Genre emulation in QuestWorlds

© 2020 Chaosium Inc.

In one of their Chit chat episodes, Panda’s Talking Games was discussing genre emulation and the relevancy of PbtA in current game design. I don’t want to go into the PbtA fox hole here but it would be interesting to analyze a little bit how well does QuestWorlds handle said genre emulation.

And, as I am following their topic, maybe it would be good to first define what the term genre emulation means. In short, it means the game’s ability to play like the genre it is played in. The genre can be broad (fantasy, cyberpunk) or narrower (80’s action movies, Mexican drug cartels). I would add that it is the feel the players get that their game is helping them to bring the desired genre to life. And the word game here means the actual game that is based on a game system. For example, the HeroQuest Glorantha game is based on the QuestWorlds game system.

QuestWorlds is a really open-ended game system for simulating a story instead of simulating any specific genre. In QuestWorlds the system does not really change depending on the genre as it revolves around story obstacles. And every genre can have story obstacles as it is maybe the widest abstraction there can be. On top of that, the characters can have any abilities their players want. Yes, the player can come up with their own abilities and there are, usually, no lists to choose from. The ratings for the abilities just tell how likely are they going to resolve the story obstacle if they are using that ability to resolve it. “Anything you can imagine, you can play”, right? Well, at least anything with story obstacles that is. I wouldn’t use QuestWorlds for Phil and Senda’s (the hosts of the podcast) great Turning Point(affiliate link) game either. But Turning Point is more of a game system (as is QuestWorlds) than a specific game for a certain genre, in my opinion. I have had Turning Point games in the fantasy world of Glorantha as well as in our own world genres.

squaring it off
squaring it off by KurenJynxxPsychosis (CC-BY-3.0)

But it’s not all bad. QuestWorlds has something to help with genre emulation: keywords. All the other concepts of the game stay the same genre to genre but keywords give some room to fiddle inside it. I have written a little about keywords already in this blog. Basically, the keywords ask genre-specific questions from the players when they are creating their characters. For example in QuestWorlds based game HeroQuest Glorantha(affiliate link), that you could say emulates the “Glorantha genre”, the runes are the building blocks of the world. So much that the character has to define three runes to be the most prominent ones as keywords. Another example could be from a (hypothetical) wrestling game having a gimmick keyword telling, with just one word or phrase, how does that character resolve the story obstacles in the wrestling ring, or outside it. Other usual keywords are something like occupation, species, homeland, and such.

Whatever the player chooses for their keyword it still doesn’t change the rules of the game. They don’t get bonuses to their rolls or situational modifiers nor can they combine the abilities in some specific way. They can come up with any keyword ability that the designer of the given game didn’t even think of and that is all fine. Then they just have to justify how that keyword can be used to resolve the story obstacle at hand. This is also the downside of this kind of freeform system as it might be hard to come up with the phrase or ability for the keyword. The game designer might provide a list of possible, and preferred, values for the keywords but these are mainly descriptions of the genre to give the players some creative juice on how to use their keywords. Coming up with the abilities and playing with them is especially hard if the player does not know about the genre. And this brings us to the topic of learning about a genre.

As Phil and Senda sain in the podcast episode, games with predefined playbooks that play well together and can have cross effects with each other are much more helpful to players new to the genre. It is quite nice to just read from the playbook what moves your character can do and how your character plays with that other character type (playbook) when they are doing their things. The player is handheld into the genre and taught, by highlighting certain tropes using the rules, how the genre works. Well, QuestWorlds does not hold hands. If the player wants to learn the genre they have to read or know about it so that they know what does a certain phrase means in that genre. For example, having an ability of “I clear standoffs” might mean totally different things in the Mexican cartel game and in the game based in the interesting world of poker.

It is true that QuestWorlds can be used, with just the SRD, without writing anything beforehand, to emulate any genre out there. Starting from scratch the players would just agree on the keywords and then use the rules as written. In the end, every genre is just stories and QuestWorlds handles stories well. But the other side of the coin is that you have to know the genre well beforehand. Or be willing to build your own version of the genre, bending the tropes to your liking. In the end, you can come up with more meaningful and fun abilities, and keywords, when you know what kind of stories are told in that specific genre.

Degree of the outcome helps in narration

The Pool of Blood – by Noxypia (CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0)

In QuestWorlds the story obstacles are resolved with contests. The main information we are looking for is if the heroes either gain a victory or a defeat (or a tie) in the obstacle and, based on the outcome, steer the story forward. Now, sometimes this binary outcome is enough, but the real meat of QuestWorlds is the Degree of Victory or Defeat.

There are multiple different contest types in QuestWorlds. There is the Simple Contest and the Group Simple Contest. From long contests, you can use either Extended Contests, Scored Contests, or Chained Contests. And these all with either a single participant or as a group activity. Any of these contests end in either victory or defeat (or a tie) and for all of these contests you can also determine the degree of the outcome.

A blunt yes/no answer to the framing of the contest tells if the heroes acquire the prize. The degree gives you more juice and surprise to include in the narration. Especially if your play style is more improvisational. This means that the GM is ready to be surprised by the players, and the dice, and ready to change the story to directions they didn’t envision at the beginning of the session. Saying things like “Yes, you acquire the prize, and there’s more. Tell me what it is.” or “You fail miserably. What does it mean that you failed so badly?” to improvisation minded player will surely stir totally new story aspects to the adventure you are having.

There are four levels for the outcome. They are described below. After the descriptions, there is a summary of how to determine the level in different contests.

Marginal outcome

This is the most common outcome in a simple contest with the Minor outcome (see more about QuestWorlds mathematics) depending a little bit on the target numbers. The heroes barely make it or lose it. You can use the “Yes, but” or “No, but” idea here. The prize of the contest is gained or lost but there is some extra aspect maybe giving them a little bit of trouble or open a new possibility. If there were any secondary objectives (more on that idea later in this blog) the player might choose if they acquire the main prize or the secondary prize.

Marginal victory can yield a +3 benefit or a -3 penalty. Depending on how the goal was set that bonus can be used (until a defeat occurs) next time using the ability or in some other contest where it makes sense. Try to narrate what the +3 bonus is. Is it just cleared mind or is it some kind of gadget or helping hand. Prepare to tell why the bonus didn’t help when it is lost.

Examples of Marginal Victories
Kallyr is trying to steal Jarkorl’s cow. She barely makes it and had to assault the unfortunate farmer feeding the cows. It is quite probable Jarkorl knows that she took the cow. At least she has the cow now.

Examples of Marginal Defeats
Kallyr sneaks into Jarkorl’s lands just to note that the cows are, for some reason, taken in. Did they know she was coming? Anyway, she has to return empty-handed.

Minor outcome

The minor outcome is the basic “you get what you wanted” or “no, not this time”. Look at the prize that was set in the framing. The heroes get it and they can continue their adventure as planned. Or they lose it and they have to come up with some new ideas. The minor outcome can still be narrated as tedious and hard. But, in the end, the outcome is clear.

As this degree might be a little bland compared to others with their “buts” and “ands” the penalties and bonuses could play a bigger role here. The minor outcome yields either a +6 bonus or -6 penalty (more about bonuses and penalties in the SRD and in this blog later). Narrate how achieving the goal gave them a boost or how they, on top of not getting the prize, took a beating and need to recover their wounds for a while. Or maybe the prize, if it was an item etc, can be described as this bonus.

Examples of Minor Victories
Kallyr sneaks into the field. The cows look at her with their stupid eyes. There is a person herding them but Kallyr passes them easily. She got a cow.

Examples of Minor Defeats
Kallyr sneaks into the field and is close to the cows. Unfortunately, the herder spots her and calls for help. She has to run. Since the wolves increased activity the herders have wielded bows too. The herder shoots her and she gets a bad bruise on her leg. That is gonna hurt for a while.

Major outcome

These are rarer but especially in contests with a mastery advance, they might happen more often. This can be interpreted as “Yes, And” or “No, And”. The goal, and the secondary goal, if any, was achieved clearly. Or both lost miserably. An expert would give an approving nod and a smile for the performance. Something cool should happen. Show that in the narration.

The bonus or penalty from a major outcome is +9 or -9. In system terms that is quite a change to the target number and should definitely be narrated as some kind of story device. Maybe having a follower or gaining an item.

Examples of Major Victories
Kallyr sneaks into the field. She can’t believe it. It is Jarkorl’s prize bull. Just standing there and eating the grass. She is careful but manages to snatch the bull. This is even better.

Examples of Major Defeats
Kallyr sneaks into the field and is close to the cows. Unfortunately, the herder spots her and calls for help. There is a fierce fight and Kallyr barely makes it out there killing some of the herders. This will be bought up later.

Fantasy Chest – by Dafne-1337art (CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0)

Complete outcome

This is the white whale (especially with no mastery difference). It only happens (roughly) once in every two hundred cases if you roll for a simple contest. You can think of the complete outcome as an extension of the major outcome. Only consider the effects permanent. The outcome should be grander and bigger and there should be new adventures to be had to thwart the consequences of having a complete defeat. Complete victory could solve the whole story arc in one go if that makes sense in the situation. In complete defeats, the consequences should be drastic. Companions or important NPCs might be lost for good.

There is no numeric penalty to the target numbers if a character suffers a complete defeat. Instead, the character really shouldn’t be contesting about anything at all until brought back. If they do, the penalty is an automatic bump down. After the complete victory, the bonus is an automatic bump up. That is a really strong bonus and you should think if that is only one-time use.

Examples of Complete Victories
Kallyr sneaks into the field. She can’t believe it. It is Jarkorl’s prize bull guarded by Jarkorl’s ten years old son. Cow-and-kidnapping, how convenient. The son will be ransomed later for good money.

Examples of Complete Defeats
Kallyr grabs the cow from the horns to walk it away. The moment she touches the horn someone, really close to her, says “Whats’ya doing?”. Soon, too soon, there are too many swords against her. They escort her to the barn for questioning.

Death of the player character

The outcome level should never kill the player character or otherwise remove them from the game permanently. That is something to be left for the player to decide. Even in most drastic situations you can, as we are simulating a story instead of the world, fade to black and come up with the group what happened between the “cliffhanger” moment and story getting again told. Or you, as a group, can decide that was the end of their story.

Plane Crash 5 by WeaponMassCreation (CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0)

Determining the level

For determining the degree you should familiarize yourself with the following table:

Roll resultsRankDegree of outcome
Both rolled exact same number and result0Tie
Both rolled the same result (critical-critical, success-success, failure-failure, fumble-fumble)1Marginal
One difference
(success-failure, critical-success, failure-fumble)
2Minor
Two difference (critical-failure, success-fumble)3Major
Three difference (critical-fumble)4Complete

The table is used in two ways. First, to determine a rank number from the opposed roll. Second, coming up with the degree of outcome from the rank number. All the logic of finding out the degree uses the table above.

Simple Contest

In single player participant (against an NPC or abstract force) simple contest the degree follows the rank. So rolling for example a success vs a failure (rank 2) would mean that the contest ends in Minor outcome.

Group Simple Contest

Every participant rolls their own opposed roll with the GM. Based on the rank they score either positive outcome points to themselves or the points go to the GM. The amount of points is the same as the rank of the roll.

In the end, calculate the difference between the points. That difference determines which side won (if the advance is for the players, the heroes won) and with what degree. The difference is the rank number to come up with the degree.

For example, with a group of mountain climbers trying to save their friend from the chasm they end up in points 4 for them and 1 for the GM. This means 3 point difference giving them a Major Victory. Maybe the climber they lifted up comes up with a clue where to find the airplane wreck they are looking for.

Extended Contest

In Extended Contest both the player and the GM bid APs (advantage points) and roll opposed rolls. The contest ends when either one is below zero. The outcome level is calculated from the loser’s AP total (it will be negative). Divide the absolute number (so, without the minus sign) by 10 and round up. That is the rank number that tells the outcome level.

The mountaineers find the plane wreck. Their leader, Jack, has to do a daring solo climbing to get them there before the storm renders their whole expedition useless. The climb has its ups and downs as Jack takes risks and safe moves. In the end Jack wins with the GM having -13 AP. The outcome is Minor Victory (13 / 10 = 1.3 rounded up to rank 2). Jack is at the ledge that leads them to the plane and others can follow him with the rope.

In a group extended contest the overall outcome level is determined by looking at the second-best (in the case of victory) or second-worst (in the case of defeat) outcome in the group.

Scored Contest

In Scored Contest, you roll once per round for every pairing scoring RP (Resolution Points) against the opponent. The number of scored RPs is determined by the rank of the opposed roll. Whichever side first scores 5 RP or more against them is out of the contest. To calculate the outcome level split the RP difference by two and round up. That is the final rank of the outcome and also the final degree.

The mountaineers have to fight a wolf pack at the plane wreck. Jack is fighting against the leader wolf with his pistol. After five rounds the leader wolf does its final attack scoring a 6-4 situation, for the wolf. Jack has 6 RP against him and is out of the contest. The difference is two points. Divided by two and rounding up means a rank of 1. So the outcome is a Marginal Defeat. Jack had to retreat to a crack in the mountain getting stuck there unable to help his team.

In a group extended contest the overall outcome level is determined by looking at the second-best (in the case of victory) or second-worst (in the case of defeat) outcome in the group. Luckily for Jack other players managed to render all the wolves out of the contest. Best of them made it with Major Victory and the other two with Marginal Victories. The second-best outcome is a Marginal Victory so the overall victory level is marginal. They killed the wolves except for the leader who managed to escape.

Chained contest

In a chained contest, the player and the GM roll simple contests until they are done with it. There really isn’t the final outcome in Chained Contests. The participants just gather penalties ending up in some bad shape before conceding from the contest.

You could use the final penalty tallied for the loser to determine the degree of the outcome. Read the final penalty from the table and determine the degree.

At least tallied penalty of the loserDegree of the outcome
-3Marginal
-6Minor
-9Major
-MComplete

Why is GM rolling in QuestWorlds?

The field of role-playing systems can be divided in multiple ways. One way to differentiate the systems is by determining who rolls the dice. There are systems where only the player or the GM rolls the dice when doing a skill check depending on which character (PC or NPC) is active. Then there are systems where they both roll dice making an opposed roll.

QuestWorlds is that kind of system. For every contest, the player and the GM both will roll dice. Never is only one side rolling a single die. Even, in extended contests (one type of long contest), if the GM gets to bid APs for the NPC both roll in the exchange.

The reason is quite simple: mathematics. Rolling just one 20-sided die would result in quite flat uniform distribution (I am looking at you, DnD!). Rolling two opposed dice results in more bell-curve like distribution (you can check my post about QW mathematics for more) favoring Marginal and Minor outcomes.

This aspect of the system might not be for everyone’s liking. It is true that it is one more roll slowing down the play. And the player always needs the GM’s “permission” to roll potentially removing some interesting rolls from the player. And then there are those GMs that roll in secret and the players suspect that they are fudging the roll.

But you can’t just remove the GM roll. On top of the above-mentioned distribution problem this move would effectively change the system from contest resolution to player character task resolution. There are many great RPGs out there that are based on finding out if the character succeeds with a skill. But QuestWorlds is not one of them. In QW we try to find out what happened in the story obstacle.

Tavern Meeting – by Hifarry (CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0)

Here are a couple of suggestions to tackle some of the annoyance the rolling GM might cause.

Don’t do so many tests

If the GM rolling and slowing down the game is a problem you should really review if you are actually rolling only on the story obstacles that have meaningful positive and negative outcomes. If resolving some simple encounter takes multiple rolls (without being actual long contest) you should abstract out and try to frame the contest again.

Using the automatic success on those contests that don’t necessarily branch is also a good practice to keep the game going. They also help to avoid those awkward situations where a failure in the contest doesn’t really affect anyone and everyone just continues as nothing happened or try again.

Keep GM as part of the contest

There are “trigger happy” players. They might be so excited about a new room in the dungeon that they say their idea and then act immediately. The GM barely hears the end of the sentence “I search for traps” and the die has already hit the table. In a single roll system the outcome is then there for everyone to see and the GM might feel social pressure (especially if it is a critical) to swing something out of the roll.

Well, a rolling GM doesn’t really prevent a player rolling their die without asking but at least then there is a moment for the GM to ask some clarifications to properly frame the contest. And, as the GM can set the resistance target number, the players should probably wait for that information before rolling their die without augments or bonuses.

Let the GM roll first

This is interesting advice. Well, the most straightforward outcome is that there are no rogue players rolling dice without GM consent. But this also affects some players’ satisfaction in rolling a die. In single roll systems, the player can immediately see if they succeeded or failed. Rolling a result below 56% skill with a D100 causes an instant cheer. Getting this same feeling to QW might require applying this advice.

Nothing really changes from framing the contest. Player states their tactic (so, they select the attribute), then the GM states the resistance. But now, the GM rolls first and you can actually calculate, at that point from that roll, what the player needs to roll at least to gain a victory. There is an actual target number the players can then react immediately.

This way of rolling also helps to enforce the next advice:

Don’t fudge the die!

I know this is an old topic in RPG sphere and there are all kinds of opinions about it. My rationale against fudging is that, at least in QW, there really is no reason to fudge the die on GM’s behalf. As we are only rolling on contests with interesting negative and positive outcomes fudging the die (either positive or negative way) is only stripping us all from the outcome that the dice were giving us.

If failure is not an interesting option but there is still feel and the sense contesting about the obstacle we should think about the framing and using the costly success rule (QuestWorlds SRD 2.17.2). This means that the contest is actually about some other aspect of the story obstacle.