Saturday, August 4, 2018

Dangerous Ideas in Roleplaying Games

This is not about murdering orc children, but it could be. Instead I want to take a look at the dangerous ideas that are out there and see what worth there is in having them in a game. Not sure I'll get too specific, not sure this is going to be complete, but I'm very sure that role playing games are the one medium in which we are safe to experiment with ideas we wouldn't want to encounter unprepared in the wild ... and those definitely exist.

To Know Is To Know

The first foray in this argument could go several directions, but we'll go with the one formulated in the intro: to give people the opportunity to reflect ideas properly in a "simulation" is the best way to give them a head start when confronted with it or to give them an understanding what they had already experienced (even "just" through close friends or family).

To some extent this is what stories already do: they allow us to experience difficult situations (drama) quasi second hand, offering us to not only understand, but to emphasize. Fear, laughter, hate, sorrow, lust ... you name it, you can experience it. Get a glimpse, if you will.
Emotions and how they connect ... sometimes I love the internet :) [source]
 
You might say now 'But that's just entertainment!' (which I've seen happening in an argument once) and I'd hold against you, that the main reason for stories being "entertaining" is the fact that we are wired to engage with patterns and make stories about them. It's the reason why I can sit down in my apartment in front of a strange contraption, typing strange symbols you can decipher into something (hopefully) carrying meaning. It's the core engine that makes us hairless monkeys as inventive as we are.

So, stories are important. They give us an understanding of the world surrounding us. The appeal is that "knowing" will always give you an advantage. This isn't even about something like "scientific truth" necessarily, as a metaphorical truth will serve you just fine as long as its base assumption leads the the right behavior when needed. Which means (not exclusively, but mainly) that abstract and strange ideas or concepts have a place in this realm.

That's what "monsters" are, for example: manifestations of truths in an abstract and strange way, that can function as a warning (which is true in mythology, not necessarily in D&D). Fairy tales will work that way and are a good example how abstract concepts can get and still work. To a degree, even, where the reader isn't even fully aware of the effect or the consequences of a story (a lessons well learned and abused in advertisement, btw).

To know is to know, that's the big lesson here. You have an opinion? Challenge it with a counter-argument by any means. Explore the possibilities of ideas by talking with others (if opportune), by reading or writing (works for me a great deal), by watching movies or tv series or, well, by playing games (of the digital or analogue variety).

Always a catch ...

As I said, we do this naturally, unconsciously even. However, we are also creatures of habit (which is nothing else but using behavioral patterns we learned and got accustomed to) and, connected but far more influential, we like to keep it simple. Simplification is just as important as the abstract and the strange, even go hand in hand. And as long as it works, there is no problem with that what so ever.

When it's not working, though, is where it gets problematic. Simplifications will always leave room for interpretation. Done wrong, different interpretations will lead to conflict and misunderstanding. It's something we can see in politics (or the understanding thereof) almost every day. In other words, every low resolution story needs to include at least pointers to what the high resolution might look like.
Good old Boromir Memes ... [source]
 "Do good" is , maybe, a good example for something like this (most idioms and proverbs work that way, I guess) because what it means is not obvious by any stretch of the imagination. However you interpret it, though, will at least be beneficial to someone and it is only the degree how many people would consider something someone did as "good" that'll determine how effective this simplification is implemented. It's also something you can find out. It comes with "pointers".

Look at the paladin, if you need a role playing example.

In a way, simplifications only work beneficial if they are a short hand for some sort of reasonable and accessible truth. You can always find out by challenging them, but there is always the danger of just trusting that they'll lead to some sort of truth.

In a best case scenario, someone using those simplifications (either with ulterior motive or, far more often, unreflected) will be challenged to look closer (going to a higher resolution, so to say). But that might go either way and the higher the stakes, the higher the potential for conflict.

Add to that the fact that we are all individuals, not only with very different approaches and ideas about life, but also with very different potential outcomes. It's not only that you can't convince everyone of your opinion (for lack of skill and opportunity), you just won't. People are different, and that means in consequence that different variants of "truths" will apply.

Easy example: what's true for someone loving nuts in everything, is very much different for someone highly allergic to nuts.

Dangerous Ideas in Roleplaying Games?

The name should give it away, one would think, but it bears repeating every now and then: those games are designed to play roles. Shocking, isn't it? The invention of character classes (simplifications, if you will) might actually sidetrack what that can mean.

At least that's what I realized just now. If you ask someone during character generation what he wants to play, it's always some sort of simplification we look for. What can I play, what's worth doing in this game? Even games featuring point-buy-systems will have discussions in that direction to some extent (being able to do EVERYTHING isn't a good idea either, as every game designer worth anything will tell you).

The answer to this question is actually the gateway to exploring dangerous ideas. It's not about a character a player is going for, it's about what potential for conflict and drama that choice has in the setting that is going to be played.

Here is the thing: ideas will always lie dormant (like a virus!) or, say, conserved in the surroundings they are created in. To activate them, you have to bring them into a context where the implications of an idea can be explored. This resonates well with everything described above, but the merit I see in doing this activation in a setting, is that the exploration not only happens in a fictional realm (which is true for all mediums, of course) but is also collaborative.

Each participant in a role playing game experiences stories through fiction that way and there is an opportunity to explore challenging ideas as well.

Here is a saying Carl Jung is famous for (not only for that, of course):
 "People don't have ideas, ideas have people."
Not Carl Jung ... you get it [source]
It really brings home lots of points I try to make above. It also might help highlighting the idea (sic!) why roleplaying is a "safe" way to explore ideas and concepts when doing said exploration through the lens of a fictional character (players) interacting with a fictional setting (gamemaster). There is an abstract distance between yourself and a your character (or setting), allowing you to become an observer and interpreter of the part you play.

If that ends up manifesting some sort of insight you didn't have before, it's a sign that you discovered a truth you weren't aware of. And if that's not worth playing for, I don't know what is.

How far people are willing to go with this, is entirely up to them. I'm just talking about the potential here. However, as far as I'm concerned, as long as all involved keep that abstract distance between themselves and their character (or setting), there is NO LIMIT to what you can do.

It brings some responsibility and maybe even requires some maturity to make it work, but that isn't even a problem, as you can scale this quite easily and "potential" also means potential for growth ... steady wins the race, and all that.

I might need to stress at this point that we (of course) play for the fun of it, and when you think playing it as vanilla and safe as you can get is the best way to go, more power to you. However, my definition of fun varies from that quite a bit and while I'm definitely not telling other people how they have to play their games ("can" is better in that context), I'd definitely see it as a sign of competency if a group is able to pull something like that of (even if they don't do it).

In other words: if you want a metric what a good DM or player makes, you could do worse than starting with how insightful their gaming is.

Dangerous Ideas need to offer insights

This is where it gets difficult, as there is a wide range of possibilities what that could entail. Playing a SS-Officer in occupied France might be an idea like that, or playing a serial killer (Vampire: the Masquerade, basically, right?). As a rule of thumb I'd say, the closer to home an idea hits, the more dangerous it can be.

Inglorious Basterds, of course [source]
If you are anything like me, you'll sit there now, thinking that there are, indeed, limits to this. You shouldn't role play whatever is considered taboo, for instance. However, given the right context and communicating it properly goes a long way. Playing a historical game can do this, for instance.

The Romans had slaves. Actually, they build a society on their shoulders. They also owned boys for sexual pleasure and married children as young as 10 ... Playing in a setting like that allows you to tackle some dangerous ideas where the abstract distance is somewhat greater because you add history as a layer.

It'll also need tact. Sure, you can play Spartacus and project your contemporary set of values to fictionally avenge whatever you take offense in. However, as far as insights go, it's better to experience something like the Roman society in day to day life, imo ... and that's where tact comes in. You have to keep the distance and to a degree rationalize the experience to allow reflection.

Have a Merchant become a good friend of the players. Someone they would protect, maybe. Then have him abuse a slave in public or marry a 12 year old and show how society reacted positive to it to a degree that the characters acting up against it would get them into trouble, actually. Let them explore the ramifications. Stuff like that.

The value of realizing how different cultures and people can be and why, is very much worth the attempt. However, it implies the requirement to do so without ill intent or malevolence. I really think that the main problem people have with bringing dangerous ideas to the table, is how it could be abused. So if you are sitting there right now, thinking how all that could go wrong, all of the examples you can come up with will be cases that go against this very basic requirement.

There are no orc babies ...

I think I understand now why the ideas of "killing orc babies" gets dismissed by some and is offensive to others. It illustrates how the abstract distance can vary from individual to individual. I don't say this to invalidate either claim. Actually, if anything, it validates both sides.

In that sense it also shows another quite obvious aspect of all of this: different people have different levels of maturity and experience. Stories that are engaging for some (within the limitations discussed above), might have others somewhere between bored or even offended!

So maybe the first thing we can learn by playing role playing games like this, is to not only accept that others are in different places about different topics (which already is very important), but also that that is totally alright. The important thing is that we find ways to talk about those things and find a consensus about them. Role playing is one of those ways.

There is no better message to end this post, I think, so I'll leave it be. What I'm interested to hear is if people did something like this already and how it worked out. Share your experiences, if you are so inclined. I'd love to read them!

Zen Baboon! [source]

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Magic in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (Design Post - this is Part 3, sort of))

You have been warned. This is right now the part of Lost Songs of the Nibelungs that took the longest time to get to the stage I'll start describing below (yes, there'll be more). Some familiarity with what I've done here for the game isn't necessarily needed, however appreciated. I'll give pointers along the way, of course. This post is about the design first, and then the game. It's also a bit complex and long, so it'd be a good idea to be in the mood for something like that. Let's get rollin'!

What I'd like to have

I took a first stab at this in 2016, and while the mechanics grew and changed quite a bit since then, the basic concepts and nomenclature still apply. Here's some quotes for us all to catch up on the topic:
"So what I want in my game are mysterious and powerful wielders of magic with a very weird connection to the world surrounding them, getting worse the deeper they go into the rabbit hole. I want them half crazy, with strange tattoos and fetishes and rites, seeing more than others but are always in danger of getting lost.

I also want the dark witches and wizards from the fairy tales, sitting in their dark towers, the land surrounding them drained of all life. Or the white warlocks and witches, living in harmony with the world or working on that harmony. I want demon pacts and craziness from outer space, but seen through the eyes of someone living 1500 years before today. And old magic from the time of the Roman Empire or before. It's all there in the mix.

The greatest wizard of them all: Odin [source]
But magic in Lost Songs is subtle. A curse, a chicken bone with strange scribbles on it or a fire that moves unnaturally, stuff like that. And it's very commonplace, in a way, as those "barbarians" really had a thing for individual trinkets and symbols like that, differing from tribe to tribe. Or that one guy living as a scholar in a Roman city but really dabbles in summoning demons ..." (from Part 2 of my original take)
That's how it works. It should also tie in with mystical creatures and how they do magic (dragons and what-not). Another thing from those posts tat is still valid, is this little concept:

The dice used for magic and the meaning associated with them
This would be the energy a caster summons. How he forms it is a totally different matter (and took the longest to figure out), but how he gets there is as straight forward as it gets:
"And that's basically it: players rolls 1d20 + Wits vs. a difficulty. If the result is below the difficulty, Aether Points are reduced [note: Aether Points are somewhat like Endurance, a resource to burn that grows as characters advance their magic]. If there are not enough Aether Points, Wits is reduced. And if you loose too much Wits, you'll damage that ability permanently, which reflects the ever growing madness in you ..." (also from Part 2 of my original take)
Difficulties vary depending on what a character attempts to cast. A predefined spell, for instance, would be easier, as some of the necessary patterns are known. Rituals would also be quite easy, although not as specific as spells. A third instance would be using trinkets and totems and such, little artifacts that help focusing the energy. Casting magic "raw" would be the most difficult task, as it should be.

I'd encourage players to come up with their own spells and rituals and totems, matching their character's cultural background and all that. It also should encourage players to cooperate with others to cast magic. At least in the beginning.

Actually, seeing someone casting a spell including all the oracle dice should inspire awe and fear among those witnessing it. One last quote:
"This is where synchronicity comes into play. According to Wikipedia Carl Jung coined the word "synchronicity" to describe "temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events." In other words, when events that coincide and seem meaningful but are without any causal connection.
This is still gameable! [source]
Or at least seem* unconnected and that's where it all comes together: the "magical connection" normal people don't see and those dabbling in the arcane arts are somehow tuned into, is the very same thing that causes synchronicity. Learning to understand (or abuse) it makes a powerful sorcerer. What we have here is a narrative device for the DM to puzzle the players and give his world some depth.

To compare it with D&D (since most of you reading this should be familiar with it): instead of giving the player a list of spells, it's the DM that gets parts of those spells and describes them to the players as they manifest in their surroundings. And that's what the players are going to use (if they are clever)." (you guessed it: from Part 2 of my original take)
It's about creativity and subtlety and the unforeseen consequences of using forces not totally understood or controlled. Ideally, the procedure produces an instant riddle for the caster to unravel as he works his way through the forces he summoned. Turns out, easier said than done ...

Where it got problematic

There are different design schools about this sort of thing. Some would just use what is already established (1d20+something vs. difficulty), ditch the oracle dice, reducing it to spells and leave the rest to the narrative. This works, of course, and a DM running Lost Songs would be able to fall back on this easily enough (not that I recommend it, huh).

Then there are those who just come up with a nifty little magic system and leave the output minimal in a way that allows an easy connect to the core system. Basically they'll add some flavor to the d20 thingie described before.

The problem with that approach is (1) output needs to be kept at a minimum to avoid conflict with the core system (AD&D might be an example for that approach, actually, and you can see how splat books killed the bunny there) and (2) it's hard to find a system that way that would be able to accommodate all the different types of magic a setting like Lost Songs might have (old Roman, Asian, African, Germanic ... you name it, really, it's all over the place!).

Fringe, but possible ... whatever that is [source]
Going that route would mean (as a worst case scenario) building little magic systems for all possible variants ... which can work, but will most likely be lacking or incomplete or too baroque for people to care (well, or put a publisher in a position to sell a shit-load of splat-books ... just saying).

A third way is to build a system that seamlessly merges with the core system. No easy task with Lost Songs, as it is pretty fine tuned, with lots of moving pieces under the hood (as I imagine every system has, sooner or later). Especially challenging is the idea that the output of such a system not only produces a little riddle for the player to solve, but has lots of output that carries into a completely randomized setting in a meaningful way.

As I said, lots of moving pieces. And I really don't like bookkeeping, so the solutions discussed in those posts from 2016 went the right direction, but the results weren't ... well, they weren't in the right place, if that makes any sense.

A number a DM has to keep track of over several sessions is a number most likely lost. At least in my book. Ideally I'll have complex results that take the narrative of what happens into account and produce signifiers that resonate back from sessions yet to come, but without the need of bookkeeping.

It's complicated and it took me quite a while to get it all together in a way that did all the above in accordance with the core system, while producing a little riddle for the player to solve and taking all kinds of possible cultural variants into account. Really ... let me show you.

This is it, folks!

PART 1: THE RIDDLE

Okay, so a character attempts to cast a spell. He'll roll 1d20, adding his Wits (ability sore) to match a difficulty based on how he goes about it. Is he casting a spell? A Ritual? Is he using trinkets or totems, any kind of foci? Is he casting it raw?. He can use Aether to bridge a gap between his result and the difficulty and it'll hurt if Aether is gone and there's still points left to meet the difficulty. Accumulating damage like that might drive him crazy, if unchecked.

If a player decides to advance his character in magic, he'll have more Aether to work with as one option to chose from, but it'd also be possible to reduce difficulties when using Wits or being able to write scrolls or create magic items (among other things).

Okay, so he matches the difficulties and summons raw energy from around him. That's the oracle dice: 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 1d12 and 1d20. The Platonic Solids and I talk about that part here (just  little twist to root it in actual historical concepts). The result forms The Riddle and is put on the corresponding squares at the bottom of this little piece of paper:
Open in new tab to see it all ...
The idea here is that characters have all that raw energy at their disposal and have to decide how their spell manifests from that raw energy. That's the riddle, the little game in the game and, yes, I know, it's not trivial.

One of the big problems had been to identify the base elements that go into all spells (raw or pre-defined) and finding a pattern that allows them to manifest at every possible level with every possible result. You see that pattern above.

The results on your oracle dice will range between 1 and 20, with obvious limits imposed to the different dice. The grid above is divided into 5 parts, four of them (labeled 2-5, 5-8, 9-12 and 12-20) going clockwise around the fifth in the center. Also notice the numbers leading from 1 on the top left corner around the center with 2, 3 and 4 to the 5 in the center. This is where the 1s go.

All the other circles are possible elements of the manifesting spell. The number of dice a caster is allowed to use is 1 per level of advancement in Magic. There are, however, a couple of ways to improve on that. Obvious ways are rituals and foci (dice are locked on the squares in the lower right corner and raise the levels on the defaults they were created for - "defaults" are the given base criteria for a spell, independent of the result, more in the next part and on the magic sheet above).

The second way is the rule that doubles connect to chains. It means that a good roll of the oracle dice allows access to more dice than a caster might have at his disposal initially. So a level 1 mage (initially being able to manifest 1 die on the grid) that comes up with a double with his oracle dice, will be able to use both dice, if he decides to manifest one of them (but both have to be active on the grid). Same goes for triples, and so on (1s always go to the corners, though).

Add rituals, foci and cooperation (more on that aspect later) and even a level 1 magic user would be able to cast quite effective and somewhat safe (raw) spells. 

Ritual, done right [source]
So there is a high complexity about how many of the dice manifest on the grid. Linked to that is what those dice can do and what'll happen to the remaining elements (the dice that DON'T manifest) and the elements undefined (the categories a spell needs, but can't be fulfilled with the dice as they are available). In other words: what kind of spell is cast, if a caster has only one die he can actively use?

That's a lot of choices. And necessarily so, because there are several factors that need consideration to get anything cast, like range, effect area, purpose or even just as simple as damage.

Some of those decisions will be taken away from you with the roll of the oracle dice: 1s go to the corners (they are negative effects that will happen when the spell is released), doubles build chains and the results themselves show you where on the grid the dies can go (with the fiat that 1 die needs to be in the center). Another set of restrictions is the reason for drawing the energy to begin with (a declared goal derived from a necessity occurring in the narrative, of course).

With those decisions made for the player, he now has to chose an optimal way to distribute the remaining dice. The things he has to consider for that may not only be how the dice will manifest on the grid, but also what the remaining dice will do. The energy is summoned and all dice that aren't bound, will have a residual effect on the area. It might have visual effects, it might be a beacon for creatures best left undisturbed, either way, it will bring an imbalance not necessarily impacting the caster (as that's what the 1s are doing), but definitely the surroundings (details will follow).

To find the right way (or one of the many possible right ways) is to solve the riddle. To describe how the caster goes about it, is (like with Lost Songs combat) always enriching the narrative.

Not done yet, but ...

I guess that's a good point to stop. I'm all out of juice for today. There is obviously more to that system, but if you take a close look at the pattern above and at the descriptions it offers, you'll see how it's supposed to work. I need to talk about the specifics, though, as there are a couple of ideas connected to it that need more explanation.

There's also some systems attached to it all and it needs a little conversion for the possible energy output in relation to the core system (what saves are needed, how much damage is done, etc.), as that's not quite obvious from the results. Maybe an example would be nice :)

Now, some of you might ask yourselves, why go through all the trouble? And the easy answer is: because it is satisfying for players to have those little systems to master within the game. It gives players control over the narrative within well defined spaces of the narrative. It's challenging, yes, but that is the game I'm writing. You want easy, there's plenty of that around already.

Also, it's really fun to design high concept like that (I admit, I'm strange that way).

On the other hand, I feel that the complex part is only on the design side, and not necessarily something players will get to feel that hard when playing. Sure, it's a little system on it's own, but is also follows the same principles as combat (to some degree), so it's not that much of a leap.

And since all the elements are descriptive to a point where they explain their need themselves, it cooks down to taking the time to reflect what's there and make a decision, with the margin of failure being part of the whole experience. It's something you can get better at over time.

There is also enough meat on this to make it worthwhile for solo-play, is what I've been told. So there is that.

Anyway, I hope this didn't just raise eyebrows, but also gave a glimpse what kind of game Lost Songs is and how that's a bit different from what is out there. Maybe even that it has merit that way. If you have questions, please ask away! And if you are interested in giving this a go, just drop me a note and I'll see what I can do.

The next part will definitely go more into detail about the ramifications and if I have the room, I'll throw in an example as well. Soon.

[source]

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

This Blog is soon to be revived ...

I have been way too busy and neglected this poor little blog for way too long. Time to change that and get some writing done here. Soon!

[source]


Wednesday, June 6, 2018

D&D RC Campaign Summerbreak Summary Part 1: It's a Heist, Baby!

Hey there, friends! It's been a while. I have been so busy, it's not even funny anymore (somewhat gaming related, just not yet blog related). Didn't have much time to do anything with Lost Songs in the last couple of months either (it's been months! damn). What I kept doing, though, was playing. So when I decided to take a break from Lost Songs, we got back to playing more D&D! Here's the first part in an attempt to summarize those sessions ...

Prelude: This is how we roll

A couple of words about our game. We play a heavily house-ruled D&D Rules Cyclopedia, with a huge dose of HackMaster 4e, some Arduin and all kinds of little things I came up with in the last 7 years or so. Check out the last 3 posts to get an idea about the combat and parts of the character generation. Players are usually pointed towards Labyrinth Lord for reference.

By now the game features roughly 23 classes and it is all over the place. There are barbarians, strangers from different worlds, pixies, charming princes, dwarven snipers and many others added to the core classes (every player can build characters, I write about our process here).

It's also a rather vanilla affair, with huge doses of anime and (happy) gore: a peaceful valley under feudal reign some 100 years after the fall of "The Empire". Riddled with dungeons and mysteries, of course. You can read a bit about the setting Schwarzaarlen and its main city Deverron here.

As vanilla as it gets ... [source]
Books I use at the table are the Dungeons and Dragons Rules Cyclopedia (the book of books, I say) and the Expanded Petty Gods (because: fun). I also heavily use the Random Narrative Generator.

We play it as a sandbox, which means the players and I take turns in not knowing what's going to happen next as the story emerges from random encounters (with random encounter reactions!), the setting and random narrative twists. I didn't know what kind of story we were going to tell. Which is a good thing. Keeps me on my toes.

Trouble follows you ...

The group consists after the first two sessions of a fat wizard, a moping princess, a melancholic barbarian, a prince charming, a fat cat humanoid and a rogue. They just arrived in town for the annual cider festival. Most arrived with a caravan that just hit town, the prince charming came from the elven woods in the north.

It's perfectly shitty autumn weather when the characters start exploring the city: a little cold, a little wet, a little gray (a d12 for the month, a d20 for the weather). Not very inviting, but the mood is good and Deverron does its best to be festive and busy. Things take a dark turn as the group makes room to let a heavily armored wagon pass, only to witness its robbery (random narrative generator, RNG from now on).

Well, they don't see that much, since the street just disappears under the wagon. The rest is screams and damage spells. The only thing they see when approaching the gap where the road used to be, is a giant spider vanishing in the canalization, the wreck that'd been the armored wagon and the corpses of those who protected it.

The city guard shows up and takes the characters into custody for questioning. They don't seem to believe that the characters had been that close without being somehow involved (RNG and Encounter Reaction Table, ERT from now on).

The characters are no happy campers at that point, feeling a bit helpless, being new in town and all that. But they'd been good friends with the chief of the caravan and as their way leads past the market place where the caravan is being off-loaded, their friend sees they are in trouble, calls a couple of his handymen and intervenes on the groups behalf (a random roll where they are headed and the RNG doing its thing).

A bribe later they are free to go. One thing they'd learned while talking to the guards: that armored wagon was a cider delivery from the Oldinges family, a local political entity.

Busy medieval streets and a castle in the distance [source]
A Feast is a Feast

Tired of walking around aimlessly, the characters ask around where the eating is good and where they also might crash for the night. The caravan leader has connections and gives them directions to a tavern that always keeps some room for people arriving with the caravan. Off they go.

That tavern is huge and business is humming. The characters are lucky to find a table to sit and the fat wizard casts a cantrip to highlight their position for the waitresses to see (a giant red arrow floating in the air, pointing at them). Turns out that's about as much magic as is allowed in here. They have magic blockers here to hinder fat wizards from skipping out on the tap.

Anyway, a waitress turns up and takes orders. As they wait for that, they are approached by a bland young priestess of the Goddess of Boredom (Expanded Petty Gods, from now on EPG). She tells the group that she knows about their involvement with the heist and asks them for help. The delivery that got stolen was a bottle of the legendary cider called "Goldspritz", worth a five digit sum in gold.

The offer is, if the characters help the temple to find the missing bottle, they get room and board and, far more important, protection from other groups that are also involved in this affair and don't believe that the characters had just "been there by accident". It's an offer they won't refuse and they agree to come by the temple later today. As she leaves, the characters notice she passes a sinister figure that looks angrily at the priestess and the group ... (all RNG).

Their order arrives. Prince charming has the brilliant idea to tell the waitress that they are with royalty, pointing at the princess. The princess smiles and waves her hand. The waitress is impressed enough to inform the owners and it turns out that they actually know that old noble bloodline from songs and stories. They have some really romanticized ideas about the old empire and make lots of fuzz about the whole affair.

It might have helped that the princess's last name literally translated to "from the money", but the owners acted fast and gave the group a private room and all kinds of courtesies, including a meal with several courses and all kinds of luxuries.

As the innkeeper seems to believe that prince charming is the princess's spokesperson, he takes him to the side and asks him how they intent to pay for all that. His reasoning is, they can't do something like that for free, but since she's a princess, money shouldn't be an issue. Right?

Prince charming is the first to sneak out of the tavern, with the rogue close on his heels. The wizard tries to negotiate terms and almost succeeds to talk the keep into reducing the price to half. However, half of 1400 is still too much (D&D RC, 3d6x10 gp for level 1 characters).

The innkeep gets wind that something is up and posts a polite henchman at the entrance. Among the last of the group to realize that they are in trouble is the barbarian. She really doesn't take kindly to the idea that they are not invited and have to pay, so she cranks up the foreigner and escalates towards the guarded door with enough gusto that she takes out both door and guard.

They make a run for it through the inn's busy main room. The innkeep didn't have enough time to get all his ducks in a row, so there's actually an opening for them to use. The fat cat is the slowest of the bunch and one of the innkeep's goons actually manages to catch her tail as she jumps through the window to make her escape.

A busy tavern! [source]
The rest already made it out, only the cat woman is in dire straits. But the rogue comes to the rescue, dagger in hand. The henchman backs of immediately as he sees that weapons are in play, mumbling something like "They don't pay me for shit like that."

It's almost dark outside and Devorra doesn't have any street lamps, just th light people carry and the lampions they put up for the festival, so the group has it easy to disappear in the busy and dark streets, heading towards the temple district ...

Next: The Temple of Boredom

And that's roughly the first two sessions. It's been a bit awkward to start the game with the RNG, as things kept happening to the characters without them being able to do a lot about it, but it actually made for a vibrant and complex setting. No fights at all in the first two sessions. The RNG throwing curve balls all the time seems to be the cause of this, another interesting side effect.

Took me totally by surprise that it turned out to be a fantasy noir story a la Garrett P.I.. D&D is good for that kind of story, it turns out.

Next time the group will meet some rivals and I walk a thin line trying to make bored characters interesting for the players. And the guard gets involved ... Stay tuned!


Saturday, May 5, 2018

Building be67, a LL/MF supplement for the weird 60s, Part 3 (classes, ability scores, skills and weapon mastery)

Here we are again, talking a bit more about how to transport your Labyrinth Lord/Mutant Future game into the Weird Sixties (which totally should be a thing, btw, but isn't). More Grindhouse aesthetic, more gory violence, more funky stuff. All optional, of course. Today we'll explore a bit the classes for be67, ability scores, skills, weapon mastery and some random character generation. Here we go ...

You want to catch up? Check out Part 1 and Part 2 a bit further below.

[source]
  (Random) Character generation

I had it all a bit backwards, since I wanted to show you guys the "extraordinary splatter" part of the game (and because those parts adapt well to all basic editions). However, this (probably) last part of the series will give you the complete character creation process in the order I'd do it at the table. If you know D&D/LL/MF or any other game like it, you'll know your way around and spot the differences easily enough.
Most of the changes here are cosmetic to some degree or another, because we are playing the Weird Sixties, baby ...

1. ABILITY SCORES

Roll 3d6 per ability score, in order. Re-roll one ability score (keep better result). The ability scores are (names will defer from the editions you know):
  • POWER! – a character’s strength (bonus to attack)
  • Dex (was here) – a character’s finesse (bonus to AC)
  • Con is for Constitution (bonus to hp per level)
  • Wits – a character’s intelligence (skill points)
  • Zen – a character’s wisdom (bonus to social interaction & Initiative)
  • Funk – a character’s groove (luck pool)
A player may take any amount from his Funk score as a bonus to Saves or rolls or to reduce damage he received. The only ways to regain those points are (1) whenever a character gains a new level (restore up to the original maximum), (2) a wish and (3) a heavy psychedelic experience.
I may offer an alternative way in the rules to roll up ability scores (the rule originates here):
Players may roll 18d6, and note every single result. For every rolled 6, players may re-roll a lower result and take the new roll instead.  Three digits make an ability score, players can combine as they see fit (and can do so after they (or the dice!) decided on their class, see below).
[source]
2. CLASSES (roll 3d6: 1. is the class, 2. is some flavor (see class entry and 3. is the character’s level … follow class descriptions for individual results) 
-------------------

1. Convict – A tough criminal (+3 to physical saves) that has “reasons” to join the party (2nd d6):
  1. he’s fighting for his freedom
  2. his sister, a prostitute, is in trouble
  3. he gets paid a giant sum to do one specific task here (and keeps it secret, needs to talk to DM)
  4. someone has his wife and child as a hostage to exploit him for his skills
  5. he’s in debt and this solves it
  6. Revenge!
  • HD: 1d10 per level
Tough Shiv – if it’s pointy and stabby you automatically get an extra die for damage.
Weapon Mastery: All weapons damages for ranged are d4, Brawl and Close Combat are d6. Everything else needs to get learned separately. 1d6 (your 3rd) points to raise or learn a new one … 1 point from d4 to d6, 2 points from d6 to d8, 3 points from d8 to d10). Exotic is zero.
-------------------

2. Spy – She’s a spy, that’s what she is (get +2 on all Saves when the cause relevant for the mission). The mission is (2nd d6 - the DM will tell you what exactly … or at least what you are allowed to know):
  1. steal some documents
  2. save the world, of course
  3. kill a target that knows too much
  4. destroy evidence
  5. contact a source
  6. extract a double agent
  • HD: 1d6 per level
Agency Support – [level times] you get support during a mission from the agency you are working for. Needs to be plausible and the DM decides how it manifests. It always solves a scene, not a mission.

Weapon Mastery: Small Ranged and Heavy Ranged are d6, the rest is d4. 1d6 (your 3rd) points to raise or learn a new one … 1 point from d4 to d6, 2 points from d6 to d8, 3 points from d8 to d10.
Spies double their Dex bonus to AC.

-------------------

3. Military – You are a grunt (double hp-result when rolled, always) and you are here to follow orders from (2nd d6):
  1. no one, this shit should be in your past … in Vietnam
  2. one of the other players is your superior (true for all military, even if they might have someone else, too … choose player randomly and give it a reason)
  3. your rank makes you the superior
  4. the president gave you those orders
  5. this is a personal matter
  6. black ops, bitches
If there’s more than one soldier in the group, chose the d6 with the higher number for the motivation and the lower number as the level of one additional NPC soldier in this task force. Add a soldier like that each time (so with 3 player soldiers, you'd have a troupe of 5 soldiers: 3 players and 2 non player characters).
  • HD: 1d8 per level 
Nuke ‘em from orbit (one time, all Soldiers in the team) – collect all the hp the troupe loses during the mission. One time, as a last resort, you can roll a d100 with the lost xp as an upper limit. If the roll is below, you can give the order to nuke the place from orbit. Radio contact needs to be established, the strike will be 3d6 minutes later.

Weapon Mastery: If it is a weapon, you can use it with d6. 1d6 (your 3rd) points to raise or learn a new one … 1 point from d4 to d6, 2 points from d6 to d8, 3 points from d8 to d10. Exotic is zero.

-------------------

4. Activist – You are fighting The Man and your cause is (2nd d6):
  1. fighting fascism
  2. fighting gene experiments
  3. fighting pollution
  4. fighting big corp
  5. world piece
  6. no, this is a family matter 
  • HD: 1d8
For The Cause! – Refresh all your hp [level times]. You keep coming back, man.

Weapon Mastery: Activists get Brawl and Small Ranged as a d6 and no other weapons. 1d6 (your 3rd) points to raise or learn a new one … 1 point from d4 to d6, 2 points from d6 to d8, 3 points from d8 to d10. Exotic is zero. 

-------------------

5. Journalist – The story is the thing, man. You want it all and pictures (2nd d6 times 200 is the currency you have left to work the story where it happens … getting there, equipment and all that are all already payed for).
  • HD: 1d8 per level
Journalistic Immunity – You get [level times] combats ignored as long as you do nothing but non-combative actions (taking photos, giving First Aid and so on).

Weapon Mastery: Your camera is your weapon, but roll 1d6 (your 3rd) and buy weapon skills for 1 point from d4 to d6, 2 points from d6 to d8, 3 points from d8 to d10. You always start buying the d4, every stage needs to be bought.

-------------------

6. Flower Child – Religious nut, inspired being or just a drug addict that’s on the wrong party … you are the hippie of the group. The result of the d6 is the number of drug doses you have at your disposal right now (LSD, most likely). You could share, if you want to … you are highly immune anyway (+5 to Saves against poison when perusing drugs).
  • HD 1d12 per level
Smother them with kindness - [level times] you can resolve a conflict without everyone resorting to violence. Need to win initiative for it, though, and all involved have a difficult (vs. 25+1 for everyone failing the Save) Save to avoid the peaceful solution (if one doesn’t make it, he gets one free round to do damage, after that everyone is entitled to join).

Seeing it as it is
– They have no filter and see the monsters that hide amongst humanity for what they are. This is active all the time, but nobody believes them. They take lots of drugs, after all.

Weapon Mastery: No weapon skills to begin with (love, not war, baby). But roll 1d6 (your 3rd) and buy weapon skills for 1 point from d4 to d6, 2 points from d6 to d8, 3 points from d8 to d10. You always start buying the d4, every stage needs to be bought.
Flower children also double their skill points.

[source]
At this point players have their ability scores (or a pool of numbers to distribute), a (random) class, guidelines for weapon mastery and an idea what the group will look like. Each player can also roll hit points at this point. Before we get to skills and what weapon mastery is, though, I'd like to introduce another feature here: 

3. THE RANDOM TRAIT GENERATOR (1D20)

1-2    Thin (-1 to Strength)
3-4    Choleric (-1 to Wisdom, +1 to Constitution)
5-6    Melancholic (+1 to Intelligence)
7-8    Nimble (+1 to Dexterity)
9-12   Normal
13-14  Serene (+1 to Wisdom)
15-16  Vivid (+1 to Luck/Charisma)
17-18  Brawny (+1 to Strength)
19-20  Fat (+1 Constitution, -1 Dexterity)

I've introduced this here. Usually I'll allow players to chose if they want to try their hands on this, since negative consequences are possible. But if they decide to test this table, they roll after they decided on a class and the ability scores are settled.

4. SKILLS

Characters get at character generation 1 skill point for every point Wits above 10. Each point buys a character a "+1" on a chosen skill. A list of skills might follow, for now I just go with what players think appropriate for their character. Other than that it is assumed that character have the skills necessary to play their class. Basic education or driving skills, for instance, are assumed and tested via the ability scores.

[Source]
A skilled character just has an edge on the other characters. So having a "+1" on any skill means that characters will automatically have a partial success if their roll to test the skill (basically 1D20 + ability score vs. difficulty) comes up with a 10 or higher.
Characters get another skill point (+Wits bonus) to distribute like this every 3 levels.
I might go all in here and add the rules I wrote for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs here, as they easily add some depth. Might keep it optional, though.

5. WEAPON MASTERY

Weapon Mastery needs to match the rules discussed in Parts 1 & 2 in that not the weapon itself determines the damage, but the ability of a user to deal damage is what makes the difference. A man that knows how to use a knife might be just as dangerous as one knowing how to use a pistol (at least in the genre we are playing here, ha!). The Weapon Mastery for a modern times game might be a bit different than you'd need for a fantasy game, so here is how I split it:
  • Brawl (Boxing, Judo, Kung Fu)
  • Close Combat (knives and shit)
  • Small Ranged (pistols, semi-automatics)
  • Medium Ranged (shotguns, rifles)
  • Heavy Ranged (sniper rifles, mounted guns)
  • Explosives (c4, dynamite)
  • Exotic (swords or ninjutsu and shit)
Damage dice as per class description. Characters can get 1 damage die raised by one stage every 3 levels.

[source]
The last thing you'll need is a mission

I'll offer a couple of scenarios and mini-adventures for be67 and the Weird Sixties here on the blog. I'm also currently writing a module for this system called "The Rise of Robo-Hitler" and it will hit shelves in December. That said, you could quite easily come up with your own scenario by checking out a vast library of Grindhouse inspired movies and comics and (computer) games from the sixties to today (check the posters alone, here for instance).

Or just take your favorite D&D adventure and twist a bit to work in the Weird Sixties (man, a rewrite of something like B2 to fit the era would be tons of fun ...).

The rules described here will offer wild shot-outs, motivated and colorful characters and bloody action. The rest is what the rules you use provide.

The game of your choice and be67

And that's that. Anything else you might need to make this work is the basic edition compatible game of your choosing: xp, level advancement, saves, everything that is missing so far. I might do some character sheets for LL, MF when I do the one for be67 (or maybe just a mini-sheet for the additional rules?).

I'll twist be67 into form in the next couple of months and it'll be available for free (probably PWYW). A fourth part of this series will probably address loose ends like armor and maybe a table for random splatter events. You don't have to change much with the original rules you are using to make this work for you. For combats, just take a monsters already existing damage dice for the weapons they carry, handle the tokens for them as the players do and you are good to go.


Everything else should apply naturally. Mortality shouldn't be much higher, but people will get crippled more and the game will be way more gritty. As I like it, actually. If you use any of this in your games, I'd be happy to hear how it worked for you, of course. Happy gaming!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

RPG Design: Rules to Project or Rules to Experience?

This is sort of an intermission between development posts for be67. It's something that occurred to me a couple of weeks ago and I see it resonated in my blog-roll every so often (like, three times today alone!). I'm going to lean myself a bit out of the window here and say that there are two major and distinct game design schools in RPG Land. RPGs are either one or the other. Let me explain ...

CAVEAT (just in case someone is looking for a fight): Although I believe myself to be clearly on the one side of this (for reasons I will illustrate below), I don't think that any one side is better than the other. As a matter of fact, the one thing that unites (or divides, for that matter) all DIY designers out there is getting it done or not and I'd argue that it is just as hard to build and write a streamlined minimalist game as it is to write rules that reflect how a world should react to a character out of luck. I also might not be the first to formulate those thoughts. If that's so, I'm happy to just repeat them.

Surrealist game, he said

Patient Zero for this was a post over at Realms of Chirak about surrealism in gaming (I'd tag Nicholas, but I somehow seem to have lost that power here in blogger). That post is interesting for a couple of reasons, but what triggered this particular train of thought was him talking about a game I never had been exposed to: Over The Edge (thank you! now I want that and it doesn't exist anymore).

What he said was, that it is (one of?) the first role playing games out there to embrace surrealist elements. Then he goes a bit into the setting and I went off to read a bit more about that setting (which is cool shit, don't get me wrong) and then I read that it is a very rules light game ...

... wait a minute, I thought, so the surrealist elements come from the setting, not from the system? Well, if you check out the character sheet, you'll see quite fast that there isn't happening a lot from the system side of things (from what I could gather, it's a nice system, though).

It certainly isn't the first time I encountered a game like that (and I'm not talking about games featuring surrealist elements, although one could make an argument for OD&D in that regard). T├ękumel is a strong contender for a setting-driven, rules-light game and among the first to be published. Talislanta is another one (No elves!), but that just might be the hand of Jonathan Tweet again, so it only counts half way, I guess.

D&D can be surreal, and you know it ... [source]
I wrote in a post not that long ago (still lost ... can't find it right now, but it's the thought that counts) that strong settings are narrative expansion of the rules and just as strict. All you'll need with a strong setting is a minimalist or light game to make it work (which is one way to see it). I'll leave it at that for now and come back to it later. The distinction we need to make here, is that the game is not heavy on the mechanics, but heavy on the context (or subtext?).

It's Setting vs. Rules, then?

So what are we talking about here? There seems to be a shifting scale between, say, the established story of a game and the rules that determine the outcome of interactions with said world. Both feed the narrative that emerges at the table and the degree with which they dominate is close to the distinction I'm trying to make, just not quite right.

As far as I can tell, this more is about how much is projected into a game and how much is created procedurally. You'll obviously have both aspects in every game. However, I think we can make a clear distinction by looking at the rules of a game for attempts to generate an experience rather than leaving room for projection.

I'll elaborate. Let's take Dungeon World as an example (because I read and reviewed that one). It is very rules light, only has a couple of rules to play with. Everything else is just labeled differently, so the impact on the narrative is shifted with different words describing (mostly) the same mechanic.

DW is interesting as an example for another reason: it shows how OD&D as a set of rules is canonized to a degree that you can actually project it on a lighter system and produce the same feel for the lighter game (if all involved know what D&D is, I'd argue). In the reviews back when I described that as "scripted D&D" and that is just another way of describing the phenomenon.

The "XYZ Hack" is another great example for games like that. Take a light system, change the words and use some strong idea or another as platform to project. Everyone has an idea what pirates are, so pirate games are easy like that. Same goes for Cthulhu games or Pulp games or Kung Fu ... just look at the list.

To a degree you'll have that with every role playing game, as I already pointed out. People will bring their ideas of stories to the table. Always. The difference is, if you need to bring that knowledge to the table, or if the game also delivers and challenges some of that itself.

An easy example for this are the insanity rules in Call of Cthulhu games. The game will tell you how your character goes insane, what that means and how to do something about that while playing the game. Port those rules in any other game and see how it completely changes the flow of that other game.

SWAT guys playing Ballerinas ...

Here's another example for projection versus experience. You bring to the table what you know. If that's all you need, you'll be good to go. The rest is negotiation of the validity of that knowledge with all others involved.

Say, a SWAT team plays some rpg in their off hours (or as training?) about being a SWAT team. They could just go and use something Powered by the Apocalypse or a Hack variant or some other set of minimalist rules and everything else would just fall into place.

But have them play a couple of ballerinas in a Black Swan scenario, and I imagine they'd be as lost as most people. If they were still up to it (because, lets face it, people don't really want to invest that much into the games they are playing ...), there'd be two ways to make this work:
  • (1) would be offering them the setting heavy variant (see above, could just be an extension of a rules light system and still work)
  • OR
  • (2) you introduce them to a system that already took care of the heavy lifting and allows the players to explore that theme themselves.
And that's how you make ballerinas out of a SWAT team. A system like that would seek the essence of what it means to be a competitive ballerina (to stay with the example here) and allows players to explore the game's theme by producing results that form the emerging narrative in a meaningful way towards said theme, not towards the players expectations.

Too unexpected? [source]
They are not negotiating and projecting as much as they are experiencing and interpreting. As they get better at playing the game, they come to an understanding of the underlying themes on a more visceral level ... (you are still looking at that Kirk picture, aren't you?)

You could say it is the long held distinction between so-called "storyteller games" and games that "simulate", but I always questioned that distinction and the above explains why to some extent. However, I might add that all role playing games actually tell a story or simulate in the true sense of the word (which explains why people fight so hard about those definitions, btw, they are not apt to begin with).

Different approaches, I'd say

I'm not saying writing a game to allow exploring a theme is more difficult than writing one that offers projection of known and agreed upon themes, but the difficulties are distributed very differently for each. And the distinction is very real (although overlap, see above).

The complexity for offering a platform for players to project themes upon can go from minimal D6 to GURPS (or other universal role playing games) and all of them are in their way equally hard to design, I imagine.

As far as strengths and weaknesses go, I'd say those games allow easy access for players and low investment on the plus side. Both aspects will get people together easily and get you playing fast. Very nice for short games and one shots.

The downside, however, is that games will most likely lack depth, while only rarely challenging the players and the DM or only in the most superficial way (you have no hit points, you are dead ... but even that's not always the case). The lack of depth and exploration (other than on the narrative side, I suppose) will not allow for huge campaigns and lend itself to entertaining mini campaigns. At least it'll be difficult to keep a story alive for long.

The other side of the spectrum would be games that offer the exploration of their themes through the rules. While campaigns can be longer and more satisfying, because all involved will continually be challenged by the game to learn and extrapolate, instead of just telling/negotiating what's going to happen, it's also a serious commitment. Not everyone is willing to do that.

Also, even if all the rules can be learned during the game, you still have to remember them as the game progresses. You have to want to get better at the game (and, arguably, be able to do so) to really benefit from the game instead of getting, say, frustrated. Ideally, a game will lead you into it's depths, though.

With those games it's also very easy to make mistakes in the design. If a game like that is not well designed, it'll fail.

D&D as prototype

D&D is the best example for the latter variant. Especially in it's early "final" stages, the D&D Rules Cyclopedia and AD&D. Highly abstract, high complexity, lots and lots of exploration and little sub-systems to boot (down to having little rules for different monsters!).

It'll keep you engaged for years and then some. Classes are not only different, they are distinct and offer a wide range of different play-styles. The rules are easy on the players in the beginning and grow with the characters.

It's also a true game of exploration, in every sense (which ultimately is why young children find it so appealing!). Fantasy as a genre also played a crucial role in that its generic nature allowed the game to manifest through the rules instead of, say, setting distinctions (a mistake AD&D 2e did, arguably) or strong themes. Just the most basic understanding of what fantasy means was enough to play the game.

D&D, still surreal ... [source]
What's more, the game allowed an easy exit along the way. You just want to play the first 9 or 6 or 3 levels? It's all fun and easy enough to do. However, if you go in deep, you'll find it's very deep indeed, as there are rules for warfare and domain games and becoming gods, for instance. There's also room to develop your own game out of it or add new rules. Or just take aspects of it and run with that for a while.

D&D can do all that and did it so good, in fact, that those rules and it's vocabulary became iconic enough to be used as a theme as well, just as explained above. It helped creating a very successful video game industry and all role playing games developed after D&D did so in distinction to it. Think about that for a minute.

Two schools

Anyway. That's D&D for you. The problem with all that is to decide whether you'd rather explore or project in your games (and you could project exploring, for that matter), or which to what degree. It might come down to taste, and that isn't even a constant. However, knowing is half the battle, right?

As far as developing games goes, I think we are talking two different schools here. Or two different disciplines, if you will. And they are distinct in that they each try to create a very different style of role playing. Each are equally difficult to design, make no mistake about it. However, distinct they are and that comes with huge ramifications as far as definitions go.

Here's something useful to take away from this: if you want to find out if a game is for you (or why a game doesn't work for you), look back at the games you liked so far in the most abstract way you can muster and with the distinctions made in this here post. Then check if that new game does that or not.

So if you are into projecting games that are low on setting, something like Dungeon or Apocalypse World might be totally for you. High complexity experiences, but low time investment? Check out indie rpgs like My Life With Master or 44 (or a bazillion other indie games in that direction). Highly modular, lots of projection, descent mini-campaigns? GURPS or BRPG or universal rpgs in general might work. And so on and so forth.

It'll also give you some indications what players you'll want. I had a game of WitchCraft once go south because the players totally where projecting and ignored the rules to an extent where people with super hero characters played as if they were normal and weak. The game offered no challenges for them on that level, and they weren't happy when the things started happening the game demands to challenge the characters ...

It's an extreme case, but I wouldn't have had that problem using a system accommodating this sort of play, like FATE, for instance. Being able to communicate to potential players what kind of game you want to play is a very good thing, imo (although in the example above it meant that two players had to go and one went with them ... which was for the better, I might add).

A hard distinction to make?

If you read up to this point, you'll probably be thinking up examples where the distinction fails. Good. Please challenge this, as I don't think enough people are. I can imagine people going "But we played GURPS for decades now!" or "Dungeon World is not projecting D&D themes on a rules-light system!" or "D&D has no depth!", and that's all fine and dandy from an individual point of view.

However, please consider that it's distinctions like the above that, on a purely pragmatic level, allow us not only to find ways to talk about the games we play, they also offer a way to reflect and position your own preferences in gaming in relation to them. In an ideal case we talk about it and come to a better definition. Nothing set in stone here.

That said, and adding that there indeed is some overlap, I think it is important to understand that there might be play styles that are not compatible at all and what the reasons for that are. Describing this as the distinction between projection and exploration at least has the benefit that it isn't as nebulous as the "storyteller"/"simulationist" approach.

And that's that: i'd love to hear if you guys see the same distinction or something else. Maybe it's really not that much of a distinction but more like a scale of involvement (although I don't think so ... I strongly believe it's a temperament thing, or at least connected)? Let me hear what you think. Opinions and thoughts are, as always, very welcome.

I just liked that one [source]