Thursday, October 18, 2012

Silly Name, Fun Idea

So, the Marvel Heroic RPG has one of the most clever initiative systems I've ever seen. For the unfamiliar, it basically breaks down as follows - someone goes first, and after they're done, they choose who goes next. Repeat this pattern until everyone has gone. This idea (which I call "pass-around initiative") is pretty simple, and while specific implementations need to answer specific questions (like, 'who goes first?', 'how can I interrupt?' and 'how do you reflect faster characters?') the core idea is portable to many other game designs.

This was on my mind when I encountered another very common RPG occurrence - rolling to determine who to do something bad to.

You've seen it before. A monster makes a surprise attack, rocks fall, a god smites - something bad is going to happen and you need to decide which player it's going to happen to. Hell, when everything is going OK, then it can be doubly important to do something nasty to keep things going. The questions is always who to do it to. GM's want to be fair, so they tend to use rules or randomization to make these choices (since just picking someone could be seen as mean) but this can produce uneven results.

So, I was struck by an idea for handling this inspired by pass-around initiative, and thus the doomball[1] was born.

So, at the start of the game, give one player the doomball (Ideally in the form of some physical token). How you decide which player is totally arbtrary, and if you want to use a classic method (like randomization) feel free. My suggestion is to give it to whoever was holding it at the end of last session (or to whoever missed the last session), but there might also be mechanical systems in the game that might help with this too; Amber DRPG has "Bad Stuff" which might be a great way to determine this, for example.

The player holds the doomball until the GM comes to a point where something bad needs to happen to someone. In this case, the GM targets the player holding the doomball, and once she's done, the player passes it to another player. The only rule about the handoff is that no player can get the doomball until everyone else has had the doomball.

How often the doomball gets passed depends a lot on the game. Combat brings up the possibility for a lot of passing, but it shouldn't necessarily be used for every attacks. Enemies often have specific logic by which they determine their attacks - a logical choice doesn't invoke the doomball, but an open choice of targets might.

This can certainly be the end of it - its a simple determinant to resolve issues as they come up - but there can be more to it. It's easy to build mechanical hooks into the system, such as abilities that make you take the doomball or allow you to pass the doomball early. Hell, this may be a more useful way to reflect luck-based effects (like blessings and curses) than the usual bonuses and penalties to attacks because this feels more like luck.

Anyway, it's a slightly silly name, but the idea is pretty usable, so feel free to go nuts with it.

1 - The name was inspired by the tvtrope of the idiot ball


  1. The tank always gets the doomball...

    1. It could definitely be tweaked to serve as an "aggro ball", especially for fancy boss fights, where weird things may happen like multiple doomballs, or non-doomball holder attacks. Tanks would totally have one or more "Give me the ball" abilities, other classes might have "Get rid of the ball!" or "Redirect the ball to someone else" abilities. THere might be rules like a critical hits (Or hits over a certain size, or other triggers) gives you the ball (at least until the tank can taunt it back). Goes doubly well when you start designing trigger-driven boss fights (to capture that Raid feel).

  2. Hmm, I would be tempted to tie the doomball for some kind of modified morality system, in a particular focussed game type.

    I love the concept of the doomball. Thank you.

  3. The tank would not always get the doomball if other characters are better suited to withstand some particular types of mishaps.

    But still this problem:
    >just picking someone could be seen as mean
    seems to persist.

    Let's say we have a warrior, who shakes off physical attacks, a wizard immune to magic and a rogue who disarms traps. The wizard passes the ball to the rogue.

    Now they are going through the dungeon and trigger a curse.
    The wizard would be immune, but the rogue isn't, so there would be "why now?" instead of "why me?". And still the GM is to blame. Or you could fudge a trap instead of a curse, but this doesn't seem fair either.

    I guess while there is at least some intent or deliberation involved from the GM side, the result wouldn't look random, even if it honestly is.

    I like how Left4Dead implements Director
    It would be interesting to try some randomization system, which would track the players' stress in some way and punish them equally over time, removing GM's decisions from the picture. A bag with differently colored glass beads seems good enough.

    1. Thankfully, it's self correcting. The frequency and nature of doomball use varies by genre and style - tactical dungeon crawling invokes the ball differently and more often than a noir investigation game. This is fine, because for the crunchy crawl, you'd want to have several more rules related to the doomball, specifically related to seizing it, passing it off, skipping your turn or otherwise manipulating it as one more tactical element (see the aggro model for some examples)

  4. Another problem arises when the party is split and the group targeted by a randomize doom does not include the person holding the doomball. How then to make the decision of who is affected among the targeted group?

    1. That's enough of an edge case that I wouldn't worry about it, but I would find the easiest solution to be "The camera follows the doom ball"

  5. I am thinking of implementing this idea myself.. but additionally having the Doom Ball also be a "free" d6 Doom against the Hero in question.

    And yes, I'm mean like that.

  6. I'm putting together a game which I'm describing as "John Waters Dies at the End" and "Harold and Kumar go to Silent Hill".

    I'm going to use the Doomball in it. Is it ok if I call it that?

    Actually, now that I think about it, there's a lot of ideas in this blog I'll probably be ratcheting in.


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