I’m rarely enthusiastic about long-term projects and so, when I dived head-first into the Sessions project for creating immersive interactive stories with some friends I was fire and flame but found it to be a a chore very soon, especially with all the reformatting and editing required to publish them on my blog.
When S asked me if we could revisit this system with more dedication and less pressure behind the both of us to continue all the time and perhaps less editing, I was interested. S asked me if I could reveal the mechanics I had used, given I had hidden stats, stat checks and most of the character sheet to force the player to be creative and rely on exploration instead of experience.
At the beginning, I asked 3 questions and after receiving the answers, prompted for confirmation. Video game players are used to this - it’s basically choosing game modes, of a sort.
The first question I asked was the preferred level of difficulty.
Please choose your level of difficulty:
- Take me for walk in the park
- Give me a challenge
- Grind my bones and drink my blood.
This choice defined two different parameters:
How peaceful I would write the setting. Are there conflicts in the world? Is it safe to walk outside during night-time? Are there guards patrolling? Things like crime rate and political climate were to be influenced by this.
How much the character would struggle. For a story to be interesting, the characters need to undergo hardships. Reading or playing a power fantasy is nice, but really engrossing stories take you through ups and downs on the journey. Things to be influenced were examples like presense of prejudice against the player, presense of a class-based society, relation of the player’s powers to the general level of strength or magic ability in the world as well as stat growth in relation to actual achieved success.
The second question I asked was the level of absurdity.
Please choose your level of absurdity:
- This is pretty reasonable
- Maybe you should not have eaten those mushrooms
This choice defined how much I tried to stick to existing fantasy conventions and how much I was willing to bend rules of reality to make the fantasy setting convenient. Would there be machinery and magic in combination? Are there fantastic semi-human races? Would magical items and abilities be something common or rare? Would using said abilities have side-effects or would they be cost free? All these things defined the perceived power - but moreover they would hugely affect the believabilty of the story. Not every reader is able to deal with the same setting and maintain their suspension of disbelief.
Choosing a Gender
The last question influenced a very rudimentary part of how I’d approach the writing of the story - how other characters would perceive the player.
Is your persona:
- A man
- A woman
- A person of mysterious and indistinct gender (Write my story so that it stays a mystery and NPCs are unsure)
- Does it matter, really? I find it offensive you would even ask that. (Write the story so that it’s gender neutral and NPCs don’t care)
You might wonder, why ask this and is this inclusive? My answer is: It’s easier to tailor the reaction of the world’s characters to the player if you can establish some conventions of how different societies react to different genders.
Is it inclusive? Frankly, I don’t know. I tried to cater to someone who doesn’t want to say a man or a woman in two different ways and am absolutely open to suggestions in that regard - after all, sexuality is not in the questionaire.
The third choice was the choice for gender-neutral characters in Fallen London for a long time before the developers rewrote this part of the texts. However, part of the community really enjoyed being unidentifyable and it has been brought back.
During the second attempt at starting a session, I also gave the player the option to quick-start their adventure by giving me a scenario template. I tried this to offer the player the chance to pick their story setting in case they are fond of a special type of story.
Would you like to specify a theme or go with the narrator’s choice?
Standing on a grassland path with a large, ginormous city on the far horizon, but something feels wrong.
Lastly, I put the choices into a neat sentence, making for a one-liner representative of the chosen adventure.
Please confirm: You will awake as a man seeking a challenge in a world of unbelievable absurd wonders, magic and fantastical creatures.
Please confirm: You will awake as a man seeking a challenge in a mostly believable world who starts his adventure with a metropolis in sight and a feeling of uneasy in his heart.
Making this the final choice was done on purpose to give the game a feeling of “logging in” to the world. It is from this stated point that the adventure starts.
From there on, I’d write a few sentences to establish the area, the people in it, objects of interest, locations and other details that are necessary to breath life into narration. There would likely also be a tiny bit of action going on, perhaps the player would spot a merchant passing by or some other thing of note would happen to catch the player’s interest.
They might also be confronted with a question, like how they feel, how they want to react, what they want to do or where they would like to travel.
All stories use “credits” as a unit for money. While this isn’t strictly speaking the best for immersion, it provides two things:
- The system will be consistent even if the narrator hosts several games.
- The system suggests that all rounds are instances of the same meta game.
Changes in location would be announced via special messages that could be interpreted as chapters or loading screens if the player felt like. I enjoyed adding those to stick closer to a video game concept.
You are now in Romanique, Outskirts.
Every player would start out with one unique item that would be able to strongly define how their character interacted with the world. I would also always remind the player this is a game, even if it doesn’t feel so to the person they were playing, by attaching a very specific message to the item.
You did well in the last round, so here’s a little gift. ~ a friend
The effects of the item might be noticable immediately or the friend would provide additional guidance for how to use it.
In sessions.KY, said item was a business suit that completely circumvented all charisma checks and would make the player an expert at charming people. They would appear as an extremely charismatic person while wearing it, regardless of the player’s actual charisma.
while checking, you notice you are wearing a business suit
The guard seems overly friendly. When you reach into the pockets of your suit, you find a little card.
You did well in the last round, so here’s a little gift. Make sure it’s always well ironed and snazzy. ~ a friend
“You’re very much welcome. A pleasure to talk to you, sir”, the guardsman shouts after you as you leave.
In sessions.XN, said item was a book that converted memories into stat boosts. Writing about your adventure in the book would remove those memories from your mind but reward you with stat boosts that relate to the actual events experienced.
There’s a book lying next to you in the grass. It looks like it has been placed there very carefully.
There’s a dedication in the book.
You did well in the last round, so here’s a little gift. Make sure you fill it with notes of your adventures. ~ a friend
Aside from the dedication, the book is completely blank. Apart from the mysterious dedication at the start, the book is empty. Its pages are of great quality paper and the binding is beautiful mahogany coloured leather. It’s supposed to be tied shut by a leather string. There’s a linen bookmark with golden stitching on it, should you require it. The whole thing is likely handmade.
The ink dries instantly, something as simple as a name and a date looking like a work of art inside the gorgeous book. Something urges you to write more.
The book seems satisfied for now.
Lastly, in the unpublished sessions.SK, said item was a pair of glasses that was able to provide insight into the game world to a disturbingly deep level.
As you get up, you notice that the only thing that’s really clean on you is the pair of elegant reading glasses. A label is wrapped around one part of the frame. There seems to be some writing on it.
read the label
You did well in the last round, so here’s a little gift. Make sure it’s always clean. ~ a friend
The clocktower is clearly too far away, but as you look through your glasses, there’s tiny white writing on them, telling you the current time. It’s 11:35.
Maybe the glasses could help you again?
i put the glasses back on
Water contaminated. Infection chance: 2%
A player character had several stats whose initial values were hidden from the player but they could be guessed to a fairly precise amount by trying different things and reading my answers.
Stat checks required a certain level of a specific stat to be passed, where luck would always be factored into the decision. Additionally, based on a system I had seen in the Hand of Fate series of games, all success was further divided into “minor success” and “major success”.
A major success triggered if the stat check was in favor of the player by more than 5 points and resulted in an additional beneficial effect.
- Starting values for stats are in the appendix
- Action requirements are in the appendix
Please note that most of these stats were not designed up front but made up during writing and therefore do not represent a detailed sheet of an individual character (e.g. Dexterity might be a candidate to think about but did not come up in the stories written so far).
Fitness determines endurance when running, general condition of the player’s body, ability to stay alert for a longer period of time and might influence more involved activities like parkour, climbing or physical and magical sparring.
Strength determines impact of strikes, force available during combat and ability to carry heavy items. I tried to apply this as literal as possible, with the value also affecting ability to wear heavy armor. Note that this explicitly did not affect carried inventory - my intention was to use actual bag sizes for this (e.g. a messenger bag).
Magical capability is reprensented by this. It’s both a measure of how big a single feat one can achieve with their current abilties as well as how many tiny convenient spells one might be able to cast. Even a medium rating in this can be a great boon for a creative player.
Reaction is as much about reflexes as it is about being quick-witted. Thwarting pick-pockets, weaving through traffic, dodging arrows and catching a ball are typical actions for which a reaction check would be used. It is not a 1:1 mapping of what Dexterity is often used for in systems like this one.
Charisma is the ability to influence people and to passively make people like you. It’s applied when you first meet a new person and potentially on every significant conversation with them. It can determine how they think about you and how willing they are to help you, regardless of your previous actions towards them. It would also be used during attempts to seduce them.
Perception influences the ability to pick up cues in conversations, to see tiny details in scenes like a detective would, to memorize events in more greater clarity and generally see things that other people are too busy or pre-occupied to notice. It could influence a certain affinity for the occult.
Every stat check would factor in the character’s luck. The formula for using
value(checked_stat) + random(0, luck).
The result of this would be the success or failure of a stat check.
STATS: luck 2, strength 5, required_strength 7 CHECK: value(strength) + random(0, luck) >= required_strength EXAMPLE: roll 2 => the condition is fulfilled 5 + 2 >= 7 RESULT: True
For percentage based checks, your luck will always be taken into account. Take the following example from the unpublished sessions.SK.
SCENARIO: Water contaminated. Infection chance 2%. CHECK: random(0,100) + random(0, luck) >= 3 EXAMPLE: 86 + 2 >= 3 RESULT: True
Appendix A: Initial Stats
Please note that this is a summary of stats used so far and not a design for a complete system.
|Imagination||4||First level will be gained during initial experimentation|
|Reaction||?||This was determined based on the backstory of the character|
|Strength||5||Usage restricted until first use of Fitness|
Appendix B: Skill Table
For the context of this section, “skill”, “spell class” and “ability” are
equivalent. They represent a type of action, the requirement of which can
be seen in the table. Sections labelled
N/A were not investigated during
sessions because pre-requisites had been deemed missing.
|Skill||Required Stat||Value||Unlockable via||Notes|
|Charm average person||Charisma||10||Base||None|
|Conjure flame||Imagination||N/A||Fire Creation||None|
|Conjure iron item||Imagination||50||Base||None|
|Conjure wooden item||Imagination||20||Base||None|
|Decipher simple runes||Imagination||2||Base||None|
|Detect harmless deceit||Perception||10||Base||None|
|Detect life||Imagination||5||Base||Would scale up radius, additional findings|
|Detect low charm||Perception||5||Base||None|
|Detect white lie||Perception||6||Base||None|
|Determine water quality||N/A||N/A||Survival Instincts||None|
|Driving a motorcycle in heavy traffic||Reaction||20||Story specific|
|Driving inside the city, medium traffic at night||Reaction||26||Story specific||daytime * 2|
|Driving inside the city, medium traffic||Reaction||13||Story specific|
|Manipulate air||Imagination||N/A||Air manipulation||None|
|Manipulate wooden item||Imagination||15||Base||None|
|Move tiny object||Imagination||N/A||Telekinesis||None|
|Read animal mind||Imagination||N/A||Animal Empathy||None|