New Ways To Play: creating an alternative to hack and loot

Fantasy role-playing games can be kind and exciting. They can be soul-fueling and stimulating. They can be restorative and involve character risks.

Fantasy role-playing games don’t need conquest to work. But, as I’ve written before, maybe Dungeons & Dragons unfortunately does.

That realization is what set me on the path of creating my indie ttrpg Kabalor. So, how to keep the fun while building game mechanics that escape the bad old tropes?

Knowing what I wanted to drop was pretty easy. #1 on the list was the idea that there are intelligent beings whom it is perfectly OK to murder and take their stuff. “These people are disposable” is toxic garbage and we do not need it in our games.

Finding the fun came out of listening to my players and thinking about my own play experiences. We love the storytelling, continually adding to our ideas and riffing off each other and what happens in the game. We love the ups and downs of crazy plans and surprise results of the dice. We love being characters who can do cool things, which become more and more amazing over time.

I identified Grow, Connect, Explore, Unlock, and Share as the main action areas of Kabalor (as opposed to D&D’s Maximize, Beat, Colonize, Conquer, Hoard). But how to make sure that action space is actively enjoyable? Through playing open-ended story games without a GM (like Wanderhome), I was able to see that things can loosen up from the traditionally more rigid structure of D&D, where the players often react to the GM’s descriptions instead of building the reality with them. But I also learned that a little more structure—particularly in the progression of what the character can do—helps keep the game engaging.

Wanderhome is great; I really love it and recommend it. But it’s a pretty intense creative experience. The sweet spot—at least for me and my players—would be a world we don’t need to constantly invent, but which is highly adaptable to the ideas of players and GM, and game mechanics which provide some goals and direction for the story to move in. In other words, something you can come to as a delightful break from the working week, which will be fun, exciting, and energizing, and which may not require any heavy lifting emotionally or creatively in a given session. If you’re wiped out at the end of an intense workday, you should be able to have a great session of Kabalor. Likewise, if you’re creatively fired up and want to spin stories of people and places, or lean into complicated interactions or emotional growth of your character, you should be able to have a great session of Kabalor.

Because combat is not core—and I am designing the game such that it is entirely optional—something else needs to be at the heart of the game and delivering those highs and lows. There also needs to be something to scratch the itch to optimize and improve your character. For Kabalor that is magic, specifically spellcasting.

In keeping with the expansive story style, the spellcasting mechanics of Kabalor are designed to allow players to invent their own spells and to combine their magical talents in collaborative spellcasting. A modular spell system is a big goal and a very tricky thing to make easy to use, but I think I’ve cracked the nut. Lots of playtesting to come to sort out the details and make sure it’s both balanced and fun, but I’m confident Kabalor is on the right path.

Kabalor needs to have the thrill of the throw of the dice, with calculated risks but potential surprises. Since Kabalor is not starting from a grim place of us vs. them in practically every interaction, those surprises can be more fun and come more often. It’s here where the lighter touch can really shine. By making the magic more pervasive, wilder, and inherently vulnerable to occasional unexpected outcomes there’s still plenty of risk, but the results are fun rather than fatal (unless your particular set of players likes even higher stakes).

Kabalor is a fun game of spellcasting and storytelling, with lots of improvisation, and plenty of ups and down, but at its core a hopeful and supportive vision.

The current state of the game is pre-alpha testing, in which I’m working with familiar players and friends to shake down what I’ve created and make sure we’ve got the game mechanics sorted out and functioning enough for the alpha test in which I’ll GM the first stories.

If you’re excited to get involved in this “pardon our dust” stage of development, let me know!

Grow • Connect • Explore • Unlock • Share

(posted on the Kabalor Patreon July 30, 2020)

Thank you to all my playtesters and others who have given feedback so far! It’s been hugely valuable and is helping me to make the game’s rules match the stories that the Kabalor world is built to tell.

What has become clear through play—particularly in my non-combat Thursday night campaign, but also in my storytelling-heavy Monday night campaign which does have combat—is that the core action themes underlying the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition rules are deeply rooted in conflict and conquest. D&D’s big character action areas are Maximize, Beat, Colonize, Conquer, Hoard.

Those patterns are woven throughout D&D, even in places where they shouldn’t matter. The example which tipped the scales for me was the Identify spell. I hadn’t noticed, when I was thinking of it as something that many Bakani folk would learn in their Arcana training, that the spell’s components require the caster to own a pearl worth at least 100 gps. 1 gold piece = 10 silver pieces = 100 copper pieces. A chicken costs 2 copper pieces. So you need something that costs the same as 5,000 chickens.

In Medieval England around 1300, according to this site, a chicken (hen) cost 1.5-2 pennies. An agricultural laborer might earn about 4 pennies per day, according to Table I here reflecting records from the estates of the bishops of Winchester. (That same source describes artisans in industrial centers—such as carpenters, masons or thatchers—earning a bit less, more like 3 pennies per day.) Extrapolating, we could say that an agricultural laborer in the world of D&D would earn 4 copper pieces a day, thus a character of poor means would need their entire wages for nearly 7 years to afford that spell component. But no worker can live and devote their whole income to savings. Let’s say our character of poor means is very lucky and very determined and saves 10% of their income. They would probably not be able to afford this in a lifetime’s work.

One “solution” is to say that none of the characters are poor, but that denies a huge number of people from seeing someone like them represented in the game, as well as blocking off a whole section of exciting stories. If you’ve got local folk heroes as potential character backgrounds, you need to represent low-income characters in the game.

4 copper pieces per day is only 20% of the 2 sp per day paid to an Untrained Hireling as listed in Chapter 5 of the 5th edition Player’s Handbook, but even if we decide that chickens cost the same as our example historical agricultural economies but wages are somehow five times higher in our D&D worlds, it’s still well over a decade’s savings for one spell component for one first level spell. Something is seriously wrong with this picture.

The only thing that makes it work is if there is a method outside the normal economy by which the characters are achieving exceptional wealth. In D&D that method is killing “others” and taking their stuff. If you want a game, though, where “otherness” doesn’t make it OK for someone to kill you and loot your home, D&D’s infrastructure begins to unravel.

Thus comes the question, “OK, so if D&D doesn’t let you get away from the ‘Maximize, Beat, Colonize, Conquer, Hoard’ paradigm, what are Kabalor’s main character action areas?”

The answer is:

Grow

Connect

Explore

Unlock

Share

Supporting those core themes means that Kabalor needs to be an independent RPG, not a supplement to D&D. It doesn’t have to be as mechanically complex as D&D; it doesn’t have to have conflict assumed from the ground up; and it doesn’t have to do things the same way. Kabalor can be a lot easier to learn and players can have a lot more involvement in the story arc of their characters.

So that’s what I’ve been up to: creating a completely independent, original game driven by those core themes. I’ve also been incorporating player feedback and making the world easier to engage with by merging down the number of peoples from 15 to 9 and the number of Eminences from 51 to 27. As you can imagine, this is going to change most of the content I’ve already shared in the Kabalor Patreon, but definitely for the better.

Since I’ll be updating all the Kabalor content, it’s a good time to solve the limitations of Patreon’s interface for sharing information. My goal is a Kabalor website with all the rules and essential supporting information, and for the Kabalor Patreon to provide a means for people to support that work, to receive early access to new information, and for GMs to get access to special content such as detailed non-player characters, locations, and adventures.

Lots to come as I prepare a new set of playtest rules for the independent game of Kabalor! For the moment, I’ll leave you with this overview of how the gameplay supports the core themes.

Kabalor is a tabletop roleplaying game focused on collaborative storytelling of characters who grow into their unique selves, connect and become a team, explore and expand their horizons, unlock new skills and possibilities, and share to make the world a better place for themselves and others.

This is a world born of creativity and the players unfold their character’s story within that expansive space. The game encourages positive connections not only between the players, but between the characters and the world.

Play in Kabalor enables players to:

  • grow as creative and unique storytellers
  • connect emotionally to themselves and others
  • explore fantasies beyond the ones which have been packaged for them in media and other games in the past
  • unlock new ways of being
  • give and receive support from those with whom they share their game

Your character in Kabalor will also grow, connect, explore, unlock, and share. Characters:

  • grow into their unique selves, gaining and improving skills
  • become a team and connect with other people in the game world
  • learn about the world and expand their horizons
  • increase the options and possibilities for themselves and others
  • make the world a better place for others beyond the character and their team

All this takes place in an expansive, original fantasy world ready to support your best fun!

Thank you for your support!