Guidance for GMs
Sapio provides support for surprising narrative developments, and is light enough in rules that it can be run “off the cuff.” Your job as the GM is to sketch out the setting, describe the world and entities outside of the players’ characters, and introduce complications and challenges that spur those characters to action. The rules of the system provide openings to introduce twists into the narrative, and with a little preparation, you’ll be able to use them to spin engaging stories with your players.
Setting, Tone, and Premise
Whether you’re running a setting from a book, or one from a universe in another fictional work, or one of your own design, it is your job to introduce it to the players. Give them enough information to latch onto the core ideas of the setting. You may also have a predetermined tone or premise for the campaign - make sure the players are aware of it before they build their characters. All of these things can be determined either collaboratively or beforehand - whatever framework you and your players prefer is the right one.
At the point where they are ready to craft their character concepts, work with them to make sure the concepts make sense within the setting. In a game about slaying monsters, a character that has no interest or utility in combat may derail the game for others. Of course, if everyone wants to play noncombatants, perhaps the premise should be revisited. As the character concepts are translated into character elements, you should oversee the process to ensure that the elements are both reasonable and aligned with the tone and setting of the game.
Pacing and Creating Adventures
There are many excellent, system-agnostic guides on how to create compelling adventures, and a variety of methodologies for doing so. This section will not attempt to replicate those, but will speak to how to utilize the Sapio system to get the most out of your adventures. It assumes that you have a premise and a hook, and a few locations and NPCs detailed ahead of time.
First, think through what the session is likely to be about. Write down 4 uses for @, specific to your expected session, that would reinforce the tone and setting within the session. Do the same for Y. Make the descriptions specific enough that they would be easy to use on the fly, but vague enough that you could see them being inserted at several points. When the right situation arises during the game, you can bring them out and hit just the right tone. If the game drags at any point, you can also bring one out, without a roll, to increase urgency and pick the action back up.
Second, think about what mood you want to strike among the players. For a grittier mood, present tougher challenges (higher TN), use @ to break their equipment, deal Stress, or inflict Injuries to assisting characters, and provide them little opportunity to recover. Have them roll TN 0 checks, modified by Injuries or Stress, to do relatively simple things. To make the game lighthearted, use Spiral to introduce more neutral complications like embarrassment, narrative twists, or putting NPC allies into trouble. To make the adventure more gonzo, use Spiral to introduce more far-fetched complications. Regardless of what you choose, add two uses of @ and two uses of Y to your list that reinforce the tone.
Finally, remember that you don’t have to use the Spiral and Spare possibilities you have written down. If something else makes sense at the moment, go with that!
Setting Target Numbers
In general, you should provide your players with a variety of challenges across each session. Do not shy away from TN 1 checks - while they are the lowest level, they are not guaranteed and are actually tough for untrained characters. Moreover, they can still prod the story forward through @ and Y! When the characters are in a good position or are approaching a problem from an angle you like, reward them with a TN 1 check.
Likewise, set TN 4 or TN 5 checks when appropriate in the narrative, and let them use Luck and teamwork to try to overcome them. A TN 4 should be called for when a character is trying to do something “the hard way,” powering through instead of looking for a good angle. A TN 5 should be called for when a character truly seems to have no chance of accomplishing the task.
TN 0 (Easy): These are tasks that are not challenging for the average untrained person, and should generally not be rolled. However, if injuries or other modifiers increase the target number of tasks so that they become challenging, this TN serves as a base for those adjustments.
Example: Walking down a few flights of stairs, opening a heavy door, lifting a slightly heavy object, reading simple instructions, navigating an area with appropriate signage
TN 1 (Average): These are tasks that would be challenging for the average untrained person, but not difficult for a trained individual.
Example: Jogging a few miles, kicking down a normal door, lifting a heavy, unwieldy object, finding appropriate information in an advanced text, navigating an urban area with spotty directions, hitting a stationary target with a weapon
TN 2 (Challenging): These are tasks that present some challenge even to a trained person.
Examples: Running a half-marathon, kicking down a heavy door, lifting an object not meant to be lifted by one person, finding appropriate information in a poorly organized, dense text, navigating an unfamiliar area with no direction or maps, hitting a target that is defending itself
TN 3 (Hard): These are tasks that are difficult even to well-trained people.
Examples: Running a marathon, breaking through a security door, lifting an object that is affixed in place, inferring missing information within a confusing text, navigating a shifting area, hitting a target that is trained in evasive maneuvering
TN 4 (Very Hard): These are tasks that push the limits of what is possible, with even trained people expected to fail.
Examples: Running an ultramarathon, breaking through a reinforced security door, pulling a building structure apart, inferring missing information from fragmented texts in multiple languages, navigating a collapsing area with no information, hitting a far away target that is trained in evasive maneuvering and taking cover
TN 5 (Impossible): These are tasks that seem beyond possible, that only the luckiest and most skilled should even attempt.
Examples: Running over 100 miles, breaking through a thick concrete barrier, finding information from bizarre texts written in an unknown language, escaping a collapsing area with no exit, hitting a far away target you do not know the position of
TN 6+ (Beyond Impossible): Setting a TN at 6 or more should only be reserved for tasks that you do not want the characters to be able to do. They may still succeed, but it’s highly unlikely.
Calling for Rolls and Adjudication
A key principle in the Sapio system is that rolls provide potential turning points for the narrative, and should never be asked for “in a queue,” either across characters or for a single character. For a single character, this means that when a character attempts to do something with multiple sequential stages, those stages should be condensed into a single roll. In other systems, climbing a building to look for a fleeing adversary might be two rolls - one to climb and one to look. In Sapio, you as the GM should clarify the intent of the action chain and allow the player to invoke any character elements that address the overall goal.
For “group checks,” where all characters are trying the same thing, always have a single character roll, with help. Use this framework when calling for a single character’s roll:
When the attempted action requires a single success for group success, such as searching for something or trying to recall a piece of information, have the best-suited character roll, with help as provided from the party.
When the attempted action requires a single failure for group failure, such as sneaking around without being caught or traversing a bad conditions, have the worst-suited character roll, with help as provided from the party. In this case, be sure to only allow characters to assist if the player can describe some tangible assistance.
Following the Momentum: When a character attempts an action, the player will describe what they are trying to do, and invoke character elements to improve the roll. Perhaps they will receive help as well. In other words, they are explaining their Intent and Methods to you. When they roll, the dice will reveal the outcome of the attempt through *, @, and Y. To adjudicate, “follow the momentum” provided by the Intent and Methods, through to the dice outcome. Intent, Methods, and @ or Y may help inform how and why they failed or succeeded at the task, in addition to adding narrative complications. When you describe the results, it is helpful to start from what they were trying to do and how, and continue the description through to the end. Saying “you fall off the ledge” is less exciting than “you were trying to really grip it with those meaty hands, and it was working, but then you fully pulled a loose rock off of the cliff face and lost your balance. You tumble off, and a mini slide of loose rock has taken away a part of the ledge! Looks like your friends behind you may be stuck.”
Hitting them with Consequences: As GM, you will not roll the dice. You dictate the state of the world and the actions of NPCs, but you never roll to attack the PCs, or trip them, or deceive them. When a player rolls for their character to attempt something risky, follow through with Injuries, Stresses, or other consequences if they fail, dictated by the risk they took on.
PCs can use Luck to increase their chances of success on rolls. The most reliable way that they receive Luck is through getting into trouble according to their Principle. Feel free to award more Luck at your discretion for excellent ingenuity or deepening the narrative. You may also add to the ways a PC receives Luck in either of these ways:
For one-shots: Allow characters to start with 2 Luck.
For longer campaigns: Create one or two additional “generators” of Luck. Think of the types of things PCs might do in your game that can happen one or two times a session, and reward them for the attempt, at the beginning of whatever they are trying. Write this information down for them as a statement. A Luck generator could be approaching a dangerous challenge, proselytizing to new people, representing your family line, or commencing a criminal act. Once they begin these actions, award a Luck whether they succeed or fail. For example, you could write something like, "When you go to investigate an area with suspected paranormal activity, Take a Luck."
Running Action Sequences
Action Sequences are likely the most unfamiliar to those who have GMed other RPG systems. They incorporate the helping mechanics, mechanics for invoking elements, and principles for group checks, but they also introduce a new structure that can feel forced until you become familiar with it.
The key to action sequences is that everything is in motion, but one character is the focus. All PCs and NPCs act on every turn (not just every round), so that one turn encapsulates as much action as a round in a traditional RPG. However, until a PC becomes the focus on their turn, they will experience less risk and reap less rewards. Spiral might dictate that a non-focal PC suffers a minor injury or is maneuvered into a worse position, but should never be used to fully shift their narrative by dealing them a grievous wound or taking them out of the action entirely. Likewise, if one character is engaging the head evil NPC, they shouldn’t be able to dispatch that NPC until their turn. As mentioned in the first section on Action Sequences, this plays out much a like a sequence in a movie, where characters in the background might run into hardship off-screen, but don’t truly succeed or fail until the camera turns to them.
Your primary job as the GM is to set the scene, update the narrative, and repeat. What this means is that before a turn, you describe what the NPCs are doing and the current state of the surroundings. The focal PC acts, aided by others or with others doing other things in the background. After they roll, you narrate their success or failure and evolve the scene to the next moment by narrating what happens to the NPCs and other PCs, and potentially the surroundings. If the PCs took risky actions and failed or had complications, they may receive Injuries or Stresses at this time. The scene is once again set, and the next focal PC acts. Although characters each have their own turns, every roll is a group roll that affects the entire Action Sequence.
As a final piece of advice, not everything has to be an Action Sequence. The Sapio system supports freeform narrative, and many situations can be resolved without moving to structured turns. When the back-and-forth between you and the players can be handled one at a time with ease, such as in a duel or fully separate scenes, you don’t need an Action Sequence. But when you’ve presented a complicated, dynamic situation and everyone’s responses are important and layer on each other, an Action Sequence is likely what you need.
Challenges and Enemies
At a fundamental level, challenges and enemies can be dictated on the fly, without the need to prepare them ahead of time. At each attempt to overcome, influence, affect, or attack, you need only consider how hard it would be and apply a TN. However, a bit of preparation can be a safeguard against getting stuck, so you can use the following framework to create challenges and enemies or NPCs.
First, write down a name and any description you’d like. Then, consider the types of things that are challenging about this person, place, or event. Write down 3-5 of these, with a TN, in the form of “TN X to Y”. For example “TN 4 to convince of most things” or “TN 3 to climb the outside wall.” Write down any special ways they might present challenges, like magical phenomena or abilities. Finally, write down two ways you might spend Spiral in an encounter with them.
If it is an enemy, also record the level of Injury they can sustain before expiring. Human NPCs are likely the same as PCs (2 Severe Injuries to defeat), but large creatures, aliens, or supernatural entities might be tougher and be able to sustain more Severe Injuries before being defeated.
With just this information recorded, you will be able to smoothly present challenges to the players when they arise.
Adapting Sapio to Fit your Game
Sapio runs “out of the box,” especially for one-shots, but it is meant to be adjusted to fit different settings and premises. The core of the system is the freeform elements and their relationship to rolling dice and adjudicating outcomes. Those core features are presented and discussed in the preceding sections. Beyond that, its components are meant to be tweaked, and additional subsystems can be employed to model the specifics of your premise.
In short, the way you tweak Sapio to fit your game contains these steps:
Set expectations or make lists for Professions and Special Talents
Consider what Target Numbers mean for your game
Make a custom list for Spare and Spiral
Keep, alter or swap out Luck, Principles, and Worst Impulses
Add relevant extras
The first three subsections (Basics, Spare and Spiral, and Luck and other Metacurrencies) provide guidance on some standard adjustments that you will want to make (1-4 above), and the subsection on Specific Adjustments provides suggestions for how to implement a few common setting-specific features. Finally, the section on What Sapio Can’t Do suggests limits to what you may try to achieve with Sapio.
The basic adjustments may be nearly invisible to the players. First, lay down expectations about what types of Professions a player can choose. Obviously they should fit within the setting, but there may be additional considerations. For instance, if your setting is about regular people encountering danger, you may want players to choose a “normal” Main Profession that isn’t suited to crises or combat situations. In a Zombie game, you may want one Profession to be from their life before Z-day and one to be from their current life. Other finer-grained guidance may be appropriate - in a setting with magic, you might require that anyone who makes a mage must include their specialty in their Profession name (e.g. “Pyromancer,” “Chronomancer,” but not “Mage”), and then allow only partial dice from that Profession on casting other types of magic. If you want to tightly control the allowable Professions, make a list! However, bear in mind that some of the fun of Sapio is finding the exact right two words to describe your character concept.
Specializations follow a similar pattern to Professions. If your game is about something, specializations related to it should be precise. For instance, in a game heavily focused on magic, “Pyromancy” might be an acceptable Specialization but “Magic” would not. Specializations that won’t come up much in your game can be more general. Our Roof Runner might be able to take “Parkour” in a game about teenage angst, but in a game specifically about Parkour, should take something more specific like “Vaulting” or “Rolling.”
Special Talents can likewise be restricted to fit your concept. For a sprawling campaign, you may wish to allow a variety of kinds of Special Talents so that players can feel like their characters are truly unique. In a tightly controlled game about Wizards, you might have every character own a familiar and require that a Special Talent be spent on how it aids the Wizard. In a one shot, it is fastest to just drop Special Talents altogether - they take the longest for players to settle on!
Finally, you want to be sure you have a strong understanding of Target Numbers. In a game where everyone is playing a human, lifting up a cow might be a TN 4 and knocking down a house would be higher than a TN 5, but in a game where everyone is playing a dragon, lifting up a cow might be a TN 0 and knocking down a house might be a TN 1. When magic is rare and dangerous, casting a spell might be a TN 3, but if it’s ubiquitous, it might be a TN 1. As a general rule, consider the base expectations for what the PCs have in common. A TN 1 should be “challenging for an untrained character,” which means a character with no relevant Professions, Specializations, or Qualities. If the specifics of your setting means that magic or wilderness survival or martial arts are skills for even “untrained” people, then the difficulty of those actions should be reduced.
Spare and Spiral
Part of planning sessions and challenges is creating a few uses for Spiral that evoke the feel you are aiming for. Doing so allows you to adapt Sapio to a variety of genres, while the additional uses in this guide provide generic options for complications. To make Sapio feel right for your genre and setting, the key adjustments you will make are to the uses of Spare and Spiral. Tweaking Spare and Spiral is just like writing down uses for a given session, but you’re doing it for the full game. This is a critical decision, so take your time with it! The lists you make will drive new narrative for everyone who plays. Feel free to scrap the original list and make your own, or just add to it as a gentle guide for players and GMs.
Spare: Spare tell players what lucky breaks they can expect within the narrative, but a lucky break looks different in different genres. If your game is about courtly intrigue, then saving face, getting noticed, or learning a secret are evocative uses for Spare. If your game has a component about desert survival, finding water and shade or preserving resources may be good uses for Spare. Keep the uses general enough that it’s up to the players to fully interpret them, and make sure there are at least 6 and no more than 12.
Spiral: As critical as adjustments to the Spare list are, the Spiral list is even more critical. Spiral introduces the unexpected twists that put a pit in the characters’ stomachs and become new problems for them to solve. What you choose for Spiral will dictate the flow of the game, so choose carefully! For a courtly intrigue game, losing someone’s favor, the sudden appearance of a foe, or a secret being learned by a foe are all good uses. For a game of desert survival, the breaking of a key piece of traveling gear or the distant appearance of a ravenous predator would be good. Once again, keep these general enough that they can be interpreted by a GM, and make sure that there are at least 6 and no more than 12.
Luck and other Gamifiers
Luck, and its ties to Principles and Worst Impulses, is a serviceable way to “gamify the narrative” that can support a one-shot or a sprawling campaign. If you want to keep your adventures very open-ended or maintain the focus on a very specific goal over a short in-game time period, don’t worry about changing it!
However, you may want to create a specific cadence to sessions or campaigns, where the protagonists trace recurring narrative trajectories.
Exploring a dungeon, escaping or defeating the danger within, and returning to civilization to spend the spoils on equipment and merriment.
Planning a big score, executing it, evading the heat, and returning to your vices.
These are tailored core game loops. To reproduce those experiences, you need to either replace Luck or augment it with additional “gamifiers.” Below are two ways to nudge players into narrative loops with their characters.
Luck generators: A quick way to reinforce the types of actions you’d like the protagonists to take is to expand the situations from which they gain luck. Adding more Luck generators will help them make short term decisions that align with the core game loop. If you want your characters to go dungeon delving, give them a Luck point when they progress to a new floor (including the first) or secure a certain amount of treasure. Using one or two additional Luck generators is usually sufficient to induce them to play along. If you think it’s getting too crowded, you can always remove Principles and Worst Impulses.
Progression: A longer-term way to encourage certain types of play is to define what a “consequential session” is for determining character advancements. A game where a consequential session requires resolving a problem from the character’s backstory will create an incentive to explore their past, whereas one where a consequential session requires that they defeat a powerful enemy will create an incentive to seek out powerful enemies.
Status changes: Finally, for a more complex long-term gamifier, allow characters to obtain standing bonuses in exchange for reaching certain states of the narrative. In a post-apocalyptic game where characters are trying to make a safe haven for themselves, you might set criteria that stocking up on medical supplies provides bonuses to medical checks within the safe haven, stocking up on weapons provides bonuses to checks to defend the haven, and so on. These should be able to be lost as well, which is a convenient hook to drive action on the part of the characters. The core game loop of such a game would clearly involve acquiring supplies. In an intrigue game, tiered “status” levels based on the esteem of the other courtiers, with associated bonuses to certain social checks, can reinforce that status is a tangible and desirable resource. The core game loop of a game like that would involve jockeying for status.
Taken together, you can make and fine tune the gamifiers within Sapio to target the core game loop you are trying to achieve.
Magic takes many different forms across different systems. Because the ability to bend the rules of reality have the potential to skew the game in the favor of the magically inclined, most systems attempt to “balance” its potential with that of mundane characters. At a basic level, Sapio already does this because precious character elements need to be spent on magical Professions, Specializations, and Qualities, and Spiral has much more potential to cause mayhem when magic is involved. Around that framework, a system built on daily spells, freeform spell construction, or domains of magic are all appropriate. Presented below is a basic implementation:
Characters must take both a Quality (magical) and a Special Talent (spellcaster) in order to cast spells. Taking the Spellcaster Special Talent provides access to two “domains” of magic (pyromancy, telekinesis, chronomancy, divination, illusion, etc.). Within any domain, the spell that can be cast is freeform. Every casting starts at a TN 2, unless the caster is under duress or the spell is particularly complex. Spells have a “standard” impact with 2 Hits, and a bigger impact beyond it. Every time they cast a spell, the character takes a Minor Stress of Fatigued, with Spare potentially nullifying it and Spiral potentially exacerbating it (among other possible users for Spiral). If the spellcaster maintains an effect, their character elements remain invoked until the spell ends (and therefore can’t be invoked for a second spell).
Spellcasters add an extra step to their progression cycle, where they gain an additional domain. This slows their progression in Professions, Specializations, Qualities, and Special Talents compared to other characters.
Armored enemies are tough to hurt. When you do so up close, your TN is higher and you risk retaliation for failing. When you do so from afar, your TN is still higher.
For PCs, the armor system could be more complex, but a simple implementation is as follows:
Characters with a Quality that represents physical robustness (e.g. Stalwart, Strong, Sturdy, Muscled) may wear Armor. A character without a relevant quality may wear Armor, but they have a Level 2 Stress of “Burdened” while it is equipped. There is only one level of Armor, and if a character wears less armor than this, it may benefit them in the narrative but does not provide Armor. If it applies (e.g. it covers the appropriate area and protects against the correct type of injuries), Armor reduces the severity of a given Injury by one level.
Cybernetic Enhancements and Magical Gear
Cybernetic enhancements and magical gear both vastly expand the capabilities of characters. The Sapio core rules assume that characters’ abilities can be described in terms of their aptitudes, but fantastic gear challenges that structure. The best way to incorporate Cybernetic Enhancements and Magical Gear is to treat the items as Special Talents. They don’t always have to have an explicit mechanical benefit if they expand the capabilities of a character. A bag that is much larger on the inside, for instance, needs no descriptors in terms of Hits and Spare. If you intend to run a “gear heavy” campaign, consider reducing the number of Special Talents that characters gain when they progress.
Sentient species (non-humans, human variants)
Depending on the setting, sentient playable characters can be created in a few ways.
If you want to have their species/variant be a defining set of cultural features and abilities (weapon proficiencies, wayfinding, magical aptitude, etc.), add Species as a skill package the same way as a Side Profession is used, with Specializations available. When included this way, players will be invoking their Species often, bringing it to the forefront of their character identities.
If you want Species to have a much more muted role as a set of supernatural or inhuman features (e.g. resistance to fire, trance instead of sleep, flight), package these as a single Special Talent and allow players to select it in place of their starting Special Talent.
You can use Species as a Quality, but it is not recommended. If a player wants to play as a scrawny Orc, the meaning of Orc when invoked as a Quality is vague because Orcs are typically portrayed as tough. It’s also somewhat reductive if the game will deal with inter-Species conflict, collapsing each different Species to a stereotypical nature.
Finally, you can choose to represent Species as a choice in roleplaying or the taking of specific Qualities and Professions, but not explicitly represented in the mechanics. This fully deemphasizes its importance.
What to Use Sapio For (and What Not To)
Sapio is adaptable across a wide range of settings and tones. With the right adjustments discussed above, tt can play light and heartwarming, gorey and horrific, or epic and sweeping. Use Sapio for your game if you want to:
Use light rules that are easy to remember
Allow players to build whatever characters they want
Adjudicate any action in a similar fashion, without skills or Moves
Collaboratively narrate results as the game progresses
Be surprised by twists as both GM and player
Roll the dice less frequently than some games and stick to the results
Build encounters and NPCs quickly but evocatively
Reward players and characters who make good choices in the moment
However, the following things are not playstyles that jibe well with Sapio. Do not use Sapio if you want to:
Enforce a high degree of mechanical balance among characters
Play a game with fine-grained tactical complexity in combat
Play a game with tactical synergies from selecting sets of character features
Have strong mechanical guidance as to what your character should do
Roll the dice a lot