Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Using Δ Templates

I've seen a few questions, so I figured I'd just make a big post.


Δ templates are template features that only come into effect after a specific condition has been fulfilled. 

(They're pronounced as "delta templates," and sometimes written that way, too, if you don't want to wrangle with unusual keyboard inputs.)

There are three basic parts to a Δ template:
  1. The name. All templates get a cool feature name, like "Blade-Monger" or "Smite the Unworthy." Δ templates are the same (though it helps to link the name of the Δ template to the specific action associated with it).
  2. The trigger. This is the necessary condition you have to fulfill in order to gain the associated benefits. 
  3. The effects. These are the perks, benefits, abilities, bonuses, and other associated effects tied to the template as a whole.
Written, out a Δ template looks like this:

(Δ) Covenantor

Δ: enter into a formal, binding covenant with an extra-planar patron, such as a demon prince or lesser deity.

You can recognize other servants of your patron on sight as well as their sworn enemies. You gain 1 MD to channel your patron's energy.

I like to use the bold / standard / italics format, just for ease of reading (especially in a big list), but that's not necessary if you don't want it to be.  

That's it, really. They might seem scary, but really, Δ templates are pretty straightforward.


I have two answers to this: first, they build objectives and goals straight into a class from the get-go; second, they allow you as GM-designer to directly link player advancement to specific diegetic actions.

First, Δ templates build objectives and goals straight into a class. Ordinarily, a player has to wait for the campaign to get started and get used to the world to start pursuing their goals—which might not even have rewards associated, necessarily. Usually, a player's goals will be their GM's goals for their players, not necessarily what a player might want to be doing otherwise (this isn't bad, usually, but it is restrictive in a way that's always felt oddly antithetical to the old-school ethos).

With Δ templates, the second a player reads their class, they can instantly see the new shiny toys they get to play with, and the exact tasks they have to achieve to earn those shiny new toys. It gives them motivation, drive, and a clear objective—exactly what players just starting new characters will need.

For the GM, Δ templates are a way to do a little backdoor adventure-planning: because you know what classes your players are using (and thus know what Δ templates they want to unlock), you should have a good idea of what goals your players will have before the game even begins. Obviously, Δ templates are not the end-all be-all of player rewards, but in terms of building content that your players will be interested in, having an easily-referenceable list of goals your players will be hunting is exceedingly useful.

Second, Δ templates are a way to directly tie mechanical, systemic advancement to specific narrative moments and beats. 

Think about the ordinary XP-level loop (regardless of how you earn XP): you start at level 1, you earn some XP, and eventually you hit level 2, which comes with new benefits, based on your class (or whatever else you're using). The actions you take to level up—acquiring gold, beating monsters, exploring regions, completing objectives, following your beliefs, whatever you do—are almost never directly correlated, on a diegetic level, to the benefits you gain. It's an odd dissonance that most players have just gotten used to overlooking, but it's still there.

Δ templates avoid this dissonance: there are specific goals that you have to achieve to gain specific benefits. The designer can decide precisely which achievements and goals they want linked to according benefits; Δ templates remove the otherwise-dissonant abstraction so common in RPGs.

That's a lot of lofty words, but basically: Δ templates mean you can give your players goals that make sense, and then they get benefits according to those goals.


A bunch of ways. Go wild.

Here are some of the more common methods for designing triggers:
  1. Single Achievement. This is the most standard, basic way of doing it: the player completes some specific objective ("slay a dragon" "win a game of chess against a wizard") and gains an according benefit. Those are very boring examples, but you get the idea.
  2. Big List of Stuff. This is the same thing, but instead of a single achievement, it's a laundry list of small goals ("kill 100 undead" "earn 10,000 gold" "survive three blizzards"). The advantage of these is that players can make slow progress on them over the course of a campaign, rather than being one-and-done. The downside is they take a lot of tracking.
  3. Odd Conditionals. More of a modifier than a pure trigger unto itself, but these are highly specific requirements attached to more mundane tasks ("kill 100 undead using a spoon" "win a game of chess against a wizard while blindfolded"). Fun and interesting, especially in a more sandbox campaign.
  4. Narrative Beats. If you're writing more structured, story-progression-oriented classes (like my Heresiarch or Rightful Heir), you can make triggers be narrative beats that fit the common story arcs of your class ("meet a master who will teach you fire magic" "get exiled from your homeland").
With those in mind, there are four basic kinds of benefits you can gain from Δ templates:
  1. Basic Power Features. These are, essentially, the same kinds of perks you'd see on any other class ("you now critically hit on a 19 or 20" "you can run along walls as if they were flat"). Those are both boring examples, but you know how to write these.
  2. Scaling Power Features. Also known as "Notches clones," since the Notches feature fighters get in the original Goblin Guts is the prime example of these. Basically, as you hit a list trigger, you get increasing benefits ("for every 10 undead slain, gain +1 save against necromancy spells" "for every blizzard survived, you can travel 1 hour further without exhaustion"). These have the advantage of being nifty substitutes for ordinary class benefits, but have the downside of needing to be easily-quantifiable. 
  3. Boosting Current Features. If you have some regular feature you got from levelling up the normal way ("you have a 2-in-6 chance of turning invisible in darkness"), a Δ template can increase that ranking further ("after eating a giant demon bat, your chances of turning invisible increase by an additional 2-in-6"). Alternatively, it can modify an existing feature ("you can smell gold from up 100 ft. away") to something slightly different ("you can smell gold, silver, gemstones, and nervous merchants from up to 100 ft. away").
  4. Narrative Perks. Rather than attaching a specific mechanical benefit to hitting a trigger, it might just be something narrative-y and more situational/less crunchy ("you gain access to all Academy libraries" "trainee monks will begin to follow you as disciples"). These ones can be finicky, but can be a ton of fun.
Mixing and matching all of those together can be fun and interesting, and will serve you well for quite a while.

Here's some less-conventional ways you might not have thought of to use Δ templates, just because I'm on a roll here:
  1. Consumable, Repeatable Benefits. A list that scales, but instead of scaling, you use up temporary perks ("get struck by lightning" to "gain 3 MD to use on your storm magic"). Basically a class resource that has narrative triggers. You can also do this where instead of gaining a repeating feature, it gains you another entry on a list (like my Sage's Wizardly Tricks, or Lexi's Thief Guild ability ranks).
  2. On/off Triggers. Basically, there's a trigger to gain a benefit ("marry into royalty" to "gain +2-in-6 chance of commanding lesser nobility"), and then an associated trigger to lose that benefit ("if you get divorced or your spouse has a public affair"). 
  3. Bad Effects. Instead of giving you benefits, the trigger gives you penalties ("pass out due to drunkenness" means "to not a take drink when offered, you must first pass a save vs. addiction"). Very fun if you're making a class that deals with dangerous forces (like, say, any magic-user). Anti-goals are less conducive to player progression and goal-setting, but do make for hella tense moments.
    1. Combining These. Take a trigger ("seal one of your eyes shut with goat's blood"), give it both good and bad benefits ("you can read demonic text and spot hidden demons, but witch-hunters can smell the foul magic on you and will hunt you"), and then have a way a player can get rid of it later ("bathe your eye in a mix of absinthe and maiden's tears").
  4. Gated Templates. In order to hit one trigger ("swear a Brass Oath" "slay an executor angel") you must first hit a different, previous trigger ("forge your own brass gauntlets" "slay a dozen praetor angels"). You can also gate the trigger behind other stuff, like level or wealth or whatever. 
  5. Exclusive Triggers. In short, if you do one trigger, the other locks itself out ("sign a contract with a demon" OR "slay a demon who offers you a contract") to gain opposing benefits. 
    1. Combining These. Multiple gated triggers that branch can be used to essentially allow a class to split into subclasses. A bucket of work, and some tables might hate it, but it can be a ton of fun if your players are into it.
  6. Campaign Templates. Rather than tie Δ templates to one specific class, make them just a big list of things that any character can do (here's a big list of those). Achievements with mechanical benefits, basically. You can also have them be party-wide triggers that are completed as a group (you can even make the reward for a party-wide trigger be that the whole party levels up, if you're feeling clever).
I am absolutely 100% sure that if you spend some time mucking around with Δ templates, you will come up with more interesting variations and tweaks and adjustments than I have here. Like I said, go wild!


No. Well, not really.

Δ templates are a fancy name I came up with for a system of hit-the-trigger-to-get-the-benefit that tons and tons of other people have been doing for a long time. 

Here's a non-exhaustive list of games and systems that do something similar that I took inspiration from:
  • Keys from Lady Blackbird, by John Harper (which in turn come from Clinton R. Nixon's Shadow of Yesterday). These influence the on/off ideas and hitting them more than once.
  • Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits from Burning Wheel by Luke Crane—more systematized and less case-by-case, but Crane's system is the granddaddy of "do what your character would to earn stuff."
  • Pasts & Traumas from Zombie World, by Mark Diaz Truman and Brendan Conway. Like, almost beat-for-beat.
  • Notches, from the Fighter from Goblin Guts, by Arnold K. I mentioned them earlier, but they're the basis for basically all the big-list-of-stuff-that-scales triggers.
  • Basically any OSR system that doesn't follow quite the standard gold-or-monsters-for-XP. There's a bunch of these, so I won't list them all. 
I'm sure there's more I'm forgetting. 


I hope you feel a little more informed and comfortable on how Δ templates work. 

You can and should put them in the stuff you make. If you need help with brainstorming or design or writing, hit me up (here, @HeadOfTheGoat on Twitter, or SquigBoss#1353 on discord) and I'll do what I can to help you.

Honestly, this is not that innovative of a system, it's just a cute name for them (it's a delta! because change!) that I hope will catch on in my little corner of the GLOG scene.

Let me know how it all goes.