Shadows of Azathoth: Design In Progress 5

So a friend of mine is working on designing a game he’s calling Shadows of Azathoth. There are a lot of neat ideas going on here, but the ones that interest me at the moment are that memory is priceless and memory is unstable. With his permission, this post comments on some of his neat ideas, and how the design could be tweaked to correct some unforeseen oddities.


During character creation, each player specifies a list of memories. The first is Identity, rated at 5 (more on ratings in a bit). If your Identity rating drops to zero, you have lost all of your sense of self and gone irretrievably insane. You also have Upbringing and Training, rated at 4; Important Person, Best Memory, and Worst Memory, rated at 3; and six slots for Other Players, all rated at 2. It’s okay to completely lose memories other than Identity, but they’re definitely worth maintaining.


Memory Rating

Memories are rated on a scale of strength from 0-5. (Without getting too deeply into the conflict-resolution mechanics, I’ll mention that it’s a d6 system where 4+ on a die is a success in normal circumstances, but sometimes only 5+ or 6 is a success.) When making any roll, a character can draw upon a memory to improve her chance of success. (It would be good to clarify whether the player declares this before or after the roll.) She receives a number of points equal to the memory’s current rating to distribute among the d6s rolled. She might spend three points to bump a 2 and a 3 up to 4s, making them successes. The rating of her memory then temporarily decreases by 1.

At the end of the session or adventure, the player rolls Willpower (one of your core skills). For every success, she restores one point lost off of an existing memory. For every point she does not successfully restore, she forms a new memory, keeping her at the same total number of points of memories. This new memory is likely to have a pretty low rating.



During play yesterday (the first session!), we saw how this actually worked out. I used two memories and recovered one from Willpower. The other point became a 1-point memory of the mission we had just accomplished. The problem with this is that a 1-pt memory is much less useful than the 3-pt memory that got reduced to a 2-pt memory. Honestly, a 1-pt memory is scarcely worth using, and if I’m figuring out how to spend my Willpower successes at the end of the session, I am definitely not going to bother retaining it if I have any other options. (Declining to retain it will cause it to be replaced by another memory of rating 1 or higher.) As far as I know, once I make a Willpower check, any “temporary damage” to memories that I do not repair becomes permanent and irreparable by anything short of plot intervention.

Understand that this is a game about hard-bitten (and frost-bitten) soldiers in big spaceships traveling from planet to planet, and going into cryo-sleep to endure the long journeys. Cryo-sleep does terrible things to one’s memories over enough cycles of freezing and thawing. It is therefore setting-appropriate that characters start with a smaller number of clear, strong memories and gradually wind up with a large number of weak, dim memories. The exact form that this takes within the rules might be possible to improve, though.



I can imagine doing this a number of different ways. I would start by making it possible to have more or less than 35 points worth of memories. Failed Willpower rolls don’t result in new memories. Instead, new memories are a reward from completing missions. The characters of yesterday’s session might now have a new 2-pt memory: Formalhaut 2. Dr. Kensington’s memory of this place might be mixing up a batch of chemicals to create the defoliant that saved the colony, while Miss Carne’s memory might be of beating the moss-covered technicians to death with a mono sword. Future missions might be 3 or more points, and optional victory objectives in the course of a mission might increase the number or add additional memories. Old memories fade through use and failed Willpower rolls, or each round of cryo-sleep might force us to lose a certain value of memory rating (or there could be another Willpower check).


Alternate System

I’d consider a more purely memories-as-Sanity system as well. When a character draws upon a memory, its rating does not decrease, but it is exhausted until the end of the session. When a player takes Shock (damage to mind) in excess of (3 x Willpower), they can spend permanent points of memories on a round-by-round basis instead of spending Effort to stay in the action. I’d add a pretty nasty Shock attack to the process of waking up from cryo-sleep, with a table of obscure modifiers. Memories lost in this way might be restored by the Therapy Module, or the Therapy Module might replace them with something completely different. There should be a chance (or possibly a guarantee) that memory loss results in horrible Mythos memories and dreams.


Somewhat Off Topic

This is one of the best systems imaginable for encouraging players to keep in-character personal logs. They are quite literally working to shore up their memories, and extra Willpower tests to strengthen existing memories would be cool. Audio recordings might be even better.

I am interested in seeing where this game goes in the future, and I look forward to times when unstable memories cause strange and complex roleplaying considerations.

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5 thoughts on “Shadows of Azathoth: Design In Progress

  • Kainenchen

    I like the idea of memories as sanity/xp, honestly… it seems like the most logical reward system. Also, I think it would be cool if journals and the like had some kind of tangible benefit… you're right, in this system, it'd make one hell of a lot of sense.

    Hee hee hee… mythos consequences. I wouldn't be surprised if those were gonna happen to us anyway. ^^

  • samhaine

    I like your suggestion on the mental damage resistance of memories. One thing that's been nagging me a bit about the system currently is that the only way you can lose memories is to have them be remembered in a relevant circumstance. If anything, that would seem to make them stronger, not weaker.

    Expanding on your idea…

    As I mentioned to the monkey king at chargen, I'm thinking there is still some room to add more structure to the system. My intuition is that it might be neat to have chargen systematically attach emotions to memories ("hmm, I have Worst Memory: Love… guess someone I loved died horribly"). Then, when you use the memory in play, the other players vote on the emotion most appropriate to the current use. If that use was dissonant (e.g., Fear on a Love memory), you could do some neat special effects (e.g., scheduling the memory to morph). Meanwhile, NOT using your memories would leave them open to Shock deletion.

    This might actually mean USING memories costs nothing, but you have to be careful to use them in situations that are both appropriate and not too dissonant (do you really want to indelibly tie your love of your wife to surviving an eldritch horror?). You'd get a pretty frequent narration of character stories, which is appropriate to the game, and probably wouldn't unbalance things too much as the bonus is still nice but minor in the grand scheme of rolls.

  • Shieldhaven

    This is a really neat way to do things. I guess you could have use Hope memories and Fear memories equally to, say, shrug off a terrifying situation.

    If we kind of want players using memories all the time, I might suggest changing most successes to be 5+, since many rolls will have some kind of bonus going on (and we'll be rolling more and more dice as we earn experience). A lot of situations call for multiple successes just to achieve the basic goal, but I think desperation and increased chance of failure might be good for the game's theme overall.

  • Lee Hammock

    Okay, here's a possible suggestion that is a bit wide ranging:

    Drop effort dice concept completely. I think its bordering on needlessly complex but not sure. Players get some number of actions per round and use their full ability.

    Use expenditure of memories for staying in the fight against both mental and physical damage. Basically you call up some memory of struggling through a past trial to struggle through being shot in the gut, or something.

    That may be a bit extreme, and I'm only guessing that the effort dice are not working well. I could be wrong.

    I really like the memories as XP/rewards option, with some manner of bonus for in character journals and such. Maybe if you accumulate enough memories you could trade them in for ability points or traits, as long as the memories are related to what you're advancing.

    Changing successes to 5-6 sounds like a good plan. Granted this mission was low on the life or death threats, so I'd want to play more combat active mission before making that change for sure.

  • samhaine

    I don't dislike the effort dice concept, but I'm not sure they're yet being used to a sufficient extent to justify them. As I mentioned when they were introduced, they're substantially similar to the way stones of energy worked in the Marvel Universe RPG. Though it's debatable whether that was a working system, the additions made to the effort concept were:
    * Your effort pool represented the maximum effort you could put into stuff, but it didn't refresh totally every round. Instead, you'd generally recover 1/3 to 1/2 of it each round. So if you blew all of it in a single round, you'd only have a fraction of it available next round. Normally you'd want to spend only your refresh, with occasional spike effort.
    * You couldn't do multiple instances of the same action. If you had Close Combat 5, and wanted to spend 10 effort that round, you could put 5 in Close Combat and would have to allocate 5 to something else complimentary.
    * Defense came out of your allocated dice. If you wanted to defend with your Close Combat skill, you might put 5 effort into Close Combat then move 3 to your Defense pool, giving you a 2 attack remaining.

    Not saying you should adopt any of those, but that's how Marvel tried to make it work.

    I'll have to think more about memories as hit points. I'm not sure whether that will put them front and center in the way you want, as it may fix them as just a "life flashing before your eyes" mechanic rather than a general flashback mechanic.

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but I really feel like you're looking for a mechanic more to pull of Rashomon or Event Horizon rather than just Firefly's Out of Gas. That is, sessions should somehow segue in and out of memories in the way that dark, flashback-heavy movies do, with the memory expanding on the context of the scene and the characterization of the protagonists. The horror comes from being confronted with memories that are missing or wrong, causing the character to doubt the fundamental reality of the world.

    Success on 5-6 is probably a good plan. In general, I'd suggest looking at my System Review on White Wolf for my impression of the pros and cons of dice pools. Essentially, as a GM, you have to set a category of success that accounts for huge ranges of possible results: 5 dice is going to frequently display the full range of 0-5 successes, and somehow that needs to be meaningful in the context of the system.