March 13, 2016 by M Grant
It’s inevitable that anyone who spends enough time tinkering with RPGs eventually arrives at an entirely new game, whether it’s a mountain of modifications, tables and house rules to an existing system or a pared-down and simplified version. And then sometimes you look down at the mess in front of you and realized that you’ve stretched the base game as far as it will reasonably go, but it’s not quite contorted into the shape you want, yet.
When that happens, it’s time to build something from the ground up.
Blackbird of Valor is the game system I’ve been piecing together to better simulate a certain kind of story and a certain kind of game reality. I have two big goals in my approach to it.
Design Goal #1: Tell stories that have more roots in heroic mythology than in post-Tolkeinian/pop fantasy.
More specifically, I realized I had to develop Blackbird of Valor as its own system when I was working on a Celtic mythological campaign setting for 5E and kept bumping into walls. I homebrewed my way past the first wall, and the second, and the fifth, but suddenly I had such a complicated pile of rules and I wasn’t even adding anything yet. It would be easier to concoct the game I wanted from scratch.
The standard assumptions for D&D, and most RPGs, are still a pseudo-medieval setting with steel longswords and platemail where many different kinds of spellcasters who all use Vancian magic (which I’ve always disliked; maybe I’ll post an opinion piece on that later). And the throughline of play is that you spend a lot of time wading through weird underground pyramids fighting monsters with no motive other than that the monsters are in the way of shiny treasure. Sometimes you change it up by fighting different monsters in a flying pyramid, or walking through the woods a long time to get there. But ultimately, the game is built for dungeon crawling.
And that’s a delightful game that I love running, but there aren’t many myths that reflect that style of play. There are no other monsters in the labyrinth– just the dread minotaur. If Theseus had to wade through escalating rooms of homunculi, giant spiders and spike traps, his story would be a lot longer without adding all that much.
And most of the interesting stuff that fantasy draws on– free roaming monsters, pantheons of gods, great heroes and thinkers– essentially dies down when Earth’s medieval period starts. Even the court of King Arthur, one of the last cycles of true myth in Western history, is pretty comfortably placed at the very beginning of the middle ages and then the rest is one long slog towards the renaissance. At least, that’s always been my take– though I am an amateur historian at best. But all the fun monsters of myth, hydras and rocs and fairies and manticores, lived their fictitious lives in a pre-medieval world.
D&D 3.5, obligingly, had rules for dialing back the technology level on weapons and armor, but the base assumptions of the game made using them an even deeper handicap for martial characters, who already suffered from being incomparably worse than spellcasters. In fact, for all 3.5’s weapon diversity, most options went forever unused because there were always a few options which were strictly better.
So far, 5E doesn’t have any WotC-printed rules for going back to bronze or early iron weaponry. You might argue that more primitive weapons are just an aesthetic, but the truth is that primitive equipment leads to more interesting choices. Medieval weaponry was so well-adapted that for any given situation, the only trade-offs to consider were price and unit tactics, which are irrelevant for most RPG adventurers. Before steel longswords were commonplace, though, the question of whether you were wielding a spear or an early sword (which were shorter because of the inelasticity of the metals) was actually fairly important. Weapons could bend and shatter and early plate armor didn’t make you virtually invincible.
So Blackbird of Valor is going to be tuned towards a setting more similar to late antiquity than to the middle ages. Weapons will be varied and require some thought, and weapon reach and armor will be a very big deal.
Magic was the other big mess I kept bumping into. Others have run Celtic RPGs in the d20 system before, and obviously Gary Gygax and other TSR writers drew a ton of inspiration from the celts when they created the first tabletop RPGs. But the world presented by old myths from the British isles is one where trees are geniuses, the chieftain of the gods gets a prosthetic arm made of solid gold, and practically anybody can figure out how to turn into an animal. That feeling isn’t easily replicated in a class-based system in which “druid” as a single class more or less encompasses all the magical traditions the celts seemed to respect. In fact, D&D magic is scientific, in some ways, rather than mythical or mystical. It follows a formula and is not particularly numinous.
Big Design Goal #2: Challenge some of the staple RPG mechanics that distance us from the game world.
Most RPGs still use hit points to represent injury. While HP is a simple, streamlined tool, it’s also a deeply abstract one, inspiring countless arguments about what HP actually represents and how to use it.
HP also leads to big problems, like critical existence failure, where the totality of a fight feels very static– injuring enemies doesn’t change the dynamic of a combat, because injured characters don’t get any worse at fighting. Only enemies entirely signifies any kind of progress or shift.
HP also walks hand in hand with boring, unclever martial characters. New players almost always want to attack their opponent’s legs to prevent them from getting away, or chop an enemy’s bow in half, only to learn that there either aren’t easy rules for doing that or that they need a specific ability to accomplish something anyone with a sword in hand should have a shot at.
Experienced players in a D&D-like game might be able to wring game effects out of a permissive DM for describing their attacks in depth, but the game doesn’t really support it. Instead, martial characters are boring, swinging away at a block of undifferentiated hit points until the enemies fall down. They can’t engineer an enemy’s demise because the tools aren’t baked into the game.
Which is frustrating, because of how called shots, dismemberment and clever improvisation feature in every fight with a big monster in mythology or modern cinema. From a narrative perspective, these fights are just more interesting than hacking away at a blob of hit points. Players naturally want to chop off the beholder’s eye stalks and knock the magic crown from the lich-king’s head, but they’re trained not to try it by hit points.
Not to mention that players don’t feel endangered in combat until a chunk of their hit points are gone. Even in heroic fantasy, getting injured is bad. The troll in that Harry Potter clip didn’t land a single hit, but it was clear the whole time that if it had, those kids would be dead. When the LotR cave troll scores a glancing blow on a character, they’re out of the fight.
So in Blackbird of Valor, called shots are the norm and hit points are gone entirely. With firearms and even archery, the best strategy is probably to fire at the center of your target’s mass. But in a sword fight, just swinging at your opponent’s torso over and over will get you killed fairly fast. You need to be looking for opportunities, drawing them out, and searching for the gap in their defenses. When you find it, you win, usually very abruptly.
Turn order is another big consideration in terms of dissociated mechanics. As a DM and player, I am used to classical turn-based combat and usually don’t even notice that it demands that actions occur in a blocky, back-and-forth format. In fact, with a good narrator, turn-based combat can sometimes feel like a movie in terms of presentation, with each “turn” being a shot showing something else happening in rough simultaneity.
But at its worst, turn order can feel arbitrary and disjointed. And more importantly, it takes players out of the game. The knowledge that it is not your turn can lead even dedicated a player’s attention to wander. Real fights don’t exactly follow a back-and-forth, so much as a series of chaotic actions where everyone is always looking for their opportunity.
Blackbird of Valor will still use a rough kind of turn order to direct the flow of things, but your particular turn won’t be your only chance to act. In fact, combat in BboV will hopefully be driven by split-second reactions, sudden upsets and stolen momentum. (In a very, very early rules test, a priestess successfully jumped over a little fey creature’s hamstring attempt and clobbered it to death with her scepter on landing– all during the fey creature’s turn.)
How far along is the system?
As of this writing, there’s a lot of basic development work left to do.
The skeletons of action resolution, combat, equipment and character generation are all in place. They should probably face much more testing and tweaking, but probably resemble pretty closely what they will eventually be.
What still needs the bulk of creation is the magic system, the more finicky elements of player abilities, and a proper bestiary. Then it all need to be more thoroughly playtested and formatted.
And when I publish it, I want to publish it alongside two companion items: A combination setting and campaign guide for the default world, and a book of short adventures. All in all, this may take until 2017 to do, even if I don’t get distracted. But some solid foundations are down, so I wanted to write a little bit about it. (Particularly because I’ve been following the Dev Blog for Snow Witch, Shield Maiden and it’s been fun!) I’ll talk more about some of the unique aspects of Blackbird of Valor in more depth in a different post.