This is the expanded system mentioned last week. It uses the Leverage variant of the Cortex Plus system, as that seemed to fit the system language I wanted the best, but you could easily retool the concept for another system.

Theme as Character

Each player in this game takes on the role of a theme. Each player also has one or more face characters that he or she roleplays directly and which serve as representatives of the theme. But the theme itself is where most of the character’s stats lie. Faces come and go as the story demands, but the theme grows and persists.

A player’s theme should be a modified noun or verb or a short phrase: it needs enough terms involved to make it truly distinctive (and more specific than, say, a Nobilis domain). The theme becomes something that the player is trying to, though actions in the game, make true in the game world. GMs may want to create a list of theme components that are appropriate to the game desired, or have the players go nuts and see what comes out (though, even then, a list for players that have trouble picking things like Aspects is probably a good idea).

While the players pick their themes, the game setting does have an independent reality apart from the players. That is, the GM (possibly with player input) defines the setting and central conflicts in the world, but the players will ultimately define what is significant by use of their themes.

Some example themes are:

  • Vengeance: sudden and cold
  • “Fight” and “Flight” are both valid responses
  • Nothing done of love has ever come to evil
  • Information wants to be free
  • It’s never too late for diplomacy

Thematic Attributes

Once a player chooses a theme, it’s time to assign it attributes and actions.

  1. Choose five adjectives that seem related to the theme. Assign d12, d10, d8, d6, and d4 to them.
  2. Choose five verbs that seem related to the theme. These are effectively skills, so the verb should be as narrow as the GM is comfortable with (and to have minimal overlap between PCs). Assign d12, d10, d8, d6, and d4 to them.
  3. Pick an adjective and match it with a verb. Remove them both from the pool. Match another adjective and verb. Do this five times until each adjective is paired with a verb.
  4. Create a specific action as a short phrase that makes sense for that combination. The dice pool for that action is the combination of the adjective and verb dice.

For example:

  • Vengeance: sudden and cold
    • A righteous execution (Vengeful d12 Gunshot d10)
    • A necessary deception (Cold d10 Lie d6)
    • A simple staredown (Quick d8 Intimidation d4)
    • A sucker punch (Sudden d6 Punch d8)
    • A planned infiltration (Calculated d4 Stealth d12)
  • “Fight” and “Flight” are both valid responses
    • “It’s time to get out of here!” (Pragmatic d12 Retreat d12)
    • “You can’t prove anything!” (Cowardly d10 Lie d4)
    • “Floor it!” (Fast d8 Driving d6)
    • “How you doin’?” (Unexpected d6 Charm d8)
    • “Backstab!” (Cheap d4 Shanking d10)

Additionally, sketch out a face character. This is a character that is driven by your theme, and who you will portray in the game. But he or she is ultimately disposable, and you may find yourself quickly switching to another face when the original gets killed, captured, or is just offscreen for a while. For some themes, the face going out quickly and dramatically may happen all the time.

A face gets three Traits (typically verbs or adjectives): d10, d8, and d6. For example:

  • Dominique Voss, daughter of the late Mayor Voss: Connected d10, Rich d8, Beautiful d6 (Vengeance: sudden and cold)
  • Guillermo Chavez, the ganglord with 9 lives: Forgettable d10, Humor d8, Gunshot d6 (“Fight” and “Flight” are both valid responses)
  • Wallace Jones, aspiring family man: Mechanic d10, Drive d8, Friendly d6 (Nothing done of love has ever come to evil)
  • Piety “1mp10u5” Li, rebellious teen: Hacking d10, History d8, Interesting d6 (Information wants to be free)
  • Conner Mactiernan, police negotiator: Unthreatening d10, Trustworthy d8, Gunshot d6 (It’s never too late for diplomacy)

Playing the Game

The core rule of the game is the common advice, “Say Yes, or roll the dice.” Specifically, nearly all activities in the game can be safely narrated. When a player wants to do something, if it doesn’t conflict with the opposition themes or traits, the GM should work with the player to describe a successful result (though the degree of success can be limited by the mood of the game and the description of the Face involved). Players should give the same leeway to the GM: resist objecting to a narration unless it can be contested by a theme or trait. Effectively, dice are only rolled when both sides have a numerical representation of the conflict.

To this end, for every story, the GM creates an opposition theme. This is done mechanically very similarly to the PCs: pick a theme, assign dice to adjectives and verbs, and then create actions. The GM’s job is slightly different in that:

  • The opposition theme should be something broad enough that all the player themes might have a reason to come into conflict with it.
  • Instead of 5 adjectives and verbs, the GM gets 2 per player of each. At 3+ players, the dice wrap back to the beginning (e.g., with 4 players, the GM will have 8 adjectives and verbs: 2d12, 2d10, 2d8, 1d6, 1d4).

Like the PCs, the GM creates a Face, which in the GM’s case is effectively the main antagonist for the story. This villain gains one trait die per PC, counting down from d12 (e.g., with 4 players the villain will have d12, d10, d8, and d6).

Whenever narration reaches a state where the outcome needs to be resolved with dice, the GM and the active player create a dice pool and roll (if in doubt, the active player is the one whose Face instigated the conflict). The dice pool consists of:

  • The most relevant Theme Action: This can be an Action on the player’s own sheet or one on any other theme sheet including the GM’s (remember whose it was).
  • Up to one relevant Face Trait: This is one of the three traits (likely more for the GM) that represents the active Face’s individual qualities.
  • Up to one relevant miscellaneous Trait: This is a trait that has been created from complications during the course of play (see below).

For example: Chavez is trying to avoid being caught for a particular crime. He rolls “You can’t prove anything!” (d10 + d4) plus Forgettable (d10) plus Airtight Alibi (2d6) (a misc trait he’s created earlier in the session) for a final dice pool of 2d10 + 2d6 + 1d4.

(Continued next week)