Jun 15 2012

Decoupling character features

I was reviewing some of my Soft Horizon notes this morning and discovered an interesting accidental feature of the system I’m currently testing. This system borrows from ORE, from Hollowpoint and from FATE and so it has a lot of recognizable key words, but it’s really none of the three.

FATE has this great internal symmetry and consistency. There are very close relationships (to the point, if you wanted to criticise, of identity) between many features — for example, an Aspect is equal to two points on the dice. A stress box is equal to one point on the dice. Depending on variants, Consequences are worth some number of points on the dice (when you have fixed values for Consequences the relationship is tighter). Skill values are points on the dice.

So the dice, the skills, the aspects, and the consequences are all intimately related to the stress track. This means that any bonuses in one place can be seen as (roughly) equivalent bonuses or penalties some place else. A skill of 3 is the same as a skill of 1 with an aspect. Or the same as a skill of 5 against a lower stress track.

Obviously it’s more complicated than that and depends on variants, but these relationships are close no matter how you slice it. This is often a good thing — it makes it easy to manipulate the system and understand the ramifications of changes. A free taggable aspect is +2 on the dice with an attendant demand for extra narration. Easiest effect system ever. And very hard to unbalance accidentally. Awesome features.

I find myself sometimes annoyed at this. Sometimes it feels like a lack of differentiation. I think this is part of what drives people to pare the system down to a page of essentials — there’s a suspicion that there’s less to the system than it seems. Not in a bad way, mind you, but just this sense that it could be re-factored to reveal some very simple truth about it. That’s probably true and probably why almost every version has all kinds of fairly deep changes to the core.

Soft Horizon has disconnected a lot of these things. Your skill rank has no direct relationship to your opponent’s stress. The links that exist are complex and multivariate (without being difficult in play — in play it’s a breeze). A higher skill has a variable effect on capability; generally better but with surprising negative possibilities that derive from being awesome. By that I mean that your chance of fumbling does not increase, but the chance of a move that might be read as over-confident or over-eager can easily result (Hollowpoint fans know what I’m talking about here).

The bit that struck me this morning was stress. Stress and skill are so decoupled that additional stress boxes are not the same as being more skilled at defense. That’s really cool — that’s something I want. Now you are never trading off a defensive skill against another stress box when creating characters or monsters — stress is something else again. They’re not quite hit points either — they aren’t equivalent to a fixed damage system either. This lack of equivalence means that a power or artifact that gives you an extra stress box (or takes one away) is very different from a bonus to a skill. That’s great because that gives you another way to reward characters or distinguish foes. And it turns out there are a bunch of those now.

Better, and this is the risk one usually faces with this kind of design, it is decoupled without increasing complexity, so there are limited ways in which the system can feed back on itself and run away. That means there are (probably) no defects that create super-characters through unforseen feedback loops. That’s got to a good thing, right? Well, I admit, having a super-character show up can be pretty good for publicity, but still, not so good for the game. Sure you can rule them away, but as a designer I would be embarrassed as it reveals a failure even if the end user can fix it.

–BMurray


Apr 29 2012

Experimenting through fake actual play

Note that this was originally posted to Google+. So’s everything here in the past few months and for the forseeable future.

So I’m fiddling this afternoon with new ways to make Soft Horizon work again, and right now I’m experimenting with a 2-3 player system that uses Hollowpoint as its inspiration rather than FATE. The end result is fairly cool. Here are my notes:

To feel this out, let’s consider a conflict (in Hollowpointy terms): your character must travel through the uncharted wilds from Port Kells to Along Bay. It is dangerous and strange. We begin by setting the scene and the stakes:

GM: You need to get to Along Bay, but it is wild and uncharted; very dangerous. How do you want to proceed?
Player: We will march my armies through the wilds, taming it as we go, establishing outposts that will one day become towns!
GM: Okay, so Strategic and you’re using Warfare?
Player: Yup, so 5 dice.
GM: Okay, in your path are several Unknown Kingdoms, men who have been lost to the world and who cannot see past their own borders. They are great and powerful, so I’ll say they have 5 dice. They also have a weak leader, Bor Aval, with 3 dice.
Player: Hmm, that’s pretty hefty. I’ll bring in 4 dice from my reserves (pays a point) to represent my Champion, Herald. Let’s see how it plays out.
GM: roll. I have 3×4 and 2×2 for the kingdoms and 3,4,5 for Bor Aval.
Player: I have 2×6 and 2×1 and a 5 for my Warfare and 2×2, 5, and a 3 for Herald.
GM: 3×4 goes first. As your army advances through the jungle, you are assailed by wildlings. They are ruthless and shatter your plans for the advance. I take one of your 6s. Next up is Herald.
Player: Herlad wades into the wildlings, slaughtering them by the dozens and leading the charge through their defenses. I’ll take your 2 obviously.
GM: I got nothing left, your 2×1 from Warfare.
Player: We take the wildling kingdom and leave a garrison behind. We begin teaching them the Old Ways to civilize them.
GM: Okay that’s one victory. You need two more to get to Along Bay. Bor Aval is still in the picture since he hasn’t taken any effects. I have 3×2, 5, and a 3 for the wilderness and 6,4,3 for Bor Aval. He’s clearly keeping his distance, saving his presence for some opportune moment in your travel.
Player: I have 2×4, 6,5, 1 for me and 5,4,3,1 for Herald. I’m going to tag my Preparation — Blessings of Pernath — for this one. We hold service in the wilderness after defeating the first kingdom and invoke Pernath’s promise of success and light. That’s 2 new dice to me, so a 2 and a 1. Now I have 2×4, 2×1, 6, 5, and 2.
GM: Okay, with my 3×2 you reach the dark depths of the jungle and your army is beset by rot and disease. I’ll take a 4. Your 2×1 remains.
Player: My armies drain the swamps at the Heart and establish another outpost and church. The light of Pernath keeps the jungle at bay and we slog on.
GM: Good, that’s 2 Victories! Only 1 more to reach Along Bay. I have 2×5, 6, 4, 3 for the wilderness and 2×4, 1 for Bor Aval. Finally!
Player: My armies have 2×5, 4, 3, 2 and Herald has 2×4, 6,2. I think I’m going to burn one more trait to seal this deal — I’ll burn King by Birth to add two dice. Basically we are going to arrive at each wild community in full parade, with the light of Pernath shining from us, demonstrating our divine right to rule.
GM: Nice. Go ahead.
Player: A 4 and a 2. Woo! I have 2×5, 2×4, 2×2 and 4. Herald still has 2×4, 6,2. My 2×5 goes first?
GM: Yup.
Player: We aren’t just advancing. My armies are building a road as we go from the Heart to Along Bay. We are shattering this wilderness, putting outposts and signal towers all along the way. I’ll have your wilderness’s 5.
GM: Your 2×4 is next, either yours or Heralds.
Player: Herald’s, I think. Bor Aval and his no ragged mobs try to block the road and Herald challenges him to single combat. The battle is fierce, but Herlad takes the day and we mount Bor Aval’s head on a pike that leads our advance.
GM: Your own 2×4 is last for the third victory.
Player: We march into Along Bay, victorious, preceded by our roadbuilders.
GM: You are met with cheering crowds. Already there is traffic along Heart Road and signs that the new communities will thrive. The menace Bor Aval is defeated and the wilderness conquered, at least between these two city-states.

So, this implies traits (either burned per Hollowpoint on paid for per FATE) and that some traits can be created as preparation before a conflict (a maneuver). It also implies some kind of finite reserve pool of dice that can be used to represent allies. The GM will need rules for how to choose how many dice to bring to bear. I note that if the player had chosen a tactical solution (say, Violence, to simply bull his way through the wilderness D&D style) the story would be completely different. Similarly, if the character had chosen an abstract contest with, say Piety, to find a safe path through the wilderness by negotiation with a God, we would also have a very different story. Three victories is arbitrary but a good stress track length.


Jan 9 2012

Bundle of joy

No, no one at my home is pregnant.

However, over at RPGNow there is a great bundle of games that happens to include Hollowpoint (and Deluge for that matter). It also has a bunch of titles from independent developers that you likely haven’t heard of. Have you heard of the game, My Cat is on Fire? Toypocalypse? They are all in there. It’s about $50 worth of games for $25.

So GO PLAY SOMETHING NEW.

Here’s the full list of what’s in there:

Hollowpoint from VSCA Publishing
Deluge from VSCA Publishing
Toys for the Sandbox: Apothacary from Occult Moon
Mi Gato se Incendia! (My Cat is on Fire!) by Benjamin Gerber
Argyle & Crew: Adventures in the Land of Skcos and two new scenarios by Benjamin Gerber
Mirkmoot’s Magical Accouterments for Creatures Great and Small by Benjamin Gerber
Mirkmoot’s More Magical Mayhem for Creatures Small and Great by Benjamin Gerber
Shadow, Sword & Spell: Under Pashuvanam’s Lush from Rogue Games, Inc.
Conventions for the Aspiring Game Professional by Jess Hartley
Instant Antagonist: The Creepy Cottontail from FR Press
Open Core Roleplaying System Classic from Battlefield Press
Toypocalypse from Top Rope Games
Old School Hack by Kirin Robinson
Kicking Historical Asses from Machine Age Productions
Homicidal Transients from Left of the Moon Games

Oh yeah — this is only good until the end of January! We can hardly call it the new year after that.

–BMurray


Aug 26 2011

Online gaming disappointment

Having had several chances to use Google hangouts for gaming in the past while, I will give my conclusion: it kind of sucks.

There are several reasons for this sucking but first let’s look at what doesn’t suck: hanging out with new people and seeing them laugh and speak and participating in same is wonderful. I adore it. It’s good fun and should be done over and over again.

But gaming — especially role-playing gaming — requires reliable pacing and participation to keep the action forefront in everyone’s mind. Engaging each other in the fiction requires constant control of pace. And this is one place where the hangout kind of sucks.

First, the mediator has no effective control over activity. People come and go as they please, speak when they want, and there is no effective way to control all of this as, unexpectedly, most of the body language and related cues we use to do this fail to translate over the video and audio stream. With significant attention and preparation this could be managed by a motivated mediator.

Second, the technology is inconsistent, creating constant distraction. Some video feeds are great, some are awful, and some are absent. Awful video feeds are awful in different ways — bad lighting, bad resolution, high latency, occasional drop-outs. All of these impact the pace of the game (especially drop outs) and make things less effective. Audio is even worse, in a way, since despite having video we are really there to talk and therefore (one hopes) to listen. So bad mics or mics that are not echo-correcting or mics that are awesome and picking up the dog, the neighbours, and the dishwasher, are all highly distracting.

It is the nature of this place that you cannot control the technology available to the attending parties. If you could, things might be much better — you get great responsivity thanks to low latency, which makes mediation much easier. You get good visual input from everyone and you get reliable, comprehensible, audio with no feedback echo or shriek. You could finally ignore the technology and get on with the communication.

There’s no good solution for the dice yet. Every option is make-shift requiring window swapping, hidden information, or otherwise blocking the pace but forcing context switches. There really is no substitute for physical dice, on a table where they can be manipulated and seen by everyone at once. I hope we can get close, but so far the solutions are so distant (and of course highlighted by games that need all these axes of information, like Hollowpoint) that the pace of the game is crushed by the defect.

Finally, and this is more personal, I live with my wife. I love her dearly and I interact with her all the time. When there’s a game at our house, she doesn’t play but she does interact and she’s witty and nice and insightful and welcome. When I’m away gaming somewhere else I am, well, somewhere else and so she does not feel ignored even though she is not participating. But when I’m focused on communication for hours through this unstable and sometimes hard to understand medium, I am present with my wife and necessarily ignoring her. This sucks and is not acceptable.

So for now my preference for online gaming must remain text — IRC or Google Docs — and I think I will have to impose a minimum technology level on particpants. If we can’t all play at full speed, it’s really not worth playing to me. I’d rather just hang out with you and laugh and have a drink and introduce my girl and like that.

–BMurray


Aug 25 2011

Hollowpoint mission design

I’ve had a chance over the past few weeks to get lots of input from actual play and even to participate in a couple of games with new players acting as ref. This has been very insightful and led me to think a little harder about what makes a mission work. As usual, a lot of game design for the VSCA is translating what we do instinctively into a set of rules and we frequently leave a few things out — sometimes on purpose, mind you — and therefore leave to instinct.

One of these is the fact that in Hollowpoint there’s no strict mechanical pressure to use one skill over another. The intention is that this pressure comes from the context of the scene and a certain amount of peer pressure to narrate appropriately and therefore not use KILL in an interrogation. The rule is fairly straightforward: if you KILL someone they are dead. Dead people do not give up information (though it’s worth noting for those of you out there skinning this cat — if you have magical powers — like talking to the dead, say — in your game, KILL might be a great way to get information). Therefore successfully killing someone fails the objective for the scene.

So let’s try to codify this a little by breaking out some basic scene objectives.

If you are trying to take some territory (flee a bank robbery to safety, say, or occupy an enemy fortress), KILL is a very good choice. KILL takes territory by eliminating resistance. TERROR is also very good. TERROR takes territory by neutralizing opposition (whether they flee or collapse is irrelevant). Despite the name, TAKE is not a good fit. CON might be a pretty sly way in if the story is good. DIG is not helping. COOL…well, I’ll talk about COOL because it’s a kind of universal skill though not in a way I see as problematic. You can use it for practically anything but they are almost all hard stories to tell. Pick COOL as your peak stat only if you’re up for some very creative narration that works. For taking territory, I’d say no, generally, but there are stories out there that scream “yes”.

If you need to gather information in a scene, KILL is not helping. TERROR might. CON is always good. DIG is the obvious choice. TAKE…well maybe, depending on the specifics and the story the player comes up with. COOL, well I already talked about COOL.

If a scene is about putting the Fear into someone — making them toe the party line by encouraging them forcefully — and that someone is not present in the scene as a principal (you are “sending a message”), then KILL is okay! TERROR is a perfect match, clearly. CON not so much. DIG, maybe, with a good story, but generally a tough sell. TAKE? Don’t see it, but again if the story to date sets that up, maybe. Just to be clear, the horse’s head in the bed schtick was clearly TERROR and not TAKE. The characters didn’t keep the head for anything. I know, no one knows what happened to the body. Maybe they took that. Whatever, you’re quibbling.

Now if the scene requires that you acquire something from somewhere, KILL is not useful at all: KILLing doesn’t get you things, it kills people. TERROR is pretty weak too. TAKE, obviously, is perfect, but so is CON. DIG is a hard sell unless the thing you want is information.

If you need to accomplish something without alerting authorities1 then regardless of the objective, KILL might be the wrong choice.

Now this is still kind of vague (though less, so, I hope!). If the scene is set such that someone has a brilliant territory-taking solution with DIG, well, let it stand. The system self-balances even if everyone always takes their peak skill through a few mechanisms:

  1. Typically there will be a diversity of peak skills and the optimal solution to a simple fight is to all use the same skill. Therefore some people will be using weaker skills in the optimal group solution.
  2. Having a lot of dice can be a problem, so it may be the case that you want a weaker skill. This is more often the case when asking for help — you might figure 7 dice is perfect, so you want to use your peak (5) and get help from someone elses 2. Or maybe use your 3 and ask for help from their 4. You’ll have to work out for yourself where the sweet spot is for dice, but let me tell you, getting a 6×5 and a pair of 1s sucks hard. You leap out unprepared, surprise them, take a die, and then stand around as a target.
  3. The Catch requires a specific skill. Make it one that is not clearly primary to the context (escaping a guarded fortress but you have to crack the key code on the door with DIG or it all fails!). Use the Catch if skill use is getting dull. If no one is very COOL, make the Catch a seduction!
  4. A principal in a scene creates two targets to take out, and they could be taken out with different skill effects. If the objective is to interrogate the principal, then KILLing the henchman is fine, but someone better be doing something else to the principal.

Now you might be thinking, well, what about that rich scene, where someone is killing guards while someone else is taking the objective and someone else is hacking the computer system down. How does that happen when everyone picks the perfect skill for the mission? Well that’s easy — whatever skill gets brought to bear, it is useful in picking off dice before the effects actually get laid down, and so those skills become part of the story even if they are not strictly addressing the objective of the scene. That is expected and desirable. That happens very frequently unless the team lacks diversity and everyone has taken KILL 5. Or COOL 5, though those scenes are intrinsically awesome.

Well they better be. If you are narrating for a COOL 5 character, you better be on your toes and prepared to sell it. Flick that cigarette butt off the bouncers jacket and stride on through the door, partner. Flash that grin. Be confident as hell not just because you are the dog’s balls, but also because Amy is outside with a bazooka and she likes you.

She likes you a lot.

–BMurray

  1. Hey, it happens — set the scene: “The heat is on and you can’t afford to get noticed now. That last firefight in the junkyard might be a valuable diversion for this next action, but another mass murder could bring the hammer down on you. Your boss can only protect you from so much.”

Aug 12 2011

Hollowpointery

Well, Hollowpoint is looking like a success! It’s been about 4 weeks so far and we’ve moved 150 or so physical units and we released the PDF yesterday to substantial overnight sales. Hurray for us!

However, that’s not really what I wanted to talk about here. What I noticed in this past four weeks is a very interesting qualitative difference in the sales. Now, before I get into what that is, I’ll outline what I see as critical differences between Hollowpoint and our other data point, Diaspora. There are many.

The biggest one is that this is not a FATE game. This is a system we developed for the express purpose of making fast, highly decorative action scenes that do not rely on simulating combat at the level of focus that many role-playing games do. This is not a guy-vs-guy combat system (I attack Larry, I roll to hit, I kill Larry). This game is more about describing your success and failure to meet your intentions with a chosen tactic. Anyway, in the context of this discussion the interesting thing is that it is not a FATE game and therefore there is no pre-existing fan base to draw on. When we built Diaspora I don’t think we realized quite how much default attention that would get us.

Another difference is that Google+ arrived at almost the same time as our release and so we were able to leverage it to spread the word as well as talking with fans at RPG Geek and RPG.net. This forum has a very different structure from regular discussion forums and has a different pattern of repetition — while a forum reaches a large number of people you don’t know, that number is largely fixed. With Google+ (and this is similar to Twitter but frankly has far deeper reach) we were able to reach a lot of friends of friends of friends while talking to a smaller set of people initially. I think this got us attention in places that we wouldn’t normally get to at all and may be the sort of breakthrough that starts to undermine the “browsing” exposure advantage that physical game stores have.

We also adopted Fred Hicks’ Bits and Mortar strategy, offering the PDF for free to owners of the hard copy book. I think this changes purchasing on several axes and so is a very hard effect to measure. It seems likely that it drives up hard copy purchase while driving down digital purchases. I can’t prove that, though. I know we still have a lot of digital-only sales going on.

So anyway, what’s different that warrants a thousand words? Well, the reaction.

The reaction is slower and smaller, but then so was our marketing and our target audience. So that’s not unexpected. But the reaction is also far more active. By that I mean that early reactions to the game are mostly examples of immediate play! This is really exciting to me. I mean, I am cool with selling people a book to read, and I certainly write with the intention of pleasing a reader, but the fact that the very first reports on the quality of the book were actual play reports is an awesome fact.

Certainly a major factor here is that we built a game that sets up and plays out in a few hours. That facilitates this kind of quick reaction. But there’s also usually a couple of sessions to any game where people are feeling out the rules and play is not all that satisfying yet. We have seen less of this with Hollowpoint. The majority of play reports are in the “holy crap this was awesome” category, and that’s pretty exhilarating.

Another factor is that I think we reached people who were very open to trying something new in this genre and honestly I think that’s a bit of a breakthrough. I suspect it happened in part because of the depth of the Google+ impact but I can’t prove it. The reason I say that this is a kind of breakthrough is that modern action almost always emphasizes guy-vs-guy detail. It gets grittiness by tracking ammunition and graphic wound calculation and accurate weapons simulation. Hit locations. Blood loss rules. One-shot sniper rifle kills. I think that kind of thing is boring and was hoping someone else would so I could sell a copy of the game to that person and call this a success.

Instead I found a lot of people totally open to this concept, to this level of abstraction, and, frankly, to this orthogonal1 approach to the whole problem of role-playing action scenes. As with Diaspora, the core concept of the game design seems to be a kind of in joke: wouldn’t it be hilarious if we used this hippy concept to do that extremely traditional genre.

Anyway, it looks like the joke has been well received. Certainly this is a game that I love running and playing and I am relieved to once again find I am not alone in my bizarre tastes. Thank heavens for the internet, where there is always someone to share your perversity.

–BMurray

  1. Not claiming originality here; there are plenty of games that do not do guy-vs-guy conflict resolution. Just claiming it’s especially novel in the context of this genre.

Jul 21 2011

Violence

Fair warning. This will sound like a description of things I carefully and explicitly intended while working on Hollowpoint. It’s not. It’s a rationalization of a lot of instinctive stuff that went on that was related to events in a certain order. It feels, now, to me, like it was all deliberate and careful. But it wasn’t. So this is me making sense of how the part of my brain to which I do not have direct, narrative access to seems to work. That one time.

This game came out of discussions about non-violence. Now by that I don’t mean not hitting people, though that’s certainly part of it. I mean the kind of non-violence that J B Bell introduced me to as elaborated by the Center for Nonviolent Communication. The crux of this idea is that any human interaction in which a party engages by undermining the essential needs of the other party is violent. Killing is a trivial case–there are more subtle and interesting ways to be violent.

I was (and to some extent remain) skeptical of the utility of this approach and J B and I had a lot of lunch time discussions about this. Also at lunch we talked about game design. He was working on Chimaera at the time and one thing he was interested in was making it profitable to act in non-violent ways. Because most games assume you will do violence to everyone in order to get your way.

Well sort of. In fact as I thought about it I realized that I couldn’t really think of a game that took a solid stance one way or the other. Reign has Lie and Plead, which are both kind of violent in their way (undermining needs for honesty and peace and autonomy &c), but it also has Perform which really isn’t. Most games are like that, failing to take a side.

So J B wanted to explore nonviolence (and at this point I want to tell J B that his preferred spelling, with the space, has typographic issues and that he should reconsider it for the sake of aesthetics) in his new game. But can you make a fun and engaging game without violence? One way certainly would be to just have no violent skills, but this still allows the player to frame their use in a violent manner. So it’s not so simple as drafting skills.

Eventually we started talking about reward cycles and how one might make non-violent behaviour more appealing or at least competitively interesting. That’s all another story. because while I was ostensibly helping J B (see–it just doesn’t work J B) with his game, I was actually developing something else. Sure I stole his dice system, but my brain was heading over here: what if I made a game where you could only be violent? Where there was no way to frame any action in a non-violent sense. If non-violent-only games seemed boring, perhaps violent-only games would be awesome.

Well it turns out they are. In Hollowpoint, every core skill is a form of violence. You are KILLing, TERRORizing, obviously. But you are also COOL and aloof, completely apart from your opponent, degrading his self-image by comparing it to your own. You CON people rather than discuss or diplomatize or even haggle. You trick them. You are dishonest. And further, you do not buy or even beg — you TAKE. And when you want information you do not ask. You don’t even investigate. You DIG. You have more in common with a vicious, determined, investigative reporter (who, however laudable their work is, are essentially engaging in violent behaviour, strictly speaking) than an interviewer.

And hence this new game. It is a book that distills me wondering about a game where every option is violence.

–BMurray


Jul 19 2011

Research and development and gunfire

This is not related to the fact that I work in the R&D department of a (non-military!) branch of a national defense contractor.

It is about the value of research and development in game design and in particular in the effects of the VSCA “playstorming” model for R&D. This is interesting at this very moment, because Hollowpoint is an unanticipated spin-off from an R&D effort for a completely different game. Maybe even more interesting is the fact that the target game, J B Bell’s Chimaera, is ostensibly about non-violence. Hollowpoint, of course, is pretty much completely about violence (both in the expected literal sense and in the broader sense in which the non-violence movement intends the term).

Playstorming

Playstorming is what we have pretty much always done when we sit at the table, because we just can’t leave well enough alone. Fiasco is probably the first game that we didn’t instinctively playstorm as soon as we got it.

Playstorming is a deliberate play on “brainstorming” and I think its meaning is pretty self-evident. We sit down at the table with some broad ideas and see if they are a game by playing them, changing them, arguing about them, philosophizing about them, drinking some more, playing some more, and iterating over all of the above. Most often this produces fairly little, but it’s fun to do and so that fact that it does have some net product makes it worthwhile.

In this particular case, J B was looking for a dice system to underpin Chimaera. J B has a fetish for dice systems and I don’t, so it seemed like a good thing for me to look into. We’d just come off some Reign gaming (though we are always coming off some Reign gaming — it’s a staple) and so I was thinking ORE-like thoughts. We’d also been playing around with 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars and while that game didn’t get as much play as we’d hoped, it did stir up a lot of ideas about character and content and the relationship between the two.

Anyway, I worked up this strange dice system for Chimaera and we took it to the table.

It sucked

It sucked. Well it didn’t really, but binding it to other elements of Chimaera proved a bit of a chore and J B was not happy with the ref’s role in it — it didn’t deliver the kind of one-on-one, guy-versus-guy, monster hunting action that a good non-violent game should. I, however, was still enamoured with it. And so I stole it.

Stripped of the rest of the Chimaera context, this dice system seemed like a good way to spur and spark and even generate story in the middle of a fight. So I decided that its best use would be in a game that was basically about fighting. Or at least being very bad. I had probably also been in some juvenile debate about “roll-play versus role-play” and found myself very much wanting to smash that phrase to pieces. To do so, I chose to develop a system in which the dice and the role-playing were so intermingled that the dichotomy would be exposed as artificial once and for all.

And we got that. In Hollowpoint, there are of course the usual free-form role-playing scenes. You can’t stop people from doing that and why would you? But the real meat of the narration comes during the fight, when the dice hit the table, and you are forced to make sense of what happened in the context of what you intended. You chose to use TERROR but you got nothing in your dice, so you burn your “ceramic hula girl” trait, add two dice, and get two shiny new sets. Now you are officially TERRIBLE and it has something to do with that ceramic hula girl. Tell me about that. Make each set make sense as it does harm, as the glass shatters, as the dumpster fills with holes, as you laugh and they cower, as the hula girl shatters. Roll-play like hell, you monster.

And so I came to the table with something from my earliest gaming memories: a typed sheet with a mission on it. It was Top Secret , 1980, all over again. We used to play a lot of that game and the way we played it would inform Hollowpoint: as a ref I would come to the game with a typed set of mission orders and that was the extent of my preparation. The game would invariably take place right in my home town, which is part of why the prep was so effective when so light — your home town is a crazy-rich setting that all your players know more about than anyone knows about Forgotten Realms.

So we would do that too.

And…action!

Needless to say, I was excited by the results. It pushed all kinds of buttons for me, from childhood cops & robbers to Top Secret (now I’m a little concerned that VSCA games are all going to actually be strange re-constructions of old classics) missions to assassinate my math teacher, to narration-from-dice. This was all very unexpected — recall this started as an experiment for another game, and an experiment that went badly. But what I wound up with was a game that was basically everything I wanted in an action game. I just hadn’t actually thought about making an action game yet.

And that’s the thing about good R&D — failures have a context, and if you reconsider the context, you may find yourself with an accidental success. Risk is necessary (I recently told a colleague that innovation meant “new” and that “new” meant “risky”, and so de-risking an R&D project is basically killing it) for innovation. But you have to have a sharp eye and an inclination to sift through the rubble.

–BMurray


Jul 18 2011

Bad-assery, thy name is Hollowpoint

Jonathan Jacobs threw down the gauntlet: the RPG carnival theme is Bad-Ass Gaming. Well, most of you reading here already know that Hollowpoint is a straight-up bad-ass game. But let’s look at why.

Well let’s start with the premise: the characters are hyper-competent, super-violent people working towards a set of objectives that they have extraordinary leeway in solving. They can bring any tools that they desire into play to make their patron happy. So let’s look at their tools:

KILL.  Killing things. Whenever an agent solves a problem with lethal force, she uses KILL.

TERROR. Sometimes you need information or collaboration and you can’t get that by killing people. Or, more correctly, killing them is ancillary to your solution. In these cases agents use TERROR. Sometimes people get killed when you use TERROR. Whatever.

COOL. Being just that awesome. Solving problems with COOL is as close to diplomacy as an agent ever gets. COOL is pretty much the definition of bad-assery and it’s a primary skill in Hollowpoint. Therefore, in at least this way, the game is about bad-assery.

CON. I guess CON is also a kind of diplomacy. Agents use CON when they want to rip people off right to their faces. Lying and cheating and doing it well.

DIG. DIG is about as far as agents go in failing to be bad-ass. Agents DIG when they are looking for information. On the other hand, hard-core hacking into government databases is pretty bad-ass (to me, a nerd) and that’s another thing agents do do solve problems.

TAKE. When an agent wants something, she TAKEs it. There is no wealth system in Hollowpoint because if you want something, you can have it — unless it’s something someone else has and you need. And they want to keep it. When that happens, you TAKE it. Again, solid bad-assery — money is no object and you steal anyway.

The core of being bad-ass is that the story is all about you. Everyone else is a cut-out, completely uninteresting except when you tell stories about how you ran the guy over on your way to the warehouse where you shot the shit out of everyone and took their stuff. You are the main character because you are bad-ass. This is actually kind of hard to do in a role-playing game because part of the premise in most is that the characters are all part of a team. So how can you be a bad-ass when you are part of a team?

One way is for your team to be bad-ass at the expense of the individual. This is not bad-ass enough. It lacks the solipsism necessary for a Dirty Harry or a Shaft. It undermines the competence mythology that is at the core of bad-assery.

But you still need a team because gaming groups are groups.

So Hollowpoint has teamwork built in. But it’s not your baseball coach’s version of teamwork. When you ask for help in this game it’s an admission of weakness. If you ask for help the guy you ask can say yes, giving you advantage and he’s out of the scene except as part of your narration. You steal his bad-assery and make him temporary scenery. Using your pal as a human shield is bad-ass. For you.

She might not like that much, so she can say “fuck that”. If she does, you are exposed for the weakling you are and you lose advantage. And for being that dangerous and focused, she gets advantage. But it’s drawn from a limited resource. Done too often or too early, it undermines the ability of the team to solve the mission. Done at the right time, it’s straight up conflict between the individuals (the know-it-all rookie cop and the hardened veteran; the new lieutenant and the bad-ass lifer sergeant; you get the picture). These internal conflicts are also part of the bad-assery: the assertion of self as part of the narrative.

Finally, you are encouraged to die in plot-relevant and dramatic fashion. Few things are more bad-ass than an awesome death. Charlton Heston in the (only) Omega Man. Charlton Heston in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Spartacus (and practically all his friends) in Spartacus. But what do you get when you die? You get a new character who is even more bad-ass in a way that is superbly satisfying to play out.

But I’ve said to much already.

Hollowpoint is about competence mythology, and this is the core of bad-assery.

–BMurray


Jul 18 2011

Skinning Hollowpoint

Sometime in the next short while we’ll release a style sheet for Hollowpoint skins.

Hollowpoint is crazy skinnable. So, per discussion in my last entry here, it seems like a good move for us to make some and for fans to make some and for us to organize them and distribute them and play the hell out of them. The game already pretty clearly states all of the elements that would go into a skin, but not really in one coherent location. Rather it’s scattered around the book as a bunch of implications. In retrospect, this is work that would have been very cool to have done for the book rather than after the fact, but, well, we didn’t think of it.

On the other hand, it nicely addresses the “free stuff” issue — gives us lots of things to put in the download section beside the toe tags.

The core elements of a Hollowpoint skin seem to be:

A concept. Some setting idea that has a team acting towards a mission and being super-competent and bad. As might be obvious already, I happen to think that the best way to deliver this is with a paragraph or two of fiction. A vignette or less, showing what these people are like.

The Agency: what is the organization that gives these people their missions?

The Charge: who or what does it protect?

The Era: when does this take place?

Character skills: are there special skills outside the usual set? Are some of the usual ones missing?

Character traits: how will these be generated? There are three options in the book but there could be others as well.

This is enough for a skin, but it would probably be a good idea to show at least one Mission outline as well, both to set the tone by example and to satisfy the desire for canned adventures. Canned adventures are a strange concept to me but the Hollowpoint framework for missions puts them in a context I can get my head around (they aren’t really fight-by-fight plans but rather lists of objectives and images and people) and they are in demand. People demand them. I mean seriously, people flat out insist that we make them.

One thing we can’t provide in the style sheet is the typefaces used in Hollowpoint. These are all commercial typefaces with no free equivalents and so I can’t give them away. But then, the type should really match the context and not the game, and the skin that gets written will define the context, really. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (a certainly do-able skin for Hollowpoint) demands a rather different presentation than Black Loagoon does.

All this is just thinking out loud at the moment. When we publish the style sheet it will include whatever our plans are — will we wrangle them together and publish? Will we host them all somewhere easy to get to? Will we have a contest for the best ones? Hell, I don’t know.

But I’m thinking about it. And thanks to Jim for making that happen.

–BMurray