Archivo de la etiqueta: design diary

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 Epytaph – Design diary

Death Rattle, Panegyric and Epitaph is a game about death, about dealing with death, about getting through the grieving to keep on living.

In Death Rattle, Panegyric and Epitaph, a common acquittance  of the players’ characters has just died, causing them great sadness. But they are contacted by the deceased and asked to finish some of his or her pending issues. Like, maybe, finding the killer. All the players together handle the dead one, known as the Player Ghost. The Player Ghost grants some power over the narrative to the players, and some powers in the game world to the players’ characters.

Through the game, the player characters and the player ghost will advance through the five stages of grief of the Kübler-Ross model. In each phase, the powers granted by the Player Ghost will vary.

The game uses a diceless system, and it can be used on top of other games to play a small side story after a significant death in many campaigns. It will be very adaptable, to adjust the ghost and the ghostly powers to the desired level.

Does all this sound interesting? You can download the first draft (in Spanish only, I’m afraid), written for and inspired by a mini-rpg contest (Rolero de Hierro 2015). It is published free here, under an open license, etc.

During the following weeks I’ll post a design diary of the game, trying to explain the system, and the thought process behind it.