Fickle RPG Rules (v0.4 – PDF)
Wall of text incoming, as I haven’t taken any gameplay pictures and don’t have any art associated with the game yet
My lightest RPG to date, and quite promising. Interesting history behind the design of the game. First of all this game wouldn’t exist without the work I did on Life of a Dinosaur Cowboy and a bit of Echo Death. And Party of Light wouldn’t exist without this game, as the former is basically a kid friendly version of the same narrative “Yes, and…” resolution concept.
I had never intended to make a “narrative RPG”, as the entire cult of Ron and disaster with The Forge turned me off from the concept. So I describe Fickle RPG very tentatively as narrative as a result. I think it’s closest cousin would be Fate/Fudge.
But I had started work on Life of a Dinosaur Cowboy RPG, but ran into two hurdles: solo playtesting a group of 5 PCs plus enemies was nearly impossible, and I had tried to jam too many “cool” and unique mechanics into one game. So I split some of those ideas out into Echo Death, and some into what would become Fickle RPG.
That game had the concept of a class-less system, and instead players choose Skills from a list of Jobs. So you could get Healing Dart from Doctor, Powerful Shot from Sharpshooter, and Dig In from Miner. Or just focus on one or two jobs to somewhat fulfill the same class concept from other RPGs. The downside was I had to create, playtest, and balance a giant list of skills, and at the end of the day would players really be able to make and play an interesting character? Or would I instead create an RPG in the same vein of D&D 4th edition: great miniatures battle game, terrible system for roleplaying a character.
I was also in the midst of playing in an Age of Rebellion (Star Wars RPG from Fantasy Flight Games). The game master wanted to forgo the miniatures, square based grid, and detailed combat. But as we played I realized AoR had tried to be narrative, and loose, and casual, but still had extremely crunchy and tedious combat mechanics around range bands, damage soak, etc. So instead of just saying “Yeah we’re in a ship hangar, what do you want to do”, you are focusing on taking 2 Strain to get an extra Maneuver to move forward 1 Range Band to get a bonus to shoot a Stormtrooper.
So in the back of my mind I was mulling over what AoR would be like if taken to it’s natural conclusion: where combat truly WAS abstracted, and every action (not just shooting) was a “first class citizen”. What that means is talking is as viable and effective a strategy as firing a gun. And to divorce the players from the concept of “roll initiative, we are now switching to a super chunky, less open and narrative, and very rules based ‘combat mode’.”
A good example of what I was considering is the computer game Renowned Explorers, which has a complex (and perhaps convoluted) system to make flattering a person do as much “damage” as stabbing them with a sword, or bluffing them.
The aforementioned Life of a Dinosaur Cowboy somewhat addresses this, as you could “attack” with a powerful, rousing speech just as effectively as shooting with a sniper rifle. I had written those mechanics before even playing Renowned Explorers, so that was an interesting coincidence. Also Life of a Dinosaur Cowboy had the idea of “wagering” Fickle and Flat dice when resolving damage, sort of an extension of the attack-damage pattern from Dinosaur Cowboys itself.
In fact the Fickle RPG resolution mechanic has a lot to thank for Dinosaur Cowboys attack-damage. In that game you have something like 4A-3D, which means 4 Attack 3 Damage. You roll the Attacks, and if you succeed on at least one you get the Damage as well. So very, very similar to Fickle and Flat in this RPG. Especially when I eventually added the “Flux Rifle” to DC which had a Power Settings ability which let you situationally allocate 5A-1D however you wanted (such as 3A-3D, or 2A-4D). The real inception for Fickle RPG was there all along.
On top of all that brainstorming and back-of-the-mind ruminating, I’d been grappling with a conundrum for around a year (at the time of brainstorming Fickle RPG) that is covered in the third header of this blog post, specifically: what if there was a tabletop game where combat resolution was as involved, interesting, and full of meaningful and unique decisions as the movement phase?
I think I am able to achieve that system with Fickle RPG, where the resolution mechanic is interesting on it’s own merits, without being fiddly or detached from the real world. As a bonus to this system using your Intellect or Personality is along the same lines as crunching skulls with Might.
I wouldn’t have made this game if I didn’t unload so many concepts into Life of a Dinosaur Cowboy, didn’t have my Age of Rebellion campaign interrupted by the game master being busy, and didn’t come up with a resolution mechanic that is truly interesting.
Fickle RPG is unthemed, but my initial playtest used a cliche zombie apocalypse (well, it had a few twists) set in the real world city of Calgary (because I’m familiar with it). You can see my notes on the setting above (or here).
I wrote the rules and created the basic character sheet in one day. But the ideas and concepts had been rattling around in my head for over a year. The impetus for sitting down and making a concrete document was my Age of Rebellion campaign was put “on ice” until the game master was less busy. This meant my weekly games night was free and open again.
So randomly I sent out an invite to a few of my friends to try out my light RPG. I hadn’t written Fickle RPG yet, but the interest was good so I did. We ended up playing the game and had an absolute blast. I went on to play the game with a dozen different people, in four or five different campaign threads. Me and two close friends from elementary even changed one of our monthly hangouts to be Fickle RPG instead of computer games. I had people who had never played a game more serious than Settlers of Catan join and love Fickle RPG.
Basically for all my hard work on various other RPGs and game systems over the years, the one that really grabbed people and took on a life of it’s own was Fickle RPG; which I threw together in a day. Funny how that works. I think the reason for the interest and success amongst friends is the game really lets players be creative, and have fun. Sometimes I think it’s easy to lose focus of the primary purpose of games: fun. Especially when you get neck deep in “cool” mechanics and so on until you have a mechanically sound (but dull) game.
Now let me outline the resolution mechanic that really makes the game. When declaring an action you’re looking to have more Successes than the opponent. After all my talk of alternative combat solutions, I’m going to stick with a simple example of a dude trying to hit a zombie with an axe. Each character has a set of Attributes, such as 4 Agility. That means when resolving something with Agility you start with a dice pool of 4D6. If you have a Skill that applies (such as Axe Handling +1) then the dice pool improves, in this case to 5. The opponent figures out their dice pool the same way, let’s say 7.
Then you determine the Difficulty of the task. By default this is Normal (5+). If you want additional effects, this goes to Hard (6+). If you have an advantage it improves to Easy (4+). So you could stick to the standard “I chop him with my axe”, or get fancier and say “I chop the zombie in the leg and shove it down the stairs” (additional effect of slowing or knocking down the foe). The opponent describes what they are doing in reaction.
Then you allocate your dice pool to either Fickle or Flat. Each Fickle means you’ll roll a D6. Flat counts as 1 Success IF AND ONLY IF you pass at least 1 Fickle roll. So from my dice pool of 5 I could allocate 2 Fickle and 3 Flat. The enemy might play it safe with their 7 and go 6 Fickle and 1 Flat. This allocation is done in secret, and is the real magic of the mechanic. Because you’re having to guess what the opponent will choose.
This means the axe wielder rolls 2D6, trying for 5+. The zombie rolls 6D6, trying for 5+. If the player gets at least one successful Fickle roll they ALSO get all their Flat dice (3). Similarly the zombie needs at least one 5+ on their 6D6 to get their allocated Flat dice (1).
Sounds impossible for the axe wielder? Not so, as the person who allocates LESS Fickle dice gets the “Underdog Bonus”, which means their dice can Explode. So a roll of 6 counts as 1 Success, AND you can roll 1 additional bonus die, which can also explode, and so on. So a lot of the bluffing and guessing of your opponent comes into deciding if it’s worth going for the Underdog Bonus, or whether you should undercut an opponent with a smaller pool.
Dice are rolled, successes are totaled, and whoever wins has their action apply. This could mean reducing the Body Stamina of the zombie if the axe wielder wins, or the zombie blocking the attack or clawing back if they win (depending on what each player narratively said). Stamina in this case is like Hitpoints, but for each attribute category (Body for Might and Agility, Mind covers Wits and Intellect, Soul covers Personality and Swagger).
This becomes interesting because you might be shooting at a person who is using their Personality to try to convince you to surrender. And they have a mechanically supported, just as valid approach to doing that. Because they can whittle down your Soul Stamina just as fast as you can shoot their Body Stamina. Also makes for interesting player interactions since one character can outright convince someone else that their solution is the best.
Similarly you can have different approaches to the same skill/talent for each character. One player might shoot a rifle by pure skill and reflex (Agility), another because they grew up handling guns (Wits), and maybe someone with a military background having a lot of training and book reading on the subject (Intellect), or even someone who has so much style and class when using firearms (Swagger…think Nicholas Cage’s character in Face Off with his dual gold pistols with ivory handgrips).
If all the above sounds confusing, it’s because I haven’t sat down and rewritten and edited the rules and wording to be more clear. I get a lot of “huh?” looks when I describe it in person. But then the dice start flying and people get it almost instantly. In a way the system feels quite natural once you understand it, and somewhat is based in the real world (with Fickle being chaos or chance and Flat being skill and preparation).
Eventually conflict becomes “player says they want to do X, opponent says Y, pick up some dice, reveal what you’re rolling, and see who won”. Very fast, very flexible, and very fun and rewarding on it’s own.
Plenty of lessons here, because Fickle RPG is quite a departure from my normal “crunchy” grid/square based, well defined and restricted RPGs.
The most important is: if you give a player a list, they will 95% of the time restrict themselves to that list. Doesn’t matter if the list is equipment, character classes, or skills. If you say “You can be a Fighter or a Mage” you’ll predictably end up with both – end of discussion. I found Age of Rebellion really bad for this, as the neat Advantage mechanic (“I hit AND do something cool”) devolved into “Okay so for 2 Advantage I can get a Boost dice right?”. I think some of that failing was my own player group, and some was having a restrictive list of ways to use Advantage, so eventually the players felt pressured to stick to those options, instead of having to come up with something narrative.
With the looser narrative approach to Fickle RPG I’ve ended up with some of the most interesting characters to date. An old Chinese baker with a limp who choose “steamed buns” as one of their six starting possessions (as compared to the stereotypical “gun, armor, food” of most post apocalyptic games). Then when he got shot through the shoulder and dragged into a building on a gang owned university campus, he convinced his captors (using Personality “attacks”) to let him go in exchange for the bun recipe.
Then a wild west cowboy aficionado with a rusty six-shooter, a drunken and divorced train mechanic, a deranged person playing pirate dress up (complete with blunderbuss), an ex-military SEAL, a pair of food truck drivers, a detective with a dark past, an infected drug addled rock star with a motorcycle but no gas, a one armed fireman who crafts his own arm attachments, a gossipy college student who used a backpack of heavy books to knock foes out, and so many more.
Equipment is likewise as interesting. When you say “Choose 6 Possessions”, without any list at all, you get some cool results. I also warned of the concept that possessions could have in-game consequences. So if a person wants to start with a helicopter: great! But half a dozen gangs will see a fueled air vehicle and come charging in to try to steal it. I’ve heard this approach described as the “disturbance in the force” method of balancing.
We’ve had great stories emerge from the games so far. Giving players the freedom and power to directly affect the story and setting has been eye opening. A lot of players really shine when the game master turns the tables and says “You know this location better, you describe it”, or “You listed this aunt as a Relation, what are they like?”. Similarly encounters and conflicts have been varied and interesting as the environment, situation, and player features are used.
I also learned the important lesson that no matter how much time and effort you put into a system, if a game isn’t fun, people won’t play it. This is at least very, very true with my group of friends. So although I put together Fickle RPG quickly, the core mechanic, setting, and freedom spoke to a lot of players and they instantly gravitated to the idea.
And of course I am beyond happy to fulfill my own personal goal of making a resolution mechanic that is as interesting, involved, and diverse as traditional “movement phases” in grid based RPGs. No longer is resolution a matter of “roll D20”, without any player input or choice.
Another key lesson is: if failing a roll check has no interesting outcome, don’t bother rolling. This goes back to the classic D&D drag of “I want to lockpick this rudimentary door, in total stealth, without any guards nearby. Oh, I failed. Can I try again? I have to wait an arbitrary amount of time first?” And no the “Take 20” mechanic in that game was just a band-aid, not a real solution. Whereas a similar example in Fickle RPG was the players infiltrating a gang hideout and capturing the boss, as well as finding a small safe in a desk. But the conflict was over, there were no reinforcements coming, and no real outside danger. So what would I achieve by making them roll to open the safe? Especially when critical elements necessary to move the story forward were in the safe? So yeah I’ve gotten very used to skipping unimportant checks, in the same way Star Wars does a “scene cut” to the next interesting part instead of slogging through boring details.
Fickle RPG also taught me to cut the rules fat, and really focus in on what kind of experience a game is trying to create. The stories, situations, and outcomes in this game share a lot with other RPGs, but they achieve those moments without a lot of cruft or difficulty. Sometimes people want to just describe what their character is doing, see if it succeeds, and move on. They don’t always want to calculate to-succeed chance from a handful of modifiers and stats, especially when the outcome is narratively (and memorably) the same. In other words Fickle RPG gets to the same result by a much shorter and less cluttered road.
And of course the creation of this blog is mostly due to Fickle RPG, because I was going to create yet another WordPress blog when I realized how ridiculous that was, considering I have over half a dozen. So instead I finally got around to consolidating my projects.
I’m going to refine the rules, tighten up and streamline the writing, and stay focused on finishing Fickle RPG to the quality it deserves.