Sunday, April 16, 2023

RPG Design: Princes of the Universe- An Immortal Themed RPG

 Greetings gentle readers.  

Most of you that have followed the blog know that I like to dabble in all sorts of game designs, and not just Wargames.  I have designed board games, card games, and wargames for myself and others.  However, today I want to delve into the world of Role-playing Games a bit.  

I actually started my RPG journey before my wargame journey.  I learned how to play "Red Box" D&D from a friend's dad; a Lutheran pastor.  I picked up all the boxed sets from a little bookstore in the local strip mall, the only strip mall within a day's bike ride!  From there, I managed to scrap and scrape together the basic AD&D books, the Buck Rogers RPG, and the TSR Marvel Super Heroes game.  As a teen, I played a lot of West End Games D6 Star Wars and Shadowrun.  Many of the books have been lost to time, and I still lament the loss of my Masters edition boxed set.  Shortly there after, an ad in Dragon magazine sucked me into the world of Warhammer and I have managed to juggle my two RPG and Wargame hobbies every since.  

Now that I am older, having regular RPG nights and/or Wargame nights is much easier.  I was able to get into a local RPG session much easier than I was able to get into the wargaming community!  The wargaming scene had a number of starts and stops.  Meanwhile, I have had a long running RPG group with a dedicated weekly game night, that was only interrupted by COVID, but has since re-grouped after vaccines became widely available.  

The re-engagement with this group has rekindled my interest in RPGs.  Thanks to this group I have been able to play and run a few more modern games such as Dune, Lasers and Feelings, Monster of the Week, Those Dark Places, and more.  The group is primarily a Dungeons and Dragons 5e group, but we are not averse to spreading our wings a bit!  Thankfully, we have several people who are capable of being game masters as well as players too!  

All of this regular activity has led me to be interested in designing and playing RPGs.  However, today I wanted to share a game called Princes of the UniverseThis is a free game that I am making available to the public at no cost, as I do not own any of the copyrights for the source material.  

Way back in 1995, I used to huddle up to my dial operated, 13 inch color television on Sunday night.  There, I would watch a variety of syndicated television shows late into the night.  Shows like Cleopatra 2099, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess, Jack of All Trades, and others.  However, they all capped off by my favorite show Highlander: The Series!  With the advent of streaming services, I was able to revisit this series again in 2021 and 2022.  

I recall vaguely thinking back in 1995, that I would play the heck out of a Highlander themed RPG.  However, that was about as far as I had gotten.  Fast forward to 2021, and I finally got to put it all together and play several sessions of Princes of the Universe, my own take on a Highlander RPG.  

How Does the Game Work?

I had a few games for inspiration as I went into this one, but in order to capture the vast world and mythos of Highlander the game was going to need to be Rules-Lite.  In addition, I needed it to be able to ape the episodic nature of the show and movies.  The game had to use a narrative structure for its sessions.  There were two main existing games that I looked at for inspiration: The Modiphius 2d20 system, and the Powered by the Apocalypse system.  I had used the first in the Dune: The Role-Playing Game and the second in games of Monster of the Week and really enjoyed them for the way they used abstraction and decision making to drive the game.  

I had also seen a lot of games making use of Meta-currency in their rules.  I was initially skeptical of this mechanic, as I am a huge believer in GM Fiat as a driver of RPGs.  Therefore, putting restrictions via Meta-currency seemed counter-productive to me.  However, in this game the Meta-currency allowed the GM to avoid opposed dice rolls, and still impact the game and make decisions to control the flow of the game.  

So, now that you know the inspirations of the game, let's talk a bit about how it works on the table.  A character is made up of 5 Attributes 1-5, and 5 Values 1-5.  When the player needs to make a test, the Watcher (The GM) will assign them an Attribute and the Player chooses a value related to the action.  The two added together are the target number of a d12 test.  If you roll a d12 and score under the target number, that is a success.  

In addition to an attribute, the Watcher will also assign a difficulty between 1-5 and that is the number of Successes a player needs to roll to succeed a test.  Something that is very difficult may require more than 1 d12 roll to succeed.  Players can earn these extra dice with Focus or other unique attributes of the character.  However, the most common way is by accessing the groups Quickening pool.  

A Quickening Pool is a set of dice that the players can access through-out the game.  This pool number varies based on previous success, and how often it is used.  Therefore, tough challenges will require them to access the pool.  If the Pool is empty, the players can access more Quickening from the Watcher as well.  However, by doing this the Watcher then earns Quickening dice that they can use to add complications to the players.  There are other actions, like failed rolls that also generate Quickening for the Watcher to spend.  It is this interplay of Quickening usage that is the heart of the game.    

How does it capture the feel of Highlander? 

The system itself is very character and player driven.  Players can prioritize the Attributes of a character, but also their Values.  Since Highlander: The Series is a morality play with swords these details allow the player to quickly and easily flesh out what the character values, and it applies to their successes and failures.  

In addition, the system uses a method I call Drive, Ties, and Burdens that flesh out a character but also drive advantages that the Player can leverage later in the game.  Taking Drives, Ties, and Burdens quickly fleshes out the character while also giving them access to Focuses (skills), equipment, and fighting techniques.  

Finally, there is the Quickening itself.  Yes, it is a dice pool that can be accesses, but it is also an attribute too.  This can be used to trigger flashbacks, create connections, heal injury, and avoid getting your head cut-off!  This is determined by an immortals age. 

Finally, you do not have to be an Immortal!  Some of the best characters on Highlander: The Series were mortals.  These characters can not access the Quickening pool, they can only take it from the Watcher.  However, in exchange the Watcher can not spend Quickening to directly impact a Mortal character.  Therefore, Mortals can be a vital part of the game.  Plus, Mortals are not subject to the rules of the Immortal head-hunting "Game".   

Darius and Duncan play Chess

What is playing a game like?  

There is a sample of game play in the rules.  However, playing the game is a very different experience.  First off, the narrative is very "player driven".  The Watcher is there to ask questions to drive the game, more than determine results or dictate the rules.  The players themselves are the ones who create the story lines and the relationships.  

For example, the Watcher may start an adventure like this:

You see a news report featuring the death of a man that you recognize.  Who is he?  Why do you care about his death?  How do you react to seeing the news?     

How the players respond is what drives the game forward more than anything the Watcher does.  In the example above, the man may have been part of their past; and trigger a flashback about their time together in post-war Japan.  Or they may decide that they did not know this man, but instead they know his sister.  They could also decide that they do not know this man, and he means nothing but what is interesting is that he was on the team the uncovered the Golden Cross of Coronado, which they had hid away nearly 200 years ago!  Now what?    

In addition, the Watcher asks the players to determine the results of actions and success.  

"Your characters were trying to sneak onboard the yacht in the slip, but they failed their checks by 1 success.  What happens?

The Watcher has final say, but the players dictate the general direction and flow of the game.  They might say that their failure caught the attention of a security guard, they were captured on camera sneaking in, or that the boat slipped its moorings and began to sail away with them on it!   

This collaborative story approach is very different than many RPGs, but it is necessary as the players may want to trigger flashbacks, explore memories, and take action in the past or present.  Since such actions are tied so closely to the characters, it would be impossible for a Watcher to pre-plan some of these elements; therefore the game relies heavily on player input to continue and drive the narrative.  The game uses an abstracted approach to combat, intrigue, dueling, investigations and other task checks to allow players the freedom to craft the story they want to tell.  The Watcher simply places complications in their path in the form of other Immortals, physical obstacles, spiritual obstacles, political obstacles and more.  The idea is to build and follow a Highlander themed story.   

Final Thoughts

Two and a half decades in the making, I finally had the technical and creative skills to create an RPG experience that I have wanted to try since I first watched Duncan spar with Connor, mentor Richie, and romance Tess.  I was ecstatic to actually play these rules with some fellow RPGers who only knew the very basics of Highlander, and most of their experience was with 5e D&D.  It was an RPG experience like none of them have had before.  It was such a pleasure to introduce and lead them through a short campaign of Princes of the Universe.  

Hopefully, you can now take a shot at playing the game for yourself too.  Let me know what you think and how it goes.  

You can find a copy here: Princes of the Universe

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