RPG Design: Improvisational Systems

Prairie Dog

You Shall Not Pass!

With a well-practiced game master you don’t really need a game system to run a good game – but the more complicated the game gets, the more it helps to have some sort of system. Since it’s been mentioned a few times, here’s an example of quickly creating a system to fit a game.

Once there was a gathering of several gamers. And the gamers became bored, and wished to play SOMETHING. Yet all that was available in the way of “gaming supplies” was some scrap paper and a deck of cards – and so the setup went something like this:

Huh… OK; I’ve got a deck of cards. You each get seven. Clubs are for physical actions, Spades are for skills and mental stuff, Hearts are for magic, and Diamonds are for luck. When you want to do something important, you spend an appropriate card; higher is better and goes first. You can add a second card to an action, adding it’s value (Jack 11, Ace 14); it can be of another suit if you can explain how it’s supporting what you want to do. You can do something active once a turn and can do defensive stuff any time. When you use up your cards, you get a new hand*. If you can’t defend against an attack, you get a level of damage, you can be Healthy, Battered, Wounded, Gravely Wounded, or Dead. Each level of damage gives you a -1 penalty on totals. Pick three kinds of actions – melee attacks, or athletic feats, or some such – and decide which gets a +2, a +4, and a +6 on your totals. Pick two magical fields that you can use and give one a +2 and the other a +4. Those are your talents. You’re free to ask how difficult things are before you try them, but on risky stuff I’ll draw a card myself and apply it’s value -7 to your total. You live by gathering in a peaceful primitive village with only a few simple hand tools. Your village is currently being threatened by terrible giant monsters who seem to be massing to attack a few miles away. What are you going to do about it?

*Which led to an interesting dynamic; did you hold a good hand for critical moments or spend it them moving the action along? If you had bad cards, you looked for ways to use them up – and get a new hand – without actually failing at important stuff. Thus less-than-ideal actions tended to be far more common than moments of spectacular success.

When it came to NPC actions, I drew three cards from the remaining deck and used what I could. When the question of “equipment” came up, I let them each have three simple items (such as a spear (sharp stick), club/prybar (sturdier stick), knife (sharp flake of stone), rope (some string, either scavenged or made from grass) or a belt (some string around their stomachs) that would hold up to two pieces of equipment to free their hand-paws), each worth a +1 to +3 on appropriate actions depending on quality and applicability. When “cooperation” came up I said that – if you had someone helping you – they could play a secondary card instead of you. When Healing came up, the rule was “With appropriate magic, one level per day; right away if cards are spent, overnight otherwise. Without appropriate magic one level per week”.

What with the somewhat vague descriptions of the gigantic creatures attacking their town –

Terrible giants, with huge, crude, axe-like weapons following a monstrous growling creature with a huge, blunt, and almost featureless head on a double neck, all of them towering to the sky and communicating in terrible deep, slow, rumbles, like constant thunder that you feel vibrating through your body with the trembling of the earth! Fortunately, they seem to have camped at the moment, gathering their forces for the attack!

it took the players quite some time to figure out that their characters were actually Magic Prairie Dogs and that the “attackers” were simply a human construction crew with bulldozers and shovels who wanted to get started on building a development.

Shifting from direct attacks to a campaign of equipment sabotage, the magic prairie dogs eventually ran the project so far over budget that it was abandoned, saving their village!

And everyone had a lot of fun with it. In fact, they had enough fun that there were several later requests in between larger campaigns for a return to the lands of the Magic Prairie Dogs – albeit with a few advanced rules.

For the Great Prairie Dog Migration I differentiated the characters some more – introducing Attribute Scores (+4, +2, +0, -2, assigned as desired between Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, and Spades; these modified the score of your primary card in an action) and adding a rule for character advancement (after each game they survived your prairie dog got a +1, or two +1’s if they did cool and interesting things, to add to their list of Skills and Fields of Magic – either boosting old ones (to a limit of +7) or adding new ones.

For Prairie Dogs in the Big City I added formal rules on Humans (+13 on Feats of Strength, +13 on Resist Injury, attributes as per Prairie Dogs, -6 on Agility and Perception totals, inflicts two levels of injury with a successful attack on much smaller creatures, can only spend Hearts on resisting injuries and technology – their form of “magic”. If there were any human PC’s they’d use the same rules as Prairie Dogs otherwise, except that their magical fields always involved technology) and Animals (+13 on appropriate specialties, larger ones caused two levels of injury with successful attacks and resisted injuries at +13. Could only use Hearts on notable special traits – dogs tracking by scent, cats being stealthy, and so on. Black-Footed Ferrets were very very dangerous given that their speciality was killing and eating prairie dogs).

For Prairie Dogs: Making Contact I added a quick list of sample difficulties, ranging from 5 (automatic for pretty much anyone with a decent applicable skill rating) on up to 40 (the stuff that wasn’t quite totally impossible – calling for Aces and Kings, a high attribute, high skill, and at least basic equipment). I don’t know where that particular scrap of paper wound up, but it really wouldn’t be very hard to reconstruct.

Unfortunately, that particular group is currently scattered across many states – so we probably never will get to Prairie Dogs: Colonization (adding rules for using magic-boosted technology to achieve FTL, and aliens) – but those rules probably wouldn’t be more than another few sentences anyway.

  • Beware ye praerie dogs, my sons!
  • With jaws that bite, and claws that catch!
  • Beware the Dozers Blade, and shun
  • The furious magic blast!
  • He took his sharpened twig in paw:
  • Long time the human foe he sought —
  • So rested he by the vehicle park,
  • And stood awhile in thought.
  • And, as in silent thought he stood,
  • The Bulldozer, with eyes of flame,
  • Came smashing through the prarie soil,
  • And rumbled as it came!
  • One, two! One, two! And through and through
  • The gnawing teeth did wires cut!
  • He left it dead, the driver fled
  • And went galumphing back.
  • And, has thou slain the Bulldozer?
  • Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
  • O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’
  • He chortled in his joy.

-With all due credit to Charles Dodgson, A.k.A. Lewis Carroll and his original Jabberwocky…

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