. I call that build “They said it couldn’t be done…”

Future Shock: Radical Changes to Society from Technology in Science Fiction RPGs

Some of the fun of science fiction is imagining the “what-ifs”. While players can be brought in to think about all the implications and possible new uses of a fictional technological capacity, this process is mostly left up to the GM. This is fair and reasonable: the GM is normally in charge of the setting and the world. Ergo, the GM ought think about a wide spectrum of effects from new technology. In this way, the GM can provide the players with a variety of stances and opinions to draw from, effectively increasing the amount of choices available to a player.

To facilitate this, I thought of three categories for how technology can impact society or individuals. They are as follows:

Radical: These are changes that have such a significant change on individuals or society that a “foundation” of modern life no longer applies. These changes are not normally destructive in nature; they are often either a good change or a just different. They are not bad changes.

Examples: Star Trek, the federation does not have businesses or corporations anymore; their technology has made the pursuit of material wealth redundant. For a darker example, cyberpunk stories feature advanced cybernetics and computing that have altered the culture industry significantly. It leads to completely VR television shows where a person becomes the character, electronic stimulation of feelings, and the gradual replacement of real world interactions with “matrix” interactions. In many ways, I think cyberpunk novels anticipated how the internet has developed quite accurately, but in the early eighties this was a radical prediction about how the world will change because of widespread computing.

Safe: These are changes that have very little impact on society as a whole or individuals, beyond the technology itself.

Examples: In William Gibson’s “the sprawl” setting (a cyberpunk trilogy), there is a space based industry and at least one entire city in orbit of the earth. Aside from the occasional low-G location, this technological change has little to no impact on society as a whole. It just moves the same things up into space. For a more extreme example, Cowboy Bebop has almost no radical technologies at all. They even have truckers in space. This can be contrasted with how different the world of star trek is.

Apocalyptic: These are changes that have disastrous effects on society or individuals. It is often the negative side effects of a technology. Some people might reject a technology, and believe it causes more harm than good. Modern concerns about genetic engineering and industrial agriculture are real world examples of a rejection of new technology.

Examples: In most cyberpunk novels, the development of cybernetics, biotech, and communication technology end up aggravating class divides to such an extent that only the criminal class and mega-corporate employees have access to it. The rest of the population end up isolated, powerless, and vulnerable. They are not necessarily impoverished, but they often end up that way. Frequently their condition leads to drug addiction, an obsession with inconsequential aspects of mass media, or mental illness. In many, many space opera settings, there is a nuclear war sometime in the 21st century. This is often a result of the proliferation of the same technologies that make large scale space flight feasible (fusion power and rocketry). In Red Mars there is a faction called “Reds” which hold that terreforming other planets is a misuse of power, on the grounds that a human who claims to love a place and change it so radically must not actually care about it. A recurring theme in stories that address transhumanist themes is a rejection of augmentation on religious grounds. This usually leads to religious intolerance and violence.

Applying this in Games

Keep in mind the goal of this is to create a setting rich enough that it gives each player something to interact with. This is easiest to accomplish if the GM provides a wide variety of ways that a technological change has impacted the world. To assist in this objective, the GM can provide each technological change with a way that it is radical, safe, and apocalyptic. The GM may also allow players the opportunities to extrapolate on these conceptions of technology, and create social or personal impacts keyed to their specific characters.

Lets start with an example that could become true in the near future: asteroid mining and orbital manufacturing.

Radical: Engineering work becomes largely about the rapidly growing space industry. Skilled trades (machining, electrical trades, computer hardware, construction workers, etc) jobs are shipped up to orbital stations, where they work on expanding the robot-driven mining stations across the asteroids.

Safe: Continued growth in manufacturing allows much of modern consumer society to continue largely unaltered. There are still malls. Most of the world is employed in the service sector, and most of the world lives in cities. This is largely like living in modern cities.

Apocalyptic: The rise of a global technical class, working in engineering, software, and robotics, is not limited by national boundaries. This results in the nation-state ideology gradually being undermined. Governments and political boundaries lose the little ideological basis for their existence. States embrace the brutal and cynical stance of political realism. All belief in their legitimacy is inherited from the past, and their power is nothing but lingering momentum. The political climate now has a unique kind of power vacuum: there is no recognized moral authority upon which actions can be criticized or embraced.

Now I will pick a modern problem: climate change. Lets suppose that space industry helps solve the problem somehow. How would this look:

Radical: The largest orbital construction job ever is currently underway: orbital shades to begin controlling global cooling. All the decisions and funding required for the orbital shades project have resulted in major political collaboration and overcome countless political boundaries. Environmental stewardship is one of the few moral principles that most governments and people can agree upon.

Safe: Continuing with the orbital theme, microwave power is implemented on a large scale. In order for this to replace fossil fuels effectively, everything needs to run off batteries. Although making everything electric was a difficult change to implement, once it was completed it did not significantly alter the kind of devices available to people. Oil continues to be used in the manufacture of plastics and as a lubricant.

Apocalyptic: Countries that rely on a resource export economy (like Canada or Brazil), overseas shipping (like Indonesia), or manufacturing (like China) suffer severe economic decline. These industries have all moved into space, and the result is better for the environment. The economic harm caused by this change is disproportionately effecting people in blue-collar jobs within these countries. They often are not well equipped to handle such burdens.

Lets look at possible impact of some completely fictional technology: faster-than-light travel.

Radical: There are many colonies on habitable worlds. Each colony is a unique ideological and cultural community, made up of people who chose to leave earth because they dislike the current cultural or political climate.

Safe: In spite of having many planets to choose from, Earth remains special. Although each star system is economically quite independent because of the sheer material wealth from space industry, there is one thing that remains scarce everywhere: culture. Cultural ties to earth are therefore immensely prosperous.

Apocalyptic: Ethnic and religious communities are significantly affected by being shipped off to space. Consider how important pilgrimages are across so many of the world’s religions. Consider how much pride members of a cultural diaspora usually take in their homeland, and once humans leave earth then they are all part of a diaspora. The culture industry is run by a small number of elite, oligopolistic mega-corporations. Culture in this case includes: history, academia, religion, and entertainment. They are able to turn a significant profit off of pilgrimages, art educations, and various forms of ethnic studies. This turns participation in culture into an endeavor for the social elite, and many people react by disowning earth and creating a culture more centered around their new home. These groups are often highly stigmatized, and sometimes outright oppressed.

And now we have a world at least as rich as most sci-fi settings.  Of course, I would think you can imagine different outcomes from these technological innovations.  It’s a simple process, and I encourage you to try it yourself.  It could also be used for alternate histories or fantasy stories, if you wish to extrapolate on all the effects of a what-if.

Player Failure and Agency

A GM I played with once decided to eliminate death from his games. Instead of dying, if reduced to 0 hit points a PC was unable to act and thus had their agency removed. He felt that this was sufficient punishment to keep combat a meaningful challenge while avoiding the problems associated with sudden character death. He was largely correct, but there is room for improvement on this system.

The first problem is that the player doesn’t just lose agency under these conditions. They are excluded from play until they regain consciousness. This is contrary to what I consider a necessary part of tabletop RPGs: they are social games.

The second problem is what I call “the team player problem.” A lot of players don’t really care if bad things happen to their character in combat, so long as the party wins and no one permanently dies. These players are not invested in their individual performance. They are invested in the party’s success, and the best way to measure that is often with what the party accomplishes in relation to the story: quest completion, saving the lives of NPCs, protecting villages, etc. Not being able to participate for a short period of time often has no effect on this. After precisely two combats in his campaign, I adopted this attitude.

I have a system that is both more fun and a more effective punishment. I call it Diabolus ex Machina. Read this if you care about the terminology:

The Theory

Although often a GM technically can do whatever they want, in practice this is not the case. Content introduced early allows the players to act upon it, and react to it. The later the content is introduced, the less chance the players have to act appropriately. The most severe case is content that the players have no chance to react to at all, right at the end of a session. Use this to imagine a spectrum of agency, ranging from players with maximized agency to the GM having maximized agency.

Although there is often no one to enforce it, the GM is subject to rules limiting their agency. The GM must keep the setting and genre consistent. The GM must keep the story consistent. The GM must ensure that the degree of difficulty is “fair” (Dungeons and Dragons is especially good at providing guidelines for this). Within these limitations, the GM can do almost anything.

A good GM introduces the content about all of these things early. By introducing content about the setting and genre early, the GM enables the players to creatively solve problems using the workings of the fictional world. Introducing story content earlier gives the players more ability to effect the events of the story, instead of just being “along for the ride.” Introducing details about combats and other rules-governed scenes early is necessary for meaningful tactical decisions.

If the GM is allowed to introduce new content for these things at later times than they normally would, the GM suddenly has a huge amount of power to derail the players’ plans. The trick is to make it “fair” by making it a transparent and rational system that doesn’t contradict other rules (either by breaking them or being inconsistent with the spirit of them), so the players don’t feel cheated.

The System

First the GM must define what counts as a significant player failure. For now, let us go with the minimal definition of “being reduced to 0 hit points.”

Next, explain to the players that the GM is responsible to provide information to them early enough that they can act upon it and react to it.

Whenever a player suffers a significant failure (ie is reduced to 0 HP) the GM gains a Diabolus Ex Machina Point. Hereafter it will be referred to as DEMP.

The GM is allowed to spend DEMP to introduce new narrative content at times when the players do not have the time or resources to react effectively. I call these times “unfair times”.

The GM is not allowed to spend DEMP to contradict any results that are normally governed by other rules.

Spending DEMP is not required to introduce complications that have been adequately foreshadowed, implied, or would otherwise be predictable to a player who pays attention and thinks about the setting.

The GM is to keep a public record of how many DEMP they currently have, every time they use DEMP, how it foiled the players, and a general statement about what they introduced to the setting or story each time they used a DEMP.

Example: The PCs have sneaked into a space-nazi battlestation to rescue a princess. They have planned an elaborate ruse wherein they pretend that one of them is a prisoner and the others are transporting them in. They succeeded at their disguise rolls, and the GM has one DEMP. The GM cannot use the DEMP to tell them their disguises fail, because that would contradict what is covered by a pre-existing system. However, using DEMP to throw a monkey wrench in their plans by having a story or setting based reason for their plans to fail is acceptable. The GM decides to introduce a prisoner transfer protocol that exposes the deception, and tells everyone “I am spending a DEMP. The guard says “Prisoner transfer? I was not informed. I will have to clear it.” and starts typing away at their computer. Your plan will be foiled in a matter of seconds. What do you do?” the GM writes down on their record “DEMP spent on foiling prison break. Empire has elaborate and effective bureaucracy.”

To make this a little bit more interesting, from now on it has been “adequately implied” that the space-nazis have an extensive bureaucracy, and any future ruse will need to take that into account. If the players were to steal a shuttle to smuggle a team of top notch commandos past the enemy fleet, they better make sure they have all their paperwork forged correctly. “Do they have code clearance?” “It’s an older code, sir, but it checks out… I was about to clear them.” If the players fail to take that into account, the GM is allowed to be very punitive without spending more DEMP.

To be clear, having an efficient bureaucracy is not particularly interesting; the fact that the detail can be introduced into the world by the results of a “back and forth” interaction between players is interesting. A different GM or players with a different plan would result in an entirely different use of DEMP. It is unpredictable, and plays off the social elements of collaborative storytelling while keeping the GM firmly as the players’ adversary.

Games with Similar Systems

Two games comes to mind that make use of similar rules: Mutants and Masterminds, and GURPS.

Mutants and Masterminds uses “Hero Points” to give the players a wide variety of nifty abilities, and anytime the GM makes something arbitrarily foil their plans the players get a “hero point.” This is especially similar because it highlights how the GM’s role is subject to fair play rules. The main difference is that the GM doesn’t have to win chances to be unfair; the players just get compensated when the GM does something unfair. This fits very nicely with super hero style games (like M&M), as it allows the villain to always escape, love interests to be at the site of bank robberies by coincidence, trusted friends to be sympathetic new members of criminal gangs, etc.

GURPS has the disadvantages Bad Luck and Cursed. They enable the GM to arbitrarily make bad things happen to a character. Once again, these imply a fair play rule. Unlike with M&M, the breach of fair play is character specific. Cursed gives the GM permission to permanently harm or kill the player. Bad Luck specifies that if the plot requires something bad to happen to someone, it happens to the character with bad luck. There is a character type in action TV who drives the plot foreward by always having something bad happen to them. These characters are often perfectly competent but show remarkably bad judgement; giving the GM permission to punish these characters with bad luck enables them in games. There is also a type of character in comedies who is always on the receiving end of jokes at their expense, almost like the universe hates them. This kind of character can also be made.

The main difference between these two systems and DEMP is that in DEMP the GM earns the privilege of being arbitrary and unfair by being an effective but fair adversary to the PCs. In M&M it is a trade between the GM and players, and in GURPS it is given to the GM by the players. Ergo, DEMP could make competition between the GM and the players more meaningful: something is at stake for both parties. The GM wants to win more agency, the players don’t want the GM to be able to take away the results of their choices.

A Note on Genre

Games that emphasize anything other than combat will usually (but not always) have a similar consequence to player failure “built in” to checks already. If a player fails some kind of check related to personal interaction, it is up to the GM to decide how the other person reacts. If a player fails a check to repair a device, it is often up to the GM to decide what malfunctions might occur. If a player fails a check to jump from one building to another, it is up to the GM whether they chicken out at the last minute, fall short but land on a fire escape, or plummet to their death.

If a GM wishes to use DEMP in such a game, player failure would need to be defined quite differently and in a very genre specific way. What comes to mind to me is for any kind of intrigue game where the players are all members of the same organization, and if any of them fail skill checks related to their official projects they would obviously be fired or the plot of the game becomes completely unable to continue. For example, if the players are all part of an organization terreforming Mars and the Engineer character fails their engineering check when designing a nuclear reactor, it is quite plausible that the game would be unable to continue because everyone has been blown up. The GM could just say the power system is buggy and prone to brown outs, but that might make the players feel like there are minimal consequences to their actions. However, if the GM instead gets a DEMP, and the power system is just “buggy” from then on and prone to power outages, the players may end up much more concerned as all their goals beyond “don’t die and don’t get fired” are now threatened by a malicious GM.

A Note on Terminology

The term “agency” is, when talking about RPGs, imprecise. It can refer to having control, making meaningful choices between provided options, or being able to create new options. However, it is the term that is in favour these days, and I will tow the line. However, if you are a GM and you are thinking “I want to give my players more agency” you are trying to do something vague, and you are thus likely to fail. If you think “I want to give my players more choices” or “I want to give my players more opportunities to pursue options of their own devising” then you can figure out what to do.