Design Diary: Quintessence of Dust

Dear Design Diary,
While I was away for Thanksgiving, thanks to the unflagging support of Kainenchen, I started working with some ideas for a new fantasy roleplaying system for tabletop. I particularly want something that borrows a bit more from the style and substance of LARPing, without sacrificing usability. When I’ve considered such an idea before, that’s what has stopped me, but I’ve had a few new ideas, and this time out I have a blog.

Let me start by laying out my goals in more detail.

  • Health and damage output scale slowly. Magic and skill can generate damage spikes, but sustained increased damage is difficult.
  • Normal mortals can’t take very much damage, but they can do a lot of different things to reduce incoming damage or avoid getting hurt.
    • Characters reinforced with magic can take quite a bit more punishment, but this doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be a spellcaster.
    • I’m not planning on hit-location or precise armor coverage, even though those are central parts of CI/Ro3 LARP rules.
  • There are multiple dissimilar magic systems. At minimum, three: mana, DtD ritualism, and pact magic (Aurikesh’s warlocks).
    • Preserving anything essential about ritualism into tabletop is in itself a problem I’ve been chewing on for a couple of years now. I think I may have an answer now.
  • Characters don’t have classes, as such. I like how point-buy systems work in LARPs, but I don’t want a point-buy system as such for this game. My plan is to explore a header system, comparable to the Accelerant family of LARPs.
    • This is intended to allow a wide variety of concept combinations, while keeping options contained in such a way that new players can digest them readily enough.
    • I’m not sure how many headers a character has by default, but Race, Class (well, whatever), and Background are probably a minimum.
    • Characters multiclass by purchasing a second header. This is a standard part of gameplay, as headers have limits on what they offer and once you’ve exhausted them, it’s time to move on – usually to a more rarefied version of your previous concept.
  • Some characters use crafting and crafted goods as their primary contribution to battle (scribes, smiths, and alchemists, at minimum).
  • The game follows the tagline-based approach of LARP design, rather than having a huge number of custom effects.
    • Taglines are not particularly harder for new players to learn, but intermediate and experienced players can probably avoid a lot of rulebook lookups.
  • The system supports Dust to Dust and Aurikesh through separate rules modules.
    • Further rules modules would, ideally, add support for DtD’s sister games, and for the source works that inspired DtD and Aurikesh.
  • Characters often have active defenses – that is, some sort of decision to make when they are attacked. I find that this does a lot to keep players’ attention on the battle when it isn’t their turn.
  • Since active defenses substitute for scaling hit points, one of the key distinctions between minions and more significant villains is their active defenses.
  • For places where D&D uses a d20, I am considering using either 2d8 or 2d10.
    • Game effects might cause a character to change the dice they’re using, for example up to d10+d12 or down to d6+d8.
    • Tracking the dice steps might get annoying if I’m not careful.
  • Since I need skills for things where LARPs would just use player ability, I need a more tabletop-like skill system. I’ve spent a lot of time criticizing the skill systems of other games lately, so I want to handle this with particular care. I’m thinking of a system of broad skills, with further bonuses for specialized tasks.
    • For example, maybe your broad skill grants a die bonus (+d4, +d6, and so on), while specific tasks grant a small flat add.
    • In keeping with my recent post, lores function a bit differently than other skills.
  • I generally like the focus on new active powers as the main progression in 4e D&D. Headers offer both passive bonuses and active abilities. One of my tabletop-side reference points is Dungeon World – their class system is pretty interesting, and broadly similar to what I’m interested in doing.
  • I’m currently planning on armor degrading from repeated strikes, though this increases the number of things players have to track at the table.
  • I don’t exactly know what I want to see from ability scores. I thought about making them individual headers (comparable to FoD’s system of traits), but I think I’ll be happier avoiding that approach. My current expectation is that ability scores range from -3 to +3, with short-term forays into higher bonuses.

Until further notice, I’m calling this game “Quintessence of Dust,” as the title of the post might have led you to believe.

These ideas still need more work, but these goals represent a start. I’ll be posting in greater detail as I work through things; that work will be intermittent, as time and motivation allow. If any of these ideas strike you, the floor is open for discussion.



As some background – here is the link to how ritualism works in DtD. It works well with the way a single event covers a little more than 30 hours of real time, and players have a pretty decent amount of spare time to conduct spell preparation. On the other hand, most tabletop games are 2-4 hours long, though some campaigns schedule around less-frequent 8-12 hour sessions. Performing a DtD-style ritual for every spell would mean that the party spent most of the session waiting on the ritualist to finish preparing.

Consequently, I’d like to boil the rituals down to just a few bones. See, I originally got the idea that developed into ritualism from a game called Noumenon, so I’m thinking of trending back toward that source. During spell preparation, ritualists draw a base of three domino bones (from a double-six set) and try to make matches (straight line, T intersection, triangle). The ritualist can also spend Fatigue to draw extra bones and make more matches – though this decision must be made before the ritualist starts work on the spell.

Once the player has created as many legal intersections as he (feels he can) manage, the player checks his spell description to figure out the spells now stored in his focus. For example:


The Rune of Threefold Flame

Initiation cost: 0 Fatigue
0 matches: 1 Fatigue, 1 Fire Dart (magic attack, 2d4 + modifier damage to one target)
1 match: 1 Fatigue, 3 Fire Darts (each of which takes one action to cast)
2 matches: 0 Fatigue, 2 Fire Darts or 1 Fatigue, 2 Fire Arrows (magic attack, 3d6 + modifier damage to one target)


The Bloodmark of Tempest’s Rage

Initiation cost: 1 Fatigue
0 matches: 0 Fatigue, no activations (because more powerful spells have tougher backlashes)
1 match: 2 Fatigue, 1 Storm Lance (magic attack, 3d10 + modifier damage to one target)
2 matches: 1 Fatigue, 1 Storm Lance
3 matches: 1 Fatigue, 3 Storm Lances

If a party has more than one ritualist (including homunculi or NPC apprentices), those characters can contribute through some TBD means. Other spells include a variety of complicating factors that can still be quickly resolved as part of spell prep: Fatigue cost to initiate the spell, material components of some kind to alter the outcome, and a variety of punitive backlashes. One of the things that I like about this model is that it obscures the precise balance of individual spells, making the choice of spells less clear-cut for the player. There can be several different spells that create Fire Dart effects in varying numbers and at varying costs.


Alternate Model

For times when a set of double-six domino bones aren’t available, try this simplified version (ruthlessly stolen from the One-Roll Engine). For every bone you would otherwise draw, roll 2d8. (If d7s are in your repertoire, feel free to go with d7-1 to imitate the range of a double-six set.) Roll each 2d8 together, and treat the result as a single bone (thus, a roll of 2d8 comes up 2, 4 – don’t add them together, but treat them as a draw of 2/4). This tampers with the odds in ways that both benefit and hinder the player, but I’m guessing it would wind up being a wash.

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