Synthesis - Copyright © 2002 by Mike Holmes and J B Bell
$Revision: 1.8 $
We are greatly indebted to the fine people of The Forge
(www.indie-rpgs.com) for inspiration.
The present text's lineage includes ideas from many RPGs. Specifically, much of the structure and dice conventions are from Hubris Games' Story Engine . The idea of relationship and belief Traits as particularly important, and the idea of permanence vs. transience in Traits come from Issaries' Hero Wars by Robin Laws and Greg Stafford. Certain Trait handling as currency was inspired by Anvilwerks' Donjon by Clinton Nixon. The notion of a Premise tailored to the play group is inspired by The World, the Flesh, and the Devil by Paul Czege. And the Self Trait itself, its handling, and its relationship to the character is inspired by Adept Press' Sorcerer by Ron Edwards. As such the game is very much a conglomeration of current game thought.
Synthesis is well suited to strongly story-driven
role-playing where the main issues center on a struggle for
self-definition against differing ideologies. The core of the
system is rules that revolve around the Self Trait,
which drive action that is character-centric.
It is very important to have one "gaming session", or at the
very least a good portion of the first session, dedicated to
making decisions about some things outside of play, and a few
matters directly to do with the game itself. Note that one or
more players must bring a vision to the game about what it will
involve. The following sections don't take care of themselves!
Traditionally it's the GM who handles these details, but all
the other participants in the game are encouraged to contribute
as well. In the end, all participants must agree on what to
play, and how to play it. Only after a consensus on these
things has been reached should the participants move on to
Any play group, whether playing Synthesis or any other RPG,
should have a social contract--an agreement about what the
group is trying to do and how to go about it. This should
include matters such as how frequently the group meets, how
long individual sessions should be, what kinds of behavior are
or aren't acceptable (e.g., is a lot of social chatter OK in
your game, or is everyone expected to stay in character as much
as possible?), and just generally what is expected of everyone
on a social level. Failing to at least discuss this a little
can kill a game down the road, often very unpleasantly.
Synthesis requires that the play group devise a Story
Premise. A Story Premise is a question, which the play group
addresses by actually playing the game. Synthesis supports a
theoretically infinite set of these, but certain Story Premises
work better than others. Namely, you will find it fairly easy
to make Story Premises that somehow address something starting
with "self-". Self-respect, self-destruction, self-sacrifice,
self-worth, and so on can be used as "seed words" to make a
fuller Premise. One can use other ways of coming up with a
Premise, of course, but keep the focus of Synthesis in
Example: the play group likes the idea of a setting where very little is certain. Every day can bring radical changes to the entire world, which is a very surreal affair. This is interesting, but without a Premise, it may not go anywhere that gives the game a sense of direction. The GM suggests self-worth as a good seed word, and this helps everyone to arrive at a Premise: "In a volatile world with nothing certain, how do you understand and keep your self-worth?"
The Setting is your play group's fictional world. This can be an entire planet, or a whole galaxy or universe, or something as small-scale as a single town or even neighborhood. The Setting should be appropriate for addressing the Story Premise you have established. Make sure the play group understands the Setting well enough to interact with it before play begins. Often this can be as simple as saying that play will be in a world very much like our own. In other cases, the participants may agree to some outlandish fantasy or science fiction setting, in which case more discussion may be neccessary to the participants to a point at which they feel comfortable enough to proceed. This is typically solved by the GM arriving with a setting in hand, and having the answers to the players questions on the setting (though this is not the only method available).
Central to Synthesis are Characters, so we cover their creation first. There are three steps to creating a Character:
Certain details about the Character should be written down. This should total no more than one page of paper. This page is refered to as a the Character Record. Use pencil that is easy to erase, as the details of the Character change frequently. In some cases it may be easier to just start over from scratch with a new sheet. Optionally, you can use a report cover with pockets. Then you can keep the more changeable Indefinite Traits (described below) on scraps of paper or index cards, and store them in the pockets between sessions.
Spend a little time coming up with a general concept for your character. It's good to do this with the cooperation of the GM and other players, so that you don't end up with repetitive or unreconcilable characters. The GM's guidance is especially important, since the GM is the one who knows the most about what the game-world is like and what kinds of stories you'll be playing with. After you have a basic concept, expand on it using the two methods below.
The player should determine some of the details of the characters background. This doesn't have to be extensive, but should give a general idea of the character and where they come from. Include details about important people and changes in the characters life. Such details may be helpful in determining Traits. Some prople prefer to write the background down, but it's not absolutely neccessary. If it is written, it should be no longer than a page (and probably much shorter), and should be included on the back of the Character Record.
Player characters in Synthesis should have their own Personal Struggle that helps the player to address the chosen Story Premise. (Note that the player does the addressing through the PC--the character may not be aware of the Premise, and may serve to punctuate it by acting in a way that highlights an unexpected answer.) This struggle is a sort of long-term Conflict that serves to give a focus to the PC's actions. It can be in the form of a goal, like "get revenge for my father's murder," or something that is a daily struggle, such as "addicted to heroin." The latter would probably also be a negative Trait; however, not all Personal Struggles will be exactly reflected as Traits.
The players should record the nature of their characters' Personal Struggles on the front of the Character record at the top. It is the most important fact about the character in play.
Characters are made up, mechanically, of Traits, which are
brief descriptions of something about the character. Traits
have a level associated with them, which is a number
written next to the Trait. So a typical Trait will look like
Fast 3. The level indicates how potent or significant
the Trait is in game terms. In selecting Traits for a
character, it's important to understand how broad to make the
Trait's description, how powerful to make it relative to other
Traits, and other issues; these are covered below. Special
attention should be given to ensuring that some Traits are
selected that address the character's Personal Struggle, and
the Story Premise in general.
Traits can be practically anything, from fairly traditional
RPG notions like Strength and Dexterity, up to
the very particular and/or weird, like Un-losable,
Indestructible Hat or Breaks Out in a Rash at the
Mention of President McKinley. Deciding how to label a
feature of your character can be tricky. A particular sticking
point will be the "granularity" of Traits--how precise a thing
they refer to. Synthesis does not supply a hard and fast rule
for this, as the authors' intention is that the system should
apply to a broad range of possible characters. That said, the
precision of Traits should follow their importance in the game.
For example, if your game is going to contain lots of
bash-'em-up fighting, Fight 2 is not only likely
inadequate, it's rather dull. Instead you would have Wei Qi
Secret Wings Technique 4 or Small Unit Tactics 5. In
a fairly typical modern game, Police Officer 4 would describe a
seasoned detective and all of the training that goes with the
job. If you're running a police-procedural, though, you might
have many different Traits like Police Procedure,
Forensic Science, Interrogation , Handgun
Combat , Pain Compliance Techniques, and so
It's all right to mix the precision of Traits to represent a
general skill, talent, resource, or whatever, and specialties
or nuances of it. So the combination of Thievery 4 and
Lock-Picking 1 doesn't necessarily mean a thief who is
rather bad at picking locks. Both Traits would apply to the
picking of a lock. (There is a limit to how many Traits can be
brought to bear on a problem, however, so "min-maxing" by
buying lots of small Traits is not effective.)
Note also that the level of a Trait works the same no matter
what Trait it applies to. The Trait itself may be more or less
appropriate in some situations (see Conflict for more detail on this), but all
else being equal, Claws 3 is exactly equivalent to
Six-Gun 3 , in terms of power to affect the storyline.
Thus, Invulnerable 1 does not really make very much
sense. There is no Trait in this game without a level to go
with it, so absolute Trait names should be avoided (though if
you're running a funny game they can be appropriate).
Finally, know that Traits are defined partly by their use during the play of the game. No one can foresee exactly how every possible Trait will be used, and you shouldn't try. GMs are encouraged to reward clever use of Traits rather than interpreting them rigidly.
PCs always have a level in a Trait labeled Self. In the game, this represents a person's self-image, self-integration, self-confidence, self-assuredness and other positive things that start with "self-". Negative "self-" things like self-centeredness are actually the result of a low Self Trait. In other words, a character with a high Self level, knows himself well, and does not need excessive introspection, or self-absorption. Those with a low Self Trait are searching for themselves, are lost in their own egos, or are otherwise limited by a lack of self-knowledge. This is an important distinction.
A character's Self Trait can come into play in any Conflict where the character acts in a way consistent with their own self-image, and as such may be an important part of their effectiveness. It may actually count for the opposing side in a conflict if the PC is behaving in a way that violates their own self-image. More importantly, Self can become involved in Conflicts that involve the character's Personal Struggle in a way that both increases character effectiveness, and yet challenges the Self. Self can also be spent to turn Indefinite Traits into Defining Traits, or to change negative Traits. See Changing Traits under Currency.
It should also be noted that the higher the Self Trait's level is, the more difficult it is to increase, and that Self cannot be voluntarily reduced to zero.
Only the PCs, and certain important NPCs will have high
Self scores. Unimportant NPCs should be given a
Self of 1. This means that the PCs are more likely to be
able to overcome most unimportant NPCs in conflict resolution.
If one wants a rationale for this, it represents the fact that
only the self-assured will be important anyhow. For game
purposes, it also means that common folk may still be fairly
talented (they have more points to spend on other Traits), but
also easy to manipulate.
Things without a Self rating are only as self-aware as
animals, if that. A character who's Self is reduced to zero is
no longer a PC and reverts to GM control. This can be a
temporary thing or it can be permenant, the details of which
should be worked out between the participants. Usually getting
the character back into the hands of the player involves
orchestrating a self roll that is appropriate.
||Animal or less self-understanding
|1||The faceless crowd
||Some Self knowedge
|3||Improving Self knowledge
||Definite Self knowledge
|6||Very Self Assured
|8||Near total understanding of Self
|9||Superhuman knowledge of Self
|And so on . . .|
Most people have some beliefs, if only lightly held ones.
Assign a couple of belief Traits at least at level one for all
but the most agnostic of characters. For characters with more
potent beliefs, the player should freely assign more. Beliefs
are often critical to a good character, and are often relevant
to the Character's Personal Struggle.
||No particular belief
|1||A small amount of actual belief
|8||Nearly unshakeable faith
|9||Prophets and the like
|And so on . . .|
Also important is listing a character's relationship Traits.
Again, almost every character will have one or more of these.
Such a Trait represents how important these people are to the
character, as well as how much the character can rely on them
for help. Few Characters will be without one or more family
relationships, for example. The relationship can be taken for
an entire family, or can specified for individuals. In general
any group can be related to, or the specific individuals of a
group can be realted to independantly. One can also have more
than one relationship with someone else, such as the Love/Hate
relationship. Families can be both Supportive and
Note that players are encouraged to have or develop
relationship Traits between their characters. These Traits can
be used to generate successes in helping each other out,
||No relationship or purely
|7||Extremely intense, obsessive
|8||Overwhelming, Entirely involved
|9||Almost complete devotion
|And so on . . .|
Most characters should have a Culture Trait, possibly more
than one representing having lived in places other than their
home culture. A culture Trait represents a number of things. It
is the character's knowledge of that culture, as well as their
relationship to the culture. It also represents their general
education as provided by that culture, including things such as
how well the character speaks their native tongue. For example,
a PC with Los Angeles 3 would be a typical native of Los
Angeles; if the game were set in the modern day, this Trait
would apply to driving a car, knowing English, dealing with the
everyday business of a United States denizen, knowing history,
where to find a McDonald's in the area, and so forth. Because
so much of a person's understanding of their world and how to
cope with it comes from culture, this is often a very important
kind of Trait.
The average person will have a level of 3 in their own culture. Less educated individuals will have a 2, and occasional individuals will have a 4. A 1 is reserved for those who are either children or otherwise are just learning about a culture other than the one in which they were raised. Rare individuals like hermits or wildmen might possibly have no culture Traits at all, though this should be rare. Even a person who has some knowledge of a nearby culture will have a level of 1 in it.
Any special statuses or reputations should be reflected in
separate Traits as well. Also the character's ability to
socialize well, or otherwise relate to people in general terms
should be enumerated if at all remarkable.
||Not part of this society
|1||Some knowledge of Culture,
||Disenfrachised Educationally, Lower
|3||Average Member of Culture, Middle
||Fairly Well Educated, Cultured, Upper
|5||Very Well Educated, Cultured, Lower
|6||Extremely Well Educated, Upper class,
Noble, Jet Set
|7||Cultural Maven, Star, High noble
|9||God King, Emperor
|And so on . . .|
Anything that a character might learn how to do that is not
covered under the general skills above should be assigned a
specific Trait. These can be fairly broad, and may include
entire professions or fields of study. Note that unless a
character is particularly poor in some way (see Resources,
below), they may be assumed to have equipment appropriate to
their skills. So, a character with a Riding Trait will
have a horse, a Hacker Trait comes with an appropriate
computer, and so forth.Such equipment is not exceptional in any
way, and mostly servees to avoid Suitability penalties
||no particular facility with
|1||Novice, Beginner||Above average
||Very talented, Master
|6||Extreme Skill, Superior
|And so on . . .|
Resources can represent individual objects like Dad's
Very Comfortable Smoking Jacket 1 or The Staff of
Vambarg 5, or they can refer to more nebulous things like
Wealth 2 or Land 3. The level of a Resource Trait
indicates how useful the Resource is to the PC in appropriate
situations. Usually Resource Traits are used as sub-Conflicts, but when buying
something, bartering, or just using your wealth to impress,
they may be used as a Primary Trait (and see the Conflict main section for a description of
what that is).
Resources represent not ordinary pocket change, but the
things in characters' lives that help to define them. It's said
that "some things we own, and some things own us." In this
game, if you want to have it always ready to call on, a thing
does own you to an extent. To keep things with a character in a
more than temporary fashion, one must organize their
understanding of their self around the notion of owning that
thing. This is why such permanent objects cost points to begin
with. For more "easy come, easy go"-type goods, see Indefinite and Defining
||Literally has nothing, and no income or
|1||Poor (but not without resources)
|3||Typical for setting middle class
||Above average income
||One of a Kind Quality
|9||Nearly unlimited resources
||Thing of Legend
|And so on . . .
Anything can be a Trait, really, so long as it is not ridiculously broad. So a character might have a Bad Attitude 3, or a Scar 2.
Traits do not have to fall directly into one of the categories above; they can be a mix of different categories. As such it should also be a bit limited in scope in other ways. It shouldn't be as flexibly useful as a pure Resource would be, nor as impressive as if the character had a pure Trait. This depends quite a bit on the description, and should be handled by the GM in the Situation portion of resolution.
If a character does not list a Trait that means that they are unexceptional in that area. So if a particular character is not listed as having the Trait Strong, that doesn't mean that they are weak, merely that they are not exceptional in any way. Similarly, not having a Trait for a particular culture doesn't mean they are utterly ignorant of it, just that they know only as much about it as anyone in their own culture might.
Also, players are encouraged to take Traits that might be seen as negative. Whether a Trait works to the character's benefit or detriment is determined by the situation (sometimes requiring a roll itself to determine which way it works). Thus a character who has Poor Vision 3 might not react as badly to a horribly frightening creature, not being able to see it as well. In general terms, all Traits increase character protagonism. Note that negative Traits are things the character does not want, not things that the player doesn't like. This difference in perspective is crucial to having fun with Synthesis.
Traits are paid for using a simple cost system, shown in the
table below. A good minimum for relatively normal human beings
is 45 points. For typical "adventuring" characters who would be
expected to have decent resources, several adventure-worthy
skills, and interesting personality Traits, 66 points is a good
amount. For beings of legend and super-heroes, 100 or more
points would not be too much.
Cost is easy to calculate without the table as in the
Calculated column, or using the formula
(Level) * (Level
- 1) / 2. To go up a level, just add that level (e.g.,
to go from 4 to 5 costs 5 points), and similarly to go down
(e.g., going from 7 down to 6 gets you 7 points back).
|And so on . . .
It's not hard to notice that this could lead to extremes--a character with Self 9, or Self 1 and 44 other Traits at level 1. Any such character's player is going to have a hard time actually using many of those Traits in a Conflict, however, as the more Traits that are included, the less effective they are.
In any case, record Traits on the Character Record under the Personal Struggle.
Quick Character Generation Trait TemplateThis can give a player an idea of how to flesh out a character's Traits, and is very useful for GMs creating NPCs. Simply enumerate the following items. Only do the part in parentheses for PCs or if you're fairly sure the NPC will become important. They can always be added on later, which is sometimes the best policy.
Any Trait purchased with the above points is Defining. That is, it will last potentially forever, barring special events that change the character's life significantly. Traits can also be selected that are Indefinite, meaning that they will only last a little while in game terms. Such Indefinite Traits cover the range of what has already been discussed, and more, including things that can only last momentarily. For example, a character can have the Upper Hand 2 in a deal they are making. Such Traits expire at an appropriate time; for example, the Upper Hand 2 would probably expire after the character had finished the negotiation. Indefinite Wealth might expire after a week of vacationing on the Riviera. The only way to keep an Indefinite Trait permenantly is to invest in it with Self (See Changing Traits, below).
Characters may start with as many Indefinite Traits as they
like; they don't cost anything. For example, a character could
start with a Leg Wound 2, or Loot 3. Anything is
fine. Beginning play should be all about getting rid of these
Traits, as they should not last far into any story that
develops. A good use for such Traits is in establishing what
sort of action the character is currently engaged in, and what
sort of things the character is about to get into. For example,
if the player wants to get an audience with the King, they
might start with some item the King needs. It's cheaper to just
take Defining Traits right at the outset; loading up on
Indefinite Traits and trying to convert them later is not cost
Note that goods picked up in the course of play are always
Indefinite Traits. If they are not invested in with Self
after a suitable time, the GM is free to describe how they are
lost. The special sword is returned to its rightful, ancestral
owners; the money is gambled away; the Queen's favor is
squandered; and so on. There is no such thing as an
"inexhaustible" Resource Trait, but remember that characters
are normally assumed to be equipped according to their Traits.
Furthermore, specialized Resource or mixed Traits such as
Armed to the Teeth 4 or Cadge a Meal Anywhere 3
are perfectly acceptable.
Indefinite Traits should be listed on the Character Record in a separate column from the Defining Traits to avoid confusion. (Or use the report cover method suggested at the beginning of the Characters section.)
At this point the player should come up with a beginning Conflict, something that places the PC in the action of the game. This Conflict will be the first action the PC participates in, and should be relevant to the Personal Struggle, and thus the main Premise (also making it a candidate as a Character Conflict). The outcome of the beginning Conflict should not sew up the Personal Struggle, or even come close! Rather, it should be something more open-ended, providing more questions than answers, and giving the player something to work with during play.
Some kinds of living creatures don't have any self-concept
or goals that would set them apart from others of their
species. And of course, inanimate objects don't have selves
either (normally). Any entity that can participate in a
Conflict somehow can have Traits. The GM certainly doesn't need
to figure out the Traits of every item in a given situation,
but is totally free to assign them where it makes sense to do
so. This goes for NPCs; the GM should only assign Traits
pertinent to conflicts in play, and should feel free to add
them on the fly.
This is what happens when somebody wants something badly, and for some reason, getting it is difficult for them. If a situation arises in a game where someone wants something, but not very badly, or it's not really all that hard to get, it's not much of a conflict, and you should not resort to using this section of the rules. Instead the GM and other players should just work out an outcome verbally and move on. (And if that results in a big argument, come back here, because obviously somebody wanted something badly after all).
Nearly any change that happens to a game entity, and most importantly the PCs, is the result of some kind of Conflict or another. From dueling to wars, court cases, romance, struggles against environment and one's own limitations, these are all simply different kinds of Conflict (as far as Synthesis is concerned), and are represented by playing out different Conflicts and sub-Conflicts
Conflict has several stages: Declaration, Initiation,
Situation, Suitability, Sub-Conflict, Fortune, and
Interpretation. In practice, these are gotten through pretty
quickly. Sub-Conflicts are optional, and Fortune is the only
stage at which any dice are rolled.
Conflicts at a Glance
Several terms and conventions are used in handling
Conflicts. We outline them here to avoid repetition later
Like most RPGs, Synthesis uses dice. You can use just about
any kind of dice, or even just coins, or cards. We recommend
the classic six-sided die, or "d6", because everybody has them,
and even if you don't have any, they're cheap. Each player will
want at least five or six dice, and more wouldn't hurt.
When a die roll is called for, roll the number of dice
required, and count each die that comes up with an even number.
This is how many Successes you have scored. This number
is compared against your opposition's number of Successes, and
the difference is called the Quality.
Example: Bob and Mary are having a friendly fiddling contest. After everything else is worked out, Bob gets five dice, and Mary gets six. Using six-sided dice, Bob gets a result of 1, 1, 2, 5, 5, for a very disappointing single Success. Mary rolls her dice and gets 1, 2, 2, 3, 4, 6, for four Successes. Subtracting one from four gives a Quality of three, strongly in Mary's favor. Bob got trounced, and with only one Success, he played much more poorly than average for him.
Students of diceology will notice that counting evens is the
same thing as flipping a coin, or counting odds, or having 1-3
mean no Success and 4-6 mean one, or any number of other
possibilities. For those who like dice other than d6's, or who
like counting something besides even results, we say, suit
yourself, but try to pick just one method for your group, lest
you be plagued by pointless arguments.
A given player is said to have a dice pool or simply
pool --this is the total of all dice they get to roll
for a Conflict, including from Traits, Situational modifiers,
and other factors.
Conflicts happen in stages. It's broken down in strict order here. However, in practice, these can sometimes be more fluid, and in particular, sub-Conflicts are often skipped.
A player or the GM states that there is a conflict that needs to be resolved using this system, and what the general nature of the conflict is. The players involved then declare the desired outcomes for their characters, and the GM decides such for all other involved parties.
Example: Mike states that his character Alir wants Sharng dead, and the GM decides that the NPC Sharng wants to escape.
Each involved player selects an appropriate Trait for their
PC to use in the Conflict. Then they should describe what
they'd like for their character to get out of the
Conflict--this doesn't have to jibe exactly with the PC's
supposed goals, though that's usually the case.
Note that the usual turn-taking is not necessary here. Players are allowed to help each other come up with appropriate Traits, and can change their minds until they're definitely happy with how they've decided to handle the Conflict. The GM is free to warn players if their choice of Trait seems likely to be heavily penalized during the Suitability stage, as well. The idea is not so much to strategize and come up with the best way of winning as much as it is to set up an interesting and rewarding Conflict outcome, whichever way the dice fall.
Note that inanimate challenges are treated in exactly the same manner as duels, lawsuits, seductions, fast-talking, bargaining, and other Conflicts with at least two thinking opponents. That is, inanimate things should get an opposing Trait to represent their difficulty, rather than modifying the Trait being used by a PC. (Wind doesn't lower a Sniper 3 Trait; rather, the appropriate side gets to use the Trait Windy 2, usually as a Seondary Trait, unless they have nothing else that helps.)
Example: Alir is trying to kill Sharng, who is himself trying to escape.
Mike (playing Alir): Alir employs his Mighty thews in an attempt to clobber Sharng.
GM (playing the NPC Sharng): Sharng dodges in an Agile manner, ducking and weaving, attempting to get by Alir and flee.
GM: The chasm that Alik is trying to leap to get to the treasure chamber is really Wide.
(There is no "opposition" in the sense of a willful obstruction of Alik's goal, but the GM takes the part of the chasm and rolls for it just as for a sentient opponent.)
The GM may then state that a participant in the conflict gets an advantage from the particulars of the situation as it relates to the initiated methods. The GM indicates this by assigning a number of dice the advantage is worth and adding it to the pool of the side to which it gives the advantage. Situation never subtracts dice. Note that this should only be used to inject drama into a conflict. A very appropriate use of situation, for example, is to include advantages for everyday equipment. Thus a character with a sword should have a bonus against an unarmed one, while two sword-armed characters are evenly matched and neither gets a bonus.
GM: The very Dim light favors Sharng's attempt to escape--he gets a one-die bonus.
The GM then considers the suitability of the stated Traits to the Conflict. Usually they will be fine, but the GM may introduce a penalty to reflect the fact that they are only peripherally useful in this situation. This power exists solely to keep players honestly looking at applicable Traits. Hopefully the GM will have to use it only rarely if at all. The GM must ensure that the adjustments are appropriate and dramatic so that it does not appear to the affected player that their character is being unfairly penalized. The GM is working with the player to create a suitable Conflict, not competing. When in a close situation, the GM should give the player the benefit of the doubt.
On the other hand, a player who makes an excellent and detailed description can actually get a bonus to their dice pools. This should be less rare, but rare enough to keep players trying hard to come up with dramatic situations. The bonus should be one die, two for something exceptionally appropriate.
GM: A giant boar thunders out of the bush and attacks you! Your friend Zachary draws his gun to shoot it. What do you do?
Marisa (playing Ed, a scam artist): Uh . . . I use my Fast Talk 6 to calm it down.
GM: Ed's fancy prattle doesn't impress the boar much, since it's already upset, and furthermore, it doesn't understand your language. It's Unimpressed 6, in fact.
In the example, the penalty looks fairly heavy, but chances are good that Marisa will be able to squeeze out a marginal success, all other things being equal. Even a penalty that exceeds the player's pool quite a bit still allows the possiblity of success. The GM may completely disallow a totally inappropriate Trait, but it's often more fun to give it at least a slim chance of working.
Each side collects their total dice pools, from their Trait and any other modifiers. Each side rolls that many dice and determines the Conflict's Quality as outlined above in Rolling Dice.
The side rolling the higher total succeeds in achieving their outcome for the conflict. The more they exceed the opponent's total, the more decisive the outcome. This difference is called the Quality. (This should not be confused with "successes", which means the total of even numbers rolled by a side in a Conflict.) The winning side narrates the outcome, describing the conflict in terms of the Quality and the Traits involved in the conflict.
Now the winning side may actually alter their own
characters, or the loser's, or even the environment, by
introducing new Traits, or adding to or reducing the levels of
existing Traits. There are a few rules to govern this:
Now the winner should describe the outcome, placing emphasis
on the Traits changed by it. In describing the outcome of the
Conflict, whether this is done by the GM, a player, or in a
more cooperative way, be sure to remember that the order of
events is not set by the order of the Conflict rules. So if a
some influence on the Conflict is more exciting to describe at
the end of a Conflict, even though it was determined earlier
on, do put it at the end! This is especially dramatic and fun
when the main Conflict would have been a failure without
influences other than the committed Traits.
There's nothing wrong with normal Conflicts, but if the only
way to handle them was lining up opposing Traits and bashing it
out with dice, life would get dull after a while. Synthesis
provides a variant Conflict called the Character Conflict,
which changes the role a Trait would usually have in a normal
Conflict; Internal Conflicts, where all the Traits come from
one character; and sub-Conflicts, which the players and GM can
use to spin a Conflict in innumerable ways.
A Character Conflict is a special Conflict that allows a player to address the game's Premise and provide a significant boost to their PC's effectiveness, representing the high intensity of choices that relate to the PC's Personal Struggle. Character Conflicts tend to bring significantly more Successes for the player, but may saddle a PC with side effects.
A Character Conflict always involve Self and one other Trait. The Character Conflict must be relevant to the PC's Personal Struggle. If the GM feels that the Conflict does not sufficiently address the character's Personal Struggle, the player may be required to use either of the two Traits in the usual way. For appropriate Character Conflicts, both Self and the opposing Trait are added to the player's dice pool.
During the Fortune stage, roll the dice for Self and the other Trait in the Character Conflict separately, in their own mini-Conflict. The dice are read twice. First, add the Successes together. These Successes are added to the player's Successes for the Conflict, along with any from the rest of the dice pool. Then read the dice for Self and the other Trait separately, taking the difference as in a normal Conflict. If Self wins, then that Character Conflict is resolved for the time being. The other Trait may not be used for a Character Conflict again until either that Trait or the PC's Self changes. If the other Trait wins, the GM imposes an appropriate negative Trait as usual. In the case of a tie, nothing happens, with the usual GM's option of making life just a bit difficult in ties.
Example: Piotr the Cursed Swordsman has a Demonic Arm 4. Unfortunately, the arm has its own ideas about how to do things. It tends to prefer the violent solution to the peaceful, and tends to be rather undiscriminating about who counts as a valid target in battle. Piotr's Personal Struggle happens to relate to being a professional warrior with a gentle heart . . .
Eli (playing Piotr): Piotr uses his . . . hm. This looks like a pretty tough opponent, right?
GM: That's right. Eric the Bald is a subject of terrifying legend.
Eli: Gulp. OK, I will use a Character Conflict between my Demonic Arm 4 and Self 4 then.
GM: Whee! OK, nothing else particularly bears on your struggle to use the arm your way instead of its way. Roll it straight.
(Eli rolls 1, 2, 4, 5 for his Self 4, for two Successes, and 4, 4, 5, 6 for the Demonic Arm 4, totalling three Successes. That makes five Successes for Piotr in the Conflict, but the arm also has one Success over Piotr.)
At this point the rest of the Conflict is resolved normally.
The arm's victory could manifest as the arm's betraying its
bearer if the Conflict were lost, or perhaps a negative Trait
of Reputation for Cruelty in Battle 1 in the case of a
victory, gained in an unusually savage way by the arm's
A sub-Conflict is a Conflict within a Conflict. It's
a very handy way to "spin" a Conflict by introducing new
Traits, and it can add considerable flavor to the game.
Sub-Conflicts are added into the mix during the initiation
stage of a Conflict, and must be resolved before the Conflict.
Doing this is as simple as mentioning what Trait the
participant in a Conflict intends to use in the
Example: Eva is playing Melissa, a college student. Melissa can't stand her roommate and is trying to get him to move out.The person starting a Conflict must declare any sub-Conflicts first; then the other side may contest them or introduce their own sub-Conflicts.
Eva: Melissa will use her Persuade 4. Her Friends with the R.A. 3 will help out too, getting him to pressure that slob out of the suite.
An uncontested sub-Conflict occurs when there is no
opposition to the Trait mentioned for the sub-Conflict. When
this happens, just roll the dice for the Trait. The number of
Successes is also the Quality of the sub-Conflict.
Example: There is no opposition to Melissa's Friends with the R.A. 3, so Eva rolls 3 dice, getting two Successes, and therefore the sub-Conflict has a Quality of 2.
A contested sub-Conflict is one where the Trait being
used is opposed by some other Trait. Contested sub-Conflicts
are handled exactly like any other Conflict. Usually, though,
they are much faster to go through, since they are already
partly defined by the Conflict they are part of. Resolve the
sub-Conflict as you would a normal one.
Example: it turns out our anonymous slob is also Friends with the R.A., at a level of 2. The GM decides there are no special Situational or Suitability modifiers to this sub-Conflict, so it's a straight roll of Eva's two dice vs. the GM's three. Eva rolls one Success, and the GM rolls one. This gives a Quality of zero--a tie.
Whether handling a contested or uncontested sub-Conflict,
the resulting Quality level becomes a number of dice to use in
the Conflict. The sub-Conflict's Quality has become a modifier
in the Situation stage, like anything else that affects the
outcome of a Conflict.
Example: In the uncontested example above, Eva would get to add two dice to her dice pool; this would be a total of six--four for her Persuade 4, and two for the Quality of the sub-Conflict of her Friends with the R.A. 3. In the Contested sub-Conflict, the result was a tie. This has no effect on the Conflict, but the GM rules that both Eva and the slob get the Indefinite Trait Annoyed R.A. 1 for wasting the R.A.'s time.
A handy way to resolve uncontested sub-Conflicts instantly is to simply assign a Quality of half the Trait, rounding down.
A player may introduce no more than two sub-Conflicts in a
Conflict. Committing a Trait to any sub-Conflict, whether you
initiated it or not, counts towards this total.
Note that sub-Conflicts may have sub-Conflicts of their own,
and, potentially, on and on ad nauseam, or at least
until all Traits have been used. We recommend that, for normal
games, you limit Conflicts to going "two levels deep"--that is,
a Conflict can have a sub-Conflict, and a sub-Conflict can have
a sub-Conflict, but the buck stops there.
Note that while the above seems extensive, in execution it
should go fairly rapidly. The GM should not hem and haw over
situational modifiers, for instance; if none come instantly to
mind, play should just move on. Suitability is usually skipped
unless the GM feels strongly about the particular description.
Sub-Conflicts can be shortened by using the Half Technique
unless they are particularly important to play out or directly
contested. In the end most Conflicts will look like, state
Conflict and Traits, grab some dice, roll, and resolve. If it's
taking a long time, the participants may be thinking too much
about it. In all cases, more time should go into the
description of the events than into the mechanical portion. The
GM should feel free to focus play appropriately by "closing the
bidding" on inclusion of Secondary Traits and other kinds of
sub-Conflicts when it gets pointlessly drawn out.
Here follow some fuller examples that show some of the ways
to use Conflicts.
The following is an example of a contested, internal
sub-Conflict, as well as a purely verbal and mental
Perhaps the single most important concept in Synthesis is
the currency it uses. The notion is that there is a kind of
"exchange rate" among different events, Traits, and other
modifying factors in the game. This is Synthesis's base
1 Trait level = 1 Quality level = 1 die = 1 Self
Synthesis is intended to acknowledge the important points in the story as they happen. As such changes to characters should occur regularly, and are an important aspect of play. Characters should experience some sort of change at least once per session of play, if not more.
As mentioned under Interpretation, Traits can be altered as a result of Conflicts. Indeed, except for changing levels of an Indefinite Trait into Defining Trait levels, there's no way to alter a Trait without going through a Conflict of some kind.
New Traits can be added, one level per level of Quality in a Conflict. Traits added to the losing side are Defining or Indefinite at the winner's whim (subject to reason and the GM's judgment, of course--a pillow-fight is unlikely to result in permanent injury). Those added to the winning side are always Indefinite. These often include things like All Fired Up, Berserk, Eloquent Argument, Winning Smile , Crowd's Favor, and so on. Typically these will be quite short-term, lasting only into the next, related Conflict, but some will outlast the Conflict a while. Technically, sub-Conflicts result in Traits that carry forward to the main Conflict; in practice you don't bother naming them, since they last only through the main Conflict.
Traits can be reduced one level per level of Quality, and can be either Defining of Indefinite. In general, it's preferable to add Traits to an opponent rather than reducing some Trait they already have. This makes a clear record of what their problem is and allows some wiggle room in interpreting how badly the bad Trait affects its victim. GMs are especially encouraged to inflict "bad" Traits on PCs rather than just pegging down those they have. In the case of Traits a character doesn't want, like injuries, social ostracism, mental problems, and so forth, it's generally fine to just reduce the Trait's level after a successful Conflict, and remove the Trait when it hits zero.
A point of Self can be spent to make a level of an Indefinite Trait into a Level of Defining Trait. The Trait's wording can change somewhat in this process, but must still be appropriately related, and such expenditures must be accompanied by appropriate in-game events. This represents time and effort spent in activities other than self-contemplation and the effects of making one's life more complex.
Example: if the character is courting a lovely damsel, they can spend a point of Self to change an Indefinite Infatuation 1 to a Defining Relationship 1 with her. A swordsman who has been receiving instruction from a master may spend a point of Self to change his Learning Edge 1 into an increase in his Sword Skill 2 making it a Sword Skill 3.
Increasing the level of an Indefinite Trait can be done
after an appropriate Conflict just like adding a new Indefinite
Trait--instead of recording the new Trait, simply increase the
level of the existing one by the same number of levels.
To improve an existing Defining Trait, the player should
work to make Conflicts to add a suitable Indefinite Trait to
their PC. This can be something like Studying under the
Master or just Learning More about Diplomacy . Once
the player is satisfied with the level of this Indefinite Trait
(noting the while that the Trait will disappear over time if it
isn't used), they make a Conflict between the Indefinite Trait
and the Definite Trait to be improved. If the Quality favors
the Indefinite Trait, the player may then spend Self up to the
Quality to increase the Defining Trait. If the Defining Trait
wins the Conflict, the player must try again later. In
either case, the Indefinite Trait is used up and removed.
Then Nancy would remove the Studying . . . Trait, reduce Rea's Self by one, and add one to Sorcery, bringing it up to level 3. Note that improvement Conflicts can have sub-Conflicts and Situation modifiers, just like any other Conflict.
Example: Rea, a magician of small talents, has build up his Studying under Master Helbrun Trait to level 4. This seems like a good chance, so Nancy, his player, decides it's time to initiate a Conflict.
Nancy: After months of study, breaking his back carrying around Master Helbrun's stuff, cleaning his tower, and putting up with his evil mood swings, Rea finally comes a crisis around the nicety of Sorcery that has evaded him before now.
GM: OK, so Studying under Master Helbrun 4 vs. your Sorcery 2, right?
Nancy: Yes, and I'm using my Determined 3 as a sub-Conflict.
GM: Ah, that's good, but your last Conflict to help your studies resulted in Feeling Discouraged 1, that will count against you. Roll your Determined.
(Nancy rolls one Success; the GM rolls none. This will give her one bonus die for the improvement attempt.)
Nancy: In spite of the blow to her pride last week, Rea soldiers on in his studies!
(Nancy rolls 3 Successes for her Studying under Master Helbrun plus the sub-Conflict bonus; the GM rolls two Successes for her Sorcery .)
Nancy: Shoot. Well, a level's a level. After all his hard-won learning, Rea figures out his conundrum in studying the mystic arts, improving his ability significantly. He considers finding a less harsh Master . . .
Any especially satisfying Conflict, whether lost or won, may result in a roll to increase the Self Trait. The GM assesses the overall Conflict, taking into account factors like especially clever moves or dialogue, fitting actions, and so forth, and assigns the Conflict a Significance Trait, which is then rolled against the PC's Self . If the Significance Trait of the Conflict has more Successes, then the Quality's value is added to the Self Trait's level--essentially the importance of the event has overcome the character's current difficulty understanding themselves, and led to a greater self-knowledge. If, instead, the Self Trait is the "winner", its Quality turns into Indefinite Traits that represent temporary self-confidence or other bonuses garnered from the Conflict.
Note that Synthesis' rules create a dynamic where it is good to keep spending Self such that it doesn't get too high and thus become hard to increase. On the other hand, Self is useful itself, so players will want it high. Essentially this all represents the changing psyche of the character. They invest in the external world, and they become less self-assured. As they regain their self-assuredness, they can then invest more. A character that reaches a very high Self Trait may indicate that the character is reaching the end of their story, and a conclusion of some sort may need to be reached.
Characters who have a Self Trait can "buy off the hand of Fate" representing accepting a negative change that they prefer over ones that they don't. Doing this costs one point of Self, permanently, and they may take a different negative Trait or Traits of their own choosing. This Trait should of course be appropriate to the Conflict. A player may not buy off Dead 3 with Winded 3! This should be worked out between the player and the GM.
Example: Mandy is playing Clwrvin, The Hard-to-Pronounce Celt.
GM: Well, it looks like the Romans have you. You're Unconscious 3, and you'll be captured and taken to be tortured. (Here the GM emphasizes his point with a gleeful, evil smile.)
Mandy: Uuugh. No way! I'm going to appeal to my God, Cave Bear Spirit! She answers me, and instead of Unconscious , I'm cursed to wander the earth as a Werebear.
GM : Hm. OK. So that's Werebear 3, or are you splitting it up at all?
Mandy: That's right, Werebear 3.
GM: All right, it's a deal. The soldier's blows cut you down, but as consciousness fades away and you make your appeal, you feel a tremendous change, and you surge up to smash your oppressors, covered in thick fur and possessed of terrible bearish strength and claws.
Notice that Clwrvin may not be out of hot water yet. Mandy
only bought herself out of the evil consequences of the prior
Conflict, and now may have a new one to get through. Of course,
the GM could simply rule that the sight of a warrior suddenly
transforming into a terrifying beast is enough to scare the
soldiers off. Also note that though Werebear and
Unconscious are both technically Indefinite, Werebear
seems likely to last a good while longer in terms of game-time.
This is fine, since the player asked for it, literally.
The following sections cover the most common concerns a play
group is likely to encounter, and can be used as templates for
your own play group's Techniques.
A failure should never be interpreted by the GM as an end to action, or something that ends the character's ability to continue on. Instead, they should be seen as an opportunity to begin another Conflict, perhaps raising the stakes for the involved character. In short, quitting should be the player's choice--when they fail in terms of the dice, just make getting what they want even more problematic.
In certain circumstances it is less interesting to get right to the climax of a conflict in a single roll. Players and GMs can work out Conflicts that lead up to the climax. For example, killing an important NPC the first time they show up would be anti-climactic. When facing opponents with their own Self Traits, it's recommended that climactic battles involve two or more Conflicts leading up to the moment of truth. Which leads us to . . .
PCs may die occasionally, but this should only occur during really dramatic and climactic conflicts. Otherwise it is a simple enough matter for the GM to assign e.g. the Indefinite Trait Unconscious 3 as opposed to the (very) Defining Dead 3. On the flip side of the coin, characters should not get their full Self Trait added to any roll in which they are trying to kill someone, unless they really have an extraordinary reason (self-defense, for example) or killing is really a part of their self-concept. Combat in Synthesis is not automatically lethal (unless the group has agreed that it is), so it's acceptable to impose a Trait such as Out of Action, which may or may not be lethal. This is a common thing to do when dealing with unimportant NPCs.
Keep in mind that the opponent in a Conflict can also be a
collective. It's not necessary to have individuals with their
own Traits marked out when the GM wants to provide a whole
gang, detachment, army, or universe of adversaries for the PCs
to strive against. Such a group can simply have a Trait of
Squad, Army, or just Numbers to represent
its size. There's no need to have an exact correspondence
between the Trait's level and some actual number of things in
the game world.
Example: Gang of Thugs: Street Weapons 2, Gang 2 (there's four of them, but they're wimpy, so each two only count for one level of Gang Trait), Fierce Leader 1. If the leader were an NPC of more importance, his Gang could be one of his Relationship Traits, instead.
Example: A swarm of ants might be given the Trait Swarm 5, Nasty Sting 1, and Implacable 4. This isn't meant to be a typical swarm of ants, of course, but one that the players might find themselves in real conflict with.
Particularly in high-action games, it's common to have special interperetations to let PCs mow through faceless minions without very much effort. Players can affect the group with Traits such as Out of Action, Dead Minions (in bloodier games), and so forth. This would be less appropriate in other genres. As usual the GM should work with the players to determine what assigned Traits are appropriate. During a Conflict with such an entity as the ants above, players might use various kinds of attacks (and the usual blasting or swinging away will not be very useful!) that would result in the Swarm rating's being reduced, until it hits zero and the swarm has been exterminated.
Example: Nefarious Natalie, Evil Mad Scientist, has Clockwork Soldiers 8 (yikes!) as one of her Traits. In a battle, a hearty group of PCs score a Quality of 4 against her devilish minions and decide they want to make sure they're out of the way while they wend through Natalie's underground laboratory, so they apply the Trait Minions Out of Action 4 to Natalie. Usually this would make for a straight four-die bonus for the PCs in future Conflicts, but the GM could make a sub-Conflict out of it if he or she wanted to say that Natalie is working furiously to repair her minions.
Magic can be just another Trait, such as Fire Magic 2, to be applied as appropriate. However, it's often more fun to make sure using magic is generally risky somehow, and make most uses of Magic a Conflict of their own or a sub-Conflict. Major uses of magic will hopefully lead to many Character Conflicts, with the potential negative effects.
Under the quick character generation template, it shows how
to create the entire character, but then later under
non-characters, it specifies that only pertinent Traits should
be assigned to NPCs. This is not as contradictory as it may at
first seem. What should not be missed is NPC effectiveness from
a wide range of different Traits. If the GM only assigns a
guard a Level 3 Warrior profession, he is unlikely to be very
effective in combat. He should get some assistance from
sub-conflicts involving other Traits. The template can be used
to understand approximately how much he should have and why. A
GM could state that the guard is fighting for his life thinking
of his family, and give him a sub-conflict to suit. In this way
NPCs are kept three dimensional. OTOH, if it makes sense in the
style of play, the GM can ignore those Traits. If playing out a
story akin to an action movie, for example, the guard's Family
Trait can probably be ignored. This is referred to as the
"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" rule.