The Ascendants

It’s easy to forget yourself in the Labyrinth.

Life, that fragile thread, seems like only a second after years, perhaps centuries wandering through this infinite maze of phantom structures: a colosseum of mist-soaked black stone piled with the bodies of its sacrifices, the shell of a corroded rocket half-buried in silt, the silent beam of a lighthouse surrounded by skeletal ships. Emptiness pervades every corner of this broken dimension, a vision of what will become of humanity should the Timekeepers succeed in corrupting the material plane.

That’s the one thing that ties you to your mortal life: the threat that all of it – your work, your sacrifices, your loved ones, your legacy – will disappear if you don’t stop it.

If you let your powers consume you.

If you lose yourself among the billions of ghosts who walk here.

If you forget who you are.

The Ascendants is a homebrewed RPG based on Dogs in the Vineyard and the Storyteller RPG systems, designed to encourage narrative decisions, employing player-generate character traits in the place of statistics. Players create characters from any human era and location, beginning with a framework personality and background to be “restored” during the campaign.

After death, certain souls are taken from the afterlife and placed in the broken dimension known as the Labyrinth where they discover plane-altering powers from gravity manipulation to telepathy to time travel. Each ghost monument in the Labyrinth offers an opportunity to intercept humanity’s timeline, restoring history (and the future) one era at a time by destroying the corrupting influence of the Timekeeper’s Guild.

The rules (as they stand before playtesting):

(Follow along with this handy PDF template or the filled out sample character! For examples, we’ll be assuming Siana is a Stage 1 character who is hunting Timekeepers in 1920s New York.)

(USAGE NOTE: Most of the game’s rules are adapted from Dogs in the Vineyard, a 2004 indie RPG by D. Vincent Baker – and an awesome one at that – whose original rules can be found online. Homebrewed modifications translate the system to a new setting, dramatically simplify dice numbers and processes to accommodate a ridiculous number of players, and add new features such as Fear and Goal sections that lend to a more direct narrative arc. For any questions or concerns, feel free to contact the writer through the ‘Information’ page.) 

Ascendant Character Creation

All souls entering the Labyrinth start at Stage 1, as dictated by the Guild’s metrics. Raw character statistics are split into two columns:

Column 1 – Dice number: Force, Precision, Resistance

Column 2 – Dice size: Physical, Mental, Social

Depending on the encounter, players use a combination of dice number and size as a base roll for what is essentially “dice poker*.”

Stage 1 characters begin with the numbers [1, 2, 3] in column 1 and [d4, d6, d8] in column 2, which can be distributed as the player sees fit for their character. Similarly, each white section (Traits, Bonds, Objects/Features) starts with 1d8, 1d6, and 1d4. Flaws & Fears and Ideals & Goals each have a 1d20 shaded section which cannot be increased or decreased when the character levels up. These can be considered the “fatal flaw” and the “ultimate concern” of the character, respectively, and can drastically shape gameplay when invoked.

Leveling Up

As characters restore monuments, they recover and build parts of their mind and personality, fleshing out their backstories and their futures with experience. This translates in gameplay to stronger traits and features.

Every stage or level (including 1st), characters advance by either adding +1 to a dice number or increasing a dice size (d4->d6 for example, up to d12) in EACH SECTION, including Flaws & Fears. So if Siana began with 1d4, 1d6, and 1d8, at the start of Stage 1, she could increase one of the dice numbers (1d4, 2d6, 1d8) or a dice size (1d6 -> 1d8). Only d20 features cannot change unless explicitly stated by a story event.

Encounters

Encounters begin whenever the GM and players decide that a particular conflict is a turning point in the story.

A shady figure approaches Siana at a party and slips her a letter, whispering that the Timekeepers had found her fugitive father. Elsore, her best friend and the only one who knows about her past, confronts her afterward, concerned that she is beginning to turn to the Timekeepers. Since the two have opposing goals, conflict initiates and we begin the encounter.

Start by stating the stakes. “The stakes” constitute an outcome the character either wants to happen or avoid, also known as the dramatic question.

  • Does Siana show Elsore what’s in the letter?
  • If Siana wins: she keeps the contents secret.
  • If Elsore wins: Siana tells him what’s in the letter.

This is, of course, a simplification of each character’s motivation, but the stakes are simply a way of defining a conflict. Don’t worry – the complicated dramatic stuff comes later.

Choose your base statistics. These are the bold stats under the player’s name and stage, and your choice reflects your approach to the conflict. Are you going for force? Insight? Calm? Angered?

  • For Siana, this is about resisting her connection with Elsore to keep the letter, so Social Resistance (2d6) would be appropriate.
  • For Elsore, this is a matter of logic and strategy, so Social Precision (2d8) would be fitting.

Both sides then roll their dice for their initial dice pool.

  • Siana: 2d6 = 3, 5
  • Elsore: 2d8 = 7, 3

Act. Each round of an encounter, either side attempts an action by raising (submitting) two dice. When you raise, you can pull in any of your traits or features that you think are appropriate to the encounter. Each feature (except for objects/features and powers) can only be used once unless approved by the GM.

Since Elsore initiated the conflict, he raises first.

  • Elsore: “I’m going to lean toward her and try to meet her eyes and just say, ‘Seven years. I never pushed, I’ve always had your back. But I can’t help you if everything’s in the dark.’ And I’m pulling in my 2d6 Bond, ‘I know my crew. They’re my family.'”
  • Elsore then rolls 2d6, getting a 1 and a 4.
  • His dice pool is now [7, 3, 1, 4]. He picks 3 and 1 to raise, totaling 4.

Your total reflects how strong the action was. In Elsore’s case, a 4 isn’t very high, so he’s starting soft, trying to lower Siana’s guards without threatening their friendship.

Respond. Siana now has to react or respond by trying to match the raised 4 with no more than two dice.

  • Siana: “I stand up from the couch and shift more toward the window away from him. ‘He’s out there.  And I know he won’t stop until I end him.’ I’m using my 1d6 ‘My father is a dead man’ goal.
  • Siana rolls 1d6, getting a 6.
  • Her dice pool is now [3, 5, 6]. She responds with a 5.
  1. If you respond with 1 die, you reverse the blow. Not only did you respond, but you shut down your opponent’s action entirely. You get to keep the dice and reroll to add to your dice pool.
  2. If you respond with 2 dice, you deflect the blow. You gave a sufficient response to continue surviving the encounter. Gold star.
  3. If you respond with 3 or more dice, you take the blow. You struggled to respond and your opponent’s actions definitely had an impact on you. Record how many dice you used, as these will become impact dice – consequences (good and bad) for what happened during the conflict.

(P.S. If you’re narratively inclined, you are welcome to purposefully respond with 3 or more dice if you genuinely think your character would have been affected by the blow. Good on you for putting story above numbers!)

  • Since Siana was able to respond using less than two dice, the blow is reversed, meaning your strike was more than enough to shut down the action and you get to keep the submitted dice to reroll.
  • Siana’s 5 matches and exceeds Elsore’s 4 (3+1), so she reverses the blow and keeps the d6 to add to her dice pool.

Physical conflicts. Determine whether you’re going for lethal or non-lethal damage upfront when possible. This’ll help clarify the extent of physical damage you would sustain from Impact dice after the conflict.

Use common sense. If your character’s shoulders were dislocated, you’re going to have a hard time using your arms the next round. If you’re a tiny child facing a much larger foe, even if you have a 4d8 in Physical Force, that force isn’t going to topple your opponent in a single punch without some other factors involved. If your character took a bullet to the head because you couldn’t respond to an action, your character is either dead or bleeding out or Phineas Gage. Follow the narrative as necessary, and don’t be afraid to say goodbye to an action or a character if it comes down to it. Perhaps you’ll meet them again in the future.

Fears and Flaws: You can pull fears like any other feature, adding it to your dice pool if you think the fear or flaw is motivating your character. However, you must declare that you are using a Fear/Flaw feature, potentially cluing your opponent in to what your fear trait may be. On your opponent’s next turn, they can try to turn your fear against you in their action. If they effectively elicit the fear or flaw, they may then roll your fear trait as if it were their own feature in addition to their standard pulled trait.

On the other hand, if you have previous knowledge of your opponent or think you can guess one of their fears without their declaration, you can pull their fear/flaw on your turn by making an action meant to elicit that fear/flaw, again, in addition to your standard pulled feature.

  • Siana: “Siana just looks at the letter, turns it over and over. But she knows she can’t afford to loose the lead again. I’m pulling my 1d6 flaw, ‘I won’t be remembered for my mistakes.'”
  • Siana rolls a 3 and raises with a 3 and a pooled 5 (8).
  • Elsore: “I’ve known her for a long time. I can tell when she’s getting nervous, so I’m pulling my 1d8 bond, ‘Siana is the closest one I have to a friend.’ I’m going to try to turn her flaw, so I just walk up, meet her in the eye, and say ‘You know I’m here for you – you and all your broken history, whatever. It doesn’t matter. All you can do is use what you have now. Let your friends help you.’ Is that enough to turn it?”
  • Siana: “Yeah, I think it is.”
  • Elsore rolls his 1d8 bond AND the 1d6 turned flaw, gaining a 5 and a 2. He responds with the 5 and a pooled 4 (9).

Players: be honest about your fears/flaws. They’re what make your character your character and lend to growth. Negatives can motivate people just as much as the positives, and if your character never addresses their fears in combat, they’ll never be resolved.

Side note: If agreed to by your GM, you can pull other traits from your opponent as well, just as long as your character is somehow playing into or exploiting those features.

If tensions rise, escalate by adding a new dice pool.

Let’s say the confrontation isn’t going so well. Elsore is exhausting his options and Siana isn’t relenting. As long as the stakes warrant dramatic action, either player can escalate the conflict by changing the way they fight. For Siana, this can be anything from pulling out a gun to fleeing to setting a puzzle for Elsore to solve. In Elsore’s case, he may decide that words won’t sway Siana and instead try to grab the letter by force or threaten her with a weapon.

Elsore, deciding that Siana’s stubbornness will never die, lunges for the letter instead.

The conflict has turned physical, meaning that the base statistics have changed.

  • Elsore escalated when his dice pool was [3, 1, 4, 2] from a d6, d4, d8, and d6.
  • Siana’s dice pool was [5, 2, 7, 4] from a d6, d4, d10, and d4.

To escalate, all dice are rerolled. Add new base statistics to match the new conflict.

  • Elsore rerolls 2d6, 1d4, and 1d8 [1, 5, 3, 4]. He adds Physical Force (4d8): [7, 1, 2, 8]
  • Siana rerolls 1d6, 2d4, and 1d10 [2, 1, 4, 8]. She adds Physical Resistance (2d6): [5, 1]

Play on.

D20s are gamechangers. Anytime a d20 is pulled – as a power, a flaw/fear, or an ideal/goal – the circumstance changes: both parties must either a) escalate and use the d20 as any other dice, b) take impact dice equal to the number you roll on the d20, or c) go into “endgame.”

Repeat acting and responding until someone cannot respond and meet the “acted” number.

  • If Elsore acted with a 12 (7+5) and Siana’s dice pool was [2, 3, 5] including a pulled feature, she cannot match a 12 no matter how many dice she uses. Therefore, Elsore wins the encounter. As dictated by the stakes, Siana gives in and shows Elsore what’s in the letter.

Elsore makes one final leap toward Siana, his superstrength propelling him forward, and Siana tumbles to the ground, her arm stinging from the impact as the letter drifts limply into Elsore’s hands.

If both players run out of dice and features to pull, a) congratulations, that’s quite the feat, and b) go into Endgame using your base stats as your dice pool.

Endgame. Roll all the dice in your dice pool. Whoever has the greatest number wins the encounter with a dramatic flourish.

Impact. IMPACT IS NOT A BAD THING. IT’S ACTUALLY QUITE DESIRABLE. It’s an indication that your character struggled with the conflict and learned or developed because of it. Heck, some people would call it growth.

Take your recorded impact number and roll that many d6’s. Consult the lovely table.

Impact Table

_ = your stage level

D6 result Dice Description Physical Damage
<7 _d4 The encounter left you with something to think about, but no enlightening revelations. Bruises and scrapes. Nothing that won’t heal on its own.
8-16 _d6 You’ve learned something or changed, maybe not in everyone else’s perspective, but you can feel a difference. A dislocated joint, a few slashes. Take care if you don’t want it to worsen.
17-30 _d8 The encounter left you shaken. Something noticeable has changed about you, your demeanor, or your outlook on life. Significant bleeding, breaks that’ll leave heavy scars, difficulty moving. Requires immediate medical attention to avoid permanent damage.
31-45 _d10 You’ll never see the world the same again. Your resolve has changed, either transforming or strengthening to zealous intensity. Your life is on the line. Vital organs punctured, hemorrhaging, near unconscious. Requires professional medical attention fast.
>45 _d12 How could you have been so blind? You are a new person now, brought to see the world as it should be seen (according to you). Either: death, or injuries that will never heal. Use your better judgement based on the circumstance.

If you were in a physical conflict (anything from wrestling to gunfights), you take physical damage. Take the necessary precautions to avoid sliding down the table in physical health. Again, if the table doesn’t match your gameplay, use common sense to determine what repercussions would have arisen from your conflict.

For impact, you have 3 options, any of which must apply to both a regular section of your character sheet AND the Flaws & Fears section. You’re essentially gaining/changing two features, one positive/neutral, another negative/neutral.

  1. Change a feature. Rewrite a trait, bond, object, ect. either adjusting the meaning or replacing it entirely. No need for the table here. This may be a dramatic or slight difference depending on what you pick, but be faithful to your character’s story arc. When in doubt, make the interesting choice over the safe choice.
  2. Change the weight of a feature. Pick a feature that was relevant to the encounter and change the weight to match what you rolled on the Impact Table. Again, the change may be large or small, but make the interesting choice, not necessarily the most advantageous one.
  3. Add a feature. Add a feature that you think reflects your character’s development in this encounter. Use the weight determined in the Impact Table.
  • Siana had to use 4 dice to take a blow, so her impact number is 4. She rolls 4d6: [2, 6, 3, 5] total: 16
  • This falls in the 8-16 range and she is stage 1, so she would have 1d6 to change her character sheet.
  • Because Elsore forced her to reveal the letter’s contents, her trust in him is shaken, so she is using option 1 and changing her bond feature with Elsore. The feature’s weight stays the same (1d8), but she changes the wording from “Elsore helped me up when I was ruined.
    He’s the only one who made me laugh.” to “Elsore has always wanted to protect me, but I can’t burden him with my past.” This significantly changes their relationship and reflects the consequences of the argument.
  • Additionally, she must change a flaw or fear feature. She changes her 1d6 “I must be perfect. I won’t be remembered for my mistakes.” trait to “I must be perfect. No one can know about my mistakes and insecurities.”
  • Elsore won, but he was significantly shaken by the conflict with an impact number of 8 (not the best of strategists, but how can you be with a friend?). He rolls 8d6 for a total of 28. At stage 1, he has 1d8 to use.
  • He is adding a 1d8 Ideal as “I am a protector. I’ll do anything to make sure friends come home alive.”
  • He must also add a 1d8 Fear/flaw: “I’m afraid of my strength. If I hurt someone I care for, I’d never forgive myself.”

Congratulations. You’ve completed an encounter.

*No gambling involved, just good old fashion nerdiness.

 

(More info to come in a much-better-formatted version!)

 

-N

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