RPG Design – Complex Encounters and Refreshing Abilities

   Sorting out when the various characters in a world can refresh their special abilities can be quite complicated – but it has a major impact on the way the world works.

   As an example, here’s a moderately complex situation from a few campaigns back – a group of relatively loosely-associated player-characters having a day at the royal court.

   The Player Characters included:

  • Aldhere. A mystic, with both minor psychic and minor magical powers and the ability to assist his friends over his mental links with them.
  • Mikan. A master archer and outlaw, a commoner guilty of shooting a duke who was abusing the peasantry, captured by Amos and Halden (below).
  • Amos. A knight of the realm and master smith who wanted his possession of a new barony confirmed, and was exerting his political and social influence – and his manipulative tricks – to arrange it.
  • Tedrin. A young stealth expert apprenticed to Aldhere.
  • Icarus. A master enchanter and priest from the distant south.
  • Harald. A powerful demon-summoner and necromancer. Currently disguised as a minor noble from the northern provinces.
  • Vanyel. A young werewolf-shaman, currently “in disguise” as a big dog.

   The Nonplayer Characters included:

  • Jadawin. The local king (a warrior-type with a sideline in sensory enhancement).
  • A dozen young bandits, locked in separate cells. They’d been captured by the party just before a standoff between Amos and Mikan that was resolved by the arrival of Halden and his men and the arrest of Mikan.
  • Three Royal Advisers.
  • Halden. A local ecclesiastical knight with a dozen lesser knights in his entourage.
  • Pentwell. A manipulative noble who wanted to claim the territory where Amos was trying to establish his barony.

   The Cases before the King included:

  • The guilt and punishment of the bandits.
  • The guilt and punishment of Mikan.
  • The confirmation of Amos’s barony.
  • A royal decree outlawing necromancers and shapeshifters, being pushed by Halden.

   Some of the Motives were:

  • Aldhere wanted to get the bandits a lighter punishment than death, since they were rather young and he felt sorry for them. He also wanted to help out Mikan, whom he’d befriended.
  • Amos wanted to see Mikan and the Bandits convicted. Since he had helped capture them, that would look good on his record for maintaining order. On the other hand, he didn’t care in the slightest what punishment they got, if any.
  • Mikan wanted to get a “not guilty by right of self-defense” verdict in his own case. Sadly, he had a problem, since that wasn’t a recognized right for a peasant in conflict with a Duke.
  • Tedrin wanted to assist Aldhere and get a reward.
  • Icarus wanted to obtain Jadawin’s backing for his homeland – Thenia – in its ongoing war with the magic-hating Empire of Reen. Failing that, he’d settle for attempting to get the necromancy and shapeshifter ban passed so that he cold offer refuge to such individuals; the war was not going at all well, and Thenia needed every bit of help they could get.
  • Harald wanted to prevent the passage of the ban on necromancers, but – if that went through – intended to cause enough chaos to escape (and hopefully eliminate a few other opponents). Any conflicts he could encourage along the way would be useful.
  • Vanyel – oriented principally towards his “pack” – couldn’t care less about politics, or the courts – but if Aldhere and Tedrin wanted to get some people off the legal hook, he’d certainly help with that.

   How things went: 

  • Amos was persistent: he attempted to argue Mikan’s, the Bandits, an his personal case all as one, and – when the king retired to take a break with royal advisor – continued to lobby the other two.
  • Pentwell was not as driven. He argued his case, but when the took a break, he took the chance to grab a quiet lunch.
  • One royal advisor went off to check for information, and got back shortly after the king returned.
  • Aldhere listened to all the cases, and argued for the bandits when that segment came up – but, simultaneously, was using his telepathic link to assist Tedrin in first knocking out the prison guards and then in sneaking in to coach the bandits on what to say when they got taken into court. Afterwards, he headed down to the cells to patch up the stunned cellblock guards and convince them that they had suffered fainting spells or simple bouts of inattention and yawning.
  • Meanwhile, Vanyel was quietly helping out Aldhere and Mikan by listening in on conversations and using his spiritual powers to relay useful information to them and to cause minor diversions whenever Aldhere asked him to do so telepathically.
  • Icarus saw little point in worrying about bandits, but was willing to lay a few enchantments on Tedrin) before placing his support behind Halden in his efforts to get the necromancy ban passed – while implying that Halden going easy in his testimony about Mikan would be the price of such backing.
  •  Meanwhile, Harald was circulating amongst the nobles, stirring up trouble and making arrangements to use anyone who was executed as a power source to raise a swarm of undead – just in case.
  • Tedrin knocked out the cellblock guards, sneaked into the cellblock, coached each of the bandits, and snuch out of the cells again past Halden and his knights with the help of Vanyels spirit-diversions.
  •  Jadawin took a break before coming back to a new set of arguments and a new venue (outdoors, where the young bandits – who were now being summoned to testify – wouldn’t mess up the throne room). 
  • During Jadawin’s break Halden and his men had shown up – whereupon Mikan had decided to try and lobby them for a favorable religious opinion.
  • Pentwell had returned as well, and was lobbying Halden against Mikan since that might undermine Amos’s case.
  • Mikan considered and tested out a few ideas for an escape attempt, but decided against it, then was dragged into court to testify, then left on the sidelines until he got a chance to lobby the knights.
  • Harald had been shifting from group to group attempting to work subtle penalizing magics on supporters of the necromancy ban and promoting violence.

   Now, the original rules those characters were operating under said that “light-side” magics were refreshed as the first edge of the sun rose above the horizon at dawn, “dark-side” magics were refreshed at the moment the last bit of the sun slipped below the horizon at nightfall, spirit favors had to be accumulated by doing favors for spirits, psychic powers recovered slowly given time and rest, while skills and physical abilities – such as the various character’s social and combat tricks – could be used whenever you could fulfill their preconditions.
   That worked just fine.

   On the other hand, lets consider the mess once we start using subjective recovery times – such as “per encounter” abilities. How many encounters are there?

  • Aldhere is having at least two, but was participating in more than a dozen while assisting Tedrin and advising and requesting help from Vanyel.
  • Mikan is having at least three.
  • Amos is having one long one, with people coming and going from it.
  • Tedrin is having quite a few encounters – more than a dozen.
  • Icarus has had only one lengthy personal encounter – with Halden – but Halden has had several encounters in that time.
  • Harald has circulated through the court, joining and drifting away from numerous groups of minor nobles and leaving a certain amount of hostility and chaos in his wake. He’s also carefully laid a few subtle spells at the places of execution to prepare to tap into the energies of death which may soon be released there.
  • Vanyel has shifted positions, and switched from moving up to listen in to retreating to work his summonings twenty or thirty times, and has dealt with several other canine challengers.
  • Jadawin took a break and returned to a different location, even if Amos was still arguing. Jadawin has many social, political, and truth-detection abilities.
  • The Young Bandits have “look young and pathetic” as their only social talent, but will be very earnestly trying to use it as often as possible.
  • The Cellblock Guards only have combat and alertness abilities, but use them pretty much all the time. They also have a recovery ability – like many trained warriors in this world – but can’t use it very often normally. They’ll each be having one encounter with Tedrin – but will they get another use of their recover ability in time to wake up before Tedrin can get away?
  • One of the three royal advisors has had one long encounter – Amos arguing with him – but the other advisors have probably had more.
  • Halden and his men have some abilities that help them resist attempts to persuade them against their moral codes and to divine the truth. Is their encounter with the equally-NPC Pentwell separate from their encounter with Mikan?
  • Pentwell is dealing with the court, then with the knights who arrived at the court. Is that a new encounter? If he has per-encounter “undetectable lie” and “serpents tongue” special abilities can he use them twice, or only once?

   Things actually got considerably more complicated than that – several of the characters, both player and nonplayer, used magical or psychic abilities to interfere in other people’s activities, while others contented themselves with minding their own business and not getting into other people’s “encounters” – but everything worked well enough with their various recharge systems.

   And that’s the narrative problem with “per encounter” abilities. They tend to wind up as straightjackets.

   Should the characters be exhausted at some point? Ready to run or surrender? That’s not going to happen as long as many or most of their powers recover for each encounter.

   Can you split things up, let the party members participate in different things, or let situations get too complicated? Not without breaking your recharge system.

   What’s the game-world trigger? Where does the energy come from? What – in the game world – defines an “encounter”? How you judge the impact of such abilities on the game world beyond the characters? How often the NPC’s can arrange to use their abilities is vitally important for determining how the world operates and what the characters have to deal with.

   Like it or not, “per encounter” abilities tend to mold your game. Put them in as a major factor, and you’re going to wind up limiting your character’s lives to a series of set-piece battles, simply because anything else is too awkward and uncomfortable to run. You’ll be spending half your time deciding who’s abilities are recharging now if you don’t stick to the format – and, either way, you’ll wind up pulling everyone out of character.

2 Responses

  1. I agree 100% with your comments about per encounter powers.

    It is one of my biggest bugbears with 4e because it makes me think in terms of an artificial time period and, as you say, leads to everything being about set-piece combats.

    The lack of logic to encounter powers is also an issue.

    I can accept that magic powers might take five or more minutes of rest to come back. But I cannot form a credible explanation why a fighter can only do their expert strike once every five minutes.

    …. “light-side” magics were refreshed as the first edge of the sun rose above the horizon at dawn, “dark-side” magics were refreshed at the moment the last bit of the sun slipped below the horizon at nightfall …

    I love this idea. I may steal it at some point.

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