Cues

Posted on Sun Jul 05 2015 -- cues

I've been working on a system I call "cues". First, I'll introduce the system itself, then talk about why it's written the way it is, and some possible ways to use it.

The Rules

Cue basics

Cues are short words, phrases, names, or descriptions. Each player has a set of cues before him or her, which must be roleplayed. Example cues are "greedy", "looking for love", "there's a big honkin' dragon!" or "Zambar's leg is broken".

Cues must be interesting — they should be entertaining, menacing, engaging, or otherwise provocative. Cues that don't evoke a player response should be discarded.

Cues have health, which is the number of hits needed to handle whatever issue the cue represents. This can mean defeating an enemy, overcoming an obstacle, recovering from an injury, or outgrowing a particular character trait. Simple cues have a single hit of health, while complex cues can have 3, 5, 10, or more hits.

Cues are placed into stacks, like cards in a game of Solitaire. Starting characters have three stacks, and the group can add more if they feel the need. For example, a game with magic might have a "spell stack", where your magical buffs and active spells live.

You can write cues on 3"x5" index cards and physically stack them on a table, or just keep notes on paper or in an electronic document.

Cues are created by the players or the GM, depending on the specific rules of the game you're playing. GM-created cues can sit loosely on the table, waiting to be picked up by a player, or the GM can push them onto one of a player's stacks. For example, if Zambar breaks his leg, that cue will appear immediately on one of his stacks.

Cues are always placed on top of other cues in an existing stack, or to fill an empty stack. Cues cannot be removed from a stack until their health is depleted. At the start of the game, players should fill their stacks with new cues. If a stack is empty, the player or GM can add a new cue to it.

To deplete a cue's health, it must be on top of one of your stacks. You can deplete a cue in another player's stacks with their permission. Once a cue's health is depleted, take it off the stack and discard it.

There are three ways to deplete a cue's health:

  1. Remove one hit for every other player who recognizes you for a rather stellar bit of roleplaying related to that specific cue.
  2. Remove one hit for every other player who expresses disinterest in the cue itself. Boring cues should disappear from the game.
  3. Remove one or more hits for game-specific mechanics, such as combat, spellcasting, skill rolls, and so on. These will be detailed in a specific game's description.

Cue Types

Different games can define specific cues, or types of cues, with their own rules. By default, a game comes with character, situation, and condition cue types.

A character cue is a personality description, a special skill, a goal, or something else. Depleting character cues is the vehicle for character development — to overcome "Greedy" and turn it into "Idealistic", for example, the player must first deplete "Greedy"'s health. Character cues have as much or as little health as the player wants, based on how persistent they want the cue to be.

A situation cue is a problem that the characters have to face. Depleting situation cues overcomes them as obstacles for continuing the game — for example, a city guard, a red dragon, or a locked door. The presence of a situation cue trumps character cues that would conflict with them. Situation cues have as much health as the GM likes.

A condition cue is harm, physical or otherwise, done to a character. The condition cue stays with the character until depleted, which can be done through some sort of healing or recovery actions. The presence of a condition cue trumps character or situation cues that would conflict with them. Condition cues have as much health as the GM likes.

Individual cues can have their own rules. For example: "Magic Barrier. Take one hit to mitigate any one incoming attack." Such a cue could be created by a wizard, with a set number of health points. The protected character can remove one hit every time he's attacked to ignore the attack, until the health of the barrier is gone.

Example

Zambar the Adequate, inept sorcerer, has three cue stacks. He fills them with three character cues: "Greedy", "In love with the barmaid", and "Cowardly".

Inside the tavern, Zambar overcomes his cowardice and confronts a drunken swordsman who is accosting the pretty barmaid he likes. "Drunken swordsman" becomes a cue, and the GM assigns it 5 health. Zambar stacks it on top of "Greedy", since that cue isn't going to be relevant or interesting for this fight.

Zambar's stacks now look like this:

  1. Drunken Swordsman (5), above Greedy (5)
  2. In Love With the Barmaid (5)
  3. Cowardly (8)

During the struggle, Zambar stumbles backward and falls, breaking his leg. "Zambar's leg is broken" becomes a condition cue, with 1 health, and he stacks it on top of "Cowardly" — he's now committed to the fight. If Zambar had displaced "Drunken swordsman", then the leg would have become the focus of the scene, and Zambar couldn't have done anything about the swordsman until it recovered.

Zambar's stacks now look like this:

  1. Drunken Swordsman (5), above Greedy (5)
  2. In Love With the Barmaid (5)
  3. Broken Leg (1), above Cowardly (8)

Zambar could have replaced "In love with the barmaid", but this is his preferred motive for the scene and so he chooses to keep it in play.

Since Zambar is a sorcerer, the game will include specific rules for spellcasting. Zambar must use these rules, or good roleplaying, to overcome the broken leg and the swordsman.

After the fight, Zambar earns some accolades for some rather good RP with the barmaid, allowing him to deplete "In love with the barmaid" by a few hits. If he's able to finally deplete it, he could replace it with a new character cue such as "Dating the barmaid", or perhaps something entirely different.

The whats and the whys

Fate gamers may immediately look at cues and think "these are aspects". That's partially right — they're like aspects that come stocked with free invocations that are meant to be depleted over time.

Why stacks? Stacks do a few things for me:

  • They keep your attention focused. You have 3 stacks as a player, and anything that your character is dealing with should live on one of those stacks. Everything else is in the pipeline for the future.
  • They prevent a proliferation of modifiers. Players cannot throw aspect after aspect onto the table and crush the opposition with an orgy of invocations.
  • They give drawbacks teeth in the face of overwhelming benefits. If you suffer a condition cue, like a broken leg, that's going to bump something else you were working on, or some buff you enjoyed, and you need to make a hard choice about what that is. It doesn't matter if you have 10 awesome cue cards beneath that one, it's that one card you need to RP and deal with now.

The number of stacks in the game, and the presence of specialty stacks (like "active magic"), allows the GM to fine-tune how the game feels, how much stuff is in play at any moment, and so on. Three is probably the minimum number of stacks to allow.

Why deplete character cues? Characters grow and change. It's boring if you re-invoke the same Fate aspect 50 times to justify everything you do, so there's a  built-in system that says "the more advantage you got from this cue, the faster it should go away". Think of it like spotlight control — a given character trait should get a finite number of times to shine before it's time to move on to someone or something else.

Cues can be a "player-facing" mechanic. The rules say "the GM" a few times, but nothing requires the GM to roll anything — at most, he's making rulings on what cues are in play.

There are deliberately no rules here for how or when you'd create cues, or deplete cue health. That's for the individual game to determine. This is just a modular system for supplying characters and conditions to a dice mechanic. I plugged cues into Inept Sorcerers without too much trouble, and I expect the rules could plug into other systems as easily. For example…

A sample game

Take all of the mechanics above, and add this:

When a player narrates some action that might have consequences of interest, count up the cues on the player's stack that would promote the effort, subtract the number of cues that would hinder the effort, and roll that many six-sided dice. All dice that show 4, or 5 contribute 1 hit of health to the creation of a new cue, or deplete 1 hit of health from an existing cue. Any dice that show a 6 contribute or deplete 2 hits. Any dice that show a 1 add 1 hit of health to an existing condition cue, or create a new one. Dice that show 2 or 3 do nothing.

Affected cues can only be on a player's stack (not necessarily the player who rolled). There is no penalty for failure, other than having an action that does nothing.

Players can buy dice by creating or strengthening a condition cue on themselves, indicating a side effect, risk, or problem that comes from their attempt. Each hit of health on this new cue buys them 1d6 to roll. Players cannot roll to deplete a condition cue they create by using the same dice they bought by creating that cue. Players must buy dice if they don't have enough (for example, if their negative cues equal or outweigh their positives). Players can buy dice after seeing the results of previous dice.

For example, Zambar from our earlier example wants to protect the barmaid from the drunken swordsman. His "In Love With the Barmaid" cue gives him 1d6, while "Cowardly" takes it away. He takes a "Broken Leg" condition cue on top of Cowardly, with 1 hit of health, to buy himself a 1d6. Rolling that, he gets a 4, and successfully depletes 1 hit from "Drunken Swordsman", narrating a conflict that goes badly for him early on as he stumbles and falls.

On the next round, "Cowardly" no longer applies, but "Broken Leg" would hinder any physical attack Zambar chose to make. Instead, by narrating using his wits (and some nearby beer), he avoids the penalty and gets to roll 1d6. Over time, Zambar will hopefully wear down the swordsman, maybe make his leg a little worse, and possibly get a grateful barmaid to nurse him back to health…