Prism Chapter 0 Introduction

Art copyright  Doug Beekman, used by permission0.1 Roleplaying

0.1.1 Definition

Prism is a set of rules and information used to play a special kind of game, called a roleplaying game (often abbreviated RPG).  Roleplaying games are unlike any other sort of game.  In a roleplaying game, you and the other players will use a set of agreed-upon rules to invent characters.  When you finish this process, you will know as much about your characters as a reader knows about the characters of a book.  For convenience's sake, you will record some of this information as numbers.  Then, a Gamemaster, or GM (who will be described later), will provide a setting: possibly an entire world or galaxy of places to meet people, have adventures, and live dangerously.  The Gamemaster describes a situation that your characters find themselves in, telling you only what your character could know.  You then decide how your character will act.  The GM will determine the results of these actions, again using the agreed-upon rules where necessary, and describe the results.

There is no necessary ending to a role-playing game.  A player may tire of her character and "retire" her; the characters may complete a quest or save a world, and thus end a campaign (a series of related adventures); or a GM may decide to end a game to start up another one.  However, just as in the movies, characters and storylines can always come back.  There is also no single winner.  If the players' characters have been cooperating to save the world, and they succeed, they could all consider themselves winners, but none is a winner in the sense that a card game or board game would use the term.

Roleplaying games do not use boards and pieces.  Some groups of players may use figurines for convenience, but they are not an essential part of the game.  A roleplaying game takes place in the imagination of all involved.  Figurines or other visual aids are only a supplement; they are not the game.

To put it in a nutshell: a roleplaying game, if done well, is like a roundabout method of writing an adventure novel or movie.  The GM creates a world background, as complete as he needs, and determines how all the elements of this background act.  You become the main character of the book, traveling through whatever adventures you stumble across or seek out.  The result is a storyline like an adventure book or movie, except that no one -- not even the GM -- knows how it will turn out in the end.

0.1.2 The Player's Role

When participating in a roleplaying game, your goal is not to "win," as there is no winner.  Your goal is to create an interesting character, and then perform the character well.  While you do not have to stand up on stage and deliver soliloquies, in many ways your task is similar to that of an actor or actress.  There is one crucial difference, however.  An actress knows how the story turns out, and knows what her character will do at every point; her goal is to make those actions seem convincing by portraying the emotions and mind of her character.  She does not create the character; she adds life to an existing character.  As a roleplayer, you don't have to use facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and all the other crucial elements of acting, if you don't want to.  However, you do have to continually invent your character as the adventures go on.  You must figure out how your character would react to a situation, based on your understanding of how he thinks.  You must also imagine how these events, and their results, might change your character.  Perhaps you are more like a scriptwriter than an actor after all!

A popular element in many roleplaying games is creative problem-solving.  The GM will create situations that challenge the minds of the players.  Mysteries, traps, puzzles, and all sorts of mental challenges can be part of a good roleplaying game.  The most common form of problem-solving is choosing tactics in combat.  Most roleplaying games involve combat of some sort, and the strategy involved in such battles is a form of problem-solving that can be stimulating and challenging.  There are many other types of problem-solving a GM may use, on many different scales.  Entering a room may require deciphering a puzzle lock or solving a magic riddle; this is a small-scale, immediate problem.  Trying to locate a secret hideaway in a large city, and then penetrate it and gather information, might involve many smaller challenges that the players must solve before they can resolve the larger problem.  As a player, you should try to balance your interest in solving these types of problems with your dedication to staying in character.  When characterization and problem-solving clash, characterization must win.

Art copyright  Lou Frank, used by permissionIn some roleplaying games, players put character development behind amassing money or power.  This is not true roleplaying, however.  It is possible to play a character who is power-hungry or greedy; in this case, it would be perfectly in character to seek power or money above all else.  However, this is only one possible role you can play.  When all the players have characters like this, the game devolves into an overgrown video game, and the characters turn into nameless, faceless entities whose only means of identification is how many foes they have slain or how many powerful items they own.  If you want to play a powerlusting or money-hungry character, you must work hard at developing the person behind the personality.

0.1.3 The GM's Role

The GM has a large and difficult task: he must create the world of the game, probably in great detail.  His preparations will range from the large scale (such as maps of countries, continents, worlds, or galaxies) to the small scale (such as location of specific objects in someone's house).  He must also have information available on any other people or creatures (animals, magical beasts, aliens, travelers from other planes, or whatever are appropriate) the characters may meet in this world.  The GM controls all these non-player characters (or NPCs), in much the same way that the players control their characters.

All these elements create events that the GM relates to the players.  For instance, the despot queen of another nation decides to invade, or a nearby star begins to collapse into a black hole.  These events inspire the characters to do things.  The GM's goal is to set up events and situations so that the game will be dramatic and exciting.  Of course, the characters' actions will in turn affect NPCs and the world in general, so the GM must also figure out the effect of the characters' actions.

The other role the GM plays is that of referee.  The GM should know well the rules he is using, because he will be the one to interpret and enforce them.  When a player states that his character will attempt some action, the GM determines if she succeeds, and if so, how.  He does this for his NPCs as well.  In fact, a good GM will switch back and forth between playing an NPC and refereeing, without even noticing the transition.

As referee, the GM must enforce realism in the game.  Realism is important to maintaining a sense of believability.  Of course, in a fantasy adventure, characters may be able to fly, cast magic spells of great power, or do other fantastic things.  However, what they can do must still be realistic in the context of their world.  A character who can fly because there is magic in his world may not be able to do other fantastic things unless they are realistic in his world.

GMs must guard carefully against several pitfalls that can destroy their games.  The first crucial ingredient is play balance.  The GM must make sure that the problems faced by the characters are not so easy that there is no challenge, nor so hard that frustration overwhelms them.  The characters must become neither too powerful nor too weak.  Individual characters must not overshadow others so drastically that any player has nothing to do.  Maintaining balance comes easily with practice, however.

Even a well-practiced GM must beware the other major pitfall: contrivance.  The GM will often feel tempted to interfere with the game to create interesting situations.  At its worst, the GM will not even allow characters' actions to prevent an event the GM was arranging.  (For instance, the GM may want a villain to capture the characters, because he has a dramatic escape sequence in mind, but the characters manage to elude capture.  A GM may "cheat" to ensure the capture, perhaps by bringing in extra foes, or even cheating on dice rolls.)  While a certain amount of interference with the storyline is necessary at times, it is important for a GM to restrict himself so that the players still can choose the fates of their characters.  Players who feel that, no matter what they do, the same events will happen, will probably not stay around for long.

Art copyright  Clyde Caldwell, used by permission0.1.4 Genres

Roleplaying games can be set in any background that adventure novels can be set in.  Some popular genres include:

Of course, GMs can combine these arbitrarily and invent others.  The range of adventure fiction available in your bookstore will give you an idea of the wide varieties available.

Most roleplaying systems describe only one genre; however, a very few are universal, i.e., suitable for any genre.  The advantage of a genre-specific game is that it can concentrate on only those things that are relevant, leaving out excessive elements.  The advantages of universal games are that you only need to learn one set of rules, and that a game can interact with other genres if the opportunity arises (e.g., the fantasy warriors might encounter the crashed ruin of a starship).

0.1.5 Game Worlds

One of the most fascinating elements in a roleplaying game, especially for the GM, is the creation of a unique and interesting game world.  In genres that simulate historical periods, this can involve more research than pure creativity; however, even here, the GM must invent those details he cannot find out, such as people the characters might encounter.  In fantasy worlds of magic or future worlds, the GM must use more creativity, inventing such things as exotic creatures, the structure of politics and economics in fictional nations, the rules governing magic, interesting inventions and the social implications of their widespread use, variations to the laws of nature (which may or may not be common knowledge), and countless other details.

Art copyright  Doug Beekman, used by permissionGMs take great pride in their worlds, and the host of interesting things placed in them.  However, creating a world is an extremely large amount of work, and far too often, the role of GM is a thankless job.  All the same, the world is one of the most important of the elements that make a good game.

Some roleplaying systems come equipped with a predefined world background.  This is, of course, much easier for the GM, and it may offer the advantage of being more thoroughly tested and richer in detail (since its authors may be writing it professionally rather than as a hobby).  However, GMs wanting to personalize their games may find it excessively difficult to modify an existing world structure.  Other roleplaying systems do not include a predefined world, but instead encourage the GM to invent his own world, or even require it.  A universal system generally is of the latter type.

0.1.6 Standard Terms and Notation

To aid the newcomer to roleplaying, a brief description of the use of dice in roleplaying and a short glossary of common terms follows.

0.1.6.1 Dice

For nearly anything you do, there will be a die roll to see how well you do it, and how successful you may be.  You will add in numbers representing various factors telling how strong, swift, knowledgeable, or clever you may be, but a random factor (in the form of a die roll) is present in all of these.

There are several common types of die rolls.  A simple die roll involves rolling one or more of a single size of die.  For example, it is common to roll two six-sided dice.  This is denoted as 2d6.  The number before the d tells how many dice to roll, and the number after it tells what size.  If you leave off the first number, you should roll only one die.  So, we would refer to a twenty sided die as d20.  When you roll multiple dice, you should add the rolls together.

One special case of this is percentile dice, notated by d%.  This is just a hundred-sided die.  However, many roleplayers don't own these rare dice.  If you don't own a one hundred sided die, you can roll two ten-sided dice of different colors, treating one of the dice as the tens digit and the other as the ones digit; note that a "00" roll is a 100.  Percentile dice are one of the most commonly used dice types in most games.

Prism uses a special form of percentile dice, called open-ended dice, which was introduced in Rolemaster™.  Open-ended dice allow you the possibility of rolling lower than 1 or higher than 100 on a percentile roll.  Here's how it works.  Roll d%.  If the roll is greater than 5 and less than 95, use it as rolled, and you're done.  If it was very high, 96-00, you should roll again and add the two rolls together, and treat that as your result.  Better yet: if that roll was also 96-00, you should roll a third time and add all three rolls!  You can keep rolling, and adding up the rolls, as long as you keep rolling 96-00.

On the other hand, if the first roll was very low, 01-05, you should roll again and subtract it from the first.  Odds are you will get a negative number.  If the second roll is 96-00, you should roll a third time, and subtract again.  You can keep subtracting rolls as long as you keep rolling 96-00.  Note that you have to keep rolling 96-00, rather than 01-05, to keep subtracting.

Open-ended dice, notated by dô, offer the possibility of success on any roll, no matter how badly the odds are against you.  In practical terms, a dagger can slay a dragon, if the wielder is very, very lucky, i.e., if he rolls high open-ended several times.  They also open the possibility that anyone can fail at any roll, no matter how skilled they are.  Even the galaxy's greatest pilot can accidentally hit a starbuoy in wide open space, if she's very, very unlucky, i.e., if she rolls low open-ended several times.

In a very few cases, you may roll high open-ended or low open-ended dice (notated by dñ and dò ).  These operate exactly as open-ended dice, except that they can only go in one direction.

Art copyright  Lou Frank, used by permission0.1.6.2 Glossary

0.2 What is Prism?

0.2.1 Features

Prism is different from most of the many roleplaying games on the market in a few important ways.  Like a few other games, Prism is universal; it can be used in any genre, or in several at once.  Prism's emphasis is definitely on versatility.  That means that a large burden is placed squarely on the GM's shoulders.  In fact, several burdens.

Prism does not assume any particular world background.  In fact, a GM really has to provide her own, either by adapting one from another roleplaying game or book, or by writing her own.  This is the cost of flexibility.

Character creation is also made very flexible, and many things are possible within the rules that many not be appropriate.  This is all the more reason that the GM must be strict and not allow herself to be bullied.  The fact that something is not explicity prohibited does not mean it is therefore allowed.

Prism also strives towards versatility within itself.  Its various parts are independent and can be replaced if the GM doesn't like them.

All of these requirements give the GM and players all the freedom possible.  They also make it possible for me to put some good features into Prism.  Some of these descriptions of strengths will have little meaning for someone not familiar with the weaknesses of other systems, so newcomers should skip the rest of this section.

Prism's character creation is realistic and devoid of as many artificial constructs as possible.  For instance, there are no levels; a character's progression in gaining experience happens at a gradual pace.

Some "class-based" systems force characters of the same class to have the same skills.  Others only encourage; you can make your own set of skills, but you can't make your own class.  Prism's aptitudes let you essentially invent your own classes or professions.  An aptitude is a measure of how easily your character learns a specific category of skills.  Without sacrificing realism (after all, some people learn some things more easily than others), this lets you mix and match aptitudes at will.

There are a lot of skills from various historical periods.  Developing a skill is realistic, and similar skills complement one another.  Resolution of skills is done with a playable combination of realism and drama; the GM not only knows whether or not a character succeeds, but also how much.  Anyone can fail or succeed at anything, given enough luck with the dice.

0.2.2 Intended Audience

Prism is not a complete roleplaying system; section 0.3 will explain how to use it as part of a complete system.

This book is written primarily for the players.  I assume the GM will be able to gather the information he needs from it as well.  Therefore, this book describes character creation to a player, in a step-by-step method to aid players in creating well-developed, interesting characters.

The primary audience for Prism is roleplayers with some experience in one or several other games or genres, and who are looking for a single game that is universal, flexible, realistic, and playable.  In particular, players and GMs who are unsatisfied with their current game system or systems may wish to consider Prism as a new standard.

Newcomers to roleplaying can, of course, use Prism.  There is something to be said for starting off a neophyte on a game like Prism.  It may keep newcomers from bad habits often encouraged by some games that make simplistic characters and restrict the creativity of player and GM alike.  However, for someone totally new to roleplaying, learning Prism by oneself can be a substantial challenge.  It might be better to find someone familiar with Prism, or at least with roleplaying games in general, and have them help supply the background knowledge that were sometimes omitted from Prism for the sake of brevity.

0.3 Making A Complete System

0.3.1 Modularity

Prism is not, by itself, a complete system.  It is lacking a combat system and a magic/psionics system, for reasons to be described in the following sections.

You can easily "plug in" a combat system from another gaming system, or work a variation of your own, while using Prism for character creation and maneuver resolution.  That's because Prism was designed with modularity in mind.  Each subsystem (character creation, skill resolution, combat, magic/psionics, and possibly others) operates independently, and the interaction between them is limited.  This makes it easy for the GM to choose his favorite magic system (or use a different one in each campaign) without spending a lot of time on adapting it to the other systems.

For instance, to use a combat system with Prism, you would first have to define exactly what parts of Prism interact with the combat system.  In this case, the weapon and armor skills and a few of the vital stats such as hit points are all you need to concern yourself with.  Then you can find a way to interpret Prism skill values, hit points, etc., in terms that the combat system can use.  This represents a few hours of work, not a major rewrite.

0.3.2 Combat

Because the combat system presented by Iron Crown Enterprises in their Rolemaster™ and Spacemaster™ books works so well, Prism is preconfigured to use it.  If you want to use it, you will need Arms Law & Claw Law™ and Spacemaster™.  Prism does include a chapter dedicated to supplementary rules for these systems, reflecting major or especially tricky problems that have arisen which are not addressed by ICE's system.  Ignore these rules if desired.

Appendix D describes the IRIS Initiative System, which (being also modular) can be used in any roleplaying game with some simple modifications.  This is presented in an appendix because you may not wish to use it; yet if you choose to, you may do so with or without the ICE combat system.  IRIS offers very realistic and flexible tracking of time and events in combat, without high overhead of effort or time spent by the GM.

Art copyright  Doug Beekman, used by permission0.3.3 Magic and Psionics

Prism does not contain its own magic or psionics system because such system tend to be tied to a world background, making it difficult to change.  Reading fantasy and science-fiction shows that countless authors have come up with their own ideas of how magic or psionics might work, and some of the best books derive much of their charm from an intriguing theory of magic or psionics and its effects on society.  In the interests of encouraging GMs to experiment with their own ideas of how magic and psionics might work, Prism offers no single system.  After all, the real world offers many widely varying theories of how magic and psionics may work; why should a game be more restrictive than our single, mundane world?

Of course, designing a magic or psionics system from scratch is a lot of work, and it is typically much harder to modularize such a system; magic and psionics, by their very nature, tend to affect and interact with nearly everything else in the combat, character creation, and maneuver resolution systems.  Therefore, I present three systems in the appendices of this volume.  In addition to being usable, they should serve as examples of how to interface a magic or psionics system with Prism, in case you want to invent your own or pluck one from another game or a book.

Appendix A describes an interface between Prism and the Iron Crown Enterprises' magic/psionics system, as portrayed in Spell Law™ and Spacemaster#153;.  Familiarity with this system will be very helpful for the GM who intends to use it; this appendix only describes how to integrate it with Prism, not how to use it in and of itself.

Appendix B similarly treats GURPS Magic#153; by Steve Jackson Games.  In this case, the problems of dealing with spells whose descriptions use game-specific terms and ideas are explored; the GM intending to adapt another system would do well to observe this system in detail to see how it was put together.

Appendix C offers my own variation, the RDI System of Magic.  RDI is a very challenging system to GM because it is so open and free-form and can be easily abused by crafty players, and because it requires an extremely thorough knowledge of Spell Law™ or a similar spell system.

0.3.5 Other Subsystems

What follows are the character creation and maneuver resolution systems; the latter is described primarily in Chapter 14, and the former comprises most of the rest of this volume.

Of course, a careful GM can replace all or parts of even these with other systems, though it would be easy to leave nothing of Prism behind in the process.  Nevertheless, replace anything that you think would be improved by replacement!  To a lesser extent, the pieces of Prism are modularized and can be altered without rewriting the whole system.  As in all things, make this your own!


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