By Krister Sundelin
Rules in roleplaying games are a curious phenomenon. Unlike any other game, rules are more like guidelines because of the cooperative nature of roleplaying. Sometimes, the game is best when you don’t even use the rules. In one branch, rulings by the GM is more important than rules themselves.
At times I feel that because of the guidelines, rules are haphazardly slapped on to a game setting with no regard to whether they are the right rules. There are also times when I feel that game designers make rules to be different, not to be the right rules.
In the early 2000s, indie game designers came up with the concept of “system matters”. Like every good idea, it sometimes went too far: at times it was innovation for innovation’s sake, not because games needed it, and the games were often one-shots, like a scenario with attached rules. But the general principle is sound.
So when I started writing The Troubleshooters, I knew roughly what rules the game needed:
- The rules should be familiar and intuitive.
- The characters should be experts, but not superhuman.
- The characters don’t die; they get captured instead.
- The characters go on adventures.
- The game can go on for a long time.
Those were the general outlines. Given that, I thought that a Basic Roleplaying derivative was about what I was looking for. Luckily, I had written such a game already, the Swedish fantasy roleplaying game Hjältarnas Tid (“Age of Heroes”). It had matured since it was released, so I felt that it was a good base for me.
Hjältarnas Tid uses percentile dice and is based on skills and abilities, but doesn’t have any attributes. It has hit points, which needed to be tweaked for The Troubleshooters so that the characters don’t die. It has magic and races, which had to be cut of course.
One strange thing that I have noticed is that when there’s about a two-thirds chance of success, you feel that it’s about 50-50. That’s when your character starts to feel competent. Therefore, new characters start with one skill at 75%, four skills at 65%, and six skills at 45%. The mix is about right for players to feel competent but not overly so. There are some customisation rules for adjusting your character, and there are templates which inspire you and give you a starting point in character creation. There are also tools for creating new templates, and even for making characters without using templates at all.
Abilities narrow down your area of expertise, allow you to do some things which untrained people can’t do, and personalise the character and make it unique. Abilities often have a humorous twist on them: the Judo Blackbelt ability allows you to spend a story point and yell the name of a judo technique to throw out a minor enemy from the scene. The Young ability allows you to spend four story points to actually not be Wounded in a fight but instead be given a royal spanking by the villain.
Speaking of fights and Wounded, I had to tweak the original hit point system into a system which doesn’t kill you. Instead, you’re Out Cold when your Vitality reaches zero. Instead of reducing Vitality when hit, you can opt to take the conditions Wounded or Mortal Peril instead. Wounded doesn’t stop you so much now, but in later scenes, it will give you a negative modifier. There is actually no blood or damage until someone takes the Wounded condition – The Troubleshooters is not that kind of game.
If you take the Mortal Peril condition and your Vitality runs out, you’re dead. But unless you take the Mortal Peril condition, it requires a lot of stupidity to make the GM (“Director of Operations” or just “Director”) lose patience and kill your character.
Story points are the core of the game economy. You gain story points from activating Complications. For instance, the complication Drunkard gives you three Story points if your character is so drunk that all your task checks get a modifier for the scene, and six points if you write yourself out of a scene altogether from your stupor. You also get 9 story points for being captured. There’s a 12 point cap on story points. You can use story points for activating abilities, flipping task checks (making a roll of 73 into a roll of 37 instead), or influencing the story in one way or another.
Now, there’s only a matter of making the characters go on an adventure. I wanted it to feel as if they initiated the adventure. To make that, the characters have one or two plot hooks. Preferably, no characters have the same plot hooks. There is a very short list of plot hooks to choose from, only 11. If each adventure then uses four to six plot hooks as potential entry points, then it is almost guaranteed that at least one plot hook could be used to kick off the adventure.
The final part was the campaign rules and the downtime between adventures. I wanted the game to be basically episodic, with one adventure roughly similar to a European comics album, but it should also be ongoing. And between each album, things happens “off camera”. I needed a system for that.
At the end of each adventure, the Director assigns a number of downtime periods, which the characters can spend in different ways. They can mend and recuperate, socialise, travel, train, or invent stuff. Inventions had to exist in the game as well, so after a lot of testing and tweaking, we came up with a system for inventing equipment, which could also be used to jury-rig stuff in play.
For the first year and a half, the rules only existed as bullet points which were playtested over and over again. Only when we felt we had a mix of rules that fit the genre and the world did we write out the text of the rules.
See the full Troubleshooters Kickstarter here for a host of unlocks, stretch goals and more!