A Description-Based Roleplaying Game by Kirt "Loki" Dankmyer
Success is a role-playing game designed for more "cinematic" genres, from Golden Age superheroics and pulp to certain kinds of children's literature. Any genre where the protagonists are extremely competent or extremely lucky is a good match for Success.
[Quick aside: Success uses the female gender to refer to Game Moderators, and the male gender to refer to players.]
It is assumed that the GM has spoken to the players about the sort of game she is going to run, what the world is like, what the genre is, and so on. Given that, the player is to write down a description of his character, as if he were describing a character from a novel or movie to someone who has never played a role-playing game.
If the player prefers to develop the character in play, deciding on skills, backstory, and so on as he goes along, he must at least provide a physical description. Regardless, he may want to describe the character verbally to the GM before he writes anything down, to make sure she doesn't have any problems with what he's doing. The character description can be as long or as short as he likes, and the player is encouraged to dwell more on who his character is than what the character can do, though if the player isn't sure exactly where he is going with the character yet, that is okay as well. Sometimes it is good to just start with an image.
Some short examples of character descriptions follow. If the player enjoys writing up extensive character histories, longer than what's here, he is encouraged to do so.
The GM has final say as to what is or isn't allowed in her campaign. She may set limitations or guidelines on character generation as she sees fit, such as specifying every character description must contain a tragic flaw. Within the bounds of what the GM allows, a player shouldn't worry about whether or not a character is more or less "powerful" than another, just so long as the character is interesting to the GM and the other players. If the sort of game the GM is running supports it, it is perfectly acceptable to have a highly trained CIA assassin and a four-year-old street urchin in the same game.
After the character has been designed and the GM has approved the character, the GM gives a certain number of tokens (stones, dice, socks, whatever the GM wants to use) to the player. The number of tokens the player is given depends on how cinematic the GM wants the genre to be. She could even determine the amount by random die roll, if she likes. We recommend a number between zero and five. The use of the tokens is explained in Wrinkles, below, but only makes sense in terms of the basic mechanic.
Basic MechanicWhenever a player describes his character taking an action that is within the realm of possibility for the game world, no matter how slim the chance of success, he is generally to describe things as if the action succeeded. When doing so, the player is encouraged to add qualifiers and description so as to aid in the suspension of disbelief, i.e. to make the success sound more "realistic" according to the style of game being played.
Wrong: "I attempt to pick the lock. Does it open?"
Bad: "I pick the lock."
Better: "I pull out a hatpin and pick the lock."
Good: "I pull out a hatpin and fumble around with the lock for an extended period of time, making a little more noise than I would like. At last, the lock pops open."
The player always has the option of describing a failure, especially if the player feels that would be more interesting, or if he wants to give another player a chance to be in the limelight. "I train my sniper rifle on the Senator's head, start to squeeze the trigger… and my muscles spasm, spoiling my aim and smashing the car's windshield with a stray shot."
Note that depending on character concept, some actions will be routine for the character, and for the purposes of pacing, can be glossed over. If it's established that the character is an expert locksmith, the "Bad" example above may be acceptable, since everyone knows the character can pick locks without too much trouble, especially if he has his tools with him.
Players are also encouraged to develop their character's backstory in play if they didn't opt for a detailed backstory during character generation. In fact, this is a great way to justify and describe actions. "Since my character used to a juvenile delinquent, he has no problem picking that lock with improvised tools, though it takes him a little while since his skills are rusty." Don't overdo this; dumb luck is an acceptable reason for success, no matter how unlikely, especially in certain genres (like those based on children's stories and certain types of Japanese animation). Players are encouraged to add details to scenes that the GM has left out, making their own contributions to the setting and feel of the game. (The amount of leeway players get for this will vary depending on the preferences of the group. Try stretching the limits a bit.)
In combat, the player (or GM, for GMCs, see below) should assume he hits and describe the blow and the resulting wound in whatever level of detail the group is comfortable with, so the GM or relevant player knows whether a character is out of the combat or not. The usual issues of impossibility and improbability apply (see Wrinkles, below), and the GM is the final arbiter of whether or not a character can continue to fight. As with any action, players are encouraged to make their descriptions interesting.
Like PCs, Game Moderator Characters always succeed at what they do – unless the GM wants them to fail. (Certain GMCs, like Imperial Stormtroopers, may always fail under certain conditions, like when the PCs are around.) This often means the order of actions is important. This is especially true in dangerous situations, such as combat. Will the GMCs get the drop on the characters? In situations where the order of actions matter, the GM decides in what order actions are taken, based on what people are doing. She may, if she wants, use chance – rolling dice, a hand of poker, whatever – to determine who goes first in a given situation. Regardless, the GM is the final authority as to what order actions occur; they may even happen simultaneously if that suits her purposes.
Remember that the character does not know he is always going to succeed (but see the rule of "No", below). It may make sense for the character to run in certain situations, and in-character nervousness can certainly make for interesting descriptions.
That's all there is. The focus is on what the characters choose to do, not on whether or not they succeed. Like the protagonists of most heroic forms of fiction, the player characters succeed – once they figure out what to do. While the characters are doing things, the GMCs, particularly the antagonists, may be having successes of their own.
Of course, there is a little more to it than that.
"That's not an action." …It's an epic. The Game Moderator gets to decide whether something is too complicated for the player to simply declare that he has done it. This is especially true in the case of actions that require the GM to give out an unusual amount of information, or make decisions for the players: "I figure out what the best course of action is." She can request the player break the action up into several actions, all of which may take time. The GM is perfectly within her rights to demand explanations ("How do you figure out the Baron's weakness?") and rule the action impossible (see below) if the answers are too vague or don't make sense.
Generally, it is up to the players, not the GM, to decide the best course of action for their characters. Having characters with a strong ethical sense can be helpful in making such decisions.
"That's impossible." The GM is the final arbiter with regard to what's possible within the game world. No matter how lucky or skilled the character is, it may be impossible in that GM's world for a man to fly without some sort of mechanical assistance, and walking through walls might be impossible without some sort of psionic talent, for example. And some things are impossible no matter what. Generally speaking, it is impossible for a character to do anything while unconscious or dead, though like everything else, this is dependent on the game world.
The GM is encouraged to be flexible on this. No matter how improbable, even if the chance is 1/10th of 1%, it's not impossible, so the PCs should occasionally be allowed to run so quickly they can cross a lake without getting wet, if it's the slightest bit possible in the game world. This is especially true if what the PCs are doing fit the genre the GM is trying to simulate. (But see the rule of "No", below.)
"Yes, but…" On a related note, something the player describes may turn out to be impossible, but not because the PC would have failed in his action, but because the GM knows something about the situation that the player characters do not. A player may describe his character shooting a man and the man falling down, bleeding, not realizing that the man is really The Bulletproof Gentleman in disguise. In those cases, the GM describes what really happens. "Yes, you hit the man square on the chest, but the bullets bounce off and he looks at you, eyes widening."
In the same vein, the GM always decides what the PCs see, though players should have leeway when describing successes. In the spirit of the game, she should assume the PCs notice anything important, even if it's well-hidden. Of course, if finding the item in question would require a search, the rule of "No", below, may come into play.
"No." The GM may decide what the player has described is possible, but it strains her suspension of disbelief. It's very rare that even the best hero can perform such an action, or that the player has plead "dumb luck" one too many times, or has been hogging the limelight. In that case, the GM simply says: "No."
Here is where the tokens come in. Unless the player spends a token, the action fails, with the results of the failure described by the GM. If the player spends a token, the action takes place as he described. Where the line of suspension of disbelief is – what is and isn't possible in a particular GM's world – should be discussed with the players before the campaign begins, so the players have some idea when they'll be spending their tokens. On the other hand, the player should save any arguments regarding the GM's judgment call until the end of the session.
This is the reason why it's important the player describe their successes. The GM is encouraged to give more leeway to a player who qualifies his successes ("I hit him, but only in the shoulder"), a player who does a particularly good job of describing why his character succeed in that particular fashion, or a player who has deliberately spent most of the game describing failures for his character until one critical moment. Character description and previous history are very important here – if the PCs have been in a Nazi zeppelin before, studying its engines, it makes more sense that they'd know how to sabotage one, and it makes sense that a CIA assassin would be an expert at shooting people in the head. In the spirit of the game, the GM is encouraged to give her players a lot of leeway anyway, but particularly she should give leeway to players who haven't tried to abuse the success mechanic, working with the GM rather than against her and generally looking out for everyone's fun while staying true to character.
Even if the player spends the token, the action is subject to the "Yes, but…" rule above.
At the end of a game session, the GM should give some tokens to each player – generally at least one for showing up, though that is up to the GM. How many tokens the player gets depends on how cinematic the GM wants the game to be and how well the players did in her opinion. Each player should write down how many tokens he has at the end of the game so next session he knows how many to start out with. This is pretty much the only number the players should keep track of. Certain optional rules make more use of tokens, in which case the GM may want to hand more of them out (see below).
The rules above are the "default" rules for Success. All optional rules that are being used should be explained in detail to the players before the beginning of the game, especially since several of these rules contain a lot of sub-options.
These are mostly suggestions. Use whatever rules suit the style of game you're running. Remember the Golden Rule of RPGs: The GM decides what rules she wants to use, and when to suspend them. In a sense, all rules are optional, but with Success, you're skating pretty close to totally freeform roleplaying as it is.
Audience Participation. The GM might allow anyone who is watching the game, but not actually playing (such as someone's girlfriend) to make use of the rule of "No", like the GM does, if what's going on strains the audience's suspension of disbelief. The GM might also allow the players to call "No" on each other, or, if the GM is particularly daring, on GMCs as well, which works in combination with the "GM Tokens" rule below. To limit this, the GM might require a player spend a token to use the rule of "No" on another player or on a GMC. For another variant, perhaps the audience (or players) can only use the "Chance" rule (see below) on characters. It is suggested when using this rule that the GM remind everyone she may suspend anyone's right to use the rule of "No" at any time.
Chance. The GM may want to have an intermediate zone between "No" and simple success. If the action the player describes is possible but fairly improbable, yet not improbable enough for the rule of "No", the GM says: "Chance". The player may then flip a coin or roll a die. If he gets heads (or an odd number, for a die), the action happens as he described. If he gets tails (or even), the action fails in a way described by the GM. The player may, before flipping the coin or rolling the die, spend a token and eliminate the element of chance – just like in the rule of "No", the action happens as the player describes, no coin flip or die roll required. This rule is especially useful in situations where the character is doing things theoretically within their level of skill (i.e. it's not totally luck) but still very chancy, like a stunt driver leaping a particularly wide canyon with little preparation beforehand.
Charity. A player can spend one of his own tokens to aid another player, i.e. to counter the GM's use of the rule of "No." This gives the players another reason to be polite and to stop hogging the limelight; when the chips are down, one of the other players might spend that token to make sure the player that's been good to everyone else gets a chance to shine, even if he's out of tokens.
Community. In addition to, or perhaps instead of, each individual player's pool of tokens, there is a communal pool of tokens that any player can use. This is especially interesting when combined with Charity, above.
One interesting variant is for the GM to put the tokens in a bag and not tell the players how many tokens there are. (If the GM is really nice, she might give the players a general idea. "More than one but less than ten.") When someone wants to use a communal token, the GM pulls it out of the bag and sets it aside... until someone asks for a communal token and there are none left in the bag, at which point the GM may choose to describe a particularly spectacular failure. This can add a lot of additional uncertainty to the game for players and GMs who miss that sort of thing.
Failure. For a comedic game, try reversing the rules. Anything more difficult than walking or talking (and sometimes even that) should always be described by the players as if their characters failed. The GM can use the rule of "No" to make an action succeed despite the player, and the player can spend a token to ensure their character's failure. This is especially interesting in combination with the "Charity" rule, above, where players can spend tokens to ensure other PCs fail.
This is not to say a comedic game can't be run with the normal rules. It depends on what you're trying to do. (Certainly there is precedent for the bumbling character that always comes out on top despite their incompetence, which would be easy to simulate using the normal rules.) The GM may want to declare "flip-flop" periods -- sometimes the normal rules are used, and sometimes the Failure rule is used, and the GM decides when conditions flip. Or perhaps players can spend a token to flip between rulesets, though only when they're not doing anything.
Firsties. The GM may allow a player to ensure his action goes first by spending a token. If several players want to go first, the GM may have them bid more or less tokens, or she may use a random method like a rock-paper-scissors tournament or dice. Spending a token to go first does not guarantee the GM won't declare the action impossible or use the rule of "No", which would require the player to spend another token.
GM Tokens. To be "fair", the GM may want to give herself a certain number of tokens as well, allowing herself to use the rule of "No" only by spending a token. She might start out with a certain number each session, or keep track of the number of tokens she has between sessions like a player does. For another wrinkle, the GM may decide that when a player spends a token, it is added to her pool.
Instant Gratification. The GM may choose to hand out a token when a player particularly pleases her, such as when the player is being particularly clever, has his character do something heroic, or he has chosen to describe his character failing an action to increase the enjoyment of the rest of the group. This token can be kept or used immediately. If used in combination with the "Community" rule, above, the GM might opt to put such earned tokens into the communal pool rather than giving them directly to the player.
LARP. These rules work pretty well for a live-action roleplaying game with little modification. It is suggested, in a LARP, that some form of "Audience Participation" rule (see above) be used, probably the version where the other PCs can use the rule of "No" on each other by spending a token. (We suggest paper tickets, which can be torn in half when used, for tokens. Just beware of litter.) Otherwise, the players act out what they're doing (within the bounds of common sense and sanity), assuming they'll succeed at any chancy action. Combat (and other difficult-to-simulate actions) can be done with slow-motion pantomime and description, perhaps with the "Firsties" optional rule in place. If actions can be taken between LARP sessions, the players might be allowed to specify a maximum number of tokens to be used to support their "background" actions when the GM wants to say "No."
No Rewards. In this variant, the players get the same number of tokens every session. Use 'em or lose 'em. In this case, the players don't have to keep track of their tokens between sessions at all.
Nothing Is Impossible. [Inspired by Michael "Epoch" Sullivan.] For even more player freedom, perhaps under certain circumstances the players can over-rule a "That's Impossible" call by the Game Moderator. One way to do this might be if all the players agree and spend a token, the GM is over-ruled. Depending on how the GM wants to do things, either she can describe the success or have the players work together on the description. For a "realistic" or educational game, perhaps if a player can dig up a legitimate source (book, magazine, documentary, whatever) that proves what he is describing is possible, the worst the GM can do is invoke the rule of "No". A particularly interesting game might result if tabloids are considered a "legitimate source" for these purposes.
No Tokens. A more freeform game can be played by eliminating the tokens entirely. In this situation, the GM needs to be careful not to negate the players too much, as she can't be over-ruled. The group might want to agree on some sort of convention to allow over-ruling a "No," such as unanimous agreement by all the players.
This game was inspired (in no particular order) by a discussion of numberless roleplaying on the Gaming Outpost, by The Code by Jared A. Sorensen, by Deadlands from Pinnacle Entertainment Group, and by the Theatrix system from Backstage Press. Comments and questions are welcome, please send all correspondence to my email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
All text copyright Kirt A. Dankmyer 2001, 2014.