New Art From Li Didkovsky!

A fantastic action shot of a cocky Lissam guide mounted on their noble capybara steed. Artwork by Li Didkovsky.

Where to begin with how fabulously Li has captured this moment of adventure for us?

The capybara confidently leaping over the fallen log. The guide beckoning to those behind encouraging them to follow, and likely taking them out of terrible swampy peril. And is the guide’s cane magical? There’s certainly something special about it. I like to think it’s enchanted to always return to the guide’s hand if dropped.

This glorious illustration will accompany the rules on Movement:

Movement reflects your ability to get around, through the power of your own body, mounts, assistive gear, and learning how to travel more efficiently.

An ordinary adult has the ability to travel all day from one village to the next or to move 5 squares (25 feet) in a moment-to-moment situation. This can be impacted by bonuses and constraints.

The first Bonus you might have is if your Finesse is particularly high.

Learning from playtest 1 on Altercations

This past weekend I was able to sit down on my back porch and playtest altercations with Lance and Daniel. Thanks so much for your time and insight, gentlemen!

As with the first playtest of spellcasting, this test was really to find the big weak spots in my draft version and to scope how major a rework it would need. Working on this with smart, experienced players and gamemasters like these two was a huge asset. We not only found the flaws, we spent a good long time pulling back to my goals and talking through various options.

The highest level takeaways I have are

  1. for a game focused on storytelling and character, avoid mechanics that zoom in on the nitty-gritty detail of discrete actions;
  2. for a game focused on collaboration, avoid mechanics that emphasize the individual’s options over the team’s.

So, for the next playtest we’ll be working with these concepts:

  • How successful the players are (in this context of a dice-decided Altercation Situation) is based how well they roll. (The GM is not making a set of rolls for an opponent and then comparing the two results.)
  • There’s no initiative roll; again, the advantage of a high roll there is moved into the story the players and GM tell about the results of the players’ rolls. (“We rolled so well we must have been able to reach the high ground first…”)
  • There’s not a fixed number of rounds. Instead, the GM will frame each set of rolls by the players as representing the unfolding of the Situation, and will probably default to a “beginning” and “middle” description for the first two and let the next particularly good or bad roll represent how it turned out at the end.
  • In a set, all the players roll, adding the Aspect they’re bringing to bear and any bonuses or constraints that make sense to the group. They and the GM can see how well or poorly they did as an average in relation to the goal the GM has told them applies in this situation. (That goal will be either a default norm or a particular Complexity Number (Cx)). They will all also be able to see how varied their results were and use that to represent the range of what happened to the individual party members.
  • Using their results each player tells the story of what they did and how it went well or badly, with the GM suggesting or modifying as appropriate.
    Player 1: “We averaged really well thanks to you two, but” {turning to another player} “your roll was not good and I got a wild failure.”
    GM: “I think maybe that loose railing you noticed earlier must have given way.”
    Player 2: “I was distracted by you falling, I guess.”
    Player 3: “But so were the gang members, so maybe we two were able to get the bags over their heads as they came out the doors onto the balcony.”
    GM: “Yes, and* then dance them over to the side away from you so they fell down into the street too.”
    Player 4: “cha cha cha!”
    GM: “OK. So the start went well for all but one of the party; what do you think happened as a result of your fall?”
    Player 1: “I’m pretty resilient and hefty; and I’m Nymion so I’m 8′ tall. Not as bad a fall for me as a Lissam like you.” {grins at other player} “I think I got the wind knocked out of me and will spend the next roll getting back on my feet.”
    GM: “Your average was very good, so I think the gang got the worst of the beginning of this situation. The ones you bagged and pushed down will probably not get back into the action before its over. You’ve got open doors and no other gang members visible through the doorway. What do you do next?”

Note how the player who had a wild failure still has an opportunity to make their failure reflect what’s special about their character. They’ll be limited in the next roll in how much impact it has on what they do—even with a fantastic roll, the most they’ll be doing is clambering back up to the balcony to rejoin the rest of the party—but they will contribute to the team average.

Turning the focus to the storytelling and the team lets the players make their characters distinctive and important, without bogging things down in lots of individual actions and the specialty mechanics for them. Whether you succeed with that bow shot is not about range and your skill and the type of bow and the target’s armor or lack of it, but about how well you and your teammates rolled in general.

Sometimes the most successful playtest is the one where you throw out most of what you came in with. 😄

*This post was edited to reflect further conversation with Lance where he pointed out the old example didn’t keep players just telling the story of what happened with the action they said they were trying to do (before rolling their dice to see how well it went). I’ve switched it to have the additional benefit—dancing the bagged foes over the balcony edge—coming from the GM. Thanks, Lance!

Pre-Pre-Alpha Playtesting a Success!

It’s been a busy five weeks of testing and iteration since my last post. Thank you so much to my testers—Rice, Daniel, Lance, Lila, Adriane, Jinx, Joe, and Paul—for their sense of fun and smart feedback!

The spellcasting system has been radically improved and streamlined. The resulting core concepts and method of assembling spells from a variety of “Knacks”, including in collaboration with other spellcasters, have been demonstrated to work with players at the table.

The character creation process has also been streamlined, incorporates the essentials needed to play, and is possible to complete with a group of new players in a reasonable amount of time for a Session One game.

The world details are generating player fun and prompting great creative ideas which expand the story beautifully. Kabalor is “Yes, and…” compatible!

phew.

So, what comes next?
Pre-Alpha Testing!

  • Test the Altercations mechanics and Situations mechanics (for non-combat moment-to-moment scenes)
  • Test the Challenges mechanics (for connected activities toward a goal which take place over a longer stretch of time)
  • Test the Healing mechanics
  • In conjunction with all testing, confirm the Complexity (Cx) mechanics for dice rolls (These are already looking pretty good from testing so far.)
  • Run a Session 2 in which characters will have some adventure and at the end advance to Level 1 (from Novice to Apprentice), gaining new magic
  • Synthesize all the existing rules content into one place (my website content master draft in Scrivener) and make sure everything is consistent
  • Synthesize all the existing spell content into one place (ditto) and make sure everything is consistent
  • Synthesize into one place all the existing world-building which I want to carry forward from the past D&D homebrew setting into this new indie-rpg Kabalor
  • Create a starting map for new GMs of Kabalor (which will be used in playtesting)

And after that is all tested, iterated, and improved, it will be on to actual Alpha Testing. This will start with a short story of probably 5 sessions to bring the characters to Level 2. (This might only take 4 sessions if players decide to continue with a character they already made.) The second phase of Alpha Testing, after iteration from that short story’s lessons, will be beginning an ongoing story with a group of regular players.

Opening up to a broader group of testers—including other GMs—will come after that has been underway for enough time to learn the lessons of play at Levels 2 and 3 and to begin building out the official website, thus probably not until the end of the year at absolute earliest.

The worsening situation with regard to COVID-19 (and my continued concerns as an immunosuppressed person) suggests that I’ll probably need to spend some time on the necessary references for remote players sooner rather than later. Those may wind up needing to be password-protected parts of the future public website, so my sequence of work on Kabalor may get slightly shuffled as I go. On the one hand, that’d be a further delay, but on the other, it would open the possibility of easier scheduling with a wider pool of potential players.

As with planning stories as a GM, the way it actually unfolds is always going to throw you for a loop, but you can still end up roughly where you thought you were headed. 😉

Altercations in Kabalor

Combat will be optional for the game of Kabalor, but that doesn’t mean the game won’t have rules for it. My goal is to keep excitement and player choice, but maintain focus on the story and avoid combat bogging down the game.

We’ll soon be playtesting my draft rules. These limit altercations to three rounds, representing the beginning, middle, and end of the altercation.

Each character involved in the altercation decides what approach you will take in this round. You may not change this after you hear what the others are doing. Probably we will have cards everyone sets down at once to declare this.

Each round unfolds in initiative order, with players rolling and describing their actions as their turn comes up and the GM handling opposing forces.

Along with optionally moving and optionally interacting with an object (such as closing and locking a door), in each round you will be making a d10 roll, adjusting the result based on your approach, and then describing your actions in the story.

  • Defensive (add your Resilience to the roll and the result is pool of protective actions which reduce damage)
  • Offensive (name a target and add either Heft, Finesse, or your spellcasting Aspect to the roll and the result is pool of damaging actions applied to the target)
    Some foes, such as Elementals, only take Offensive actions during altercations. They go until they’re stopped.
  • Protective (name a target and add the Aspect players and GM agree is reasonable to your roll (e.g. “I’m using my Analysis to calculate the best moment to pull the town councilor out of the way of the rolling barrel the cursed brewer is aiming at her.”), and the result is pool of protective actions which reduce damage to the target; surplus damage is split between target and protecting character)
  • Evasive/Active (add Finesse or Heft and any Movement +/- to your roll, result is split between extra moves and protective actions to reduce damage; optionally, can instead declare at the start of the round that you will be using those protective actions as more movement)
  • Reactive (will become Defensive if you are the target of an attack, Protective if ally or bystander is attacked, or optionally Active to pursue someone taking Evasive action)

You can use a combination of different approaches or all the same approach for your three rolls over the three rounds.

Some Items may add a bonus (or a constraint) to Defensive, Offensive, Protective, or Evasive actions.

With three rounds of rolls, there should be enough uncertainty about the outcome for it to still feel risky. With player choice in each round, based on the unfolding knowledge the characters have, there should be enough agency for it to still feel skillful. And with the focus on the player and GM descriptions of what happens, combat can enhance rather than interrupt the characters’ story.

New Ways To Play: creating an alternative to hack and loot

Fantasy role-playing games can be kind and exciting. They can be soul-fueling and stimulating. They can be restorative and involve character risks.

Fantasy role-playing games don’t need conquest to work. But, as I’ve written before, maybe Dungeons & Dragons unfortunately does.

That realization is what set me on the path of creating my indie ttrpg Kabalor. So, how to keep the fun while building game mechanics that escape the bad old tropes?

Knowing what I wanted to drop was pretty easy. #1 on the list was the idea that there are intelligent beings whom it is perfectly OK to murder and take their stuff. “These people are disposable” is toxic garbage and we do not need it in our games.

Finding the fun came out of listening to my players and thinking about my own play experiences. We love the storytelling, continually adding to our ideas and riffing off each other and what happens in the game. We love the ups and downs of crazy plans and surprise results of the dice. We love being characters who can do cool things, which become more and more amazing over time.

I identified Grow, Connect, Explore, Unlock, and Share as the main action areas of Kabalor (as opposed to D&D’s Maximize, Beat, Colonize, Conquer, Hoard). But how to make sure that action space is actively enjoyable? Through playing open-ended story games without a GM (like Wanderhome), I was able to see that things can loosen up from the traditionally more rigid structure of D&D, where the players often react to the GM’s descriptions instead of building the reality with them. But I also learned that a little more structure—particularly in the progression of what the character can do—helps keep the game engaging.

Wanderhome is great; I really love it and recommend it. But it’s a pretty intense creative experience. The sweet spot—at least for me and my players—would be a world we don’t need to constantly invent, but which is highly adaptable to the ideas of players and GM, and game mechanics which provide some goals and direction for the story to move in. In other words, something you can come to as a delightful break from the working week, which will be fun, exciting, and energizing, and which may not require any heavy lifting emotionally or creatively in a given session. If you’re wiped out at the end of an intense workday, you should be able to have a great session of Kabalor. Likewise, if you’re creatively fired up and want to spin stories of people and places, or lean into complicated interactions or emotional growth of your character, you should be able to have a great session of Kabalor.

Because combat is not core—and I am designing the game such that it is entirely optional—something else needs to be at the heart of the game and delivering those highs and lows. There also needs to be something to scratch the itch to optimize and improve your character. For Kabalor that is magic, specifically spellcasting.

In keeping with the expansive story style, the spellcasting mechanics of Kabalor are designed to allow players to invent their own spells and to combine their magical talents in collaborative spellcasting. A modular spell system is a big goal and a very tricky thing to make easy to use, but I think I’ve cracked the nut. Lots of playtesting to come to sort out the details and make sure it’s both balanced and fun, but I’m confident Kabalor is on the right path.

Kabalor needs to have the thrill of the throw of the dice, with calculated risks but potential surprises. Since Kabalor is not starting from a grim place of us vs. them in practically every interaction, those surprises can be more fun and come more often. It’s here where the lighter touch can really shine. By making the magic more pervasive, wilder, and inherently vulnerable to occasional unexpected outcomes there’s still plenty of risk, but the results are fun rather than fatal (unless your particular set of players likes even higher stakes).

Kabalor is a fun game of spellcasting and storytelling, with lots of improvisation, and plenty of ups and down, but at its core a hopeful and supportive vision.

The current state of the game is pre-alpha testing, in which I’m working with familiar players and friends to shake down what I’ve created and make sure we’ve got the game mechanics sorted out and functioning enough for the alpha test in which I’ll GM the first stories.

If you’re excited to get involved in this “pardon our dust” stage of development, let me know!

Grow • Connect • Explore • Unlock • Share

(posted on the Kabalor Patreon July 30, 2020)

Thank you to all my playtesters and others who have given feedback so far! It’s been hugely valuable and is helping me to make the game’s rules match the stories that the Kabalor world is built to tell.

What has become clear through play—particularly in my non-combat Thursday night campaign, but also in my storytelling-heavy Monday night campaign which does have combat—is that the core action themes underlying the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition rules are deeply rooted in conflict and conquest. D&D’s big character action areas are Maximize, Beat, Colonize, Conquer, Hoard.

Those patterns are woven throughout D&D, even in places where they shouldn’t matter. The example which tipped the scales for me was the Identify spell. I hadn’t noticed, when I was thinking of it as something that many Bakani folk would learn in their Arcana training, that the spell’s components require the caster to own a pearl worth at least 100 gps. 1 gold piece = 10 silver pieces = 100 copper pieces. A chicken costs 2 copper pieces. So you need something that costs the same as 5,000 chickens.

In Medieval England around 1300, according to this site, a chicken (hen) cost 1.5-2 pennies. An agricultural laborer might earn about 4 pennies per day, according to Table I here reflecting records from the estates of the bishops of Winchester. (That same source describes artisans in industrial centers—such as carpenters, masons or thatchers—earning a bit less, more like 3 pennies per day.) Extrapolating, we could say that an agricultural laborer in the world of D&D would earn 4 copper pieces a day, thus a character of poor means would need their entire wages for nearly 7 years to afford that spell component. But no worker can live and devote their whole income to savings. Let’s say our character of poor means is very lucky and very determined and saves 10% of their income. They would probably not be able to afford this in a lifetime’s work.

One “solution” is to say that none of the characters are poor, but that denies a huge number of people from seeing someone like them represented in the game, as well as blocking off a whole section of exciting stories. If you’ve got local folk heroes as potential character backgrounds, you need to represent low-income characters in the game.

4 copper pieces per day is only 20% of the 2 sp per day paid to an Untrained Hireling as listed in Chapter 5 of the 5th edition Player’s Handbook, but even if we decide that chickens cost the same as our example historical agricultural economies but wages are somehow five times higher in our D&D worlds, it’s still well over a decade’s savings for one spell component for one first level spell. Something is seriously wrong with this picture.

The only thing that makes it work is if there is a method outside the normal economy by which the characters are achieving exceptional wealth. In D&D that method is killing “others” and taking their stuff. If you want a game, though, where “otherness” doesn’t make it OK for someone to kill you and loot your home, D&D’s infrastructure begins to unravel.

Thus comes the question, “OK, so if D&D doesn’t let you get away from the ‘Maximize, Beat, Colonize, Conquer, Hoard’ paradigm, what are Kabalor’s main character action areas?”

The answer is:

Grow

Connect

Explore

Unlock

Share

Supporting those core themes means that Kabalor needs to be an independent RPG, not a supplement to D&D. It doesn’t have to be as mechanically complex as D&D; it doesn’t have to have conflict assumed from the ground up; and it doesn’t have to do things the same way. Kabalor can be a lot easier to learn and players can have a lot more involvement in the story arc of their characters.

So that’s what I’ve been up to: creating a completely independent, original game driven by those core themes. I’ve also been incorporating player feedback and making the world easier to engage with by merging down the number of peoples from 15 to 9 and the number of Eminences from 51 to 27. As you can imagine, this is going to change most of the content I’ve already shared in the Kabalor Patreon, but definitely for the better.

Since I’ll be updating all the Kabalor content, it’s a good time to solve the limitations of Patreon’s interface for sharing information. My goal is a Kabalor website with all the rules and essential supporting information, and for the Kabalor Patreon to provide a means for people to support that work, to receive early access to new information, and for GMs to get access to special content such as detailed non-player characters, locations, and adventures.

Lots to come as I prepare a new set of playtest rules for the independent game of Kabalor! For the moment, I’ll leave you with this overview of how the gameplay supports the core themes.

Kabalor is a tabletop roleplaying game focused on collaborative storytelling of characters who grow into their unique selves, connect and become a team, explore and expand their horizons, unlock new skills and possibilities, and share to make the world a better place for themselves and others.

This is a world born of creativity and the players unfold their character’s story within that expansive space. The game encourages positive connections not only between the players, but between the characters and the world.

Play in Kabalor enables players to:

  • grow as creative and unique storytellers
  • connect emotionally to themselves and others
  • explore fantasies beyond the ones which have been packaged for them in media and other games in the past
  • unlock new ways of being
  • give and receive support from those with whom they share their game

Your character in Kabalor will also grow, connect, explore, unlock, and share. Characters:

  • grow into their unique selves, gaining and improving skills
  • become a team and connect with other people in the game world
  • learn about the world and expand their horizons
  • increase the options and possibilities for themselves and others
  • make the world a better place for others beyond the character and their team

All this takes place in an expansive, original fantasy world ready to support your best fun!

Thank you for your support!