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Dealing with Returning to the Drawing Board

People who have playtested Mythender will be familiar with the first part of this post.

When I came up with the “stat subsystem” for Mythender, I was reacting the the concept of a “dump stat.”  I liked the idea of quantification & relative competence (and still do), and wanted to avoid a situation akin to Charisma in classic D&D — a place to put your worst stat and ignore it.

So, when I drafted up the stats for Mythender, I wrote down seven words — I can’t recall all of them, but “Guile,” “Fortitude,” “Nimbleness,” and “Prowress” where four of them.  The idea was that you would pick four of these seven essential hoeric qualities, and you would rank them something like 2, 3, 3 & 4 — the number of dice you would roll when you use that stat.  The core system is “dice pool, individual success” style, so rolling more dice is always good.

Now, with nebulous terms like “guile,” any half-creative player could come up with a way that anything they do is “with guile.”  This was intentional in the design.  Mythender is, in some ways, my answer to high-level D&D 3/e — demigods walking the earth should be nigh-limitlessly badass.  But, this means the dump stat problem exists, because anyone creative enough could avoid using the lowest stat (as opposed to games that are more rigid in their quantification, and can present problems to characters that require the use of said stat).

My “brilliant” solution: require the use of every stat for a bennie.  You would check off when you used a stat, and when you used them all you got Mythic Power — the powerful supercharge currency in the game that fuels special, rule-breaking abilities.  (Which is to say, yes, they’re the feat fuel of the game.)  I thought this was elegant and inspired and awesome.  I was eager to show it off.

I explained this idea to my game group, and they found it intriguing.  So, in our first few playtests of Mythender, back when the stats were set terms, it seemed to work (if a little flat).  I later switched to a “you come up with your own stat” method that I loved with I first discovered Unknown Armies (and seen in many indie games), to make it more interesting to the players.  And we played this way for months.

Did you know that sometimes your playtesters can be too nice to you?  Sometimes they’ll play along with your pet idea because they’re trying to test it out mechanically rather than play as they might truly do?  Yeah, sometimes your playtesters may accidentally lead you astray, if you let them and give them reason to.

There was this issue with human nature: given two options, you’ll want to pick the better one.  So, do you roll your best stat or your worst with facing down a dragon?  I was trying to encourage using everything to be awesome and breadth, but critical situations caused players to question the “I’ll get a bennie later if I totally hose myself now, but I might die if I don’t do well enough now” mechanic that I apparently devised.  Rob Donoghue brought this to head at GenCon, when he completely ignored the bennie element and completely destroyed the system in doing so.

I have to thank him so very, very much for that.  That was the kick in the ass that I needed, to see what someone would really do with the mechanic and how it didn’t work.

So, I came up with others ideas within the same vein, because I had spent so long with this “you have stats and they have numbers” idea that I couldn’t really see a way out.  Then recently, and I can’t remember how I got such inspired, I found a way to divorce stat & number, which keeping numbers which were important to the “so, how many dice do I roll right now?” element of the design.

This meant going back to the drawing board and trying something new, which I was scared of because Mythender was something people were looking forward to, and at the time I couldn’t mentally handle another huge delay.  I mean, yes, if the game’s no good it needs to go back to formula before publication, and intellectually I understood this, but emotionally I was frustrated as all hell and avoided the drawing board after Rob’s revelation for months.

“Sometimes, you just have to suck it up and press on,” I had to remind myself.  I seem to be in need of reminding myself of that a lot.

The concept I have is that all Mythender have a single, base rating, their Storm stat.  It defaults to 3, but there are reasons and times when it’ll go up or down.  (Why “Storm” is something you’ll have to wait for — the central mechanic of the game is a complicated dice exchange.)

A Mythender has (currently) four stats, in the “you describe it yourself with some guidance from the text” style.  Instead of separate numbers, each stat has three boxes: +3, +2 & +1.

To start off an encounter, each box is clear.  On a roll, a Mythender (and I should preface with: this is also how it works for Myths, so the system is finally more unified and non-crap for the GM) either “charges” or “discharges” (for lack of a better term) a trait.  If they charge, they put a slash through one of the boxes on that trait and just roll their base Storm dice along with their Thunder dice.  If they discharge, they put a cross slash through the charged boxes on a trait and roll Storm + charged box bonuses, again along with their Thunder dice.  Once a box is discharged, it’s used for the encounter.

Let’s show this visually.  Say you have the trait “Ancestral lance.”

Ancestral Lance [+3] Trait - Unchecked [+2] Trait - Unchecked [+1] Trait - Unchecked

On your first turn, you charge Ancestral Lance, talking about how you bring it to bear on the valkyres charging.  And you roll your base 3 Storm dice.

Ancestral Lance [+3] Trait - Charged [+2] Trait - Unchecked [+1] Trait - Unchecked

Now, on your second turn, you could choose to discharge it for a +3 bonus to Storm, totalling 6.  Or you could charge the +2 box, so you can get +5 next turn.  We’ll say that you’re not feeling the pressure at the moment, so you’ll charge.  (Yes, you could also use another stat, but let’s not overcomplicate this for the explanation.)  That means rolling another 3 Storm dice only.

Ancestral Lance [+3] Trait - Charged [+2] Trait - Charged [+1] Trait - Unchecked

It’s your turn turn, you just got hit hard.  Your Thunder pool is almost depleted (seriously, there are maybe 40 people out there who have any idea what I’m talking about at this point — I should talk about Storm, Thunder & Lightning later).  It’s time to discharge your Ancestral Lance.  That’s +5 on top of your 3, for 8 Storm.

Ancestral Lance [+3] Trait - Used [+2] Trait - Used [+1] Trait - Unchecked

And those boxes are done and unusable for the rest of the encounter.  Since I haven’t yet had a battle that’s taken longer than 8 turns (and I’ve had a lot of battles), having two open traits should be no problem.

Now, I want a sense of breadth in Mythender, but also fiery focus.  So the solution I came up with (that is yet untested) is that you get to use two traits for free in an encounter, but if you want to open up your third or fourth, it’ll cost Mythic Power.  Playtesting will see if that works.

Luckily, my playtesters and I have learned how to better playtests — when to play around with my half-baked ideas and when to punch them in the moneymaker.

– Ryan

Edit: To answer Fred Hicks’ Twitter comment on “Can I charge the [+2] on my Ancestral Lance without having charged my [+3] yet? I want the answer to be yes.”  Yes, Fred, you totally can. An intentional part of the design.

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7 Responses to Dealing with Returning to the Drawing Board

  1. Tristan says:

    I am looking forward to giving Mythender another shot. As you talk about it, I begin to see what it was I wasn’t getting when we played before (my failing, not yours. As a semi-gamer at best, I was wed to the idea of stats and numbers, which ME is not so much…).

    That being said, I can seee what youre saying here. A good example would be to look for Mythic figures of history. Hercules was always strong, no questions asked, but when the time came he could call upon God level strength to do some of his mightier feats. So in a normal encounter, he’s using his freebie pretty liberally, but when the time comes to throw some lightning (so to speak) he has to invoke the extras to build that thunder pool.

    Or am I getting something wrong in my translation?

  2. Josh Roby says:

    So by using my Ancestral Lance and rolling three dice, I tick off a box so that next time I can use it and roll six dice?

  3. Ryan Macklin says:

    Tristan,

    Maybe. I’m not sure what you mean by a “normal” encounter. And I’m not sure what a “normal” encounter will be in terms of Mythender. I mean, if you aren’t potentially risking your own mortality, it’s not really worth dice time to me.

    Josh,

    Yes. It sounds so much less interesting when phrased as such, though. The narrative elements needs more talking about, what it means to charge or discharge, need more talking about. Which means I need to write them.

    – Ryan

  4. Marhault says:

    Ryan,

    Howcome they get charged +3, +2, +1 and not +1, +2, +3? The latter would seem to incent the player to hold off for longer when charging. Is that not desirable in this case?

  5. Ryan Macklin says:

    @Marhault

    Marhault,

    The short answer is: for Mythender, it’s not desirable. But, it’s a good question and deserves a longer answer. I’ll post one up, either today (which is pretty busy) or tomorrow.

    But that you for asking! It got me thinking about a way to play with charging the +1 box in my scenario.

    – Ryan

  6. Mike says:

    Oh, man, I can’t wait to give this a shot tomorrow.

  7. […] In my previous post, Marhault asked: Howcome they get charged +3, +2, +1 and not +1, +2, +3? The latter would seem to incent the player to hold off for longer when charging. Is that not desirable in this case? […]