Introduction to the Arpeggio System
Douglas Adams, the late author of five of the six books in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the
Galaxy trilogy, once made a point about some of the best inventions involving the
subtraction of components rather than the addition of new ones. In short, that is Arpeggio's main
trick. In long:
"RPG" stands for "role-playing game," but that's really a pretty poor descriptor. Luckily, chances are you already associate the term with the definition that I assume throughout this site, which is a game involving some kind of turn-based battle system. This means that when the players encounter enemy characters, instead of attacks firing wildly from both sides in real time, the game enters a modified slow-time state wherein each character engaged in the battle selects one action per turn, and these are performed one by one, generally allowing players all the real-world time that they may need or desire to strategize about what their actions should be. How exactly this mechanic is rationalized in-universe varies from game to game, with some assuming the turn system to be representative of split-second real-time decision-making, and others taking a more lax approach and potentially breaking the fourth wall to allow characters on either side of the conflict to carry out entire lengthy conversations within a single turn. At any rate, Arpeggio's battle system is indeed assumed to be its focus, although it also has mechanics for handling events that occur outside of battle (or "in the field").
As a thusly-defined RPG system, Arpeggio is built around two core tenets: simplicity and flexibility. The two act as yin and yang, pushing the system's design in opposing directions in order to achieve the right balance. Inspired by what Paper Mario did with traditional video game RPG mechanics, Arpeggio simplifies many tabletop RPG concepts while retaining enough complexity to accommodate a wide variety of settings, characters, abilities, and so on.
In addition to being flexible, Arpeggio is meant to be malleable. What I mean by this is that you should always keep in mind that you are free to tweak or outright overhaul any aspect(s) of the system to suit your personal preferences. This is typically done with most tabletop RPGs anyway, so I'm just coming out and saying it. But how does Arpeggio compare to those other systems?
Arpeggio as a Tabletop RPG
The basic mode of play in Arpeggio is that of most tabletop games: a game master, here called the
Maestro (plural Maestri), verbally or textually describes a
fictional world to one or more players (often no more than five for game balance
reasons, with three being vaguely ideal), who respond in kind to indicate the
actions and dialogue of their player
characters within this imaginary realm. The success or failure of these actions is
determined in part by these characters' stats, numerical values assigned to them
meant to measure their various talents, or lack thereof. Any and all non-player
characters in the game are controlled by the Maestro, including
enemies, who are likely to attempt to engage the player characters in
battle. Through fighting enemies, the player characters become stronger, which
mechanically takes the form of leveling up, a player character's Level being one
of their stats. These and other game mechanics lend structure to the fictional world in which the
player characters find themselves, and with any luck, their journey through this world will
create an entertaining story.
To some extent, Arpeggio is designed with an eye toward newcomers to the tabletop gaming medium, so experience with other systems is not necessary to understanding it. That being said, veterans of other systems might be surprised by the absence of certain mainstays, such as character classes and dice rolls.
In many systems, the ever-present dice rolls serve to maintain a sense of realism by ensuring that both success and failure are always possible whatever the odds; Arpeggio prefers a more blunt approach, and so stat checks in the field work on more of a pass-or-fail system, where a character can always successfully perform a given task if that character has the right stats, and can never begin to make any headway if not. Many other systems also supplement base stats with additional skill stats, but Arpeggio skips that entirely. Further still, field stats in Arpeggio do not level up; they may receive temporary boosts, but the base values will never increase at all throughout the course of the game. This is in contrast to battle stats, which are completely separate from field stats, unlike in some systems where the same set of base stats play into both field and battle mechanics. The separation of stats allows for field calculations to be much simpler than battle ones, but vice versa, because battle stats can increase throughout the game and field stats are set in stone, player characters are able to start out with one or more maxed out field stats from the very beginning of the game, which gives them an avenue to express their particular talents at a time when their stats in battle are too heavily tempered by Arpeggio's numerical tendencies to properly reflect these. Thus, Arpeggio's field stat system is simple in structure but flexible in initial allowed values, while the battle system is rigid with initial values but allows those values to grow over time, with player input directing that growth.
When it comes to player characters, restricting players to selecting from predesigned character classes is something that I've always found a bit grating. Usually it's done for game balance, which is understandable, but Arpeggio prefers to place the burden of game balance on the Maestro, who is more equipped to correct it, than on the players, who are there to have fun. A cynical perspective might conclude that in Arpeggio, "player character" essentially functions as a class, limiting the stats of player characters to very narrow ranges. But by making the stats of all characters so similar, players are no longer encumbered by the expectations of their class, and can just be, conceptually, whatever they want. I like to say that player characters in Arpeggio can be anything—except overpowered. Their stats keep them in check in terms of game balance, while in terms of style their imaginations can run wild. Operating under the same philosophy, while the Maestro may provide lists of predesigned special attacks for players to choose from (much like the set lists of magic spells in most versions of DnD), the players can instead, and are encouraged to, design their own special attacks—again, conceptually, while the Maestro then finalizes the actual numbers.
Character classes and spell lists are often conceptually tied in to a system's lore, but Arpeggio has no set lore, so that's another reason the classes are gone. As noted on the homepage, having no default setting makes Arpeggio more equivalent to a base mechanics system, such as the d20 system, which is the underlying system used by multiple different versions of DnD and spinoffs thereof, than to any particular one of those versions or spinoffs. This may be a major stumbling block for players who think of their main role in the game as integrating their character's backstory into the setting/lore of the particular system being used, but vice versa can be a boon to newbies who would feel intimidated by the expectation of such fleshed-out integration. Of course, lore can be created for an individual game of Arpeggio, but I would gently encourage Maestri to consider designing the lore around the players' submitted characters rather than forcing them to conform to your ideas. To give a more concrete example of the benefits of this approach, if you have a setting that assumes dragons to have a certain predefined powerset that is much more suited to the role of final boss than of player character, and you get an inexperienced player whose only (and fervent) concern is being able to play as a dragon, then your system is fundamentally incompatible with that player. In Arpeggio, absent these preconceived notions of a dragon's power level, you can simply define it, for the duration of that particular game, as being in the same range as the other player characters, whoever and whatever they may be.
Another thing that a certain kind of person will be very surprised not to find in Arpeggio is the traditional alignment system. Since it isn't used, I'm not going to take the time to explain exactly what it is, but if you've ever heard a character described in terms such as "Lawful Good" or "Chaotic Evil," the alignment system used by many tabletop games is where those phrases come from. What I would like to say here, though, is that, while I haven't built any game mechanics around alignment, if you really are that attached to the idea, you can of course still think of characters in such terms, and use these to guide your gameplay. That to me seems like the better use of the concept: as a sort of means of psychological/motivational analysis more so than a set of hard behavioral limitations. That being said, Arpeggio has a vaguely similar thing called Affinity; see below.
Also absent from Arpeggio are any references to physical tabletop materials such as maps and figurines. This is because Arpeggio was originally designed to be played online over some type of instant messenger, which is simply because that was the only option available to my particular social circle at the time of Arpeggio's inception. Someday I or someone else may develop map mechanics for Arpeggio, but until then, precise positioning inside of the game world remains nebulous. This has consequences for Arpeggio's adaptation of Paper Mario's battle system, and so...
Arpeggio as a Paper Mario Derivative
To get this out of the way: Arpeggio draws from the first two games, acknowledges Super, and
ignores everything else. You are perfectly welcome to enjoy those later games or even to
incorporate their concepts into your own games of Arpeggio, but I won't be doing either.
Arpeggio's primary takeaway from Paper Mario is keeping the numbers small and easy to understand, in particular by having base offense and defense stats not increase by leveling up, but instead be special events in the plot comparable to Mario finding a new hammer or pair of boots. (Actual hammers and boots would be treated as weapon items in Arpeggio, and due to its Fire Emblem-based weapon system, characters can increase their Weapon Levels in order to allow them to use stronger weapons, and thereby increase their damage output, but this is dependent upon access to those stronger weapons, which is a factor controlled by the Maestro, and is therefore still less readily inherent than automatic stat increases via leveling up.) As a matter of fact, Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling, an indie game that serves as a spiritual sequel to the first two Paper Marios, proved that base offense and defense increases are not even necessary at all. Arpeggio limits the amount that base offense and defense stats can increase on player characters, but for a bug-savvy Maestro, this could be a moot point. Per the flexibility tenet, though, it's better to have more options available than to cut them out completely. The result of this mindset is that Arpeggio comes out as a mix between Paper Mario, Bug Fables, Fire Emblem, and several other things, and can be pushed to more closely replicate one of these things over the others for the duration of a game, or to become something entirely new.
While my personal appreciation for Paper Mario (and by extension Bug Fables and other members of the same spiritual family) centers around the numbers used in its battle system, more often you will first hear about its action commands, which are timed button inputs and suchlike that the player can perform in order to strengthen or otherwise enhance a given attack. While indeed of great importance in Paper Mario itself, the concept is difficult to satisfactorily translate into tabletop form, and so it has no real equivalent in Arpeggio, being essentially eliminated similarly to how Paper Mario eliminated the concept of accuracy, having no attacks (from either player characters or enemies) ever miss their mark under normal conditions. Arpeggio retains this lack of an accuracy check as well, which is another reason for its decreased focus on chance devices like dice, but going from one lack to another, the absence of action commands in Arpeggio is handled by having a character's basic attack (which is as it sounds, the most basic type of attack that a character can perform, and which costs them nothing but the use of their turn) deal damage comparable to a Paper Mario attack where the player screwed up the action command, so it's sort of like always failing instead of always succeeding. But fear not! By equipping a weapon and/or performing a special attack, a character's damage output is boosted, with many basic weapons and special attacks granting a modifier of x2 or more, which is more comparable to always nailing the action command perfectly. Therefore, through these damage modifiers, Arpeggio achieves similar amounts of damage to different kinds of attacks from Paper Mario, accounting for both failed and nailed action commands. Of course, per flexibility, you may write up different damage modifiers to create a wholly different painscape, so don't feel obligated to make everything conform to Paper Mario exactly.
But speaking of different kinds of attacks in Paper Mario, these along with the positioning of enemies on the screen created most of the strategy of the game's battle system, which is to say that a given attack could only reach certain enemies depending on that attack's type and those enemies' positions. Recall, though, that exact spatial positioning in Arpeggio is nebulous, due to being a tabletop game described by a Maestro instead of a video game displaying a screen. Furthermore, Mario's main form of attack is jumping atop one's head, which may make a lot of sense in the platforming games that he's from, but doesn't really compare well to conventional forms of attack in many other settings. Arpeggio likes Paper Mario's numbers for their simplicity, but its desire for flexibility means we shouldn't limit the players by requiring them to design their attacks in keeping with Mario-based categorizations such as "jump-like" and "hammer-like." Finally, the enemy positioning system in Paper Mario is more or less two-dimensional, disallowing Mario to walk around the guy in the front in order to hit the guy in the back with his hammer, but where a video game can simply deny the player such an option, in a tabletop game the players are more likely to call that sort of thing into question, seeking linguistic loopholes to create alternate solutions to their problems; a good Maestro should be ready to improvise a response to unanticipated avenues of gameplay, but so too should a good system save the Maestro the trouble by already having a rule to handle the new approach. With all of these factors converging, it was necessary for Arpeggio to simplify Paper Mario's enemy positioning system, essentially reducing it to just whether or not a character is flying. Flying characters generally won't be hit by attacks that are low to the ground, which is a single, easy-to-understand rule that makes sense in just about any setting.
Arpeggio draws from more than just Paper Mario, though—namely, once again, Bug Fables. This game made a simple-yet-brilliant addition to the enemy positioning system: along with flying enemies, there are enemies who can burrow underground, where they can no longer be reached by most attacks—even the ones that can reach flying targets. But contrarily, something like an earthquake attack, which would logically miss a flying target, would logically hit a burrowing one. This ingenious idea is lovingly pilfered by Arpeggio, making its three basic types of enemy positioning normal/ground, flying, and underground. This creates not only another variation on positioning, but one that serves as a strategic counterpoint to flight, by which I mean that earthquake-like attacks will be sought-after despite being useless against flying foes because they will be essential against burrowing ones. Therefore, thanks to Bug Fables, Arpeggio ends up with a strategic enemy positioning system very much in the same spirit as Paper Mario's, but workable in tabletop format and applicable to the vast majority of settings.
In the second Paper Mario game (The Thousand-Year Door), Mario and his currently active party member also participated in the positioning system, which mainly meant that whichever one of them was in front would be attacked more often, since some attacks would be unable to reach the person in the back. The player could swap Mario and his partner between these positions each turn, but this also meant that whichever one was in front had to attack first in that turn, which had strategic ramifications. I bring this up to point out that the player could choose the order in which the party members attacked; this is in contrast to many RPGs which utilize a speed stat to determine attack order within a turn. Characters in Arpeggio have no speed stats, and instead each turn is divided into phases, such as the Player Phase and the Enemy Phase (this terminology is borrowed from Fire Emblem). During a particular team's phase, the members of that team can act in any order. Naturally, due to the strategic elements of Arpeggio, the order in which the player characters choose to act can have ramifications on the battle. But since I brought up Fire Emblem, and since the weapon system is another part of the strategy...
What Arpeggio Takes from Fire Emblem
Arpeggio can be thought of as having a Paper Mario basis and adding to it a weapons
system based on that of the Fire Emblem games, specifically taking the most cues from
Fire Emblem 9, 10, and 13 (Path of Radiance, Radiant Dawn, and
Awakening). The numbers used for the stats of these weapons are altered to be more
like Paper Mario numbers, and weapons in Arpeggio do not break after a certain number of uses,
instead remaining usable forever, but Arpeggio retains Fire Emblem weapon types
and their relationships with each other, along with adding new types of weapons and deriving new,
similar relationships for those. Due to the altered numbers and the lack of accuracy checks or
critical hit chances, weapon types lose many of their distinguishing features, making many weapon
families functionally identical but for their relationships with other families, but this is
basically the same discussion we had above about character classes: in Arpeggio, the numbers are
kept small and easy, which often means identical between different conceptual types, but from the
right perspective this is freeing rather than restricting. And as has also already been
discussed, the damage boosts from equipped weapons serve as something of a replacement for Paper
Mario's action commands.
Weapon Level is a concept from Fire Emblem that measures a character's skill with a particular weapon type. This helps to differentiate the weapon types even when they have similar damage outputs, due mainly to armed special attacks being designed to be performed with a certain type of weapon, such as a sword rather than a hammer. So, a character can train their Sword-type Weapon Level in order to gain the ability to wield stronger swords, which in turn can be used to perform the same special attacks that were designed to be used with the weaker swords, but should this swordsperson find a super-powerful axe, they'll have to separately train up their Axe Weapon Level in order to use that, and even then won't be able to use it in their sword-based special attacks. This allows the Maestro to give powerful weapons to enemies without always fearing that the players can immediately use those weapons once the foe is defeated.
Fire Emblem gives us various melee weapons and magic weapons, but in an effort to account for still more possible settings, Arpeggio's weapon system also includes mechanics for projectile weapons, a type that does include Fire Emblem's bows and arrows, but also guns and the like. Where Arpeggio has dropped Fire Emblem's limited number of uses for weapons, in the case of projectile weapons, it does account for limited ammunition, and this is one area where the particular stats used on my default weapon sheets are not really based on another game, but rather just try to fit in with all of Arpeggio's other, Paperesque numbers. Per flexibility, it's possible to design projectile weapons that don't need any ammo and just have infinite uses, erring closer to simplicity. Either way, it is generally assumed that the Weapon Level system only applies to melee weapons, and that any projectile or magic weapon can be picked up and immediately used by anyone. This is balanced in projectile weapons by the need for ammunition, and the possibility of finding different types of ammunition to increase the weapon's power. Magical weapons in Arpeggio are simpler than the other types and are mainly just used as conduits to perform magical special attacks, which can be cast with any given magic weapon, and which don't change no matter what kind of magic weapon is used.
Apart from the weapon system, another Arpeggio feature based on a Fire Emblem concept is that of support, by which is meant numerical quantification of the emotional bonds built between characters, and certain bonuses given for building these bonds. The bonuses given are determined by affinity, which in Arpeggio is comparable to the concept of Zodiac signs, only with the different affinities represented by Arpeggio's set of elements instead of, uh, animals and naked people.
Many RPGs incorporate some system of elements, but Arpeggio's specific take on this is not based on any other game in particular. So I guess we'll move on to...
Arpeggio as Its Own Thing
Arpeggio's system of Elements (which for some reason I always capitalize) features
eight of them: Earth,
Ice, Water, Wind,
Poison, and Plant. Unlike in Pokémon where
each mon belongs to one or two type classes which determine its weaknesses and resistances, in
Arpeggio, Elemental weaknesses and resistances (together referred to as Elemental
Modifiers) are unique to each individual character. This means that on
every character sheet, there will be a section listing the eight Elements and that character's
modifiers for each. And I had mentioned the Affinity thing: each Element also serves as an
Affinity, but where a character has modifiers for all Elements, each character has only
one Affinity, which is basically supposed to be the Element that best describes
their personality. Thus, Affinity has nothing to do with Elemental
weaknesses and resistances, despite being expressed as one of the Elements. All that Affinity
does mechanically is to determine what kind of stat boosts that a character will receive from
support bonuses, which are, well, stat boosts received at the onset of battles
once characters have built support. So what are a character's stats in Arpeggio, anyway?
Despite my spiel about Arpeggio having no default lore, it does assume the existence of both magical and psychic abilities, which it treats as two completely different things. It's possible to run a game based around the idea that these abilities are newly discovered, and it's probably even possible to cut them out of a game to create a sort of "Arpeggio Lite," but by default they're in, and tied to every character's base stats. Where Paper Mario had HP, FP, Attack Power, and Defense Power, every character in Arpeggio has HP, VP, MP, Attack Power, Magic Power, Defense Power, and Brain Power. HP is still HP, while VP and MP are two different types of FP (or what some systems would call mana): VP is used to fuel normal special attacks as well as psychic attacks, while MP is reserved solely for magical attacks. On the other hand, Magic Power is a magical attack stat that works against the same Defense Power that Attack Power does, so normal attacks and magical attacks will both have the same kind of effect against a target with high Defense Power. Brain Power, in contrast, is both the attack and defense stat for psychic attacks. Therefore, a dichotomy is created between magic and psychic attacks, where one gets its own separate pool of mana but still works against regular Defense, while the other draws from regular VP but has a different kind of defense system, letting it potentially get around an opponent with high Defense Power. But at the same time, if you don't really care about all that, you can just stick to normal attacks that use regular Attack Power and Defense Power. Simplicity and flexibility.
As noted, the field stats are completely separate from the battle stats listed above. The six main field stats in Arpeggio are: Strength, Hand-Eye, Platform, Knowledge, Clever, and Charisma, with an additional stat for Weight, and finally the possibility of a Unique field stat, which is less a numerical stat and more a customized field ability that provides an option for flexibility in the otherwise very simple field stat system. This basically allows a player to make up their own special field ability for their character, and since each character can have a different one, this ensures that each of the player characters will be a vital part of the party when exploring the field. On the other hand, a player can opt out of creating this special ability to just put more points into the normal field stats. (This system was inspired by the field abilities of Mario's different partners in Paper Mario.)
Additional stats include a character's Level and XP (Experience Points). In both Paper Mario and Fire Emblem (two series both worked on by Intelligent Systems), instead of a character needing increasingly outlandish amounts of XP in order to level up, the number of XP needed for each level increase stays the same, and instead enemies simply give out less of it to a higher-leveled player character. Arpeggio uses this approach, with the amount of XP required for a level up at a mere 20 instead of 100, which has to do with the likelihood of a smaller total number of battles taking place in a tabletop game than a video game (but as always, adjust it if you please).
This page is supposed to describe Arpeggio in broad terms rather than getting into the specific numbers, which are explained on the other pages in the Arpeggio Info section, so since we've had our first number sighting, let's finish off here with a sort of sales-pitchy lightning round:
Characters in Arpeggio can equip Armor as well as equipping weapons, which helps to level out the numbers, as the many possible damage-boosting factors in Arpeggio can lead to characters' damage output getting uncomfortably high in Paper Mario terms. Characters can, of course, carry around regular items in addition to weapons and armor, and can also combine items through cooking like in Paper Mario. Like in Fire Emblem, weapons are stored in a separate weapon inventory, but spare suits of armor, as well as key items, are stored in the regular item inventroy. In battle, many Status Conditions can hinder and/or aid characters with various effects, and Arpeggio also has Weather Conditions similar to those in Pokémon. Remember General Guy's tank? Arpeggio has an entire system for Vehicles, which essentially get their own modified character sheets, and can be driven, flown, or whatever to your heart's content. Like Paper Mario's Badges? Originally absent from Arpeggio, badges are now an optional add-on, and I've got more of them written up with wackier effects than you can handle. How 'bout the Spy Cards minigame from Bug Fables? Boom. Support levels can now be broken by betrayal? Sure! The Portal Gun? Got it! A system for addictions and withdrawal symptoms? Yep. All the weapons and enemies from Cave Story? Why not! Character fusion like in Steven Universe? Yes, I'm not kidding.
Simplicity may be Arpeggio's main trick, but flexibility allows it to do just about anything. With all of this and so much more being said, I'd like to direct your attention to Arpeggio's 42nd Amendment, which appears at the bottom of every page of Ostinato. It exists to remind Maestri and players alike that whatever Arpeggiated adventures they may embark upon, they should keep in mind that at the end of the day, Arpeggio is a game meant to be played in order to have fun. If at any time you are playing or regulating a game of Arpeggio and something has gone awry such that you are no longer properly enjoying the experience, you should immediately plead the 42nd, at which point the Maestro should seek some means of adjusting your particular take on the system in order to rectify this grievous oversight. Should this prove impossible, you should stop playing. I created Arpeggio mostly out of an obsessive inability not to do so, but I do hope that it has a net positive impact on any and all lives that it touches. At the very least, perhaps I can break even.
—Grate Oracle Lewot