The Fundamental Mechanical Concepts
There are three, fundamental and interconnected mechanical concepts used in SAMSARA: contests, checks, and modifiers. The entire system is an elaboration and implementation of these ideas.
The basic concept used in SAMSARA is that of the contest. A contest occurs whenever some actor attempts to do something at which he might fail. Or, to put it another way, whenever reality resists an actor’s intentions. This is implemented by that old, RPG stand-by: rolling a die. SAMSARA uses one twelve-sided die (d12) as the method to simulate randomness, the will of the gods, or whatever it that causes an actor to sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. Rolling high is good; rolling low is bad (see The Contest Roll).
For reference purposes, every contest has two actors: a protagonist and an antagonist, although these may be individuals, armies, or abstract ideas. In the broad sense mentioned above, reality is always the antagonist, variously manifested. But don’t be confused by that; the examples below will clarify. These two roles will also shift during the course of a contest.
The prototypical contest in most games is a fight, whether that is a duel between bladesmen or a shoot-out. Those are contests alright, but there are many more types of contests. A few examples of contests:
- A cutpurse attempting to remove a drunken lord’s wallet without being noticed.
- A courtier at the court of Louis XIV attempting to belittle a rival in public by delicate witticisms.
- A horse-breaker attempting to tame a wild stallion.
- An artist attempting to produce a masterwork.
- A scholar attempting to decipher an unknown language.
- One army attempting to force a second army to surrender.
- A person wrestling with their own worst impulses.
Every actor in a contest has a goal, or victory condition. If that actor wins the contest, his goal has been accomplished. If it is a swordfight, the goal might be to disarm and render the opponent defenseless. Or it might just be to kill him. The artist mentioned above has the goal of producing a masterwork.
But who is this artist’s antagonist? The masterwork is his antagonist and its goal is to avoid being created. Yes, that’s not a misprint. So if the masterwork wins the contest, the artist is left with a blank canvas or perhaps a load of rubbish. This abstraction might be a bit odd compared to the usual run of RPG opponents, but it is a basic, building block of SAMSARA. To repeat the confusing statement from earlier: reality is always the antagonist in the ultimate sense and the burden of action is always upon the protagonist.
Thus, SAMSARA has no “combat system” as such, nor “skill system”, nor “magic system”. All of these activities are subsumed into the category of contests and all function in the same way.
Along with the wholesale abandonment of combat systems et. al., SAMSARA also does without “hit points” or “wound levels”. Instead it uses the mechanic of contest checks, which make it harder for an actor to continue a contest. Instead of “doing damage”, actors in SAMSARA deliver checks to each other.
As a contest is mechanically enacted by rolling the die, so checks act as negative modifiers to that die roll. If an actor has received 1 check and then rolls the die, the die result is reduced by 1. 6 checks reduce the roll by 6. Since SAMSARA uses a d12, 6 checks is generally quite severe (depending upon the actor’s Modifiers).
Just as the contest is an abstract idea that must be fleshed out in the action, so checks are an abstract measure of reduced performance which must be interpreted according to the nature of the contest and the actors’ goals. Let’s return to three of the above examples, this time identifying the actors, the goals, and the possible interpretation of checks:
 Example 1: The Sea Finch
In a swordfight, Captain Smashing initiates the duel and is the protagonist at the start of the contest. This makes Baron Vile the antagonist. Captain Smashing is a saucy rogue, possibly showing off in front of some nearby damsels. He’s not trying to kill Baron Vile; just make him look silly and deprive him of his weapon. Vile, meanwhile, thinks that Smashing is a jerk who’s been a thorn in his side for far too long; he’d like to jab his sword into Smashing’s throat.
So the two actors have very different goals. Given this, whenever Captain Smashing delivers checks to Vile, the player and the GM must interpret this in light of his goal. If he delivers 1 check, perhaps he made Vile stumble a bit. If he delivered 6 checks, he might have gotten the Baron to thrust his sword into a doorway, gotten it stuck, and then reached over and smacked Vile on the face. If Smashing wins (see Winning the Contest below), then the player and GM will have to interpret how he won and why Baron Vile is out of the contest. Perhaps he lets Vile knock himself unconscious on a low-hanging branch, or perhaps the Baron is so overcome with shame that he just collapses in a heap.
On the other hand, if Baron Vile delivers 1 check, he might have pricked the Captain’s hand with the tip of his sword or even just gotten him off-balance. If he delivers 6 checks, he might well have rammed a length of that steel into some valuable piece of Smashing. If Baron Vile wins, then Captain Smashing is probably dead or dying.
 Example 2: You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two
That sly rogue known only as the Cunning Weasel is attempting to pick drunken lord Wobblybottom’s pocket and relieve his lordship of his overly-burdensome wallet. The Cunning Weasel is the protagonist and Wobblybottom the antagonist. The Weasel’s goal is to take the wallet without being noticed. Lord Wobblybottom’s goal is to notice that attempt.
Note that Lord Wobblybottom has a goal even though he is entirely unaware of what is going on. Again, recall that in the broadest possible sense, reality resists the protagonist in every contest. If the GM had decided that there was no chance for the Cunning Weasel to fail (she’s simply too skilled or Wobblybottom is too drunk), then there is no contest.
This contest would play out in much telescoped time. Each roll of the die might represent a few tenths of a second as the devious Weasel eases her hand into the pocket, grasps the wallet, and slips her hand out again. Each check might well be an inch or two of movement in this way. So if the cutpurse delivers 1 check, her hand moves just that much closer to the fat wallet; if she delivers 6 checks, she’s almost home.
Wobblybottom’s checks are even more complex to interpret. If he delivers 1 check, he might have coughed or glanced around or done something else to make discovery that much marginally more likely. A few more checks and perhaps he turns his torso, trapping the Cunning Weasel’s hand still buried in the pocket. If Lord Wobblybottom wins the contest, he made it impossible for the Weasel to get the goods. He might even have noticed what’s going on, which might well begin a new contest (goal: drub that dirty thief).
 Example 3: What Does it Say, Indy?
In this contest, a renowned linguist is trying to decipher the weird, characters that he found on a pot-shard. His goal is to be able to understand what the script means. The script’s goal is to remain unintelligible. Again: anything and everything can be an actor in a contest and have a goal, even inanimate entities or abstract ideas.
If the professor delivers a check, he might have just thought of a possible way to conjugate something, or maybe thinks that he’s noticed a similarity between this squiggle and an ancient Hittite symbol. If he delivers 6 checks, he might have a flash of inspiration, turn the symbol upside-down and realize that it is not Hittite at all, but Mesoamerican! This contest should probably work on a time-frame exactly opposite of that in the previous example: hours and hours could go by with each die roll and the entire contest might take weeks or months (or longer).
The checks that the writing delivers might be best represented as mental strain and fatigue which the linguist suffers. They could also be interpreted as false leads and blind alleys of interpretation which take up precious time. If the ancient script wins the contest, the professor might throw up his hands in disgust and give up, or suffer nervous exhaustion, or just plain realize that he has no idea what he is looking at (see The Varieties of Checks for more guidance on this).
The third and final fundamental of SAMSARA are modifiers. Modifiers are what separate the strong from the weak and the exceptional from the merely competent. Mechanically, modifiers are just a broader form of checks: checks are always bad, but modifiers can be advantageous as well as debilitating. In either case, they modify the result of the die roll, either up or down and thus are represented as a +/- number.
Modifiers function as stats, attributes, and skills do in the majority of RPG’s. “Strength” is a modifier, as is “Swordsmanship”. But modifiers are broader than those categories and also include personal motivations, passions, family connections, influence at court, or just about anything else.
The number and kind of modifiers is somewhat standardized, but will be changed to suit the particular game being played. Those that represent skills are the most likely to change since a “Starfighter Piloting” modifier doesn’t make too much sense in a game based in Feudal Japan. Those modifiers which represent personal attributes are more standardized, but also open to some variation depending upon the degree of specificity being sought in the game (see Modifiers and the Character).
Those are the basic ideas of SAMSARA; the rest of the system is just amplification and implementation of them.