Abilities describe your character

slaughter_ball: 04 ‘blue’ by jouste (CC-NC-3.0)

In “traditional” roleplaying games characters are usually described with statistics (intelligence, size, dexterity) and skills (dodge, 1h gun, jump). QuestWorlds, again, looks at describing the character from the story’s point of view. While resolving story obstacles different statistics or skills might be usable in QuestWorlds characters have abilities. Most simply put: ability is something that can be used to resolve a story challenge.

In a movie or book or tv-series when a character is facing an obstacle we usually see the hero using some of their previously demonstrated ability. The fact that the hero is witty is something we have seen already and we can give an acceptable nod when the hero uses their wittiness to get out of the hard place.

Nevertheless, there are some “stats” we might want to give to our characters in QuestWorlds games. Name, age, and gender are the usual ones. Although one could argue that even the age (or gender!) can be used to resolve an obstacle maybe the real ability is, still, something else than just old age. Stats cannot be used for resolving a story obstacle in QuestWorlds.

Following is a list of different abilities that popped into my mind. Coming up with abilities is quite easy.

Examples of abilities
Witty, sharpshooter, my dad taught me everything, ringside announcer, epic broadsword, God of Storm, street rat, “like a rolling stone…”, lived in New York City, access to the red button

Keywords

One of the confusing rules in QuestWorlds is keywords (SRD 3.3). A keyword is a broader ability that encompasses a bunch of other abilities. The usual example of a keyword is the occupation keyword. Butcher keyword can be thought to include a bunch of other abilities like “good with an ax” and “dealmaking”. A keyword is used as an ability but usually, the game tells the players what keywords they should fill. Usual suspects, on top of the occupation, are species, culture, position in an organization, religion. Keywords classify the character. You can also spot a keyword if you can prepend the word with a classification that other characters could decide for their characters, also.

Examples of keywords
Occupation: Mafia gangster
Religion: Jewish
Species: Duck
Culture: From Ponyville
Military rank: Sergeant

A breakout ability is something that arises from the keyword. Every Mafia gangster has a gun. But if someone writes a breakout ability of “Machine gun” under their mafia gangster it enforces the story that this particular gangster specializes in machine guns and others don’t. There can be multiple breakout abilities under a keyword.

There is a difference if the ability is under a keyword or if it is a single ability. Under the keyword, the ability is always tied to that keyword and inspected through it. A single ability might allow wider usage as the keyword does not restrict it.

Examples of breakout abilities (in parenthesis)
Occupation: Mafia gangster (Card dealer)
Religion: Jewish (Excellent dreidel handling)
Species: Duck (Mega quack!)
Culture: From Ponyville (Neighbor to Twilight Sparkle)
Military Rank: Sergeant (Loud voice)

Valid abilities

While listing and coming up with the character abilities we might find ourselves wondering if this one cool ability is allowed or not. The base rule always holds (can you use it to resolve an obstacle?) but we should also take the given setting into account. Again, you can think of the acceptable nod when you present your character to be a “bad-ass sharpshooter” in western games. In a Middle Earth game suggesting that your character possesses a mobile phone would cause a raised eyebrow instead of the nod.

In QuestWorlds you can come up with any ability. This might tempt players to come up with superior abilities. Examples would be something like “never lose a battle” or “the best swordsman in the world”. Even though these abilities surely describe the character and tell something about them failing on using them would result in an awkward situation. So, abilities should be something with which you can resolve an obstacle. Not something you always succeed with.

Magician and Gunslinger by Brolken (CC-NC-ND-3.0)

Finding abilities

In QuestWorlds ability is anything that can be used to resolve an obstacle. This gives the player an unlimited amount of possibilities to choose from. There will be no skill lists to leaf through and picking something interesting. The same goes for the descriptions of the skills.

The endless pool of possible abilities is a godsend to some players but others might find it intimidating. The QuestWorlds SRD (3.1 As-You-Go character creation method) will give some starter for the players: character creation begins by describing the character concept. The concept has two parts. First is the occupation or expertise. It is a noun that tells what slot your character fills in the setting. Second, this noun is modified with an adjective describing a personality trait or some other distinguishing characteristics. This phrase already tells quite a lot about the character and can act as a seed for other abilities.

Examples of character concepts
Angry get-away driver
Noble gunslinger
Chill magician
Hard-working bartender

Following is a series of questions and ideas where to start finding abilities for your character. Basically, the questions answer who your character is in the setting.

Possession and wealth

What (non-ordinary) item does your character possess? The character occupation keyword implies certain equipment but you can elevate some of them to give them a special meaning. Every fighter has a sword but what kind of sword does your fighter own?

Don’t waste your ability slots to obvious peripheral, though. If your character is (so, has the ability or keyword of) a samurai you can be quite assured that they have a samurai sword handy when needed. If, on the other hand, in the modern world the character has a samurai sword it tells a different story.

QuestWorlds does not track money but wealth is a valid ability. There is no need to track the money left as failing in the contest involving money might mean that the character is just short of cash or can’t access the wealth.

Examples of abilities
The mighty sword, the beach house, Lamborghini, wealthiest man in south Manhattan, poor, part-owner of an apple farm, machine gun

Occupation and other background

Occupation is usually a keyword and the game might request you to come up with it anyways. But there might be a game where occupation is not the important bit of the characters. In a post-apocalypse game, everyone is unemployed. There is no reason to collect everyone’s occupations thus they are not keywords. But maybe one of the characters had an occupation and that gives them the edge.

Occupation is a specialty of background. Usually telling the back story of your character can introduce decent abilities. What your character was or did in the past?

Other abilities can be found by going through the past of the character. What where their hobby? Did they live somewhere at some time? What major event happened to them?

Examples of abilities
Lived on a farm, chairman of the chess club in high school, breed dogs as a hobby, I lost my arm in a war

Relationships

One way to find abilities is by thinking about who does your character knows. Relationships and relatives are a great way to resolve obstacles. There are relationships that might be implied from keywords. For example, the occupational keyword might imply a relationship to a boss. Making the boss relationship a breakout ability enhances that aspect of the character’s occupation.

Sidekicks and companions are special kinds of relationships. They are so special that QuestWorlds has some special rules for them. I will go in detail of companion rules on later posts.

Examples of abilities
Neighbor to Twilight Sparkle, Advisor for the president, My mother never let me go

Catchphrases

One of the most bizarre ways to come up with abilities is coming up with a catchphrase. This style of abilities might suit best for example in supers games but I have seen it work in fantasy games too. The catchphrase abilities underline the fact that the abilities might be quite ambiguous at the beginning of the story but become more precise as they are used and the players tell what their abilities can do.

Examples of abilities
“Kung-fury!”, “Like a rolling stone!”, “life is life”, “Sha-zaam!”

More examples

Shawn Carpenter made two examples of creating QuestWorlds characters. There you can find more examples of abilities and how to create characters. The characters are Redalrik and Boudica “Boo” McConnel.

Contests resolve story obstacles

Simply put: the player characters will overcome story obstacles by resolving contests. This is the simplicity of QuestWorlds. During the game (almost) everything else is narration and roleplaying. When the characters face a situation that has some more meat to it the GM should bring up the possibility of a contest. Contest should not be had if a failure is not an interesting option. There are ways to twist this (more about these in later posts) but this is the basic rule for contests.

Story obstacles

Story arc by Juho Rutila (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Story obstacles form the story arc. There is narration and exposition (world, story and characters) between them but the story takes its form through story obstacles. In the above picture are shown a sample story arc. We would want to include also the crisis parts. That’s where the story grows tension and excitement.

During the story obstacle the story might go up (victory, protagonists prevail) or down (defeat, antagonists push heroes back). QuestWorlds story obstacles always have this feature baked in as a story obstacle is resolved with a contest that results either in victory or defeat.

Couple of story obstacle examples
Classic fighting scene in fantasy setting. The characters face the big (or smaller) bad. Just narrating the victory does not provide satisfaction and losing the fight would have different consequence from winning.
Car chase in the crowded streets of Tokyo. Letting the informant run away would mean the characters have to get the location of the bomb from the scary underworld bars. If they catch the escaping driver they can press the information out of her.
Climactic scene at the airport in the end of a romantic movie. She is already at the gate boarding, he just arrives with a cab. Does he make it in time to tell the last words or even get a change to get her to stay.

Contests resolve story obstacles

Fiction writer has the freedom to choose how the story flows after the obstacles. As we are not writing a book, but playing a roleplaying game, we want to be surprised by the outcome of the story obstacles. With a contest we get answer to the question if the story obstacle takes us up or down in the story arc. And, this is crucial, the one contest resolves all of the tasks that it requires to overcome the story obstacle. We don’t have to check for every task but just find out the overall outcome of the contest.

Contests are the integral part of QuestWorlds rules. The basic procedure for contest is following:

  1. The contest is framed based on the story obstacle
  2. Player chooses which ability to use to overcome the story obstacle. The used ability rating (ignore masteries, for now) gives the target number for the die roll
  3. The GM decides what is the contest resistance
  4. Player and the GM both roll D20
  5. The outcome (victory or defeat) of the contest tells where the story goes from this story obstacle. The story obstacle is narrated.

Sounds simple, right? Let’s go through these in more detail.

Dice roll

The mechanic part of the contest is quite simple so let’s tackle it first. In the most simplest form we are interested whether the story goes up or down. In other words, do the characters gain victory or defeat in the contest. The characters gain victory if they get better result from their die roll than the GM. Now, the word result is just the result of the die roll. Comparing player’s and GM’s results we can conclude the outcome (victory or defeat) of the contest.

There are four results (in order from best to worst) for a die roll:

  • You roll 1, you get a critical result
  • You roll over 1 and under or same as your target number (ability rating), you get a success result
  • You roll over your target number but under 20, you get a failure result
  • You roll 20, you get a fumble result

Now, if the player has a better result the contest ends in a victory. Having a worse result causes a defeat. In a case of a tie the higher roll is considered better. If the rolls are the same it is an actual tie.

Couple of roll examples
Ability rating of 15 against a resistance of 14. The player rolls 7 and the GM 15. The player gets a result of success and the GM’s result is failure. Success is better so the contest is a victory.
Same ability rating and resistance. The player rolls 8 and the GM rolls 13. The player gets a result of success as does the GM, too. Because the GM has higher roll the contest outcome is defeat.

The mechanical part of the contest is quite straightforward and so the meat of the contests lies in other parts of the contest procedure.

Framing

All contests start with framing them. Doing this right (don’t skip it!) results in meaningful contests that resolve the story obstacles properly. In QuestWorlds rules the contest is framed with three aspects.

First, the story obstacle being resolved. The contest should always be about some story obstacle. If we are just rolling for a contest without any meaningful story obstacle to overcome we are quite thin on interpreting the results against the story arc. This also means that there are no “everybody, make a knowledge check” situations, causing one of the player characters to suddenly remember some piece of information, in QuestWorlds.

Second, the prize. This usually derives directly from the story obstacle but might also be refined more to suit the players’ goals or other exposition. The prize is the desired outcome. Gaining the victory means the characters achieve their prize. In the same way suffering the defeat outcome means they don’t get the prize. The possible defeat is the downbeat for the story arc that makes the story. They suffer a setback and have to come up with another plan or take the harder route.

Third one is the tactic the characters are using to overcome the obstacle. This relates strongly with characters abilities. Tactics can be, usually, found by looking at the character sheet. Character’s ability tells how they can try to achieve the prize. Of course, chosen tactic should be credible in the selected setting.

Framing example
Car chase in the crowded streets of Tokyo. They would need crucial information about the syndicate from this informant. As they, by change, saw him get into his car in front of this night club they decide to tailgate him. Unfortunately he spotted them and the car chase ensues. The story obstacle is that the informant is running from the characters and trying to hide. If they don’t catch him they are one step behind of the syndicate, again. The prize they are seeking is clearly to get the informant into their custody for future interrogation. If they fail he continues his hiding away from them and they have to lure him out or come up with something else. The tactic the players decide to use is

Finding the prize

Troll’s Lair by batjorge (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Coming up with the prize is usually the hardest part of framing the contest. One trick to find the actual prize is use the Five Whys Method. Okay, you don’t have to as five whys but try a couple. For example if we are discussing that a player wants to hit the troll with his sword. Fine. Why does he want to hit him? Because the character wants to kill the troll. But why? To get out of the troll’s lair, of course. Aha! That matches our story obstacle where the character is stuck in the troll’s lair. One more why would’ve taken it into the broader goal of the whole story. So, getting out of the lair is better prize than killing the troll. You can use more abilities (tactics) with that prize compared to just killing the troll.

Contest outcome

In the simplest way contest ends in either victory or defeat. The crucial point here is that the outcome is always from the character’s point of view. The opposition, that might be something abstract or, for example, a mountain, does not win or lose. The characters either win, and get their prize, or lose and don’t get their prize. If the character loses the contest of getting out of the troll’s lair doesn’t mean the troll won. It means the character didn’t get out. It might even have nothing to do with the troll, in the end.

Now that we have the story obstacle, the prize and the tactic it should be quite easy to narrate the outcome. It can be as short or long as the players and the GM want to. The end result of the narration should reflect the outcome of the contest, naturally.

No retakes!

As the story obstacle is something that should have interesting outcome either way, success or failure, there is no reason to retake the contest. If the retake is allowed then the scene is just exposition and roleplaying and should succeed automatically. The “No retakes” rule also helps finding the prize. Try to come up with framing that makes it natural to say that there is no way to retake the contest.

What’s new in QuestWorlds

QuestWorlds SRD is not a new system. Before the name QuestWorlds was coined it was known as HeroQuest. And, still, all Glorantha based games will use the name HeroQuest. There was a HeroQuest Core rules publication in 2009 that was a setting neutral rule book. It was more of a roleplaying book with comprehensive examples and artwork compared to QuestWorlds SRD document.

Chaosium has its own web page for QuestWorlds providing the latest version of the SRD with online SRD and other resources. Time will show how updated this space will stay as it provides also an FAQ. From those resources you can also find version changes. The previous HeroQuest book (HeroQuest Glorantha) is considered to be version 2.1. This SRD is now version 2.2 and here are some quick highlights of the differences. You can read the detailed list from here.

One of the usual misunderstandings in v2.1 was about what the outcome meant. The defeat levels are not supposed to be applied to the NPCs resisting the characters. It is all about if the characters get the prize or not. In this version they have cleared up that the contests are always played from the PCs’ perspective.

They bring in the Yes, And (and No, But etc) idea to clarify that PCs will get the prize also in Marginal Victories. I think this helps the GMs and the players when they come up with the contest outcomes. On the other hand there is now Simple Contests with no victory degrees (Marginal, Minor etc) and advanced simple contests with just victory or defeat outcome. This might also help starting GMs and players to get the grip of the system. Then they can expand on thinking about the degrees through Yes anding.

They brought back the original Extended Contest from v1.0! Compared to the (now named) Scored Contest players bid Action Points and the contests have more skill factor. The Extended Contest mechanics were not just copied from v1.0 but they have also been refined. For example the edges and handicaps were removed. One cool thing for Long Contests (includes Scored Contest and Extended Contest) is the idea of escalating a single simple contest to be the first round of a long contest.

The states of fortune are the opposite of the states of adversity. So, now you can use names for the bonuses got from contests. These states are referenced in other parts of the document also making it clearer for example what are the consequences after Scored Contest.

Hero Point economy has changed also. Every player starts with one (!) HP and can gather up to 5 HP during the session. Unspent points become XP (oh my, getting hard OSR vibes here) with what you can advance the character. On the other hand the whole character advancement part is also optional. New thing is that with HP players can introduce plot edits in the style of Mythic Russia.

QuestWorlds SRD Published

On 21st of April 2020 Chaosium finally published the QuestWorlds SRD. The document was published on their blog and in BRP forums. The intrepid work behind getting this document published was done (and continued) by Ian Cooper, Chaosium’s QuestWorlds line editor.

The document is free for anyone to download and start building their own games on top of it. The document itself contains just the rules so it is not a ready to play roleplaying game.

In the blog post Chaosium promises to release couple of genre packs later. One would be their example genre pack focusing on Worlds of Wonder and the other would be Cosmic Zap, superheroes genre by Ron Edwards.

In the wake of QuestWorlds SRD document this blog site was also published. This blog will follow the new QuestWorlds line giving insight to the system and reporting news about it.