Playing the Game
Samsara is a tabletop role-playing game about street-level heroes who use crazy spiritual powers to fight criminals, ghosts, and monsters.
- Define characters by their karma; past actions should have a mechanical effect on future outcomes.
- Cinematic action; nobody's got time to slow down for situational modifiers or basic math.
- Improvise everything; zero-prep for the Director and let players create characters on the fly.
Every character in the game will have a list of their most note-worthy deeds. Each deed earns you a karma die.
- Good Karma is earned through actions that help others and generally improve the state of the world.
- Bad Karma is earned by needlessly hurting others and creating a world where bad things happen.
Any time a character is involved in a conflict, their player rolls all of their karma dice. The relevance of each deed to the current situation is not important. Set the stakes, then roll the dice.
Dice are rolled in secret. (I recommend using a dice cup.) Players look at their results and pick two dice to bid. The highest bid gets to control the scene, but the combination of good and bad karma will limit their options.
- 2 Good Karma = An action that helps others without causing additional suffering. These are win-win solutions that rarely, if ever, involve violence.
- 2 Bad Karma = An action that increases suffering. Causing permanent harm to another person always requires 2 Bad Karma.
- 1 of Each = A little bit of both. Using violence, lies, or theft for a good cause requires a mixed set of dice.
For example, a player might have four good karma and two bad karma in their dice pool. They roll all six dice and get the following results...6 3 3 1 4 2
Their highest sum is 10, but that uses one die of each type. They'd rather keep their two highest good dice for a sum of 9. Or, if they really want to put the hurt on some guy, they'll have to settle for a 6 on their two bad dice.
The Director will roll a pool of "trouble dice" for the opposition. Use a third color, because the players will get their hands on these sooner than later. If the Director wins, they can describe whatever supporting character actions they like, good, bad or ugly.
Players will have the most freedom to gamble on their desired color combinations when the Director's pool has about two fewer dice than theirs. When the Director's pool is the same or larger, players will be forced to take their highest result most of the time. Both situations can lead to interesting gameplay.
If you lose, don't despair. You can still use the dice you didn't bid to add your own details to the winner's narration. Say you lost a roll to a horrid rakshasa and now the Director is having it pluck out your eyes. Push one of your remaining dice forward and say "I knock its poison claws aside and cartwheel out of reach." If they want to go after your eyes again, they'll have to push forward an unused die of greater value.
When the Director pushes trouble dice, protagonists can take damage. This is both good and bad. If a player cannot counter one of the Director's trouble dice, or chooses not to, they take that die into their pool. (Otherwise, Trouble dice go back into the Director's pool.)
As protagonists are damaged, the balance of power shifts from the Director to the players. Damage can be physical injury, but it can also be embarrassment, fear, tactical disadvantage, loss of property, or just about anything else.
Directors may choose to bid low, letting the players win control of the narrative, because they want to reserve their highest dice for inflicting damage. The makes particular sense early in a scene, when the players are facing less dramatic threats.
Most of the time, damage just makes the players' dice pools bigger and better, but this extra power comes with an increasing probability of disaster. If the highest two dice in a player's roll are ever two trouble dice, 1) they have to bid those two dice and 2) they must succumb to their damage at the end of the round. That means their character is removed from the scene in some way, regardless of success or failure.
Trouble dice can be removed from a player's pool whenever it makes sense in the course of the narrative, but the player must provide an explanation. The Director has final approval.
When players are working together against a common threat, just increase the number of trouble dice. Two or three per player should be good for a start. Only raise the stakes higher than that if the players have earned extra karma or taken a bunch of damage.
When creating a new character, all you need is a concept and five dice. Decide how you want those dice split between good/bad karma, then you're ready to go!
- Bodhisattva Former Hitman (4/1)
- Ghoulish Smuggler & Gravedigger (1/4)
- Tulpa of Hanuman (2/3)
- Dancer with a Song in Her Heart (3/2)
Grab a sheet of paper, write your concept along the top, then draw one blank line for each of your karma dice. You'll fill in those past deeds during gameplay.
If you want your character to have any spiritual powers, at least one of their past deeds will have to explain how they acquired them. Other character traits that require a line of explanation could include special training (martial arts, tech skills), connections to organizations (D-Company, The Four Arms), or unusual personal wealth.
Whenever a protagonist achieves something noteworthy, they can gain new karma dice. Earn good karma for helping others, becoming more enlightened, or generally improving the state of the world. Earn bad karma for creating a more violent, unfair, or chaotic world.
By atoning for a past misdeed, you can flip a black die to white.
Example of Play
A Four Arms encounter team is trying to bring the Blood Poet in for questioning. Bad idea, I know, but they've got a plan. The stakes are whether or not the protagonists can bring the Blood Poet in alive.
The two players will be working together, so they both grab all their karma dice and roll them. The Director rolls six trouble dice, because the Dancer should be a credible threat. Everyone checks their results secretly and picks two dice to bid.
2 3 4 6 2
4 5 4 1 4
4 5 1 6 3 4
The players both bid their highest mix-die results, because this is a morally ambiguous plan.
Player A: 4+6=10
Player B: 5+4=9
The Director bids their highest two dice, because they want to set the scene.
The Director wins control and starts narrating the scene based on the players' stated intentions. "The Blood Poet is just sitting in her shanty, practicing her sitar, when flashbang grenades come flying through her windows. She sighs, closes her eyes, and endures the explosions with her still mind."
Now, Player A pushes one of her extra 3s forward and breaks in with, "At that exact moment, I fire a round from my high-powered rifle right through her ankle." The Director raises with a 4 and responds by saying, "She senses the bullet coming and swings her sitar down. It explodes, but the bullet misses its mark." Both dice are set aside.
The Director continues, "The rest of the encounter team rushes in to subdue her, but she tears them apart like practice dummies. One pulls a gun on her, so she grapples his arm, aims his gun out the window, and returns fire on that sniper." The Director pushes a 3 toward Player A, who doesn't have anything higher.
She takes the trouble die and adds it to her pool as damage, saying "Glad I wore my kevlar. The bullet knocks me down and bruises a couple of ribs, but I'm back on my feet in a blink!"
"In the meantime," continues the Director, "the Blood Poet collects her katar and bursts through her own ceiling, leaving behind a pile of cops with dislocated limbs. She takes off across the rooftops."
Player B pushes forward a 4 and adds, "I leap feet-first back into the car and take off after her, slowing down only enough to let my partner leap onto the back." The Director has no problem with that, so lets it stand and everyone gathers their dice for a chase sequence.
This time, Player A has a total of six dice, due to her character's wound, and the Director has five trouble dice remaining. Everyone rolls and secretly chooses two dice to bid.
5 4 2 6 3 3
4 4 1 6 4
3 5 1 5 6
Again the players each chose their highest mix-color pair.
Player A: 6+5=11
Player B: 6+4=10
The Director wants to inflict more damage, this time, so intentionally throws the round by bidding her lowest two dice.
Player A wins the round and begins narrating the scene. "The Dancer is skips straight across the slum, forcing us to careen through shanties just to keep up. I'm honking the horn and flashing my lights to get people out of our way. The car's covered in debris and clothes lines, but we emerge onto a city street hot on the Dancer's heels."
The Director pushes forward a 5 and says, "The Blood Poet kicks backward off a building and drops down on the hood of your car, then stabs straight through your windshield with her katar!"
Neither player has a die higher than that, so Player A takes the trouble die and the Director decides to pile on the damage. "She stabs through the steering wheel and about an inch into your gut, pinning both you and the wheel in place." The player takes yet another trouble die into her pool.
Player B pushes forward a 4 and declares, "I open fire with a beanbag gun!" They all know the Dancer has to get caught, since the players had the high bid, so the Director lets that stand.
"It hits her right in the forehead and she tumbles off the car," the Director pauses and pushes a 6 toward Player B," but then you're also thrown off as the car crashes into oncoming traffic!"
Player B can't possibly counter that, so the crash happens and sets up another round to see how the protagonists fare. The Director only has three dice left. Player B now has six and Player A has seven.
4 1 2 3 6 1 6 6
3 4 2 6 3 4
2 6 4
Player A's highest dice are boxcars on two trouble dice, which means she has to bid them. Player B want to keep an ace up his sleeve, so bids a pair of 4s.
Player A: 6+6=12
Player B 4+4=8
The Director thinks a 10 has a pretty good chance of winning, so bids her two highest dice.
Player A wins the round, but at the cost of her character's health. She starts narrating the crash, "I see the crash coming and yank the wheel the swerve out of the way, saving the other driver's life. The katar rips sideways across my midsection, spraying blood across the dash. The car rolls over and barrels into a storefront, sending glass everywhere."
The Director pushes forward her only spare die and adds, "The other driver may be spared, but he runs right over your partner!"
Player B smiles and whips out that spare 6. "I kick myself into a spin that clears the hood, rolls me over the windshield, and sends me flying into the air as the innocent driver skids to a stop. I hit the ground bruised, but unbroken."
Player B drags his partner from the wreck and stands guard over the Dancer until backup, and an ambulance, can arrive.
Character advancement should be a side plot in any Samsara game. The main plot should stay focused on the game world and how the players' actions ripple through it. Hopefully, they leave it in better condition than they found it.
Locations in the game world have their own karma, just like protagonists do. Directors can roll these dice to determine what kinds of events and environmental conditions greet the protagonists when they visit.
Location karma pools start at an even split (good 2 / 2 bad). Each problem affecting a place adds 1 bad karma to this pool; particularly dangerous places may have their good karma reduced to 1.
It's a narrativist's version of the random encounter table.
More than that, location karma allows players to make concrete changes to the game world. By helping people and building new institutions, they can add good karma to a location. By actively resolving problems, they can flip a bad karma die to good.
If they cause too much chaos and suffering while they do it, they'll add bad karma of their own. Fairly warned be thee, says I.
To use location karma, grab all of that location's dice and roll them. Check the results as you would for any other roll.
- If the highest 2 dice are both good, choose a good result.
- If the highest 2 dice are both bad, choose a bad result.
- If the highest 2 dice are mixed, choose a neutral result.
Vignettes that use location karma will provide a list of ambient conditions on a scale like this...
Good: Street festival, bustling market, quiet neighborhood.
Mixed: Dangerous neighborhood, gridlocked traffic.
Bad: Flooded streets, power outage, mob violence.
The players' actions won't change the composition of these lists, but they can make the worst results unavailable by flipping enough bad karma to good.
For example, say the protagonists have set up shop in a Buddhist temple (1 good) that's in gang territory (1 bad) and haunted by a hungry ghost (1 bad). The good outcomes won't even be available until someone either adds another good die, eliminates the gang, or destroys the ghost.
When it comes to undercover work and influence peddling, it's not just who you know that matters. It's also who knows the people you know. Trust networks model the way reputation can flow through intermediary parties, friends of friends.
The Director will have a relationship map that shows how various people and organizations in the game world know each other. Each link will have a rating from 0-3; that's the max number of Trust dice that can be transferred along that link.
Let's say the players are trying to get some information from The Blood Poet. He has a 2 dice relationship with Mohinder the Ghoul, who the protagonists know from a previous adventure. The players ask Mohinder to set up a meeting. To see how The Blood Poet reacts, the Director rolls 2 Trust dice (and some number of Paranoia dice, see below).
Note: A supporting character never has to use all of their Trust dice when doing a favor like this, like if the protagonists are acting suspicious or just haven't earned much trust with the supporting character yet.
Players can build trust with supporting characters the same way they build their own karma: by doing great deeds. Trust doesn't have to be quite as epic as karma, but it's every bit as freeform. Do favors for people, play con games, prove loyalty, be an enemy of their enemy, etc.
Each time you do something remarkable, add a white die to the Trust relationship between the protagonist and the supporting character (or their organization).
Of course, you can always extort an insincere recommendation from someone, just to get a foot in the door. You still get to roll their Trust dice, but be sure to increase the Paranoia level, too...
Whenever something happens that should raise alarms among criminals or conspirators, add a black die to their Paranoia pool. That includes the protagonists stomping their way through the underworld, resorting to strong arm tactics, getting caught in a lie, etc.
Basically, bad undercover work.
Directors can track paranoia levels for each person/group in the relationship map separately or keep a single tally for the entire map. Any time the protagonists try to leverage their Trust dice, be sure to roll the Paranoia dice, too.
When the players are trying to extract favors or information from a criminal or conspirator, the Director should make a separate (probably secret) roll with any relevant Trust (white) and Paranoia (black) dice.
Use a normal Karma roll to play out the scene and determine whether or not the protagonists get what they want out of their contact. The outcome of the Trust roll tells you what the consequences will be.
Check the highest two dice...
If there are two white dice, the supporting character trusts the protagonists. Even if they decided not to help, they don't harbor any suspicions or ill-will against the protagonists.
If there's only 1 white die, the supporting character gets suspicious. If they agree to help, they'll want compensation and/or some way to keep an eye on the protagonists. They might send a henchman to work with them, or secretly to keep them under surveillance. If the players do anything untrustworthy, start removing Trust dice from the relationship.
If there are no white dice, it's backstabbin' time! If the contact refused to help them, they tell the protagonists to get the hell out! If they agreed to help, it's only with the intention of double-crossing them later. Consider all Trust dice lost immediately.