Roll vs Boredom: Mentally Challenged

Roll vs Boredom is an ongoing project to fight off boredom from behind the game master’s screen.  My challenge to myself, to create one signature mechanic for every “adventure” I run in my current campaign, whether that be one night of play or a whole month to complete.   In the first article of this series, I discuss the concept in more detail, and provided the Slapjack Pistols mechanic for Savage Worlds, which can be found HERE.

Sad Realizations

When I began this series of articles, I knew that I would fail.  At some point, I would come up with a mechanic that just would not work in actual play.  I will admit I had hoped to get further than my second attempt before I hit such a downer.  What follows are the details of a mechanic to test my player’s memory skills.  One that I would never recommend to anyone… ever.  Maybe we can learn something from this experience though, and discuss what could have been done differently.

Half a Mind

Before I dig into the rules, a little storytelling is in order.  As mentioned in the first Roll vs Boredom, my players are in the world of Eberron, modified to use the Savage Worlds rules set.  My players found themselves traveling the Mournlands, a territory in the campaign setting devastated by the equivalent of a magical nuclear blast.  One of the fun creature types within this wasteland is the Living Spell, that is to say, a spell which has gained form and sentience as a result of overwhelming magical energy.  These creatures typically roam abandoned compounds or simply travel the open wastelands as wandering threats.  For this adventure, the Living Spell is a highly specialized version of the Savage Worlds Slumber Power, which I named Somnus.  Traditionally the Slumber Power allows the player to resist being forced to sleep by way of their Spirit score, Somnus gave the players no such resistance check.

The players chanced upon a surprisingly intact shelter among the fields of death they traveled.  After entering to explore and rest, they discovered that it was, in fact, a rather classy resort before a cataclysmic blast destroyed the surrounding country.  The building was once owned and operated by a self titled “Sleep Mage” whose  brochure boasted a perfectly crafted dormancy experience for even the worst suffering insomniac.  Unfortunately, the grand hotel was no longer a place for relaxation, but under the super-snoozing power of the Living Spell Somnus, each room became a tomb instead.  Any attempt to leave was met with a mental assault, dropping the victim comatose.  The offending runner fell hard into a powerless catnap, that might well last forever without a friendly wake-up from another party member.

Having learned that one does not simply walk out of Somnus, the party had to scour the inn to learn what they could.  Ultimately, my poorly written adventure led them to the Sleep Mage’s labratory, wherein his notes detailed his incredible spell for the party’s casters to digest.  The group discovered that the Somnus spell is so powerful because it dizzies the victim’s mind, wearing out the brain by drawing on thoughts and memories from every recess of their consciousness, resulting in fainting.  From there, the spell stays active indefinitely by the magical amenities of the resort itself, sustaining sleep until awakened by another.

Armed with this knowledge, the party was able to apply a plan, in spite of the spell’s effects, if they could focus on one thought, if they could lock in on one simple idea, they could possibly make it through the the wards on the building and escape back to the Mournlands.  This called on the new game mechanic.

Mind Games

A Living SpellIn play, when a character attempted to break out, I presented them with a number of Paizo’s Game Mastery Item Cards, hand picked to be both appropriate to the setting and fairly simple, mostly single color items.  Based on the victim’s Spirit score, the traditional ability used to resist Slumber, the number of cards shown was modified.  These cards represented the array of concepts and remembrances welled up by the spell to the forefront of the character’s mind.  The players were given 5 seconds to memorize everything they could about the cards, before I took them away, retaining order, and asked a random question from a preconceived list.  If the player guessed incorrectly, they took a point of Fatigue.  In Savage Worlds, 3 points of Fatigue leads to unconsciousness.  While that meant that this combat was particularly non lethal to an individual, if the entire party went down they would all be lost.

  • Base of 5 Cards – reduced by 1 for every point of Spirit (d4 = 5, d6=4, d8=3, d10=2, d12=1).  In addition, every point of Fatigue or Wounds added to the number of cards.
  • A die was rolled closest to the number of cards showing, for example, with 5 cards, a d4 was rolled to determine which of the first 4 cards would be used, read from the player’s left to right.  In the event that only one card is pulled, skip this step.
  • A subsequent d6 was rolled to determine which question would be asked from the following list.  For all questions, “n” is the number rolled rolled in the second step.
  1. What two items were on either side of the nth item?  (The Game Master may reveal the nth item.  In the event that the item is either first or last in the set, the player should be notified that only one item sat beside it, and then identify that item)
  2. How many items in the set were the color ______?  (The Game Master must choose a color from one of the items.  The player must answer a number corresponding with any items that primarily featured that color)
  3. Name two descriptive facts about the nth item.  (These can relate to color, name, shape, or any number of other descriptors)
  4. Explain how the nth item is used.  (In this case, the character must not simply identify the item, but describe how it is used.  “A cloak is worn over the shoulders or back to protect against rain and cold” would be an acceptable answer, as an example)
  5. What color was most used in the nth item?  (The player must simply identify the prominent color, in a multicolored item the Game Master should use discretion)
  6. What was the nth item?  (The easiest of questions, the player only need name the item)

As the players pushed free, the Living Spell itself attacked in the form of a glowing, green ooze.  Originally I intended the creature to have a Somnus aura, forcing every player to take part in the challenge or suffer 1 Fatigue, in addition to the creature’s single melee attack, making for a deadly one monster encounter.  However, as we actually tested the mechanic in play the mechanic turned out to be slow and frustrating, so I bypassed the aura in favor of two individual attacks per round, one melee and the other fitting the challenge.  Because the list seemed too difficult, and the time limit too short, I bumped up to 10 seconds and simply asked question number 6.  Sadly, that modification seemed to go too far, making the challenge not much of  a challenge at all.  They bested the creature and escaped with ease.

Dreams of the Future

Although this mechanic is likely not worth fixing, it probably could be run smoother if ever tried again.  As it is, it fails the requirements for a good Savage Worlds rule.  It isn’t Fast, it isn’t Furious, and it isn’t much fun.

The mechanic is just too slow to attack the entire group with it.  I considered the possibility of forcing everyone to make a Spirit -2 save, which if failed prompts the challenge, but that still requires a great deal of time each round dedicated to laying out cards and rolling for questions.  It might be better to some way show the same set to the entire group but those with greater Spirit scores only need worry about a corresponding number of cards.

Another issue I had was that while Spirit is used to resist the Slumber Power, Smarts actually felt right for the challenge, and a substitution may have been appropriate.

Not that I’d suggest anyone try it, but this system could easily run as miserably in Pathfinder or D&D 4E.  By using either Wisdom or Intelligence modifiers as a stand in for the Spirit die type, non-lethal damage could be applied to the target until forced into unconsciousness.

Rude Awakening

Undeterred by failure, more Roll vs Boredom articles will come in the future.  In the meantime I’d love to know what you guys think.

Once again, I thank my play testers Beth, Jeff, Laura, Chris, and Rachael for risking their character’s lives all for my attempts at creativity in my personal Hotel California.

Hotel California Album Cover

[tags]GMing, RPG, role playing, games, game mechanics[/tags]

3 thoughts on “Roll vs Boredom: Mentally Challenged

Add yours

  1. I didn’t think the mechanic was that bad. I was just sad that I didn’t get a turn to try it out. I feel like it was a decent idea that followed a frustrating night of game play. I’m curious about what the next mechanic will be. Don’t give up on the new mechanic each session idea, it’s great.


  2. I don’t the mechanic is that bad…I just think that it would take a “certain” type of player to really get into it. Kudos for coming up with something outside that box though. The cool thing about ideas like this is that, even if they fail, you’ve probably sparked an idea for another GM and they will make modifications to suit their game….eventually it might evolve into a very cool thing 🙂

    I think Ash said it best… “Good…bad…I’m the man with the gun”. It’s your world…have a blast and keep coming up with cool ideas!

    Great article!


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