RPG Design – Tuesday Tweak: The Incorporeal Problem

ghost-handIncorporeal Rules

Well, this problem has always been a bit difficult to pin down.

On the one hand, the rules for ghosts and such in D&D and Pathfinder have always been mostly clear, if overcomplicated with all kinds of specific cases and applications. On the other hand, these rules are mostly a failure, in my estimation. While they do work, the rules for incorporeal creatures add zero flavor, richness, or realism to the game. It’s worth noting that Paizo came out with the Haunt rules so that ghostly events could happen without evoking the spirit rules.

Instead, we have ghosts and wraiths taking partial damage from spells and magic weapons and floating around on another plane of existence. There are even rules covering the inevitable “hide within the stone wall and attack people” rules exploit. These mechanics are fine if you just want to play extended encounters and tactical games, or find all kinds of ways to exploit corner cases and creative interpretations. However, if you want your spirits to strike fear into the players’ hearts or evoke an eerie mood, they need to interact with these monsters with a phrase other than “Hey, are you carrying that ghost touch dagger or did we sell it? This fight could be annoying.”

I haven’t yet worked out a system of mechanics for incorporeal creatures that evokes all the right feelings. I’m still experimenting. However, the first step to making a better rule is to identify what bothers us about the old rule and figure out the goals for a new one.

Any thoughts?

-Max Porter Zasada

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5 responses to “RPG Design – Tuesday Tweak: The Incorporeal Problem

  1. Our system approaches the incorporeal by having two pools of life. One is Strength and the other is Sanity. Incorporeal beings are considered to be creatures of spirit and the mind, which means that characters can attack them with Sanity attacks through magic. Strength characters can develop techniques to automatically do sanity damage through their physical attacks. So, there is no need for a specialized weapon. Not sure if it is the best design, but that was our approach! 🙂

    • This is really, really interesting. Your system sounds fantastic because it does one crucial thing that the Pathfinder or D&D rules don’t: spirits are clearly marked as Other, as being made of different stuff than material creatures. It’s so important to have a clear sense that otherworldly creatures are actually otherworldly, and not just possessed of weird or annoying defenses. I haven’t read your rules (because the game hasn’t yet launched!) but I’m certainly looking forward to your dark fantasy mechanics.
      If anyone reading this hasn’t done so yet, you should check out the VOID RPG kickstarter which looks super cool!

      -Max Porter Zasada

      • Thanks, Max! We are hoping to get a video completed this weekend that will show some of the mechanics in action. We are also looking at doing some podcasts and interviews where we play with our interviewers! Stay tuned! And thanks for helping spread the word on the game!

  2. Next session I want to put my players agains an Incorporeal monster.
    To add flavor, a temporary WIS damage will be applied on each successful attack from the monster.
    Another tweak I am thinking about is that someone can make an attack with its mind, he/she has to BELIEVE that is hurting the incorporeal. Of course it would use the WIS bonus (-4 maybe, as is not a weapon the char knows how to use).

    BTW congratulations for the blog! I am restlessly reading it and I am already in posts from 2011. Once I read them all, I’ll be commenting on the recent ones frequently.

    • Hey, thanks for commenting!
      Depending on which system you are using, there may be plenty of incorporeal monsters that deal WIS damage in their stats, and that’s not a bad way to make the players feel the pain. The thing is, I don’t believe this mechanic really adds that much flavor, as the conversation usually devolves into discussing how ability score damage heals and when the party can get a lesser restoration spell cast. I’m really looking for a bigger mechanical change, that really truly hits the supernaturalness home. I like where you’re going with the player having to believe that the monster was damaged–maybe something developed along those lines.
      –Max

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