Monday, June 26, 2017

Character progression in the Black Swan System

Last post I introduced the Black Swan System and it's resolution mechanics based on a skill system that maps to a particular 3d8 die roll. Instead of adding more dice, the skill mechanism allows you to reroll and add low values, the higher your skill the higher the values you can reroll. For example the "trained" skill level allows you to reroll any ones rolled. The next level, "skilled", allows you to reroll ones and twos. In turn "experienced" allows you to reroll ones, twos and threes, and so forth until you get to "legendary" which allows you to reroll values between one and six (inclusive).

It was also pointed out that there is no upper limit to any of the rolls. A "trained" roll can equal a "legendary" roll since, improbable as it may be, the player rolling for "trained" can get a streak of 20 ones and just keep adding to the roll and in that manner inch its way to beating an opposing "legendary" opponent that just happens to roll a low or at best an average "legendary" roll. But how far apart is the average "skilled" roll from an average "legendary" roll? In other words how much do I need in modifiers to (on the average) equal one with the other.

Turns out the modifier bonus required to equal a "skilled" roll to a "legendary" roll is in the order of +23. That's quite a bit! Thinking in D&D combat terms, that's like matching a 1st level fighter with a 20th level fighter!

The chart below shows the difference between the rolls' mean values.

Unqualified Trained Skilled Experienced Expert Master Legendary
Unqualified 0 2 4.5 8 12.5 19 27.5
0 2.5 6 10.5 17 25.5

0 3.5 8 14.5 23

0 4.5 11 19.5

0 6.5 15

0 8.5


I like to see things graphically rather than laid out on a table, so the next graph shows the information in a radial layout on which each spoke graphs the mean difference between its level and the skill levels above it. Starting with unqualified on top and moving counter-clockwise we see that all points are at zero since unqualified is above no other skill level. The next skill counter-clockwise is trained which is slightly above trained as you can see the blue line begin to spiral downwards. Skilled is above the yellow and blue lines, and so forth. You can clearly see how much faster the lines circle downwards as we approach the master and legendary skill levels. This means these higher levels are distancing themselves faster and faster from the lower levels. In other words you'll need exponentially more and more modifiers in the form of weapon bonuses, magic modifiers, blessings from the gods, etc., just to keep up to the skill's improvement rate.

You can't just buy yourself into master or legendary skill levels, you've got to sweat it out through adventures, learning and training.

So what do I seek to achieve with this?

For starters a simple skill representation with levels that aren't just +1 points away from each other. This makes reaching each a significant milestone, specially for the upper tier. It's something you can be proud of as a player. It's not easy for an NPC or another player to simply stack up modifiers and reach the roll values of a master or legendary. But don't feel 100% safe in your master or legendary skill level! Remember that the Black Swan System allows lower levels to reach higher levels if they keep getting low rolls and adding these to the total (called a black swan roll in the game, an unexpected and highly impacting event). As a high level character you can feel confident, but not 100% safe, in your high skills. A lowly goblin can always happen to roll a black swan and beat your master roll!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Black Swan System

The Black Swan System is the roleplay game engine I developed for Itza (a prehispanic roleplaying game) that picks up from the red-blue dice mechanics used in Saints and Sinners. It builds on the concept of representing skill levels with adjectives which in turn relate to a die roll and not a specific value. It simplifies the dice by using only 3d8 and addition only, instead multiple d6 and addition and subtraction as with the red-blue mechanics of Saints and Sinners, yet the most distinctive feature is its reroll lows and add rule which is core to the representation of skill.

Skill is represented by the low die values you're allowed to reroll and add. Less skilled characters are allowed to reroll and add all rolled ones, more skilled characters are allowed to reroll ones and twos, and so forth until legendary which are allowed to reroll and add any value between 1 and 6 inclusive. What this does is remove all low die rolls from your roll and actually reward you with an additional die you may roll and add. If the next roll is also low you may add this value and roll again. This is quite intuitive as you'd expect characters with higher skills to be less affected by low values in their dice.

Lets do an example to clarify this. My character, a novice thief who has basic lock-picking skills (is just "skilled") would roll 3d8 and reroll all ones. On the other hand my character is also an "experienced" pick-pocket. Experienced characters roll 3d8 and reroll and add all ones and twos. When picking a lock my character rolls the following:

3, 4, 1

The one is rerolled and I get an 2 and I stop rerolling. The total is now:

3+4+1+2 = 10

When pick pocketing my character rolls the following:

2, 4, 1

The one and two are rerolled and I get 1 and 1, so I roll both again and get 5 and 8 at which point I stop rolling and adding. The total is the following (rolls have been grouped with parenthesis for clarity):

(2+4+1) + (1+1) + (5+8) = 22

This is quite a high roll, almost near the max for a natural 3d8 which is 24. Being experienced at something sure pays off!

The keen observer will notice that technically I can keep rolling and adding ones and twos to infinity and obtain very large die rolls. Indeed it is a correct observation. Skill rolls are bounded at the bottom, there is always a minimum value you can get, but there is no maximum value. Odds of getting ever higher rolls drop off to infinitesimal odds but they do exits.

Simply put I don't want my character to hit a home run, I want my character to send that ball out the park, break through the roof if need be. I'm looking for dice mechanics that will surprise me. I want to spend a luck point on a roll or use some magic item or invoke the favor of the gods and boom something amazing happens.

Imagine the following for a moment. I have a "luck point", the gods' blessing if you will. I don't use it to get an extra roll or add a bonus or activate some extra fixed modifier roll. What I do is use it to increase my reroll value from 2 to 3. Now I get to reroll ones, twos and all threes too.

I roll:

8, 7 and 3

Great initial roll and I get that three which I reroll and get a 2, and I reroll again and get another two, then a one, then another three, a two, a two, a three, a one and finally an 8 at which point I can't reroll anymore. Let's see how that looks all laid out:

8+7+3+2+2+1+3+2+2+3+1+8 = 42

I just inched my character's roll by 16 (2+2+1+3+2+2+3+1) points and then had the cherry on the pie of rolling a closing 8 for a whooping +24 modifier! Had I not had the benefit of rerolling threes on top of ones and twos the roll would have stuck at 18, a good roll nevertheless, but nothing to call home about. A 42 on the other hand is good enough to overcome a typical epic or legendary challenge.

Thoughts? How do you like to handle your perks, bonus points and modifiers and how much of the story's control do you expect to get when you use them? Personally I'm hooked on this type of die rolls with unlimited top values because a small modifier, luck point or similar element when applied to the dice can potentiate the outcome considerably and go way beyond expectations, send that ball right out of the park, and make for an epic storyline worth remembering.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Trade, commerce and the merchant guild in Itza

The pochtecatl is a strong person indeed, a long distance trader, a wealthy man, sometimes a warrior, sometimes a priest and at other times a spy. He will travel the vast expanse of Itza, going from one city to another and bringing back wealth and information to his king, taking his fair share of the deal and enlarging his wealth and power in the process. He is part of the pochteca class and member of one of the most powerful guilds in the empire. This is his story.

The pochteca are a very elite class of merchants in the realms of Itza. They travel to distant lands, take great risks in the thick jungles and high mountains to obtain the wealth of distant realms so these may increase the might of their emperor and lord. They bring gold and jade artwork and jewelry, beautiful and sometimes magical animals from distant lands, strange and exotic magic components, strange artifacts of power and why not, slaves and prisoners as well.

They are a social class composed of many character classes, these may be warriors, priests, magic users, scribes, and even thieves and spies. Many times they are multiclassed, since more than one skill set is sometimes needed to survive in the demanding wilderness of Itza. They all know how to read and write as well as do numbers, and aside from this they will know two to three additional languages. Many or their porters or tameme are experienced fighters, some are hired mercenaries and some are enslaved men defeated in battle. The pochteca should not be confused with the tlanecuilo, or local traders, the later being traders of lesser social standing and considerably lesser wealth and power.

There are various types of pochteca:

The Oztomeca, the oztomecatl (singular of oztomeca) is the typical long distance trader working to bring great wealth from far away lands and explore new commercial routes.

The Tlaquixtiani, these are the wholesalers. They arrange trade between the travelling caravans and the local markets in a city-state.

The Tlanecuilo, the retailers. They handle the day to day business of selling goods to the locals in the tianquiztli or local markets.

The Teucnehnenqueh, these pochteca specialized in trading on behalf of nobility. They quest for goods of greater value and power.

The Teyahualonime, these are a warrior type pochteca whose caravans are led by a merchant-general known as the Acxotecatl. Usually the arrival of the teyahualonime meant only one thing, invasion.

The Tecouanime, the slave merchants and quite often the riches of their class due to their direct links to priests, rituals and sacrifice.

The Iyahqueh, pochteca stationed in very distant and outlying trade stations. The help open new trade routes as well as warn of impending danger that might close in on the empire's borders.

The Tlanamacani, representatives of a pochteca guild. These are usually scribes and lawmakers that see matters of price, justice, theft, and taxation.

The Naualoztomeca, the disguised-merchant, or spies. They traveled with great wealth and resources to obtain the best products of foreign lands and bring the best possible information about distant city-states.

The patron god of the pochteca is Yacatecuhtli "The Lord Who Guides", also the lord of the nose or lord of the long nose. He is the god of commerce, trade and travel and his symbol is a bundle of sticks. Usually seen with his walking stick, Yacatecuhtli paints his face black and white and wears great blue quetzal feather tassels on his head. He wears a matching blue coat beautifully decorated with feathers and covered with a black mesh. He wears gold cactlis (sandals) and adorns his ankles with small sea shells made out of gold and his ears with gold ear gauges. The image to the left depicts Yacatecuhtli with a pochteca.

The pochteca priests are proficient in all types of protection magic. As you can imagine travelling long trade routes in Itza is extremely dangerous and requires all the protection magic one can obtain. A very common spell cast nightly when travelling is the kauitlojtli, the "calmed path" or "calm road" spell. This is performed by bundling all the pochteca's walking sticks (otatl) at night and sprinkling them with blood from their tongues, ears and noses as copal (ceremonial resin) is burned at its center. This spell will grant the traveling caravan a protection from wandering creatures and thieves, reducing the odds of such encounters by one half and also making them less dangerous if they do happen to occur.  It is not uncommon for the pochteca to have annual celebrations and rituals which will further protect them during the year as well as ceremonies upon their safe arrival back home. A very common home welcoming ceremony is the "feet washing" ritual. During this ceremony the pochteca place their walking sticks (otatl) in the guilds temple, offer flowers, food and acayetl (incense) to the god Yacatecuhtli, and they have their feet ceremoniously washed by the priests. This is meant to please the god as well as ward off evil collected on the travel so this may not enter the city nor "build up" for future trips.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Money and trade in Itza

As you probably guessed by now the currency is cacao beans. So yes, your character pays for things with chocolate.

Cacao beans is the common everyday currency with which things are paid for in Itza. Things from basic items like corn, chile, avocado and beans, to services like farm hand and porter. The average fee for a porter to carry goods to a neighboring kingdom is in the order of 20 to 30 cacao beans.

There are other currencies as well. Currencies which allow for the carry of higher sums of "money" in a more compact form. These are the quachtli, or cotton mantle or cape, copper axe head and gold filled quill.
There were various qualities of quachtli, ranging from poor at 65 cacao beans per mantle, good at 100 cacao beans per mangle (this is the standard game exchange rate) and then exceptional quality at 300 beans per mantle. As a reference the average yearly income of a commoner is 20 good quality quachtli. The following table gives a reference of exchange values. It is important to note that these values are not "written in stone" and fluctuate from city to city, market to market and even week to week.

Cacao Bean
Copper axe head
Gold powder quill
Cacao Bean 1 1/100 1/1000 1/5000
Quachtli 100 1 1/10 1/50
Copper axe head 1000 10 1 1/5
Gold powder quill 5000 50 5 1

Alongside quachtli, copper axe heads and gold powder filled quills are also used as currency. Jewelry and common gold items found in other cultures are an exclusive right of the noble class in Itza and getting caught with such items can mean imperial punishment to the transgresor.
This has lead to the rise the pochteca, a social class specialized in trade, commerce and spying, the later performed by a group close to the tlatoani (emperor or king) know as the naualoztomeca. These traders lead caravans of tamemes (porters  who carried goods on their backs ) to distant lands to bring exotic goods and items desired by the nobility. Except for Coamixtitlan, the cloud city and home of the a feathered lizard race, no city state has burden animals such as horses, mules or donkeys. They simply do not exist.

The pochteca trade in huge markets known as tianguis. A tianguis in a large city can have as much as 60,000 people doing business on any given day. Large cities usually have a tianguis move across town day after day. Moving from district to district depending on the day of the 13 day week called trecena.

Modern day tianguis in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Image sources

Monday, December 26, 2016

Roleplaying Rogue One

So I finally got around to watching Rogue One and if you haven't seen it you might as well stop reading here. Take this as a spoiler alert.

Ok, so you're still here. Good. First thing I have to say is that I loved it. And yes, I got chills during the last scene seeing Princes Leia Organa take the Death Star blueprints and jumping away into what becomes the start of A New Hope.

I must comment though that I was falling asleep during a few brief moments. Thought it was the age or lack of exercise, or maybe I was just expecting a movie with a lot of CGI and a happy deus ex machina ending in which the rebels are saved. But then it began to happen, things begun to get really tough. Main characters begun to die. First is Saw, which might go by like some NPC, but then Bodhi (the imperial pilot) also gets blown away. The grenade drops in and it's all over with just a brief "oh shit" moment. Same for Baze after his heroic dash after Chirrut's death. K-2SO also goes down holding the line against what seems like an interminable barrage of Stormtroopers. Finally Jyn and Cassian also perish in an inescapable situation. Oh and then there were all those Tie fighters, so many of them, like a swarm of bees. And the rebel ships crashing into Darth Vader's ship as they rush to light speed just as his ship drops out of hyperspace. Boy that's got to have hurt. Oh and Darth Vader was actually kicking ass with his light lightsaber in the last scenes. It was all awesome and I was jumping around in my seat like a 7 year old, which I am, but nobody seems to notice anymore, lol.

Anyway, back to the point and question I want to raise. Can we roleplay something like Rogue One? It is technically a TPK. All our characters die. Imagine you've been roleplaying Cassian for the last 5 sessions and he's a real good covert ops character by now. A new friend you invited to learn what roleplaying is takes Bodhi, the imperial pilot. Jyn is a character that a friend played a way back and is now "in prison", but she's freed so she can join in the game. K-2SO is run by another player who's shared many adventures with Cassian's player. Baze's and Chirrut's players rolled these characters up for the session, taking a long time to fill up the high skills and stats of such a character.

And then they all die.

Over the last few years I've heard endless ramblings about fairness, balance, equal participation, etc., all so players get to participate, all so players don't get upset by character death, all so players don't leave the hobby after their first session with only a TPK game on their belt. Simply put, ramblings that make roleplaying Rogue One near to impossible. Yet Rogue One is a great movie. A movie that left me with a great admiration of the sacrifice done by everyone of the characters involved. It really gave weight to the statement in A New Hope about the sacrifice made to "obtain those plans". Some of the characters died in "normal" battle related injuries, just like any other rebel soldier, also raising the value of everyone involved and not leaving the common rebel soldier as just some background prop.

How do you handle your games so they don't become a boring succession of "stat increasing" successes?

Saturday, September 03, 2016


The wayob is the animal spirit inside every character in Itza. As a character you are born with it, and you can learn to tap into the immense power it can grant you, but such power also poses great risk. Tapping too much or tapping recklessly can make your character succumb to the animal nature of the wayob.

Wayob powers are tempting as the game mechanics allow you to succeed while failing. This presents a great temptation as you can try to tap into powers way beyond your character's reach and preparation, and still succeed in triggering them. As a player I can deliberately try to tap into a power far too strong for my character's skill level, a power so strong I'll certainly fail in invoking. Yet it will succeed. How is this? Simply put, it's the animal within your character taking over and turning a success into a failure. My character isn't very skilled, but wants to grow bat wings and fly out. Such a task is beyond the character's current skill, I roll and get a terrible outcome and my character grows wings and flies out. What happens is that it's the bat within my character flying out and taking temporary control over my character.

This control can affect the character physically and mentally as well as affect fellow party members. There is nothing stopping the bat within turning against party members and draining a fellow player's character dry. Your character may also start to develop permanent physical changes such as fangs, leathery skin, strange eyes, etc., changes that may pose risks in towns and cities afraid of such creatures.

Overall, the final result is a grey zone of failure bordered on both sides by a zone of success when the character can control the wayob and a zone of success when the character can not control the wayob. Yielding control to the wayob can be tempting for a short term benefit with a superb and uncontrollable power.

How much are you willing to pay to gain such an advantage? As a player it may be seem ok to tap into such immense power once to save the character, but if you know there's this "safety net" wouldn't you be tempted to run greater risks in the adventure which may corner you to tap into uncontrollable wayob powers more and more often? Can you, as a player, roleplay the wayob against your own character's interest?


Image source

Sunday, August 28, 2016

You're on a need to know basis

The hardest part of writing Itza was boiling the player's handbook into two sheets of paper. That's it! Four pages going from 1 to 4.

Get your stats, write your character out, understand the skill system and get down to playing. You're on a need to know basis, and the less you know the better off you are.

That is the basics of old school gaming I grew up with and the basics of the games I want to design from now one (at least for the foreseeable future). The less you know about the rules the more creative you'll be as a player.

As a GM I want you to tell me what your character is and how such description will lead to a kick ass scene.

A few points:

  • Less rules means you get down to playing the game sooner.
  • Less rules means you get to play your game rather than the "rule's games".
  • Less rules means there's a lesser divide between the "rules savvy" and the "noob players" (more fun for everyone)
  • Less rules means a lot more burden on the GM or person running the game. Trust and communication is a must (which of course is a must in any situation involving many humans).
Of course all this goes against the intuitive business logic of selling more shit. So how do things unfold?