Shapers and Bots is a role-playing game for children age 8 and older inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and every animal that ever walked upright and wore clothes (including my daughter). Each game has one or more players and one Director. Each player takes on the role of one character, while the Director plays all the other characters, who are called extras. The Director can be an adult, but children age 10 and older can also be Directors.
These rules focus on storytelling rather than realism. Dice rolls are kept simple, and there are no complicated tables showing how much damage a broadsword does compared to a katana. My thanks to the Pip System, the PDQ system, Tiny Dungeon, Engine Heart, and to the high school lunch-hour gang.
Centuries ago, the Makers mixed their DNA with those of animals to create dozens of thinking species, then vanished, leaving behind a world full of marvels: half-human creatures with strange powers, robots that are now their own masters, and a gathering evil that now threaten both.
In Shapers and Bots, you play a young animal adventurer or a newly-awoken bot in search of adventure. You can be a hero, a rogue, or an outright villain, and can travel alone or with companions. Your choices will determine how the game unfolds.
Before the game begins, the Director will either create an adventure or find one that someone else has created. Each player can create a character, or the Director can create characters for them.
Once the game starts, each player determines what their character does. When the player speaks, the character speaks in the game world; when the player says, “I’m going to kick down the door,” their character tries to kick down the door. There are no takebacks—you can’t un-kick down a door—and if the players spend two minutes arguing about what to do next, that’s what their characters are doing in the game world.
Size (abbreviated SIZ): how large the character is. If the character is exceptionally short or exceptionally skinny, the Director may allow the character to list height and weight separately.
Fitness (FIT): how strong and coordinated she is. Characters with a high fitness are good athletes.
Dexterity (DEX): how good the character is with her hands. This determines how well she can pick locks, play musical instruments, or perform surgery.
Intellect (IQ): how good she is at book learning and abstract reasoning. A character with a low Intellect isn’t stupid—she just isn’t good at logic puzzles.
Awareness (AWR): How well the character notices things in their surroundings, which depends on eyesight, hearing, sense of smell, and actually paying attention (which any parent can tell you is very different from just seeing or hearing). If the character has exceptionally good or bad eyesight, hearing, or a sense of smell, they may have a separating rating for that, just as they do for height and weight.
So what is a rating? It’s simply a number: 0 if the character is average, positive if they’re higher than average, and negative if they’re lower. A positive rating is sometimes called a bonus, and a negative one is sometimes called a penalty.
Example: Gertrude is big and healthy, so she has bonuses for Size and Fitness, but not good with her hands, which means a penalty for Dexterity, and like most elephants is somewhat near-sighted, which means a penalty for Awareness. Her ratings are:
- Size: +3
- Fitness: +1
- Dexterity: -2
- Intellect: 0
- Awareness: -1
Every character also has a feature called Strength (abbreviated STR) which is the sum of their Size and Fitness ratings. Big characters tend to be stronger than small ones, but characters who aren’t fit aren’t as strong as characters who are.
Example: Gertrude’s strength is +4. Her cousin Norwin, on the other hand, has a Size of +4 (he’s bigger than Gertrude) but a Fitness of -2 (he never exercises), so his Strength is only +2.
A challenge is something a character might want to do, like climb a wall or pick a lock. Every challenge has a rating as well: difficult challenges have negative ratings (penalties), while easy challenges have positive ones (bonuses).
If a character tries to do a challenge, the player rolls three dice, adds up their results, and then adds their rating and the challenges’s rating as well. If the total is 10 or less, they have failed; on 11 or more, they have succeeded.
Example: Gertrude is trying to take apart the clockwork timer on a small bomb. The challenge’s difficulty is -1, and her Dexterity is -2. She rolls 3 dice and gets 5, 4, and 2, for a total of 11; after subtracting 1 for the difficulty and 2 for her poor Dexterity, her total is only 8, so she has failed.
We often write “3D+X” or “3D-X” to mean “three dice plus or minus X”, so the roll above would be written “3D-3”.
Example: Panicking slightly, Gertrude decides to try smashing the timer. The Director decides that the difficulty is 0 (it’s neither particularly tough or fairly fragile), and her Strength is +4, so Gertrude needs to get 11 or more or 3D+4. She rolls 3 dice and gets a total of 11 once again. After adding 4 for her Strength, her total is 15, and the delicate clockwork is now so much scrap metal.
If the total adjustment for a challenge (i.e., the character’s rating plus the challenge’s difficulty) is positive, and the outcome isn’t critical to the game, the Director can decide that the characer gets an automatic success. For example, suppose Gertrude wants to lift a crate of chocolates. Gertrude’s Strength is +4 and challenge’s difficulty is -1 (the crate is larger than average, but not remarkably so) for a total bonus of +3, so the Director decides the player can skip the dice roll. This rule helps keep the game moving.
Sometimes it may seem like a character has no chance at all of doing something, but since Shapers and Bots is a story-telling game, there is always hope. If a player rolls a total of 17 or 18—that is, two 6’s and a 5 or three 6’s—their character automatically succeeds, but probably not in the way they expected. This is called a fluke roll.
Example: Zitter had never even seen a laser pistol before today, but as the deranged one-eyed crocodile pirate charges toward her, she picks up the one she just found and frantically starts pushing buttons. The Director decides that finding the right combination of buttons has a difficulty of -10. Zitter rolls a triple 6: somehow, her fumbling fingers found the right buttons and she put a neat hole through the surprised crocodile.
A moment later, another crocodile pirate comes around the corner, sword in hand. Zitter rolls again and gets 6-5-6, for a score of 17. The Director rules that her lucky shot has gone wild and brought a branch crashing down between her and the angry pirate.
Fluke rolls work in reverse as well, because it’s always possible for something to go wrong. If a player rolls a total of 3 or 4—i.e., three 1’s or two 1’s and a 2—they automatically fail at whatever they were trying to do, preferably in some hilarious or embarrassing way. This is called a fumble.
Example: Another day, another angry crocodile pirate… Zitter still hasn’t figured out how to use her laser pistol, but when she tries to take a shot, her player rolls a 3. “Self-destruct initiated”, the Director says in a mechanical voice. “Ten… nine… eight…”
A situation in which one character is trying to out-do another is called a contest. In this case, both players roll dice and add their ratings, and whoever has the higher score wins. If there is a tie, the Director rules on whether the contest continues or whether something unusual happened.
Example: Gertrude and Norwin are arm-wrestling. Gertrude rolls 8, giving her a total of 12 (since her Strength is +4). Norwin rolls 10, giving him the same total (since his Strength is only +2), so the Director decides that they are still locked in combat. When they re-roll, they both get 11’s. After adding their Strengths, Gertrude’s score is higher, so she wins.
Every living character belongs to a species. They all stand upright, speak, and have hands and fingers, but they also have fur (or feathers) and their feet look like animals’ feet. Different species have different default values for the seven features, which are shown below.
All animals are either vegetarian or omnivores; those marked as “carnivorous” simply have a particularly strong liking for meat. Eating intelligent animals is considered cannibalism.
Bears are deeply spiritual animals, apt to halt in the middle of combat and ask, “But truly, what is the point of such strife?” Of course, if you were this big, you could afford to be philosophical too.
Bison are rarely found on their own—in fact, most suffer from acute isolophobia (a fear of being alone). They are naturally protective of weak members of their “herd”, which can include their workmates, neighbors, and fellow adventurers.
Crocodiles are slow moving, except when they’re not, and incredibly patient—particularly when it comes to their favorite sport: revenge.
Crows are the fast-talking deal-makers of the animal world. Their feathered appendages make them somewhat clumsy, and they are fascinated by shiny objects. Crows cannot fly by default, but are able to learn.
“As proud as an eagle” is a common saying, and is usually not meant as a compliment. Natural aristocrats, eagles are quick to take offense, and their keen eyesight makes them natural guards and scouts. Eagles cannot fly by default, but are able to learn.
Elephants naturally form a matriarchal society: females are in charge of government and business, while most adult males skulk around the sidelines trying to find ways to be useful. Young males often go on quests to try to win glory; they are natural story-tellers and have exceptional memories.
As cunning as crows, foxes are nimble-fingered, quick-witted, and always looking for their next deal.
Goats are completely average in every way except for their horns. (Telling them this is a good way to upset them.)
Kangaroos are the happy-go-lucky clowns of the animal world. Townies often dye their tails in bright colors; those who live in the wild will camouflage theirs instead.
Like elephants, lions form matriarchal societies, and their young males often go adventuring to try to win enough glory to attract female attention.
Smart, curious, and mechanically minded, monkeys are constantly tinkering with gadgets (or breaking them). They are often less respectful of robots’ personal space than they should be.
The only birds still capable of actually flying.
It’s easy to make fun of rabbits’ small size and near-sightedness, but nobody who has ever seen a fluffle of rabbits go bersek in battle is likely to do so. Whenever a rabbit is wounded, it loses control on a roll of 4, 5, or 6 on one die. After that, it gets an extra action each round which it must use for attacking and gains +2 on all attack rolls, but does not defend itself.
Raccoons are the only competition monkeys have for the title “most likely to get themselves into trouble”. They are very inquisitive, but sometimes have trouble concentrating on—hey look, a butterfly!
They are not the largest animals, but they are certainly the grumpiest. Like bison (the only other animals they have much time for) they prefer to stay with their herd, and are fiercely protective of its weaker members.
Slow-moving but quick-witted, sloths are sages and healers. Some trim their long claws to improve their Dexterity, but most accept their lot philosophically and return to thinking about deeper things.
As proud as eagles, tigers are scornful of creatures that live in herds or packs, including lions—especially lions.
Slow-moving and short-sighted, turtles are natural shapers.
Fast, strong, and brave, wolves usually travel in packs of half a dozen, and their alphas are often community leaders.
Zebras have a remarkable ability to hide themselves, which is described below under “Skills”.
Animals of the same species can be quite different from one another. When a player creates a character, she can spend a total of 5 points raising the character’s ratings. She can do this by adding 2 points to two ratings and 1 point to a third, or by adding 3 points to one rating and 1 each to two others, and so on, so long as she doesn’t raise any rating by more than 3 points.
Players can get extra points to distribute by lowering ratings as well: they may lower any rating by 1 or 2 points, so long as the total lowered is no more than 3 points.
Example: Garree is a 15-year-old goat. Her default rating is zero for everything, but her player decides to lower her Size by 1 point and distribute 6 points evenly across Fitness, Dexterity, and Intellect:
SIZ FIT DEX INT AWR -1 +2 +2 +2 0
Example: The same player makes different decisions for Garree’s brother Gruff. His Awareness is reduced 2 points and his Intellect by 1 point, which gives him 8 points to distribute to other features.
SIZ FIT DEX INT AWR +3 +3 +2 -1 -2
Every character has skills. Some are automatic: for example, almost everyone can try to throw a rock. Others are not: trust me, nobody can play the oboe if they’ve never seen one before.
Just like features, skills have ratings. Positive ratings mean that characters are better than average. negative ratings mean that they find even simple tasks difficult. Some common skills are listed below, along with a character’s initial rating:
|Acrobatics||FIT - SIZ||jumping, walking a tightrope, doing a somersault, etc.|
|Animal Handling||INT||calming a frightened horse or an angry wolverine|
|Boating||-3||managing a small boat or canoe|
|Brawling||STR||hand-to-hand combat without weapons|
|Camping||-3||setting up a tent and making a fire|
|Charisma||INT||talking people into things, fooling them, and acting|
|Climbing||FIT - SIZ||walls, ropes, and what-not|
|Computers||None||handling anything with a digital brain|
|Dancing||FIT||being graceful on the dance floor|
|Driving||None||wagons and motorized vehicles alike|
|Escapology||DEX||getting out of ropes or handcuffs|
|First Aid||-3||handling broken bones and wounds; see Medicine|
|Gambling||0||cards, dice, and bluffing|
|Hiding||INT - SIZ||not being noticed when not moving|
|Hypnotism||None||putting people into a trance|
|Mechanics||None||making things, fixing broken ones, and picking locks|
|Medicine||None||handling disease and infection; see First Aid|
|Navigation||None||finding your way by the stars and other signs|
|Picking Pockets||DEX - 3||taking things without being noticed|
|Riding||FIT||bicycles and horses|
|Sailing||-5||handling a large ship|
|Singing||HER - 3||making music with the voice|
|Skating||FIT - 3||handling yourself on metal runners|
|Skiing||FIT - 3||handling yourself on lengths of wood|
|Stage Magic||None||juggling, sleight of hand, etc|
|Stealth||FIT - SIZ||moving without or being noticed|
|Swimming||STR - 3||keeping your head above water|
|Throwing||FIT||how far and how accurately|
|Trapping||-5||making traps that work|
|Tunnelling||-3||digging tunnels that don’t collapse|
|Ventriloquism||None||throwing your voice|
It’s usually worth figuring out a character’s skill at the skills marked in bold, since they come up so often in adventures. Note that some skills like Climbing, Hiding, and Stealth get better if the character is smaller. For example, if a character’s Fitness is +2 and their Size is +1, their Stealth is +1, but if their Size is -1, their Stealth is +3.
Example: Garree’s features are:
SIZ FIT DEX INT AWR -1 +2 +2 +2 0
so her initial ratings for the commonly-used skills are:
Skill Rating Brawling +1 Climbing +3 Hiding +3 Stealth +3 Swimming -2 Throwing +2
These four “skills” are actually categories. Specialties within each must be mastered separately:
|Craft||None||sewing, woodwork, baking, metalwork, etc.|
|Fine Art||None||sculpture, drawing, painting, music, etc.|
|Lore||None||history, a language, mathematics, etc.|
|Weapon||FIT - 5||sword, spear, pistol, bow, etc.|
Finally, someone’s initial skill in Tracking is the best of their Sight, Hearing, or Smell.
When a player is creating a character, she can spend INT+10 points improving the character’s skills. For example, if a character has an INT of +3, they have 13 points to spend on raising skills. If their INT is -2, on the other hand, they only have 8 points to spend on skills (they’re a slower learner).
Example: Garree’s features are:
SIZ FIT DEX INT AWR -1 +2 +2 +2 0
so she has 12 points to spend on her initial skills. Her adjusted ratings for the common skills, and her ratings for other skills her player has chosen, are:
Skill Initial Adjusted Points Spent Brawling +1 +3 2 Climbing +2 +3 1 Hiding +2 +3 1 Stealth +2 +4 3 Swimming -3 Throwing +1 Bow -4 -2 3 First Aid -3 -1 2
The Director may occasionally allow players to choose Skills that are not in the master list. For example, piloting a hot air balloon is different enough from Boating and Driving that the Director may decide it’s a skill in its own right.
After each adventure, the Director may allow a player to raise a skill they used in that adventure by one level. A player may also find a teacher to help them learn a new skill. It is usually pretty easy to find someone who can teach the lower levels of common skills, though lessons may come at a price. Finding someone who can teach a character how to raise a skill beyond +5 can be a quest in its own right.
Shapers and Bots tries to keep combat simple. Once a fight starts, everything happens in turns that are 5 seconds long in game time. In each turn, characters act in order of Fitness, with highest Fitness going first. (If two or more characters are tied, use a contest roll once at the start of the fight to see who goes first for its duration.)
In their turn, a character can take two actions. Each of the following counts as a single action:
Reloading a weapon counts as one or more actions depending on the type of weapon. For example, getting another arrow from a quiver counts as one action (so archers can fire one shot per turn). Reloading a crossbow, on the other hand, may require several turns.
Each attack is treated as a contest:
There are a few special cases:
Every character starts the adventure with a number of health points (HP) equal to 3 + their Strength. (If a character’s Strength is -3 or less, they still get 1 HP.) Every time a character is injured, their character must win a challenge roll with their HP before the injury as a bonus and the amount of the damage as a penalty. If they fail the roll, they have been knocked out. Regardless of the roll’s outcome, they always lose that many HP.
A character is killed when:
Example: Alouenne is a kangaroo with a Strength of +2, so she has 5 HP. As the tunnel collapses around her, she is hit by a falling rock that does 1 point of damage. She needs to win a roll with a +4 bonus (+5-1) to stay conscious. She rolls 9 on 3D, winning easily, but is now down to 4 HP.
A second, larger piece of the ceiling now drops on her head and does 2 points of damage. She needs to win a roll with a +2 bonus; rolling 8, she fails and is knocked unconscious. She is also now down to 2 HP.
The rocks keep falling. The next one to hit her does another 2 points of damage. She needs to win a roll without any bonus at all to stay alive. She rolls 12, but is down to 0 HP. One more big rock, and Alouenne will be out of the game…
Pietro rushes in to save Alouenne. He is already down to 3 HP after a previous fight, and a particularly big rock lands on him before he can reach her. It does 3 points of damage, so he needs to win a challenge roll without any bonus. He rolls 5, missing the required 11 by 6 points. Pietro is a goner.
Weapons do damage (that’s kind of the point). A one-handed sword swung by an angry goat with Strength 0 does the following damage:
Every other weapon is given a bonus or penalty depending on its size. This is added to the roll, not to the damage:
|Punch||-5||Includes kicking and throwing plates|
|Small Weapon||-3||A knife or slingshot (or punch from someone with martial arts training)|
|Medium Weapon||0||One-handed sword or ax|
|Large Weapon||+2||Two-handed sword or ax|
|Huge Weapon||+4||A big spiked club swung by an angry elephant|
Example: Gertrude swings her big spiked club and hits one of the bots attacking her. She rolls 9, adds 4 to get 13, and looks at the table: she had done 4 points of damage. Her companion Li Meng stabs with her knife. She also rolls 9, takes off 3 to get 6, and has done only 1 point of damage.
Any armor the defender is wearing acts as a penalty on the damage roll:
|Thick Fur||-1||Bison fur, crocodile skin, turtle shell|
|Leather||-2||Something like shoe leather, often reinforced with studs|
|Metal||-4||Metal plates or chainmail|
Someone who is knocked unconscious can try to regain consciousness once per minute by winning a challenge roll with their Strength as a bonus (or penalty). It’s up to the Director to decide if they have to keep making injury rolls because of their wounds.
Example: While Priti is going through Doi’s belongings to see if she has anything worth stealing, her player rolls three dice and gets 13. After taking off 1 point (her Strength is -1), she still has 12, which is enough for her to regain consciousness. Quietly, she picks up her bow and gets off one more shot. Priti goes down—but the Director has ruled that Doi’s wounds are still bleeding, so she needs to make another challenge roll to stay conscious. She fails and passes out once again, losing 1 HP as she does so. Things aren’t looking good for our little fox…
A small number of animal characters have psychic powers that let them control or shape the world with their mind. Characters who can shape typically start with a rating of Very Low, which improves with practice and training. The six known kinds of shaping are:
It is extremely rare for someone to be able to do more than one kind of shaping.
Example: Larrapin is an air shaper. Before her grandfather passed away, he taught her what little he knew, so her score is now -5 instead of none.
The Director must decide case by case how hard it is to shape something. As a guide:
|Shaping||Easy Task (+3 bonus)||Hard Task (-3 penalty)|
|Earth||Slide a pebble across a table||Open a hand-sized hole in a brick wall|
|Air||Puff of air to blow out a candle||Gust of wind to knock someone over|
|Light||Dim light to read by||Illusion of a tree|
|Water||Slosh water around in a cup||Wave capable of swamping a canoe|
|Luck||Increase next roll by 1 point||Lower enemy’s roll by 3 points|
|Time||Take initiative in combat round||Four actions in one combat round|
These bonuses and penalties assume that the shaper is concentrating hard and doing nothing else.
The Makers built bots to do everything from cleaning floors to mining the ocean floor. Since they disappeared, the bots have repaired themselves however they can to keep themselves going, and made new bots whenever they can find the right parts. The result is that no two bots look or think exactly alike. One might have six short legs and a pair of mis-matched claws for arms, while another might use two rotor fans to fly, but have only a single slender manipulator to pick things up.
Bots have Average ratings for Size, Dexterity, Intellect, Sight, and Hearing. Only a few bots have any sense of Smell (most regard smell as slightly icky, and would prefer that living creatures didn’t talk about it so much). Bots also have Average Fitness, which in their case means structural integrity: a bot with Low Fitness is probably rusty or missing parts, while one with Very High Fitness looks brand new (and will therefore be a target for other bots in need of parts). Bots can raise and lower one feature by one level, or two features by one level each if one feature is lowered by a level, just like animal characters. (As with animals, Sight and Hearing have to be lowered two levels to raise some other feature by one level.)
By default, every robot character has either tracks, wheels, or legs to move with, two arms (which don’t have to match), cameras, a microphone (for hearing), and a speaker (for communicating). The player can then give it two more features from the list below, or three more features as long as it takes a penalty from the second list.
Syvia is a teenage fox. She has worked on her parents’ fishing boat since she was a child, so her player raises her Boating from Very Low to Average (2 points) and her Swimming from Low to Average (1 point). Since there are pirates in these waters, her player also raises her skill with a bo (a long staff that counts as a small weapon) from Low to High (2 points), and her skill at Mechanics from High (her Dexterity) to Very High, which uses up her final point.
|Intellect||+2||| Mechanics||Very High|
Rhymes With Orange was built to clean windows on ultra-tall skyscrapers. It has long spidery limbs with suction cups for climbing, but a very small body. It also has a 5-liter storage tank built into its back, and has modified the water jets on its arms to squirt almost any kind of liquid. Rhymes With Orange’s battery was damaged years ago in an accident that also robbed it of most of its memories. It can only go 3-4 days without being recharged by another bot, so it is constantly doing odd jobs in exchange for power or gambling to try to win a recharge. (It only cheats when it has to.)
|Height||+2||| Climbing||Very High|
|Weight||Low||| Acrobatics||Very High|
|Fitness||Average||| Gambling||Very High|
If an extra is important to the plot—for example, if they are a player character’s sidekick—the Director may give non-player ratings for two more features:
Courage (CRG): how brave the character is.
Honesty (HON): how likely the character is to tell the truth.
Player characters don’t have ratings for these features because being brave and telling the truth (or not) are part of the game.
Automatic success: accomplishing a task without bothering to roll dice.
Bonus: a positive rating.
Challenge: something difficult that a character wants to do. The result is determined by the sum of three dice plus the character’s rating and the challenge’s difficulty.
Character: an animal or bot in the game.
Contest: a situation in which success depends on beating another character’s dice roll (plus appropriate ratings).
Difficulty: how hard a challenge is. The difficulty determines the target for a challenge roll.
Director: the person running the game.
Extra: a character played by the Director.
Feature: an intrinsic characteristic such as fitness or dexterity.
Fluke: a roll of 17 or 18 (automatic success).
Fumble: a roll of 3 or 4 (automatic failure).
Health point: how much damage a character can take.
Penalty: a negative rating.
Player: someone who is playing the part of a character in the game.
Rating: a bonus or penalty for a character’s feature or a challenge’s difficulty.
Shaping: the psychic ability to control one of the six elements.
Skill: a character’s ability to do something.
Species: a kind of intelligent living character.