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The Mark System

A free, open source roleplaying game system
Released under a Creative Commons license.1

Welcome to the Mark System.

The Mark System is a cinematic-style roleplaying game system. It’s easy to learn, fast to play, and all about roleplaying fun actions and creative stories. Here are a few things to know right off the bat:

  • You’ll need a pile of dice. D6s may be convenient, but anything will work.
  • Players create heroes who do brave stuff and live out their motivations.
  • The GameMaster helps craft the framework of a story using the heroes’ motivations.
  • Actions are primarily used in Scenes, whittling down a Scene Difficulty creatively in order to advance the story.
  • Even numbers on a die roll equal one success.
  • Heroes are encouraged to work together.
  • Motivations insure heroes may not always work together.
  • Sometimes, there are Deadlines, a time limit, to overcome a Scene Difficulty.
  • You can create a hero in about 2-3 minutes, maybe faster if you want.
  • The system is very flexible but works best in settings where heroes will encounter hordes of bloodthirsty creatures.
  • The game system is completely free to use and share.

Creating Your Character

  1. Come up with an idea for your hero.
  2. Spend 15 points on your six Traits, minimum of 1 and maximum of 4 in any Trait.
  3. Pick 1 double Mark for your hero (++) and 5 regular Marks for your hero (+).
  4. Come up with your Motivation, and write it down.
  5. Don’t forget a name.

Traits

Each character has six Traits, broad descriptors that help define their abilities. Traits are broken down into two types - Action, which are those Traits your hero will use to do cool stuff; and Reaction, those Traits your hero will use to keep cool stuff from happening to him. Here is the listing of Traits with a “to-the-point” definition of each.

Action

Prowess is your hero’s combat and physical ability. If you are shooting alien hordes, wrestling giant snakes, and breaking metal doors with your shoulder, you will use this Trait.

Smarts is your hero’s intelligence and know-how. If your hero is hacking computers, deciphering a foreign script, and crafting a potion of immense power, he’ll use this Trait.

Empathy is your hero’s natural charisma and attraction. If you are fast talking a scientist, impressing someone with your photogenic smile, and trying to make a friend, you’ll use this Trait.

Reaction

Toughness is your hero’s ability to take a blow and keep on fighting. You’ll use this Trait to keep from drowning, endure great pain, and stomach disgusting, rotten food.

Focus is your hero’s ability to withstand mental damage inflicted by otherworldly beings. You’ll use this Trait to keep from divulging an important secret, fashion a mental fortress impervious to mind probes, and remain focused on a difficult action even when the world is blowing up around you.

Reflexes is your hero’s ability to pick up on rapid sensory information and make sense of it all. You’ll use this when you step into an ambush, dodge an incoming laser blast, and get a hunch that someone is lying to you.

Marks

Whereas Traits are a little broad, Marks add more detail to your character, representing skills, training, and special abilities. Marks go underneath their appropriate Traits and describe specific actions or qualities your character possesses. You can define these as you want.

Use descriptive phrases. Marks can be described poetically or in common language. As you can see in the examples in the sidebar, the same Mark could go under a few different Traits. If it’s helpful, put a plus sign (+) next to your Marks to remind you to add a die when you use them in an action. Double Marks, representing further specialization in a particular skill, training, or ability, can be marked with two plus signs (++), indicating that you roll two dice when you use them in an action.

If you can explain it, Marks can also be a little on the weird side. Magical abilities, psychic powers, intuition, or mutations can all be devised as Marks. Work with the GM if you have some cool ideas that are outside the box.

Motivations

Your character’s Motivation is at the center of their heroic journey. What propels your adventurer forward into dark dungeons and dangerous environs? What is she searching for? What truth does he hope to unravel? What drives them to place their lives into great risk?

Ultimately, your hero’s Motivation sets in motion the plot you will unravel over the course of several game sessions. You may keep your Motivation a secret from other players, but eventually you will be driven to make decisions that conflict with other actions, events, or agendas. Likewise, your fellow players will attempt to juggle survival, their own motivation, and their desire to change their world one way or the other.

Best of all, whenever your Motivation comes up in the game and plays some part in an action, you gain two bonus dice to use on that action.

You’ll find example Motivations below.

Example Motivations

Here are some sample motivations.

Seeking a Cure

The doctors told you that your disease has no cure. You choose not to believe them and launched this expedition into an uncharted jungle to search for the truth about some legendary super drug. Will you find what you seek? Will you die trying? Are you fighting to live or staving off death?

I Believe

You believe in some great conspiracy utilizing governments, corporations, and other shadowy interest to distort and twist the known world. It’s your mission to uncover the truth and share it. Whatever the cost.

Blackmail

You didn’t want to spend your life in such dangerous places, but they made you. If you don’t do what you are told, someone close to you will die a painful death. Who is really behind this? What do they want? How can you save your loved one and yourself?

On the Run

You are running from something or someone. You may owe someone a lot of money, or you may simply be on the wrong side of the wrong people. It’s your mission to survive, to live another day, and to escape from your past. Are you buying time to pay off your debts? Are you trying to disappear? What dark secret in your past compels you to run? What if you could start all over with a new name and identity? What would need to happen to keep you from running again?

To Be King

You remember the night the words came to you during a hunting expedition far in the North - you are to be King. With those words echoing within, you renewed your interest in combat, war, and diplomacy, eager to advance within your tribe. But disaster struck when foreign invaders destroyed your people. Now, your journey, and those haunting words, take you into lands you do not know to fulfill your destiny.

The Search

Your sister set sail for the New World over two years ago. Since then, her fate is unknown. You are tired of waiting for word - it’s time to go and find her. What compelled her to leave her home in the first place? What was she hoping to find? Is she dead or alive?

How to Play

The Mark System is about explosions, hordes of vile creatures, and crazy heroes in desperate situations.
This chapter guides you in how to play - what an Action is, what a Scene is, and how to figure out whether or not your hero can do what you want her to do.

Actions

An Action is something cool, dangerous, or exciting your hero is attempting to do. Are you:

  • Blasting a pack of malfunctioning robots that have you cornered?
  • Picking a lock to a villainous wizard’s secret tower?
  • Convincing the enemy soldier that you are on his side?
  • Searching the ruins of a crumbling castle for items of value?

If you answered “yes!” to any of these or something else just as exciting, your hero is attempting an Action. You will need to roll dice to figure out whether or not he or she succeeded.

Normal activities, like walking around, talking, sleeping, going over your supplies, or communicating with your partners in crime, are also actions, but they aren’t Actions, because they aren’t particularly cool. You don’t need to roll any dice at all.

Actions are at the heart of this game - you’ll want to be in a lot of situations, called Scenes, where you do a bunch of them and amaze your friends with your imagination and wit.

From time to time, we might refer to Turns as well when we are talking about an Action. Turns are simply defined as a sequence of Actions where everyone gets to go at least once, every player and the GM (representing the bad guys presumably).

Scenes

Scenes are moments in the game, just like in a tv show or movie, where something exciting is at stake, usually life or death. You and your friends are trying to fend off a horde of acid spitting demons, racing against the clock to disarm a nuclear weapon, figuring a way to open the airlock before the mad colonists blast you to bits, or trying to convince a local militia you aren’t thugs.

Granted, Scenes can vary and aren’t always so intense. A Scene could also be gaining access to a command terminal to discover why the colonists up and disappeared or scouting out a bandit camp to find out how many enemies you are dealing with.

In the end, Scenes should offer reward or failure to your heroes. If not, it may not be worthy of being a Scene after all - why not just move to the next plot point or “to-do” on your list?

Each Scene has a Scene Difficulty number that must be dropped to zero to achieve success. Some Scenes will have a low SD, while others will require your whole team to work together. You’ll find a nifty chart above that describes a whole range of SDs and their particular difficulty.

The first step in any Scene is framing it in terms like those above. What are you trying to do? What will you get if you succeed? What might happen if you fail? Don’t be afraid to blurt it out. A lot of objectives in a Scene just mean a harder task ahead but more reward as well.

Rolling Your Dice

So, you’re in a cool Scene, blasting at a pair of marauding space vampires as they make air bike runs at your precious spacecraft. You decide to pitch in and blast them right back. What do you do?
First, describe your Action as best as you can. Have fun with it.

Second, figure out the closest Trait to your action, plus any Marks that are relevant. Add them up, with each Mark counting as one.

Third, roll that many six-sided dice (D6).

Fourth, count any dice that came up even (2, 4 or 6). These are your successes. Tell the GM what you got.

Fifth, watch and wait as the GM subtracts your successes from the Scene Difficulty. If it drops to zero, the scene ends successfully.

Opposing Rolls

When facing nameless hordes, the SD will mostly remain static. Take your time, whittle them down, then deliver the knockout blow.

Other times, your heroes are going to be facing resistance. The renegade AI will try to thwart your hacking attempt. The elite snipers on the roof are going to find better cover. The chieftain will listen to an advisor who doesn’t trust your lies. The thief will make an attempt to disappear in the alleyways of the city. In these cases, your heroes must overcome an opposing roll to win the scene.

For example, if you are negotiating with the chieftain, your hero will roll a number of dice equal to her Empathy plus any related Marks. Meanwhile, an advisor, who has a hunch that your team is not who they say they are, will whisper discouraging arguments to his leader, urging him not to trust the strangers. The GM will roll a few dice for that advisor’s opposing action. When both are rolled, compare the number of successes. If you have more successes than the GM, subtract the two and lower the SD by the result. If your successes are equal to or lower, the chieftain’s advisor has stalled your charm. Your team may have to come up with another way to deal with the leader or work together to convince the leader to go along with your dastardly plan.

Named villains always get opposed rolls and tend to be much more challenging to eliminate. They also take damage just like a hero does.

Multiple Scene Difficulties

Let’s up the ante. Your team has just hacked its way into a command center overrun by mutant colonists after some terrible accident. The angry mutants are outside of the blast doors, hammering away at the thick metal. A side access way suddenly opens and mutants begin to rush toward your team.

In this type of situation, you ultimately have one objective - download any sensitive information from the computer about what went wrong on this colony. However, survival means figuring out a way to deal with the mutants or at least hold them off until you get what you need. The mutants might have a SD of 30 as they pour through the access door, wave after wave. Accessing the experiment log in the computer system might have an SD of 10. You’ll need to beat both SDs to survive the Scene.

Your team might split up - the computer nerd works rapidly on the mainframe, while the rest of the team takes cover and picks off the mutant mass.

Deadlines

Time is not always on your side. The GM may decide certain Scenes have timed elements called Deadlines. You only have a certain number of turns to lower the SD. If you don’t, the objective has failed.
The GM will tell the group the exact Deadline or set out a D6 that marks how many turns are left. Your team will be forced to prioritize certain actions to complete what they came to do.

Reaction

Each turn, your enemies get an opportunity to inflict damage and heartache on your brave heroes. Lucky for you, your brave hero gets a chance to scamper out of the way.

When dealing with enemy hordes, the GM will make a single Prowess roll representing their bloodthirsty assault on the heroes. Any successes must be matched or overcome by the heroes from an opposing roll of their own. The heroes may dodge, using their Reflexes Trait, or try to shrug it off, using their Toughness Trait. If the opposing horde or villain has more successes, the difference is the amount of damage the hero takes.

Reactions aren’t always in combat. If the heroes are walking through what seems like a deserted compound, the GM may have them roll their Reflexes to see if a lurking sniper catches them by surprise. If your hero is captured by enemies and forced to reveal the identity of his employers, the GM will have the player roll a Focus reaction. In each situation, it’s the same - beat or overcome the successes with your dice. Although in these cases, your hero won’t take damage by failing. Instead, he’ll suffer the consequences of his failure - a free attack to a trigger happy sniper, the name and address to his lovable boss, or even a lost turn as he loses concentration on his task at hand.

Crunching

Your team will encounter a lot of big SDs.

One thing working for you is what is called Crunching. Once per scene, your team can Crunch a Scene Difficulty. You must creatively identify a solution that will aid in overcoming the problems you face.
For example, as the mutants pour into the command center, Joe might have a brilliant idea - the concrete above the doorway looks weak. The entire group could target their heavy rounds against the concrete slab. When it falls in, it will severely dampen the mutants’ response.

If the GM approves and everyone in the group is on board too, any Actions that turn see their successes doubled.

Your Equipment Pool

Every group of heroes has equipment to make their job easier. In the Mark System, you don’t need to keep track of a whole bunch equipment lists for your team. Instead, each group has an Equipment Pool. This is a number of dice you can draw upon during play to boost your successes.

During an Action, you could, for instance, include a piece of equipment that will help your hero be more successful. It should be an exceptional piece of equipment. Any regular old screwdriver might get the job done, but a super deluxe Three Triangle kit with automatic laser precision gives you an extra edge, which is the point of the bonus die. Feel free to make up the name and function of the item on the fly.

However, any dice you spend from the Equipment Pool is used up. If you have no dice in the Equipment Pool, then you are running very low on supplies and cannot draw on them for aid.

At the start of every adventure, each team begins with 5 dice in their Equipment Pool.

To replenish your pool, one hero can take a moment to scavenge at the end of a Scene, time permitting. (If you are being chased by a horde of sentient plants with mind control ray abilities, you probably don’t have time.) Use your Smarts Trait. Any successes are added back into the Equipment Pool. If you want, you can describe what you found. Feel free to make it up and sound like you know what you are talking about. (You won’t have to remember it later.)

Your Motivation in Play

Finally, don’t forget an unending supply of bonus dice for your cause - your hero’s Motivation.
Any Action that is in support of her Motivation is granted two extra bonus dice, no limit per Scene or Mission.

You’ll want to take advantage of this as much as possible, although it does need to make sense within your hero’s current context.

Checking Out

Your heroes on occasion may decide to check out of a Scene. In other words, flee.

If as a group you decide to leave a Scene and move to safer territory, you can. However, any remaining SD can come back to haunt you. The GM can re-invoke the remaining SD and add it to a future Scene. Maybe your team left those rampaging mutants behind to find an alternate route to the generator, but don’t be surprised when those mutants boil out of an unnoticed ventilation shaft just as your heroes find the engineer room.

Finally, a GM may decide that any remaining hordes may stand in between your heroes and their remaining adventure goals. Your team will have to find a way to eliminate them before you can ship off the blasted world. You won’t be able to cross the river to freedom until the gang of cattle rustlers are dealt with. You can only shirk off your problems for so long, bucko.

Taking Damage

What happens when your hero can’t shrug off or dodge a blow?

Your Toughness takes a hit.

Take your opponent’s successes, and subtract your successes in reaction to the attack. The result is the damage your hero takes. Subtract that amount from your Toughness.

As long as you have a number greater than 0 in your Toughness, your hero can continue. A successful first aid roll of some kind can restore Toughness by 1 point. A night of sleep with medical care will restore you back to normal the next day.

When your Toughness drops to 0, your hero has unfortunately died.

Death

A hero does not necessarily have to meet his maker when his Toughness drops to zero. Depending on the setting, the Mark System lets you play it as you see fit. Here are some suggestions:

  • Due to newfangled technology, death is only a minor setback. Nano technology on a spacecraft or at home base preserves DNA of the hero and regenerates her in a day or two.
  • Magical spells bring back the hero from beyond the grave and offer a second chance.
  • The hero is simply near death, and a first aid is required to revive her.
  • Someone saves the hero or aids him in his hour of need. Sacrifice 1 Toughness point and awake to continue adventure.

Advancement

At the end of every session, each hero gets a handful of Advancement Points. For each Mark used in play successfully, grant 1 Advancement Point. For exceptional roleplaying or creative problem solving, add another 1 Advancement Point. The GM may want to add more or less based on the flow of the game and the unfolding of the storyline.

Advancement Points can improve or boost your hero. To raise a Trait, you must spend a number of Advancement Points equal to the new level. For example, raising a Prowess from 3 to 4 would require 4 Advancement Points. Adding a new Mark costs 2 Advancement Points. Making a new Mark a double Mark costs another 2 Advancement Points. You can also use your Advancement Points to raise your Equipment Pool at a rate of 3 per 1 spent.

For more specific setting examples of how Advancement can work, check out Foreign Element.

Fulfilling One’s Motivation

The greatest reward for any hero is to fulfill their Motivation.

Fulfilling your Motivation may end your hero’s story. She may reunite with her parents, whom she thought were long dead. He may expose his corporate powers as part and parcel to the horrific evil unleashed upon the universe. She may hang up her soldier boots and retire. At this point, you may wrap up your hero’s journey and allow him or her to ride off into the cosmos.

Alternatively, your hero might gain a new Motivation. Could the new Motivation be to lead a resistance against the forces of humanity that caused such evil? Will it be to gain revenge against foes who hurt her along the way? Might it be to discover other deep truths about himself and the world he knows? Could it be to gain more power and fame?

Imagine it as a fork in the road - where do you go next?

Optional Rules

Here are a few collected ideas and starting points to expand the Mark System.

Stressing Your Marks

Once per session, you can use your Mark in a way that stresses it. You are guaranteed automatic successes equal to double the Mark used. When you want to stress a mark, describe it in a way that sounds desperate and dangerous, like your hero is pushing her mind or body to the limit. She may be risking her life to save others - she may be sticking her neck out in a tense situation. As per normal to an action, roll your Trait and any other dice from equipment or bonuses, but double the Mark you use and count that many successes right off the bat. The downside of stressing your Marks is that it can only be done once per session and your hero instantly gains a Negative Mark (see below).

Negative Marks

These Marks subtract a die when used in an action. Likewise, double negative Marks subtract two die when used in an action. So why would you use them? Using Negative Marks in an action grant your hero a single Advancement Point, as long as the use fits the context of the action. The GM can limit this, but otherwise, go hog wild! Negative Marks can be lost or fixed through quests and adventures or paid off with Advancement Points just like buying Marks.

Example Negative Marks:
-”Pronounced Limp” -”Fear of Great Heights” -”Feeble Sword Arm” -”Hits the Bottle Too Often” -”Disrespectful of Tribe Values”

Never-Ending Marks

Marks don’t have to end with a bonus of two. Double Marks can give way to triple Marks, quadruple Marks, and so on. Keep adding a plus sign (+) to indicate the high degree of mastery and importance the Mark has to the character.

Luck Pool

Your particular genre of adventure may make sense with a Luck Pool alongside an Equipment Pool. This might represent the favor of Lady Luck smiling upon your heroes. You can pull dice from this pool to add to your roll at anytime. Like an equipment pool, they are not replenished naturally. Instead, anytime you end up with more odd numbers than even numbers on an action roll, you add 1 to the Luck Pool.

Races (Fantasy)

For a classic fantasy approach, you might add a list of strange races. You can pick one as part of character creation. Each adds a +1 to one Trait and a -1 to another Trait. They may also come with one free Mark.

Example:

Dwarf

+1 Toughness, -1 Empathy +“Natural Born Repairman”

Elf - +1 Prowess, -1 Empathy +“Trained to Use a Bow from Birth”

Smallfolk - +1 Reflexes, -1 Toughness +“Quiet as a Mouse”

Magic System

The flexibility of Marks is that they can be used to describe magical abilities quite easily. An adventurer might have one simple ability, like “Innate Levitation”. Or, you may design the Mark to be more broad and describe a host of magical abilities, like “Expert Caster in Runic Magics of the School of Ctar”. There may need to be an assumption with the GM of the scope of the power and what Runic Magics can do, for instance.

Alternately, a magic system could be introduced as a separate Mark system. Each Mark created would represent a single spell that the hero can cast throughout the day. More spells could be added through research or sharing with other casters. Creating a hero with this type of magic would not afford them additional Marks during character creation - instead, the hero spent considerable resources and time on his arcane education as opposed to fleshing out other aspects of his life.

Example Magic User:

Aquaerion the Aquatic
Prowess: 2
+"Imposing when he wants to be"
Smarts: 4
+"Knowledge of Ancient Arcane Secrets"
Empathy: 2
+"Diplomatic Toolbox"
Toughness: 2
Reflexes: 3
Focus: 2
+"Mental Will of Iron"
Motivation:
Restore peace to my troubled land
Magical Spells:
+"Innate Ability to Fly"
++"Scalding Water Blast of Doom"