RPG Design – Game vrs World and the Continuum II Mechanics

   First up for today, it’s a brief post on the underlying Continuum II Mechanic – which also serves to illustrate one of the basic dividing points in RPG design. There are other points of division, but this is the one that’s important to this particular post.

   Our first basic point of view is probably the most familiar. It approaches design from the viewpoint that it’s a game. The rules are paramount, they describe what happens in the game, and the setting exists for the characters to adventure in. Mechanical “balance” – whether between characters, in encounters, or in the world in general – is a major concern, for roughly the same reason it’s a concern in games like Monopoly or Chess. Most things come down to contests, and it’s usually possible to determine a winner. The rules and applicable modifiers need to be clearly laid out, so that the players can figure out how to maximize their chances of a desired outcome. This can make a playable and entertaining game. It also leads to it being just a game – something to min-max, with characters as playing pieces, and worlds that only exist in relationship to the characters. Games running along these lines tend to be combat-heavy; the dice add the same excitement you get in any gambling game, with the time spent on developing your character as a stake – and it’s easy to decide who won afterwards. Arguments about “realism”, or where the rules should be ignored, don’t have much place here. Powers and effects don’t have to have in-game explanations. Indeed, players who adhere firmly to this point of view may not even understand questions like “how does that actually work?”. Isn’t the answer right there in the effect discription?

   Less familiar to many current players is the notion that the rules are simply there to provide guidelines as to the likely result of events in a fantasy world with it’s own underlying physics, powers, and forces – most of which will not be known to the players unless they invest a great deal of time in finding out. Players in this kind of game are usually more concerned with their character’s own personal narrative, exploring the world, and in being involved with interesting events than they are in combat. After all, once they’ve investigated the rumors, discovered the existence of the shadow wights, learned that they are bound to a magical crystal, tracked it down by solving an ancient riddle, fished the box containing it out of the lake where it was thrown long ago, figured out how to activate it, and located the wraith’s hidden lair, actually confronting the wraiths and holding them off for long enough for the party mage to recall them into the crystal, isn’t that hard – if only because a sensible party will have gathered allies and stocked up on ways to hold off the wraiths. The combat is incidental to the real adventure.

   The trouble with this kind of game is that it relies heavily on the game master and it takes a long time to explore. It’s just not suitable for quick pick-up games or ones where players often can’t make it. It does, however, mean that the mechanics can be quick and easy; since all the variables aren’t laid out or even known to the players, the game master simply has to rule on things on the fly – and if it doesn’t work the same next time, it’s simply because the conditions are not the same. Players are free to try pretty much anything – and if they hear about the wraiths and then charge right at them, they’ll probably all die. Freedom includes the freedom to take the consequences of poor decisions.

   Personally, I think this is the best kind of game – given a steady group of players. They evidently thought so too; the last Continuum II campaign had about a dozen core players and ran for twelve years of real time, or some six hundred weekly sessions with about that many more small-group and individual sessions to handle character creation and private matters. Characters had great successes and terrible failures, fought some battles and avoided more, intrigued, were transformed, died, suicided due to emotional traumas, founded countries and species, investigated genetics, adopted demons, married, had children (and saw some of them become player characters to harass their parents), and lived. I still get occasional calls to catch up on events on Malavon – even though that campaign closed down when I had to move away more than ten years ago.

   Continuum II runs towards the “guidelines” end, since no usable set of rules can cover every possible action. It’s base mechanic is designed to provide a simple means to assess the outcome of various actions – but the players are free to attempt anything, including things which are extremely unlikely to work. Want to dodge that fireball? That’s a fairly easy Dexterity check. Withstand it due to sheer toughness? A tough Endurance check. Talk the Spirits of Fire out into going around you? That’s going to be a murderously difficult Presence check, but you can try it if you want. If you’re tied down and not particularly tough, it might be your best bet.

   You can try pretty much anything. You can try to adjust a spell on the fly, to leap up on your opponents shoulders and twist his helmet around with your feet, or to taunt an enemy into trying to leap across a chasm to reach you – and the game master will simply give you a roll to try. It may not be the same roll twice. Not only are there thousands of factors, including influences that may not be visible to the characters, but the quality of the players description matters too. How does this work?

   Lets say you’ve got Presence 14 and Fast Talk III (you’re quite an expert at it). You spin a wild tale to try to get past a suspicious city guard. Normally it would be pretty unlikely that the guard would swallow THAT story (it wasn’t very good) – calling for a six die check versus your Presence. Fortunately, your expertise allows you to take two dice off the check. With that nice high Presence, you’ve got an almost 50-50 chance of getting the guard to go for it, at least for long enough to get by him this time around.

   Now, if you’d come up with a more plausible story, and supported it with a forged letter of authorization, it would probably only have been a four die roll to start with – leaving you succeeding almost automatically, although an 11 or 12 would still have been an automatic failure. Of course, you could have run into a more alert guard, or one with special skills, or one who’d heard of you and your fast tongue, or some such – and the players HAVE to come up with a story; the game master can’t decide how plausible it is, and thus the general difficulty of the roll, without hearing it. Trying to bypass that with “my character comes up with something” will simply result in an absurd base difficulty – and virtually no chance of success.

   It’s important that – in this approach – the difficulty graduations and skill levels be fairly broad. We don’t want to waste time tinkering about with tiny modifiers when every situation and approach is different. We want to be able to decide on how difficult this is quickly and easily.

   You may also have noted that – in Continuum II – skill ranks are pretty powerful things. That will be a subject for later.

   Continuum II has two major types of die rolls; Combat and Attribute Checks. Attribute checks are usually made on two or more six-sided dice. Combat checks are made on a single twenty-sided die, simply because it’s common to make two or three of them at the same time, making the use of multiple dice in each combat check impractical.

Success Category

Basic Range




Serious Failure

Att +10 and up




Ordinary Failure

Att +3 to +9




Minimal Failure

Att +1 to +2




Minimal Success

Att and Att-1




Ordinary Success

Att -2 to -6




Superior Success

Att -7 to -11




Spectacular Success

Att -12+



8+ D6

   On a d20, a roll of one is always at least an ordinary failure, and a roll of 20 is always at least an ordinary success. When rolling multiple d6, a roll of less then (twice the number of dice being rolled -2) is always at least an ordinary success (e.g – a “2” on two dice, , while rolls of (five times the number of dice being rolled +2) or higher are always at least an ordinary failure.

   Serious Failures indicate that something’s gone wrong – over and above a simple failure. This may mean ruining your materials, a laboratory explosion, not only failing to avoid an attack but suffering side effects, offending someone important, dragging the next fellow off the side of the cliff you’re climbing, mistranslating a vital bit of information, fingering the wrong person, or otherwise blowing it. There are a few instances when this may be an improvement. If you’re going to fall when climbing a cliff, it’s best to do it early on.

   In combat, a Serious Failure is a “fumble”. These are rarely very serious unless special circumstances are involved, typically resulting in things like; being pushed into a bad position, losing an attack, fouling a friend, letting an opponent get in a free shot, having to make a horsemanship roll to remain mounted, and other short-term difficulties. Special circumstances include things like using a flawed / damaged weapon (it might break), having a curse on you, being up against someone with luck-based abilities, fighting on a plank over an abyss, and having been trying for some grandiose effect…

   Ordinary Failures are very straightforward. You can’t find the problem with the device, you failed to note the subtle clue, the stunt didn’t come off, or the blade you were forging is simply of poor quality. Whatever it was you were trying to resist or avoid takes full effect.

   In combat, you missed or otherwise failed. Of course, on the good side, at least you didn’t foul yourself up.

   Minimal Failures are things that almost worked… You successfully deflect a portion of the dragon’s fire with your shield, but the shield gets destroyed. The wardrobe isn’t too bad, but the drawers stick. The swordblade is poorly tempered. Whatever it was that you were trying to resist takes effect (If, perhaps, not to the extent that it might have), but you generally get a part of whatever it was you wanted.

   In combat, this indicates making contact – not enough to do any real damage, but enough to deliver things like bioelectrical blasts and such – or to receive them.

   Minimal Successes are things that just barely worked. Maybe the character took a bullet as he dived for cover, but avoided most of the machine-gun burst… In general, the character gets most of what he or she wanted, but it may come at a cost – or with various drawbacks. Whatever the character was trying to resist takes partial effect; usually about 50% – albeit often with secondary effects.

   In combat, this indicates a “graze”, a blow which inflicts one point of damage. While this is sufficient to deliver better poisons and various simple effects, it is not sufficient to allow the application of complex ones. Painful, but rarely serious. Similarly, holds, throws, and similar attacks usually leave their target a bit off balance – inflicting a modest penalty on the targets next check

   Ordinary Successes are just that. While the character has succeeded, it was with no special flare or panache’. The horseshoes are well and competently fitted, the microcircuit design will work, the hotwired car starts up, or the animal gets trained. In a resistance roll, this usually indicates that the character only suffers half the usual effects – although this varies with it’s nature.

   In combat, this indicates a solid hit, inflicting the usual damage or effects.

   Superior Successes produce high-quality work. Katana-quality blades, little special touches on an enchantment or device, excellent paintings or works of literature, a really good campsite, or a truly superior line of bull. When trying to resist something, this usually indicates that it has minimal effects.

   In combat, this will inflict maximum damage, impose a one-die penalty on a target’s roll to resist being held, thrown, or otherwise injured, and, if the “stun” attribute is in use, this may require a stun roll. Optionally, if the attacker specified such an intent, he may choose to inflict some minor, special, damage – say, inflicting a leg wound to try and slow someone up a bit. Sadly, this is never a guaranteed thing – especially if the attacker was trying for something overly grandiose.

   Spectacular Successes are fairly obvious. It worked really, really, well. The character did a superior job, and did it with style. The harp performance is acclaimed as a masterpiece, the program runs even better then expected, or the ritual comes off perfectly. As far as a resistance check goes, this usually indicates that whatever it was had no effect whatsoever.

   In combat this causes maximum damage and may either hit to a specific area or cause some special effect as well. If the defender is utterly and grossly outclassed by the attacker, this may well result in instant death – unless the attacker decides to pull his blow a bit.

   In order to simplify combat, especially if it’s not a major element or doesn’t involve anything very dramatic, the GM may simply treat all attacks as Ordinary Failures or Ordinary Successes. As noted elsewhere, basic combat works pretty simply: Roll 1D20 + The Attackers Attack Rating – The Defenders Defense Rating +/- Situational Adjustments – and compare the result to that chart given above. A roll of “20” will be at least an ordinary success – and a roll of “1” is always at least an ordinary failure.

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