Monday, November 2, 2020

Getting Better (or Worse)

Ability scores in Mörk Borg are rated from –3 to +3. They're used directly as modifiers to d20 rolls, which is straightforward and easy to use in play. I mention this to provide context for the game's remarkable advancement system. Like many contemporary old school RPGs, Mörk Borg doesn't track experience points, opting instead for a more freeform approach. As the rulebook explains, 

the game master decides when a character should be improved. It can be after completing a scenario, killing mighty foes or bringing home treasure.

Like or hate it, it's entirely up to the referee to decide when a character advances. In Mörk Borg, such advancement can take several forms: hit points, gaining money/scrolls, and ability score changes. A random roll determines whether a character advances in each of these categories. Notice I wrote "whether." That's because it's entirely possible that the referee could grant a character an advance and yet, because of the dice rolls, the character doesn't improve at all. That might seem odd, even unfair, but I think it makes sense in an advancement system as freeform as this one (not to mention the thematic appropriateness for a doom-laden dark fantasy).

Where the system is unusual, though, is when it comes to ability scores. Whereas the worst possible outcome for hit points or wealth is that the character gains nothing, for ability scores, it's possible for them to decrease. The system works like this:

Roll a d6 against every ability. Results equal to or greater than the ability increase it by 1, to a maximum of +6. Results below the ability decrease it by 1. 

Abilities from –3 to +1 are always increased by 1 unless the d6 result is 1. The ability is then reduced by 1, but never below –3.

With the possible exception of Traveller, I'm hard pressed to think of another roleplaying game where there's a chance that characters might get worse through play rather than constantly improve. The idea of the perpetual advancement of a character is one of the most far reaching ideas of Dungeons & Dragons, influencing not just other RPGs but also video and board games. It's also, I think, a very limiting one, not because there's anything at all wrong with character advancement, but because not every roleplaying game needs an advancement system at all, let alone one descended from D&D's. 

Mörk Borg's advancement system is its own and probably wouldn't be appropriate for many (any?) other RPGs. My point is more that we need to be more willing to consider alternative approaches to advancement, including ones that, like Mörk Borg, not only reject the idea of perpetual improvement but embrace the possibility of decline. Again, that's not appropriate in every circumstance, but we need more out of the box thinking like this. Why limit our game designs?


  1. I believe Rolemaster 2nd Edition was where I first encountered a chance for Ability Scores/Statistics to diminish on levelling (you tracked a "Temporary/Current" and "Potential Score" for each of the ten) and every level you got to roll on a table to see if your temporary went up by a few points based on the difference between the two scores. There was a miniscule chance of it going down though, so even once this was reached, you had to check.

    Through a misreading/misunderstanding of the Holmes Experience tables, we thought that HD were all rerolled whenever a level was gained. Leading to HP going down sometimes. I still like this interpretation a bit, as it reflects the rigors of adventuring life...but it hasn't proved popular when I've tried to sell my players on it as a house rule in current games :).

    1. I convinced my players to re-roll their HD every session. I don't think any of them loved it, but I guess they liked it more than finding a new DM...

    2. In Kazamaták és Kompániák, Hit Dice are re-rolled before each expedition - and that's how you heal up (unless in the wilderness, where healing is merely 1 hp/day).

  2. Another game where characters get worse during play is Call of Cthulhu. But I have never seen a CoC game played properly, it's always shutguns and detectivs versus Cthulhu, pretty boring.

    1. The reason I don't find that playstyle improper (in fact, I find it genuine) is because to me role-playing games are essentially "what if?" scenarios and "what would _you_ do?" games, and not genre reenactment (even if there is, naturally, a degree of separation between players and characters).

    2. CoC is perhaps the most popular RPG in which character degradation is a central and conspicuous feature of the advancement mechanics. However, a number of games, stretching back to the 70s, feature some kind of rules for PC degradation, of various types:

      Insanity (CoC and its descendants, e.g. Unknown Armies)

      Dismemberment (Runequest, Swordbearer, Rolemaster/MERP, various D&D rulesets using "death & dismemberment" rules)

      Aging (Runequest, Swordbearer, Traveller, Cyberpunk, even AD&D tucked into some corner of the DMG)

      Loss of Humanity (Cyberpunk, Sorcerer, Shadowrun, Vampire: the Masquerade)

      Skill loss (Runequest - a fumble on an experience roll would result in loss of skill points in at least some early editions)

      And of course many story games are built around a character arc involving gradual degradation until an end-game is reached (e.g. My Life With Master, Polaris, Otherkind).

  3. This reminds me of the old Wizardry computer game, where your stats could increase or decrease with every level gained.

    1. I had completely forgotten about that. Thank you for reminding me of it.