Under the Hood – Establishing Terminology

Establishing Terminology
By The Warden

PREVIOUSLY: An internal debate between static target numbers and opposed rolls for Phoenix consumed me and I weighed the options between using one or the other and instead felt comfortable going with a healthy combination of the two. Whenever a character wants to change the outcome against a generic event, such as hot wiring a car, they roll against a Difficulty set down by the GM. If you want to change the outcome against a living person, however, then it’s time to make opposed rolls. You can check out everything discussed on this project to date by following the Phoenix Project tag here on RPC.

I’m really liking how things are starting to come together for Phoenix and it’s getting me excited to start building it up further. That excitement is key because without it, distractions and doubt can easily overwhelm the inevitable issues discovered during playtesting. Before I can even get into that issue, it’s time to look at the exact terminology of these basic mechanics, particularly when it comes to Complications.

Complications provide a unique challenge in many ways, particularly when it comes to minimizing the core rules. My goal is to provide everything needed to play (and understand) within five pages; Complications risk breaching that guideline simply because they are intended to be incredibly flexible. Every Complication is a reaction to the descriptions and dice rolls made during play and since Phoenix is designed as a story-based system, there’s no telling how many ways a Complication apply. That kind of flexibility within a limited amount of text is asking for trouble, which is why the mechanical text has to be bang on accurate and adaptable at the same time.

No pressure, eh?

Terminology plays a heavy role in all games, not just roleplaying games. Of course, the argument can also be made that terminology carries a weightier burden in RPGs because these are games where the rules must encompass the possibilities of an uncounted number of imaginative players, versus board games with defined rules and limited actions per turn. Not all groups flex out the rules and some may stretch them so hard you can hear the snap from space. A game’s terminology allows all types of groups clearly defined guidelines for play and allow designers (particularly third-party designers) ample room to expand on a game’s core values over time.

I think of no better example for the use of terminology than opportunity attacks (or attacks of opportunity, depending on which edition you play). When these were first introduced in D&D‘s 3rd edition, they were a complex combat mechanic with a specific list of triggers before getting trimmed down in revisions and alternate editions. You could trigger one by moving away from an armed opponent (unless you take a 5-foot step, indicating you are simply putting some distance between yourself and the opponent while maintaining eye contact and alertness), casting a spell in the wrong place and many others. By setting down the terminology for opportunity attacks and defining its exact place in the game, it became a shortcut in game play. “Oops, looks like you’re gonna provoke an opportunity attack,” and everyone knows what that means with just two words. More importantly, players learned how to avoid such things.

Unlike opportunity attacks, Complications are not going to feature lists of triggers or outcomes. This terminology has to function as a definitive guideline and remain open-ended enough to handle all possibilities. Not most, all. This is the key. Game terminology must work exactly like a dictionary’s definition – it has to be concrete and universal. It must account for different uses and interpretations and settle debates on appropriate use in Scrabble. You have to use decisive words and phrasing, such as “the character takes this penalty” or “anyone who triggers it must perform this action,” not flighty ones open to translation such as “you can perform this action” (indicating you don’t have to if you don’t want to) or “the character may trigger this penalty.” Nailing it bang on can be tricky and some games need multiple editions to get it right, not because they were wrong the first time, but time and the minds of thousands of happy players found a better way to understand it.


The biggest problem with terminology is that it’s written in your words. Sure, you’re trying to use the right combination of words to explain the term as broadly understood as possible, but they’re still in your words and some people may not completely understand what you mean. Lots of things make more sense in your head than they do out your mouth or on paper. There are two resources to deal with this matter: the first is a damn good editor (because they should always receive credit for the work they do and I’m not just saying that as a suck-up to someone who’s scored some free editing from great people in the past – that’s just coincidence) and the second is example text.

Example text is a lifesaver in game design. Actually, it’s an essential element in human learning, to witness how something otherwise abstract is applied in reality. If you’re taking a martial arts class, the instructor is not going to explain it and immediately have everyone try out what they learned. She will provide a demonstration of the maneuver in practice, pointing out minute details highlighting what was explained at the beginning of the lesson. Example text works the same way in game design; it reveals how you can use it during gameplay.

Sometimes it can even help you revise your terminology. I know I’ve gone back and changed some of my terminology while working on an example, suddenly realizing my own example broke the mechanics or (better yet) revealed an even better way to define or apply the term. Better yet, it allows the reader an opportunity to visualize your game the way you envisioned it. It’s best described as the icing on the cake.


So here goes. Using the mechanics already established for Phoenix, this is what I have in mind.

Minor Complications: Whenever you succeed on a dice roll with an odd number, your character can use a bonus action but gains a Minor Complication. This prohibits the use of a resource applied in the triggering description until you use a following action to remove this Complication. You cannot add this as a step in your bonus action’s description; it must use up the entire action. This type of Complication is never permanent and can be resolved within the scene. If you do not want to receive a Minor Complication, then your turn is over. It is possible to have multiple Minor Complications.

Example #1: You roll a 7 to shoot at an opponent; a success! However, if you want a bonus action, you’ll have to take a Minor Complication and the GM determines that your gun is out of bullets. You cannot shoot at your opponent until you use an action to reload and you cannot combine reloading the gun with an attack in the same action.

Example #2: You describe your character leaping forward to deliver a spinning kick against three nasties. Rolling the dice, you succeed with a 9 and want to use a bonus action to go again. This means your character takes a Minor Complication and the GM describes how one of the bad guys comes up from behind and grabs you, pinning your arms to your side and preventing you from pulling off another fantastic jump. You can use your bonus action to attempt an escape from the grapple or perform any other action without the use of your arms or attempting any jumps.

Major Complications: Whenever you fail a dice roll with an odd number, your character suffers a Major Complication. This inflicts a step penalty, damage, or eliminates a piece of equipment available to your character. Any step penalty is applied to any Potential used in the triggering dice roll and any equipment eliminated must have been used in that action. This type of Complication has enduring effects and cannot be resolved during the current scene; the afflicted player must address it at a later time or simply accept it as a permanent event. The effects of a Major Complicaction take precedence over a Minor Complication. It is possible to have multiple Major Complications.

Example #1: You attempt to parry the approaching battleaxe with your broadsword and fail with a nasty little 1 staring at you from the d12 applied from your Finesse Potential. You take a Major Complication: the GM can apply a step penalty to your Finesse (reducing it from a d12 to a d10), roll damage, or describe how your broadsword is snapped in half like a twig, rendering it useless until you can repair it. In this case, the GM describes how the battleaxe snaps your sword in twain and now your favourite weapon is ready for the scrap pile.

Example #2: Leaping off the rooftop, you roll in an effort to have your character grab a wire and avoid falling ten stories to the concrete below. Unfortunately, you fail with a 3 and that means a Major Complication. The GM determines you will take damage from the fall and rolls more dice than you were hoping to see.

In time, there will be some revisions to the exact effect of a Major Complication as I need to first determine how deadly this game can be. Damage could be anything from hacked-and-slashed heroes worn down over the course of a long battle or sudden death, as in the falling example above. Plus I may determine losing a single step on a Potential may not be such a big deal.

What matters is the “strict open-endedness” of these terms. The mechanical effects have to be simple and effective while remaining available to a large number of situations. In an effort to keep the text low, it helps to have generic RPG terms whenever possible, such as damage, though they may still need to be defined as far as how it’s applied in a particular game. To understand how Complications work, you need to know about dice steps, Potentials, actions, and dice rolls, each of which can be described in equally short bursts.

That will come later, but for now, I’m incredibly happy with this terminology. What do you think?

Note: I’ve gone back and highlighted something very important in the terminology for Major Complications. My intention is to state that if an opponent or challenge is defeated by a Major Complication, it negates the possibility for anyone to receive a Minor Complication in the same roll. Basically, if you kill your opponent with a Major Complication, you’re immune from getting a Minor one should you succeed with an odd number. As I’m having second thoughts on this one, figured I’d ask the crowd for some feedback.

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One Comment

  1. Jacob Wood says:

    I like that Major Complications override Minor Complications. It seems like it would streamline the situation; now you don’t have to come up with a Minor Complication as well as a Major one. I guess whether or not that’s an issue depends on how well the players are able to come up with complications on the fly, but I think simpler is better and this seems simpler.

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