All posts by Peter R.

I have been blogging about Rolemaster for the past few years. When I am not blogging I run the Rolemaster Fanzine and create adventure seeds and generic game supplements under the heading of PPM Games. You can check them out on RPGnow. My pet project is my d6 game 3Deep, now in its second edition.

Devil’s Staircase Wild West Role Playing

I finally get to talk about my proposed combat system!

First off, I have been trying to think of a decent working title for the game. Not just the game but the core set of mechanics. It is my longer term goal to not only create a Wild West game but use the same core system to tackle many genres. It came to me the other day while walking the dogs that a pack of cards used to be referred to as the devil’s staircase. I think the allusion is to a fanned deck being stepped and that playing cards was a road that could lead to gambling and all sorts of vices. It was my grandmother that I can remember calling them the devil’s staircase.

A bit of Googling tells me that there is no Devil’s Staircase RPG so as of now I have a working title. Devil’s Staircase Wild West Role Playing. Hopefully over time I can swap out Wild West for Fantasy or Espionage or whatever. I think Devil’s Staircase Espionage Role Playing as quite a nice ring to it as well.

So how about a combat system.

What I want to achieve is a way of handling combat that is as fast or faster than real life or movie combat. I suspect that that is not going to be quite possible but that is the objective, speed and ease of play over detail and granularity of the rules.

Before starting with actual combat I want to think about wounds and death. Continue reading Devil’s Staircase Wild West Role Playing

Skill Resolution or playing the hand you are dealt

Someone used a phrase the other day and I quite like it. The phrase was “Going tactical”. In most RPGs if your character wants to do some thing and it is not life or death or time dependent then we don’t bother rolling the dice, it is just accepted that given enough time and effort then the character will succeed. The possible exception may be research tasks where the outcome really is not known. Picking the lock at your leisure is somewhat different to picking a lock with guards about to walk around the corner, sweaty palms don’t help.

This time I am going to look at skill resolution in my wild west game, sticking with the deck of playing cards theme.

Each character has an endurance stat on a scale of 1 to 10. When things ‘go tactical’ the GM deals each character a card for each point of endurance.

At this point there are two possible mechanics. My first thought was that this hand of cards would remain face down in front of the player until they need to ‘make a roll’. At that point they get a random number just like rolling a d10 but with the odds stacked towards the 10s (there are 13 cards in a suit and 4 of them are worth 10 if you include the jack, queen and king).

The second option is that the players take up their hand of cards and they play a card. If you want to succeed then you would play a 10, or a picture card. If you intentionally wanted to fail then you could play a lower value card. This gives the player much more control and it takes away the randomness. The cards they are dealt are still random but how they are played is within the players control.

An important factor would be how often the hand is replenished. I am thinking along the lines of taking a short breather in a combat or high stress situation would see the GM deal out one additional card to a player that has used some of their endurance cards. At the end of the scene or once the action is no longer tactical then the players would throw in their hands, good cards and bad.

As soon as the story goes tactical again then a fresh had of cards will be dealt to the players.

So if the players can see and choose which cards to play then they have to decide whether to play all their best cards first and hope that the scene ends and they can discard the crap cards back to the GM or face their characters having a lousy run of bad luck. That round spent taking a recovery could be really important if all you have left are a bunch of 2s and 3s, especially if the GM deals you a Jack!

The player choice option also takes care of another idea. Occasionally a player will ‘aim to miss’. I still make players roll their attack to check for fumbles or extremely bad rolls. Things can go wrong even if you do not mean for anyone to get hurt. We can now handle that situation by the player just choosing a really bad card for the attack. The intention being that the poor attack will miss.

I think the player choice option has a far greater scope for fun than the face down pile of cards version.

So the card we have drawn is part of the equation. We already have stats (see my last post for stats) and we have skills based upon ‘job descriptions’.

This is how I see skills working out

Pass or Fail Tests

The GM decides on a target number. The character throws down a card and adds the full value of an appropriate stat if they are skilled or half their stat value (rounded in the players favour) if they are unskilled. If they meet or exceed the target number then the test is passed.

Progressive Tests

These are tests where each attempts makes progress towards a goal such as climbing or a larger research task. The GM assigns a larger total value for the task. At each attempt the player draws a card and adds either their full stat or half stat depending on skill. After the first attempt additional cards can be drawn and the value added to the total. The total accumulates until the target number is reached.

Opposed tasks

This is a test where two parties are involved. Think of it as ‘hide and seek’. One person may be trying to sneak past while a guard may be trying to spot intruders. In another example you could be arm wrestling or a tub of war. In an opposed task just making the skill test is not enough, you need to beat the other person. Resolving this is done by adding your stat or half stat to a drawn card. The target number to beat is the opposing party’s stat (or half stat) plus drawn card.

Group Tasks

Several characters may act as a team. Teams work well as a search party, research group or even as at a tug of war. To resolve a team task the dominant stat (or half stat) of everyone in the team is added and then the team leader draws a card to add to the total.

Does that seem simple enough?

Character Creation, Poker Style

So I have been thinking about this wild west RPG based around a pack of playing cards.


I like the idea of five basic stats. Strength, Speed, Endurance, Empathy and Logic. I am not a big fan of Charisma or Appearance type stats or characteristics. Charisma and leadership qualities we can roleplay, we don’t really need a stat for that in a light weight game. Appearance I think should be player choice. Why force someone to play a character that is butt ugly or drop dead gorgeous if that is not the character they had in mind?

So how about this? The GM deals you a hand of 5 cards. You take up your cards and you either keep them or discard any or all of them. The GM then deals replacement cards. You can then assign the face value of the card to the five stats. All picture cards count as a 10.

I think Jokers need to be something a bit special. If you are dealt a Joker then you should keep a note of it and then it goes to the bottom of the pack and you get a replacement.

Jokers can then be used as a sort of currency within the game. I am thinking that you can spend a joker to avoid death or get a second chance?

Getting back to the stats that is a pretty quick method of getting the character stats. It is also reminiscent of Cowboys playing poker.


Next up we need some skills.

A few game systems these days allow you to spontaneously generate skills. We could use that here. So a skill is any clearly defined task or role that the character may have experience of. What I mean by this is ‘Prospector’ implies a bundle of skills relating to being able to pan for gold, dig shafts and brace them, work with pulleys and ropes and so on. Tracker is another role and implies a certain self sufficiency along with being able to identify and follow tracks.

Most characters will want some kind of combat skills and these will fall into a few broad families ranged combat such as guns and bows, melee combat that will also include thrown weapons and unarmed combat including martial arts and brawling. The sort of roles a character can use to describe these may be gunslinger, street fighter, cavalry officer.

Some GMs and players like a really granular game with hundreds of skills while others like broad ‘meta skills’ that encompass many individual specific skills under a single heading. I personally prefer this few broad skills approach.

One of the core skills in just about every game is that of Observation or Perception. The ability to spot clues, identify hidden doors, switches and so on and spot a hidden enemy or ambush. I cannot see any point in forcing players to spend a ‘skill slot’ or option to buy a skill that everyone is going to take anyway. So Observation will be a default skill that everyone gets.

So right now we have five stats and a Joker tally, one default skill and I think 3 meta skills that describe the characters back story.


If we then give the character a one paragraph backstory, that is in sync with the skills chosen, gives the motivation for adventuring and brings the character to the starting point of the game; I think we are ready to play. (I do like a character sheet that fits on a large post-it note!)

Next time I think we will look at skill resolution unless I have any more thoughts on character creation.