Wednesday, 6 July 2022

PARIAH design notes (part 1)

On 22nd May I posted a still image of the prospective cover for PARIAH: Volume 2 and I'm sorry to report that I don't have any dates for when that crowdfunder is going to happen. However, I did * hint * at posting "a long-winded post explaining the major changes to my RPG design philosophy"

Hyperbole aside, I thought it might be useful to reflect upon PARIAH Volume 1 and the lessons learned as I prepare for the next crowd-funded project.


The original game concept emerged from a confluence of 3 elements:
  • house rules for 2 parallel bronze age OSR/5e campaigns
  • Humza Kazmi's seminal Towards a Leftist OSR post
  • an earlier concept that manifested in a 2012 Neolithic play-by-post game. 
Emerging from this confluence was this initial expression of design intent:

Towards the end of 2019 I decided I was going to a bring these ideas together for Zine Quest 2, and commissioned my friend Jef Cox to produce a cover. ZQ2 begin in February 2020 as the world teetered on the brink of the COVID-19 pandemic. My friends Abigail Lingford and Felicia/Hoang Minh Nhat contributed additional illustration. My wife Nguyen Thi Phuong Dung coordinated production. 

Originally the entire zine was to be printed and distributed out of Vietnam, but due to a number of unfortunate events (the COVID-19 pandemic not the least significant among them) I was temporarily separated from my family and ended up stranded in my country of birth (the UK), where the kickstarter was finally carried out.

(happy to report that while I am still in England, my wife and son were able to join me early last year)


After some equivocation, I've decided that I'm going to perform a full post mortem. This is likely to be longer than two posts. My intention at this moment is time is to then follow that dissection with a breakdown of the promotional blurb from the Kickstarter text.

If this sounds self-indulgent it probably is: I'm unsure if there is any value to be gleamed from this by others, but maybe the spectacle of watching me gleam value will be your own reward. You have been warned. Please bear in mind that you are free to read something potentially more interesting at any time.

If you don't have a copy of PARIAH and are curious, a free edition is downloadable from both and DTRPG, links below:  

Introduction (p.3)

Above: contents & introduction to PARIAH: VOL 1

There is a number of earnest acknowledgements at the beginning of the book following the obligatory legalese, and I shan't go into either here other than to say the acknowledgements are still representative of my sincere gratitude to those RPG creators.

After the contents, the introduction explains that the zine "provides all the tools you need to set up and run your own psychedelic proto-Neolithic animist old-school sandbox roleplaying game" without explaining what any of those terms mean. Already I'm assuming a great deal of knowledge on the part of the reader: this is perhaps suitable for a adventure or supplement for an existing game, but maybe a zine that is "a complete game in and of itself" should not start with so many assumptions.

I at least spare my readers an explanation of what I think a roleplaying game is...

Oh wait...

Creating a Character (p.4)

Above: character creation in PARIAH

Players control one (or more) characters —pariahs.

At times you play them directly or describe their actions in the third person. Players are the pariah’s conscience and guiding voice. If it helps with immersion: think of yourself as their ancestral spirit.

Bad things might happen to your pariah. They can get hurt or die. Those things are not happening to you but it’s okay to feel bad about it.

Likewise, it’s okay not to feel anything: sometimes it takes a long time to feel attached to a pariah. Let them earn your affection.

In any case try to take care of them... but in the worst case do not dwell on loss.

Roll up another. 
I have mixed feelings about this passage: on the one-hand, I think it offers a good explanation of the player/character relationship in OSR games. Conversely, it would have been a good opportunity to a) discuss the player/GM dynamic and b) introduce safety tools. 

Names (p.4-5)

The pariah given name and true name generators are good, I think, though there is not real explanation here (or later in the book) as to what true names actually mean. There are hints as to its purpose in the entries for Nameless Ones and some of the rituals, but nothing directly player-facing. At the very least, I should have included the point that the true name is known only to the pariah.

Hit Dice & Attribute  (p.5-7)

PARIAH is a game without classes and levels. Pariahs are differentiated from one another (initially) by the size of their hit dice and their ability scores. Hit dice are randomly generated (with either D4, D6 or D8 emerging), which then has a knock-on effect further along in character creation:
  • D4 HD characters are more likely to start with a spell spirit or ritual. WIS & CHA are likely to be higher than average; CON & STR are more likely to be lower.
  • D6 characters have a broader range of skills.
  • D8 characters have fewer skills but are likely to be more proficient at combat
Of course, hit dice also determine hit points, though they are never described as anything other than HP throughout. There's also a not about how PCs can sacrifice hit dice to improve other rolls as long as it is narratively feasible: there is a brief comparison of examples to dissect the meaning of "strong narrative reason") but these aren't expanded upon. On reflection, it may have been helpful: players coming from non-5e backgrounds won't be familiar with the concept of tracking hit dice along with HP, and that's before we get to the idea of adding hit dice to other rolls.

I wrote a post concerning this concept prior to pariah's publication:

This mechanic feeds into the magic system (which is strongly influenced by GLOG magic dice), and serves as a reminder that when adding elements to what is essentially basic D&D, it's a good idea to take stuff away, too. At its heart PARIAH wants to be a game about confronting obstacles while managing resources, but as written the "list" of resources becomes quite long. What's more, it includes "resources" that a typical old-school player won't be accustomed to managing: hit dice and attributes, for example. 

Above: attributes & saving throws

The attributes page also introduces the non-D20 based resolution mechanic: the whole stat (as in your 3d6 score) is deducted from the DC (never once defined in the entire book: it stands for "difficulty class", and there are no guidelines for how to meet them), then a D6 roll to hit the resultant number (alternatively: stat + d6 vs DC).

The reason for this apparently complicated is as follows:
  • I've always liked the traditional six ability scores and wanted them to count: to make STR 15 mean something compared to STR 14...
  • This already happens in roll under systems, but I wanted to make the whole game roll high rather than a mix of roll high/ roll low
  • Wanted to remove ability score bonuses (even though I don't! See below)
  • Also wanted to introduce a scalable skill mechanic based around die size
In a nutshell, the problems are as follows:
  • No guidelines provided for setting DC (using 5e guidelines won't work)
  • Limited range of success: this is arguably a feature not a bug. It puts hard limits on what is achievable (unless additional "hit dice" mechanic is used, above, but players always forget about this, especially old-school players... nb. I am faulting the design here, not the players!)
  • When asking players to make a roll + STR they automatically assume it is the bonus, not the whole stat. Adding 13 to a dice roll is not something most people are used to. That's setting aside the issues of mental arithmetic (less of an issue with the prevalence of online play and the accompanying dicebots doing maths on the players' behalf)
Note that the "core attribute" concept acts as a substitute for class: it is a consequence of the character's hit die size (D4 skew towards wis & cha, D8 towards DTR & CON) and has a knock-on effect on both skills and saves.

Saving throws (p.5-7)

For the most part, I kept old school saves in place, with the following exceptions:
  • "wands" becomes "devices"
  • "Dragon's breath" becomes "reflex"
    • This is a consequence of a) there not being many dragons in the implied setting and b) this is usually the default for a "reflex" save in most of the B/X or BECMI games I've played.
    • Calling it reflex is problematic because you don't save against your own reflexes, making the naming convention inconsistent. I wrote a post a few years ago about making it save vs. surprise
  • "Save vs. Spells" is a bonus against a DC set by the caster's spellcasting stat (again, inconsistent: this rule is taken from 3rd edition originally, should have stuck with trad saves if I'm keeping the rest of them)
With such a heavy emphasis on attributes, it might have been a good idea to drop them and replace with stat based saves a la 3.5e and 5e (or Into the Odd). Another example of where I perhaps should have subtracted where stuff was added.

Saving throws came up so rarely in the games of Pariah I've run, I'm struggling to think of an example. Certainly (as far as I know) no player invested in improving their saves... if any former players are reading, I'd love to be set straight here. 

Skills (p.8-9)

Above: pages 8-9 of Pariah, detailing skills

I won't get too granular with my analysis here, as I've posted and vacillated (!) over skills on multiple occasions, all of which are linked in the footnotes below. But to break down design intent:
  • Skills are tied to ability scores, and give someone an additional edge in a particular set of circumstances, tied to a die representing their degree of training and/or experience.
  • The skills help differentiate pariahs by their ability scores, particular the "core skill" feature which ties two skills to the character's core attribute (prime requisite)
  • Some skills are tied to multiple attributes: a pariah might derive their skill with entheogens from their wisdom or their constitution.
  • Additional skills provide more variety and are a little more random, though they are functionally identical (the distinction between "core" and "additional" is a feature of chargen only). Furthermore:
    • D6 hit die pariahs get more skills (representing their "all-rounder" status)
    • Pariahs also get a number of additional skills equal to their intelligence modifier (note: they do not lose skills if that modifier is negative) 
The problem with skills in OSR adjacent games has been discoursed to death, so again I've no intention on analysing this ad nauseum. Nonetheless, it's worth divulging the problems these skill systems have caused in gams I've played in:
  • The "thief problem" i.e. If she's the climbing expert, does that mean none of us can climb? This is somewhat bypassed by skills providing only a marginal edge over the untrained (D8 as opposed to D6).
  • The character sheet problem: as the player moves through chargen, they slowly fill their sheet with more and more information. A high intelligence D6 pariah might have 8 skills (or fewer skills but be highly trained in them): it is not unreasonable for the player to assume these are significant, and will look to the character sheet to overcome the problems their character faces. this is particularly prevalent in players coming to PARIAH from trad or storygame backgrounds.
  • The problem of excessive granularity: closely tied into the above and linked to an unhealthy appetite for "simulationism", excessively granularity introduces a barrier between the player and the fiction. In short, there can be a trade-off between players engaging with the world and players engaging with mechanics.

Possessions (p.10-11)

ABOVE: PARIAH starting possessions

I think this spread offers much more than the previous two, in that it gives readers a better sense of what the world is about without the burden of mechanical crunch. I'm uncertain who first said that the D&D items list tells you so much about the game but it rings true, and I think i made a half-decent stab at cutting a window into the world of pariah (with a bone or flint knife no less).

Something to note: their were optional rules allowing "proficient" (again, a term not fully defined in the context of weapons use) wielders to apply alternative bonuses to their combat roll. Again, this is an effort to make all the stats count, and to make observant (i.e. high WIS) archers as deadly as dextrous ones, or render knife edge as keen as the wit which wields them. 

A more extensive starting items list would ensure greater variety for ne w characters. We often end up with multiple wooden antelopes, leading players to conclude that they have some special cultural significance that I am yet to work in to the world.

Reasons for exile, special features (p.12-13)

ABOVE: reasons for exile, starting possessions

I really like this spread, as it gives a few extra specialisms to the character while implying a bit of random back story. It's great fun when a new band of pariahs spontaneously weave their "reasons for exile" together, and I like the ambivalence of things like "haunted by malevolent spirit". The special features also tie in with the hit dice very nicely, no matter how much the rest of the hit dice mechanics might be broken!


The character creation process provides players of a game with the following:
  • An avatar to interact with the world
  • An insight into the sort of world that might be, and the sort of challenges a character might face
  • Some idea of the methods (mechanically or narratively) by which those challenges might be overcome
This is why chargen is nearly always the first chapter of any game text, and also why it's important to make sure it addresses the points above. I understand that this is game design 101 but I'm trying to be transparent with my thought processes here!

I've GMed for decades now, and for the most part I've used some variant of B/X to do that. It's really easy for me to run on the fly, thanks to familiarity with the system. It's easy for me to explain rules and rulings (including weird house rules) as we go, and to convince players of my own impartiality. I feel that (for the most part) I do a good job of representing a consistent world for the players to explore.

"Good" game design is not the same as "good" GMing, is it? I can't be there to explain why sometimes we use the whole stat, sometimes the bonus... and that hit dice are a renewable resource, and that stat damage represents actual wounds but hit points are merely battle stamina... all of this has to be in the text. In other words, the first half of PARIAH is me cramming a lot of house rules into a zine and not really explaining them.

This is almost entirely the consequence of a perverse obsession with simulationism which I don't think adds much to the gaming experience (at least not how I've tackled it here). There were design reasons for these decisions: namely the classless, level-less nature of the game, reflecting the possibility that in our deep past social roles were less clearly defined. But perhaps it would have been better to reduce the amount of crunch on these pages, and make the game a more explicit hack of OSE... or Die Trying... or Knave (as Weird Blue Yonder has done spectacularly well with Fire & Stone).

Next time, I'll be dissecting  the sections THE BAND and INTERACTING WITH THE WORLD (which includes <<yikes>> combat...)


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