Triumph is not a streamlined battle simulation. Rather it offers an intentionally clunky and very lethal nuanced set of combat parameters and options, with the intention of facilitating role playing through a play-based aversion to diving into the open-ended combat mechanics; and also offering a drawn out combat experience, even when replicating a seconds-long encounter, in order to psychologically weight the experience in the balance of the character’s life.
I initially shipped this out for play-testing so that the game mechanics could be streamlined, and then thought better of departing from my original concept. If you wish to play a military or prizefighting campaign you will want to streamline the combat process, probably with a sequencing table.
Triumph is a ‘universal’ RPG designed to facilitate authentic adventures in a fantasy, historical, science-fiction, real-world, or horror setting. Character creation is treated as part of play, and character development and social interaction is the focus. A genre-bending universal RPG model was chosen in order to provide a system that could be used for a ‘time-travel’ sci-fi campaign.
This is not a comprehensive RPG but a basic game. Genre and setting adventures with rule expansions [including Tribes] are planned. In the meantime, I do not think it necessary to attempt to woo experienced players away from their current system by offering an exhaustive alternative. Rather, my idea is to base Triumph on those areas where traditional RPGs have, in my view, failed to fully explore the story-based adventure gaming experience. If you find a gap in this system borrow something from another. If you have a gap in yours borrow it from here.
Triumph is not a die-20 system, although that venerable knucklebone shall be put to use.
Triumph is based on human [Yes, you dwarves and elves have just suffered the most profound form of discrimination.] characters with attributes defined as a measure of human potential, expressed with a percentage. [Get a lot of 10-sided dice.]
Triumph is geared more toward an episodic ‘short-fiction’ model, than an epic campaign model. Keep in mind that many good fantasy and sci-fi movies, like Blade Runner or Total Recall [the first one], are based on short stories or short novels.
Triumph may just be used as a combat simulator or cannibalized to provide realistic martial and social options for your existing RPG. It is not difficult to convert a percentage based system into a d20 format, with each point on a d20 equaling 5%. If you are happy with your current RPG just use Triumph to generate characters based on yourself and your gaming friends and stage a misadventure set in your hometown, for instance getting in a brawl with the offensive line of a visiting NFL team at a sports bar...
The social aspects of character generation, use of a ‘killer instinct’ rule, mechanics for playing out a chase, the awarding of triumph and karma points, and ordeals are the five unique aspects of Tribes and Fights that the players liked the most. These have been retained and expanded here, and could be easily grafted onto another system.
I began role playing quite by accident in 1977. I was always intrigued by the concept of a person with an ‘everyday’ outlook being thrust into an adventure, but have rarely been able to find such situations depicted in role playing. Although good fiction often relies on this dichotomy to build a compelling storyline [consider Tolkien’s Bilbo and Frodo] it is rarely present in role playing campaigns, and I believe that the concept of a ‘campaign’ often is part of the problem.
The world of role playing is inhabited primarily by professional fulltime adventurers who typically hail from the upper class of their society, and dedicate themselves to a lifetime of questing and/or treasure hunting. The dominant literary model is JRR Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings. When made into film such epic length fiction requires multiple movies or a miniseries, as in George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones.
Traditional role playing games are geared toward such epic quests with a deep back story, or, conversely, video game like ‘dungeon crawls’ of a hollow or shallow nature. I wanted to do an RPG that invests back story elements and authentic character development in a ‘one-offer’. This desire has grown from my general disaffection with most RPG campaigns [including ones I have run], which tend to mimic bad fiction and also good fiction that has been butchered by a hack screenwriter.
I have always had three reservations about role playing. However, until writing some fiction of my own, I had only a vague notion of how to address these issues. These three reservations, I believe, if addressed as core concepts, could make for a more fulfilling role playing experience enjoyable by a wider variety of players.
Because of unrealistic combat systems even good ‘questing’ campaigns result in a psychopathically frequent level of violence. Perhaps the worst serial killer in American history was the self-described monster Carl Panzram. However, many peace-loving hobbit characters in standard role playing games rack up a higher body count. Unrealistic combat systems require a lot of combat for various reasons.
Since their designers do not understand combat adaptation, it requires a long ‘campaign’ [and a lot of killing], supplemented by ongoing training, to develop a high-level combatant. In role playing fighters learn like college students, gaining more knowledge until they finally become highly trained action-heroes; professors of combat if you will. This model stems from the fact that educated people design these games, and that the martial model used by educated people is Asian-based martial arts training, as practiced in the modern world.
Combat sports, dueling traditions and pre-modern martial cultures would have served as better models. In reality a fighter peaks early, an active fighter earlier. I coach stick-fighting. If I take a person who has never picked up a stick and fight him one timeI mean beat his ass!and he has the psychological makeup to not break mentally, he willthen and therebecome as effective as a man who has spent years doing stick-fighting drills but who has never fought with a stick.
This has storyline implications too, and points to a more singular type of adventure to develop an authentic feel for the experience. Think of America’s greatest war heroes, Alvin York and Audie Murphy. York fought in one battle and Murphy in a few, with most of his experience gained in one large action. If you take a guy with the right bio-mechanical IQ and put him in one battle, he may come out the other endprovided he is part of the 30% of the male population that can tolerate this without being psychologically debilitatedmany ‘skill levels’ higher then he went into the battleessentially a different person.
If you want to play a fighter character in a fantasy setting there should be no need to spend ‘game years’ slaughtering kobolds, and then goblins, and then orks, until you are tough enough to take on a troll. There is certainly no need to return to your order’s castle to have your recent experience honed into ‘usable’ skill by the ‘master’. If such an order existed, the recently experienced fighter would be invited back by the master to train the master, since the master is either a curriculum-based instructor wanting frontline anecdotes, or aprobably maimedexperienced-based instructor who is retired and would dearly like to update his medieval monster-killing database.
This points to the worst aspect of adventure gaming, the fact that characters face no psychological hurdles or emotional costs for combat. This is achieved by having the world populated by thoroughly dehumanized enemiesindeed, often not human at all. If, in an authentic adventure game, a character must contend with antagonists he is capable of empathizing with, then we actually come to the crux of the human condition that makes such classic movies as Unforgiven possible.
Wouldn’t it be more satisfying to play a character that had a moral or even con-specific biological aversion to killing, than to just mimic the antics of the latest video-game inspired killer-chick-in-tights? In such an authentic world as that depicted in the movie Unforgiven there is a real, tangible magic ability possessed by certain characters. This ability is combat empathy, which most humans lack, and military establishments go to great lengths to inculcate through mind-control and situational de-sensitivity training [Now there is an evil-empire story-hook for you]. This is the ability to kill a person you can identify with without going insane. The biggest problem with role playing combat is the complete failure to address the enabling psychology; the very dynamic that enables certain combatants to literally behave as supermen.
Most of life’s actual adventurers, people who face real daily life and death choices, come from the lower classes of society. Criminals and cops and military personnel and terrorists are the two sets of real life antagonists that currently fuel the real adventure world, and almost none of them come from the top 5% of the economy. As far back in history as you go it was no different; with few exceptions it is the poor that have the drive to improve their station by the riskiest means.
The salient point here, is that the kind of adventurer that will tend to have that true grit, and that the players will really fall in love with, is not the person who was born so high up the social ladder that he had to go looking for trouble to fight off boredom; but the poor bastard who got sucked up into somebody else’s dark fantasy. If you stop and take stock of the ten best adventure [horror, western, sci-fi, fantasy, military] movies you have seen, I wager that most of them featured a compellingly sympathetic protagonist who really wanted to be somewhere other than where the story unfolded, and would have rather been doing something more pedestrian than avoiding death at every turn.
Stallone once made a disaster survival movie that was ‘okay’, but not good enough for me to remember the title. I am not going to research it, because I want the fact that I found no surplus space in my brain cave to store the title of this early nineties flick to resonate as part of my point. To the extent that it was a good movie was the extent that you could get behind the characters who were trying to survive, who had just been screwed on their way to work. The one character the viewer can’t get behind is the professional adventurer who takes in his climbing gear to ‘beat’ the disaster. I could not wait for that jerk to get killed. If you think about it, that jerk is the type of character that we, as role players, typically choose to play; I believe to the detriment of our gaming experience.
Most importantly, is that humanity’s greatest adventures have been had by those who did not seek them. In fantasy role playing terms the character that has an adventure at sea often does so because he has hired passage on a ship and is searching for treasure, or is engaged in an important quest, and maybe even bought the ship. In reality, life’s most harrowing adventures at sea have been experienced by penniless slave-sailors and also by passengers who were usually trying to avoid adventure by getting on the ship in the first place. This last point is clutch if you would like to develop an exciting role playing adventure experience. The idea behind Triumph is that we are trying to role play a ‘movie-length experience’ [usually based on short stories and single novels] not an epic miniseries.
A true adventure is most often a one-time deal. Let’s build an adventure around a ship-wreck; around a squad of soldiers retreating from a warzone forsaken by their commanders; around a criminal with an actual exit strategy; around a female medieval peasant who decided not to let her father sell her to the local pervert, who instead tries to join the free companies...
I have to stop on that last one, since it offers such a clear example of how role playing tends to mimic really bad movie-making rather than the good fiction that was ultimately butchered by the screenwriter.
In the 1930s Robert E. Howard wrote some very compelling characters [Conan, Kull, Bran Mack Morn, Solomon Kane [the best character by far], El Borak, Red Sonja] who engaged in singular adventures, short stories to be exact. Every one of his characters that have been used for film have been yanked by the screenwriter out of their incidental narrow-scope lives and put into save-the-world ‘quest’ lives. Conan was the most notable: a murderer, pillager, rapist and usurper, Conan never-the-less [because of the narrow scope of the stories] drew the reader into his wake even though he was the supreme asshole, and the last fictional guy you would hire to pave your driveway. When the movie-makers made him a world-saver instead of the symptom of social strife that his creator wrote him as, Conan became a cartoon.
One of Howard’s most compelling characters was Red Sonja. She was based on a real female mercenary from the late Middle Ages. At the outset of her first story her father is about to settle a debt by giving her to some old bastard like a piece of sexual livestock, when Sonja rebels and flees. Of course, in the movie version Red Sonja is just some hot ass-kicking chick saving the world from some other hot ass-kicking chickjust a video game character you want to have sex with.
How much better would Red Sonja have been if the movie had stayed true? What is more compelling than the struggles of a rebellious member of the enslaved half of humanity? Before the 1900s less than a dozen women on Planet Earth at any given time actually owned their own bodies. What could be more harrowing than role-playing a female fugitive from an entire society constructed around the justification of her rape and enslavement?
And, as for Conan, Howard’s most notorious character never cared about saving the world: he wanted beef, ale and nubile companionship. He didn’t save a kingdom, but strangled the king on his throne! He was a racist, sexist character who hated educated people, used women, raped the daughter of a god, chopped off the head of a sitting judge, almost always fought on the losing side in a war, had laughably short-termed goals, and routinely led men to their death without a pang of guilt; not some guy who does the right thing, unless it’s to get into some dancing girl’s pajamas.
Go ahead, hire him to pave your drive way! But don’t be surprised when you come home and find your car gone, your wife passed out naked on your wedding bed, the beer cooler empty, and the family dog hiding under the couch. If you want to play an ass-kicking psychopath, play him, not a tree-hugging elf.
My secret ambition for some 30 years now has been to design and develop a role playing game in which players will begin life like real people, with no initial control over their social station or autonomy. Players should be able to choose their gender and their station in life so far as society permits it. The players will roll for abilities on an exceptional curve but with limited latitude for how the values are assigned. The idea is to craft a character exceptional enough to seek to break the social chains that bind them, but having compromised with society up until the point at which the adventure begins.
For example, perhaps Wendy chooses to play a Victorian woman as part of a group of passengers sailing around the Horn of Africa and destined to be shipwrecked. Perhaps she lucked out on the social roll and was born a lady. If so, much of her character’s skill set will have been dictated by societal conventions. But, being an exceptional person, she may have indulged in some clandestine reading; might have had an Uncle who she succeeded in convincing to teach her how to shoot his dueling pistols, etc. At the point at which the ship wrecks this woman finally has the chance to be a free person. Or, perhaps Wendy rolled low on social status and decides to play a young woman from Liverpool who, instead of going into prostitution or laundry, decided to impersonate a boy and hire on as a sailor, and in that way acquired a more masculine skill set?
The idea behind this game is to place a realistic though exceptional character of random social standing in an adventure setting and then permit them to define their goals and pursue them. Perhaps Scott got lucky on his social roll and decided to play a Victorian gentleman in the above shipwreck story, whose goal is to return to London with his fortune intact. Perhaps, he decides to play a callous adventurer who preys on the wealthy passengers. If he rolled low on the social table he might decide to be an impressed sailor who just wants to go native, or an Indian cabin boy who just wants to live, or a Sikh guard who seizes the opportunity to set up his own band of mutineers.
The characters should be exceptionally, though randomly, able, but bound by social circumstance, and then permitted to set their own goals. This I hope will make for a many-layered gaming experience with a memorable storyline. The scope of the above example may not be vast; with most shipwreck situations resolving themselves within a year or sousually disastrously sooner. However, this should provide a lot of gaming time, with the resolution of such interactive dynamics as combat, taking more time than typical in standard role playing games.
In reality, when you fight, time slows down. In role playing games, when swords are crossed, time speeds up. This is wrong. It should take as much time to role play a single combat that would have lasted only seconds than it would to role play a social interaction that lasted into the night. In this way, you can have a lot of gaming fun ‘fighting’ without having to do more killing in a single evening than all of Charles Bronson’s [He did the Death Wish series.] blood-thirsty movie characters did in a generation-long career. If you interview a fighter about his memories the brief spasms of combat loom larger than the long spans of boredom and toil.
Anybody that knows me understands that a system I devise will be ‘combat heavy’. But, it will not be bookishly complex. Rather, I am aiming for a combat resolution system with an unpredictable level of interactive nuance; something that will generate its own dynamic details instead of being built on a complex of martial minutia, and will, by its very lethality, discourage frivolous combat and encourage role playing.
The players and GM may agree on a genre setting etc. However, let me use the example of Wendy and Scott playing characters setting sail from Calcutta to London on an East Indiaman circa 1800. The GM, if the players agree to give him the latitude, could set up a truly open-ended adventure. Think to movies, particularly horror movies and sci-fi flicks. There is usually one character, often the lead, who seems to have a better intuition for what is in store. So let’s start with the adventure hook above. What comes next?
The GM then announces the possible scenarios that will develop on this voyage:
Now the players build their characters. Perhaps Scott plans on a shipwreck on the South African coast, and Wendy thinks, “I bet we end up on Godzilla Island!’ they may now each build their characters according to their intuition. Let us suppose that it ends up being a ‘Godzilla Island’ and Wendy has a character better prepared to deal with that. If they both triumph, and decide that they like these characters and the general setting, they may decide to continue ‘campaign style’.
The GM would now add another third possibility to the two remaining ones and then begin moderating another chapter in the character’s lives. Perhaps Wendy survives heroically and Scott is eaten by a Godzilla baby. Now Wendy can sit by and heckle Scottstanding in for the passengers and crew of the shipwhile Scott builds another character from the passenger list or crew.
Each adventure survived marks a triumph for the character. But each adventure begun marks the possible end of the character. Triumph is intentionally a genre-bending design with the core concept being holistic character development not world-saving quests and treasure-hunting.