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The Travels of Mendes Pinto: Team Game

Tahahahahime Is On My Sahide! Yes It Isn't!

by Sergio Mascarenhas
Nov 07,2002

 

THE TRAVELS OF MENDES PINTO, GAME DESIGN GOES LIVE

If you are new to The Travels of Mendes Pinto (TToMP from now on), this is for you. Otherwise, just skip this intro.

TToMP is a role-playing gamebook design column. As the column unfolds in a roughly monthly base, I'll be designing the core gamebook for a new role-playing game aptly titled "The Travels of Mendes Pinto".

TToMP is a game set in 16th century Asia. The characters are Europeans (mainly Portuguese) that travel to Asia in the fleets sent by the King of Portugal.

TToMP is based on a 16th century book called "Peregrinacao" (in Portuguese), meaning Pilgrimage written by a Portuguese adventurer called Fernao Mendes Pinto that reached Asia in 1539 and lived there for the next two decades. In his book Mendes Pinto narrates his travels and adventures from Etiopia in Africa to Japan, and from Tartary to Indonesia.

When the gamebook is over, you will get the rules that will allow you to play an adventurer in the vein of Mendes Pinto.

Each month you will find a development in the gamebook design. This will be in a separate file that can be accessed through the links below. The column proper will provide my notes and comments on the design effort of the month.

I hope you like to join me on this journey.

Sergio


TAHAHAHAHIME IS ON MY SAHIDE! YES IT ISN'T!

I really wanted to have this column done by October. I couldn't. Work and family just didn't allow me to. In fact, until the end of the present year the panorama is rather bleak. I'm sorry to say but TToMP has to be low on my priorities no matter how much I may regret it. That means that to promise to have a new column by next month is just that: a potentially empty promise.

The present column covers one of the most critical items in the TToMP system: resolution mechanics. I tried my best to have a complete draft. The reason is simple: I wanted to be able to transmit the most exact idea of how TToMP plays. It is not complete but at least I hope you will be able to get a good grasp of where I'm going. In any case, I decided to publish it right away instead of keeping TToMP one more month in the closet.

RESOLUTION MECHANICS -- THE BASICS

It's finally time to go after resolution mechanics for TToMP. Actually I've been going through this section again and again. This is one of the issues that I've been thinking about at length for the last years. I've been in search of the best mechanics and tried a lot of alternatives through time. I've been narrowing down the principles on which to design the mechanics for TToMP. Yet, it still takes a lot of effort to get at a playable set of mechanics. And even more effort to code it into a rulebook section. For a start, let me explain how I got to the set of mechanics I'm going to use.

FROM FICTION TO ROLE PLAYING

The departing point was, to a certain extent, Fernao Mendes book itself. I know, it is not a game book. But it provides descriptions and narrations of action. So it forces a game designer to ask a key question: How to devise a set of resolution mechanics that keeps the feel of Fernao Mendes narrations?

In fact, this is something I've been thinking about in a wider context. How can one transform a book, specially a narrative book (be it fiction, history, documentary), into a role-playing game? What about movies, comics, etc.?

In terms of character creation, I think the approach I presented in the past two columns can easily be generalized (I'll leave this to the future, when I'm finished with TToMP). What about resolution mechanics?

The thing is to acknowledge that role-playing IS NOT story making. It is not the construction of a narrative. I know that today it is fashionable to present role-playing as an effort to write a story -- a collective effort most of the time. I may be wrong, but Greg Stafford started this trend with Prince Valiant, a game that was rapidly copied by White Wolf. Both used the label 'storytelling' for the purpose. Both attempted to present it as something different from role- playing. Both failed, of course.

I have nothing against collective, interactive, shared story-making or storytelling. It may be fun and entertaining. But it is not role-playing (and neither Prince Valiant nor WW's games are any other than role-playing).

Role-playing is about impersonating a character and live its life. Yes, that life can be turned into a story. But so does the life of any of us. Most people don't write down the story of their lives, not because it can't be done, but because they don't think it worth the effort or because they lack the skills to do it. Ditto for role-playing. We live the life of our characters. We may reduce it into a narrative, a story, afterwards. But when we do this we are no longer role-playing.

That means that the rules for action resolution in RPGs can't be based on the rules for good story writing. It entails that basing one RPG in a story is not the same as trying to write that story. What we want is an RPG that allows for situations that are similar to those in the story and where, if we are to write down the stories of the role-played life of our characters, these stories are similar to those present in the narrative that inspired the game. That's all.

GOING BACK TO HERO WARS

In past columns I described how Hero Wars handles character creation. The player writes a 100-words text about the character (it can be a narrative of past events pertaining to the character, the description of his features or something about the setting that has a relationship to the character, etc.). Next he selects from that narrative 10 items that will be used as descriptors (keywords in HW lingo). Finally, he assigns a numeric value to those selected descriptors that will be used in the resolution mechanics.

When I was thinking about HW a thought crossed my mind: "Why, if one did the same for action resolution? What if action resolution was based in writing down a description of the behaviour of the character, isolating in it the components, and assigning a quality to these that could fuel action resolution?"

Now, there are games that attempt to be narrative in their mechanics. Even HW is supposed to be narrative in the way it handles action resolution. Yet the examples I've seen -- including HW -- really fall short of their intentions.

Why?

Because the narrative is just for cosmetics. You see, it's just not enough to say: "Describe your attack as fancifully as you can, and roll for damage" or something similar. If, no matter how fancy your description, the end result is based on the roll or any other mechanical device, the description has no real impact in the game.

No, using the description as a modifier to the roll does not fit the bill either. This only means that the aesthetics of the narration is taken into account. What I want is something that takes the content in the description as the basis for action resolution.

FROM PEREGRINACAO TO THE TRAVELS OF MENDES PINTO

Let's try to substantiate the previous thoughts. To do it it's better to pick examples from Mendes Pinto's book (and other books that influence TToMP), situations where we see the characters in action, and try to understand how it shapes any possible situation resolution mechanics.

1. "I readied everything needed for the treatment and moved right away to cure the wounded hand since it looked in a more precarious condition. I used seven stitches but if the treatment had been done by a surgeon's hand, maybe a lot less would be needed." Peregrinacao 137.

"[The Preste Joao] told [the Portuguese] to start a mock fight with sword and shield. The [Portuguese] Ambassador ordered two of his companions to comply with the request. There was skill in their exchange of blows, but not to the standard he wanted to display. So when the Preste requested other men to step forward, the Ambassador told Jorge de Abreu that it was for them to take the ground, swords and shields in hand. They fought as well as is to be expected from people of their quality, trained and raised in war and weapons." P. Francisco Alvares, 'True Account on the Land of the Preste Joao das Indias', Chapter LXXVI.

"Given that we were deprived of a pilot, the northeast winds stroke our sails, the water currents run against us, we chanced around for twenty-three heavily worked days, sailing from one direction to the other." TToMP 132

"By graduation I put on record all of this coast according to the regiment given to me, its ports and rivers identified by their names, their distances and depth measured." TToMP 20

What do all these situations tell us? First, that ability and training matter. How they matter is something that can only result from the way that abilities are framed.

Second, that action is fast and described at a stroke of the pen. Only the essence is there.

2. "... two among the nine of us happened to cross words on which of their respective parentages could find better pension at the house of our lord the King ... such was their anger that one hit the other with a big slap and received in exchange a slash from a dagger that cut down half of his face. The wounded responded by reaching for a halberd and maiming the arm of his offender. Eventually we all got involved in this quarrel sparked by such an unfortunate argument, to the point that seven of us were badly wounded when the Chaem arrived with all the Anchacis of the Justice. They took us in their hands and gave us thirty slashes on the spot, thus bleeding us more extensively than from the wounds we inflicted to ourselves." TToMP 115

"And [Antonio de Faria de Sousa] charged into Coja Acem with the ardour and zeal of the Faith of one that wished him well. He hit the latter with his two-handed sword, a slash down the head that cut through the chainmail coif of the pirate and knocked him to the ground. Slashing again, he severed both the legs of his enemy so that he could raise no more. Perceiving this, the followers of Coja Acem yelled to the end of their breath. Some five or six charged into Antonio de Faria with such a resolve and daring that, ignoring the thirty Portuguese that surrounded the captain, twice had him stabbed and almost knocked him down. Our men, incited by Our Lord Jesus, hasted in succour and in less than two creeds slew forty-eight enemies, right there on top of Coja Acem. Fourteen were our dead, five of them Portuguese, the remaining slaves." TToMP 59

"Noticing that the gun shots ordered by the constable of the junk were completely useless (transfixed and mindless that he was), Diogo de Meireles knocked him down a hatchway before he fired a big gun, saying: "Hide in there, oh useless villain, this shot is for men like me, not for those fancied like you!" And aiming the gun by using its sight and the rules of geometry that he knew fairly well, he fired a load of ball and grapeshot. The cannon ball traversed the first lorcha -- the captainship of the four -- from stern to stem sinking it right away, while the grapeshot flew over and hit the second lorcha killing its captain and six or seven men close by." TToMP 59

Once more action is fast and to the point. Notice the technical details about weapons, armour, etc. But the critical issue in these examples is how ability combines with emotion. Action is highly emotional.

3. (FMP and his companions are present at a Budist ritual in North China performed by a Budist monk, the Talapicor) "When in certain passages the gathering said "Taximida" one of us by the name of Vicente Morosa also said "tal seja tua vida" [such be your life] and that with such a grace in the gestures, gravity in his face and with no hint of cheerfulness, that no one present could hold his laughs. Only he didn't change his looks and kept feigning the cries of true devotion, his eyes set in the Talapicor. When the latter noticed Vicente Morosa, he couldn't avoid doing as everybody else so that when the sermon came to an end the whole gathering laughed with joy, the preacher and the preached, believing that the Portuguese displayed true devotion and faith; yet if they realised that he was acting the way he was for mockery and out of contempt, he would be heavily punished." TToMP 127

Here things operate almost only at the emotional level.

What we get from all these examples is some ideas I need to incorporate into the TToMP mechanics:

  • Action must involve skill and emotion;
  • It has to be done in a way that does not ask for explicit complexity;
  • Yet the complexity must be there, implicit, hidden;
  • Things are to be handled in broad strokes, not through detailed minutiae.

MECHANICS FOR TToMP: WHAT THE CHARACTER DOES

The basic point in TToMP resolution mechanics is that the players have to narrate the action of their characters. This process flows like this:

1. The GM provides the context for the action. This is a broad description of the situation previous to the action.

2. Based on 1., the players state the aims of their characters, what they want to achieve.

3. Based on 1. and 2., the GM and the players identify the means the characters can use to fulfil their aims and the constrains under which they have to behave.

4. The players have to define how committed their characters are to the action, how willing they are to fulfil their aims. This is based on the characters' personal traits: his personality, values and abilities.

5. The players narrate the performance of their characters based on the context, aims, means and constrains. How extensive their narration can be is dependent on how committed a character is to the action.

6. Finally, the GM and the players combine their respective narrations of the performance of the characters into a general narrative of the unfolding of the situation and extract the logical consequences deriving from that narrative.

These are the principles. Let's see how they work out into a resolution system.

INDEX

PREFACE

TABLE OF CONTENTS
- DOC (48K)
- PDF (16K)

I.	"DO I THUS START MY PEREGRINATION"
Introduction
- DOC (224K)
- PDF (272K)

II.	"OFFERED TO ANY VENTURE, GOOD OR BAD"
Fast play

III.	"BEGINNING IN MY CHILDHOOD"
Character creation
- DOC (196K)
- PDF (128K)

IV.	"TRAVAILS AND MISFORTUNES"
The basics of action or the action resolution system
- DOC (74K)
- PDF (107K)

V.	"MISERIES, POVERTY, AND MISCHIEVOUS ACCIDENTS"
Descriptors and activities

VI.	"LIKE ONE THAT SAW DEATH IN THE EYES"
Combat

VII.	"READY TO SAIL"
Seamanship

VIII.	"THANK THE LORD FOR HIS GIFT"
Religion

IX.	"IN GOOD REASON I MAY COMPLAIN ABOUT FORTUNE"
Character advancement and development

REFERENCE MATERIAL

INDEXES

CHARACTER SHEET
- DOC (44K)
- PDF (32K)

SAMPLE CHARACTERS
Fernao Mendes Pinto 
- DOC (44K)
- PDF (40K)
Alvaro Pires
- DOC (52K)
- PDF (48K)
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What do you think?

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All The Travels of Mendes Pinto columns by Sergio Mascarenhas

  • Not Dead Yet by Sergio Mascarenhas, 18jul03
  • Still Struggling With Section 4 by Sergio Mascarenhas, 07mar03
  • It's Time For Combat by Sergio Mascarenhas, 31jan03
  • The Criminal Always Comes Back to the Scene of the Crim by Sergio Mascarenhas, 31dec02
  • Tahahahahime Is On My Sahide! Yes It Isn't! by Sergio Mascarenhas, 07nov02
  • Character Creation for Dummies by Sergio Mascarenhas, 08aug02
  • Thus Do We Start by Sergio Mascarenhas, 01jul02
  • Can You Give Us a Descriptor of the Subject? (Part II) February 21, 2002
  • Can You Give Us a Descriptor of the Subject? (Part I) December 6, 2001
  • Time for a Hiatus October 23, 2001
  • System as Language September 27, 2001
  • Don't Forget the Damn Index! August 30, 2001
  • R-O-L-E-P-L-A-Y-I-N-G  G-A-M-E  C-O-R-E  R-U-L-E-B-O-O-K.&nb\ sp; UFF! July 26, 2001
  • Who is this Mendes Pinto, Anyway? June 28, 2001
  • Once Upon A Time ... (How It All Started) April 25, 2001


    All Ruleslawyer For Free columns by Sergio Mascarenhas

  • Experience: From Fiction to Roleplaying Games September 11, 2000
  • The Applied Experience Curve Concept June 26, 2000
  • Experience Curves May 30, 2000
  • Trait Curves March 28, 2000
  • A Change of Course November 28, 1999
  • Spotlight on Alternacy, A Roleplaying System October 26, 1999
  • Introduction September 21, 1999

    Other columns at RPGnet

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