Mechanical Philosophy

Kannagara is a tabletop roleplaying game, and therefore it has mechanics. Since I’ve already talked about the guiding ideas behind the game itself, I’d like to talk briefly about my approach to the mechanics.

Anyone who is familiar with my work on Ars Magica will know that I lean towards mechanical systems that are quite detailed and simulationist. That is something that will be reflected in Kannagara’s mechanics, partly as a matter of personal preference, but also for more fundamental reasons. Here, I’ll focus on the more fundamental reasons.

First, I believe that the mechanics of a game should be part of the expression of the game. If two games are supposed to have very different moods and deal with different subjects, then they really should have different mechanics. I am not, as you might guess, a big believer in generic systems. In my experience, they tend to do one genre well, and others poorly, at least until different mechanics are written to extend them to a new area. The other side of this is that, if something is important to the game, it should have mechanics. Broadly speaking, something should only be left to the creativity of the players if it is colour that does not really matter to the way the game works. (This is only true broadly speaking, and I am pretty sure that there will be exceptions in Kannagara.)

Second, I believe that restricting the choices available to players is a very important part of making a good game. This is particularly true when you are introducing a setting that is not familiar to them. The rules should present a limited set of sensible choices (three to six is the number often cited) at each point, so that players have some control over the course of the story, but aren’t drowning in options. This means that there should be a defined list of skills and such, not “write down some phrases that define your character”.

Put these two together, and you are looking at a very crunchy system. That means that you want a consistent, and simple, basic mechanic, which can be applied in lots of different situations to capture the different aspects of the game. “Roll one twenty-sided die and add something, trying to beat a target number” is a good example of a basic mechanic. That one is actually a bit too simple for what I want to do, but I do want to use the same basic mechanic at all points. (The basic mechanic will get its own post, a little later.)

I said above that restricting choice is important. This is true, but players who are familiar with the system should be able to create exactly the character they want, and do whatever they want, within the constraints of the game. (In Kannagara, the rules will not support creating a skilled fighter, because that is not what the game is about.) Pathfinder does this by starting with eight or so basic classes, but then having archetypes and prestige classes, and choices of feats and skills, which allow you to create almost anything you want. I don’t think that the way Pathfinder does it is ideal, because the player really needs to know exactly what she wants to do right at the beginning, but it’s good; the flexibility of the system is impressive. The problem with really needing to make the choice at the beginning is that the player does face dozens of options at that point.

However, allowing players to create whatever character they want is not necessarily inconsistent with restricting choice, because the restriction only applies to each choice point. If you have five options at each choice point, then twenty choice points give you 95 billion final options. It does take some effort to make sure that the available paths cover all the desirable outcomes, but that’s one of the things that game design (and playtesting) is about.

My aim, then, is to have mechanics based on a consistent core mechanic, which provide systems for all the important activities in the system (growth, relationships, creation, and discovery). At any point, both in character creation and in play, a player should face a limited number of options, but a player should be able to reach any end point that makes sense in the game by making a series of choices that seem sensible at the time.

What Is Kannagara?

Kannagara is a table-top, pen & paper roleplaying game in which players portray people associated with a Shinto sacred space, who create and perform its rituals. They build relationships with the mundane and supernatural inhabitants of the area so that the sacred space, people, and spirits flourish, mysteries are solved, and wonders are both uncovered and created.

Four elements are central to the game.

The first is personal growth. Characters get better over time, overcome their problems, and become something better than they were. This applies both to the characters controlled by the people playing the game, the personae, and to all other characters. Personae do this with each other’s help, while characters do it with the help of personae. Personae are, of course, the active driving force in the game world. Characters follow their own agendas, and do not just wait for personae to act, but major changes require the involvement of personae.

The second is building relationships. Personae try to build good relationships with characters, and with each other.

The third is discovery. Personae uncover lost truths and solve mysteries. Sometimes these are wholly mundane, such as finding out why someone seems so hostile to them, but often they are supernatural. The personae know nothing about the supernatural when the game starts out, but that situation does not last long.

The final activity is creation. A central form of creation is the creation of rituals for the sacred space, the jinja. These rituals help to build relationships with characters, and can help them to grow. In the case of kami, the supernatural spirits associated with the jinja or the surrounding area, this is quite direct, but for human characters it is generally an indirect effect.

These elements are all interdependent. Personae grow by building relationships, creating things, and discovering truths, and after growing they are better at building relationships, creating things, and discovering truths. Of course, they can also build relationships by growing and encouraging growth, creating things, and discovering truths, and so on.

Finally, the party is held together because they are all closely associated with the same sacred space, the same jinja. The success of the jinja is one way to measure the overall success of the players in the game.

There are also two important absences from the game.

First, the game is not about combat, at all. There will be no fighting, and no rules for fighting. There will, of course, be conflicts, because you need conflicts for drama, but those conflicts will not be solved by violence.

Second, Kannagara is a game of wonder, not horror. It is set in a world like the modern day, with a largely hidden and secret supernatural element, but that supernatural element is not horrifying, it is wondrous. If the game turned out to be an accurate depiction of our world, that would be a good thing. (Also, extremely surprising.)

Welcome to Kannagara

Welcome to Kannagara.

Kannagara will be a modern fantasy roleplaying game set in contemporary Japan, drawing heavily on Shinto folklore, legends, and practices. I say “will be” because it is not yet written; I will talk about the design on this blog, and hope that the readers of the blog will make comments about the design while it is in progress, so that there is some dialogue. At some point in the future, there’s likely to be Kickstarter or something similar. Consider yourselves forewarned: this is a commercial project, and eventually I will ask for money.

So, what is Kannagara?

The players portray people associated with a Shinto sacred space, who create and perform its rituals. They build relationships with the mundane and supernatural inhabitants of the area so that the sacred space, people, and spirits flourish, mysteries are solved, and wonders are both uncovered and created.

That’s the current version of the elevator pitch, but I hope to refine it as we go along. If you would like to read a really long introduction to the general setting, Kannagara is almost Tamao: The Roleplaying Game. However, Tamao was rather darker than I intend Kannagara to be, and had less of an emphasis on creation. In this post, I want to pick up and amplify a few of the important elements of my vision for Kannagara.

First, the game is not about combat, at all. There will be no fighting, and no rules for fighting. There will, of course, be conflicts, because you need conflicts for drama, but those conflicts will not be solved by violence, or, indeed, any other illegal action. (Well, I can imagine that trespassing might be involved in some plots.) There are plenty of roleplaying games that do combat very well, but it isn’t something I am particularly interested in.

Second, Kannagara is a game of wonder, not horror. It is set in a world like the modern day, with a largely hidden and secret supernatural element, but that supernatural element is not horrifying, it is wondrous. I do anticipate that maintaining that will be as hard as maintaining a sense of horror, and I don’t expect to succeed all the time, but it is the goal. In particular, I want to avoid horrific elements. If the game turned out to be an accurate depiction of our world, that would be a good thing. (Also, extremely surprising.)

So, that tells you something that the player characters don’t do, and a bit about the mood. What do they do? The game revolves around four central activities.

The first is personal growth. Characters get better over time, overcome their problems, and become something better than they were. This applies to player characters (whom I will call “personae”, following the lead of James Wallis in Alas Vegas), and non-player characters (whom I will just call “characters”). Personae do this with each other’s help, while characters do it with the help of personae. Personae are, of course, the active driving force in the game world. Characters follow their own agendas, and do not just wait for personae to act, but major changes require the involvement of personae.

The second is building relationships. Personae try to build good relationships with characters, and with each other.

The third is discovery. Personae uncover lost truths and solve mysteries. Sometimes these are wholly mundane, such as finding out why someone seems so hostile to them, but often they are supernatural. The personae know nothing about the supernatural when the game starts out, but that situation does not last long.

The final activity is creation. A central form of creation is the creation of rituals for the sacred space, the jinja. These rituals help to build relationships with characters, and can help them to grow. In the case of kami, the supernatural spirits associated with the jinja or the surrounding area, this is quite direct, but for human characters it is generally an indirect effect.

These elements are all interdependent. Personae grow by building relationships, creating things, and discovering truths, and after growing they are better at building relationships, creating things, and discovering truths. Of course, they can also build relationships by growing and encouraging growth, creating things, and discovering truths, and so on.

Finally, the party is held together because they are all closely associated with the same sacred space, the same jinja. The success of the jinja is one way to measure the overall success of the players in the game.

I am writing this game because it is a game that I really want to play. As mentioned above, I’d also like it to be a commercial project, so I rather hope that other people will also want to play it. The only way to discover that, however, is to make the game, and see.

I hope you will stay around to watch.

Mimusubi

I have a new project, and it has its own website: Mimusubi. It’s a role-playing game about creating things. Those of you with good memories may remember some work on this topic here a couple of years ago. I’ll be discussing the design on the Mimusubi website, and plan to release it commercially in some form. If you’re interested, please go and take a look.

Yes, adding Mimusubi to the Japanese blog probably does mean that this blog will be neglected even more than it has been recently. Insofar as that is possible.