The first two RPGs I ever tried to write from scratch were Astral and Paranormality, roughly at the same time. That may have been the problem.
After abandoning both projects for a while I’m returning to them. Below I’ll outline the goals of Paranormality, the history of the project, the fairly minimal setting, the mechanics I’ve currently chosen, and a very rough roadmap for future work.
Paranormality started as a default settting and system for Astral characters in their not-quite-mundane lives. It provides ultra-light rules for life in a modern mundane world with strange happenings on the edges. Any rules with a comaparble setting will suffice. Its main advantage lies in that both its setting material and its systems translate to Astral. In Paranormality telepathy and ESP emanate from mental planes “above” the Astral Plane, and astral entities – the players’ and others – can wield them. Other forms of “magic” also lie outside the Astral Plane. Conversely, creatures from Astral can show up in the “mundane” world.
Paranormality is our world, more or less. While set in contemporary times, I also plan to provide at least a little support for the Victorian era and the late 1960s and 1970s, two eras with especially intense interest in spiritualism, mysticism, and psychic powers.
In the shadows and behind closed doors, officially unrecognized by any authorities, our certain knowledge of stable, scientifically explained laws of reality proves unfounded. A few people can hear the thoughts of others as if everyone in the world muttered aloud without realizing. A few others can make objects without touching them, or see events on the other side of the world, or remember the future. Creatures outside any biologist’s taxonomy, sometimes outside any physicist’s taxonomy, wander the forsaken places of our Earth. Visitors arrive on Earth, not in silver saucers from the sky but free-standing holes in the walls between worlds hanging impossibly in mid-air. A dizzying array of organizations hide these challenges to our paradigms, from government agencies to private corporations to cabals of self-styled “sorcerers”.
But slowly, every so slowly the secrets are coming out. A circle of middle-aged hippies tried Astral Projection, and came back with tales of other times and other worlds. A determined reporter broke into something called the Omega Foundation, and saw things that should not walk this Earth. A sham psychic in Vegas receives real visions of how people died; foolishly she called the police, and now she’s on the run from Men in Black.
Some of first decisions I made for these games I’ll keep. Among them are the following.
Character generation in Paranormality is still a work in progress. Apart from biographical information, a character sheet will contain the following:
A list of Skills, each ranked from 0 to 6. The full system will have a list of skills, and categorize each as Basic or Advanced. If a character doesn’t have a Basic Skill listed, it defaults to 0. If a character lacks an Advanced Skill, the character cannot use it at all. “Running” would be a Basic Skill
A list of Backgrounds, unranked. If a character’s background is relevant to a task, the player rolls an extra die and keeps the highest.
A Stamina pool lost during strenuous activity, including combat and some uses of “magic” or paranormal powers. When a character loses more than 3/4 of their Stamina, they roll an extra die and keep the lowest before any similar bonus or penalty die rules. At 0 Stamina a character loses unconsciousness. If the character suffered physical damage (TBD), the character will die without aid.
A Luck score starting at 7, possibly more if the GM wants a more “cinematic” game or less if the GM wants more gritty realism. Player Characters “Test Their Luck” when their Skills cannot avail them.
Characters can also carry up to 12 pieces of gear. Some items, like plate armor, are heavy enough to take up two slots.
Paranormality is Player Rolls Most Dice, but in a few combat-related situations the GM rolls dice instead. We’ll cover that later.
The basic mechanic is 2d6 + A + B ≤ 8 + R + M where
- A :=
- the skill ranks of the Active character, usually but not always a PC, generally rated from 0 to 6
- B :=
- Bonuses for favorable circumstances from the Active character’s perspective, e.g. good visibility, situation-specific knowledge.
- M :=
- Modifiers for possible complications from the Active character’s perspective, e.g. the range and size of target.
- R :=
- the skill ranks of a Resisting character, if any, usually but not always an NPC, generally rated from 0 to 6.
A Bonus in one context could be a Modifier in another. One could subtract any given Modifier from the total on the dice instead and get the same probability curve (or pyramid). The two terms exist to avoid subtraction and to separate circumstances in the PC’s control from the rest.
The GM may also ask players to make a Luck Test. Player characters have a Luck attribute that decreases after every Luck Test, regardless of whether the check failed or succeeded. Unlike a standard test, the basic Luck Test is 2d6 ≤ Luck.
NPCs always fail a Luck Test.
A Luck Test, as the name implies, is pure dumb luck. For example, if a player says their character is looking for traps, the player would make a standard Test against “Trapspotting” or the like. If a character fails that check, or simply isn’t looking, then a generous GM would allow them to make a Luck check so as not to step on a pit trap and plunge onto the sharpened spikes below.
To attack a character, the player tests the appropriate weapon ability. To defend against an attack, the player tests Shield Fighting, Evasion, or a melee weapon ability, as appropriate to the situation.
Players Roll All Dice in these combat situations:
|2d6 + A ≥ 8 + R
|2d6 + R ≥ 8 + A
|2d6 + A + B ≥ 8 + M
|hits, else other potential targets defend
|2d6 + M ≥ (7+A+B)
|ranged defense (using Luck)
|2d6 + M + Luck/2 ≥ (7+A+B)
|avoids hit; decrease Luck regardless
- A :=
- the skill ranks of the Active character, usually but not always a PC, generally rated from 0 to 6
- B :=
- circumstantial Bonuses for factors that favor an action, e.g. good visibility, situation-specific knowledge.
- M :=
- circumstantial Modifiers for factors that complicate an action, e.g. for a ranged shot range and size of target.
- R :=
- the skill ranks of a Resisting character, usually but not always an NPC, generally rated from 0 to 6.
- Luck :=
- A player character attribute that decreases after every attempted use. The player must choose to use Luck or not before rolling the dice. NPCs always have 0 Luck.
Combat assumes actions are approximately simultaneous. In each Combat Round, the following actions happen in order:
- GM describes what NPCs appear to be doing.
- Each player announces what they plan to do in that round, in whatever order makes sense.1
- Players make any die rolls needed to resolve their actions. If their attacks hit, determine how much damage it does to each NPC or object (or PC!)
- Players defend against enemy actions. If an NPC is hit in the previous step, that adds to the player’s defense, but does not necessarily stop their action.
- Any characters hit by enemy action or friendly fire suffer the effects of damage, up to including death.
- Conscious PCs and NPCs continue to the next combat round.
Note that whn an NPC performs a ranged attack the GM doesn’t roll; all characters in the path, including NPCs, defend2. This is one of the few situations where the GM rolls dice.
The other situation, which GMs don’t have to use, is a quicker system for close combat. The normal combat system assumes all parties are picking targets, taking aim, and striking purposefully. To reflect a barroom brawl with fists and broken bottles, soldiers abandoning discipline to pummmel, or a nightmare battle against a raging horde, use the following procedure instead:
Based on the current situation, the GM breaks the battle into “scrums”. Anyone in a scrum can hit anyone else in a scrum. If all PCs are attacking the same NPCs or group of NPCs, they’re all in the same scrum.
The GM describes the chaos around the PCs through the fog of war.
The players state what their charcters are trying to do: attack, run, fend off attacks with a weapon or shield, or something clever.
Calculate the Combat Value of each PC as follows:
If a PC stands their ground or take a retreating position and defends themselves and their compatriots with shields, their player rolls 3d6, drop the lowest, and adds the PC’s Shield Fighting skill. The GM may rule that the PC stands in the way of other opponents and NPCs cannot attack other targets without overcoming the PC first.
If a PC defends only himself with a shield or melee weapons, optionally while running, but does not extend themselves to make attacks, roll four dice and drop the highest and lowest, then add their movement or weapon Skill.
If a PC attacks normally, roll 2d6 and add the Weapon Skill.
If a PC attacks recklessly with a melee weapon, roll 3d6; add the two higher dice to the PC’s weapon skill for the purposes of determining whether the PC hits, and add the two lower dice to the PC’s weapon skill for the purposes of determining whether the PC gets hit.
If a PC attacks lays down suppressing fire with a ranged weapon, roll three dice and drop the highest. NPCs will be forced to do the same, but the chances of actually hitting anyone are fairly low.
If a PC tries to do something clever out of combat, but remains vaguely aware of their surroundings, roll 2d6 and add no skill. (We’ll resolve their action at the end.)
If a PC tries to do something clever out of combat but must concentrate fully on that action, their CV is 0. Unless another character is guarding them or they’re inaccessibly, they will be hit.
If a PC attacks, make 2d6 rolls and add ranks in the appropriate Skill best reflects what they’re doing: hitting, running, fending off attacks with a weapon or shield, or by some miracle trying to do something clever. PCs who are standing their ground and defending themselves or others without taking other actions including attacks roll an extra die and drop the lowest.
The GM makes one 2d6 roll for every group of NPCs in a scrum. If the NPCs in a scrum outnumber PCs, the GM rolls an extra die and drops the lowest. If the NPCs in a scrum are demoralized, or under “suppressing fire”, roll and extra die and drop the “highest”. The GM then adds a Skill rank to the NPC roll.
- If the NPCs are a disorganized mob, use their average Skill rank, rounded down.
- If the NPCs have a leader they’re taking orders from, use the leader’s Skill rank.
- If the scrum only contains one NPC, use that Rank.
Each attacking PC with a CV higher than the NPCs' hits, doing damage to one NPC. Each PC with a CV lower than the NPCs' takes a hit, up to the maximum number of attacks the NPCs can make. (Most NPCs can only attack once a round. Not all.)
Paranormality arose when I asked myself the question, “What do characters in Astral do when they’re back on the Corporeal Plane?” In my working outline of Astral, the character creation rules had space for “Background” and “Areas of Expertise”, which noted from where and when characters came, and what subjects they might know about. I was writing in 2016 not 1996; RPGs set in modern times with paranormal, conspiracy, urban horror, monsters, and other realities had come and more often than not gone. Still, though, wouldn’t it be nice to have a fallback system that integrated well with Astral for life in a modern-ish waking world?
In initial plans they shared the same system and notionally the same setting; when a character entered the Astral Plane they used Astral, and when they left the Astral Plane they awakened in Paranormality or something like it.
Early attempts at writing a unified system fell flat. By design the Astral Plane of Astral lacked constraints of corporeal reality, even basic ones like absolute units of time and space. Paranormality on the other hand needed fixed reference points like time, distance, dimension, and the fragility of human anatomy if only to highlight the strangeness when it came.
Also, I was trying to incorporate a mishmash of ideas from other RPGs into both games, notably Investigative Abilities3 in GUMSHOE, and the discipline of Moves4 in PbtA5 games, At first I abandoned Paranormality to concentrate on Astral, then I dropped Astral.
Advanced Fighting Fantasy and Troika!
A while back I encountered Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2nd Edition, from Arion Games. Like the “Fighting Fantasy” books on which it (and its first edition) were based, characters resolve nearly everything with one of these mechanisms:
To succeed in an unopposed action, the player must roll 2d6 ≤ the character’s “SKILL” characteristic plus a Special Skill for the particular activity if the character has one.
To cast a spell in at least two of the four magic systems6, the player must roll 2d6 ≤ the character’s “MAGIC” characteristic, and pay the spell’s MAGIC POINT or STAMINA cost.
To avoid some otherwise unavoidable mishap the player must roll 2d6 ≤ their current LUCK score. Every time a character rolled against LUCK, LUCK decreased by 1 point. This is FF and AFF’s version of the Saving Throw. Note that SKILL and Special Skills play no part. It’s literally a matter of dumb luck, not reflexes or willpower or adventuring experience, whether the character avoids falling into an unseen trap or resists a spell to turn them into a toad.
To succeed in an opposed action, usually combat, each character rolls 2d6 + SKILL; if a character rolls higher than their designated target, they hit and the target takes damage to their STAMINA characteristic. Notably, in AFF all combat happens simultaneously, with everyone throwing dice. (Although, does the GM throw one set of dice for all their NPCs? That means an entire army could falter with one bad roll. Do they throw one set for each NPC? That’s a logistical problem for the GM. I could look it up, but either way it’s a problem.)
Independently (as far as I can tell) Daniel Sell published Troika! through his company Melsonian Arts Council. (Melsonian Arts Council’s Lamentation of the Flame Princess fanzine The Undercroft, edited by David Sell, is the only publication to date to pay me actual money for something I wrote. So one could accuse me of bias.) Troika! is both Sell’s tribute to Planescape and his answer to the implicit nostalgia of movements like the Old School Renaissance, of which he was and possibly still is a part. If we’re going to get nostalgic about old RPGs and their arcane rules, why settle with TSR-era Dungeons & Dragons? Why not pick something British? Like, say, the Fighting Fantasy books?
While some have either lauded or derided Troika! as “hipster Planescape” – these days who can tell? – I admired the simlicity of its rules, which streamlined AFF. Troika! had no MAGIC or MAGIC POINTS; all Spells had ranks like Special Skills, characters rolled SKILL + Spell Rank as if they were Special Skills, and they all drew from STAMINA like the old Sorcery! did. Granted his new initiative system was a little funky, and the rest of his system could be a little simpler.
As noted previously I did a little math to remove SKILL entirely. The three mechanics were now these:
Unopposed Test: roll 2d6 + the most relevant skill; if the total is 9 or more the action is a success.
Opposed Test: each side rolls 2d6 + their most relevant skill; higher total wins; on a tie nothing happens.
Luck Test: the hapless oaf’s player rolls 2d6; if the toal is under his current Luck score, he averts disaster.
Each round of melee combat uses an Opposed Test of two skills, usually “Weapon Fighting” vs. “Weapon Fighting”. Ranged combat is an Opposed Test of “Weapon Shooting” vs. some movement skill. Seduction would be “Seducing” vs. “Seducing” or “Discipline”, an in-game poker game would be “Gaming” vs “Gaming”, and so on. (Naming every skill with a participle or abstract noun seems like a good convention.)
Ideas from this “Troika! Redo” have found their way into Paranormality.
A lot of things need more development: a list of skills, the combat system, handling of physical damage, and the mechanics and existence of Luck.
Just like Astral, I’ve long had plans to produce it as short booklets. Paranormality RPG: The Core Rules would be first: pretty much what I wrote above, expanded, polished, and playtested, along with a list of skills for multiple eras, GM advice, a sample bestiary, alternate and optional rules that might prove useful, and a GURPS scale bibliography.
The Paranormal Powers Reference
The Paranormal Powers Reference would be second, and when I scrapped the project I still wanted to do a “systemless” or portable version of it. It would provide rules for the following:
Mentalism, Conjuring, and Cold Reading, or how to con gullible NPCs (or PCs!) into thinking you have powers.
Mystical Talents, a general system for Mind Over Matter stunts like Mesmerism (cinematic hypnotism), Metabolic Enhancements, Psychic Healing, Pyrokinesis, Telekinesis, and the like.
Ritual Magic, a general system for low magic fantasy and horror like Arthurian Romances, swords-and-sorcery novels, Lovecraftian horror, occult horror, and the vast majority of real world beliefs.
Spiritualism, the art of letting ghosts in your head, getting ghosts out of other people’s heads, sending your ghost out of your head, and dealing with ghosts who insist on making nuisances of themselves, with some overlap with Astral.
Telepathy, the art and/or science of reading minds, hearing thoughts, getting into other people’s heads, and doing things once you’re in.
ESP, the ability to know things you shouldn’t know, seeing and things you couldn’t see or hear, and getting sudden terrible thoughts that happen to be true.
Precognition, ESP’s freakier cousin that doesn’t respect the boundaries of time.
Maybe instead of one big book I should split these into smaller supplements.
Other possible supplements could include:
Notes to convert the Paranormal Powers Reference to other systems.
Notes to convert characters in other systems to Paranormality.
A “bestiary” of paranormal, cryptid, and just plain weird creatures.
One or more example organizations that might aid or harm the PCs.
At least one adventure, just to give potential GMs and players ideas.
But that all depends on whether the first two books gather any interest.
Part of me wants to demand written battle orders revealed simultaneously, but that’s probably overkill. ↩︎
I thought about letting NPCs roll ranged attacks, but I decided against it for consistency. ↩︎
To use a General Ability one rolls a die that determines whether the attempt succeds. To use an Investigative Ability, the player just investigates. The classic system gives each ability a rank and a point pool; The Yellow King leaves Investigative Abilities unranked and gives the PC a fixed number “pushes” to dig deeper and find more information. ↩︎
In one interpretation, Moves are those places where role-playing events engage game mechanics. In Astral I tried to use a version of Moves as a menu of possible actions for an environment with few touchstones to corporeal reality. ↩︎
“Powered by the Apocalypse”, i.e. using rules originally derived from Apocalypse World. Examples include Dungeon World, Monster of the Week, and the most recent edition of Kult. ↩︎
Multiple incompatible magic systems … no wonder I like it. ↩︎