Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Philosopher's Stone

I've been searching for the "Philosopher's Stone" of role playing for years -- a role playing system that combines traditional role playing with the collaborative story telling of Universalis. I think the Blood Red Sands system might allow this. By replacing the coins of Universalis with dice, BRS introduces relative differences between traits, an element of risk into contesting for narrative control, and a competitive framework for play. I think this difference can allow it to support traditional role playing better than Universalis.

That's how the document for the new game I'm working on starts. I found Ralph Mazza's Blood Red Sands about 5 weeks ago, when I checked out the Ramshead Publishing site, to see if there was anything new going on. Wow, was there ever! Blood Red Sands is a highly stylized, competitive role playing/story telling game about heroes and their ordeals as they strive to confront the evil, despotic Witch King in a blasted land called Abalahn. My summary of Blood Red Sands is here and the play test rules are here. There are some discussions about BRS on

Universalis is really a different type of game (which is why it was named "most innovative indie game" of 2002). It's not really a role playing game; it's a story telling game. Theory From the Closet interviews Mike Holmes (coauthor) and he talks quite a bit about Universalis here. A later podcast interviews Ralph Mazza about Blood Red Sands, Universalis, and other things here.

I started playing Universalis in December, 2005. In December, 2007, I combined Universalis with FATE and PDQ in a campaign we ran for over a year. We started every session with a few Universalis scenes (usually 20-40 minutes of play), then we played a mashup of PDQ and FATE, incorporating the new information from the Universalis scenes, and we ended a lot of the sessions with Universalis, too. It worked really well. During the Universalis sessions, there were a few ground-rules (enforced by Universalis gimmicks), but other than that, the players had free-reign with the story. They could define NPC motivations, stage events that took place "meanwhile", etc. I was tag-team GMing with a friend and we had to deal with all of the curves the players threw at us -- the players introduced some things into the story we really hadn't thought of.

Universalis is also how we did all of our cut-scenes. What made it radically different from the way MOST GMs do their cut-scenes is that the players could take over in mid-scene and change things. You can look at a bunch of the Universalis logs here.

I loved the Universalis integration so much, that I've been searching for "clean" system ever since; one that allows story telling and role playing all the time. I tried F#, which is a great game (you should check it out). It comes close, but it doesn't quite do what I want. Then I saw Blood Red Sands.

In Blood Red Sands, one player plays their "hero" character, going through ordeals on the way to confronting the Witch King, while the other each play a "faction" which may be aligned with the Witch King, opposed, or neutral. BRS is played on two levels at the same time: the story level, where the characters' loyalties are defined by the ordeal and the game level, where the players are all competing, even though their characters may be allies in the story. This can lead to some interesting story twists and it can support behavior like Pippin's in The Lord of the Rings (check this post, for example). BRS is a great game and I consider the underlying system to be the next generation of Universalis. Also, I think it can lend itself well to traditional role playing, in which every player gets to role play their character during a session.

So, my entry in the mix, The Philosopher's Stone. It uses the system from Blood Red Sands, so please by Blood Red Sands when it comes out, but it packages it in a different framework that (hopefully) supports traditional role playing. In The Philosopher's Stone, as in Blood Red Sands, no player is the designated Narrator (i.e. GM) for the whole session -- players trade off acting as the Narrator and they can even "steal" the position of Narrator (just like in Blood Red Sands).

The players cooperate to make the story within a mission/act framework where they define the mission and acts as well as objectives for the group of player characters. A player can counter an objective and steal the victory points for himself. Of course, the other players will try to stop him.

The BRS system underneath TPS contains two key mechanisms to limit the power of the current Narrator: challenges and contests. Any player can challenge the "fiction" that a Narrator composes -- the rationalization that supports a mechanic. This can't directly prevent a Narrator from using a mechanic, but it can force him to reframe the rationalization and may lead him to try a different tack. A contest allows a player to attempt to take over the position as Narrator, preempting what the Narrator was doing. I think these two mechanisms combine well to keep the player who is the Narrator from being "too harsh" on the other players.

One thing that is very different from other role playing games is that in TPS, players control "story components" in addition to their characters, which are NPCs, monsters, beasts, traps, hazards, etc. In fact, there are no NPC or other direct "actors" in the story that are not controlled by one of the players. This means that even in a scene without any player characters, the players are still involved, because at least some of the players will have story components present at the scene. When orcs squabble over who gets to eat a hobbit, it's different players controlling the orcs and one of those players might also have the hobbit in question as their player character (or it could be Neanderthals arguing over a Cro-Magnon captive or aliens planning to torture an earth man).

I don't think that controlling story components in addition to their characters will make it difficult for people to play. I think there will be scenes with only story components present, scenes with only characters present and scenes with both. In scenes with both that involve conflict, players will be attacking other players' characters and story components, so I think there's a clear objective.

So, that's the idea. We'll see if it works.


  1. Hi, do you have any news on this? I am really interested :-)
    I added this page to the big gm-less game list:

  2. Yes! The latest version of the game is called "Death of the Vele":

    -- Bill

  3. Actually, here's a better URL: It's the (lame) main website for Death of the Vele.

  4. Got it! I was expecting an automatic notification from the blog.. so I forgot. maybe it doesn’t work like that on blogspot? I am looking forward to play it. I was also fascinated by the boardgamey aspects of BRS.. but I found the draft of BRS a hard read.