I’m sure something like this has been done before, but I got the idea watching Hemlock Grove. It’s a mechanic for games where the players are meant to be fairly unheroic, selfish individuals that are forced by circumstances to become protagonists even though they’d rather while away their days filled with angst. You know, your John Constantines, Angels, Nick Knights, Duncan Macleods, and such. They’re only heroic in the circumstances because they’re not actively villainous and they have a handful of things that are important enough to them to step up and defend.
Each player character starts the game with five bonds. These are five nouns important enough that the character will go out of her way to defend them. Three of them have to be people (friends, family members, or just people the character idealizes and wants to protect, but not other PCs). The other two can be additional people or places, objects, or ideals. If they aren’t people, there has to be some defined way the thing could be destroyed. For example:
- A building could burn down. A secret lair could be exposed.
- An item could be stolen. A treasure could be destroyed.
- A loyalty could be betrayed. An ideal could be proven false.
Essentially, each bond must have a clear way it could be destroyed, killed, or otherwise rendered permanently unavailable to the character. The more ways that this could happen, the better (the point is that the GM is going to threaten them regularly, so making them only have a limited angle of attack will either make it repetitive or the GM will ignore it, making it worthless).
A player may only have five bonds at a time. If one is destroyed, a new one can be purchased with one experience point (multiplied by whatever value payouts are multiplied by, see below) and justification for why this thing is now important to the character.
A GM will frequently threaten the bonds of the characters. Threatening a bond adds 1 experience point to it. The GM must follow several rules:
- A bond may only be threatened with sufficient warning that there’s a chance to save it (at least at the beginning of the scene where the bond is in danger).
- A GM may not destroy a bond without threatening it.
- If a GM threatens several of a character’s bonds at once (such that it is likely that saving one will doom the other without extreme success), he must pay an additional experience point per each bond threatened (e.g., if three are threatened, each bond threatened gets 3 exp placed on it).
- Bonds can only be threatened if the owner of the bond must take difficult action to save it. If the bond is not really in danger, such that the owner’s inaction would not result in its destruction, it is not worth an exp.
The GM should try to threaten at least one bond per player per session.
Destruction, Retirement, and Revenge
If a bond is destroyed, the player gains all the experience points currently placed on it. Essentially, the player must protect the bond at least once to do more than just recoup the cost of purchasing the bond, and protecting one several times creates greater exp profit.
The exp is multiplied by whatever factor makes sense for the system (e.g., if the system expects players to earn 10 exp per session, and the GM only plans to threaten an average of one bond per player per session, it should be multiplied by 10). This may be the game’s primary (or only) source of experience points.
If the bond gains a total of five or more exp, the player may choose to retire it with story justification. A bond to a character may mean that the character moves away from the area and out of danger, or just gets empowered sufficiently to no longer be in greater danger than the PC (sometimes, this just means informing your friend why he’s been targeted by all these crazy things recently). The character may leave the place to no longer keep it in danger, or just may somehow protect it so it’s no longer targeted. An item may be placed somewhere safe so it’s not in constant risk. A retired ideal means that the character has internalized it sufficiently that it’s no longer at risk of being disproved.
A retired bond gives half its exp value to the player, rounded down (i.e., you get paid more for the angst of loss than fully protecting the bond; a player that retires a bond has grown fond enough of it to sacrifice a bunch of exp to keep it safe). It usually leaves the story to live happily ever after. If there are brief visits from the bond later, it should never be in any particular danger unless the players choose to keep pulling it back in (or some other player decides to take it as a bond…).
When a bond is destroyed, instead of accepting the experience immediately, the player may choose to declare revenge. The bond changes to “Revenge for the [death/loss/etc.] of [the bond]” and cannot be replaced until the revenge is completed or abandoned. The player may abandon the revenge at any time and gain the original experience value of the bond.
For every session that the player character expends effort toward fulfilling the revenge (investigating to find the killer, paying back the killer in kind, etc.), the bond gains an additional experience point (to a maximum of double the original value of the bond). When the revenge is finally consummated (by killing or otherwise ruining the person or organization most responsible for the destruction of the bond), the bond is cleared and pays out its full accumulated value.
Players may specify bonds, particularly to people, in a way that means that death is not the only way to destroy them. Generally, this is something like maintaining the innocence/ignorance of the subject. Your friend finding out your secret (which will cause a permanent rift in the friendship), or your sibling being turned into a monster like you may be almost as terrible for you as being killed.
When a threat targets a region large enough that it might destroy multiple bonds, it doesn’t count as a threat to those bonds until there’s only a short time left to save them. For example, if the players find out several hours in advance that there’s going to be a city-wide death ritual, but they could just call loved ones and tell them to evacuate with plenty of time to spare, that’s not a threat worthy of an exp. If the players deliberately dawdle until there’s no way the bonds could escape without stopping the threat, or don’t even find out about it until it’s too late to escape, then it does count as a threat to all of the bonds (it might still not count for multiple exp on each bond, since saving one doesn’t necessarily make it harder to save another if one success averts the crisis). In general, GMs should be careful about large-scale threats (perhaps saving them for arc finales where the giant exp payout is intended).
These bonds can double as Aspects in a Fate game (and may replace them entirely). In that case, you can obviously invoke the Aspect when the bond is being threatened. All threats to a bond are also Compels, but the GM can Compel the bond without threatening it (for situations where the bond is in trouble, or will get the PC in trouble, without actually being in mortal danger).