Tag Archives: design diaries

Death Rattle, Panegyric and Epitaph: Design Diary – Special Powers

I’ll start with the obvious. Why does this game need powers? Usually, people do not obtain special abilities when dealing with grief. That is true, but it is also true that this is still a game with a ghost, and I like the characters having special powers.

The real question is how to define those powers in such a way that they help to reinforce the themes of the game while still being fun to use. Why should they be fun to use? Again, because this is a game, and “having fun” is an implicit (well, explicit now) design objective.

First, I set two classes of powers. The first class exist and work only inside the game world, and are called Phantasmagorias. They are more or less “classical” RPG powers, obtained by the PCs and used by them when they want. The second class exist in the game world, but work from the real world, and upon the real world description of the game world, and they are called Death Defiances. They are narrative control capabilities in hands of the players (not the PCs), justified in-game as the ability of the player ghost to defy death and reality.


In Spanish, a ghost is called “fantasma”, and phantasmagoria is “fantasmagoría”. Yes, a phantasmagoria has nothing to do with ghosts, but I liked the word. Of course, having set on the name, I had to justify it: these ghostly powers bestowed upon the PCs work changing reality in a subtle way. Those who see them in use are not sure of what they are seeing, and tend to later think it was just a daydream or a hallucination. And that is the name justified.

Now, I had to decide about the powers themselves. I had the general organisation of the game in the five stages, so I chose to have the powers change based on the current stage of the PC. In each stage, the PC can manifest the nature of the stage of grief spending attribute points.

Death Defiances

I also wanted narrative control capabilities, but not unlimited ones, for the players. Following the same basic scheme, depending on the stage of grief of the player ghost, the players can change the narration of the DM (Death Master) spending attribute points of the player ghost. This way, in the Denial phase they can just say “no” to a DM sentence, while in the bargaining phase they have to cut a deal for every change they want to introduce.

Death Rattle, Panegyric and Epitaph – Design Diaries: Character Attributes

As explained in the previous design diary, I started with three attributes for the player characters: Death Rattle, Panegyric and Epitaph. PCs had points in each attribute, and spent them to fuel powers and overcome obstacles, and losing them caused advancing through the stages of grief, until they reached Acceptance and the game ended for them. This was a simple model, thought to be able to fit in a single page of paper. But it had several problems:

  1. Should players want to have many attribute points to use the powers, or few, to reach Acceptance and “win” soon?
  2. The progress through the Stages was very static.
  3. It would be hard to calculate the right amount of points to go through a game.

So I added a pool of points for each Stage of Grief. Now, players should try to lose points of the earlier Stages of Grief and win points of Acceptance, and should try to keep as many basic attribute points a possible, as they grant them the option to use powers and to overcome obstacles. And the stage of grief pools determine the order of the stages of grief, allowing for some back and forth between them.

But this was too simple: the pools needed to be related in some ways, to allow more interesting decisions.

  • Trying to overcome obstacles requires betting attribute points. The player can also bet stage points from the current stage of grief, but limited to the amount of attribute points bet. If successful, the player will lose a fraction of the bet and will be able to win some Acceptance points and/or to lose some additional points from the current stage.
  • Having a high total of points in the current stage can give some bonus to overcome obstacles when acting in a way corresponding to that stage (with rage, with denial, with melancholy or bargaining).
  • Using powers cost attribute points.
  • There is a way to exchange points from one stage to another, but adding extra points as a penalty. A player can also refill some attribute pools adding extra stage points from the corresponding stage (Anger for Death Rattle, Bargaining for Epitaph, Denial for Panegyric).

Now the mechanical part of the game consists on balancing the attribute points and the stage of grief points, trying to change of stage in the right moment, trying not to win too many Depression points and a lot of Acceptance points, and not losing many attribute points to be able to use powers and overcome later obstacles.

Death Rattle, Panegyric and Epitaph – Design Diaries: Main elements and themes

Here it is, the first true design diary for my first full roleplaying game, Death Rattle, Panegyric and Epitaph. In this series of posts I want to tell you why I’m creating this game, how I’m creating this game, for who I’m creating this game, and why I’m creating this game the way I’m creating it. Where do I start?

I’ll start with the name. I’ve had the Spanish sentence “Estertor, panegírico y epitafio” (that is Death Rattle, panegyric and epitaph in Spanish) in my mind at least two years. I sincerely can’t remember where did I heard it, or when did I put those words together.

I was initially planning on using it as a title for a mystery novel involving three whodunits with the narrative frame of a conversation between three persons related with the stories and with only the given names of Estertor, Panegírico and Epitafio to keep in secret who they were in each story. I have not totally forsaken this idea, and the first of the whodunits is progressing (it will be called John Merridew is dead), but probably the details and the frame narrative will be different.

So, at the start of 2015 a new entry of the Rolero de Hierro (Iron Roleplayer) contest started. Rolero de Hierro is a mini rpg creation contest with a previously established theme and elements. In that occasion, the theme was death. I had the perfect title for a roleplaying game about death!

There were three categories of elements, with three options each. Each contestant had to pick at least one element from each category, and I chose the following elements:

  • Rules should allow any player to act in any moment.
  • There should be rules allowing the players to change a DM sentence during the game.
  • The game should fit in a sheet.

I had the title and these elements. I decided the game would be about a recently deceased ghost looking for help from his or her living acquaintances. Any player would be able to act as the ghost in any moment (to fulfill the first element), and the ghost would grant narrative powers to the players to allow them to defy the DM (and fulfill the second element). To tie it all together, two additional ideas: there will be three characteristics, called as the game: Death Rattle, Panegyric, Epitaph; and the player characters and the ghost will be going through the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.