Cinco: Cut Your Gordian Knots!

my intent has been less to emulate or condense 5e as a formal ruleset than to facilitate the spirit and play style of 5e without the trappings of d&d, basically divorcing 5e from d&d. over time i’ve learned a lot about what is or isn’t necessary for that, and that’s become more pronounced while playing non-d&d games.

overall, this is less about adhering to a specific formal design principle than mapping out what i want out of a blorbo-playing engine. what framework accommodates a variety of character concepts, holds players’ hands so they don’t feel overwhelmed, and foregrounds characters over arbitrary rules?

that’s what i’ve been trying to figure out!

Cinco a.k.a. FMC NEXT a.k.a. FIVEY has seen a lot of changes over the last year while I figure out what exactly it is I want out of it. These last few weeks have been the most radical: removing skills, removing abilities, and now removing the last vestiges of D&D’s combat system. It’s become a framework for freeform role-play, for creating characters by deciding what makes them who they are rather than pigeonholing them into a system of objective measurements and categories. This post is an exploration of what that entails in practice!

Aspect Checks

Starting characters have at least 2 aspects representing their origin and background. The player allocates 6 pips between their character’s aspects, serving as each aspect’s “bonus”. When an aspect applies to a situation whose outcome is uncertain, the GM may ask the player to roll d20 plus the relevant aspect’s bonus. If no aspect applies, then the roll is made unmodified if success remains within the realm of possibility.

Example: A starting character may have the following aspects: elf (+4) and sage (+2).

My least favorite part of a tabletop rulebook is where it explains how many abilities each character has, how those abilities are measured, and how they factor into some universal resolution procedure. I’ve complained about this at length before. The boilerplate always comes across as uninspiring and unhelpful in being besides the point of whatever activity on which the game is centered. Even when the universal procedure is based on skills and not common abilities, it’s neither particularly evocative nor descriptive of play-activity.

Originally, aspects were a merger of “skills” and “titles”. Whereas before your character might have been an elf with the song skill and a sage with the education skill, those skills were all encapsulated inside their associated title. If it makes sense that an elf is good at song, then you improve your roll. If it makes sense that your sage was educated in some subject of interest, then you improve your roll. This foregrounds the game-world’s fiction and turns the conversation into one about establishing ‘facts’ about the setting rather than about objectively measuring or categorizing character’s skills.

Then, I went a step further and replaced ability bonuses with aspect bonuses. Having a relevant aspect or skill previously doubled your basic ability bonus, so an elf singing to gain the sympathies of a crowded tavern would double their hypothetical charisma bonus from +2 to +4. This felt like a clean solution at the time, especially for how it made skills “matter”, but it still relied upon some understanding of universal character abilities and their quantification. So I cut them out. Your character is average in all respects unless they have an aspect which makes them exceptional. This foregrounds characters and their fiction even more, relying upon the player deciding which aspects are most important to their character, and hinging upon conversation to decide when that aspect applies.

Difficulty & Success Bands

If the result of the aspect check is 20+, the player controls and narrates the outcome of the situation within reason. If the result is 10+, the player negotiates with the GM about a cost or complication to which they must agree to accomplish their character’s goal or else forfeit success. Otherwise, on a result less than 10, the character does not accomplish their goal and the GM narrates the outcome of the situation.

What success and failure look like should be decided upon before the die is cast, although complications may be imagined afterward. The die should only be cast if the outcome is truly in the air.

I decided a while ago that I don’t really care for variable difficulty classes because they felt difficult to rationalize despite appearing like an objective, rational measure. I’d rather say, okay, if this is a situation whose outcome is really uncertain, you might as well flip a coin. But that’s less evocative, and also lacks handrails that D&D usually has by way of abilities and skills. We figured out the abilities-and-skills part, but how can we turn a d20 roll into a coin flip without it coming across as rigid and while giving players some handrails?

Success bands! The middle outcome always has a 50% chance, meaning that half the time something for which the die is cast will transition back into the play conversation anyway. The outcome for the rest of the time depends on the player’s foresight to invest in each aspect of their character, as well as their willingness to negotiate for aspect’s applicability to a situation. A character without an applicable bonus has a 45% chance of “failure”, but a character with an applicable bonus of +9 has a 50% chance of “success”.

The question posed by aspects becomes: “In situations where this aspect may apply, how willing are you to accept outright failure?” It feels like an interface between proverbial button-pressing and fictional positioning, based on how much the player just wants to mash the button and ‘skip’ ahead.

Handling Combat

There’s sort of an obvious problem, or at least a problem obvious to me. As I mentioned in the blog post earlier, the difficulty class subsystem of D&D or d20 systems in general is meant to allow non-combat situations to use the same resolution procedure as combat. It’s universalized armor class. Everything becomes a nail to a hammer.

What if we went the other way around? It’s not that everything needs the same rules, but I don’t care for having a skirmish war-game system tacked onto the game (especially with all kinds of self-contained attributes for characters: defense, movement, health, et cetera). What if engaging in combat were treated like any other uncertain situation?

To start, we can give each character some kind of harm counter—not meant for combat specifically, but in general if it matters how messed up they get over time. Let’s say three strikes and they’re out. Maybe we could say something like:

Success in melee means hitting without getting hit, and failure means getting hit without hitting. Anywhere in between means that you must choose whether to hit (but also get hit) or not get hit (but also not hit).

There we go! Natural consequences, natural trade-offs. Encourages fictional positioning and negotiation of stakes rather than objective fight simulation, while characters who are interpreted as ‘good’ at fighting (or are particularly apt at the specific situation) can more often skip the talking part and just hit the damn thing.


Really happy with this and excited to play using it! All I want is less annoying rules with enough to latch onto for easy of play. Makes it easy to quickly imagine a little character, maybe give them some cool things to do, and play them. I feel like anything outside this character sheet can be so easily relegated to GM-side procedure if not, more obviously, to the interpretation of the game-world's fiction.

Maybe this post is more an actual answer to Prismatic Wasteland's challenge than the previous one. Aspect checks! Fun name.


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