06 November, 2016

Deciding on a system



One of the things that bugs me about the storyteller system is one of the same things that bugs me in a lot of games. This bugbear is an inconsistency in the systems of play. Arguably it’s one of the core things that puts me off Apocalypse World games. I don’t like the idea that every subtle variation of an action has a subtle variation of a rule that goes with it. Custom moves are designs by exception, in a lot of cases they are specifically designed no to cover a range of narrative options, but to serve a single narrow purpose. If I wanted that, I’d play Pathfinder with its hundreds of pages of optional rules and errata.

Sorry not my type of story game.

Coming back to Mage, I’ve been having issue with the idea of 2 subtly different rolling systems in the game. One rolling system combines two statistics with a value from 1-5 or 0-5, while the other uses a statistic scale from 1-10. The first of these systems is commonly “Attribute+Ability” used in most task actions, the second system is used when Willpower is used to resist actions or when Arete is used to invoke mystical effects. Then there are the variant forms when:

    …a character rolls against a difficulty score
    …a character rolls against another character, using their attribute+ability (or willpower) as the difficulty
    …a pair of characters roll against difficulty scores and compare successes

Once again systems and fiddly subsystems.

The attribute system in Storyteller games basically has the following scale…
  • 1 – Poor / Below Average
  • 2 – Average
  • 3 – Good / Above Average
  • 4 – The best you’d expect from the average person on the street
  • 5 – The pinnacle of human potential
  • 6+ – Superhuman potential (possessed by supernatural beings or magically enhanced individuals)


The ability system has this scale…
  • 0 – No ability in this field
  • 1 – A bit of basic ability
  • 2 – You could probably make a living from it, but not too well
  • 3 – You’re better than most people in this area
  • 4 – You’re the best around for miles, maybe the best in your town or suburb
  • 5 – You’re one of the best in the world with regard to this
  • 6+ – You have abilities in this field beyond any mortal


In almost any action, you’re rolling 2-3 dice (if you’d be rolling less, you not very good and it’s probably better to get one of the other characters to attempt the action). Since players like to showcase their characters and consistently perform actions that they know they’ll be good at, it’s quite possible that a player will be rolling 4-6 dice for a substantial number of their actions during a game. A character has to be significantly above average in both attribute and ability (an average of more than 3 points each) to get 7 or more dice to roll on an action. Here’s one of the many places where things get messy in the system, because an “average” difficulty is considered a 6. So if you are rolling against an “average” person and using their combined attribute and ability as a difficulty score you’d more likely have a difficulty of 3-4, not 6. Numerous people have commented on this as one of the odd inconsistencies in the system over the years, I think it might have even been one of the contributing reasons for shifting the system in the “Storytelling” system which came later.

One of my ways to address the game in a varied format was to play with the dice used in the game. Maybe shifting it to FATE style rules, or straight d6s. The main thing here was to avoid using specialty dice that would make the game less accessible to new players.

I also considered the idea of using different dice for each part of the attribute and ability
  • 1 = d4
  • 2= d6
  • 3 = d8
  • 4 = d10
  • 5 = d12

This almost changed the game to a variation of the Cortex system.

But how would I handle the higher levels of those statistics measured on a scale of 1-10?

Instead I’m thinking of playing with a card based system, because all through Mage there is Tarot symbolism. The iconic front cover illustration is a tarot card, and the title page (or somewhere near it) in each book depicts a tarot spread. The basic system would see variable difficulty challenges, where a player draws minor arcana cards in an attempt to beat the difficulty, then possibly favours the result with a major arcana card.

In a case of attribute+ability, a hand equal to the total value would be drawn, then the size of the hand would be discarded down to the flat attribute value. In a case of Willpower or Arete, the hand is drawn and all the cards are kept.

Difficulties remain on a scale of 1-10, so this means something interesting needs to happen with faced minor arcana cards (Page, Knight, Queen, King). I’m thinking that this might be a good point to bring backgrounds into play, using the idea that if a single face card is a part of the final hand, the player may spend points from their background to earn automatic successes on a challenge (as long as that background can be worked into the narrative), but a favour will need to be repaid soon or the background point is lost. If two face cards are a part of the final hand, then points from two different backgrounds could be expended for successes or points from a single background could be expended without the need to quickly repay the favour. This has the choice element that I like to see in my stories, it makes backgrounds function differently to attributes and abilities, and it creates new opportunities for storytelling.


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