Storytelling Saturday–All Pathways Lead to Rome (I)

TL;DR: GURPS is a simulation engine particularly well-suited for historical RPG, thanks to features that can be easily ported into narrative games, and this post looks at two of those: PbtA, and Cortex Prime.

My all-time favorite game was a peplum-noir GURPS Imperial Rome mini-campaign, set during the late Republic. Ancient Roman society was unexpectedly close to ours in some respects but alien in others. Our GM, a formally-educated Roman archaeologist, leveraged the familiarity while leaning on the alien. As the story unfolded, we grew familiar with the alien, and never had to front-load too much historical information.

I retired G. Crespus Scorpio, my Roman private investigator, in the early 2000s. I pitched Eagle Eyes—a Fate-based, Ancient Rome peplum-noir—to my ex-GURPS GM in 2014, and they liked it a lot, but not enough to take the GM pallium. I tried again with Cortex Prime, and it worked. Why so? Well, that’s today’s topic, but the short of it is “pathways.”

Now, Rome was not built in a day (apologies, but I had to). So don’t expect this post to fully cover the long of it. Mainly, I’ll consider why GURPS is so well-suited for historical TTRPG-ing, how to emulate GURPS’s forte in other game engines, and why Cortex Prime’s pathways convinced my former GM.

GURPS has moves

GURPS is a simulation engine, not a storytelling engine or “fiction first” game. Then again, “fiction first” is as much virtue signaling as an honest descriptor, so I’ll leave it for today. Still, GURPS point-buy character creation bakes setting-specific random story generators in PCs’ character sheets in the form of Advantages (with a point cost) and Disadvantages (with a point reward) that trigger on a dice roll (3d6, average at 10.5).

For a concrete example, consider one of the “alien” dimensions of Roman life I alluded to in the introduction: the Patron-Client relationship, a foundation of Roman societyGURPS Imperial Rome covers the historical standpoint in its first chapter (“Life in Rome,” p.9-10; Fig. 1 for a TL;DR if you’re unfamiliar). 

Fig. 1. GURPS Imperial Rome, p. 9, fair use (commentary & criticism)

The Patron advantage, in GURPS Basic Set (4th ed, p. 72 sq), comes with a power level, a frequency of appearance, and a duty, determining how beneficial, likely, and costly a Patron intervention is. Setting-specific interpretation and values are introduced halfway into the “Character” chapter of Imperial Rome (Fig. 2).

Thus, halfway through creating a PC, the player considers the question, “who could be my PC’s patron, and what would I owe them?” in terms of setting creation and mechanics. The answer is then baked into the PC’s character sheet with two triggers.

  • PC-initiated: The PC calls for their Patron, rolls 3d6 against a target number based on points invested in the advantage (see Fig. 2), and the Patron intervenes (pass) or not (fail).
  • GM-initiated: The GM rolls 3d6 against a target based on points received for the Duty disadvantage (GURPS Basic Set, pp. 133-134), and the Patron calls for duty (pass) or not (fail).

Looks familiar? If not, you’ve probably missed out on Apocalypse World or other PbtA games, for that matter. In PbtA terminology, the first is a peripheral move, available to (almost) any Roman citizen PC under the right circumstances; and the second is a beginning-of-session move. I belabor on this in The Fine Prints.

Contextual Storytelling

GURPS and PbtA have a similar approach to embedding setting-specific information at the character-creation stage. I’ll come to relevant differences in a minute, but prep-wise, it looks like that:

  • GURPS: The GM prepares a list of setting-specific options for general-purpose Advantages or Disadvantages (as with Fig. 2, right-hand side); the players pick Ads/Disads.
  • PbtA: The MC (Master of Ceremony) builds options into playbooks via playbook-specific moves that trigger setting-specific circumstances; the players pick playbooks.

PbtA seems more demanding (creating playbooks is designing a game), but if the GM creates ad hoc NPCs as optional Patrons, the workload evens out (as whoever has played GURPS knows). I’ll come back to GM’s workload later, though. First, I’ll consider bringing some PbtA gameplay to GURPS with (of course) my favorite PbtA tools: Threat maps.

The notion is dead simple: run a PbtA-style first session letting PCs interact with N/PCs options to anchor moves from their playbook (PbtA) or Adds/Disads (GURPS). Then, following standard Apocalypse World, convert the NPCs so introduced into Threats before session two. Granted, PbtA has Threat categories for locations and objects. Still, GURPS can emulate that, but it’s a niche topic, so I’ll leave it aside.

Now, let’s call Ads/Disads (GURPS) or the playbook options (PbtA) and their associated moves “setting traits” (traits for short); and the NPCs and locations created as Threats, “game moderator constructs” (GMCs, for short). Next up, consider the following procedure.

  1. Sit down at a gaming table with players. List the setting Traits categories and the GMC categories.
  2. While players pick setting traits and create their characters, create GMCs based on the options they choose.

Now, arrange (1) and (2) into a turn structure to make it a game of its own, impose a few constraints on the relations GMCs should have, and let the players co-author the GMCs, and you have Cortex Prime Pathways. In a nutshell.

Fig. 3: PbtA-ready, powered by GURPS

Pathways to Rome

Let’s give a catchy name to our prospective port of GURPS Imperial Rome to Cortex Prime: Cortex: When In Rome (hereafter Cortex: WIR; Latin speakers will appreciate). Today I’ll consider a pathway-based equivalent to GURPS Imperial Rome‘s “Life in Rome” chapter, as a special case of introducing prospective players to a historical setting—which is what the chapter does.

I mentioned the familiar and the alien of historical settings and an excellent player’s introduction to that is a walkthrough for a typical day in the life of typical N/PCs, highlighting what modern-day folks would definitely recognize (the familiar) or not (the alien). In fact, PC’s trait selection pathway steps could follow a “day in the life” pattern.

That’s a topic of its own, though, that will have to wait for a future post. Let’s zero in on day-in-the-life GMC encounters, where GMCs are the “Game Master Constructs” from last section. First, consider the categories we need to introduce in a setting-building pathway session. Fig. 4 shows those from the example p. 80 of the Cortex Prime Game Handbook (CPGH), for a game using Roles (Engineer, Sage, Hero).

Fig. 4. Cortex Prime Game Handbook (CPGH), pathways categories.

The four categories of Fig. 4—Player Character, Secondary Character, Situations, and Resources—work perfectly for the example in the book but are too coarse-grained if the GM intends to introduce setting elements through pathways rather than scratch-build the setting around the characters. For instance, for an urban Ancient Rome neighborhood you’d like things like:

  • Locations. Insulae (socially-mixed apartment buildings), a domus or two (upper-class town mansion), a few tabernae (stall vendors, often at ground level of an insula), a marketplace, a caupona (bar/restaurant), a popina (lower-class wine-bar, gambling den & brothel), possibly thermae (public bath), and a few arae (votive altars), perhaps an arena (for public games).
  • People. A patronus (patron) and their clientes (clients), perhaps an aedilis, censor or praetor (elected officials) if one lives in the neighborhood; other notable citizens or non-citizens, including freedmen and slaves (public, or from a notable household).
  • Organizations. The local collegium (citizen’s neighborhood association, legit or criminal), street gangs, maybe a foreign cult; after Augustus: the vigiles (law enforcement).
  • Situations. Festivals or religious rituals, street-market day, bread distributions, street performers, circenses (public games).

Note that the above need not be introduced through pathways character-creation: a GM can create an ‘adventure seed’ Threat Map and dump PCs into a network of relations (as suggested in this post). Accordingly, Fig. 5 could be a collaborative pathway process’s output or an ab ovo GM seeding.

Fig. 5. A lively Roman Neighborhood

Alternatively, a GM could use a hybrid approach running pathways on a seed map and using player-created GMCs to “fill the blanks”—in Fig. 5, the collega talking to Secunda and the popina they meet at, a few of C. Camillius Marulinus’ clients, etc. The hybrid approach is a compromise between a pre-session zero lore dump, and from-scratch setting creation, with some distinct advantages for authenticity (not accuracy, see The Fine Prints).

The Fine Prints

Imperial Rome PbtA. The Patron Call move is similar to battle or barter moves: it requires the right circumstances (be in the city as a Patron or having some way to reach them), hence “peripheral.” Duty Calls is a GM-rolled beginning-of-session move (GURPS Basic Set, p. 134). PbtA’s design would switch the pass-or-fail results and let the PC roll. More generally, GURPS Imperial Rome‘s character types (pp. 27-32) come with setting-appropriate suggested Advantages, Disadvantages, and skills. Streamline them into a few categories and moves, and you have a PbtA conversion of GURPS Imperial Rome. Even as a mere thought experiment, this demonstrates how GURPS pioneered PbtA-style dynamics, where play collapses to the conversation. GURPS is not “fiction first,” but PbtA isn’t either (some moves originate at the table, not the conversation) so there are few game-design roadblocks in the way to actually carry a GUPRS-to-PbtA conversion.

Roman authenticity. Pathways are ideal for building what Johnathan Stamp, HBO’s historical consultant on Rome, called “authenticity.” Entertainment media has used Rome as a historical window-dressing for various purposes. Gladiator is a riches-to-rags-to-revenge story. Spartacus, the tv show, is sex, MMA, creative cursing, and empowerment porn. Spartacus, the 1960 movie, is a Christian fantasy about the end of slavery (as an allegory for ending McCarthyism, hilariously). I have no fetish for “historical accuracy,” but prefer period drama that’s about the period, and “creative anachronism” where “creative” outweighs “anachronism.” HBO’s Rome played fast and loose with history but correctly got everyday life details—and Ceasar’s populism and Brutus’ activism. Pathways are great for “authenticity,” fending off preconceptions born out of historical window-dressing, and keeping stuff-you-should-read-in-advance to a minimum.

Wrapping Up: GURPSifying the Cortexified Multiverse

As I’ve written elsewhere, I used to mistake my appreciation of Cortex for GURPS nostalgia. Still, I failed to appreciate how GURPS embeds the setting into the character creation process—in ways close to PbtA design enough to make conversion straightforward. In fact, GURPS character creation is part playbook creation, part cooperative Threat Map design.

And this is also what Cortex Prime pathways offer, so whatever GURPS does for historical settings, Cortex can do it too. Since pathways are their own game, they also have their own emergent gameplay. So getting GURPS-style historical contextual storytelling requires some fine-tuning, and today was the first step towards that.

And that will be all for today, folks.

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