The Bar at the Center of Existence

Imagine a world where something like this ACTUALLY MADE SENSE…

I would KILL for a setting where this makes sense. Fortunately, I have one.

There’s a lot of ways you could go with the material: time travel, meta-fictive, even recursions from Bruce Cordell’s The Strange. Forget about people meeting themselves, trippy as it is. I want to go in a different direction. Instead of those specific characters, think in terms of archetypes.

Imagine a place where a cyborg cop, a cyborg assassin, a dhampir, two psychic warrior-monks, several mob bosses, a godling from a dimension of agony, various alien races, a bad-ass martial artist, a robot, and nearly any other being imaginable could meet in a club and fight it out.

That is Storm Knights (and its predecessor, Torg), and in that game world something nearly exactly like this is possible. It is, in fact, the entire point of the game. (Plus, it allows you to add in elves, wizards, costumed super-powered heroes, paladins armed with the power of God, and much, much more.) And yes, there is a spot in the game world where a club EXACTLY like that exists.

I like it. I like it a lot.

Describing Success (and Failure) [∞ Infinity]

As with the other mechanics, the GM is tasked with not only describing the situation the players face, but also the consequences of any Challenges. He translates game mechanics into description, telling players how their characters did.

The outcomes above were chosen to be simple, clear, and straightforward. They are also relatable: Everyone knows what it’s like to fail or to sort-of succeed (but not fully). Everyone knows what it’s like to just squeak past, or to succeed, or to succeed so well others are impressed. Because these are relatable, they are easily describable.

Here’s an example: A character must jump a ravine, that’s both wide and deep. After the Skill roll, the GM calculates Success Levels, then has to describe the outcome to the player. Here’s a few ways that could go.

Failure = The character falls. “You miss the cliff. You fall into the dark gulf without a sound, still clawing for the ledge as it recedes in the distance.”

Success = The character almost fails, but not quite. “You leap across the gorge, landing on your face, then begin to slip towards the edge. You scrabble at the edge of the cliff for a second, trying to find a vine or crack to get a grip on. After a moment of panic, you pull yourself up.”

Solid (1 SL) = He makes it over, but only just. “You make it across, but land face-first in the dirt. Your clothes are dirty, your hands scraped-up, and your pants are torn.”

Superior (2 SL) = Nothing fancy, but he made the leap. “You jump the gorge and land on the other side. You’re a little winded, but exhilarated.”

Spectacular (3 SL) = Spectacular Success means they easily made it, and did so in an impressive way. “You easily clear the vast distance to the other side, lightly landing on your feet. The extreme height doesn’t bother you; you own this mountain.”

Spectacular+ (4 SL) = The kind of feats you see in movie stunts, but almost never in real life. “You jump the gorge, tuck and roll, and come up in a crouch. Onlookers gasp.”

In many cases, different outcomes won’t make a mechanical difference. Even so, the GM should make the effort to give a short description, especially if it’s unusually bad or good. Especially Spectacular or better Successes, players love it when their characters look cool.

The Skill Challenge outcomes are built so GM’s can easily describe them. Description makes the world come alive, and it helps the players invest in the campaign world and their characters.

Skill Challenges and Success Levels [∞ Infinity]

Success levels have two purposes. The first is mechanical: the number of Success Levels has a direct mechanical effect. With damage, each SL is a Wound.

Skill Challenges are, much of the time, binary: you Succeeded or Failed. For those times when extra Success matters, we use Success Levels.

Result Success Level
-1 or lower Failure
0-2 Success
3-5 1 SL
6-8 2 SL
9-11 3 SL
12-14 4 SL
15-17 5 SL
+3 +1 SL

In those cases, Success Levels are used to determine how well the character did, beyond just Succeeding. Higher SL may mean the task took less time than expected, that the character got some additional benefit, and so forth. Specific rules for this are included with each skill writeup.

The second purpose is descriptive. Success Levels can be used as by GM’s as a guide to describe how well the character did.

Success Level Outcome Description
Failure Failure “You failed.”
Success Success “You barely squeaked by.”
1 SL Solid Success “It’s done.”
2 SL Superior Success “Incredible!”
3 SL Spectacular Success “One of the best I’ve ever seen.”
4+ SL Spectacular Success+ “There aren’t words to describe it…”

A Failure means the character Failed at the Challenge, and suffers whatever penalties result from that (if any).

With a Success the character barely succeed, by the skin of his teeth. Failure loomed large, and for a moment he was sure he failed, but at the last second he pulled it off.

1 SL is a Solid Success. He did competently, neither bad enough nor good enough to get noticed.

2 SL is a Superior Success. The character did well to earn compliments.

3 SL is a Spectacular Success, the kind of outstanding work that earns admiration and envy.

4+ SL is a Spectacular Success+. This is a once in a lifetime achievement, something that earns awards and accolades.

I’l talk about this a little more next post.

A Little Bit of ∞ Infinity Design Theory

Most role-players play to interact with the imaginary game world, as described by the gamemaster.

“At the end of the street is a tall building, old and dilapidated. The yard is overgrown with weeds, the paint is peeling away in wide strips, and you can see several holes in the roof. You hear cicadas and the wind is picking up. The streetlight by the house is burnt out. What do you do?”

“Well,” the players say, “we park well up the street and…”

Through his descriptions, the GM brings the world to life. Through their character’s actions and reactions, players interact with that world.

Game mechanics exist solely as a framework for gameplay. But every mechanic every written is subsidiary to the interplay between the GM and his players, the GM describing the world and its NPC’s, and the players describing what their characters do.

This is where the game comes alive, and game designers can’t really make it better (though bad design or writing can certainly interfere). A group does what it wants to do, plays the way it wants, and the game designer has no control and should have no control. The best a game designer can do is get out of the way.

∞ Infinity game mechanics are designed to help GM’s know what to describe, then leave the description up to them. Give them the raw material to make the world come to life, and get out of the way.

With Attributes, Skill Points, and Skill Ratings, the mechanics are written as they relate to the real world. Knowing that a Strength of 12 is above average, but not stupendous, the GM can describe a character that way.

The same holds for Skills: they are described in real world terms, so GM’s know what they’re narrating when they describe the world. A bumbling Novice, a sure Professional, an imposing Genius: the rules give the GM hints so he knows what to describe.

Success Levels serve the same purpose: the game mechanic exists primarily to give the GM hints about what to describe. As noted, they don’t always apply. But they can always be used as a guide to describing the game world.

I’ll give those rules next post.

Success Levels [∞ Infinity]

Challenges are tests of a character’s abilities, they represent the character attempting to do something. “I want to search for the Cardinal’s letter.” “I want to repair the car’s engine.” “I want to shoot at the griffin with my bow.”

The third critical component of Challenges (after the Skill Rating and Challenge Rating) is Success Level. To get this, you roll the dice, which gives you a Bonus Number. You add this bonus to your Skill Rating.

Examples:
Skill 10, bonus 0 = 10 Total
Skill 10, bonus -3 = 7 Total
Skill 14, bonus +5 = 19 Total

That’s your Skill Total. Compare this to your Challenge Rating to get a result.

Examples:
Total 10, CR 5 = result 5.
Total 5, CR 5 = result 0.
Total 4, CR 5 = result -1.

In other words, Skill Total – CR = result. What does this mean?

Well, the higher your result, the better you did. The lower, the worse you did.

Negative results (-1 or lower) represent Failure: you didn’t do whatever it was you attempted.

Anything higher — 0 or better — represents Success. You did what you attempted.

In many cases, that’s all you need to know: Success or Failure. But sometimes, how well you did matters. Which is where Success Levels (SL) comes in.

To get SL, we count the result by 3’s: a result of 3 or better is a Success Level of 1. A result of 6 or better is 2 SL. A 9 or better is 3 SL. And so forth, on indefinitely.

(This can also be represented by “result divided by 3, round down”. Or it can be represented by a table. Up to you.)

Success Levels are used in many places, but most especially in combat. When you roll damage, each Success Level is a Wound. They’re also used in Interaction results, Knockout Attacks, Skill Challenges, and so forth.

Success Levels are the core of the system. If you can count by three, you can play the game.

Challenges [∞ Infinity]

Challenges are the bread-and-butter of the system. When a character attempts something significant, their Skill Rating (modified by a die roll) is compared to the Challenge Rating. The Challenge rating (or CR) is a numerical representation of how difficult a task is; it ranges from -5 to 50.

Odds: When a character’s Skill Rating is equal to the Challenge Rating (Skill 10 vs CR 10, for example), they have a 55% chance of Success. The character succeeds more often than not, but they still find it a struggle. (Hence the name “challenge”.)

Rules: A character automatically succeeds at Challenges with a CR 10 points lower than his skill (as the lowest possible Bonus Number is -10). Conversely, he cannot succeed at Challenges with a CR 11 points higher. (Absent heroic luck in the form of Action Deck cards.)

Gamemasters pick appropriate Challenge Ratings based on the following table:

CR -5, Trivial: “Anyone can do that.” A task so easy, one barely notices performing it.
Rule: No one ever has to roll for Trivial Skill Challenges.

CR 0, Routine: “No sweat.” A task anyone with training can accomplish effortlessly.
Rule: Trained characters never have to roll for Routine Challenges (no matter their Skill), but Untrained do.

CR 5, Easy: “That shouldn’t be too hard.” Entry-level employees find this difficult.

CR 10, Moderate: “That’s complicated.” The inexperienced struggle with these.

CR 15, Difficult: “This isn’t a job for greenies.” Veterans find it challenging.

CR 20, Formidable: “We need a specialist.” Experts quail at such endeavors.

CR 25, Grueling: “Only 6 people in the world could make that shot.” Something so difficult, even a world champion has to strive to overcome it.

CR 30, Monumental: “Only one man for the job.” The foremost living expert finds this stressful.

CR 35, Heroic: “Even you would find this difficult, I think.” When attempting this, even a DaVinci or Napoleon often fails.

CR 40, Astounding: “How did you do that?” A task that pushes the outermost limits of what humans are capable of.

CR 45, Nearly Impossible: “I don’t believe it. I saw it, but I don’t believe it.” Something so difficult, that for a mere human to succeed is almost miraculous.

CR 50, Superhuman: This is literally impossible without superhuman abilities or supernatural assistance.
Rule: Un-augmented humans can’t even roll against Challenges with a base (or unmodified) CR of 50 or higher, no matter what cards are at their disposal. They simply fail. Miracles, magic, super-powers, cyberware, or other extraordinary tools or abilities are required even to attempt it.

Attribute and Skill Ratings Design Notes [∞ Infinity]

[Note: I have been shuffling some labels around. The labels below don’t exactly match those in the Skill Points and Skill Ratings posts, but are correct.]

One of my design goals is to make mechanics that can easily be understood and described in relatable terms. The idea is to give labels and information which can easily be compared to people’s real-life experiences.

This begins with the Attributes, which are described with labels people can easily grasp. We all know what Average is, we know Exceptional people, we know people who are Weak in something.

It’s relatable.

This idea is carried into the skill system, in this case Skill Points (which represent learning, practice, or experience). We’ve all been Unskilled in an area (and are right now in fact). We’ve studied and become Familiar, when something is new and even the basics are a struggle. We know of people who are Proficient and even Expert at what they do.

We can relate the abstract numbers to real world experiences. This makes the game feel real.

The Skill Rating labels and descriptions serve the same purpose. But, as they are a combination of Attribute bonuses and Skill Points, there’s some internal logic to how the three relate.

The bonus for an Average attribute is +3. With basic Familiarity, 1 Skill Point, Average people have a Skill Rating of 4 (1 +3), which makes them Novices.

An Average person with barest Familiarity is a Novice.

This is a common-sense, easily understood measurement. People with very little experience are Novices. But let’s look at the rest of the chart.

  • Average people (+3) who have achieved Competency (4 Skill Points) are Apprentices (Skill Rating 7). They are Competent, if only just, and can be employed in their field.
  • Average people (+3) who become Capable (9 Skill Points) are Journeymen (Skill 12). Capable people advance in their fields, they become lower management or better paid freelancers.
  • Average people (+3) who have attained Proficiency (14 Skill Points) are Professionals (Skill 17). By becoming proficient in their area, they can sustain a respectable career in their field.
  • Average people (+3) who have gained Expertise (19 Skill Points) are Masters (Skill 22). When you’ve become an expert in an area, by definition you are a standout in your field.

The most Skill Points a person with an Attribute of 11 (Average) can acquire in any one related skill is 22, so for our next category we’ll talk about characters with an Exceptional Attribute.

  • Exceptional people (+4) who have become Accomplished (24 Skill Points) are World Class (Skill 28). An Accomplished person knows more about their specialty than nearly anyone, which makes them one of the best in the world.
  • A person with an Attribute of 14 (+4) is Exceptional, and the most Skill Points he can ever acquire in a skill is 28, Accomplished. A Skill Rating of 32 makes him a Genius. He has developed his abilities to their outermost bounds, and is almost certainly the foremost living expert in his field.
  • Legendary people (15/+5) who have achieved Superiority in a subject (29 Skill Points) are also Geniuses (Skill Rating 34), but they are almost Legends. It takes that extra bit of virtuosity to become one of the greatest in history.

Again, all of these are straightforward and make sense. You can easily understand why Expertise would make one a Master.

This is deliberate. Gamemasters can translate mechanics into real-world equivalencies and vice versa. Moreover, players and gamemasters can easily relate game mechanics to the real world. Given a Skill Rating, they can easily think of real people or characters who were that skillful (or incompetent). This makes the game world feel more real.