Thursday, December 31, 2009

Polaris - AP Thread

Hey, gang!
Connor, a friend of mine is visiting from San Francisco; he's in school out there, studying drama therapy. He's played WoW and other video games in the past, but I've never been able to persuade him to try a role-playing game before (and I hadn't tried asking in years...). Tonight, we couldn't find anything to do, and he didn't want to drive back to his parents' house just yet (around 7pm), so I suggested a board game.

He asked, "Is the board game going to involve a lot of thinking and strategy?" At which point, I doubled back from the game closet, sheepishly. I suggested playing an RPG instead, and, surprisingly, he assented!
I had been thinking of downloading a PDF of S/Lay w/Me, only to discover at the unstore that, hey, there is no PDF for sale yet! Oh, well - I'd bought a copy of Polaris this week, so I showed it to Connor and had him read that "As It Was" section about the king, queen, knights, etc., while I went and got dice, paper, pens, etc.
When I returned, he picked a name from the star-names list, and then we just kind of sat for a bit, while I asked him if, in all the ice and splendor and horror and demonic invasions going on, if he had any ideas for a character. Somewhere in there, I mentioned that Polaris is a tragedy, and all star-knights inevitably die, go mad, or join the demons. He scowled, conjectured on Ben Lehman's upbringing and emotional well-being, and then reminded me of his hesitation about playing. But, eventually, we extracted the following:

Sir Cetus
[all normal Aspects, plus...]
Blessing: Shield of Black Shiny Goodness (his name for it; he described a shield made of glittery obsidian)
Fate: Mensa - a character. No idea who this is, yet!
Ability: Attribute - Big (Cetus is an enormous individual - alternately described as being like a "huge ice-statue" and "big and hairy, like Thor")

New Moon character: Equuleus - a relative of Cetus's, a young boy. "The Chosen One"
Mistake character: High Priest Octans - a trouble-making prophet who declared Equuleus the "Chosen One", and who wants Sir Cetus to guard Equuleus on his way into the Mistake(!), where he claims the boy will somehow end the Mistaken demon-army altogether

Play: Connor was really nervous, but also interested in the game, so I tried to keep things as low-key as possible. Partly because he'd never RP'd before, and partly because there were only two of us playing, we divvied up the responsibilities of the Moons - anyone moving against the Heart would be played by me; anyone standing up for the Heart would be played by Connor; and anyone standing on the sidelines would be played by me (as generously and fairly as possible - no ruthlessness from such characters allowed!)

We cleared up how the Moon characters would be played (in truth, I didn't really explain the Moons, just those responsibilities), and then began.
And so it was...
Equuleus and Cetus were walking together on a rampart atop the Remnant, and Equuleus reveals that it was the High Priest who declared him the Chosen One (Connor had a good grumble about this - "How can he do that to a little boy?"), and that, as the One, he could pick anybody he liked to accompany him into the Mistake, to save the world. He naturally chooses Cetus ("You're the bravest, strongest warrior in the world!") and this led to our first conflict.

[Connor has done a lot of improv, so we started out just using the phrases "But Only If..." and "And Furthermore" to start. He quibbled a bit about using the exact phrases, but I told him it was important to keep the proper mood and tone, which was a good enough reason for him.]
Angry, Cetus sends the child to his room. [and furthermore! I add...] On the way to his room, Equuleus sneaks off instead and goes to tell the High Priest that Sir Cetus is a coward, and won't go with him to fulfill the High Priest's prophecy. [and furthermore! Connor adds...] The High Council calls Cetus in to explain himself. [Connor double-checked a couple of times if he could introduce new characters or not, but he took to "just say your intent; don't hedge" without me having to ever bring it up directly!] I agreed - And that was how it happened! Then we ended the scene, and took a break.

I told Connor that a break was just that - a solid break from the game completely, to talk about whatever. He went on a bit about feeling really resistant to being creative, how he felt like he was on the receiving end of the very techniques he's learning in school, and on three separate occasions tonight, he pantomimed feeling stuck in a box by the prospect of being creative for the game. He told me he was enjoying it, though, and he just had a lot of baggage to get over about performance and getting things right - I told him that whatever he comes up with will be totally cool as-is, and he resolved to keep that in mind.

We started up a second scene.
And so it was...
Sir Cetus stands before the High Council, accused of cowardice and thwarting the Chosen One's wishes. They beg an explanation, and he tells them that he's been to the Mistake before, as they know [I write this down, whispering "awesome!"], and it is no place for a boy, not even a Chosen One. They consider this, but High Priest Octans loses it and screams "This traitor should be thrown in prison!" [Connor replies, "What, like you threw my parents in prison?" He then explains that Cetus's parents went demon-mad and were locked away at the bottom of the Remnant for their own safety. Rad!]
[We start a conflict at this point:
Connor says: but only if... the High Priest has been wrong before about his prophecies.
I say, in turn: but only if... the High Council trusts him anyway.
Connor says: you ask far too much!... then continues to narrate]
Equuleus comes out of hiding and tells the Council they have no right to do this to his chosen guardian! [Connor exhausts his Theme of Fate, and I amend my statement] The High Priest demands, instead of arresting Sir Cetus that Sir Cetus show Equuleus his mad parents, in their cell - "The better to show the boy what he is protected from by the prophecy, from which others are not..." [Burn! Connor asks me if Cetus is now required to do this thing, if he has to, and I say no, but now the Council expects him to do so. He agrees.]

We ended the scene there. I'm noticing, looking back, that there was a slight rule-thing that we missed - "You ask far too much" applies to the previous statement made by one's opponent, whereas we used it for the statement that caused the conflict - i.e. Cetus is arrested. Since retroactively changing that would have meant erasing some cool stuff established about Octans and the Council, I'm okay with this.

At this point, we end the scene. We talk for a bit about things, Connor says he's really enjoying himself, though still nervous about performing well (he's a nervous guy by nature), and then I ask if he wants to play out the scene where his parents, Al Niyat and Alya, are introduced. Screaming, mad, padded-room parents? Fun! He says he's not up for another scene tonight, but he does have an idea about what happened to Cetus's parents - when Cetus went to the Mistake (the circumstances of which are unclear), he nearly died, and some kind of Council of Demons (he said it was a sort of counterpart to the High Council of the People) agreed to trade "one life for two minds" - his parents were driven insane by demon sorcery, and in exchange, the demon councilors spared Cetus and sent him home. Connor honed in on this a bit more - Cetus is not one for bravado or foolhardiness, because he's seen horrible things first-hand and doesn't care to inflict that on anyone else. AND! the High Priest had once told *Cetus* that he, too, could not be harmed by the Mistake, which we then concluded together made it possible that, should Equuleus enter the Mistake, some kind of price would be paid to see the boy safely out of there again, and Cetus did NOT want that to happen!

We chatted a bit about drama therapy, RPGs, improv, etc.; I mentioned that I'd heard a rumor that Polaris is a metaphorical examination of the strain of doing social work for a living, he guffawed and clucked his tongue at that, and then we agreed to play again! Yay! We will probably play again while he's still here in Virginia, if possible, and then figure out from there when we'll play once we're on the opposite ends of the country from one another. I'm very excited that he gave this a shot, and that he connected to it on a couple of levels (improv, therapy..)

So! More to follow, with any luck.
[Cross-posted at the Forge and story-games]

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Quick update

I owe one of my non-gamer coworkers a game of Shock: the next time we're able to hang out and do that. We have protagonists ready to go; next we'll have antagonists raring to go, too!

I bought a copy of Polaris as well, and I plan on getting two other people (prolly a couple of trad gamers; a couple of *certain* trad gamers, haha) to join me. Yessss!

Boys Don't Cry - the RPG


I think I may have found a way to use Otherkind dice to talk about oppression, social roles, and such.

It goes like this: the players devise a community, choose a group in that community that is oppressed, and then pick a trait/skill/way of getting things done that is forbidden to that group, but accessible by the dominant population. The oppressed group can certainly act in the manner outlined by the trait on its own group-members, but not on white people/in the presence of white people.

Let's say we devise a Colorado post-industrial town, choose Vietnamese immigrants as our oppressed group, and then decide that it's forbidden for Asian people in this town to be Confrontational - white folks can get up in people's faces whenever they deem it necessary, but the Vietnamese community here has learned to lie low and get what they want and need in other ways.

Next, we make characters: at least one (maybe only one?) player will control a character who is of the oppressed group. Any such protagonists are going to start the game with a 6 in the forbidden trait (high is bad). I have no idea what other traits there might be, but certainly gameplay is going to focus on the forbidden trait, so some designated opposition-player is going to try to maneuver you into situations in which the Forbidden Trait would be the simplest way to approach a problem.

Vietnamese characters in this town are going to avoid being directly confrontational with white folks, but they can confront other Asian characters all they want, provided no white people are present in the conflict (or maybe the scene, altogether?), as how "those people treat one another" is of little consequence if it's not making white folks upset.

Next, we have a Kicker - most people in the oppressed group lie low and don't make trouble, but the protagonist has done so at least once/is in the process of doing so *right now*. Example - you play a Vietnamese family man whose wife was killed in a hit-and-run (car only; not a drive-by or anything), and the local police are really dragging their asses on the case. You stop by the station one day to check on the investigation's progress, and you hit a wall - they're "really tired of you coming by so often; why don't you just let us work?" Annnd .... action!

So, the Forbidden Trait works like this - set your goal for the conflict in which you use this Trait. Then, for each point you have in the Trait, above 1, the whole table works to come up with one complication or escalation of the conflict - not necessarily something directly related to any actions taken *in* the situation so far, but definitely stuff that will change the landscape, so to speak.
Next, you roll d6's equal to your rating in it (it starts at 6, for oppressed-group-protagonists). For each 4-6 you get, you can make one thing (your goal, or a complication) go your way. Naturally, it's going to really suck having lots of dice to start, but I'm thinking that there's going to be a lot of push-back when you first start overtly resisting oppression. I haven't worked out a "clouds and dice" idea for how you can "buy down" the Forbidden Trait's rating (which means there's less fallout when you use it), but that's something to work on.

p.s. I think the number of protagonists is going to be fairly low, and having only one is going to be totally okay, as it means you can really sink your teeth into one person's take on the situation (kind of a one-player-and-many-gm's scenario).

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

a (real) storytelling game of (actual) personal horror

I'm thinking of hacking Vampire: the Masquerade to make it more story-ful. I was inspired by the Background traits and a request from a blog-commenter over at Story By the Throat!, and realized how Background traits were the "way in" to making V:tM, and perhaps White Wolf games in general, *actually* deal with "personal horror".

What if, instead of coldly tactical names like Contacts and Allies, you had, respectively, much more emotionally relevant traits with names like "People Who Think I'm Human" and "Lovers and Close Friends"? Some traits could stay the same, like Status (which is inherently social), but most of them would need to change.

More examples - how about "Vampires I've Cowed Into Submission" for Influence, and "My Human Victims" for Herd? One more - "Purity of My Blood" for Generation: you're either too young to inherit so much power, or you've killed some very important people to get where you are, and either way, it'd make sense to develop a certain level of disconnect from the mud-blood monsters.

Anything, anything at all to make it easier for players to treat the subject matter more appropriately, and less like dark-clad superheroes! The way the rules are set up currently, it's all too easy for a player to be told by the GM and fellow players to act one way (as though he's playing a storytelling game focused on a personal brush with horror), and to be encouraged by the rules and mechanics to act another way entirely (as though he's playing Marvel Superheroes, but everyone has to be "dark and creepy" caped crusaders).

This is the sort of split mind that D&D has pushed onto people historically, although 4th Edition seems to have much more clarity of purpose, encouraging people to go ahead and min-max and have the most effective characters they can - they're going to need them! ^_^

I downloaded an odd little document - a list of each White Wolf game (Old World of Darkness) and all the background traits made available in that game, and finally, which book(s) each trait was mentioned in. Kind of a strange reference document.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Oh dang - Baron Von Vikingson

So I was looking through old Forge posts I'd done, under a different handle, and I came across what looks like Baron Munchausen, sort of. Replace coins (or whatever) with Cleverness, and have the incredulity element focus instead on asking the other players to give your Thane better stats (so you can claim to have done mightier things than you really did, of course), and there you go!

I have yet to play the Baron, but having one active player and multiple GM-ish players sounds both very Polaris and kind of funky.

Check it out! I totally attempt to hijack this poor guy's thread. ^_^;; Fortunately, the OP liked my ideas...

p.s. I totally see a possible hack/way to break the game - if you share a scene in which your Thane outwits an opponent, and you ask for more Cleverness, do you get it? Hitting zero Cleverness means that your story is regarded as so absurd and unlikely that you're regarded as a fool, and the other Thanes go off to drink without you. Gaining more, then, would extend your time in the spotlight, but on the other hand, your "goal" is to be clever enough to finish your story, not to go on for ever and ever. Maybe you could pay Cleverness to other players in exchange for prompts or hints or ideas, kind of like A Penny For My Thoughts. Hmmmmm...

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Finally! Progress on a Dwarf Fortress RPG

I've taken a totally different direction with things - I'm not even going to get into the wonkiness that was my previous design idea.

Anyway, here's a sample example from the rough draft:

A quick example – you're playing a dwarf named Urist. His key phrases are “I left Mountainhome to strike the earth” and “What I do, I do for power”. You've been rolling terribly, though, and Urist hasn't contributed much to the Fortress; he's seen as pretty useless by his comrades. It's your turn to roll again, and your best skill is a 4 in Mining. You roll, and get two successes! You cheer, finally getting a chance to describe a cavern with actual features! You spend one to establish a cavern, and one to give it an ore vein.

But then another player clears his throat and says, “So your dwarf ...”. You wonder what he's up to. You give him the go-ahead, and he adds, “So your dwarf, Urist, finds a new cavern, but he doesn't notice the platinum vein it holds,” you groan, “until one of the other miners reports it to him.”

Curses! Urist won't get any credit for this discovery! Unless.... You announce Urist's options to the table: either he lets the other dwarf be lauded by the tinkers, when it should really be him instead, or he kills the miner, and takes what's rightly his.

You decide to take a new Desperation: “I am willing to kill those who get in my way.” Scowling, you bury your pick in his head, to the surprise of everyone present (they all get -1 Mood)1. Rolling 2 Threaten,2 you add +1 to the result, thanks to your new key phrase, and get one success. Turning to the huddled, terrified miners, you bark, “I'll kill the rest of you, too, if you don't do what I say. It was me who found the platinum, and one of you swung your pick without looking and killed him. Is that clear?

Ah, how happy and fun! They dutifully stay silent on the matter, although the miner's friends are quite upset to hear of his untimely death. But the Fortress still gets the platinum, and another player, in awe of your cruelty, picks up the dice and makes a Tinkering check.

If, instead, you swallowed your pride and took a point of Anger, you could get one extra reroll the next time you're confronted by your Passion.

1You can off a nameless NPC dwarf as part of a Passion dilemma without even picking up the dice. Named NPCs must be killed the hard way -with Scene Skills.

2Assume these dwarfs have no Mood buffs to mess with your roll, in this example

So that's a little of what I have, so far. You basically portray the more deranged or obsessive members of your Fortress, contending with your darker urges while trying to keep the place running, and it's all in the shadow of an inevitable goblin invasion.

Losing is fun! ^_^

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Freemarket, as seen by a socialist

[Disclaimer: I do not like Luke Crane games. This one is no exception. I am going to try a little to be even-handed, but when stuff irks me, I am going to be a jerk about it. When stuff is cool, I will probably make back-handed compliments. That being said...]
It's a Luke Crane game. That means we're not going to get along, pretty much guaranteed. Still, on a whim, when I went to Buddha's house last night and they said "Check this out" I said "Okay". We, ah, took about three hours to get through character creation; we didn't end up playing.

To be fair, the resolution mechanic doesn't seem so bad; you more or less pay attention to three main card colors (imagine dealing random Magic cards and only noting their color) and count some of them as points, and some of them as not-points. I can't exactly give you the precise mechanic, but suffice it to say it's a tiny bit like AP contests in Hero Wars - it might look intimidating from the rules text, but it's not probably so bad. "Probably" is necessary because I haven't played either, and don't want to, you know, lie to anybody.

I like the concept for the setting: you're on a space station with matter replicators, infinite cloning for all, every physical need is met, at least on a level of comfortable, if boring, subsistence... also, there is a social economy, as you may have heard. That's why it's called FreeMarket, by the way (also: jab knitting needles in my eyes - people on the station are known as Freemers. Get it? This is almost exactly like the nickname for those who frequent the authoritarian-rightwing site FreeRepublic - "Freepers". Blech) - it's called that because, um, well, okay, so there isn't really any good reason to call this high-tech, socialist utopia an ANYTHING market, but there you have it.

Anyway - so you're kind of on the Facebook Space Station - you get Flow, which is a combination of Diggs, Pokes, "You like this", etc. You lose Flow from Frownies, which means that, by the 52nd century, Facebook has finally devised a Dislike button. The Facebook comparison is not at all meant to be demeaning, by the way - I merely think it's apt, and the bright-and-bushy-tailed feel of the game text pushes me further in thinking so.

Strictly speaking, Flow is given to you by the Aggregate, aka the station CPU, as a reward for giving gifts, acting in concert to overcome challenges, and other things. Of course, being gamers, we spent a good bit of our time devising hypothetical scenarios in which we trick or otherwise game the Ag into Flowing us like whoa.

Speaking of terms that I tire of capitalizing, the skill list ("Experiences", for some reason) makes-a no sense. There are three different skills, that is, Experiences, that relate to social interaction (Shaping, Thin-Slicing, and Social Engineering; no, they don't mean what they sound like), skills that have nonsensical names, given their function (Mobbing is Modification Of Body-ing. Why not MODding? Search me!) and a few that I'm skeptical of, but I'm sure play would make it clear why there's a difference between them - using replicators is its own skill (Printing), separate from building things by hand (Cultivation) or retrofitting/reusing things to make new stuff (Recycling).

There are also MRCZ groups. The text mercifully recommends you pronounce this acronym as "mercy", with "mercies" as the plural. Catchy, and interesting. This is where some of the inspiration behind the game comes through a bit more - the text speaks of theoretical, anti-bureaucratic(I get it, and yet...) adhocracies, or groups that form ad hoc for a purpose and then disband when said purpose is completed. Given that there are arduous levels of MRCZ prestige to climb through, this actually sounds like the very opposite of anything temporary or ad hoc - where's the spontaneity? A barn-raising would be a more fitting adhocracy than these, well, WoW guilds the authors are describing.

Going back to the much-mused-over title of the game, I have this to say: it's a gift economy, in the sense that generosity, when it's received, is a source of social status. Flow is, chemically speaking, a byproduct of the social interaction, and not actually brought into the mix by any party involved; the Aggregate generates and distributes Flow. So - while there's certainly an economy taking place, it's not, you know, anything at all resembling a "market". It's really a "network". If this game is some attempt to realize a great big Objectivist impulse, then I'm going to go throw up red Kool-Aid on Luke's lawn in protest. But then again, maybe I won't - it's a lousy attempt at this. Why is everyone provided for? Why is there no cold and finite resource that rules all others?

This really should have been billed as Facebook: the RPG. And maybe there, it could have had terms that made some more sense, and less misplaced attitude. When you Poke someone, all it means... is that you Poked them.

Oh, and I can't make heads or tails of what the goddamned CA is. It's your Right to Dream about this really cool, crazy space station, presumably, since the relationship mechanics are about as deep as those on the for-real Facebook site (and that's a huge lynchpin for Story Now, to me), and there's way too much going on that isn't related to Stepping on Up (nor are there victory conditions, permanent death [mostly], end-game mechanics...) to count as that, either. There's this whole thing where death isn't really death unless your body is so totally fucked by horrible, multi-system destruction that they have to make a whole new clone. Even then, you're not really dead.
If I really wanted to play an MMO, or face off against the never-really-dying Saturday morning cartoon villain, then... nah. I wouldn't want to do either of those things. Not again, at any rate, as far as MMOs.

You know what? I take it back. This isn't Facebook. This is Second Life, converted to tabletop!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

hero wars/heroquest thoughts and stuff

So I've been eying my newly-acquired copy of Hero Wars, and thinking about a concept used in the game's Extended Contests (big, important conflicts use these, as opposed to a simple, single die roll): the concept of Action Points (now called Hero Points in the new edition).

So. Action Points.

Basically, these represent your overall mojo, combining ability, equipment, emotional investment in the conflict, positioning, tactics, allies(!), etc., all thrown together in a single numerical value. It's, overall, how well you're doing.
Here's the kicker: you don't lose until you are completely out of Action Points. And by "don't lose", I mean you basically don't suffer any just-you-personal consequences until this point is reached. Heck, you can even bet a few points to possibly gain a bunch back, and then you're still in it!
That bit about not losing? It means that, in a combat Extended Contest, you don't get wounded in any meaningful way (beyond a cut or a bruise) until you run out of APs. This is that kind of thing I was trying to achieve in Mask of the Emperor, the idea that you have to corner your opponent (verbally, physically, whatev) before landing a blow on them, as befits actual fighting between actual fighters.
[ready, go, tangent!] Even if you skewer a guy on your sword pretty quickly, there are probably a few shield-blocks, parries, dodges, and feints that happen first. If not, then the scenario would probably consist of your (apparently masterful) swordsman facing multiple foes, and stuff. The point is that I think it makes total sense to have some back and forth in a conflict before anything decisive happens.
So - you run out of APs, and THEN you get your hand severed, or the baroness throws her drink in your face, or whatever. As this Forge forum thread reminds us, you can get down to 1 AP and still pull off a win, and then keep your hand or your dignity intact.
I think that's pretty damn cool. One thing it doesn't do (potentially) is account for Pyrrhic victories, a la Otherkind. We shall see if that's the case, and if it matters, the effect that that has on things, etc.
I can see the logic behind it, though - both the Intact Skin approach (one guy wins and one guy loses, cut and dried) and the Mel Gibson approach (a la any movie he's ever been in where there is violence, and his character gets an ass-whupping even if he wins the day) have their merits. The former pushes for a vision of combat as either deadly OR merely "to the blood" - different rolls and results will of course dictate how that goes, and I betcha the Extended Contest result table has some kind of "you both suck" result. Alternately, in social conflict, the former approach would suggest a sort of "you end up looking awesome, handing someone's ass to them as well as looking good to passersby". This approach seems to suggest that once things start tipping in your favor, they keep going that way, OR you get a very clean reversal - again, you don't get chopped up until you totally, definitely lose, although you might take some light flesh wounds and your followers might all die (I'm thinking Braveheart, where Mel takes a couple arrows to the chest at Falkirk but then gets back up and rides after King Edward. 'cause, you know, whatever).

The latter approach suggests that combat is a bloody affair, and arguments make everyone involved look bad - in the case of violence, there's that old saw that people wear armor because you can't swordfight without getting chopped up once in a while. In the case of social conflict, it's possible that browbeating, haranguing, or otherwise nailing someone's verbal ass to the wall has lots of fallout and makes you look like a tool. This approach is one of "you have to give it to get it" - if you want something, you're going to have to crawl through crap to ensure that it's yours.

Oddly enough, both of these approaches expect and demand a lot of risk-taking: these aren't conservative strategies by any stretch. The former, in particular, could be very see-saw-y: win big or lose big! The latter, at least, lets you get mangled up a bit and maybe decide that you concede, after all, having reached your depth.
Things to think about and research, at any rate.
Oh, one last thought: the Otherkind mechanic exists to draw in more conflict like a fisherman's net, grabbing problems and pulling them towards the PCs. The Hero Whatever mechanics may or may not really do that, and seem a good deal more trad win/lose in that respect. They let you handle a conflict that arises, rather than find one for you. Maybe. We'll see.

My intention is to finish up Questing Beast soon (I'm done meandering...) and then get folks in the group to check out Hero Wars. Hotnessss! Character creation flowcharts await!

[Edit] Quick, last-last thought: Extended Contests and Otherkind do something similarly - in the Braveheart scene I mentioned, the EC is arguably resolving the entire battle! Let's go with that. The Scots get flanked by English reserves, the film personalizes this reversal through Willaim Wallace (his facial expressions, his arrow wounds), and then the battle's outcome is personified through William alone - he gets on his horse (while the Scots try to rally alongside their newfound Irish allies) and rides after King Edward, only to have the (surprise!) turncoat Robert the Bruce joust him right off his fucking horse. He lies there in the dirt; the contest is over.

ECs handle this by saying "hey, look at it go back and forth, with the English steadily widening the AP gap". Each reversal is exciting, and roleplayed to the hilt because we care, and when it's over, the Bruce helps William into the arms of an Irish rescuer; that's all post-EC developments. It's all important, yeah, but it's probably "off the map", i.e. it's devised by fiat, by on the spot creativity, without interacting with dice mechanics.

Otherkind dice handle things in general as jumping-off points for more and more conflict; it seems like conflicts are less officially "happening" and "not happening", given that, quite clearly, each roll of the dice can lead into more and more problems and complications. It's like the EC system says "ok, we're in conflict now", while O says "okay, roll. Okay, five more things go wrong. Okay.... roll again. Repeat."

The real difference might be that O sort of checks in with the players more often and says "ok, hey, here's some consequences. At least in terms of handling time (huge difference, no doubt), O gives us resolution pretty quickly. If what you're looking for is a lot of back and forth, then EC might be the way to go. If you're looking for really punchy, pithy moments that cause the plot to pivot, then O might do it.

O seems more suited for gunshots, sudden bursts of action that die down quickly, that sort of thing, the kinds of decisions one makes rashly and quickly regrets, whereas Hero Wars is pushing a sort of more nuanced, you've-got-time-to-think back and forth thing, like a fencing match.

Not that one or the other can run situations or scenarios that the other couldn't; I'll report back when I discover what's better at what!

[EDIT EDIT] Apparently in both Simple and Extended Contests, if both sides roll badly enough (technically, you roll against a Target # and THEN compare to your opponent), both sides can screw the pooch. So to speak.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

La Familia - starting the first playtest campaign

I might be running a playtest campaign of La Familia soon. As Anna pointed out in our first get-together tonight, LF could totally work as an early-19th-century Cosa Nostra game, set in Sicily.
But that's not the coolest part: a mob game set in Sicily in the 1920's, where Benito fucking Mussolini is the Tyrant (quick recap: the players play members of powerful families; the gm plays a central authority figure in society, called the Tyrant). It would be RAD to play Mussolini.
One of Anna's suggestions was to blur the distinction between the gm and the other players, such that it's not a really "gm'ed" game anymore. I think the easy way to do this is to call one player the Tyrant, give him the power to set Laws, and make his protagonist the Tyrant of the setting. Easy peasy. The word "gm" is incorrect, anyway - the only diff between the Tyrant and the other players is that the Tyrant creates Laws.
Given that you could basically run The Godfather using LF, Anna also pointed out that I should consider putting specific kinds of scenes into the rules - some kinds include Betrayal (maybe a scene in which a Grudge's rating is increased), Retribution (taking revenge for the increased Grudge), and Placation (smoothing over the source of the increased Grudge).
I'll give it some thought.

Monday, September 21, 2009

another quick one before bed

Big lesson for the night: Story Now! games can learn a lot from other forms of story-media, like television.
Case in point: the premiere of House reminded me just how important scene-framing is, especially pretty aggressive scene-framing, to keep games interesting and fun. Lesson learned -> it's not about emulating other genres, it's about using the tools of other genres to have more fun doing RPGs.
I could have cut a LOT of travel sequences from Mask and made the game a lot cooler. For that matter, I think I should avoid the "see the world!" impulse in games unless it stays within the emotional framework of the story - it is HARD to evoke wonder and awe when describing physical or sensory experiences. No problem at all to get a bunch of oh, damn's from the group when describing an action, between people, but it's damn hard to evoke the English countryside and have that be, you know, fun.
I plan on being a lot more aggressive from now on with my scene-framing, as GM - I may start keeping tabs on the next Bang coming up in the story, just to keep myself from thrashing around in old-school, we-must-record-every-moment style crap.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

That inner voice

I believe that both a prerequisite for, and goal of, good role playing is to encourage people to find their own creative voices.
That is all.

Derailed by Game Night

So I checked out the weekly Thursday indie/small press game night in Falls Church, at the Compleat Strategist.
It was awesome.

I played Spirit of the Century - amazing! I don't have too much time to get into a whole thing about how it went, but to be fair, we didn't get much further than character creation before I had to jet. Still, the highly collaborative nature of character creation was some hot bees, lemme tell ya. Also, my character was based very heavily on the Kriegaffe from the Hellboy comics - imagine a steampunk cyborg ape, raised by Nazis. Good times.

I also just got Shock: Social Science Fiction (v. 1.2), which looks really exciting - the references to Children of Men (see it!) make it all the more interesting for, like Ron Edwards said, doing sci-fi where the fiction is really about something cool and meaningful (that's more or less what
he said).

Looking back at how Questing Beast went - the players came up with interesting characters, and we spent two hours with a Saxon raid on a village. I wasn't a huge fan of the highly individualized chargen, which sabotaged our brainstorming on how to include the characters in each others' sagas.
The very concept of parallel, individual sagas (Polaris does this too, though I haven't played it yet and can't materially claim that this is what it does in practice) feels like the antithesis of the "Guest Starring..." feature in SotC's chargen - you actually devise some adventure that your protagonist has already gone through, and you randomly determine another protagonist who "guest stars" in your tale. It's totally badass, and really draws the characters together (not to mention taking full advantage of the whole group's creativity; wha-chaa!)

We have another session tomorrow; I'll see what the group thinks of the game so far, how they rate it, likes and dislikes, etc., and then see how the session goes, if we end up doing it.
I say "if" because SotC really opened up my head and showed me cool new things you can do with an RPG to get that creativity pot bubbling; I may buy Dogs in the Vineyard soon to check out their sweet, awesome see-and-raise conflict resolution rules, which sound really neat.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Real games aren't finished til you play 'em *flex*

Two friends are meeting up with me this Sunday to check out Questing Beast. I'm pretty excited, and I have some things I'm going to watch out for while we play:

- In QB, winning happens very "cleanly", as opposed to other games wherein victory can be achieved only with complications (Polaris, OtherKind, etc.): I shall see whether this feels too squeak-clean or not. The fact that winning on the dice establishes narrative control rather than simply the right to have one's will executed by the roll (i.e. you can narrate for a couple of paragraphs, introduce new props and characters[!], instead of being told 'you win!') definitely makes things a lot more interesting.
Maybe it'll have a "pass the conch" kind of feel.
- QB is definitely a game that has that "inner vortex" Vincent Baker has described. So much of the game that you play ends up deriving from each player's written Romance, which is where you derive your character's traits (this is the Pool system), so it's actually just fine that the resolution rules are so scanty - they aren't the only thing going on. We'll see how it feels to let that manifest, and I shall take notes accordingly.
- I'm really excited about devising an Accord (the kind of Arthurian setting we want) and the players writing up Romances for their characters. I'm also stoked about what sort of characters people will have - I'm imagining a badger squire and a fox lady-in-waiting, for some reason ^_^

Updates to follow, once we play!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A new stage of development as a designer

I've talked to a Sacramento gaming buddy about this at some length.
I haven't RPed since my player, V, went back to Spain. It was a little demoralizing, frankly. After a lot of thought, I've decided that the Thing To Do is to play more games, get a better sense of what's out there, what I can learn, and THEN maybe (more like "probably", to be fair) climb back into the design saddle again.

I'm still amazed that Baron Munchausen, which appears to be "just storytelling" and lacking any tactical or detail-obsessive elements, actually is a very funky sort of tactical game (realllly stretching the term to its limit) and is, in fact, an explicitly competitive enterprise. Fascinating, captain.

I plan to try out The Questing Beast soon, though I admit I'm skeptical. Anthropomorphic Arthurian fantasy sounds pretty awesome, don't get me wrong; I'm just suffering from Real Game Psychosis, that disease that convinces you that new or different approaches to RPGs aren't "real games", especially if those games are "rules-lite" (in the conventional definition of such, i.e. short books). What makes me a little wonky from reading through TQB is that while the character-writing exercise is intensely, definitively thematic, the mechanics that you use to interact with your character's history (and the Motif points you derive from it) are so free and open as to be a little confusing.

Maybe it's because you get to focus on whatever aspect of Arthurian sagas you like; maybe it's that the setting is not the focus of the rules, but merely a gently attached situation to explore that could be replaced, if you like. Arguably, using the same mechanics, but dropping the bunny knights and the jackal Saxons, would make things feel totally different. The author points out that your character is your vessel through which you explore themes that you've decided on; the point of having a farmer-badger instead of a regular human is that it establishes the character more firmly as a symbol or a mask, instead of a "[pawn] on a board" as the rulebook tells it.

Everybody likes playing furries acting out a verison of King Arthur; we'll see how it goes. Zen is about direct experience, because theorizing is only a tiny fraction of living. So, we'll see ^_^

Friday, September 4, 2009

One last whack at Creative Agenda

I picked up the Baron Munchausen RPG today, a strange, funky version of it that's more or less an in-character document - the titular character is the 'author' relating the rules and the text, with the meta-text element of him arguing with his 'off-camera' editor (as in, he relates his side of their ongoing disagreement in sort of real-time). Neat stuff ^_^

Anyway, it's been described by Ron Edwards, and by the guy who sold it to me, as "almost an RPG" - it's a lot (a LOT) like an idea I had about Vikings making boastful tales and then calling each other out on lies and getting points for it. That's also pretty much what happens in Baron too.

Anyway - so my realization is that any given game's support for CA is really quite simple, especially if it's fairly coherent. "Rules" in this context, by the way, means everything from mechanics to setting to, y'know, the basic reason why the game says you should play it.

Step On Up - the rules strongly support chances to show off how awesome and skillful you are, up to and including victory conditions. 4th ed. D&D definitely includes "minor-scale" win/loss situations where you get to show off what a tactical genius you are.

Right to Dream - the rules focus on supporting a certain kind of setting, premise, genre, etc. This could theoretically also include a game about a particular sort of character that you want to explore - the White Wolf games tend to focus on exploring a "lifestyle" of one sort or another.

Story Now - the rules focus on exploring a theme, philosophical premise/dilemma, something like that. This has generally been expressed so far as either an emotional (My Life With Master) or philosophical (Polaris) struggle - the struggle for freedom from the Doktor in the first one, and the struggle between integrity and self-preservation in the latter.

Anyway. Point is: CA is really pretty transparent to me now; good stuff.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Curse you, "balance"!

The nebulous concept of "game balance" sometimes hamstrings me when I'm trying to run more player-empowered games. The bit about "you don't want to give out bonuses too freely..." is the cornerstone of this mindset, and makes me, and many other GMs, leery of making things "too easy", even when they aren't, and even when the point of things isn't the difficulty.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

CA and me

The obsessive quest for definition continues.
I've decided/realized that yes, it's absolutely, positively fine for a game that mainly supports one Creative Agenda can (probably will) have rules that are, or appear to be, related to another CA. It came to me as I was thinking about an example of a movie in which tactics and strategies of the characters are frequently relevant to the plot, but the movie's still "about" something else.
Last of the Mohicans comes to mind. So does Braveheart. Hell, only action movies can get away with lots of bloodshed and battle scenes without there being something "else" going on.

Silly of me to not see this, in hindsight. So - in Braveheart, we'll say the Premise is "We don't have to beat them; just fight them". Thus, rebellion is not so much about winning as it is about not giving up. The flip side of it is that the rebellion is an expression of this stubbornness, the desire to live with dignity; that's why we're fighting. At this point, it's quite similar to the RPG Orkworld - "humans have the numbers; dwarves have the [weapons?]; elves have the magic; all orcs have is courage, and that is enough". That's an excerpt from an old promo for the game. Whatta premise, eh?

Anyway - naturally, the Scots still want to win their battles, not just fight them. They devise tactics of all sorts, they fight their hearts out, and so on. Rules for combat, even fairly tactical combat, would not be terribly out of place here. But the fighting isn't the point; the point is the Scots have to prove to themselves that they have dignity, that they have ethnic pride, trying to recover that which the English took from them. I dunno; if you have other ideas, that's cool. I'm shooting from the hip, here. What you need *besides* combat rules is some kind of mechanic(s) that injects hope, courage, dignity, pride, or plain old grit into those mechanics; furthermore, this isn't just "flavor" - it has to be the thing that drives play. And it does - after getting their asses beaten at Falkirk, the Scots lose their champion. He goes off to get tortured and executed in London for being a traitor to the crown. Looks bad, eh? Well, Stephen the Irishman goes with Hamish to see their buddy off; following the emotional route of the film, it is because they do this, and arguably because he's betrayed by Robert the Bruce, that the Scots can finally win the day.

In some kinda game terms, it's arguable that our two brave fighters have just recharged their Pride pools, and can now bust out some serious victory in the final battle at Bannockburn. The film, through this lens, is not about the war alone - especially with the early establishment scenes showing the pathos and misery of the Scots, it's about the clans learning to hold their heads up high again.
Now, a game that covers only tactics and Pride would be pretty thin, and it wouldn't really offer much in the way of options for the players - you can fight, and you can gain Pride by suffering outrages at the hands of the English.
But if you put in some stuff about alliances between different factions (join the English and sell out; trust no one but your own clan and see how far it gets you), some meaty mechanics on how one goes about gaining Pride (and losing it), and so on, then you've got something. I suppose, in terms of mechanics, the focus must mirror the focus of a film - Braveheart's plot doesn't dwell exclusively on the battle scenes, but rather has a lot else in there about betrayal, loyalty, love, lust, family, obligation, and dignity. *These* are the things that you build the game around, and the battles, scraps, and rows could be "payoff" scenes - situations in which you fire off the shots you've loaded through non-battle "development" scenes.

Wow, that got out of hand really fast. I think I want to reboot Mask of the Emperor as, say, something like Caste Warfare: a Game of Rebellion. Neat! More to come.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Hellenes - character creation

Kickers are a wonderful, wonderful tool. We've finished character creation; we've chosen a more historical, somewhat less mythical flavor for the setting, and plan on taking a lot of liberties with history.
So: We have a Hero, Apollonia, daughter of Apollo and of a would-be sacrificial victim at Delphi. We also have "Aeneas", aka Alcyone, a runaway Spartan helot turned archer and hunter.
Apollonia was stationed outside of Helos, south of Sparta, with the Allied forces in reserve. Aeneas was finding food and staying hidden, a woman dressed as a man, knowing her parents had already been killed by the Persians. Her father had died on the battlefield at Thermopylae with his master; Aeneas didn't want that fate.
The war was going well for Greece: combined Athenian/Spartan armies, heading a coalition of Aegean city-states, drove the Persians out of Attica, forcing them east and south into the sea. When the Persians fled south, some of their crews landed at Lakedaemonia and raided Spartan towns and villages as they went.
One of these towns, Helos, was not too lucky: Apollonia, famed hero of Athens, was away in Sparta gathering supplies when the Persians attacked. As these men were disorganized and desperate, wanting to shame and hurt more than conquer, they only burned a few buildings and escaped with some of the women of the village. Some slaves, mostly (such as Aeneas' sister!) and the village headmaster's daughter. The headmaster tells it all to Apollonia, tearfully begging that she bring his daughter back safely.
Aeneas hears that his home village has been hit by raiders! Fearing the worst for his sister, his only living relation, he high-tails it for Helos. Never mind what she'd think of her cross-dressing sibling; never mind what Persians might do to a woman trying to pass as a soldier. They won't use Aeneas/Alcyone's sister as their plaything any longer!

Cool. We've got a 2-hour session ahead of us tomorrow night. Some establishment of premise is in order, and then on to business!

Thoughts - the Kickers worked beautifully to get us right where the action begins. Now we have all we need to get right into things tomorrow! Also, I think I have a better idea of the Premise now, which is, naturally, quite setting-driven: if the gods were listening, and took an interest in you, what would you do with that attention? Would you invite their aid, scorn their scrutiny, or do your best to keep your head down? Good stuff.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Otherkind Challenge

This post is as much about fleshing out my comprehension of the material as it is about sharing it with others.

Vincent Baker, like four years ago, came up with a generic version of the core mechanic for his 2002 design, Otherkind, which was a game about fairy-like creatures trying to flee the world of Man with as much Numina (mystic essence-stuff) on hand as possible. Their opposition: Men, with their Iron.
In the original design, (thanks,!) you roll four dice whenever you attempt something. Then, you take the dice results and apply them to four categories:

Narration - does the GM or the player get to narrate?
Motion - did the character accomplish what he set out to do?
Life - did the character harm anyone in the process?
Safety - did the character get hurt in the process?

Only Life needs further explanation - it's anathema to the Otherkind to destroy life; Numina is the very essence, sort of the divine byproduct, of life, so of course causing death is super-bad for them, and makes them more like Iron (which is really bad!). I've been unable to find the original full entry on that explains all the rules, but this is what I can recall.

Anyway, here's the distilled essence of the game, usable as the core of any setting or whatever:

roll 3d6.
After you've rolled them, assign one each to the three things.

Assign one of the dice to the accomplishment at stake:
1-2: the character does not accomplish it. The character punches him but doesn't get past him. Update the circumstances and roll another conflict, or go forward with the accomplishment totally unachieved.
3-4: the character makes progress toward the accomplishment, but doesn't achieve it outright. Update the circumstances and roll another conflict, or go forward with the accomplishment partly achieved.
5-6: the character accomplishes it!

Assign the two remaining dice to the two dangers:
1-3: the danger comes true.
4-6: the danger doesn't come true.
If the 1-2/3-4/5-6 scale works for the dangers too, feel free to use it.

So say I roll 1 3 4. How do I assign them? It depends on my priorities, of course. Maybe what matters most to me is Millicent's regard: I assign 4 to that danger, so it doesn't come true. Maybe what matters next is getting past the guy, who cares about a black eye: I assign 3 to getting past the guy, we'll roll again, but pow! he gave me a real shiner.

Say instead I roll 4 6 6. I do the butt dance of victory!

The system here isn't necessarily complete - as it stands, there is, obviously, no room for any traits specific to the character to directly affect the dice rolls. Traits might be relevant as hell for assisting assignment of dice, but they don't give pluses or minuses or allow rerolls or anything. Yet. Notice that you always succeed in the task - in true Firefly fashion, failure comes not from a lack of ability, but from complications that arise as a result of plowing on ahead.

This doesn't mean that people never fail at anything, ever. It means that the thing you've put your mind to is beyond the icy grip of failure; where it gets complicated is that what you were trying to do through the action might screw up (as simple as performing an amazing crack-shot ... on the wrong guy).

So. Easy way to make things more complicated: if you're attempting an action that your character is good at, that is really important to your character, etc., then you could get bonuses on the dice results. You'll notice that higher is always better (thanks, Vincent!), so this is an easy way to "break into" the mechanic and start messing around. You could instead add more dice and more complications - more things can go wrong, but you also have a bigger pool of dice to choose from to put things where you like.

Three things: 1) since you automatically succeed at the task itself, it's up to the Social Contract to enforce what sort of tasks you can attempt in the first place. 2) Any player should be allowed to take on more dice (and for each one, a complication/thing that could go wrong), gaining the benefits mentioned above. 3) Characters get some number of points to put into traits they possess; whenever you use one of your traits to perform a task, you can use all the points attached to it to change die results, 1 point per pip on the die. This represents the greater control in the overall situation that comes with mastery of a skill.

Lastly, I think I've changed my mind about the "lack of setting" presented by this system. You go to people, explain this system, and then ask them "so, what do you feel like playing?" If they're gamers, they'll come up with something. If anything, this could actually increase your odds of finding something folks like, or scratching an itch somebody has had lately - you guys just saw The Mummy again and want to do that, but nothing on your gaming shelf has that genre. Good stuff.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

An important ending

We finished the first-ever game of Mask of the Emperor tonight. Great ending: one of the PCs decided to adopt the baby they kidnapped - she's the future Empress, and they need to hide her for a few years.
Anyway, I segued right into character creation for The Hellenes, which I had already explained to them (and said again tonight) didn't have to mean a change in the setting. At that point, Katie, one of my players turned to me and said "I think I'm done with this character. I don't know what else to do with her."
This is one of the greatest things I'd ever heard - a situation in which a player had finished with a character, rather than having the game cut short, or the character never get really realized. We took the story all the way to the end, and that's only happened in two games I've ever run, and only in one game I've ever played in.

So - the conversation moved pretty quickly into talking about character ideas, expectations about setting (Mask is too "low-magic" for her), and so on. My other player, Victor, managed to work the battle of Thermopylae into his character concept: the slave of a Spartan warrior, who was at the battle, and... okay, that's actually it. But being at the battle is pretty cool. Also cool was a Hellenistic version of Mulan: a (non-Spartan) woman who passes as a man through cross-dressing and whatnot so she can be a warrior.
Katie's idea was looser: an Athena/Apollo-inspired artsy-warrior type. Character creation is tomorrow; we'll see where things go!

Hero Quest (the boardgame) and conflict resolution

This relates to the previous post, and is an easy way to inject Conflict Resolution into pretty much anything, no matter how crunchy or tactical:

The players should make assertions, like in Polaris.
Don't say, "I search for traps."
Say, "I ensure there are no traps around."

In the former, you have the player fact-checking the scenery. Boring!
In the latter, you have the player declaring that there are no traps, or that he's found one, assuming he succeeds on the dice.
Don't hide it: give the PC the successes/target number he needs to beat, so you don't screw him
If he fails on the dice, he could miss something, especially if he fails really badly. Important: tell him if he fails. It's not a secret to the player, only the character.
What's at stake is that there could be a trap that might impede his progress. From there, if he finds or triggers a pit trap or a trick floor tile, then next you've got a dexterity check.

Go after what you want, and then see if the dice will back you up.

I can't wait to play, instead of run, a game with CR. Yee!

Transparency and RPGs

I've been browsing a thread at, and a college game of D&D 3.0 comes to mind.

I was playing a thief in a very brief (maybe 3 sessions?) adventure, and I think it was around the time I was checking the hallway for traps every five feet when I decided I was done with conventional Credibility.

In that thread, they're talking about sharing information. But really, now, there IS no information, only what the GM is deciding from moment to moment! He might have taken notes and made preparations beforehand, but that's like saying a speech is set in stone (and cannot be changed, no way) just because you brought index cards.

It's a game - the contents are imaginary. If you like being surprised by hearing other people's ideas, with timing and pacing and whatnot, that's cool. That's totally cool. But sometimes I think trad gamers can get a little caught up in "what's really happening" and forget that, hey, we're all making this up as we go.

Honestly, the fixation stems from the amount of prep the GM (or whomever) puts in - you don't want to "break" or "interrupt" the thing being devised for your entertainment, so you sit and let it unfold. But it's a whole lot easier for everybody in the game (less work for the GM, more entertaining for the players, IMO) if credibility is shared.

All you need to do to change credibility is to give players the power to create plausible play elements. Conflict resolution is all you need: give players the real chance to decide what happens in the story, and their creative energy will explode! forth, saving all us Game Masters a ton of work. Setting stakes is where it's at.

As for the important, if redundant, issue brought up in the thread, that of respecting people's right to play as they please, absolutely! That's fine. All I ask is this - if you notice a frustration or discontentment with your RPing experiences, consider giving it a try.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Power 19 for the new version of Mask ("The Hellenes")

Finally, a Power 19 that doesn't stump me! I know what I want to do with this design, and some new ideas and applications of ideas sprang directly from doing this exercise. Boo-yah!

Power 19 for The Hellenes

  1. What is your game about?**

    Ancient Greek-style heroes adventuring in the Aegean

    2.) What do the characters do?**
    Go on adventures, have family dramas, and cross paths with the gods.
    3.) What do the players (including the GM if there is one) do?**
    Each controls a single character permanently and, temporarily, any characters acting as proxy in a conflict for the protagonist generally under that player's control. The GM (the Chorus) controls everybody else – antagonists, allies, bystanders, and neutral parties
    4.) How does your setting (or lack thereof) reinforce what your game is about?
    It's a great, big, familiar landscape to run around in and make huge choices about family, the gods, and fame
    5.) How does the Character Creation of your game reinforce what your game is about?
    Arete choices determine what kinds of things you do to make an impact. Virtue choices determine what kind of person you are (or are perceived to be).
    6.) What types of behaviors/styles of play does your game reward (and punish if necessary)?
    Recklessness, non-strategic/emotional decisions and egotism (on the part of the characters) are rewarded. Players who refuse to take chances with their characters have a much harder time against real adversity. If you're willing to lose, you have a better chance of showing up your opponent, even if it means your own humiliation or death.
    7.) How are behaviors and styles of play rewarded or punished in your game?
    More dice are your reward, through Glory and Virtues. If you're overwhelmed or just don't want to let him get away with it, you can give your opponent more dice, knowing he'll get his once he's finished trouncing you. Heroes who refuse to give in to their massive egos lose Glory; other characters who refuse to take chances or be foolish once in a while will be outstripped by their reckless companions
    8.) How are the responsibilities of narration and credibility divided in your game?
    In addition to #3, everyone is entitled to introduce set details and props into the narration, but only the Chorus can introduce characters other than the protagonists. Meta-game chatter, especially suggestions, ideas, and questions, can come from anybody, and should be seriously considered as material by the Chorus. A good Chorus should listen to his players, maximizing the effects of their decisions (in good faith) and introducing plot elements to accommodate the players' clearly stated desires.
    9.) What does your game do to command the players' attention, engagement, and participation? (i.e. What does the game do to make them care?)
    You can always reach out and touch divinity for a little assistance. Hubris and Virtues give power, and both carry effects that change the situation in clear ways: Virtues make your name shine, while Hubris could very well be the death of you (or all you care for). Additionally, just as players are encouraged to be bold and reckless, the Chorus should have a “yes, and...” attitude whenever possible.
    10.) What are the resolution mechanics of your game like?
    Players roll dice pools; losing a round of dice knocks one die out of your pool, unless you're in a To the Death challenge. These dice are lost against that opponent until the situation improves, in some way, at which point the PC rallies and can try again.

    Players can escalate the situation in a number of ways: Blood Challenges allow you to knock dice out of the opponent's pool semi-permanently (until healed, even if ), while To the Death challenges up the ante to the margin of success, instead of losing just one die at a time.

    Hubris, Glory, Virtues, and Oaths all provide ways to gain more dice to use against your opponent;
    11.) How do the resolution mechanics reinforce what your game is about?
    Once a situation starts to get away from a character, things are likely to stay that way – escalating the stakes to injury or death can help you trounce an opponent before he can get a lead on you, and calling on more dice can help you stay ahead or dig yourself out of a hole. These tactics always “fall forward” - whether you win or lose from using them, they carry effects with them that, well, “echo in eternity”, tying you back into the importance of your decisions and your situation.
    12.) Do characters in your game advance? If so, how?
    Virtues can be improved with use; spending Glory earned by using them will grant more Virtue dice. Arete can be improved the same way – if a skill contributes greatly towards saving the day or completing an important goal, you can earn Glory from the deed, which in turn can be spent to increase the rating of that form of Arete.
    13.) How does the character advancement (or lack thereof) reinforce what your game is about?
    Advancement relates to what it is that your character is praised for – either skill or strength of character.
    14.) What sort of product or effect do you want your game to produce in or for the players?
    I want to really ramp up the ability to win, but at an ever-increasing future cost. I want people to feel like big damn heroes – powerful, wild, and a danger to themselves and others.
    15.) What areas of your game receive extra attention and color? Why?
    Hubris gets around – blasphemy, swearing oaths, and committing shameful deeds all force a connection between the character and his world, for good or ill. That's the core of this game.
    16.) Which part of your game are you most excited about or interested in? Why?
    Oaths sound like a blast – you aren't allowed to fail, and you have to deal with the consequences for accepting so much help from Heaven!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Creative Agenda - sometimes it makes sense

As I'm working on this re-up of Mask, I have once again had to realize that Story Now is much simpler, and easier to achieve, than I give myself credit for. Each time I go through this, I end up seeing things in a different way.
This time around, the realization has taken the form of: a set of rules is only a piece of realizing Story Now. It is only a vehicle that gets you to a place where you can get Story Now.
That covers the "am I designing it right?" bugaboo. Now for: am I playing it right?"

The answer is: if you have a Kicker and a deliberate, chosen "angle" on the Premise (whatever it may be; more on Premise below), then you're achieving Story Now. That's it. If you're shooting for something that addresses the theme(s) of the game/story/situation, you're doing it. That really is it.

If you're doing "pure Exploration", i.e. experiencing the game world for its own sake, that is The Dream, i.e. Simulationism. If you create, explore, and end specific storylines and plots specifically to check out what the setting can do, that's The Dream, right there.

Okay, Premise: this can be, and generally is, I think, as simple as "This is how things are. How do you feel about it?" It is most emphatically not "What are you going to do about it?" unless your feelings, your angle on the situation, are what spurs your actions.

I just saw Terminator: Salvation, and it is blissfully free of Premise. In the manner I generally associate with Disney movies, T:S has an extremely simple "lesson" tacked onto the action: "everybody gets/deserves a second chance." [note: this "lesson" is more a reflection on life voiced by the characters, more than something that ever, ever comes up in the plot in any way. In any way: dialogue is not plot, sayeth my old film teacher.] Honestly, the level of ... not badness, but rather straightforwardness here, it's almost like it's an art film that's come around to artiness the long way, 'round the back. The tableaux is explosions, machines, gunfire, and big, leather boots; we more or less see this over and over again, in differing scenarios and situations, with a plot to string it all together so thinly that it seems almost deliberately weak.

It's a bit like watching Secretary: the point is not to think about things so much as it is to look at things, to have a pleasing sensory experience, and enjoy doing that. This is a perfectly acceptable form of entertainment; let it not be called anything else/less. But it's not a "thinky" movie in the slightest; it doesn't ask us to ponder a situation, a moral dilemma or problem, whatsoever. It's not the subject matter that dictates thinky vs. looky; merely whether the characters are walking vessels of Exploration, or if they actually possess meaningful thoughts, feelings, contradictions, and struggles. I daresay that Secretary (or T:S, for that matter ^_^) could be the go-to film example of The Dream/Simulationism, just as I've pointed at The Dark Knight and said "Look! Story Now! On the big screen!"

Challenge/Gamism is probably not going to happen in a non-interactive medium, while I'm on the subject. But that's okay - most any board game, especially one of the less abstract ones like Hero Quest or something, is a sort of reference point for Gamism in another medium.

Oh, duh. On metagame mechanics [warning - vanity post]

So. Instead of making up weird conditions for spending Honor and Infamy, I think I'll decouple their use entirely from context, given that they're already earned contextually.
I had some ideas for a mod for Mask, based on Exalted. One of the main add-ons involved revealing one's immortal nature at an inopportune time, in exchange for metagame reward (stat buffs, in this case).
What I'm going for is this: in addition to the Reputation Vote rules, you can gain Honor/Infamy whenever you're in Disguise and choose to reveal yourself for in-character, not metagame, reasons. Thus, if your character couldn't take another moment of hearing the guards besmirch his clan's honor, and blurts out who he really is when he really shouldn't, you've earned some immediate Reputation! Not sure if I still want to have a permanent Reputation stat, but I think I'm still just reeling from the fistfulls of dice that one of my players seems to always have on hand.
The solution there is probably just to reduce the number of stat points that characters get. Changing the stats and skills around, too, would also be good - I have a whole slew of ideas for a Greek-themed setting, something that I would feel a lot more comfortable running. That would necessitate changing the names of the Reputation traits, but meh.
Meh, I say!
Off I go! The Emperor is probably going to become the Persian Emperor, or something.
Annnnd before I go, it occurs to me that stuff like gods and monsters are way more important now. Hm. Hm, indeed.
Well, at least now I can have sailing as a skill. Exalted has it; why can't I?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

My clan can beat up your clan!

In practice, the Mask system feels a little thin: I've basically got a really simple dice pool mechanic and some metagame stuff that directly influences (and is directly influenced by) play. With that in mind, I've come up with a couple of ideas to change things.

1- Whenever a PC is in Disguise, the GM should ask the player, "Do you want to create a new identity altogether?" You pretty much have to do this if you interact with people while Disguised; the upshot is that you now can start building Reputation for this fake person, the ... downshot? ... is that you can only use the Reputation associated with your character's current identity, and, hey, wouldn't it be interesting if someone who knows you by one name and someone who knows you by the other happened to both meet you on the street one morning?
[The reason: if you don't have a Reputation to build, and no one knows who you are at all, the game kind of sputters along, listlessly.]
2- Replacing the Reputation vote, the GM simply collates a tally of each PC's Honorable and Infamous Audiences. He should always inform the player of this in some way, while it's happening, so as not to be sneaky; for that matter, he should keep a player abreast of the situation if it seems like things are going in an Infamous direction for your Honorable character this session!
[The reason: it's tedious to have the vote. I dunno how my playtesters feel about it, but I find it irksome.]
There are other things, some level of vague dissatisfaction with things, but I'm not sure what to do about that. It feels like far too many scenes are devoid of conflict, which begs the question: how often should this be happening, how can I steer things back towards a conflict of interests, etc.?
I feel like some sort of "My clan and your clan" mutual history chart might be helpful - something to stir the pot when dealing with someone from a clan that's not covered by the PCs' clans or their immediate allies/enemies. Something to work on.
Oh, god - for that matter, I really need to start applying the Experience and Development rules. Haven't touched 'em, yet. Tracking important failures is important.

Friday, June 5, 2009

On the subject of credibility and climbing checks

I was just checking out Joe McDonald's blog (on hiatus for the time being) and there was a discussion about the concept "Yes, or roll the dice".
I'll let you read it for yourself to get the full scoop, but I wanted to put this out there: "Yes, or" is an assertion that the resolution mechanics should only be engaged when a) something significant happens b) that creates a conflict of interest between a player and one or more parties. You have to have A and B; we know from Conflict (not Task) Resolution that inanimate objects and such can, in this context, have "interests" that they defend.
Let's expand on that, though, as it's not really the mountain you want to climb that has a stake in this: it's the rest of the game group. You're rolling against the mountain, sure, not another PC or a GM character, but it's important to the group that Credibility be established and enforced here. This has always been the case; it's nothing new. But it's gone unsaid, and should be clearly stated. CR's little "rocks have feelings" clause is there to acknowledge that, if we frame conflict as a conflict of interests, then the interests are really between the acting player(s) and everyone else at the table, using the mountain as a pawn, a stand-in.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Story Games as a term; its relation to Creative Agenda

Over at, and a couple of other blogs, as of late, there has been some discussion about the term "story games". Honestly, this is a term I've not precisely heard before, but I can get the gist of what they mean. Narrativist/Story Now games come to mind.
Eero Tuovinen, writer of Game Design is about Structure, made some interesting comments at on the subject of "making story" and playing an RPG:

I can't get really interested in conch-passing storytelling games either, the ones where I'm supposed to be responsible for creating a good story. As far as I'm concerned, I want the rules mechanics to take care of that part so I can focus on playing my character / throwing nasty stuff at the player characters or whatever other fun things there are in the game to be done. "Making a story" is not on my list of fun things for roleplaying simply because when I want to make a story, I write one.

Looking at TSoY in this context, though, the xp rules of the game work very well in giving me what I want: instead of me the player getting more control over the fiction the xp gives my character more control over his environment, his fate, his society, his friends and enemies - which in turn directly drives frozen conflicts of his life towards resolution now that he finally has the power to do something about it.

Something really, really important to take from this is that the Creative Agenda stems from the players themselves, not from the game or its rules. I feel like this is something that's been troubling me, distracting, even, when I'm working on game design - from a standard definition of Story Now, the rules are there to heighten the exploration of the Premise. A Story Now game gives the Premise, sets up some rules that allow Exploration, and then the players run around in that space.

I dunno where I'm going with this; I'm not quite sure what the phrase "story game" means to other people, given that I'm a Forgie and it doesn't come up at the Forge, like, ever. But the point of this post is a reminder - if it's protagonism and theme and such that you're after in play, rather than Being There, Stepping Up, or what have you, then grab a Story Now game and you'll put the right foot forward.

It may not need to be said, but it's possible that the misunderstanding here (Eero and others' reasonable misgivings aside), comes about because of what folks think a story is. Without rules that deliberately limit the mechanical focus to the Egri premise, the play group is at a disadvantage for achieving "story". More importantly, perhaps, the GM's role of managing and heightening tension cannot take on the focus needed for Premise without rules to support that.

Unless you put it out there that, say, the forces of good reputation and personal desire clash, and set up mechanics that make these things abstract in some way, you can't play Mask of the Emperor. Not really.

Friday, May 29, 2009

D.F., scene-creation, and other thoughts

So here's what I'm thinking: the creation of each resource node, and new chamber in the Fortress, for that matter, is an opportunity for a scene. Using a node or a chamber is also a chance for a scene.
For that matter, friendly visits from merchants, immigrants, and invaders are always, guaranteed, instances for new scenes. As in, I'm thinking you have to have a scene here. Merchants can be instant conflict/interest - if you need something from them, to help a dwarf in a Strange Mood, they will take you to the cleaners over the necessary item. Or, they might try to take advantage of the ravages of the local clime: in a desert, wood and stone will be dear to purchase; on a muddy plain, maybe gems and ore are tough to come by. Ah, and let's not forget an easy way to stir the pot in the original game: low-balling a merchant to the point of causing insult.
Dwarves might have orders from the Crown; elves are pretty easily offended in general, and humans ... well, maybe they're likely to try and exploit your situation.
It occurs to me that, doing admin-type stuff for the Fortress, you could consider yourself to be in "Fortress Mode" (to go along with "Battle Mode" and one of the motifs of the computer game), and, ha, the times when you're actually running scenes should totally be called "Adventurer Mode".
For those who don't know what in gods' name I'm talking about - in the Dwarf Fortress computer game, there are three modes of play available from the title screen - Fortress, Adventurer, and Legend. Sadly, at this point Legend Mode is merely a sort of "read through the history of the game world" exercise, in which you have exhaustive lists of all the events the computer has "crunched" while putting together the randomly-generated world, based on a few specifications you've given. It might sound cool, but I don't think it is, in the current incarnation.
Anyway. I think declaring different modes would be cool, as things work pretty differently in Battle Mode, and differentiating Adventure vs. Fortress would be a good "background" bit of info to draw attention to scene-framing as a Technique of play.
What I'm curious about is what people would actually *do* in a game of DF. I'm trying to avoid the niggling little voice in my head that says "Story Now!" because, honestly, I don't think there's enough "meat" to what's happening in the game world to really find themes or a Premise or anything to really, um, work with. The game is about resource management and survival; not much explicit moral conflict. So, we'll see.
Kobolds would be fun - scrappy little thieves who are fairly easy to kill, but certainly liven things up. Goblin baby-snatchers are a good time, too.
You know what? This game totally needs a relationship web of some kind. Births, marriages, and friendships (as well as dwarves who just don't get along!) are all an important part of the original game - happy (or unhappy) dwarves will greatly affect life in the Fortress. For that matter, decorating and the creation of trinkets, furniture, and the like are all other contributing factors to dwarven un/happiness.

A Dwarf Fortress RPG (long)

[cross-posted at the Forge in the First Thoughts section]

So, a couple of months ago I became obsessed with the Dwarf Fortress strategy/world-building game for a few weeks, and part of my obsession involved the very basics of an RPG based around it.
I've been messing around with these ideas again this week, and I wanted to post my thoughts here for consideration. For the unfamiliar, the point of this RPG idea is to explore the Dream of dwarves building a fortress, interacting with elves, humans, and goblins, going to war, scouring for resources, and so on.

DF is a bit of a tall order, in that it's incredibly detailed, single-player only, possessed of an almost inscrutable interface... did I mention how detailed it was? My initial concept centers around a few simple stats that get a lot of mileage and multiple, layered uses:

Beard - social standing among dwarves, a measure of how much clout you have; this extends to interactions with non-dwarves as needed (may be able to declare discovery of other settlements/civilizations, be they elves, goblins, humans, or other dwarves)
Metal - skill at crafts in general, and the creation of finished products, including complex mechanisms for traps and bridges and the like
Wood - exploration of the surface world, speed of movement in the wilderness, harvesting plant life in general (can declare discovery of natural features on the surface world, such as rivers, copses of trees, and so on)
Meat - hunting, fishing, and butchery
Stone - mining/digging, architecture, alcohol tolerance, movement speed underground, and exploration of the underground world (can declare discovery of natural features underground, such as rivers, veins of gems or metals, magma flows, etc.)

Those are the civilian uses of stats. There is also a "battle mode" into which any dwarf can enter, at which point all stats take on different meanings:

Beard - combat leadership, and how intimidating you are to your foes (since goblin invaders often run away when outmatched, I think Beard should be useful to scare away enemies, if you desire; also useful to rally and command dwarves)
Metal - a measure of how well-armed you are (probably relates to damage-dealing and damage-prevention; a dwarf going into Battle Mode must stop by the fortress armory to gather weaponry, or his Metal will be at 0 in combat; this is not always a bad thing)
Wood - ranged combat capability, dodging, and speed (out of Battle Mode, speed is mainly at issue to see how quickly unarmed dwarves can make it back to base, either to arm themselves or just to get to safety. In Battle Mode, Wood is your overall speed, both above and below ground)
Meat - your ability to get through/around an opponent's defenses; also a general measure of the fury of your attacks. Also, measures your capacity for the infamous Wrestling skill, which allows you to pin, disarm, and then torture enemies
Stone - your resistance to wounds, and possibly a measure of your defenses

In combat, you generally select two stats to roll together for each action (probably going to to a dice pool thing, since I like that, but it's up in the air for right now), and that reflects what you're up to: Metal+Meat is a standard attack, Stone+Metal is a standard defensive maneuver, etc. I am all about determining different combinations and figuring out what they would mean for the fight.

Greatness - in the original computer game, the sum total of all your material wealth, furnishings, etc., is collected into a rating of how awesome your fortress is. I want to have something like that here, but with a lot less granularity than a computer could support. This will hinge on two things: resources and fortress-building. Whenever a dwarf uses Wood or Stone to exploit a source of lumber, minerals, etc., it's assumed that those materials are added to the coffers of the fortress for a "base level" amount of Greatness points.
You'll need to break out a sheet of graph paper at this point - the players put their heads together and work on their fortress. I want to encourage actually drawing what it looks like, probably from a pure-vertical perspective; on another sheet of paper entirely, record the distance to various "discovered" resources and natural features. As the fortress grows and gets filled up with details (decoration, finished goods, a well-stocked armory, etc.), the dwarves essentially turn the base-level Greatness points of your acquired resources into high-Greatness weapons, trinkets, goods, and so on.
At this point, I have some vague ideas about a turn-based, "seasonal" time system, which would make the distance between resources and the fortress meaningful even during times of peace (in terms of how much you could collect, I suppose), and that, in turn, would give some structure to how quickly a fortress could accumulate Greatness.
Greatness isn't just-because; it's actually going to be used to determine how much attention your fortress gets from immigrant dwarfs, merchants of other races, and screaming hordes of goblin invaders. For now, I think a d100 system would make some sense, as far as establishing when these events happen (migration, trade, invasion) - you roll d100+Greatness and consult a chart to see whether you're hosting merchants, being attacked, or home to new immigrants. As in the original game, merchant visits occur in specific seasons, based on the race of the merchant (elves in spring, humans in summer, dwarves in autumn). Invasions can happen in any season, as can immigration; each season, then, you'd roll three times on the chart, to see if you get trade, migrants, or invaders. The exception is winter - no one comes to trade with you in winter!
I have absolutely no idea how trade should work, or even if some level of granularity even makes sense, here. It's probably sufficient just to have general resource pools with a rating attached to them; in that case, you could trade 1-for-1 of a useless or excess resource for something you do need.

Specific Resources - presumably, the exploration ability covered by Wood and Stone would be two-fold: successes would determine whether or not you find the thing at all, and some other way of reading the dice would determine how far away it is/how hard it is to get to. That second part is something I haven't quite figured out yet; maybe the number of dice that come up as failures could dictate how accessible the resource is, and yes, this means that the more skilled you are, the more likely you are to locate a resource that's far away. That makes sense to me - I want to limit the number of "nodes" for a particular resource you can find at a single time, giving more skilled dwarves greater access, but also limiting resources to one "node" per distance-rating. Common resources require a single success to find; more rarefied goods require more, while omnipresent goods require no successes at all (the distance is the only relevant factor, in that case). That being said...
Choice of "Map" - since selecting where to plant your fortress is so important to the original game, I figure a quick discussion of what's rare, what's common, and what's omnipresent is important before the game begins. A list of resources (wood, gems, ore, farmland, hunting grounds, etc.) and natural features (rivers, magma flows, hills, etc.) will be hashed out, in terms of modifiers to things - gems and ore are less common than stone and wood in general, but in drier or more mountainous climates, wood might be harder to find, and in flatter or sandier climes, stone and ore and gems will be harder to find. I imagine trade will become more relevant when certain resources are more precious, or even non-existent.
Of course, what DF adaptation would be complete without ... Strange Moods?
Haven't worked this out at all yet, but the basic idea is that a dwarf PC stands a chance of becoming an utter master at either Stone, Metal, or Wood, but could very well go insane/die/go on a killing spree if the requirements aren't met. The other upshot is that a treasure of great worth is created as a result of the Strange Mood, which would add a tidy sum of Greatness points to things. Those requirements could be easily met (materially) if the right kind of merchant were visiting that season, but if not, the Stone and Wood specialists would need to hurry up and find what the moody dwarf needs to ensure success. I think striking a balance between Greatness points consumed on the project vs. the difficulty of the dice challenge is important; if you can buy what you need from a merchant, it should really cost you, but the alternative is a roll of the dice. Something like that.
I realize that there's a certain board-game quality to all this, a certain lack of RP-style Exploration; at least it feels that way to me. I figure that the other half of the game, the part not directly covered by the rules, is the interaction of all the dwarves in the fortress a) with each other b) with the Royal Court that commissioned the expedition, and c) with other races.
Romance, jockeying for position, squabbling over the priorities of the fortress, not to mention good old fashioned grudges and bar-fights, are all important things to actually "do" as a dwarf - as much as I've outlined a bunch of mechanical thingies, but those are intended to be co-central or background elements, sharing or giving spotlight with/to the actual interactions between dwarves. Dwarf NPCs should be needy little bastards who take credit for others' discoveries, pick fights over imagined insults, cower and flee at the approach of invaders, and so on. I think the GM's role is to introduce complications whenever possible/enjoyable, holding the power to cause cave-ins, floods, breakups, etc. There should be space for stories or plots within the game - stuff that goes deeper and more detailed than the rules themselves would do alone - stuff like weird discoveries in the mines, agents of the Crown showing up with hidden agendas, things like that.