Sunday, May 30, 2010

Quick update - new games and new players

Once some actual scenes get underway, I'll have something more substantial to share.
For now - - the Dwarf Fortress character creation session was a success; we'll have an explorer, a disgraced military officer, and a heartbroken poet all trying to run a settlement in the middle of the jungle. We'll see how it rolls!

Secondly, B and I made characters - and a situation - for Fiasco. We used the On the Ice playset; we have a couple of siblings, children of scientists, who have returned to ice station McMurdo (purpose unknown yet), only to discover a body in a hunter's shed. Polaroids have been nail-gunned(!) to the dead man's chest, and there's a note, in Sharpie: "Your move". The Polaroids depict the deputy director of the station talking to someone - since the kiddos (now adults) don't really recognize anybody who's around the station these days, they aren't sure what the hell's going on. First session to follow soon!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

CV - RPG style

I need to take a moment and write down designs I have in progress, designs I've given up on, and ones I've more or less completed (late-beta constitutes "completed" for this list's purposes).

La Familia (mostly finished Otherkind-dice game of factional rivalries and Clan Treasures)

Dwarf Fortress (homebrew game of overwrought, dwarfy passions unfolding underground; based lovingly on the game of the same name; still a WIP, but with recent progress)

Tell That to an Angry Mob (horror/weird fantasy monster game about loyalty and love and being an outsider; still a rough sketch)

Mask of the Emperor (dead, and scavenged for ideas; my samurai game of reputation)

Giants in the Thicket (a fun little WIP about villagers working out their differences so they can all slay a giant together)

Leviathan (new! a murder mystery game with Polaris key phrases and a deck of cards; it gets a little political and a lot sneaky)

The Hellenes (Mask-inspired Greek gods-and-heroes game, with some informative holes in the rules. Dead, but scavenged well for ideas)

Potter's Tale (early-college crack at game design; experimented with two sharply different fantasy worlds side-by-side, one animal and one human)

If you have any questions or ponderings about any of these, let me know and I'll happily share what I got in greater depth. The purpose of this list is to make me feel a little better about getting stuck on projects, and of course there's my fruitless compare-self-to-Vincent-Baker issue that I'm working through, too ^_^

Ah, sigh.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Ice Station Nerdly, Theory, Etc. [3 of 3]

Finally, we get to Radiant. As I'd guessed, this game is definitely inspired by Apocalypse World - the rules summary, which is nice and short, has a series of headings that basically go "To do X, roll Y, then spend your successes on Table Z." AW has a bunch of these, called maneuvers, and so does Storming the Wizard's Tower.
It's hard to guess why people compare it to AW more readily, given that a) Radiant doesn't divide any of its maneuvers by character class and b) Storming pretty much has the same thing going on - though stuff like "to read a situation" or "to show someone up" are more in AW's format, whereas Storming divides these things into broader classes like "Controlling Others" and "Charged Conversations". Fundamentally, the mechanics do not differ very much, although Radiant has you rolling great handfuls of dice instead of a simple 2d6, AW-style.

Anyway - - this game is, to put it one way, an attempt to play Exalted with rules that are actually good. The basic Exalted book is required as a reference for play, as it contains all the setting information and the list of Charms (magic powers, akin to spells) that PCs get. The skill system is interesting in that a regular-use word like Lore refers to solving problems by knowing more than someone else does.
The GM had prepared some pre-made characters for us, along with the scenario he was going to run, which made things a little easier to get started - - digging through our sole copy of the Exalted core book to pick Charms would have been kind of a pain. That's the only detail of character creation that's very time-consuming, though - like in Storming, you establish things like A Friend and An Ancestor, as well as original categories like I Love, I Regret, and I Fear I Will. These things help to color play, and maybe introduce NPCs, but they're mainly a characterization tool rather than a mechanical implement.
I'm still wrapping my head around the conflict system, but essentially you look up a relevant maneuver, roll, and spend your successes on the chart. If it's a competitive action, especially combat or some such, things are a little different - combat tends to involve spending successes to knock points off your opponent's skills, like in Donjon. Reduce someone's relevant skill to zero, and they start losing Essence points instead. Your Essence drops to zero and you, officially "enter a coma", but we took that to mean, generally, that you'd be totally useless and incapacitated for the purpose of the conflict rather than comatose per se.
We never actually engaged the Health Points system, which sounds like a much tougher route anyway - you get to add your Essence score to your pool when you roll to defend yourself from attack, so your opponent has to be substantially more powerful than you (Solars get three Essence, compared to everyone else's two) in order to actually wound you. Given that skill damage is more immediately useful, I can only guess that you go after someone's Health Points when you really, really have to make sure they die.
Another neat, funky thing you can do, either offensively or defensively, is shift the conflict. You can roll the skill+attribute you want to force someone to confront you in a particular way. There's an element called Mobility that I'm not quite clear on yet, but it seemed to play out like this: you have to roll skill+attribute to begin a conflict with someone, and if you succeed you get both the terms of the conflict as you like them (Martial arts! Arguing! Archery! Or whatever!) and you start the process of wearing down their relevant skill points.
If you fail this initial roll, I think they can break off from the conflict and keep their distance from you, keeping their lovely skill points intact. I'm having no luck locating a .pdf of the game, but a search will probably produce results when I can get around to it.

Overall, it was a surprisingly flowy, abstract take on a very flexible, action-packed game. The conflict system is fueled powerfully by four factors: creative description, teamwork, and birthrights and charms (cool items and cool powers, respectively). There's a table of bonuses awarded on the character sheet - those factors are the Y-axis and standard/environmental/impressive make up the X-axis.
A good description gives you one extra die to roll; if you work a pre-determined element of your surroundings into your description usefully, that's worth a total of two extra dice. If your description, more or less, impresses everyone at the table, you get three extra dice AND a point of willpower, which can be spent to a) give you one more success or b) if you're defending, knock out all your opponent's successes. Yes, several willpower-bidding wars happened during play; it was great! Given that willpower is required to power Sorcery (very powerful Charm-like stuff, basically), our sole sorcerer in the party had to be very cautious with her willpower, and worked hard to earn it.
If you throw yourself into making really awesome descriptions, you'll have a powerful defensive/middling offensive resource to wield. You can gain willpower from combining Teamwork with Environmental, though, which is nice.
Charms give an absurd amount of extra dice - four for a decent Description, then 8 for Environmental and 12(!) for Impressive. However, Solars have to worry about their auras revealing their nature, the more Charms and Sorcery they use, so lots of sneakiness was called for. Still, we were able to do lots of cool stuff both with and without Charms, so we didn't feel stuck.
I really don't have any complaints at all about this game, aside from the somewhat tricky nature of Shifts in Conflict. That, and a bit of unclarity around how Willpower may be used. Aside from that, it's a solid challenge game with an enormous amount of color and spunk just flowing off of it - good times! It really redeems the Exalted setting and puts it toward some good use.

Ice Station Nerdly, Theory, Etc. [2 of 3]

Best Friends was kind of strange - it seemed to have the least amount of "game" to interact with, at least the way it played out. The regular game involves a bunch of teenage girls who are frenemies, and a GM concocts a scenario or set of situations (not exactly sure) that could push the girls to compete with one another. We played "Gay Hairdressers Edition", though, meaning that our characters were twentysomething gay male cosmetologists on a reality TV show akin to Top Chef, etc., with elimination challenges and a big, final prize of 10,000 dollars and a salon of one's own.
Character creation was a lot of fun - you have Pretty, Cool, Smart, Tough, and Rich for your stats, but you don't get to determine them yourself. Instead, you go down a list and decide which other player you hate "because he's Prettier than me", "Cooler than me", etc.
Next, you go around the room and ask each person what they put (if you have 6 players, it adds up quite evenly; fewer means you have some repeats, which works). For each person who decided they hate you 'cause you're prettier than they, you get a point in Pretty. And so on, through the five stats.
My character, a Russian gay guy in the US on a student visa, had 4 points in Cool (a "gargantuan" amount of coolness) and 2 in Smart ("significant" smarts), but 0 points in everything else. 0 means I'm completely useless in that respect - my looks, my athletic ability, and my finances will never be of any help to me.
Actual play is divided into a) the GM announcing a premise for the current scenario and then b) going around the room and asking folks what they'll be doing for it. In our case, each scenario involved trying to accomplish a goal AND trying to shoot down as many other players' attempts at same - you start with three chips, and if you want to stop someone from succeeding automatically, you spend a chip (which you then give to the person you marked as [blank]er than you, whatever the relevant stat is). If your victim would really rather succeed, he has to spend a chip in response.
The way it plays out is this: people who have the highest stats in something do best when that stat is used a lot in play - if Tough is important, whoever's Toughest at the table will be getting chips a lot. If you play to your own strengths, that's a safe move, too - provided you're the best at something, there'll be lots of times when someone has to hand you a chip to try to make you lose! Each time you get your way, either because you went unchallenged or you spent a chip in response, you get a victory point. Those add up at the end to determine who got their way the most frequently, and was thus the overall winner.

The game was a lot of laughs, but overall I felt like the flow of play was quite choppy, and many times players felt very on-the-spot to devise their latest revenge plot; a simple who's-ready show of hands might have worked better than going around the circle every time. This game is very high on reversals, betrayals, and alliances, but/and it's kind of easy to get lost in the immediate screw-your-frenemy hijinks and forget where the overall victory tally stands. Still, our GM was good to point out the current totals on occasion, which helped us maintain more solid priorities. Also, in the late game, we started coming up with ideas that amused one another enough that the final round was largely conflict-free; there's definitely an element in the game whereby you could drop the direct competition, but/and if you do that enough there's no clear winner, if you don't like that sort of thing ^_^

So yes, the game is straight-up competition and challenge, but there's enough wiggle-room for going between cut-throat and kind play styles that alliances and cease-fires are actually pretty meaningful - two characters hooked up towards the end of the game and had a sexy non-aggression pact, and despite my efforts to turn them against one another! Definite, pure-and-simple Gamism, with a fun and super-easy premise/setting to serve as the backdrop. The specificity of the premise is so non-essential that we came up with some bizarre alternatives - Best Friends: Senate Subcommittee and Best Friends: College of Cardinals! Surely, other alts besides Gay Hairdressers could work too, and without hindering the fundamental Challenge goal of the game.
I think it could use some tweaks to smooth out the rounds of play, but a group that's really rolling creatively could take the game as-is and run with it.

Next: Radiant! And maybe some theory stuff, too.

Ice Station Nerdly, Theory, Etc. [1 of 3]

I played Radiant and Best Friends today, as well as Jungle Adventure. All of these happened at Ice Station Nerdly, which was a rousing success! Not as many people as I'd seen before, but every game I played in was pretty full.

First, reviews of the games I played!
In no particular order - - Jungle Adventure is basically a text-based adventure game, with command line, realized in a tabletop game. The GM is the Parser, or the entity that receives carefully phrased commands from the player(s) and declares the effects of those commands in rote fashion.
Seriously - for each of the limited options available in a given locale in the scenario, there is a specific response the Parser is required to give. For example, in the Native Village, if you interact with the Witch Doctor in a way not covered by the options, the Parser reads you the line "The Witch Doctor glares at you." Every time, actually - our Parser got to the point where he started saying only the relevant verb - "glare" - to save time.
This was pretty much a straight-up puzzle game, though pre-knowledge of that style of computer game made adapting to the format a lot easier - one of our players was less of a computer person, perhaps, and would phrase things in a way that wasn't specific enough for the Parser's instructions.
After a while, though, the puzzles became a little frustrating - did we need to wear the necklace in location X to cause something to happen, or did we just need to have it in hand at that point? Fortunately, the joy of getting a new and different response from the Parser in a familiar "screen", such as "The Witch Doctor crouches to the ground and draws a map in the dirt!", instead of glaring at us again, made the head-scratching worth it. It's a bit of a language game, in a way, in that you have to use the correct verbs to entice the Parser into cooperating most readily. Also, you can save your game, and whenever you're killed (or if you win, presumably), you receive a point rating from 1-100, based on how much of the game you successfully discovered.
I think this is the first pure Sim game I've ever played - Exploration is definitely the biggest, most central point of it all, as there's really no competition to speak of and the story, as befits the source material, is completely fixed and handed out in tiny, semi-autonomous chunks. Yes, the game is quite challenging, but there's hardly anything that directly serves as an in-game indicator of progress or success - - you don't find out your point score til you win or die, so the point system seems to be a friendly pat on the back, after the fact, for your uncovering cool stuff.

Next: Best Friends, Gay Hairdressers Edition!

A Return

I'm going to Ice Station Nerdly today - a mini-con in the DC area thrown by folks from
It's been a while since I've done any roleplaying stuff, and I'm pretty excited.
In Session 1, I'm playing what appears to be a hack of Apocalypse World - it's called Radiant and it's an homage/reimagining of Exalted, but with a very different set of rules.
In Session 2, I'm playing a setting hack of the game Best Friends - the basic game is all about a bunch of women who are "friends" who find any excuse to quarrel. This version is called Gay Hairdressers Edition, and you can infer what that means! ^_^

I'm intrigued by the ramifications of playing two different hacked games today - this thread at story-games (somewhere in there...) addresses the issue of Drift, and a couple of different opinions flowed out of that - - 1) any change, to setting or mechanics, meaningfully affects System and play. The given example was making dwarves lose their beards. 2) non-mechanical changes certainly change the play experience, but only setting stuff that's directly connected to mechanics actually change System meaningfully.

The second opinion is mine, by the way. There was some discussion about being cautious when Drifting to avoid unintentional bad effects, and the standard "Forgies hate Drifting!" argument, which was silly and irritating. Drifting is fine; you just gotta know that's what you're doing, that the changes are meaningful, to the point where Forge Actual Play posters are strongly encouraged to be up-front about any changes they've made to the game, so as to make discussion as informed for all as possible.

One thing that's been annoying about discussing Big Model/GNS at story-games is that people who dislike it as a framework of analysis feel quite strongly about disproving its validity. I ask you, has the internet ever convinced anyone of anything? Of course it has, but angry, ad-hominem-laden forum arguments are hardly a bastion of idea exchange.

It occurs to me that debating the basic validity of the Big Model isn't something I'm interested in at all; just give me my fellow Forgies and we can have susbstantive debates within a shared framework, thank you very much. Ah, well.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Over at the ol' Story-Games, there's been a flutter of threads about GNS stuff. The link right there goes to a discussion about whether or not Simulationism exists - a chat had many, many times before, for sure.

In any case, the poster JD Corley asked me to clearly define Narrativism against Sim, and, well, I decided something.

Ever notice how many games with strong Narr cred are all about relationships? At least, to me they are. Consider Hero Quest - your character's stats are basically all the strengths of his various ties to culture, spirituality, and family and friends (and enemies). Consider Polaris - your character sheet is literally a relationship web with some Themes (potentially more relationships!) surrounding it.

I think I'm onto something - maybe games that fail to quantify relationships at all are the ones that fall flat, story-wise. Games like D&D and the World of Darkness bunch all have character creation systems that focus only on the individual character (ok, ok, Backgrounds move beyond that a bit, but they're pretty simplistic and non-specific when they DO refer to things like allies and contacts, AND they give almost zero structure on determining the nature of said relationships. Anyway...) and not on how said character is part of a larger world.

I absolutely, 100% think that's why Questing Beast didn't work for me - it doesn't bog you down with too many rules to follow, but the ones it does have are too general - they don't give you much direction for character creation, and the stuff on resolution of conflict only exists to establish authority/credibility for description, nothing else.

Marxism and RPG Design

So - most of us have read The Jungle. We know it contributed to the creation of the FDA and some major regulation of the meat industry.
But Sinclair didn't write it for that explicit purpose. He considered that a victory, I'm sure, but when he wrote it, he was trying to convert people to socialism.
Now, I'm a Marxist-Leninist (and we can talk about that, if you want). I have a particular outlook on how societies function, how groups and individuals do act, and are capable of acting, etc. In that vein, I'm intrigued by the prospect of writing books and RPGs that make use of Marxist ideas, but I don't want to be an Upton Sinclair - I don't want to try that hard to "convert" anybody.

One might then ask why I'd be doing it at all, if I didn't want that; the point is, I guess, I don't want to get emotionally fixated on that as a goal, and I don't want to write a screed that fails to be enjoyable/entertaining on its own merits.

That being said, I came across Spectre of the Beast - a game of civilizations undergoing sweeping changes. It seems pretty interesting - you use innovation, community, and idealism as cultural forces at your command, while you try to keep Hope high and avoid succumbing to the Beast (violence, really).
This isn't a complaint, per se, but it's a game that follows the perspective of Great Men and Women, and it's those folks who have the power to shape their cultures. Again, not a huge emotional investment in rebuking that analysis, but as a Marxist, it got me thinking about that Giants idea I had - one in which a whole community has to settle its differences and band together to defeat a common threat.

I see Giants in the Thicket as a potential, friendly response to Spectre - "like, man, those Great Men in History just push the last stone that starts the avalanche. It's not all about them, maaaan!" Something like that.

That's the goal I'm setting out for myself, but first I'm going to play Spectre with some friends and see what we think. It looks neat! ^_^ That'll be my first RPing in forever, too, although I'm playing Best Friends next Saturday at a local con (Ice Station Nerdly), and apparently it's "Gay Hairdressers Edition". How exciting!