Welcome to the new series of playtest of Aphelion, in which I take Jakub’s brilliant system and try to break it multiple ways. As we’re currently wrapping up the alpha version of the Aphelion Toolkit (just some work left on the scenario and campaign generation!), the time has come to check how all the pieces fit together in solo play! We’re also running two separate group playtests – but I’m a solitary animal. Now, let’s see what we’re up for!
Some time ago, I was running a solo playtest of the previous version of Aphelion in the world of Shadowrun. Since then, the system went through a serious overhaul, to simplify and clean up some mechanics. We’ve also introduced new hex grid system for character progression, legwork, research, and exploration, and slightly cut the amount of moving parts. Thanks to all this, Aphelion is now much easier to play.
It still focuses on what we always considered the most important: player agency, meaningful choices, collaborative storytelling, procedural story generation, consequences, and the living world around the characters.
In this episode, we’ll focus on character generation and basic mechanics that will come in handy during the game.
Ivy, the Village Witch
Let’s start with the character concept. Ivy is a somewhat cursed character of mine. I’ve played three versions of this character so far, and each campaign has fizzled out somewhere between session 2 and 5. This obviously means that my itch of playing a village witch and herbalist is nowhere near scratched. We’ll be fixing this here.
Ivy is a witch and a herbalist. I had her played as a tradesperson, a mage, and a druid, but in Aphelion, we don’t need to bother ourselves with classes (we can, we have archetypes – but it’s an optional soft-class system). In this game, which I’m planning to run as a classic fantasy, Ivy is an elf. Portrait courtesy of HeroForge (also, check out my post about free character portrait generators).
Ivy is what you could call a grassroot activist. She lives in a small village, watching the seasons and people pass by, constantly toiling to feed themselves and pay taxes on time, rarely even getting to see the world outside. Ivy would love to travel herself, but she is currently an apprentice to the local council of elders and only just training to take her place in the society. She’s dealing with day-to-day problems of the community, stretching her magic and social muscles as necessary.
Before we begin, let’s quickly discuss the basics of the system. Aphelion is a dice pool system, using only d10s. There are two main types of rolls:
- attribute roll – roll a number of dice equal to your attribute. For every dice that rolled the target number or above, you score a mark. Target number (called Resistance) equals 10 – Clout (positive modifiers provided by gear and many character options) + extra Resistance (negative modifiers). The marks scored either have an immediate effect (like when shooting somebody) or they contribute towards a bigger task (when the whole party is exploring the area, etc.)
- median roll – roll 3d10, drop the highest and lowest result, keep the middle. This creates a nice bell-shaped probability curve with 5-6 being the most common results. Random tables in Aphelion are weighted for the median rolls.
Expertises (skills) give auto-marks, Edge adds marks if any were scored, Soak reduced enemy marks.
To play cards, spend points from the Pools: Stamina for physical, Morale for mental. Pools are also your hit points, and you get, like 8-9 tops.
The game uses a system of WEIRDS: six Focuses defining the specific ‘pillar’ of play: Warfare, Exploration, Investigation, Research, Deceit, and Social. Character development, legwork, scenarios, NPCs, and many other things are organized via WEIRDS.
That’s basically it for the main mechanics? The rest goes from there.
Now, let’s make Ivy a character in Aphelion.
Character Creation in Aphelion
Aphelion is a rules-medium game, with a lot of modularity and ‘some assembly required’ tools. Aurorae and Project Aphelion will be fully fleshed out, with setting-specific character options, but the Toolkit will come complete with all the rules needed to create custom content. All those rules will be what we’re using today.
First, let’s take a look at the character sheet in its current form (not final! It’s just our playtest material):
All the necessary information fits on this page. Each character also comes with a bunch of action cards – think special abilities, but made as cards for the ease of reference in the game. The character sheet is laid out to support the most often used things, but the character generation starts with some backstory.
Step One: Pick a Kinship
Kinships are Aphelion’s equivalent of ancestries / races / species / cultures – whatever your world is using. In Aurorae, they’re mostly cultures, such as Khradi or Triveni. In Project Aphelion, you choose between Earthers, colonists, Spacers, etc. In this playtest, we’re going to use the Kinships to make Ivy an elf. As I’m making a custom thing, I get to show you how the sausage is made. Of course, the games we’re making will have these already designed and ready for the picking without extra effort.
Each Kinship comes with two action cards: a stance and a sustained card – see the box right in the middle of the character sheet? Think of them as ‘ancestry abilities,’ whether the ancestry corresponds to race, culture, or social strata.
These two cards are something called non-expertise cards, meaning that they don’t benefit from expertises, clout or other bonuses – but on the flip side, they have the basic resistance (target number) of 6, not 10. This means you’ll be able to use them reliably most of the time, but they aren’t affected by training or gear. No shiny helmet will make Ivy more of any elf than she already is.
Let’s give her something cool, shall we?
First, I want to give her something to mimic the classic elven deep focus and attention to crafting (yes, she’ll be an alchemist down the road). To make this card, I grab the Card Design Table in the Toolkit. From the three types of cards (instant, sustained, or a stance), stance seems most appropriate: an activated ability that lasts until disactivated or replaced by another stance (only one can be active at a time! Fun fact: being on fire is also considered a stance – no deep focus on potion-making at the same time!)
We need to tie the stance to an Attribute – in this case, Logic makes most sense. I want this card to provide me with extra Clout for all Research-aligned tasks. As this is a self-applied stance, it doesn’t require any tasks to start working, just activation – but it also comes with a drawback of an equal size – in this case, we’ll make it extra Resistance for Warfare tasks, as our researcher has no mind for evading attacks when she’s busy contemplating the mysteries of the universe.
Deep Focus (non-expertise)
Effect: All Research tasks receive Clout equal 1/2 Logic while the stance is active.
Drawback: All Warfare tasks receive the same amount of Resistance while the stance is active.
For the second card, I want to make something playing for the elven charisma, as Ivy is not going to have much of it as a person. I like throwing my socially inept characters into hell of social interactions – all she’ll have to use is her natural charm. This card will be basically a method of stripping the opposing character of their social prowess, bringing them to Ivy’s level.
The process of making the card is similar, there’s a whole table with effects for it, just go step-by-step. This will be a sustained card, used to befriend and convince people to do what Ivy want them to do. We’ll be paying 1 Pool point to activate the card, then 1 in each extra interval (turn) it is sustained.
Fey Charm (non-expertise)
Target: Adjacent Other’s Wit
Effect: Net marks scored reduce the target’s Wit.
That’s all that’s needed to make custom Kinships! Endlessly versatile.
Step Two: Select an Archetype
Archetypes aren’t classes – they’re not there to bind your character and prevent it from developing however you want – they’re here to give focus to the character and make the character creation easier. Each Archetype has a Focus, two main Attributes (one physical, one mental), four main Expertises, and starting Gear types corresponding to the character role. Again, the games we’re making will come with a selection of archetypes to choose from, but in this case, we’re customizing everything, because that’s what the Toolkit is for.
New Archetype: Village Witch
Focus: Research. We’ll be probably inching towards Investigation and Social in time, but this is our starting point. We’ll return to this at a later point, where we discuss character progression.
Main Attributes: Awareness (physical) and Logic (mental). There are no dump stats in Aphelion, though!
Main Expertises: Now, this is a choice. The Toolkit comes with 20-ish Expertises and building blocks to make your own. For the time being, we’ll pick Manipulation (basic social skills), Spellcasting, Medicine, and we’ll make a custom Alchemy Expertise, so I can test my subsystem for herbalism and alchemy (to go together with Herbalist’s Primer). Each expertise gives us access to some action cards, but we’ll get to those later.
Step Three: Determine Attributes
Aphelion comes with three methods of generating attributes: standard array, point-buy, and random roll. Generally, attributes range between 1 and 5, with 2-3 being the average. Standard array gives you 5, 4, 4, 3, 3, 2 to assign to the attributes (top left corner of the character sheet). Point buy will give you the same total, but with more flexibility. Random roll is random, but only one attribute can be at 5 – if you roll more, reduce them to 4 and raise the lowest attribute by the same amount.
Of course we’re rolling, I like to live dangerously. For this, we’re making half a median roll (3d10, pick middle, half the result) six times and assign the values as we see fit.
Roll 1: 9, 8, 2 -> 8 / 2 = 4
Roll 2: 9, 5, 3 -> 5 / 2 = 3 (fractions are always rounded up in Aphelion)
Roll 3: 10, 9, 3 -> 9 / 2 = 5
Roll 4: 10, 4, 3 -> 4 / 2 = 2
Roll 5: 9, 7, 5 -> 7 / 2 = 4
Roll 6: 10, 5, 2 -> 5 / 2 = 3
We’ve ended up with 5, 4, 4, 3, 3, 2, which is exactly what I could have gotten from the standard array and saved myself time rolling dice. Well, I guess Ivy is a statistically average protagonist.
Now, her main attributes are Logic and Awareness, so these are getting the highest values, 5 and 4 respectively. I want her to be average in social tasks, so I’ll put 3 in Wit and Resolve, leaving me with 2 and 4. The lowest score goes into Toughness (she’s not much of a gym bro), and 4 into Fitness, for mobility and a bit of stealth if necessary. Also, elf vibes.
As you can see on the character sheet, the attributes add up into Pools and affect the number of actions – but as we may get some changes to the attributes in a later part of character generation, we won’t be calculating these now.
Step Four: Story of Your Life
In Aphelion and Aurorae, this section is a full-blown choose-your-own-adventure team-building minigame, creating backstories, connections, bonds, rivalries, and plot hooks. However, as we’re only using the Toolkit here, we’ll use the basic mechanics provided to make a custom story and discover who Ivy is along the way.
Each step represents 4 years of the character’s life, with the first 4 being obligatory and the further ones optional and ultimately costing you Potential, a character-development metacurrency. You can make a fresh-faced 16-year-old with all the potential waiting to be spent in-game or a grizzled veteran front-loaded with Expertises and gear at chargen – but they’ll have harder time developing their skill during the game.
As Ivy is an elf, I’ll be treating these 4-year blocks as longer periods and intending to make an equivalent of a young adult – 5 steps total, I think. Enough for the elders of the village to give her a free hand in dealing with local issues, but not enough to finish her apprenticeship and have a full control over her life.
We’ll see how the story goes. We make a median roll on each step and count the marks.
Step 1: Upbringing
8 – Gentry. 3 Wealth (currency to buy gear), 1 Potential (currency to develop expertises and buy cards)
Looks like Ivy is coming from a wealthy family, probably owning a piece of land in the village or nearby, making her position in the local ‘government’ not only a matter of her skills, but also familiar responsibilities.
Step 2: Youth
4. +1 Minor Expertise
Minor Expertises are all Expertises that we didn’t choose as our mains – in this case, this represents the skill Ivy picked up as a child. I think it would be fun to give her something more active to do, not connected to her archetype. How about Sneaking? It will be fun. It’s always fun.
Step 3: Education
4. +1 Minor Expertise, +1 Main Expertise
I think we’ll got for Study, which will be useful in our research and we’ll put the 1 point in Spellcasting, because Ivy is, after all, a witch. Her education didn’t progress particularly well – maybe that’s why Ivy is a village witch now, not a brilliant magical prodigy at an equally magical university.
Step 4: Adulthood
5. +1 Minor Expertise, +2 Main Expertise, +1 Wealth, -1 Potential, Basic Gear Pack
I’ll raise Study to rating 2, split the 2 points of main Expertises between Manipulation and Alchemy, adjust my wealth and potential. We’ll take care of the gear later on, as we have a whole crafting system for it, which deserves a separate post. In Aphelion and Aurorae, of course, the archetypes come with prepared gear packs full of useful equipment, but we also give you the tools to build literally anything you want to.
Step 5: Life Goes On
This step can be played up to 6 times; the first time is free, the others cost Potential. We have 0 of it, but you can go into debt at character generation – you’ll have to pay it back during the game (hence, a grizzled veteran having trouble with developing new abilities during the game – until they pay off the Potential debt!)
7. +2 Main Expertise, +1 Wealth, +1 Potential
I’ll drop 1 point into Medicine, as it’s currently at 0, and raise Spellcasting to 2. +1 Wealth is nice, and we’ll immediately spend the Potential to retake this step, because I want my character to be a bit more developed from the start – she’ll need the skills in a solo game.
Step 6: Life Goes On 2
7. +2 Main Expertise, +1 Wealth, +1 Potential
Lovely, Spellcasting up to 3 and Alchemy to 2. I’ll end here and keep Wealth and Potential for the future.
Ivy starts the game as an elven equivalent of a 24-year-old human. Good times, I remember being that young at one time.
Step 7: Start the Game!
Here, we add up all the marks scored in the Story of Your Life and get some extras from it. This step is basically a rubber-band mechanism to round up characters a bit. If you were scoring poorly, you get some points for Main Expertises; if you were scoring well, you get some Minor ones. If you have a veteran who collected over 40 marks, you get nothing.
We’ve scored 37 if I’m not mistaken, so we get +2 Minor Expertises. I’ll get Ivy 1 point in Shooting, just in case, and raise Sneaking by 1.
And that’s it!
We still have three more things to do to finish off creating the character, but they are both really cool concepts that I want to talk about in some detail, and this post is already getting a bit long.
So: stick around for the next episode, in which I tell you all the cool stuff about action cards, variables, and gear!
As our WIP document used to say:
Now that we have a fully functional crafting system, I’ll see you in the next episode, where we create all kinds of useful and vaguely magical equipment for the archetypical village witch. It’s gonna be really cool, I promise!
Let us know in the comments and keep your eyes peeled for Aphelion Toolkit, coming later this year!