A Grand Unified Theory

I was sick for a few weeks in November, and have been busy around the Thanksgiving holiday. Looking back, I saw fewer posts than I’d liked. So here’s what I’ve been thinking about during that time, which is how Grand Adventure all ties together.

The pitch of the game is: “Adventurers work together to discover amazing new things, solve challenges, and explore a fantastic world.”

We’re going to talk about a few other truths of the game, then get down to constructing some specifics from the components of that pitch.

Truths that this game should uphold

First, game mechanics create a vocabulary to model problems in the fiction. The rules do not say “all living things take damage on a Resolve track”. Instead, the rules say “you can record a resource you spend or lose using the track rules”, and give specific suggestions how this works.

Second, the role of the dice is intended to spark, frame, and sustain a conversation about the fiction. If you roll an action and your dice go a lot over your target, that’s license for something unexpected to happen. The challenge you’re fighting against will suggest some common twists, as will the action you used. But ultimately the dice aren’t there to tell you exactly what happened. They announce an outcome (“success with complication”), a magnitude for how much to twist the action (usually 1 to 10 points), and a menu of ways that the twist might take place. But ultimately it’s up to the group to decide what twist happens, and whether it’s good or bad. The dice got you started, and keep you on track, but you must decide what feels right.

Adventurers

How do we realize the promise of “adventurers working together”?

  1. Every adventurer receives a call to adventure. This gives them a basic package of adventuring attributes.
  2. Every player starts a thread, which is a story that they want to tell.
  3. Every thread has modifiers, which are adjectives or nouns that signal the presence of a thread.
  4. Every time the thread appears, it moves forward towards its conclusion.
  5. No new threads can be created until everyone’s threads are resolved.

The goal here is for players to tell several stories, hopefully weaving them together at points that seem logical. Rules 1 and 2 introduce vocabulary: here’s how you solve problems in the game. Rule 3 provides a specific way for people to interject that story into the larger narrative, opening windows of authority that hopefully keep the overall game flowing well. Rule 4 guarantees that a story will eventually come to an end. Eternally recurring threats aren’t appropriate for the game we’re trying to make. And rule 5 is intended to help pace the introduction of story elements, giving everyone an equal amount of time.

Discovery

How do we let people “discover amazing new things”?

  1. Characters periodically encounter discoveries, which are objects, places, or phenomena.
  2. Discoveries consist of a noun and one or more modifiers, e.g. “Ancient Glowing Sword” or “Peaceful Moonlit Forest”.
  3. Discoveries are the mechanism for advancement: you “level up” when you reach one.
  4. Discoveries are the pacing mechanic for encounters: you only refresh your core Resolve track at a discovery.

Players should look forward to discoveries. In D&D, maybe you’d leave the dungeon or go back to an inn to rest, restore HP, regain your spells, and so forth. The desirable restorative state only happens when you leave where the adventure is happening. Your recovery only happens when you go backward. I want people to anticipate going forward because that’s where the excitement can be found.

I wanted an easy way for people to construct a discovery: draw a card, roll on a table, whatever. You’ll get a noun and some modifiers from that process. You can just say what a discovery is, but by composing them from individual words and phrases, you let people plug in their thread modifiers, transforming a base discovery into something plot-relevant. Giving people the bare-bones modifiers also starts a conversation without defining it. Remember that we wanted to spark, frame, and sustain conversation. Telling you “there’s a Peaceful Moonlit Forest here”, and that’s it, means you now get to decide why and how that works, what it means, and so forth. It prompts you to think about a situation, and it fences you off from chasing infinite possibility. Instead, you get to extract meaning from a pattern, and human beings are so awesome at that.

Challenges

How do we “solve challenges”?

  1. A challenge is anything that confronts the characters and needs to be overcome.
  2. Challenges have an action cost and one or more tracks, indicating how resilient they are.
  3. Challenges should present a risk to anyone who tries to overcome them.
  4. Challenges should come with suggested twists for complicating actions taken against them.
  5. Challenges can have modifiers that encourage certain solutions.

We define challenges broadly enough that they can handle representing monsters, static obstacles, magic puzzles, social situations, and so forth. We don’t want to make complicated rules for different situations. The focus should be on the players’ characters and the stories they are telling.

Rule 2 gives us a basic vocabulary for what defines a challenge at minimum: how tough is this thing to break, and how long will it take us to break through? Rule 3 makes challenges an act of attrition: can we beat the thing before it beats us?

Rule 4 gives us a specific way to pose this risk: twists that can come out of a player’s action. For example, fighting a dragon might include a twist like “Dragon breathes fire: PC takes damage”.

Rule 5 helps us steer how a challenge is to be fought. For example, the GM presents the group with a Stone Golem challenge. There’s also an “Armored” modifier, that raises the action cost whenever being armored would be a problem - like melee or ranged physical attacks. That modifier is introduced into any action where the Golem’s armored nature would be relevant, making that action more difficult to achieve.

The fantastic

How do we “explore a fantastic world”?

Ultimately, this goal has no rules of its own. Instead, it should be the organic outcome of applying the rules of the game. The players will construct characters, describe plot threads they want those characters to pursue, fight their way through challenges on the way to discoveries, then become more powerful and advance their stories through those discoveries.

It’s on the players to make interesting characters and threads. It’s on the GM (if there even is one) to devise interesting challenges. It’s up to the players to inject their threads at the appropriate time. And so forth. But if these things are done, I’m hoping that the outcome is an interesting world.

Conclusion

The goal of Grand Adventure is to give GMs and players the vocabulary to describe an amazing world, and the tools to chart a course through that world. Discoveries act as milestones, with PCs working through challenges to reach those discoveries.

Players get several sorts of reward: progress for their plotlines, advancement for their characters, and enjoyment of novel twists introduced by the GM.

What does the GM get out of this? As final arbiter for discoveries, the GM has the power to set the tone and flavor of the world, to sculpt the players’ plotlines, and to construct interesting challenges.

Neither GM nor players should have to work in a vacuum. The rules should be there every step of the way, helping channel their creative effort in logical directions without forcing them to start with a blank slate.