Any given game that you pick up off a shelf (or grab from itch.io) is an experience, geared toward creating a specific type of story: a fantasy skirmish simulator, a Jane-Austenesque adventure in manners, or living life as a cozy lesbian snake to name just a few. But sometimes you want to mix and match a little, adding part of what you love in one game to another game, which was the topic of Gnomecast 107.
Two things to keep in mind when adding parts of one game to another game:
- Be sure you’re still giving your players what they signed up for. Just because you’re interested in devoting a lot of attention to the ways in which languages rise and die doesn’t mean your players necessarily are. Get everyone on board before including these (or any) additional mechanics into your game, rather than springing it on them like some sort of bait-and-switch turducken with dice.
- Be willing to walk away if it doesn’t work. You’re not a professional game designer (probably), and no one expects you to thoroughly playtest every fevered idea that runs through your brain before you flop it onto the table, but the natural consequence of playing fast and loose with complex systems is that sometimes things fail. When failure happens, be prepared to walk away.
The examples in this article (and part 2 coming up) are geared toward the Fifth Edition of the Game That No One Names for Weird Contractual Reasons, simply because it’s the most popular game out there. However, game mechanics are ideas plus decisions plus uncertainty, and all of these ideas can work equally well in any game, using that game’s preferred mechanism for inserting excitement (die rolls, cards, paper rock scissors, leg wrestling).
Note that I name a bunch of other games in this list, all of which do a much, much better job of their core idea than anything you can simply shoehorn into another game. This is both because they’re written by actual game designers rather than a pretentious hobbyist, and because they’re whole freaking games devoted to an experience.
If you really, really want a mystery game, play GUMSHOE. But if you want to play [game name redacted] with some mystery elements, graft away. Also, because I want to be respectful of the brilliant intellectual property of all the games involved here (as well as the word count of this article), I use only the broadest brushes to include this stuff rather than reproducing specific mechanics. If any of this seems interesting, absolutely get the games I’m referencing here. I’m only including the best of the best in this list, and all of these games are amazing.
Idea 1: Tactical Relationships
When I say “tactical relationships,” I’m not talking about that person you dated for three months hoping your parents would finally approve. I mean relationships between PCs. Many, maybe most, games have these as a matter of course, but if you’re interested in having more “game” in your role-playing game, while still cramming in relationships with all the fervid devotion of a Chuck Tingle novel, this is the approach for you.
At its simplest, this is a matter of making the relationships between characters matter on a tactical level—trying to reproduce that moment when the hero flings themselves into the path of the attack that would have killed their friend.
Blue Rose does a great job of this with its use of relationship stunts, and the Cypher System incorporates snippets of world-building quirks into the ways powers or backgrounds work within a group. Finally, Fiasco has the brilliant idea of rolling dice and “buying” relationships between characters based on how the dice come up.
Note that many of these relationship abilities are relatively powerful (effectively imitating minor feats): that’s deliberate. The more your players use these abilities, the more they are reminded of the bonds that draw them together, which creates more roleplaying opportunities.
Step 1: Roll a number of ten-sided dice equal to the number of players you have +1.
Step 2: Going in order from quietest player to loudest player (or whatever order you want to use), have each player choose one a relationship corresponding with one of the remaining dice, as well as who that relationship applies to. Remove the result of that die roll from the “pool” so that the next player has one fewer relationship to choose from.
- Make sure the other player is okay with this relationship. If no one is comfortable with the available options, reroll all the remaining dice until people are cool with the results.
- Note that each of these relationships implies another “half” to the relationship. While both parts of the relationship are “true” from a story perspective, unless the other player chooses the corresponding relationship (e.g. “older sibling/younger sibling”), only the player who chose the relationship has access to the mechanical effect.
|1||Older sibling||Pick a character to be your younger sibling. You receive a +2 bonus to attack any enemy adjacent to that character.|
|2||Younger Sibling||Pick a character to be your older sibling. When rolling initiative, if your initiative roll is lower than your older sibling, use your older sibling’s initiative roll +1. Everyone knows the younger siblings get into trouble first.|
|3||Rival/Frenemies||Pick a rival. As often as you can stand it, when you fail a skill roll that your rival has proficiency in, and you can hear and see your rival, have your rival make the same roll (using their stats). Take the higher roll. If the rival succeeds while you fail, your rival stepped in and fixed your mess. Again. They will almost certainly never let you live this down.|
|4||Best Friend||Pick a best friend. Once per game session, if your best friend is within 60 feet, on your turn, as a reaction, your best friend can take a standard action provided it benefits you in some way. “Can I ask a favor?”|
|5||Mentor||Pick a protegee and a skill that you both have proficiency in. One per game session, when you fail at a roll with that skill, instead succeed at that roll. Refreshing on the fundamentals is always useful.|
|6||Protegee||Pick a mentor and a skill that both you and your mentor have proficiency in. When you can see and hear your mentor, if your unmodified roll is a 1-5 on the skill, reroll and take the higher result, as your mentor warns you about a similar mistake they made once upon a time.|
|7||Parent||Pick a character who is your child (biological or chosen). When you are adjacent to your child, once per turn as a reaction, you may choose to take the damage from a single hit that would have reduced their hit points to 0, or when they are already at 0 hit points. Yelling at them for being careless is a free action, and entirely optional.|
|8||Child||Pick a character who is your parent (biological or chosen), and one skill that character is proficient in. You are now proficient in that skill. “The first duty of love is to listen.” -Paul Tillich.|
|9||Battle Buddy||When you successfully make an attack roll against an enemy adjacent to your battle buddy, that battle buddy can, as a reaction, make a melee attack against that enemy. Tactics!|
|10||True Devotion||Choose another player who is the object of your devotion. This can be true love, epic friendship, or any other boundless level of selflessness. This ability functions the same as the “parent” relationship, with the addition that once and only once, you can bring the character you are devoted to back from the dead with a heartfelt speech, regardless of whether or not survival is even remotely possible. True love can accomplish anything.|
Idea 2: Mysteries.
Content Warning: these examples get a little grisly.
Mysteries are great, and many published RPG adventures include some element of whodunnit without any additional system work. That can work, but the GUMSHOE system is a masterclass in how to make a game focusing on this element of stories while still being fun. If you want to see one way of pulling all of this together into a single ready-to-go adventure, see my previous article, “Death in a Smoky Room”.
The first and easiest thing to pull in from GUMSHOE is also probably its most defining feature: the characters find clues. They don’t roll to find clues, and they don’t have to name specific objects in a crime scene to look for them if they name the proper skill. They just find stuff. The uncertainty (and plot!) comes in interpreting those clues.
First: during game prep, determine a set of clues that the characters can find, and the skills required to find them.
If the character has proficiency in the required skill, they find this clue, provided they name the skill (“I’d like to search with Investigation”). Generally three are enough, though coming up with a clue for additional skills is never a bad idea. The more detailed and atmospheric you can make these clues, the better. Again, GUMSHOE games are absolutely filled to the brim with examples (in particular, Double Tap for Night’s Black Agents). It’s not a bad idea to just keep a running list of clues you might want to use sometime. Examples:
- [Investigation] Though the window in the room is broken, and previous investigators assumed it’s because the arrow that killed the victim came from outside the room, shards of glass and recent footprints you find in the rosebushes indicate that something inside the room was thrown outside to someone waiting nearby. Whoever did this was coming from inside the manor.
- [Medicine]: there is a lot of blood in this room, but not enough for the victim to have died from blood loss. Closer inspection of the body reveals bruising around the neck with a clear imprint from a necklace (now missing). The body was clearly slashed after being strangled, but because the blood was no longer pumping, there was less than a discerning investigator would expect.
- [Animal Handling]: The body has clearly been chewed on by some sort of animal, and previous investigators have taken this to be a cut-and-dried case of an animal attack. However, a player with experience with animal behavior will notice that while there are teeth and claw marks on the belly, the eyes and tongue appear to be plucked out without damage to the surrounding tissue. Further, while the body’s been picked over, there are large chunks of flesh remaining. This wasn’t the work of predators: this was scavengers working on a body that was already deceased.
Second: rolling the dice, because everything is more fun with dice.
Now that the players have determined what skills they are using to investigate, and have gotten the basic clues, a successful die roll can give additional details.
- [Investigation] an imprint in the ground by the footprints indicates that whatever was thrown out of the window was initially dropped by the catcher. The item was surprisingly heavy, but small, and you can reproduce the broad shape of it based on the imprint, possibly even identifying what’s missing from the room based on that.
- [Medicine]: The necklace used for strangulation was some kind of chain—verdigris on the bruising and the size of the imprint at the front indicates that whatever the necklace was, it wasn’t made of expensive materials, and whatever was on the front of it was heavy and awkwardly shaped—unusual for a victim this wealthy. Some kind of magical amulet, maybe?
- [Animal Handling]: The teeth and claw marks on the victim’s belly weren’t, in fact, made by teeth or claws—the spacing and depth are too regular, and there isn’t enough blood surrounding the wound. Someone was trying hard to make this look like a bear attack. Except bears haven’t been seen in this area for decades. This was done by someone unfamiliar with the region.
If you like these game ideas, be sure to check back on February 3rd for Bride of Gamenstein, part II of this series. Also, if you have any feedback or thoughts on any of these systems, please feel free to let us know in the comments, or on social media!