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A mockup of the Bonds Card hovers over rumpled fabric, which is dyed in a gradient from orange to lavender. The card features a space to describe who the character is bonded to, what supports the bond provides, and a progress bar at the bottom.

All My Bonds

A Nova Crystallis Relationship System

The Progress Track

Let’s look at one of my building blocks for Nova Crystallis!

Following my brief exploration and disappointment with Iron Valley with my friend Marcia, I sought to flesh out an Ironsworn-based relationship system that allowed for textural relationship growth. It’s part Ironsworn tech, part Persona social links, part Harvest Moon weddings, part Fire Emblem support conversations, part Bioware RPG romance options. It even revisits some ideas I explored in my very first full RPG which you can definitely not find on the internet.

From my perspective, Ironsworn is built on three mechanical pillars:

  1. The Progress System
  2. The Asset Cards
  3. Oracles, Oracles, and more Oracles

To craft this bond system, I’m going to be building on the first of those pillars. In the core Ironsworn experience, progress is “used to measure your pace and determine the outcome of a goal or challenge in specific situations” (p.14). This covers everything from progressing a quest, to exploring a dungeon, to defeating an opponent, and (in later versions of Ironsworn) to developing your relationships. On your character sheet(s), it looks like this:

The Ironsworn Progress Track as it appears on Roll20.

In play, as you take actions towards the goal on the progress bar, you will “mark progress” (aka tick off boxes) depending on the “difficulty” of the objective. Instead of totally filling the progress track, you can attempt to complete your objective at any time by rolling 2d10s and comparing the result of each die individually to the number of completely filled boxes. If the number of filled boxes is greater than both dice, you get a strong, successful outcome. If the number of boxes is greater than only 1 die, you get a weak, but still successful outcome. If the number of boxes is less than both dice, you fail your objective.

Resolving the progress track in this way accomplishes a few things:

  1. It sets an anticipated length of time to achieve an objective and provides a number of “things to do” to accomplish it without being prescriptive about what those actions are.
  2. It rewards the player for taking more actions to accomplish their goals as it will increase the likelihood that they reach their desired outcome.
  3. In true PbtA fashion, it creates a gradation of outcomes: Failure > Mixed Success > Full Success
  4. It provides a framework for guiding solo play.

Building on It

I looooove the progress system, but I have a few loose critiques of the way it’s handled. A few years ago, I played in a playtest of Solar Crown Online. During the playtest, the designer Charles Simon talked about how the math in Ironsworn’s progress system isn’t great. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to probe his brain for the reasoning behind his changes to the system, so I’m not able to act on the knowledge but I wanted to flag his solutions as something I considered.

Instead I felt the need to tackle a different pain point: it is extremely clunky trying to remember how to fill in boxes. The way you fill in boxes depends on the difficulty of your objective. If it’s trivial, you fill in 3 boxes at a time using the weird asterisk type symbol. The number of boxes you fill in goes down with difficulty tiers, until you start filling in partial boxes… so one line, and then another, and then another, until you have a full box before moving on to the next one.

Honestly, I kinda hate this. Off the top of my head I can’t tell you what difficulty corresponds to what number of ticks. Nor can a new player glean what a tick means at a glance.

It makes sense that for grander objectives you might want more actions to be taken towards your goal, but there are two distinct ways you can achieve that:

  1. You modulate how many boxes fill when you mark progress. (The Ironsworn method)
  2. You modulate how many boxes you need to fill to reach your goal. (The Nova Crystalis method)

So instead of decreasing the number of ticks as difficulty rank increases, I have chosen to increase the size of the challenge die and the number of segments that need to be filled as difficulty rank increases. IMHO this is a very clean and legible substitute for what Ironsworn offers.

An sketch of the Nova Crystallis progress track from my notebook.

So this is great and functional as-is, but I have one more change that I want to make beyond this, which is to re-introduce partially filled segments of the progress bar. I would do this because I need more granularity for my design goals. This has to do with some ideas around variable progress, cooperative play, and team composition that I’ll explore later. For now, just note that I need MORE.

“But Linooo,” you whine, “that’s so stupid why would you do that after just complaining about how illegible ticks are???” Well, I think that there’s a better way to track a segment of something that is partially filled, and that is CLOCKS.

So, in the spirit of the crystals, I drew up this little four-step diamond clock. Each filled diamond adds one to your your score against your challenge dice rolls. I can modulate this further if I need — maybe the number of steps on the clock changes? For now this will do very well.

Finally, the progress bar for your bonds is complete. Here’s the little card I made up for it!

A mockup of the Bonds Card hovers over rumpled fabric, which is dyed in a gradient from orange to lavender. The card features a space to describe who the character is bonded to, what supports the bond provides, and a progress bar at the bottom.
My current draft of the Bonds Card for Nova Crystallis.

In Play

In Nova Crystallis, you can choose to form a bond with anyone. Like many of the social links in the Persona series, each person has a specific haunt that they will frequent in a settlement, usually associated with their own job. A gardener could be found in the atrium of the Crystal Basilica, tending to the the new growth that has pushed up from beneath the quartz slabs. A Jeweller might run their petit-bourgeois silversmith venture in a shack on the pier that they managed to get for cheap in the recession. A dancer might frequent a back-alley night club, swimming in the drug-tinged hazy neon fog.

Regardless of where they linger, when you spend one of your small number of daily actions to visit a location inhabited by someone (including on unrelated business) you can roll 1d4 and mark that progress on your bond with that person. While this will probably be their haunt at first, you might also encounter them elsewhere in the world. You may still choose to mark progress in this way.

All bonds start with a d4 rank progress bar, and as with most progress bars, you can always try to roll the challenge dice before filling it entirely. When you successfully resolve this progress bar, choose a relevant support to add to the relationship, then erase all progress and restart the bond at the next rank.

Ranks progress from d4 > d6 > d8 > d10 > d12. The d12 rank is repeatable, but further advancement will replace one of the previous supports, allowing for up to 5 supports per bond.

Supports

Supports are traits that define the nature of the relationship between a playable character and their bond. These may provide mechanical benefits in some instances, but are often just signifiers for the dynamic that has been established in the relationship.

The following is a list of supports I’ll be starting with, with the note that there are a few more angles that I would like to add in the future, like supports for becoming rivals, receiving patronage, and access to information networks.

Casual Supports

Spending Time

Prerequisites: none

This bond will invite you to spend time with them and will spend time with you away from their usual haunt.

Hospitality

Prerequisites: Spending Time

This bond will offer you short term food and shelter whenever you need it.

Gift Giving

Prerequisites: Spending Time

This bond will offer you gifts and agree to lend their possessions to you.

Rescue

Prerequisites: Hospitality or Gift Giving

This bond will come to your aid in a moment of crisis if it is in their ability to do so.

Romantic Supports

Romantic Partner

Prerequisites: Spending Time

This bond is romantically attached to you. They will both seek and offer affection.

Sexual Partner

Prerequisites: Spending Time

This bond is sexually connected with you. They will both seek and offer pleasure.

Living Partner

Prerequisites: Spending Time

This bond shares domestic life with you and may also join you on your travels.

Union

Prerequisites: Spending Time

This bond is formally tied to you. Your bond is publically recognized with a ceremony.

Professional Supports

Discounts

Prerequisites: none

This bond will offer you goods and services that they provide at a discount.

Associate

Prerequisites: Discounts

This bond will offer you goods and services that they don’t publicly provide.

Party Supports

Guest Member

Prerequisites: none

This bond will join your party to accomplish an objective or complete a quest.

Party Member

Prerequisites: Guest Member

This bond will join your party as a permanent companion and will stay as long as you need them. They are also unlocked as a playable character.

2 thoughts on “All My Bonds”

  1. Are you Indigenous? If not you might want to re-think the title of your game, All My Relations is a cultural term within the Indigenous community and not appropriate for use outside of those communities.

    Reply
    • Hi Ysanne, thanks for letting me know! I was attempting to riff on “All My Children” 😭
      Thankfully, it’s not the name of the game, just the name of this post, so an easy fix! I’ll update the title right away.

      Reply

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