It is, in essence, a system for answering yes-no questions and injecting randomness into the scenario.
Everything you would ask of the GM, you pose as a yes/no question. Then the group has to determine how probable a 'yes'-answer is. Then you roll a D100 and you know if the answer is 'yes', 'no', 'exceptional yes' or 'exceptional no'. You then have to interpret what the answer means -- which is often quite straightforward.
There are two special mechanisms to inject unforeseen events into the mix: the Chaos Factor and Random Events.
The Chaos Factor, which moves on a scale from 1 to 9, measures how well the PCs are in control of the situation. If they dominate the action and determine what happens, the Chaos Factor goes one down for the next scene. If they're being overrun by enemies or otherwise overcome by the action, the Chaos Factor goes one up. A higher Chaos Factor gives a higher chance of obtaining a 'yes'-answer. The initial Chaos Factor is 5 (so, right in the middle).
If, on a roll when answering a question, you roll an multiple of 11 that is equal or lower than the Chaos Factor, a Random Event happens. You then have to roll on a table to determine what is the Focus of the event is -- this is stuff like 'NPC negative' or 'Advance a (plot-)thread'. Then you roll on a table with 100 entries to determine the Action, and on a table with 100 entries to determine the Subject. This yields a description that you then have to interpret -- and that can be a tough nut to crack.
We had agreed to create level 1 Pathfinder characters who would all sit in a bar in a tiny village. Then someone would come in, and we'd create a Random Event to see what it was about. We'd take it from there!
We had seven characters:
- Radijs, the halfling barbarian. She had gotten into trouble with the law by starting a bar brawl and had to pay off the damages by working at the bar as a cleaning-lady;
- Brand, the gnome alchemist. His equipment had gotten confiscated after a little accident with some brandy that he had made...
- Griselda, the human witch. She wants to move out of the little village to become the private witch of a pretty princess;
- Ivellios, the half-elf sorcerer. His brother got all the attention from his parents, so he is out to make a name for himself;
- Benny, a human cleric. He had gotten into trouble with his religious order;
- Ren, an elven bard. She dreams of travel and books (and that handsome boy in the library);
- Gellon, a human rogue. He wants to go to the city to make it big -- to pay off his debts.
Our initial list of Threads consisted of:
- Radijs wants to save innocent people;
- Brand wants every inn-keeper to sell Brand's Brandy;
- Brand wants to become powerful;
- Griselda wants to become the court magician of a pretty princess;
- Ivellios wants to become powerful;
- Radijs wants a magic sword;
- Benny wants to get an apology of the grand-master of his order;
- Benny wants glory in a large-scale armed conflict;
- Gellon wants to travel to the city to get money to pay off his debts.
Our initial list of NPCs consisted of:
- Dondor, a shady figure that Gellon owes money. Married to Imelda;
- Imelda, Griselda's sister who is heavily into keeping up appearances. Married to Dondor;
- Morana, the mayor's pretty daughter;
- Ranuc, Gellon's best friend and sometimes-collaborator;
- Mark and Sonje, inn-keepers in the village;
- Oscar, inn-keeper in another inn;
- Magistrate Wendt, who confiscated Brand's distillery equipment;
- Jailor Berend, who freed Brand;
- Sergeant Logen, who taught Radijs some self-constraint;
- Dr. Huxtable, Radijs' father;
- Gran Stormvogel, Radijs' grandmother;
- Manfred, Griselda's rooster familiar;
- That pretty boy in the library;
- Marielle and Olaf, Ren's landlords;
- Mazirthd Liadon, Ivellios' teacher;
- Danrika of Ket, Ivellios' mother;
- Swyrd of Ket, Ivellios' half-brother;
- Otto, the grand-master of Benny's order;
- Master-at-arms Jerome, of Benny's order.
First scene, Chaos Factor 5: At the bar
We started all off in the inn of Mark and Sonje in the little village of Bloemkoolstronkeradeel. Brand is talking with Mark about brandy and his confiscated distillery. Radijs is mopping the floor as part of her court-mandated community service after that brawl here last week. Benny looks a bit worse for wear and sits in a corner, his heavy mace within reach at all times. Ren is taking a short break from singing and talks with Sonje at the bar. Gellon sits at a table, perhaps waiting for someone. Griselda is nursing a goat's milk on the rocks, with Manfred, her rooster familiar, on the table next to her. Ivellios sits buried in his mug of ale -- he thinks this village is too small for him.
We ask: "Is this the only inn in the village?" We think it's unlikely. Answer is "No", so we determine that Oscar's bar (where Brand also sold his brandy) is also in this village.
Our starting Event: NPC Negative. NPC is Imelda, Griselda's sister. Action: Usurp, Subject: Hope. We determine that Imelda has lost all her money, which is a huge problem if you're overly concerned with how others see you.
We ask: "Is the person entering the inn Imelda, looking for Griselda?" We think this is a near sure thing. Answer is "Exceptional yes". We determine that Imelda has come into the inn in a big panic, drags Griselda into a private booth and starts shouting about how she is ruined.
Gellon thinks that this might mean that Dondor will show up soon to demand his money back, to cover these losses! He wonders how heavy Dondor could lean on him, and if he has enforcers to break his legs or something like that. We ask: "Is Dondor a real underworld-type of characters?" Given that he's based in the small village of Bloemkoolstronkeradeel, we think this is very unlikely. Answer is "no". That means Dondor is just a small-time huckster. Gellon is a bit relieved.
Meanwhile, Imelda is crying unconsolably on Griselda's shoulder, who assures her that all her friends will do everything in their power to solve her problem. Gellon offers his help (with the idea that this will be a good way to get rid of his debt). Ren hugs Imelda to calm her down.
We ask: "Has the money been swindled away?" We think this is 50/50. Answer is "exceptional yes". We determine that Imelda knows who did this to her, since it has been going on for weeks.
We ask: "Is this a 419-type of scam?" We think the probability is about 50/50. Answer is "yes".
We ask: "Is the adress where the money had to be sent to, in the big city?" We think this is very likely, since these scam artists need to hide amongst lots of people. Answer is "yes".
And so everyone joins Griselda's party to the city, to find Imelda's money and save her from bankruptcy. (Though we did have to kidnap Brand, who would rather stay in the bar and complain about his brandy. A single look from Griselda put him to sleep, so that fixed that.)
We ask: "Is it further than one day's travel to the city?" We think the chances are 50/50. Answer is "yes". So we will need to spend the night somewhere along the way.
We ask: "Is there an inn within a day's travel from here to the city?" We think the chances are 50/50. Answer is "no". So we will have to make camp outside.
We ask: "Are we in a forest when it's time to make camp?" We think this is likely. Answer is "yes".
So the next scene is when we make camp in the forest. We lower the Chaos Factor to 4, add the scammers to our NPC list and add "recover Imelda's money" to the list of threads. There is no interrupt.
Second scene, Chaos Factor 4: Camp in the forest
We make camp for the night in a forest along the way. Radijs pitches a tent to share with Griselda and Ren. Benny will sleep on a large stone, the rest of the men will use their bedrolls. The women ask: "Is there a brook near?" We think this is likely. The answer is "yes". So we collect a few buckets of water for general use, and then the women retreat to the stream to bathe -- but not before Griselda has cast 'Obscuring Mist'! After that, we eat our rations and we split the watches. We decide to let Griselda and Ren sleep, the five others will have a 2-hour watch. Radijs takes the first watch and climbs a tree to keep a look-out.
We ask: "Will something happen tonight?" We think this is a near sure thing -- why else would the GM have us camp in a forest? Answer is "yes". We roll a D10 to determine during which watch this 'something' happens, and the first watch comes up. We get a random encounter table for Pathfinder from somewhere on the web, and we get an attack from an owlbear!
Radijs alerts everybody and we roll for initiative (as well as for the owlbear). Griselda is first, and she casts 'Misfortune' on the owlbear. Gellon is next, and he shoots his shortbow for a total of 20. We ask: "Does Gellon hit?" With a total of 20, we think that's a sure thing. Answer is "exceptional yes" -- so the owlbear has an AC much lower than 20. Gellon rolls for damage and gets a 5. We ask: "Does this kill the owlbear?" We say: "no way!" and the answer is "no".
Next is Brand, who tosses a bomb on the owlbear. He hits AC 21, so we know it's a hit. His attack does 10 fire damage. We ask: "Does this kill the owlbear?" We think that's unlikely, and the answer is "no."
Next is Ren, who starts to sing a song to Inspire us with Courage. Next is Ivellios, who starts to summon a celestial horse on a position to flank the owlbear.
Next is Benny, who hits the owlbear with his heavy mace. He hits AC 22, so that's a hit as well. His attack does 10 damage. We ask: "Does this kill the owlbear?" We think that's somewhat likely (because we expect the GM to tailor the encounter to our characters, the likelyhood of felling the owlbear gets higher every time). The answer is "no".
Next is Radijs, who enters a rage and starts to hack at the owlbear's knees. She hits AC 15. We ask: "Is that a hit?" Given that AC 20 is an "exceptional yes"-hit, we think that's nearly a sure thing. The answer is "exceptional yes", which means the owlbear's AC is even much lower than 15. Radijs hits for 6 points of damage. We ask: "Does this kill the owlbear?" We think that's very likely. The answer is "no".
Now it's the owlbear's turn. Both Radijs and Benny are within melee range for him. We ask: "Does the owlbear attack Benny?" We think this is a near sure thing, because Benny did the most damage. The answer is "yes". However, when we roll for the owlbear's attack, we roll a 1 -- a fumble! We ask: "Does the owlbear fall down from this fumble?" We think it's somewhat likely. Answer is "no". We ask: "Can the owlbear do anything else this turn?" We think this is unlikely. The answer is "no" -- so the owlbear's turn passes without it being able to do any damage to any of us!
It's Griselda's turn again, and she casts a sleep hex on the owlbear. The owlbear has to make a DC 15 Will save. We roll a 9 for the owlbear, which means he needs a +6 on Will saves. We ask: "Does the owlbear resist a DC 15 spell on a roll of 9?" We think that's very unlikely. The answer is "no", which means that the owlbear falls asleep. Griselda walks over to the sleeping owlbear, puts her foot on its chest and does her battle-yodel.
The rest does nothing, but when it's Radijs' turn, her rage is still active so she attacks the owlbear full force. She rolls a attack for AC 14. We ask: "Does this hit?" Since we determined earlier that the owlbear's AC is less than 15, we think this has to be. Answer is "yes", so Radijs hits. Since an attack on a sleeping opponent is an automatic critical, the damage doubles -- for a total of 16 damage. We ask: "Does this kill the owlbear?" We think this has to be (since the owlbear has already taken 55 points of damage and we're only first-level characters). The answer is "exceptional yes". We take this to mean that Radijs completely obliterates the owlbear. Radijs falls to the ground, exhausted after her rage, with the innards of the owlbear spread out around her.
We ask: "Does the owlbear carry any loot?" We think this is unlikely (but we wanted to make sure anyway!). The answer is "yes". We ask: "Does it wear rings, amulets or bracers?" We think "no way" on this one -- but it's the type of loot that the owlbear could theoretically wear. Answer is "exceptional no" -- so the owlbear did not wear the loot. That must mean that the loot was contained in the owlbear's stomach: perhaps it ate an earlier, less fortunate adventurer who wore some jewelry. We ask: "Is it a ring?" We think the chance of that is 50/50. Answer is "no". We ask: "Is it a bracelet?" We think this is likely, as there are not many other options. The answer is "exceptional yes" -- so we determine that we find two bracelets amongst the gore. Griselda examines them to determine if they're magical. We think this is very likely, since they survived the owlbear's stomach. The answer is "exceptional no" -- so they're mundane. We then ask: "Are the bracelets jewelry?" We think this is a near sure thing, since it would take a precious metal to survive stomach acid. The answer is "exceptional yes". So this means that we find two very expensive matching bracelets!
We move the camp away from what's left of the owlbear's body. Radijs washes herself in the stream (aided by Ren), again under cover of Griselda's Obscuring Mist. We ask: "Does anything else happen this night?" We think that's unlikely (GMs don't often have two encounters in one night). The answer is "no".
So the next scene, we will travel on. We lower the Chaos Factor to 3. There is no interrupt.
Third scene, Chaos Factor 3: Arriving at the city
We ask: "Do we reach the city within one day of travel from our camp site?" We think this is very likely. The answer is "yes". So, after a few hours we arrive at the city.
We ask: "Are there guards to stop us when we want to enter the city?" We think this is very likely (it is, after all, a standard fantasy trope). The answer, however, is "exceptional no"! We take this to mean that the city gate is completely unguarded. Just to be sure, we ask: "Is it costumary for the gate to be unguarded?" We think: "no way!" and the answer is, indeed, "no". So there are no guards, but our characters would have expected them to be there... We ask: "Do we see anybody else?" We give this a chance of 50/50: whatever made the guards leave might have made the others who would usually be near the gate, leave as well. The answer is "no" -- so there is nobody at the gate.
We ask: "Do we hear something in the distance?" We think this is likely: the guards have to be somewhere, and the reason for their absence must be a bit further inside of the city. The answer is "yes". What would make the guards leave their post without being relieved? Probably something like crowd control if there is a sudden group of people inside of the city running amok, or a fire... We ask: "Is the cause of the guards' dissapearance a positive event?" We think this is very unlikely, since positive events tend to be pre-planned. The answer is "no".
To determine what is going on, we roll an Event Action and Subject. We get Attainment and Elements. We ended up with the idea that someone had summoned a fire elemental in the mage's guild, which had caught fire. The city guards try to extinguish the fire, but a crowd of onlookers thinks the building should burn to the ground!
We walk towards the cloud of smoke that billows up at the city centre and see the fire. Radijs and Ren join the chain to pass buckets of water. First we make sure that all of us are in a safe zone. We ask: "Are there magical hazards due to the fire?" We think that's very likely, but the answer is "no". So there are no sudden explosions or the like.
We try to identify the instigator for the mob -- the rabble rouser who is not at the front, but who whispers into the ears of the people at the front row who will loudly repeat his slogans. We roll for Perception. Brand rolls highest, for a 20. We ask: "Is this high enough to identify the leader of the mob?" We think that's a near sure thing, and the answer is "yes". We ask: "Do we know the leader of the mob?" This seems very unlikely, and the answer is "no". Benny rolls a Sense Motive to see if he can determine why this person is stirring up the citizenry against the magician's guild. He rolls high, and we ask: "Is this roll good enough to determine his motivation?" We think that's very likely, and the answer is "yes". We roll an Event Meaning to find out what Benny determines: 'Attract' as Action, 'Opulence' as Subject. We determine that this means that the instigator thinks he could make (more) money if the magician's guild were not there.
We turn our attention to the fire again. We wonder if there is a danger for the whole city to go up in flames. We ask: "Is the magician's guild building far enough apart from other buildings to prevent the fire from spreading?" We think this is very likely: if this was not the case, the mob would not be cheering the fire on. The answer is "yes". So there is no danger for the rest of the city, to our relief. Then we ask: "Does the city guard succeed in containing the mob so that they do not interfere with the fire-fighting effort?" We think this is about 50/50: the guard is trained, but the mob outnumbers them. The answer is "yes". That's good news for Radijs and Ren who are helping! Then we ask: "Do the fire fighters succeed in bringing the fire under control?" We think this is likely: a controlled burn suffices to keep the rest of the city safe. The answer is "yes".
With the fire being extinguished (or at least under control), the leader of the mob will try to sneak off just before the mob disperses in order to get away before the watch turns their attention to him. Griselda gives Gellon some Guidance, and he tries to shadow the leader. Gellon rolls a 24 on his Stealth skill. We ask: "Is this high enough to be able to track the leader?" We think it's very unlikely because the crowd is just dispersing, with lots of movement. The answer is "no": the leader dissapears in the crowd. Gellon tries to use his Perception to re-locate the leader as he emerges from the crowd and rolls a 16. We ask: "Is that high enough to find the leader again?" We think: "No way!" and indeed, the answer is "no". We lose the rabble-rouser in the crowd.
There's not much left to do here with the mob dispersed and the fire under control. So our next scene will be in an inn where we will stay the night. We increase the Chaos Factor to 4: events sort-of happened to us instead of us being active participants. We add the city guard, the angry mob and the leader of the mob to the list of NPCs. We add the plot against the magician's guild to the list of threads.
Fourth scene, Chaos Factor 4: Inn "The Porket"
We find an inn and rent two rooms for the night. Then we go downstairs for some drinks. We ask: "Are there other bar-guests downstairs?" We think this is very likely, and the answer is "yes". We would like to have a chat with the bar-fly who is always at the same spot -- the guy who knows everybody. We look through the room to identify such a person, and the highest roll on Perception within the party is 19. We ask: "Is this high enough to identify the bar-fly?" We think this is somewhat likely, but the answer is "no". So there's not an obvious candidate to ask for information about our swindlers and other things that are happening in the city.
Ren decides to sing a song about someone losing all their money in a swindle. We look through the audience to see if someone reacts suspiciously. We ask: "Does someone in the audience show a reaction?" We think this is very likely, but the answer is "no". We then look the audience over to see if someone is doing their best _not_ to react. The highest roll on Sense Motive is 21. We ask: "Is that high enough to find someone who is making sure not to react?" We think that's somewhat likely, but the answer is "no".
So there's not really anything to do but to ask the barman for the way to the adress that was given us. We ask: "Does the barman know the way to the swindler's reported adress?" We think that's a sure thing, because the courier with the money would have to be able to find it, too. The answer is "yes".
We want to skip to the next morning, but we roll an interrupt! We decide to raise the Chaos Factor another point, back to 5, because again we were not in control of the proceedings. We roll the Event, and get 'New NPC'. As Action, we get "Word hard", as Subject "Weather". We decide this means that a weather mage, who has been helping getting the fire under control, just enters the bar. He must be tired and looking for a stiff drink. We name him Hidde.
Fifth scene, Chaos Factor 5: Inn "The Porket"
We ask: "Is this weather mage with the magician's guild?" We think this is very likely, the answer is "yes". We ask: "Does Hidde get recognised?" We think this is a near sure thing, because this must be Hidde's usual bar -- why would he go anywhere else after a day/evening of hard fire-fighting work? The answer is "exceptional yes" -- perhaps Hidde is the barfly we were looking for earlier! But this last roll has also resulted in an interrupt.
The Event moves a Thread forward. We roll for the Thread and get Brand's desire to sell his brandy in every bar. Action is "Intolerance", subject is "A project". We think about this for a bit, and come up with a way to fit this in. We ask: "Does Hidde complain about the lack of diversity in stiff drinks on the menu?" Given the parameters of the Event, we think this is very likely, and the answer is "yes". So this is Brand's cue to jump in and offer a drink of his own reserve of his brandy to both Hidde and the barman. We ask: "Does Hidde enjoy the drink?" We determine that is unlikely (even Brand's player agreed!) and the answer is "no": Hidde is not impressed. We ask: "Does the barman like the brandy?" We think this is very unlikely: the barman is a pro and more discerning when it comes to alcoholic beverages. The answer is "no".
(We also ask: "Does Brand's brandy work very well for removal of paint or rust?" We think this is likely, and we even get an 'exceptional yes' as answer! So there you go: now you know to refuse when Brand offers you a taste...)
Ren decides to chat up Hidde once he's seated at his usual seat at the bar and he has a pint of something drinkable in front of him. She rolls a 24 for Diplomacy. We ask: "Is that high enough to get him to talk to her?" That high must be a near sure thing, and the answer is "yes". We ask: "Does Hidde know the rabble-rouser?" Given that he is part of the magician's guild and this must be an on-going feud, we think that's somewhat likely. The answer is "yes". We then ask if there is a connection between the rabble-rouser and the swindlers. We think that's very unlikely, and the answer is "no". (Looking back, I wonder how we could have asked that of Hidde and gotten an answer to this question...)
Then we think of who would profit of the magician's guild going under. One of us asks: "Is the rabble-rouser an Alchemist?" We think about this for a bit -- the products on sale could overlap, so we think this is likely. The answer is "yes". We determine that this alchemist and the magician's guild are in competition in selling various potions. With the guild gone, the alchemist could raise his prices!
...And that is all we had time for!
I am really impressed with the results: the various plots simply formed through the questions that were asked and the three Random Events that we had. I would never had considered to put a 419-scam in a fantasy scenario -- but that is exactly what happend. I would never had considered a feud between an alchemist and the magician's guild for market-dominance on potions -- but that is exactly what happened. It is as the MGME says: you ask questions and then use logic and interpretation to fit what you get into the scenario. This also means that the story flows quite naturally from one scene to the next: at the end of the scene, it's already clear what the characters are going to do next.
It's important to note that everyone had a good time. Five of the seven participants are GMs themselves, and all were impressed with the results, story-wise. (Though perhaps it takes a certain amount of experience as a GM to pose the 'right' questions and to interpret the answers. I think the presence of so many people with GM experience certainly helped.)
It's a remarkable system, and I think I'll be using it in the future. There are, however, some things to keep in mind when using the system.
The biggest problem that we encountered is that you need consensus to determine which interpretation of the answers is the one you'll be running with. If you do not play in a setting that is firmly established in the minds of the players, then you can get wildly differing opinions on the probabilities that should be used to answer the question. Because we did not use a published setting or discussed the internal structure of the world, we defaulted to some sort of generic fantasy setting -- and some of the people have wildly diverging ideas about how a generic fantasy setting would 'work'.
If you have one 'dissident', then this person will probably have a bad time of having to argue his case at each step, even though his view of things is internally consistent -- it's just not consistent with the views of the rest of the group. That will diminish everyone's fun.
This can be 'solved' by appointing a 'sibyl' whose job it is to estimate the possibility levels and to interpret the answers given. Note that this is different from having a GM, because the sibyl does not decide on a plot, the sibyl merely interprets the results provided by the 'oracle' (the tables)! Instead of a dedicated sibyl (who would probably not play a character), you could also rotate the role of the sibyl per scene. This would also 'even out' the personal preferences and assumptions of the individual sybils.
Using the system without a GM also means there is very little in the way of characterisation of NPCs. Our interactions with NPCs were all in the form of questions, not in the form of actual conversations. There were few descriptions. As a player, I missed that.
Of course, this is easy to fix: use the system with a GM. In that case, the GM would act as the sibyl for the whole scenario, but also really play the NPCs -- according to the answers from the system. Basically, run a game as GM with zero preparation. From our experiment, I know it would work -- and that's quite impressive.
I'm not so sure about the Chaos Factor mechanic. A lower Chaos Factor means that there is less chance of a 'yes'-answer ocurring, and less chance of a random event. But I would think that a 'yes'-answer actually moves the plot forward -- there is a reason that improv theatre forbids 'no' as an answer! So with a low Chaos Factor, there is less chance of a scene spiralling out of control, which could mean that the Chaos Factor would get lower and lower -- until the whole thing simply 'shuts down' because the lack of 'yes'-answers stifle progress in the scenario. I'm not sure how common this is, and I also note that the whole thing with the magician's guild going up in flames came from a single 'no'-answer. It does strike me as something to watch for.
We started out with a rather long list of threads, which are the plot points that can be referenced through a random event: every character brought their own goals to the table. This is actually encouraged, so that there is something to play off of right from the start. When a random event occurs and something happens with a thread, then every thread is equally likely. I would have liked a mechanic to make the 'current' threads (the stuff the characters are working on right now) more likely than threads that have gone more to the background. It did not necessarily fit in the emerging plot that Brand's desire to sell his brandy would pop up in the inn in the city -- I would have preferred that something with the swindlers or with the feud between the alchemist and the magicians would have occured.
Perhaps this could be achieved by giving each thread a number of 'points'. If a thread featured in the last scene, it gains a point, otherwise it loses a point (with a 1-point minimum). Then you randomise over the sum of all the points and choose a thread based on that. That would give precedence to longer-running, 'fresh' threads while not ruling out older, background threads. (And of course, not every thread needs to be resolved at the end of the scenario!)
With these caveats in mind, I think the system is a real treasure-trove for GMs without inspiration or time to prepare a scenario, as well as for groups of players that just want to play and see where their imagination takes them.