Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sorcery and the Herald

We had another quickie session tonight, lasting just over two hours. Pleasantly, its plot content very neatly filled what felt like a chapter in a story, and I decided to end the sesh when the players began to discuss how much down-time (on a scale of months, btw) should elapse before they get where they need to go next.
The herald and the outlaw traveled to the Asagiri province, south of where they were previously; there, they followed a series of contacts and clues in the local criminal underground, finally trekking up into the hills, on the trail of a sorcerer. Upon finding him, the outlaw begged that he sever the herald's psychic link to his master, and replace it with one between the two companions. The sorcerer did not reveal until later that only the Emperor Himself could possibly sunder a connection such as that, but he gladly created another over top of the first.
This briefly led to some semi-derailed play, as I suggested that an "open" connection between the herald and another meant that any injury and discomfort felt by one would be felt by the other; this led to immediate abuse, and I will need to put a ruling on that before next session, something to the effect of "Okay, if you die, that's a problem. Also, no fair hurting yourself and thus making the connection utterly useless."
I was tempted to lean on the authority of a dice-roll, but that got me thinking my trigger-happy player could just constantly roll that all the time, in annoying moments, to be disruptive, and that's a stupid thing to allow. If one gets killed, the other is in trouble, particularly if they were connected at the moment of death; I daresay that the connection laid by a mere conjurer would be far shallower than those laid on by the Emperor's own power, and there could be a bit of retcon in there as well, just to ensure that no annoying shenanigans ensue next time.
All in all, though, I continue to be delighted and amazed at my players' ability to keep the conflict between the PCs fresh and energetic, with only a trifling bit of help from me. I keep the larger forces arrayed against them in an interesting fashion, and they do the rest to keep each scene fun and even gripping!
They shaved off the herald's Hare Krishna top-knot, by the by, and haven't been letting him shave his scalp. It's been only a week, but his Noble House scalp-tattoo is now harder to see, and people take him for a fisherman or laborer of some kind. The fact that he still bows and scrapes and is just so polite to everyone has raised a few eyebrows, but without consequence for now.

One last thought: read Watchmen, then go see the movie. You won't be sorry.

Friday, March 6, 2009

A Song of Melting Ice and Guttering Fire

It saddens me to see such a beautifully-illustrated product as this be party to such pedestrian design. Ho-hum, a hybrid CA. Ooh, metagame Currency! Ugh, a table for weapon rules. Blech, a separate section for combat rules. Blarrrrgh, two different resolution systems, one with target numbers and one without.

It's like someone found a really amazing artist to do the pikchurs, and then took every "Mike's Standard Rant" from the Forge forums and cobbled things together into one game. One thing that is pretty cool: the designers went halfsies on that whole "stats vs. skills" design aspect, such that there are no stats, only twenty or so Abilities that cover the combined ground of stats and skills (the ground they'd get in most games, anyway).

The art, which is awesome, reminds me of Richard Corben's work (Bloodstar was one of my favorites growing up) and that of David Petersen (of Mouse Guard fame), feels too good for this game. The game isn't some horrible creature; it's just so bog-standard (at least in the fast-play rules preview available at the Green Ronin site) that it feels like it doesn't deserve such evocative images.

The Game of Thrones series has super-strong themes, an intensely detailed setting (but the basic movers and shakers aren't hard to understand, thankfully), and characters that feel real and authentic. To have yet another crack at an RPG adaptation of the series be so ... typically mainstream makes me want to go and design my own version of it. I swear, though, this is yet another series where noble houses, respect, and reputation are all major-league forces, which means I don't need to make something out of a whole new cloth - some minor adaptation of Mask of the Emperor would suit the series quite well.

One major thing that'd need to happen, though, is rules for monsters. Well, maybe not new rules, per se, but certainly the injection of overtly supernatural beings, beyond what the Sorcery rules can accomplish. The monsters all still involve people, rather than just being flat, boring obstacles for the protagonists to overcome, so that's cool. I'm also wicked-excited about making the Black Brothers the new Heralds; they are so Aloof it's not even funny! I'd been considering taking the Monk role along with me when I adapted Mask to a Christian Medieval setting, and I think the vaguely-Catholic-Church nature of the Seven-faith in Westeros would work great for Monks. I'd need to swap out the Way, or something, but letting Black Brothers be the "fightin' Aloofs" instead of the Septons would at least maintain the fighter-y options for people wanting to play Aloof characters. Good times.

Edit: upon reading a bit more of the sample game, I noted that the full stats for the sample characters are incredibly brief, almost Mask-brief. This mitigates the game's other flaws somewhat, though its resoundingly incoherent CA (Gamist and Sim, back and forth!) still puts the nails in the coffin for me. Ah, well. Simple rules do not mean good rules, although they do help.

Proactive players

This, this is exactly what happened in every session of Mask we've run so far, and it's been beautiful, just beautiful, to observe:

"One interesting observation is that when you flat out tell the players that there isn't really anything prepared and that you're basically winging it, then player paranoia goes WAY down and they become a lot more proactive. They stop asking a lot of repeative questions of NPCs and stop trying to turn over every minute rock and scavage for every detail known to man before deciding to take action. Basically, they stop trying to second guess the GM when they know there isn't anything to second guess." - from an Actual Play report involving Werewolf: the Apocalypse, by Jesse, aka jburneko, at the Forge.

People are basically considerate and thoughtful creatures, once their basic physical needs are met. Players never, ever want to risk "ruining" your carefully planned adventure, provided they think or know you've planned something. The exception is, of course, if they aren't enjoying what you've put together, but even then, I bet I could go back and interview old players and find out that those who didn't like what I was doingjust didn't want to say anything.
That's okay with me; I kind of freak out when people make their displeasure too plain (see: my Changeling posts on my Livejournal account). Finding a technique that puts the plans of the entire group the table is much more exciting! Huzzah.

Here's hoping we play on Saturday, as planned. I'm seeing Watchmen with friends on Friday night, and it had better not suck.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Thoughts on the Mouse Guard RPG and Luke Crane games in general

[Fair warning: I've yet to play any Luke Crane RPGs; I've only read Burning Wheel and some of Mouse Guard, so what I have to say is highly speculative.]

For those of you not familiar with the comic book Mouse Guard, I highly recommend it for the aesthetic appeal alone. It's sentient, bipedal mice in a world without humans; they wear little cloaks and have weapons and castles and the like, and the titular organization's goal is to mind the roadways of their little world, thwarting predators and the like.
Sadly, as beautiful and clever as it is, I've yet to be engaged very much by the storyline. The conflicts the characters face are gorgeous and lush, yet somehow hollow and a tad forced. The lovingly rendered yet ex-nihilo legend of "Black Axe" (a traitorous villain with a titular weapon) seems tacked on, although David Petersen, the creator, spins the tale with all his artistic talents operating at full capacity.
This all being said, I was wondering if the RPG translation of the series would have potential for greater storytelling powers, but thus far I don't know what to think. In the RPG text itself, the designer (Luke Crane) puts it right out there as far as the point of play: the game-master throws challenges and obstacles at the players, and they play their Mouse Patrol the best they can to overcome them. That's a straight-up, definitive example of Gamism, right there.

I have never played an explicitly Gamist RPG; I've played a few games that were highly Sim, with lots of Gamist tactical content thrown in, but never anything that went right out and said, "This game is about winning and losing. The rules are here to determine when and how that happens." Kudos to Mr. Crane for clear Creative Agenda in his design this time around. I was inclined to agree with Ron Edwards about Burning Wheel, and without putting too many words in Edwards' mouth, the agreement runs toward the analysis of BW being "motorboat" Narrativism: design that almost nails Addressing Premise, but falls just short and instead roves off into highly Simulationist, High Concept play.

If you don't believe me, compare the section on Beliefs and Artha (make-yer-own-Premise Narrativism, which is unique, I believe) with the Lifepaths section of the Character Burner (such theme and panache in those different Race Chapters!). Artha and Beliefs encourage a sort of internal regulator for the character and the decisions the player makes, but as to what sort of story all this is for, Crane has left it up to play groups to determine. In the Character Burner, there's no question that he can beautifully portray something akin to a whole barrel of story seeds, even if the attached mechanics are based on "realism" more than player agency (in terms of helping to tell the story, not in terms of raw power).

My point? Well, I feel like this is Crane's take on almost-Nar-but-really-Gamism. That claim is quite a stretch, I admit, but here's one little tidbit from an review that gave this idea a germ of life:
"The Nature rules deserve some special mention. All creatures in MG have a Nature specific to their species. Mouse Nature is used for Escaping, Climbing, Hiding, and Foraging. Nature can be called upon for these basic activities, but it can also be substituted for any other skill. Doing this, 'going against your Nature,' risks taxing your Nature, and there are risks to reducing it by too much, or for that matter, for raising it too high through advancement."
Does that not seem like a two-steps-removed crack at Premise to anyone else? It seems as though there is a line for PCs to walk with regard to acting "properly Mouse-like", but if I recall, this was something that wasn't really established in the comic. At least, not in Series 1: Fall 1152. This bit makes me think, "Mouse Nature... as opposed to what?" It's intriguing, and it makes me want to go back to the bookstore and find out the rest of that mechanic, to see what Crane is on about.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Wounds and injury in Narrativist game design

[Cross-posted at the Forge under "First Thoughts".]
[Edit: I think I'm going to solve this "dilemma" by keeping the long healing times for physical injuries, but going ahead with the quicker, story-based recovery time for social wounds.]

So I've been playtesting my game for three sessions now, and in our most recent session, one of the PCs suffered a wound. In game terms, this means a loss of dice from the relevant dice pool (the stat and skill used get penalized til the wound heals). Also in game terms, players get to choose whether a particular conflict they engage in will have "you could get hurt, or even killed" at stake. Victor, the player whose PC took the wound, did this all quite deliberately - Kaizo the Herald, horrified that his master was disappointed in him for getting himself taken hostage by foes, attempted to cut his own throat on the knife held by his captor.
This was a great game moment - for once, a PC was engaging in self-destructive behavior because of a story-contribution from the player, not because of player-frustration, which had been my experience most of the time. It fit Kaizo and the concept of noble sacrifice so well, making it a great all-around moment for us.
We rolled to see if Kaizo could get his throat pierced by the knife, and the soldier holding him tried to keep his human bargaining chip from losing its value. He got a success - not an amazing one, but enough to tear himself up pretty good.
From there, I realized that my rules covered how to get wounded, but not how to recover - and now I find myself stuck on how PCs recover from social/emotional wounds as opposed to plain old physical injuries.
I came up with a completely ad-hoc table for physical recovery, one that returns a die worth of "healed" stats or skills to the PC when a certain amount of time elapses, based on the % of the total dice pool that each die represented. To whit: a dice pool of 5 would heal a single die about as quickly as a dice pool of 10 would heal two dice.
That being said: it occurred to me that, not wanting to go too terribly far into the realm of "realism", I wouldn't try to shoehorn psychological care into my Asiatic feudal fantasy setting; instead, I figured that a PC could heal a die of social/emotional damage from experiencing a really validating victory of some kind, particularly if it dealt with someone who had *done* the damage to the PC in the first place.

So! The point is this - I set things up so players could control, or at least influence, the stakes in a situation where they stood to get hurt, humiliated, or killed. The flip side is, well, in some cases they could take months to heal from wounds. Depending on how validating their lives are, social Wounds might not be quite so bad; but I don't want to downplay the impact of dangerous, violent conflict.

So far, it hasn't discouraged my players from using violence, when it fits the way they want the story to go - nobody has shrank away from the chance of losing dice and getting hurt, although this could be in part because I haven't really explained my tentative wound-recovery system yet. I think that letting players control the stakes, and making violence really count for something, will encourage a lot more chatty conflict than stabby conflict, which is what I want as a designer; it makes violence a last resort, like it generally is for us humans. But I don't want players to feel like they're laboring under a crappy, unforgiving system.

- Abby