Saturday, November 13, 2010

Septimus Test Drive

A few weeks ago before I left on the current business trip I actually ran a quick dry-run of Septimus, the code name for my homebrew system. It is nowhere near even a true "Alpha" run; it is definitely pre-Alpha. However, for me it was a major milestone to put many of these abstract thoughts on paper and roll dice with them.

Here's a quick run down on the key themes and core terminology that is emerging:

What is it: Septimus is a role playing game that focuses on exploration of archetypal themes in the context of a "generic fantasy" milleu. If using the "what if" terminology, you could say, "What if D&D was heavily influenced by gnostic thought?"

How are characters defined: Characters are defined by a series of archetypal roles and symbols. There are 10 attributes in three categories. Here is a brief overview of the character creation process.
  1. Select prime Element (Air/Water/Earth/Fire): Put one point into one of these four elements. The elements are stand-ins for player psychology and each element should appeal to a different type of player. It is very viable for one player to always pick the same element, and there is no need to "balance" a party by including all of the elements.
  2. Select prime Quality (Cardinal/Fixed/Mutable): Put one point into one of these four elements. DW suggests that I need to change the names of these, and I likely will, but for now I'm keeping the classic astrological names to keep them easy to remember. I am thinking of renaming them to figures from playing cards (Knight/King/Queen) but am leery of introducing gender-specific terms. These are the classic "roles" of an RPG party. You could relate them to offense, defense, and special teams. A balanced party should have one of each role. Luckily there are only three of them!
  3. Derive Astrological Sign. In astrology, element + quality = sign. For example, Leo is the sign of high-summer, a Fixed Fire sign. Signs are old and potent archetypes. If players want to select a sign first and then go back to derive the element/quality pairs, they can certainly do that.
  4. Derive Ruling and Detrimental Planets. Each sign is ruled by a planet, which exerts unusually strong influence. There is also a planet which is uncomfortable within each sign. Planets govern things such as skills (the arts) and other certain actions. They also govern Matter, Mind, and Spirit and the relations between them, which are important attributes.
  5. Select your Guide. All of the previous steps could be described as "nature." Your character may have been born under a certain set of stars, raised in a certain type of home, or otherwise shaped by powerful influences largely beyond their control. The Guide is the "nurture" part, often actively selected by the character. It may be a specialty, an object of worship, or an ideal.

    The Guide is another planet from the list of seven in a default setting. The planets are each associated with Classical deities so it may also be linked to those gods. For example, a player may select either Jupiter or Zeus as their Guide; either way they are equivalent, mechanically. In the future I may break this out more closely, and say that the particular aspect you identify with has additional mechanical effects (for example, "clerics" may focus on Zeus, "mages" on the planet Jupiter, and so on). You could easily have players start without a Guide and discover one through the course of play, for example, a spirit quest, meeting a hermit, or any other similar adventure.

    It is not necessary for a party to cover all of the planets although it would probably be helpful to cover a wide variety of them just to get access to a wider variety of skills and other perks. Most teams of three will tend to cover a majority of the planets without trying too hard even without coordinating their selections.
  6. Fill in Derived Matter/Mind/Spirit information: Each planet governs one of these elements. For example, Saturn is the dominance of Matter over Mind, thus you'd put a point into Matter if Saturn is either your Guide or Ruling planet. Thus you'll put two points on these attributes.
  7. Roll Dice to Generate Attribute Scores: You will now generate Attribute scores for Matter, Mind, and Spirit; Cardinal, Fixed, and Mutable; and Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Roll 3d6 and total them to generate a score for each. For each point you've put into a category, add an extra die but total only the highest three. For example, if Earth is your Prime element, you'd roll 4d6 and take the highest three when generating your Earth score. Convert all ability scores to a modifier from -3 to +3 using the standard table. Optional: After rolling, reduce any score by -3 to add +2 to a "prime" score in the same category.
  8. Make all derived picks: Most of the Attributes have things associated with them that you can select in order to customize your character. Usually they are things like "pick 1+/-MOD" or "pick 4+/-MOD." Usually 1+/-MOD are more consequential and involved choices, so if you don't want to deal with them simply trade that attribute score down using the rules above. Some derived picks will be made for you; for example, each planet has skills associated with it, so your Ruling Planet and Guide will select two skills in each category for you.
  9. Finishing Touches: Select equipment, round out details, and tie up any odds and ends.
  • Difficulty: There are three packages for difficulty, Basic, Advanced, and Expert. Each generally is equivalent in power. Expert will give more choices and be more difficult to play effectively than Basic. This is a choice based on player skill level. New players should start with Basic and move up later if desired.
  • Primes & Flaws: You may designate any ability within a category as "Flawed." If you do so, you get one more point to spend in that category. For example, you could designate Water as "Flawed" and get two points to spend in Elements rather than one. Both could go into one element (for example, you could double tap Fire) or you can spread them out (Fire & Earth). Instead of rolling 3d6 to generate the Flawed score, roll 4d6 and total the three lowest dice. If an attribute is double tapped, then roll 5d6 and total the three highest. When trading down scores, you may subtract 3 from the Flaw and add +1 to each Prime if preferred.
It sounds complicated but really goes quite rapidly. There are relatively few choices that neatly funnel you into the next choice. You never have to choose from a list longer than around seven options and the derived attributes flow rapidly from a few initial choices.


In test I was pleased how archetypes flowed from initial choices. DW selected "water" as the element most aligned with her personality and play style, and then selected "cardinal" as she wanted an aggressive character that started things. We referenced a quick table and determined that the Cardinal Water sign is Cancer which is ruled by the Moon with Saturn in detriment. She then selected Mars as her Guide as she likes to smack stuff around.

This led to some derived skill specializations which we rapidly filled in on the character sheet (all the arts are arranged in rows by their ruling planet, so you just check off an entire row at a time). Her character was good at music, armament, and fighting due to Mars and Grammar, Hunting, and Shooting due to the Moon. She was deficient at Astronomy, Agriculture, and Riding which are the provenance of Saturn which as we recall is in Detriment in Cancer. She got +1 Matter and +1 Mind from her planets, making her a character well grounded in the physical and mental realms but perhaps less cognizant of spiritual or divine concerns.

So what did we have? Before making any fiddling choices, just focusing on the emergent core archetypes from the first few key selections, we had an introverted, energetic militant huntress. Reading articles on Cancer, Diana (of the Moon), and Mars would give lots of role playing ideas. These archetypes were supported by the mechanics of the game rather than just being a roleplaying label on paper only.

I think this also has a ton of potential for generating NPCs. You can either rapidly step through the process to rapidly generate archetypes, or if you have an archetype in mind already, start with the sign then work backwards. There is a rich tapestry of material associated with all of these elements so it is easy to find archetypal associations to explore.

What is the core mechanic: The core mechanic is a simple dice pool system based on D6s. Some sub systems utilize other mechanics but in general everything uses D6s.

  • Building Dice Pools: A general dice pool is constructed by adding +1 die for each relevant "prime" or specialty. For example, if our character above had to roll Earth + Cardinal, she'd get +1 die because Cardinal is prime but she does not have Earth prime. If an attribute is Flawed or a skill is a Detriment then subtract one from the Dice Pool. Dice Pools for core adventuring abilities like melee attacks are carefully controlled to keep them from getting out of control. The mechanic has diminishing returns built in to reduce the impact of "stacking" too many dice.
  • Reading Dice Pools: The highest die showing is normally the result of the dice pool. Each additional six adds one to the result (so boxcars = 7). Sometimes, the number of dice showing the number is relevant; for example, getting a pair of 5s would = 2.

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