Friday, April 11, 2014

Serving with Distinction

One thing I've really, really come to love in modern role-playing is the idea of narrative action informing game mechanics. The first time I came across this was in (surprise, surprise) Dungeon World. In that game, the bard class has a move called bardic knowledge. When the bard first encounters a new monster, place, or magic item, the bard gets to ask the GM one question about it, and the GM has to answer truthfully. Then, the GM may ask the Bard how his or her character would know that, and the bard's player has to explain where they heard that information, whether it's in a song, a tavern tale, an old book he read, or whatever.

The simple brilliance of that, when I first read it, blew my mind. I was used to older RPGs, where if you wanted to know something, you rolled a skill, the GM set a difficulty, and if you succeeded, you knew it. If you blew it, you didn't. That was it. But here, in Dungeon World, it's not just a pass or fail roll; story is built off this simple move. And it's not just some house rule or flavorful little add-in; it's just playing the rules of the game, right off the page. It's what I ideally picture role-playing games to be; this perfect little fusion of storytelling and gaming, this ying-yang where one influences the other.

Other games have taken this idea and run with it, and I'm really happy about it. The latest...and, arguably...greatest implementation of it that I've seen yet is in the Firefly RPG and how they do Distinction triggers. But before I explain that, here's a quick couple of sentences about how the Firefly RPG works:

When you want to do something, you put together a dice pool. Dice come from various parts of your character...if you're trying to climb a rocky cliff, for example, you might get a D6 from your Strength, a D8 from your climbing skill, or roll all of the dice in your pool, add up the highest two, and if it beats the number the GM rolls, you succeed.

Now here's where Distinctions come in: Distinctions also can add dice to a dice pool. Distinctions are what veterans of other RPGs would call "Feats" or "Traits" or "Quirks"; they're mechanics to describe a certain aspect of a character's background, personality, special training, or whatever. Using the rock-climbing example above, maybe your character has the Distinction "Raised by Ninjas." You could argue that climbing is probably something your character is comfortable with, then, so you could add the dice value of the Distinction (typically a D8) to your dice pool.

That's already pretty cool, but here's where it gets awesome: Disinctions also have a number of triggers. Each trigger, when "pulled" in gameplay, has another effect.  Let's say, instead of "Raised by Ninjas,"  you have the Distinction "Afraid of Heights." That might force you to roll less dice, or make it easier for the GM to mess with you, or whatever, when the trigger is pulled, which in this case might be "whenever your character tries to do something from a tremendous height," or something.

See that? The narrative going hand-in-hand with gameplay. In an older RPG, the player might have a disadvantage or something called "afraid of heights" that gives a static penalty for a static point bonus. That's kind of similar, but it doesn't do anything aside from monkey with the numbers a little. With Distinction triggers, the narrative itself can change as fluidly as the dice roll does. Here's an example of that, pulled right from the RPG itself. This is one of the triggers for the Distinction "Friends in Low Places:"

I Know A Guy: Spend 1 PP to create a D8 Asset when you call in a shady friend with the skills you need.

Look at that! For one Plot Point (I'll talk about those some other time) you can add a D8 to your dice pool (that's basically what an "Asset" is)...and some story comes right along with it. Who do you call? How do you know them? Why does he/she help you? Might they call you back to return the favor? The story is evolving, all because some player at the table wanted to roll one more die.

So, needless to say, I'm pretty pumped to run Firefly this Sunday. A detailed play report will follow. Stay tuned!


  1. Glad you like the Distinction triggers. I had a blast writing them. My personal favorite is 'Lifetime of Misdeeds'.

  2. If the comment didn't make it obvious, everyone; Mr. Sullivan here was a contributing writer to the Firefly RPG. THANK YOU for your excellent work, good sir!

  3. Even better, you can use the Flashback rule in conjonciton and ask the player how he know that guy, and giving him back is Plot Point !


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