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.