Sep 19 2011

Ameris – a Soft Horizon vignette

I wrote this on the bus this morning based on a world in my last Soft Horizon plane generation session. I don’t know what it would be for — it’s too short and plotless to be fiction and it’s too long to be microfic. It’s the kind of thing I would write for myself to set tone while doing prep for a game. Normally no one but me would ever read it.


The market is a riot of colour — stall covers in silk and cotton dyed a thousand ways from a dozen worlds snap in the wind. And smells. Roasting meat of animals you’ve never seen, the sharp tang of fruits and vegetables, the thick odour of burning herbs, all bombard your senses. A seasoned traveller would find herself suddenly hungry. A neophyte perhaps nauseated, then intrigued.

But immediately as you enter Marketgate the your senses start to fog and blur — a vague euphoria begins to rise in you and serializing your needs as thoughts in language becomes a conscious effort. Your first stop — everyone’s first stop — is the autonomy vendor.

Always positioned near Marketgate, the autonomy vendors beckon you forward with stark black and white flags that trigger some animal connection to thought, and even though you are nearly mindless by the time you reach them, you have enough of your wits to buy what they sell — your mind.

Because this is such an essential service, its sale within a thousand yards of the Marketgate is strictly regulated by the Caliphate and no autonomy vendor (at least not one within a thousand yards of Marketgate) would dream of taking advantage of you. Some do, of course. The very reason a law exists is often enough to risk breaking it, and if you are very beautiful or very strong (or, Mind forbid, both) then there is some risk that the spell you buy will not be quite what you need, and that your guide might turn out to be someone other than she seems — a zombi trader.

But that doesn’t happen much any more. The Caliph is very strict and the punishment severe — a dozen years mindless — and not something someone wealthy enough to afford regular autonomy would risk.

So the autonomy vendor flashes the colours at you and spins the mandala and says the words and the fog lifts. He warns you to stay near Marketgate unless you know your way around — there’s not always a vendor nearby elsewhere in Ameris. You nod, You understand. It’s a relief already to understand things.

Now you can truly take in the wonders of Market gate — the name of the city as well as the name of the portal you stepped through to get here. Some portals are small, hidden affairs — the back of a wardrobe, perhaps, or just a wrong turn near Whitehall. Marketgate is not one of those. It is a vast stone and metal structure built, re-built, decorated, and simplified a thousand, thousand times over a period of years no one has counted. The portal itself is big enough to pass armies (and their engines) and if the bas relief that decorates parts of the gate is at all historical, then it has passed armies many times. And refugees. And things you cannot identify. All in the thousands or millions. This has always been a busy place and the steps here are worn with millions of feet and wheels and hooves and tracks and who knows what else.

Worn and rebuilt. Worn and repaired. At this time, your time, they are clearly ancient and due for repairs. The steel shows through the limestone which shows through the marble. Over there, that may be a glimpse of gold from some more hedonistic era. And there perhaps diamond from an even richer time — or maybe a time when diamond was so common as to be valueless. It’s all here in its many layers, a life’s work for an archaeologist in a single structure.

And indeed, they are here too, scurrying about and taking notes and sketching.


Juan Ochoa's sketch for the Marketgate

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.


  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.”

Jan 11 2011

Compels that might work better for me

Some compels work for me. Most often they feel contrived and that might be because we lack a certain skill at the table, but whatever the root cause, they kind of suck (for me, IMHO, YMMV, &c.)  The always smart Ryan Macklin recently posted an article about a Mutant Healing Power aspect that made something go click in my brain, though.

You should read that so I don’t have to summarize before I get to the point.

The bit that clicked for me is the indirect and non-manipulative way that a compel is suggested. This is something that we will want to make clear in any future version of FATE. Like really really clear. The guy has the aspect Mutant Healing Power and so the compels relate to the way the outside world reacts to that and not so much about the actions and decisions of the character. Suddenly it’s not an imposition any more!

You get into a fight, say, with people who were expecting you. They know you have Mutant Healing Power and so they brought bazookas instead of crossbows. That’s the compel right there!

“Okay the bad guys have bazookas and you get a fate point.”

“What the fuck?!”

“They know about your healing power and so they came prepared.”

“Holy crap. Okay, I think I want to buy that one off.”

See, suddenly the buy off for a compel you don’t want to deal with makes sense too. You don’t feel cheated (it’s not like they brought nuclear weapons, which you would have to buy off) and with that extra fate point maybe you can take them anyway. This is an awesome compel but the key to it is that no one is asking the player to do anything with her character. Instead the outside world is behaving extraordinarily in response to your character’s stated features and you get paid.

Here’s the other one. Some people think that they can learn how to use your power for Science. Now there is a whole sub-plot related to your aspect — the people that want to vivisect you and make medicine for the good of mankind. Or maybe just make super soldiers to dominate the world. Whatever. And every time this sub-plot based one your character comes to the fore, you get paid or can pay to make it go away. This one is trickier and will be less satisfying to some but it’s still pretty good. At some point it might become a more direct part of the plot and then maybe be less about the aspect and more about regular play, in which case it would no longer be a compel. Unless they bring bazookas, of course.

All this requires a little more prep from the ref side, but it’s better spent than the compel prep I’ve been doing until now because there’s a real payoff and no discomfort. I think this will make all the difference in compels. You don’t behave weirdly because of your power — the rest of the world does. And you get paid for that.

Thanks Ryan!


Nov 15 2010

Empire building

There once was a time when I had a 286 computer running DOS. Around this time, I ran my first empire-building game. It was a big hit. We spent tons of time with it and never even got close to using it as intended. We mostly made maps (by hand, because there was no way the computing power was up to it — actually the software) and designed spaceships (with the Traveller:2300 Star Cruiser rules, if I recall). At some point one of our motley crew built custom software to facilitate the game, complete with a rotatable 3d star map and travelling-salesman solver to find optimum jump paths. That was awesome.

The idea of the empire building game is simple. There is a universe full of worlds and you don’t know much about it. You make space ships and zoom around discovering worlds. You exploit them, increasing your resources and your ability to make space ships. Eventually you run into other people and fight it out for domination of the galaxy. The joy of it is that you can play the empire part by email and use it as an excuse to occasionally wargame the space fights.

That’s the idea. I’ve done this a few times and I don’t think we ever once got to a fight. The thing is, a lot of the fun is in building space ships and exploring the universe. This may be related to the fact that my table like character generation a lot, so we’re in the “prep is play” camp, and a lot of this empire building game is basically prep. You make things, you organize them, you submit them for approval, and you get new data to integrate into your file. You sort of have to love data management. With occasional fighting.

So this time we’re using the rules I wrote for the last time, Starfight, which were originally written for use with a different space fighting game. This time I figured I’d use Diaspora because its ship construction is interesting but simple and we already know and love the space combat system. And it’s designed to stand alone. It seems like a match to me!

Also this time around we have Tim’s sons in the mix, and they are only a little younger than we were when we first tried this. Holy crap, that brings it all home.

Anyway, I did a lot of thinking in my head before starting this because the best time we ever had with this was the first time, and I want to recapture what was fun about that. Part of what was fun was that we had no tools but pencils and blank paper at the time and had to figure out how to manage our data. I didn’t think that was the fun part before. I am certain now that I was wrong. When I think about how cool that first game was, I think about coloured maps drawn with rulers, Lotus spread-sheets, and custom software. But how do you recapture that?

Well, the first thing I think is to realize that folks probably won’t actually use pencils and rulers. But that wasn’t the essence of that success. The essence of it was figuring out what to do with limited data. Figuring out a way to represent it for yourself. So this time around the coloured pencils might actually be some mighty sophisticated software, but under the covers the principle is still this: it’s your problem. So my solution (or rather my experiment) is to provide very limited data to the end user, but it’s the essential data. That is, rather than keep a database of all the details and spit out custom awesome maps, I am just handing out the data. And because there’s nor sophisticated database, it’s not complex data.

For the first turn, players get their homeworld data, which looks like this:

Vagkim (Tim’s home world)

-1-> Faran
-2-> Cozan, Meschist
-3-> Nisqit, Nolaquin

All this means is that Tim’s home planet is called Vagkim and that there is a system called Faran one jump away. And Cozan and Meschist are two jumps away. Nisqit and Nolaquin are three jumps away. Now you can draw a map.  It’s mostly a conceptual map because you only have distances and not bearings, but the fact is no one cares about bearings in this situation. I mean, if you wanted to reconstruct what the sky looks like from your homeworld then sure, you need to know what direction things are in, but if you just need to know how close something is to something else, then all you need are distances.

The other data stored are the resources. These are three numbers: Industrial, Raw, and Social. To start only your homeworld has any. Once a world becomes friendly to you, you can exploit its resources. What you get depends partially on its available resources and partially on your method of exploitation. You can strip mine it, install a corporate presence, or try to run the government.

Oops, drifting afield here. Anyway, managing this data is not very onerous and you can do it all graphically which i fun. Fuck those databases, frankly. Give me a pretty network graph.

And the other thing you do a lot of is make ships with the ship construction system and there is no way that’s not fun. You need to keep track of your ships and that’s your problem and that’s part of your fun. Fortunately Diaspora ships are pretty easy to make and do not take up much space to describe. They are also trivial to verify unlike Traveller:2300 ships which I pretty much just had to take as given, errors and all, because I wasn’t really keep on checking the volume calculations to the third decimal place. One might find oneself encouraged to draw space ships, even.

And then all this takes place on a little mailing list so there is also an implicit invitation to share, and that is part of the program as well. Part of what was really cool in the first iteration was sharing with each other just how we had decided to organize the data. Showing off our cool maps, for example, or our ship drawings. Or the software we wrote. The combination of a problem to solve and an eager audience was really what drove the fun.

I hope. If I’m right then we will recapture some of what was cool in 1986. If not, well, maybe we’ll at least have an excuse to fight space ships. Make guys and then make them fight is the cardinal rule.


Nov 8 2010

Fictional writing

I tried my hand at writing some fiction this weekend. I do this periodically (sometimes I even try poetry, but I will spare you even a discussion of that) and the results are usually about the same. I can write an interesting scene very rapidly but I have no idea how to string these together into anything like a plot. What’s going to happen? How do we get from A to B and make interesting things happen along the way? I just can’t do it.

Now of course that’s too strong. I probably can do it. Hell, I am certain I can do it. But I rapidly hit my I-don’t-give-a-fuck barrier — I’m just not interested in fabricating this plot. Even when I sit down with brainstorming tools (whether index cards and cork board or mind-mapping software — seriously, you can all stop giving me technology advice because I’m certain it’s not a technology problem) what I invariably get are elaborations on characters and places and maps and things and … well, and everything except what actions lead to what other actions.

Without this linkage there is no fiction, per se. Rather what I’m doing is prepping role-playing game adventures here — I am setting up surroundings and situation and people that are just dying for someone else to come in and declare an interest and move in an unusual direction, perhaps revealing something awesome I invented or, even better, forcing me to invent something on the fly. I expect my characters to do their own work and they just don’t do it through me.

Now certainly this is a crippling disability for a writer (at least for a writer of fiction) so it’s a very good thing that I’m not one. It’s a talent for a RPG referee, though, because it makes game preparation effortless. Well, not effortless, but a joy in itself — part of the game or even isolated recreation. I have a good time doing this so there’s no reason to think of it as work or even effort. It’s play. Stringing a plot together, however, is worse than work.

The really frustrating part (though I don’t want to undermine that having the technical skills and energy to fabricate a novel without some ineffable little piece to follow it through is fairly frustrating) is that all of these forays are basically games that are begging to be played and I only have one game night a week. And many of them imply multi-session games, ideally without too much interruption, so deploying all of them would eat up a year or two of game nights. I really need to game more frequently to get these things out of my head.

So this weekend I learned in my fictional space that there is a drill site over an ancient ice-sealed lake in Antarctica that has a startling relationship to an industrial water-mining site on the moon. I won’t learn for sure what that relationship is until I get some players to fill out this characters and try to find out more. Because not only do I not know, but I am also not keen on inventing why. I guess, in a way, I want to be surprised.

So no National Novel Writing Month for me. I know I can manage the output — certainly I meet or exceed that some months at work anyway. Word volume is not onerous for me at all. Just typing is a joy — I could write complete bollocks for ten thousand words, pure stream of consciousness bullshit, and love every second of it. But fifty thousand words of unconnected scenes is not something I necessarily want to sign my name to, and maybe especially because that would be somewhere between ten and twenty new game preparations and I will never get all that played.

Okay here’s the bridge. I have said in the past that a lot of RPG effort, whether in game design or game prep, smells a lot like the work of a frustrated novelist. Even where the novelist is not frustrated, it still smells of cheap fiction. I think this is good and true: I think that the best games are shitty novels or movies. I think that some of the crappiest films probably would have been great games. And I am certain that the best films and novels would make awful games. This also looks a lot like sour grapes, too, I know.

But really, to craft an elegant plot you need to have characters that act reliably. And that means that either the characters you control — the NPCs — are the primary agents with respect to the action (or at least the change in action) or the player characters are. And if the player characters are the primary agents and they are doing everything that your plot needs in order to be revealed in all its genius, then they are either reading your mind or your script. That seems like a dangerously boring place for a game to go, at least for my table (and this is certainly a care not everyone takes: gaming tables can be very startlingly different, even playing the same game).

Hm, that just looks like another screed against railroading, but that spike’s been hammered in and it’s not really what I care about here. What I care about is the creative needs of the players, including the referee. If the ref has a genuine and compelling creative need to plot, she might be better off writing a novel. At least, speaking as someone who is missing this organ, she has the kit to pull it off. I am jealous and it bugs me that much more that she would use this talent I lack to build a crappy game.

Here’s what I want to do as a GM/ref/whatever: I want to show off. I want to slowly reveal a lot of cool stuff I made. I want to talk as a character that I spent a lot of energy developing. I want you to slowly explore a map that I inked. I want you to peek into rooms I want to describe. And I suspect that every referee has this essential desire to show off. Where this desire fails us is when we want to show off something that’s contrary to the needs of the game.

I’ll probably go back and edit that so that it makes some sense. It’s mostly frustration at lacking a skill I want to have, but not badly enough to learn it. I want to know how to play the piano, too, but in a “wake up in the morning with the skill to play Beethoven” way and not a “signing up for lessons now” way. Wishes without plans are just wishes. But goddamn I have read a lot of games that reek of failed novelist.

I live in terror of writing one, of course.


Nov 1 2010

Gamma World (you heard me)

I bought a copy of Gamma World the other day. What the hell — the price is right for this thing and I am in the mood to explore some less serious post-apocalyptic stuff.

Now, I should say out of the gate that I am not all that interested. Gamma World has always been too gonzo for my tastes. I loved Metamorphosis Alpha but mostly because of its resonance with that Heinlein short story I can never remember the name of. And the gonzo seemed a product more of naivety than of a love of lunacy. But some people I trust have been hinting that interesting things are in the box and so I bought one. I figure that if I hate it I can write it off as VSCA research material.

I didn’t like D&D 4e much. I’ve tried to talk about why, but honestly my thoughts on the matter are too vague to really make a good discussion. I just didn’t like it. It’s worth keeping in mind that I had already soured on D&D 3.5e and previous versions, and yet it was still a hope for subtle improvement on those that seems to have been violated. I didn’t feel I got subtlety or improvement. Gamma World is certainly derived from 4e. In fact, it’s really enthusiastically a 4e game. It’s more 4e than 4e. It embraces all the new stuff and shucks off all the D&D baggage 4e is carrying. It’s a new game.

So throughout this please keep in mind that I haven’t played yet. I’ve read it, I’ve punched the counters, I’ve fiddled with the cards (including a couple of boosters I bought), I’ve made a few characters, and I’ve prepped a game for Thursday night. Here goes.

Character creation involves the forced pairing of two random “origins”. You roll these and make sense of them. Making this a player burden is so hippy-indie I have to laugh. I love it. You roll Android and Doppleganger and tell me what you are. The joy of this is that it’s so easy even when it looks hard that you get crazy bizarre magnificent results. The instinct is to not roll or roll until you get what you want, but trust me and dive in with both feet at least the first time. This is one of the Cool Things in this box.

Each origin has several aspects. It has traits, which describe special defenses, skill affinities, and that sort of thing. It also pins down the primary stat for the character, and I will diverge to point out another place in the game that is awesome: stat generation is solved. You your primary origin’s stat is at 18. Your secondary is at 16. If they are the same, that stat is 20. Roll all the rest with 3d6 and no gimmicks. This is so awesome it hurts. You get the character-forcing coolness of random stats without the bitter betrayal of stats that no one can love. You get your 18. And your 16. And they are in stats that you care about (because of your origins!) and so you can use your inevitable 7 to colour your character. You will often get some skills that are crappy because of a botched stat even though your origin says you are good at this skill (my Cockroach/Yeti has Mechanic at 3 even though everyone knows that Cockroaches make the best mechanics). It’s colour. It’s wonderful.

Now part of why this all works is because it makes character creation colourful and fast and that means it’s okay that your mortality rate is fairly high. You will have PCs die rather more often than in D&D. But that’s cool! I’ll talk about why in a sec.

The central conceit of the Gamma World story is that in 2011 someone turned on the Large Hadron Collider and all hell broke loose. This is referred to as The Big Mistake. During the early period, millions of alternate timelines came to exist nearly simultaneously here on Earth and, as things stabilized (and we’ll see that this term is relative) foreign timeline material got stuck here. Most notably, the dark-energy wielding Xi android culture that dominates many versions of Earth have a presence here. So do the powerful and wonderous super-Inca-Babylonian-Aztecs, the Ishtari. And there is also a lot of very mysterious stuff about Grays and Area 52. But the key feature of this new world is change and though change is related to these three alternate worlds, it is also much more diverse than them.

So your character is either derived from or intersected with some of these timelines. And these features have bred true-ish. Fact is, they’ve bred truer in others than in you. There are whole cultures of badger-people out there, but your culture is composed of bizarre mongrels 1 or at least breeds them (purposefully or not — your story). So you have some zany attributed from these timeline-pastiches. You might be a hawkman with empathic tendancies. Or a yeti form composed of hive-mind rats. You are outrageously different and equally powerful.

Thing is, this change is unstable. You have your basic origin powers and these never change: you will always bee a rat-yeti and have rat-yeti powers. But you also have unstable powers, which are drawn from a deck of cards (a deck that can be stacked to be more or less random and more or less thematic — this is one of your gonzo dials). And whenever you roll a 1, there is an Alpha Surge — a big trans-dimensional change as the Big Mistake continues to settle — and you have to discard one of these powers and draw a new one. You may or may not have some control over the deck you draw from. The GM certainly does. But the specific power? No control. You are changed as the timelines re-align.

These are the cool things. The other cool thing is that the system is deeply streamlined. There are precious few special cases that are not on a card or your character sheet, and that is an awesome change.  You get enough monsters in the book to build a few thematic encounters with no trouble. And I’m pretty sure it’s not a major drawback that the character rules only cover up to level 10, because living that long seems unlikely. And that brings up an interesting hack that @Epidiah (I only have a Twitter name!) suggested: whenever a character dies, that player becomes the GM. A kind of meta-alpha-surge. The GM hands over her notes and rolls up a character. The world changes in subtle, perhaps ineffable ways, and yet remains the same.

Any game that suggests that mechanism and makes me grin at the same time is okay by me.

The book itself has deep flaws but so what.


  1. actually this isn’t clear — my take is that there are also human cultures with some deformities but basically human. Player characters represent the rare super-viable mutations that have heroic possibilties.

Jul 28 2010

Getting back in the game

The VSCA has at least two games that are almost ready to publish. Before we get there, though, we need to get back into playing these games after almost a month away from it all! This is surprisingly hard work — enthusiasm you generate at the table fades rapidly over time and can be very hard to recover. Flailing around trying to even remember what was cool about it is painful. Sure, you can start over with a new character and world creation session (and this is often the solution we use) but this is in danger of being a never ending cycle. And we love character creation, so there is little resistance to doing this. Danger, Will Robinson, as they say.

Trying to bull it out and just fabricate the enthusiasm is dangerous too. After an hour or so, if it doesn’t come back to you, the session is shot. You’ll either play through and be dissatisfied but be in no position to decide whether it’s the game or the situation that caused it (which doesn’t help design and development at all)  or you’ll quit early and play Battlestar Galactica because it’s a reliably awesome game with built-in enthusiasm generation.

Oh yeah, I already thought about that last bit. Can you make a role-playing game with built-in enthusiasm generation? I think that, because it’s usually a staged event, the initial session is exactly that and then you count on momentum and regular play to keep that up. And that works.

Anyway that’s not what I’m here about. I don’t intend to re-design these games to create mechanisms for generating flash every session. I think that’s a problem of a whole different sort and I also don’t want to go back to the drawing board for these games. Instead I am thinking about what I am actually going to do to regenerate enthusiasm. As a referee for the game (and host as well, which is a related issue) I am assuming an obligation to make the session work. Certainly I expect the players to cooperate and stuff, but I have already taken up the mantle and the viking hat and so whether or not it is my moral duty, it is a duty I have decided to adopt.

So the problem of “how do I regenerate my enthusiasm” is now “how do I propagate my fabricated enthusiasm”. Interestingly, this latter one is easier than the former. Huh? Because I love to teach, to demonstrate, to mediate. I am already enthusiastic, not necessarily about the topic but about the process. So that’s step one: I will deliberately take on the responsibility of re-selling the campaign.

STEP ONE: Deliberately take on the responsibility for re-selling the campaign.

(I was just re-reading Diaspora this morning and loving the rule call-outs in it. They work. I will re-use them.)

So part of what was making me enthusiastic about this campaign back when we started generating characters was, not surprisingly, my character. Yes, even when I intend to referee, I usually generate a character. It becomes and NPC and may die or something. That’s not important. The character is my touchstone in the world, and that’s important. It gives me a person to imagine acting in the world and some eyes to see through, not so much during the game but before while planning. And given my prep style, by planning I mostly mean “thinking about” and not necessarily writing anything down.

STEP TWO: Grab the thing that used to be fascinating and look through its eyes at the world.

If this doesn’t generate a spark for you then it’s possible there never was one. So for me, this is The Gan, a mechanical shaman in a mechanistic world who talks with ghosts. Until recently she was certain that there was no such thing as ghosts — that she and all her machine-exorcists were charlatans. That changed, though, and with it everything else. Now she collects the raiment of the cultures she visits outside the Machine of her world, Cognate, which are places where spirit and ghost and the unexplainable are expected features. They are assumed rather than denied.

Okay so now I have eyes and a mind. I will add a voice. I will riff a vignette where The Gan is the eyes of the scene. I’ll use some things generated by the other players in this vignette because I don’t want to simply preach or tell stories, but rather I want to make them excited about their creations too.

STEP THREE: Tell a story that celebrates the creations of the other players.

Doing this is a form of praise and people love praise. Even people who know you are manipulating them with praise still love it. It’s like the swallow reflex. You have no choice even though it makes you feel dirty sometimes.

Okay maybe that’s too vivid. But remember every picture in your head there is your own fault. I didn’t say anything about oral sex.

So I write that because writing gets me jazzed too. I just like doing it. Here’s what I came up with:

Ee-ket holds up the sky, she does
And sunset is all the colours of her ass.
She chases death for laughs, she does
And she lets him kiss her coloured ass.

Ee-ket is dead as shit, they say
They tore her to pieces for sport and for joy.
The chimps devoured her brain, they say
And danced in her sky without joy.

The sky stands aloft
But the earth now free
Of elaborate fickle bonds
Is torn by the whims of murderous
Lusts. Ee-ket still holds up the sky, she does.
Sunset is all the colours of her ass.

— a folk song of the Timpani mandrill tribe, Rotten Spray Cove


The Lost One, the old hag, that bitch who moves you where there are no gates, she’s missing now and you are stranded (at least Stefos says you’re stranded — “There are no gates here. None secret, none hidden, none.”) on a rich island in the sky of Sephira. It is hot and humid because it is nearer to the sun than most, and you are the guests of the King of Rotten Spray Cove, a crowned baboon who rules over an ancient city carved from living granite and strung with jungle creepers and vines. Every building is open to the sky and the locals revel in the sudden rainfall that drenches them ever few days.

Stone faces are carved into every flat surface and stairs lead up and down needlessly everywhere. The city is home to all apes (well, all that have hair) and some monkeys, but each kind tends to keep to itself in regions of the city unmarked in any way you have yet determined, though the gorillas among you suspect scent is the key. The only race without a place are the Rakes, murderous bands of chimpanzees that rush through the broad stone streets at night and kill without purpose and without fear of punishment. Sometimes they are slain in this night frenzy, but they are never pursued in the day. They’d be easy enough to catch as they sleep all day, wherever they were when the sun rose.

And so it is, for some of you a little familiar, and you rest in the care of Badang and Ripat, the bonobo diplomats of the king’s court. You can hear inane laughing chants of the baboons as the sun sets, their song that keeps the Cove in the sky where it’s warm. You are comfortable but stranded. The Gan hums and clicks and whirs and Ord lies dead asleep (he seems to either feel rage or sloth and naught in between). Stefos paces.

A babble rises in volume to a thousand-voiced cry in the city. Badang, the smaller of the pair, rushes in. The King has been poisoned.

Poisoned. An invisible killer has somehow returned. Ee-ket’s pact has been broken and the nameless god she chased away has gained some purchase again.

The Gan strides to the window that overlooks the Meet, the vast assembly space where the King holds — held — audience at the base of his ziggurat. The Gan inhales, which is something none of you have ever seen before. He turns and says, “A plague is on the wind.”

Now this is incomplete — I really grabbed on to one player’s creation, the ape-world of Sephira, which has lots of embedded culture and has a great rule: there is no invisible death. Inhabitants die of violence and stuff like that but there is no poison or disease. Whenever someone hands me a rule, the hook that it obviously recommends is to break that rule.

STEP FOUR: Break a rule to break the ice.

This works because I know I have at least one player invested in that rule and I know they trust me. And so I reasonably expect that the reaction here will not be “Brad is a cock for ruining my creation” but rather the in character reaction, “Oh my goodness everything I have believed is turning out to be false — how could this be?”  Hopefully followed by, “we better investigate.”

When we meet I will re-tell this. Some things might change. I will try to make each player think about what this means to them by offering some narrative about them as the event unfolds — it’s essential that everyone be attached to the opener.

STEP FIVE: Touch everyone.

And then I’ll sit back and hope it works. When everything goes right, the players attack the hook and create the game. I have several cool NPCs to talk with, and that often livens things up. Whatever, the point is, if it livens up, the session will work.

If it doesn’t, I have Settlers of Cataan handy.


Jul 8 2010

Elements of a successful campaign

As activities go, role-playing games are surprisingly hit-and-miss for me. It’s not surprising that there is a fairly high proportion of failures but rather that we so eagerly tolerate it, which suggests to me that there is something outside the game that keeps it worthwhile, and/or there is a different kind of fun in failure. I will bet on “and”.

I am a problem solver. That doesn’t mean that I solve problems, but rather that I enjoy trying to solve problems. If someone tells me what’s bugging them, I will try to construct a plan to solve it. This pisses a lot of people off. Within the context of gaming, though, it means that when a game goes badly I get to analyze it and try to figure out why it broke and then how I might fix it and if that happens at the table, then the evening can be a stunning success for me even if the game failed.

But I want to talk about success. There’s a lot of talk about “story” moving around the role-playing-game-meme-o-sphere and I think it has a lot of merit, though the word “story” is dangerously overloaded. Here’s what I buy, because the idea that fiction maps directly onto gaming strikes me as completely broken, but I don’t think a lot of people make the claim anymore anyway. I’ll also add that there are huge swaths of the gaming community who want to talk about how railroading sucks and so when anyone uses the word story, they use that as a launching point to talk about railroading.

There are things that writers do when writing fiction that works (as opposed to “good” fiction, which is orthogonal) that can probably be ported to gaming. I’m not a trained fiction writer so I don’t necessarily know what these are. But I know what kinds of things work for me in a book that also work for me in a game, so maybe I can get by without the correct terminology. Here goes.

Characters. One of the things that makes a stellar evening’s play for me is having an awesome conversation about something entirely in-setting from the perspective of an interesting character in the game. If I could only have one trick up my sleeve it would be this: make sure there is one character who is passionate about something and that the players will be in a position to talk to. The sharper among you will notice that there are some more tricks embedded in that trick.

Passion. In order to engage the players, someone has to be passionate about something. This is hard. You can’t expect your players to do it — even if they have a dozen aspects, three beliefs, and a handful of statements explicitly declared as passions, there is a disjunct between what the character is passionate about and what the player is passionate about. So there are a couple of ways to manipulate yourself and others to get some passion.

You can bring it. Seriously, you’re the ref, you’re reading this, you care. So bring some passion to the table. Tie it to a character (or two — anyone passionate about something is usually intense about it because they are opposed, so now you have another passionate character automagically) and now that character has something to talk about. And if that conversation goes well you can at least credibly enlist cynical mercenary players and at best sell them on the character’s vision (or its opposition!) and create motivation. Even if you get only one good argumentative in-character scene, it paid off. The evening will be memorable.

As a player (and this is the second ref trick: tell your players this bit) you can get passion without fabricating it by making your character care about something you do. I know, the thespians will balk at the idea of playing a character that’s like you (I play to be someone else!) but let’s face it, you don’t get to cleave off heads in pursuit of your passion, so even if this character shares your deeply-held convictions, she is different from you: she’s going to do something serious about it. And, if the ref is on the ball, she’s going to be challenged on it.

Imagery. At some point you are going to be describing stuff. You will want to get at least one setting-establishing image into play every session. Something awesome that the players can see in their heads. Some people use props, some use prose, some use pictures from the interwebs, some use combinations of these. It doesn’t really matter how you get there, but if you can plant an image in the heads of the players, and if that image is part of what compels you to ref in the first place, then you stand a chance of creating a shared atmosphere that will be memorable.

I use “memorable” a lot because I don’t think fun is all that important. Everything we can say we “liked” is defined by our memory of it — no action exists anywhere but in the instant and as a memory, and memories are all stories. How you will recall an evening’s play is the story you will tell about what happened. That’s why memorable is more important than fun. Fun smells of frivolity and frivolity is not a necessary component of a successful game. What’s important is that you relish the story you will tell about it (even to yourself — maybe especially to yourself as many of us have learned hard lessons about picking up girls by re-telling the exploits of Smegnar, our Fighter-Thief) and the priority for establishing a future story is memory. Memory is necessary for a successful sessions. I cannot recall any successful but forgotten sessions. I don’t need to remember detail for it to have been successful and detail will fade over time, but I do need to smile and look up a bit and think, yeah, I had a swell time when Tirian found the sword at the bottom of the cavern lake, littered with the skeletons of ancient elfish kings.

I will be remembering the people, their passions, and the imagery of those moments.


May 6 2010

Document as Application

It’s time for me to think out loud about the game document as an application. All this talk about electronic books and manufacturing buckets and so forth has me thinking that practically every instance of the electronic book is at least as flawed as the paper book in some way or another. See, what the book does right is convey the content via efficient and effective use of the medium. What the electronic book does so far is attempt to mimic the book or extend it incrementally.

Seriously, an electronic device with gigabytes of space a millions of cycles per second and the best we can do is pretend to be a four dollar book? Fuck that.

Exploiting the new medium — a handy computer that does stuff besides display “Hello world” — is going to take some serious innovation. This is not a matter of making new standards or writing books using them or any of that. Real, serious changes to use the machine to do what we really want to do.

See, the game text is a compromise between what the author wants to do for the end user and what the medium is capable of doing. So when we make the machine pretend to be a book, we adopt the same compromise that the author has made for almost 700 years. I think maybe we can do better. Moore’s law, applied since 1450 or so, suggests we can do astronomically better.

What the author wants to do would, in my industry, be encapsulated in a requirements document. We don’t generally do this for books because the compromise we accept cuts so very deep — there’s just not all that much we can do. By contrast, when developing content for a computer, you want to start with the assumption that we can do anything. So now we have to constrain to what we want to do.

So what kinds of requirements would a role-playing-game-delivery-application (usually a book but now released from these bonds) have? Well, a place to start is a little use-case analysis. Here are our users (assuming a traditional RPG structure):

  • all players
  • non-GM players
  • GM players
  • readers
  • reviewers

Yeah, see, even at this early stage in the analysis we already see that we have vast possibilities open to us just be acknowledging that we can be different things to different people. So let’s look at the most function-rich (I’m guessing!) user — the GM. What does he need this document to do?

  • Display rules that are in the context of the current action at the table
  • Search for a rule by keyword
  • Display action-relevant information for each character
  • Display action-relevant information for NPCs and monsters
  • Adjust resource elements (fate points, gold pieces) for all players and maybe the environment
  • Roll dice
  • Display and modify campaign notes relevant to the action at the table and upcoming action
  • Record table audio and video
  • Convey private information to players (and observers?!)

I could go on. But starting with the assumption that we have a general purpose computer with audio-visual capabilities, a network, and some storage, we find the doors blown open on “what is an RPG if not a book?” As a GM I should be able to award fate points (in secret and in private), get updates based on player activity (“I am tagging ‘Zany funster’ for +2 because I’m just so awesome to be around.” click and fate point tallies on all machines are updated), see what aspects are begging for compels (maybe literally — a player might flag an aspect as a fun thing to tweak and the GM can respond to that red flag). It’s packed with back-channels that are both in and out of story.

So this is what I’m working on right now — what are the use cases for a Next Generation RPG Delivery System? Then after that will come the requirements proper. Then a design. And then I start developing iPad applications? Maybe.

I better go buy some books on that.


Mar 23 2010

Herding snowflakes

This always happens. Well not always, but often enough that it’s time to talk about it.

Everyone wants their character to be special. That’s cool. That binds you to your character. That invests you in him or her and that is good for the game. But if everyone is special then no one really is, and a game about the antics of a group has to see the group as the central feature because it will need to stick together somehow. So it’s more important that the group be special than that each character be special. I promise — play will make you special in ways that are cohesive as well as fun.

Anyway in my upcoming game special is not really the problem right now. Everyone is special, but in fairly subtle and undisruptive ways. We have only one non-human, so the group doesn’t stand out as a bizarre anomaly for the world and nor does it imply a D&D-style world of roughly equal racial representation. That’s good. In fact that’s really good. Magic is supposed to be rare and there is only one person who can wield it. Non-humans are rare and there is only one in the group. Not too special. Hurray!

No, the problem here is slightly different but oh-so-familiar. In creating characters we have many with opposing interests. Not just different, but flat-out opposite. Specifically, we have a wandering revolutionary and two people whose job is hunting revolutionaries. I’m not a big fan of just covering that land-mine up and walking very carefully and pretending it’s not true undermines the character stories and makes the characters significantly less of what the players wanted from them. So what to do?

I game with adults. That means one of the things I can do with some reasonable hope of success is just push it on the players. “Here’s the problem folks, tell me a story that makes it work.” But that just sidesteps the issue, because then the question is just, “what can they do” instead of “what can I do?” So what are the options?

We could declare that past jobs are past. The spy is no longer a spy and the hunter is no longer a hunter. Or the revolutionary has reconciled with the new government.

We could find a way to reverse a loyalty. The revolutionary now believes in the right to rule of the new government. The spy turns on his master. The hunter has become a revolutionary.

We could find an over-riding motive. The political interests of the individuals are overshadowed by some much more urgent and dangerous issue. This of course risks returning to the problem when the new issue is resolved, but it might be credible at that time to have the characters reconciled, having worked together through some great hardship. This is kind of nice because it gives us a starting point — the revolutionary arrives in town where the spy has laid a trap for him and the hunter (working with the spy) arrests him and then bang zoom a much more terrifying thing happens. That’s pretty nice and suits my opening image idea.

Hmm, in fact I think that by writing this I solved my problem. I open with the scene of hardship and bonding disaster and maybe let the players handle the backstory for the capture and so on as a flashback.

Damn I never really got the idea of flashbacks in a role-playing game before but this is singing in my head now. Thanks for your help, folks!