Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Castle Lysander

Castle Lysander

This is a playset/re-skin for Beyond the Wall.

Lysander’s castle lies at the centre of a magical wasteland. Those who dwell in the castle are citizens of Lysander, having taken their lord’s offer of sanctuary. Many have fled untold horrors. Many more are unsure of how they arrived here; they remember the castle gates, and the mists, and the sounds and scents of the outside, though as soon as they crossed the threshold into Lysander’s domain these melted away like a dream. Almost as if the memory were hiding from them.

The characters are Lysander’s knights. They each came here from elsewhere; they are given title and responsibility above the other citizens, and they venture beyond the walls to do their lord’s bidding, not knowing what they will confront in the external landscape.

They have a sense of self and an acute connection to a place, somewhere in their past. But their families, friends, political sides, even their names — these are less certain, and they change from day to day.

How this works

This is a playset for Beyond the Wall and the Further Afield supplement. It’s been created with Beyond the Wall’s core values in mind — namely a low-prep fantasy game about a group of characters striking out from safety into unknown danger. It uses the following concepts:

  • Playbooks
  • Major locations (from Further Afield)
  • Threat packs
  • Beyond the Wall’s specific colour including True Names, magic, etc.

It differs from Beyond the Wall as follows:

  1. Characters are adults, or at least reasonably confident in their place in the world. Their ignorance of what lies beyond the wall comes from magical trickery rather than youthful ignorance.
  2. There’s no reason this can’t use the BtW rules as written; however I plan to make this system work with StormHack, which is essentially level-less (but levels come from something else).
  3. Level advancement then is about climbing the social ladder within the Castle, currying favour with the mysterious Lysander.
  4. Playbook structure is similar but there are crucial differences. Like the core game the playbooks have three common tables, and four playbook-specific tables. See below.

Characters and their playbooks

The goal of the playbooks is to present a complete set of characters each with back-story in minutes, ready to drop into an adventure. Standard BtW does it by first talking about childhood via common tables and then moving on to a set of themed tables around the playbook’s premise.

In this version the character premise is a lone figure, an eternal champion or protagonist who has found themselves outside their own time. The first three tables are common to all playbooks and cover three things:

  1. How they entered Lysander’s Castle
  2. Their audience with Lysander
  3. Someone else they met in the castle.

The next four tables describe the character in more detail. This should be imagined as if the characters, newly arrived in the castle, are sitting down together to their first meal and talking about their past. This exposition could be in-character, or it could be inferred (e.g. by the strange attire of the character, their mannerisms and other cues the other party members pick up on) or it could simply be internal monologue.

Normally in Beyond the Wall each playbook has a climactic event which also involves the player character to the right. In this case these events have been replaced with a strong sense of a location. This location will be of primary significance to the character but may have a completely different meaning to another character — their version may be a reflection, or be far in the future or the past, represent a diverging timeline, etc.

Over the next few blog posts I’m going to write some sample playbooks — the first one is at the end of this post.


One: Within the Castle

While the action game should take place outside the castle walls when running missions at the behest of Lysander (as directed by his various mouthpieces), in downtime the PCs may explore the labyrinthine castle and its many weird denizens. Consider using these relationship rules to develop relationships with the castle’s inhabitants. What do they know? What do they want?

What places are there to find in the castle? How does one’s level affect access to these places — as you go up a level and further into Lysander’s favour, are you invited to explore new and stranger sights within the castle?

Two: The Ladder

In place of, or as well as, individual character advancement levels there is a Ladder for social advancement within the castle. Advancing means access to better equipment, spells, libraries, and so on; so it means you will get the benefits of rising through your class’s levels. But in addition it grants access to new social circles, new places in the castle, more information, and even the right to ask Lysander questions directly (within a certain scope).

Three: Naysay the Cartographer

The characters have been recruited by Lysander. At the same time they have been contacted by Naysay, the secret cartographer. Naysay questions the mystery surrounding the castle; he asks why Lysander would limit information about the outside world, and not even provide a map. Naysay has therefore struck a deal with the characters: provide information about the places they visit, and he will in turn give them access to his maps.

His red-draped workshop and filing systems are a complete mess — the “map” is distributed over many pieces of paper and parchment stuffed into drawers, hung on walls behind other maps, and even cunningly woven into the rug in his room. Absconding with a map will do the characters little good. However giving him information means he will give them advice in return — in the form of Major Locations (see Further Afield).

Sample Playbook

Veteran of the Sonic Wars

The Sonic Wars: where both sides employ sonic weapons and sonic drugs which resonate key areas of the brain to control sleep and emotion; where years-old remnants of aural detonations still resonate in unexpected patterns, making any journey outside a soundproofed Dome hazardous; where the ultimate act of intimacy is to remove one’s ear pods and listen.

Starting ability scores: STR and CON of 10, all others at 8.

1d12 What was your first sight of the castle, and how did you enter? Gain
1 You emerged on a balcony to a skyline of minarets, spires and bell-towers under a starlit sky. +2 INT, +1 WIS, +1 CON, Skill: Astrology
2 You arrived at the Southern Gate and hammered your fist on the oak door until they allowed you in. +2 STR, +1 CON, +1 CHA, Skill: Intimidation
3 You cut your way through a mass of ivy to locate a small archway in the Eastern Wall. +2 CON, +1 DEX, +1 WIS, Skill: Spot Hidden
4 You nearly drowned wading through a mire to reach the North Gate. +2 CON, +1 STR, +1 DEX, Skill: Swimming
5 You leapt a chasm to reach the West Gate. +2 STR, +1 DEX, +1 WIS, Skill: Athletics
6 You climbed up the well in dining hall. +2 DEX, +1 INT, +1 WIS, Skill: Climbing
7 You remember falling forever, then waking in an amphitheater surrounded by weather-worn statues +2 WIS, +1 INT, +1 STR, Skill: History
8 You wandered through the arboretum until you found the Southern Gate. +2 DEX, +1 INT, +1 CON, Skill: Navigation
9 You entered a submerged bunker in the desert and followed a rough-hewn passage to the Eastern Gate. +2 INT, +1 DEX, +1 CHA, Skill: History
10 A portal in the temple by the lake carried you over a blue-starred causeway to the North Gate. +2 WIS, +1 INT, +1 CHA, Skill: Legend Lore
11 Stones around your ankles dragged you down to the sea bottom, where you found the Western Gate. +2 CON, +1 WIS, +1 DEX, Skill: Breath Control
12 You emerged from a sarcophagus in the mausoleum. +2 CHA, +1 WIS, +1 CON, Skill: Sense Death
1d8 Upon entering the castle you were told that you were now in Lysander’s domain and under his protection. What happened? Gain
1 Lysander addressed you in a booming voice from a balcony, his features obscured in shadow +2 STR, +1 INT
2 Lysander entertained you in a grand room, offering you a jet-black wine +2 WIS, +1 CHA
3 Lysander’s seneschal regretfully informed you that his master was occupied, and to enjoy the lavish meal laid in front of you +2 CON, +1 WIS
4 You chased Lysander, a cloaked figure in a white mask, through a hedge maze demanding answers — but he was always just out of reach +2 DEX, +1 STR
5 Old and kindly Lysander appeared at your bedside, asking if you had rested well and offering you bread and fruit +2 CHA, +1 CON
6 Young and androgynous Lysander escorted you through a gallery of their ancestors’ portraits +1 WIS, +1 INT, +1 CHA
7 You glimpsed Lysander, flanked by an entourage of armoured hyena warriors, as they passed through a grand colonnade +1 CON, +1 INT, +1 STR
8 You crept into Lysander’s sanctum, and witnessed them converse with a living mist billowing from a brazier +1 DEX, +1 INT, +1 WIS
1d8 Who else did you meet in the castle? Gain
1 Prome, librarian +2 INT, +1 CON
2 Fulker, mistress of owls and hawks +2 DEX, +1 INT
3 Madame Zmeice, keeper of the observatory +2 WIS, +1 CHA
4 Vain, steward +2 CHA, +1 INT
5 Constable, castle security +2 STR, +1 INT
6 Orville, fool in motley +1 INT, +1 DEX, +1 CON
7 Elle, sitting in an apple tree +1 CHA, +1 INT, +1 DEX
8 Durt, skulking pot-washer +1 CON, +1 WIS, +1 CHA

As you sit down to eat with your fellow knights you recall your past life. Your armour and weapons leave no doubt that you’re a Warrior of some skill. You have the class abilities of knacks and weapon specialisation.

1d6 How were you recruited? Gain
1 Citizenship demands enlistment — you signed up thinking it was a way to climb the social ladder. +3 CHA, knack: Fleet
2 You were conscripted along with the rest of your Dome. +3 STR, knack: Great Strike
3 Your parents were career military, so you followed their example. +3 CON, knack: Weapon Specialisation
4 You were abducted from a border village and illegally pressed into service. +3 CON, knack: Resilient
5 You were idealistic and believed the recruiter’s propaganda. +3 STR, knack: Defensive Fighter
6 The enemy hit your Dome and killed everyone you knew. You enlisted bent on revenge. +3 STR, knack: Great Strike
1d6 What was your first taste of war? Gain
1 You were patrolling a village, and without warning your whole squad was hit with a sonic weapon. You remember shooting desperately as your sergeant sounded the retreat. +2 WIS, Weapon specialisation: carbine
2 You were waiting in a trench for the big push. Someone thrust a sword into your hand and pushed you over the top. +2 STR, Weapon specialisation: sword
3 Your unit received a cavalry charge, and in the chaos you picked up a lance from a fallen cavalier and defended yourself. +2 CON, Weapon specialisation: lance
4 In the middle of battle you fenced with an enemy lieutenant. +2 STR, Weapon specialisation: sword
5 You and an equally green enemy soldier found yourselves fleeing into a maze of tiny passages under a ruined bunker, where you stalked each other in the dark. +2 DEX, Weapon specialisation: pistol
6 You were forced to defend an undersupplied fort over several weeks. When the enemy finally broke in you had to grab whatever was to hand to defend yourself. +2 STR, Weapon specialisation: club
1d6 Deep in the wasteland you found a place of peace. What was it? Gain
1 An abandoned ballroom filled with holographic ghosts of party-goers. The friend to your right has seen, heard of or read about a similar place; what do they know? They gain +1 DEX. +2 DEX, skill: Dancing
2 A ruined theatre full of abandoned set pieces and costumes, posters and flyers of past performances. The friend to your right has seen, heard of or read about a similar place; what do they know? They gain +1 CHA. +2 CHA, skill: Acting
3 A dusty museum full of enormous displays depicting life in earlier times. The friend to your right has seen, heard of or read about a similar place; what do they know? They gain +1 INT +2 INT, skill: History
4 A greenhouse of thriving and overgrown vegetation, fruits and vegetables. The friend to your right has seen, heard of or read about a similar place; what do they know? They gain +1 WIS +2 WIS, skill: Plant lore
5 A gallery of white walls, wide open spaces and huge canvases of vibrant paintings. The friend to your right has seen, heard of or read about a similar place; what do they know? They gain +1 CHA +2 CHA, skill: Art
6 A library of maze-like stacks with books on every imaginable subject. The friend to your right has seen, heard of or read about a similar place; what do they know? They gain +1 INT +2 INT, skill: Trivia
1d6 What did you take from the battlefield? Gain
1 A grenade. +2 STR, grenade
2 A collection of letters from a fallen comrade. +2 WIS, Letters
3 A pair of decent boots from an officer. +2 DEX, Fine boots
4 Identity papers from an enemy combatant. +2 CHA, Identity papers
5 A small white flower growing in the mud, which you pressed in a book. +2 CON, a flower
6 An officer’s sight-glass. +2 INT, Sight-glass

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Concrete Cow 17.5

I won something! I never win anything.

The thing is the new Traveller Starter Set which I scored in the Concrete Cow raffle:

That’s the box side-by-side with my original GDW Traveller Starter Edition. I’ve looked at Mongoose Traveller before and I basically felt if I were inclined to run Trav, I’d use this version. There’s an in-depth review of the core in Reviews from R’lyeh so I’ll just give my first take:

  • it’s a lovely box with a ribbon to help you lift the books out
  • three books covering Characters and Combat, Spaceships, and a campaign, plus a map and pre-gens, all in a minimalist black with red stripe
  • The artwork is growing on me. Didn’t care for it initially thanks to a couple of duff ones, but the illustrations of armour and gear are cool and really bring the game up-to-date — I always imagined Jack and Mesh armour to be sort of like a blouson, but here they look like Mass Effect-style flight suits
  • Given how much I’ve complained about Mongoose’s Eternal Champion layout, this is a vast improvement. I don’t much like white on black pages but the career section really stands out

The one thing that annoys me is the pre-gens don’t use a hexadecimal UPP. What’s up with that? Yeah, anyway. I would never have thought to buy this, and now I kinda want to run it.

The other bit of loot I got was an upgrade to my All Rolled Up “Nevermore” in the premium Harris Tweed version. Of course when I got it home the other half asked why the hell I went with all-black (“Steggles”) since the point of tweed is to be, well, tweed. Actually it’s got a really nice lining and the texture is gorgeous. It’s authentic cloth, apparently hand-woven for ARU in the Outer Hebrides (and they even have an exclusive pattern woven for them). Seek them out! Buy ARU stuff! (Note that they had a lot more patterns than you can see on the website and you really need to see these in the flesh)

Cthulhu Hack

In the morning I played The Cthulhu Hack with the author, Paul Baldowski, who was testing out the new scenario Tainted. These are my brief remarks about the system:

  1. Really like the Flashlights, Smokes and Sanity decreasing Usage Dice. I know the Black Hack’s Usage Dice are a bit marmite, but this feels like a solid implementation since it’s not about physical resources
  2. I was less keen on the disconnect between the usual OSR six stats, and the Flashlights and Smokes. It’s easy to assume that a high INT character is going to be a top investigator, only to find that really it’s the number of dice you put into Flashlights that matters and INT is kind of irrelevant.
  3. Thinking about this some more, I wonder if INT should interact with Flashlights (and CHA with Smokes) more. Say, roll INT normally but to get an automatic clue (as you would in Trail of Cthulhu) use the Flashlight.
  4. Character generation was quick, the ARU wipe-clean character sheets are genius
  5. I liked the idea of having separate special talents dealt to us from a card deck, but in practice I rarely looked at them (but then I’m terrible at hoarding resources like Strings)

Bottom line, just as Cthulhu Dark is all you really need to run CoC’s straight cosmic horror, The Cthulhu Hack seems a great system for running pulpy CoC with a nod to Trail of Cthulhu. Way easier to get up and running. I think it would probably complement Silent Legions nicely.

My Game: Monsterhearts

In the afternoon I played through my Pale Assassins setting for Monsterhearts 2. To do this I usedI added “skin tattoos” over the top of regular Monsterhearts 2 skins, which is a technique used by Epistolary Richard for his Dark Dungeons game.

The three “tattoos” I used were:

  • The Outsider, a character newly arrived in the town of Gaelen; they were played as either the Mortal or the Hollow.
  • The Regent was the leader of the Ruritanian colony; the skin options were Fae, Queen or Vampire. They had a few special moves for Holding Court.
  • The Court was composed of the other five skins — Ghoul, Ghost, Infernal, Werewolf, Witch. All of them had a special move for Petitioning the Court.

On top of that I had a mapping technique called Depth. The idea is that the Real World (aka the Wasteland) has a Depth of zero, and as you get further into the magical world the Depth increases, kind of like John Crowley’s Little Big. The characters, being not quite real, can’t exist outside Gaelen for too long (just as the townsfolk in The Land of Laughs sicken and die, and Storybrook’s citizens forget their magical nature outside the town in Once Upon A Time). Each of the characters had territory with its own Depth within the magical town.

I made a move for working Territorial Magic:

When you Work Magic Through Unreal Territory, roll Deep. On a 10+ you can choose:
Gaze into the Abyss as a 10+
Confront a supernatural force (make a move if you wish)
Go Deeper into the Unreal
Extend the Territory if it’s yours to play with
On a 7-9 the above happens but
The Regent gets a String on you, or
The Supernatural Force gets a String on you

If it’s not your Territory, the Territory’s claimant may get a String on you.

And there were the Assassins… I had a counting mechanism to herald the approach of the Assassins, the idea being that as the count went down the moves they would take in their pursuit of the Regent would be more extreme and damaging. The Assassins manifested as golems formed of tiny white flowers that don’t grow outside Ruritania.

The session was OK BUT I realised a few things. The first was: don’t gild the lily. Instead of adding layers onto Monsterhearts, work with the mechanics already present.

The second was: PvP games aren’t really my thing, and whilst this setting should work for Monsterhearts, that system doesn’t quite sit for me. So I will probably try this again, but next time using something like Dramasystem (and maybe Malandros).

The third thing was: this really isn’t a one-shot game. One session isn’t enough for a Twin Peaks style slow burn. So maybe I need to pick a system, and then run it for a short campaign.

I’ll write up Gaelen shortly.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Man, Play and RPGs

This is a post about Man, Play and Games by Roger Callois.

I haven’t read Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, but Callois mentions his work directly in the first chapter and also challenges his fixation on the competitive nature of games (and I believe the exclusion of gambling. Callois’ theory on play is summarised here).

Note that I haven’t really touched on chapters 3 or 5, which are both good reads but relate more generally to the cultural need for and the sociology of games. I’ve also very much glossed over the second part concerning the interplay of simulation and vertigo (chapter 7) and competition and chance (chapter 8) because the main area I want to consider is the conditional relationship between AGON and MIMICRY.

The Definition of Play / The Classification of Games

Note: the first two chapters are reproduced in the Game Design Reader):

  • The Definition of Play includes the six core characteristics (free, separate, uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, make-believe)
  • The Classification of Games covers the four categories (Agon, Alea, Mimicry, Ilinx) and the progression from chaos to order (paidia to ludus)

Mimicry is directly (and obviously) applicable to role-playing:

Mimicry. All play presupposes the temporary acceptance, if not of an illusion (indeed this last word means nothing less than beginning a game: in-lusio), then at least of a closed, conventional, and, in certain respects, imaginary universe. Play can consist not only of deploying actions or submitting to one’s fate in an imaginary milieu, but of becoming an illusory character oneself, and of so behaving.

The “closed, conventional, imaginary universe” is I guess the magic circle.

The interesting part of these first two chapters is the interplay between the four categories. One, Agon and Alea represent two ends of a spectrum; at one end is complete mastery and the other is complete surrender to chance.

Agon and alea imply opposite and somewhat complementary attitudes, but they both obey the same law — the creation for the players of conditions of pure equality denied them in real life.

The notion of equality is has always been the subject of hand-wringing with role-players; here it’s not game balance that matters but the ability to engage with the game on equal terms. Also game options may not be balanced, but if the freedom to make choices is there then equality is preserved. This is true if the game is largely random or has some strategic (i.e. skilful, competitive) element.

Two, there’s the interplay of Agon and Mimicry as pageantry accompanying sport:

In fact, bicycle races, boxing or wrestling matches, football, tennis, or polo games are intrinsic spectacles, with costumes, solemn overture, appropriate liturgy, and regulated procedures. In a word, these are dramas whose vicissitudes keep the public breathless, and lead to denouements which exalt some and depress others. The nature of these spectacles remains that of an agon, but their outward aspect is that of an exhibition.

This raises a question: where agon is present in the game, is mimicry always subordinate to it? I am not sure of the answer. But, let’s say you have two schools of RPG thought; one is based on boundaries and the consequences of action/reaction, and the other is based on narrative threads and the need to progress through a narrative arc, at any cost. If mimicry must be subordinate to anon, then the latter must by definition avoid all manner of competitive or strategic play. This leads us to…

Three, going from informal paidia to formal ludus, these four categories start becoming exclusive:

as soon as conventions, techniques, and utensils emerge, the first games as such arise with them: e.g. leapfrog, hide and seek, kite-flying, teetotum, sliding, blindman’s buff, and doll-play. At this point the contradictory roads of agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx begin to bifurcate.

So, to unpack this in terms of our simulationist vs. narrativist argument, any game which purports to “maturity” (ludus) must choose one approach and not the others. It’s easy therefore to see how ideas like exclusionary Gamist (alea) / Narrativist (mimicry) / Simulationist (agon) emerge; and the need for conventions and techniques to steer the players in one direction or another becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.

Note that paidia and ludus are not exclusionary notations but form a continuum of unstructured/informal to structured/formal, and there are examples of both in the four categories, which Callois lays out like this:

AGON (competition) ALEA (chance) MIMICRY (simulation) ILINX (vertigo)
PAIDIA Unregulated contests (wrestling, running, etc.) Dice rolls and coin flips Initiation, hazing, “games of illusion” Dancing, horseback riding, “children whirling”
LUDUS Regulated competitions/sports Betting and lotteries Theatre and spectacle Skiing, skydiving, mountain climbing

Callois places “games of illusion” which might be our immersive, emotional roleplaying towards the unstructured and informal end of the spectrum.

In such an instance MIMICRY coexists perfectly well with AGON. The need to switch between roleplaying and competitive/rules based play is unspoken and in the mode of play I’m familiar with, the timing for the switch is tacitly appreciated by all players. There is no need for fundamentalist declarations of play towards one category or another; rather this mode switching is done on the fly by unspoken agreement.

Thus far from being an immature vs. mature relationship the relationship between PAIDIA and LUDUS is one of tacit vs. explicit knowledge. And with my knowledge management hat on, this leads to a pretty important idea, which is that attempts to formalise roleplaying games into different categories may be doomed to fail, due to the prevalence of the tacit in all learned activity — learned activity being a social construct.

The Corruption of Games

“Corruption of play” has a couple antecedents in roleplaying; the first is the need for immersion or verisimilitude:

Where the problem is to enumerate the characteristics that define the nature of play, it appears to be an activity that is (1) free, (2) separate, (3) uncertain, (4) unproductive, (5) regulated, and (6) fictive, it being understood that the last two characteristics tend to exclude one another. These six purely formal qualities are not clearly related to the various psychological attitudes that govern play. In strongly opposing the world of play to that of reality, and in stressing that play is essentially a side activity, the inference is drawn that any contamination by ordinary life runs the risk of corrupting and destroying its very nature.

Second is the need to remove “cheating”. From this we get all manner of GM advice, contingent rules to stop certain behaviours, etc.

The principle of play has become corrupted. It is now necessary to take precautions against cheats and professional players, a unique product of the contagion of reality. Basically, it is not a perversion of play, but a sidetracking derived from one of the four primary impulses governing play. The situation is not unique. It occurs whenever the specified instinct does not encounter, in an appropriate game, the discipline and refuge that anchor it, or whenever it does not find gratification in the game.

The dilemma is that the player is still playing within the rules as written, but not in the “spirit of the game”.

The cheat is still inside the universe of play. If he violates the rules of the game, he at least pretends to respect them. He tries to influence them. He is dishonest, but hypocritical. He thus, by his attitude, safeguards and proclaims the validity of the conventions he violates, because he is dependent upon others obeying the rules. If he is caught, he is thrown out. The universe of play remains intact.

The third is bleed which is a buzz-word du jour in narrative circles.

Superstition therefore seems to be a perversion, i.e. the application to reality of one of the principles of play, alea, which causes one to expect nothing of himself and leaves all to chance. The corruption of mimicry follows a parallel course. It is produced when simulation is no longer accepted as such, when the one who is disguised believes that his role, travesty, or mask is real. He no longer plays another. Persuaded that he is the other, he behaves as if he were, forgetting his own self. The loss of his real identity is a punishment for his inability to be content with merely playing a strange personality. It is properly called alienation.

There’s not much else to be said about corruption except that it is and will continue to be endemic. But the table at the end of the chapter is interesting:

Cultural forms Institutional forms Corruption
AGON (competition) sports economic competition, competitive examinations violence, will to power, trickery
ALEA (chance) lotteries, casinos, etc. speculation on the stock market superstition, astrology, etc.
MIMICRY (simulation) carnival, theatre, cinema, hero-worship uniforms, ceremonial etiquette alienation, split personality
ILINX (vertigo) mountain climbing, tightrope walking, skiing, sky-diving professions requiring control of vertigo alcoholism and drugs

I wonder if (given its susceptibility for bleed and its otherwise tacit nature) roleplaying is unusually vulnerable to corruption, which is why we get so much contingency built into games.

Conditional, Fundamental and Forbidden Relationships

Chapter 6 covers an expanded theory of games, and starts with six relationships:

  • competition-chance
  • competition-mimicry
  • competition-vertigo
  • chance-mimicry
  • chance-vertigo
  • mimicry-vertigo

Competition-Chance and Mimicry-Vertigo are Fundamental Relationships; they are “parallel and complementary”. Competition-Chance relies on equality, and in games are regulated. Mimicry-Vertigo lies at the opposite extreme and “equally presume a world in which the player constantly improvises”.

Competition-Vertigo and Chance-Mimicry and Forbidden Relationships. This is self-evident — you can’t have a strategic game which at the same time destroys judgement and distorts truth; and you can’t have a game where reality is simulated based on internal logic, but at the same time random. BUT in the latter case you could design a game where one is subordinate to the other, e.g. the randomness creates a set of conditions in the illusion that the players respond to (which is a cornerstone of RPGs).

Last, and most interesting IMHO, are the Contingent Relationships of AGON-MIMICRY and ALEA-ILINX which “may be associated harmlessly.” Callois again goes back to the spectacle:

I have already had occasion to stress that every competition is also a spectacle. It unfolds according to identical rules, and with the same anticipation of the outcome. It requires the presence of an audience which crowds about the ticket windows of the stadium or velodrome just as at those of the theater and cinema.

On the Narrativist vs. Challenge (“OSR”) modes of design: logically if you characterise the aim of Narrativist games to induce sensation or vertigo, then this is incompatible with strategic, “challenge based” or “boundary based” design. Of course if we’re using these terms then the use of MIMICRY to denote simulation is going to cause some confusion.

Modern Revivals

I’ll finish this with a couple of quotes — which are interesting although not specific to roleplaying.

From Chapter 8, concerning Competition and Chance:

The reign of mimicry and ilinx as recognised, honoured, and dominant cultural trends is indeed condemned as soon as the mind arrives at the concept of cosmos, i.e. a stable and orderly universe without miracles or transformations. Such a universe seems the domain of regularity, necessity, and proportion—in a word, a world of number.

From Chapter 9, concerning “The Mask and the Uniform”:

modern society is scarcely aware of the two survivals of the sorcerer’s mask: the black mask and the grotesque carnival mask. The black mask, the mask reduced to its essentials, elegant and abstract, has long been associated with erotic fetes and with conspiracies. It characterises equivocally sensual intrigues and mysterious plots against the powers that be.

Further Reading

Unsurprisingly other gamers have already done this analysis: this article cleans up the table and covers the six pairs of categories very neatly.

Going further I found this article by Jesper Juul from 2003, which goes beyond Callois’ classifications and argues that RPGs are a borderline case between GAMES-NOT GAMES. This is outside the scope of what I’ve written here but worth reading.

Finally this appears to be someone’s entire thesis which is a bit much for a casual read-through but it includes a nice pictogram of the relationships (which I reproduced above).

Thursday, 10 August 2017

RPG Backwards Look: Daytrippers Core

I’m posting this today for a couple of reasons.

First, today’s #RPGaDay 2017 question is “Where do you go for RPG reviews?”.

Second and more important AsIf Productions the author and publisher of DayTrippers whose primary job is in web development has been struggling to get new clients and sent out a general message to the RPG community about the kind of services they can provide, and I want to boost the signal.

So, if you’re looking to hire a web developer they do small business sites as well as solutions for larger business, and they’re available for freelance writing and editing. Have a look at their website.

If you like the sound of the game you can support them by buying their books, or via Patreon donations for their ongoing content. Go to the DayTrippers RPG site for more information. They sell their content on a range of platforms including DriveThruRPG and RPGNow, where you can also order print copies.

Having read the core rules I’m going to pick up Golden Age Adventures which includes not only 16 adventures, but the fiction that inspired them (Jack Vance, Philip K. Dick and others) and sounds like a great deal.

Now, onto the post.

I am a terrible RPG reader, for the following reasons:

  1. Signal to noise. I have so many pdfs (impulse purchases, Bundles of Holding, etc.) that they all blur into one.
  2. Heuristics and bias. I’ve read a lot of RPGs and when I scan a book and mentally sort the sections into fluff, system, examples, adventures; then I’ll scan each section looking for familiar frameworks. This means I don’t read in detail, and instead make assumptions about the content of the bits I haven’t read yet.

I think my first read-through of DayTrippers core went like this:

“OK, a fluff section. I know how that works, I’ll come back to that later.”

“OK, a point-buy character generation bit. I know how that works, I’ll come back to that later.”

“OK, the combat section. Yeah yeah, I’ll come back to that later.”

“OK, bits on taking damage, vehicular combat, etc.”

“Oooh! Vector slipping. I’ll definitely come back to that later.”

“Dream worlds… survival suits… slipships… right. I’ll need to come back to those later.”

“Oh! And a mission section. That’s probably going to be useful. I’ll come back to that later, after I’ve read all the other bits I said I would come back to later. After I make dinner.”

The second time I read through I took a leaf out of Baz’s book and started reading from the back, which is a great technique because the first place you hit (skipping over appendices) will usually be a scenario or mission, and barring an actual demo play session that’s the place where you get the best first impression of how a game should play.

(this way you also get a good look at the character sheets first. They’re the windows into the soul of an RPG; a bad sheet won’t necessarily kill your enthusiasm but a good one certainly whets the appetite. Take a look at the sheet for Lacuna Part 1, or the toe-tag sheet for Hollowpoint)

DayTrippers, back to front

Here’s what we know from the website:

The time is shortly after the year 2100, the location is the first world. Massive megacorporations dominate the economic landscape and incredible advances in technology make the most miraculous things possible, from genetic modification to medical nanotechnology and microfusion power generators. But the most earth-shaking development of the 21st century is one we’re just beginning to see the ramifications of: As the 22nd century enters its second decade, the inner and outer realities of SlipSpace are opening up to human exploration. The Slip Capacitor, based on the groundbreaking work of Zayim Diaspora, is an amazing device that allows travel to other dimensions in vehicles known as Slipships. The bold explorers who pilot these vehicles face a multiverse of physical and psychological dangers to bring back priceless knowledge and powerful artifacts from far-flung dimensions and other realities. They’re called DayTrippers, and you’re one of them.

Now, content.

Mission Types (p37-39)

First, a taxonomy of mission types. From this we know that the characters will be taken out of their base, home or comfort zone and participate in an adventure: exploration, rescue, fact-finding, making diplomatic contact, etc.

Next, we find out that each mission type has a clearance level and the PC’s SlipShip (whether their own or borrowed) must be up to the mission. This is a nice way of gatekeeping or power-capping the adventure, or signposting the clearence level (Paranoia-style).

More tables and bullet points follow for different choices: the Node type, the Opposition, any Perks they get before the mission, Rewards, and Complications. Several of these are rolled beforehand. This looks like something right out of Sine Nomine’s offerings with a breadth of choice and random results, so I’m already loving it. Round that off with a sequence of scenes, from downtime accepting the mission, challenges, climax and return home.

Overall impression: this is a game with a strong format of mission, promise of reward, excursion and return. I already want to play it. Next!

Slipship construction (p32-35)

OK, we know that Slipships are important for getting about. They have a capacity, components, amenities, tonnage… I don’t feel the need to go into this now but I am interested that the ship is being created like a PC (it has its own character sheet). Possibly there’s shared ownership in mind — something I really liked in the point-buy base of operations in the Conspiracy X 2.0 (Unisystem) game.

I have one gripe with the ship sheet. Since I peeked ahead and know that the survival suit consumes kilowatts, does the Slipship really only consume milliwatts? I assume it should be MW not mW on the sheet. Unless of course there’s some Grant Morrison / In The Night Garden trickery with micro and macro-scale universes. In which case, having the power consumption of your encounter suit be one million times that of your Slipship is an interesting technical point.

Experience Points (p30-31)

A workmanlike section but very clear on what you get XP for and what you can spend them on (stats, skills, drama tokens if you use them, inventions, luxuries, fame, etc.). The most interesting part is the tracking of Total Character Value, XP Spent and XP Available. Why track both XP Total and XP Available? I’m hoping the answer is interesting.

Your Automated Survival Suit (p29)

Here’s what we know about the game from this section:

  • DayTripping is dangerous enough to need a suit
  • The suit has limited power: you get 100 kW from a full charge, and expend 1 kW doing certain tasks.

The scale is interesting because with 100 points to play with, people are less likely to quibble over spending a point here and there at the start — but the steady tick tick tick of the power meter going down will likely force some harder resource choices later into the game as the climax approaches.

Vector Slipping (p26-28)

This is the method of travelling to all different “Slip Nodes” in the multidimensional maestrom of the “Multiversal Chao”. OK. What we really have is a set of difficulties for travelling to different kinds of nodes (alt. Earth, Time Travel, Dream Worlds, etc.). There are consequences for failure, for missing the “Slip Window” and so on. There’s a whole page on Dream Worlds.

What this bit tells me is that this game is about travelling from a society that has somehow broken the barriers between many different levels of alternate existence; and that they probably lump different concepts of other times, other Earths, dreams, other planets all into one single category; as far as the DayTripping society of the 22nd century is concerned all of these can be written onto the same topological map provided the sheet of paper is big enough.

It’s also clear that the easiest jumps are the ones closest to home — alt Earths, time travel and known planets.

This gave me a few ideas already. All slips are conceptually the same but depending on classification, some may be locked down — depending on how the game world is run (corporations? A multiversal hegemony?). This also reminded me of the hyperspace navigation in Delany’s Babel 17 and the multiple gated realities of Ian McDonald’s Everness series.

Actions, Combat, Helping, Healing, Vehicles (p18-25)

This bit is the standard middle chunk of a RPG — a mix of rules for different circumstances, starting with taking actions. All you need to know is there are difficulty levels, you roll a bunch of dice and pick the highest, and there are a range of results depending on whether you make or miss the result. For example it matters if you hit your number exactly, miss or hit by 1 or more than 1. This granularity feels a lot like the results in FATE or Unisystem BUT I think I like the dice rolling here a lot more since it’s regular D6.

I particularly like the opposed rolling in theory with the “Yes, BUT”, “NO, and” style of results, and because the numbers are low the cognitive overhead shouldn’t be too bad. Everything else seems to work just like any other trad RPG — setting stakes before rolling the dice, interpreting afterwards. I’d need to play through it to see how smooth or crunchy it is.

Character Development (p14-17)

This is the bit that comes directly after Character Building but it’s frankly way more interesting; character generation is a hump that players just go through and this one, while simple, is still point-buy with options. More on that in a moment.

This bit looks very interesting because it talks about what happens to your PC during play. “Progressive Character Generation” is used to let the players “wear” their PC and defer actual backstory until later, by holding back Character Points to retroactively spend.

“LifeShaping” is a mechanism to mark dramatic character development, including motivations, personal problems, relationships, etc. I like the concept although I’m not entirely clear on the in-game process; nor am I clear on how (if) these relate to the once-per-session Character Development Scenes.

I guess this is partly where the claimed OSR-Narrative hybridisation comes in, and for me it provides opportunities for narrative expression of the PCs without stepping into the narrative-shaping role of the GM.

Character Building (p8-13)

This is another workmanlike section of point-buy setup, and it’s necessary but to be honest, this is an overhead I have to pay both to learn and play the game, rather than a bit I actually enjoy. I’m glad I read the book backwards. All I can say is there are lots of options for flexible skills, packages of skills and experience (“class advances”) etc. It’s not too crunchy.

I do like the way that skills are written on the same line as the Stat they apply to — this helps parsing the character sheet a lot.

The World of DayTrippers (p6-7)

Here we learn that the big movers and shakers of the 22nd century are corporate (rather than national/political) and the one thing they have in common is the disruptive technology that allows people to the Nodes. This is an important SF conceit — an extrapolated future based on a single scientific advance. The world is otherwise a blank canvas — there’s a half-page devoted to bullet points of technologies which might be available, but it’s up to you. The best description we get is the overview:

The world of DayTrippers is kinda dull, stupid and ridiculous, punctuated by spectacle, festooned with advertising and dripping with irony. It’s a place of technological progress and rampant global capitalism, complete with continuous media charades and enormous social inequity, somewhere between “2001” and “Idiocracy”.

This is followed by a laundry list of corporations. It doesn’t really matter who or what they are; as we’ve learned (by reading later sections) all that matters is you go on missions in slipships, those ships may be party- or corporate-owned, and the missions have classifications, and the people paying you to travel are mercenary capitalists.

The Introduction (p2-5)

Finally, the fiction which tells you how the world came to be the way it was. It serves its purpose; the most interesting bit is at the end where we read about SlipSpace and the five different kinds of slips (Cartesian, Paraterran, Temporal, Subjective and Compound) which map onto five kinds of Vector Slipping.

Final Remarks

DayTrippers feels weird and goofy, and not at all serious, and I’m not sure why that is — maybe it’s the New Wave SF surrealist sensibilities or the apparently disposable mission-based approach. Once I’m over that I can see a lot of depth and potential to be both superficial and lighthearted, or serious and deep. It could be a comedic franchised exploration company, contracting out to corporate clients a la Ghostbusters or InSpectres. It could be a serious, military SF style game if you replace the corporations with a military chain of command; it could take a conspiratorial tone if certain Nodes were classified or forbidden. I could see a mission focused game, or a sandbox where the PCs hire themselves to the highest bidder. I could see a game where the downtime drama scenes become as important as the missions.

By limiting the kinds of nodes you can tune the conceptual boundaries to make a game that’s only about alternate Earths, or space travel, or time travel, etc. And by tuning the power levels of the characters you could expand the scope further — I might fancy playing a superhero game like Planetary or Zenith (Phase III), sending supers to fictional universes using a fiction suit, or the Omnihedron’s alternate earths via. an Einstein-Rosen bridge. You can probably tell this is right up my street.

I can’t say what the system will be like yet, but it deserves a fair shout; the scale of results, the use of d6, the attrition of resources and the yes/and/no/but approach all sound like a really nice balance of “narrative” and “trad” — but then that’s exactly how we’ve played for years. But if you really don’t fancy it there are conversion rules for d20, PbtA and percentile.

So in summary: this is a smart and interesting game with an intriguing system and a very strong, yet adaptable premise. It’s not too long, and it’s good value for money.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Hope’s Vindication, Annotated

I’ve finished transcribing and annotating Sir William Hope’s final book, the Vindication of the True Art of Defence. The original plates are available online, but the pdf below is fully searchable (though I’ve stuck to Hope’s inconsistent spelling). The annotations include 12 lessons that should reflect the content. The file also includes plates from The Scheme presented in Hope’s New, Short and Easy Method of Fencing which are referenced in the Vindication.

The lessons are a first pass interpretation and may be changed later as further lesson plans develop.

The Annotated Vindication

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Eight Drunken Gods

In Drunken Master Beggar So’s art manifests through the Eight Drunken Gods (derived from the Eight Immortals).

These eight avatars are the expression of mastery not through principle but rather allegory and imitation. In the climactic final battle against Thunderleg, Freddie Wong (Chan) performs a variety of special moves, “spending” each god in turn during the battle, with varying success. This gives a couple of RPG ideas:

Gaining Levels

  1. During character creation, ascribe one or more gods (avatars) to your expert skill. These represent your signature actions when using that skill.
  2. As you gain levels, new powers, or more things to do with your skill, add a new god.

Using the Gods

  1. Use these in the narrative by describing your skill’s action allegorically using your avatar/god.
  2. Designers: use the gods as resources, such that each god can only be expended once per scene/session/adventure.


Write your gods on index cards, and put them on the table. Have the other players and GM use them to build their characters using their own reflections of the gods. Have the GM represent the world and its pantheons using the same aspects. Share the pantheon of many gods, or many reflections of the same eight gods.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

StormHack: Demon Realms

The higher (moral, magical, macroscopic) external universe is composed of six Demon Realms, a pattern which repeats and resonates throughout all creation and is mirrored by the (individual, microscopic) internal universe within all sentient beings capable of moral choices.

This internal universe is a sequence of six impulses that direct individual behaviour. Mediating between the internal and external are six Pillars of Capability that form the mind-body composite.

Game significance of the Demon Realms:

  • The six-fold attribute/ability spread should be familiar to OSR fans. The Ability Scores themselves (the “mediating Pillars of Capability”) are used mostly as you’d expect, for task checks, saving throws and other random rolls.
  • Impulses come in at the personal level; they’re used to tie freeform background stuff like personal history, relationships and so on into the rest of the game. All PCs have a number of lines of Backstory which are just single sentences that describe formative history, personal views, affiliations to certain groups, etc. and each of these lines hinges on a particular Impulse.
  • Finally on the universal, cosmic or magical scale there are Demons. Each type of Demon is tied an Ability Score and is the manifestation of the character’s potential in that Realm. Demons provide all of the exceptional powers in the game.

Realm of Violence

The Realm of Violence represents directed force. The Gods of this Realm (if they exist) represent at their most virtuous the directed energy that burns away corruption and extraneous matter; and at the most base, absolute chaos and destruction.

Realm of Violence Significance
Impulse: Forceful aggressive, violent, and destructive actions
Ability: Strength fighting; shoving, lifting, or applying force; restraining or hanging on
Demons of Violence Demon Weapons and Demon Fighters

Realm of Durance

The Realm of Durance represents survival. The Gods of this Realm (if they exist) represent at their most virtuous fertility, health, and harvest; and at the most base, perpetual agony.

Realm of Durance Significance
Impulse: Steady patience, persistence, reliability
Ability: Constitution working; travelling; staying awake; resisting pain, fatigue or illness; Body-based saving throws
Demons of Durance Demon Armour, Guardians and Wards

Realm of Flux

The Realm of Flux represents dynamic change and motion. The Gods of this Realm (if they exist) represent at their most virtuous change and evolution; and at the most base, confusion and entrapment, and distortion of time and space.

Realm of Flux Significance
Impulse: Quick speed, balance, reactions
Ability: Dexterity moving quickly; moving stealthily; manual dexterity; reactions and Reflex-based saving throws
Demons of Flux Demons of Movement, Teleport Demons, Gates

Realm of Science

The Realm of Science represents understanding. The Gods of this Realm (if they exist) represent at their most virtuous foresight and truth; and at the most base, the boundless truths of the universe, and therefore the futility of mortal existence.

Realm of Science Significance
Impulse: Curious asking questions, insight
Ability: Intelligence situational awareness; languages; spotting clues
Demons of Science Demons of Knowledge, Divination and Scrying

Realm of Desire

The Realm of Desire represents dreams and imagination. The Gods of this Realm (if they exist) represent at their most virtuous the realisation of desires and the formation of new worlds; and at the most base, the inability to separate truth from illusion.

Realm of Desire Significance
Impulse: Sensitive intuition, empathy, feeling, the subconscious, dreams
Ability: Wisdom gut feel and intuition; telling reality from illusion; Will-based saving throws
Demons of Desire Demons of Illusion and Reality-Shifting

Realm of Majesty

The Realm of Durance represents interaction and leadership. The Gods of this Realm (if they exist) represent at their most virtuous organisation and moral leadership; and at the most base, falsehood and self-serving manipulation of others.

Realm of Majesty Significance
Impulse: Vocal expression, articulation, creativity, charisma
Ability: Charisma intimidating, charming and leading people
Demons of Majesty Demons of Command, Control and Possession


Impulses, Ability Scores and Demons map onto each other like this:

Impulses Ability Scores Demon Realms
Forceful Strength (STR) Realm of Violence
Steady Constitution (CON) Realm of Durance
Quick Dexterity (DEX) Realm of Flux
Curious Intelligence (INT) Realm of Science
Sensitive Wisdom (WIS) Realm of Desire
Vocal Charisma (CHA) Realm of Majesty

Thursday, 22 June 2017

StormHack: New Character Sheets

Prepping for two games using the StormHack system.

This one’s for Black Mantle, the YA Dystopia SF meets Attack on Titan / Knights of Sidonia

And this one’s for a sort of Eternal Champion type game

This week has been trying in the extreme, and it’s been a struggle to just get this out but… we’ll see

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

5 Alternatives to Vampire 5e

Bothered by the new Vampire 5th Edition Alpha? Here are five games you can play instead:

Don’t Rest Your Head

If you want to really focus on Hunger Dice-like mechanics — which are a really good idea — try Don’t Rest Your Head which is just waiting to be hacked into a Vampire-like game. For example, just rename Exhaustion dice Hunger and use Madness dice for Disciplines. There’s some conceptual massaging to be done (when Madness dominates it’s clearly Frenzy, but Frenzy should come about from Hunger, etc.) but iron those out and you’ve probably got a very tidy system.


If you want to play a supernatural arsehole who basically hijacks a mortal body and rides it like they stole it, play Nephilim. Use it for long-lived vamps who’ve endured periods of torpor between their “past lives”. There are secret societies galore. Granted, the system and setting need some full-on reupholstering but it goes back to a VtM 1e conceit — that basically all mythical things have their roots in Vampires (you know, Baba Yaga is a Nosferatu, etc.). Use the Transformations for revealing the vamp’s monstrous nature (a bit like the woge in Grimm, maybe).

Silent Legions

If you want to play in a vast, world-spanning conspiracy of vampire society, maybe built it from the ground up with Silent Legions. For “Elder Gods” read “Antediluvians”. Then build all of the descendants and followers as magical secret societies etc, and have them play a sort of “great game” of politics and nonsense. Use the Kelipot rules for special areas like Elysium and vampiric domains. Yeah, I know they’re like magical other dimensions — re-imagine them as areas outside normal human space, the underbelly where the natural order is reversed and the vamps have control, etc. And sure, you need to do something to make vampire PCs — my best bet so far is to do something with sanity rules and make the pursuit of sanity the same as the pursuit of blood, or something.

Over The Edge

If frankly you’re not bothered about actual rules, which let’s face it we never really bothered with them back in the 90s, you just want to free-form through the game and you need the bare minimum of a framework to support it — why not use the WaRP system? I’ve been thinking about this on and off for some time. And honestly it’s got most of what you need — the Fringe Powers work, and the Psychic Pool and/or Experience Dice work for a temporary resource you can spend when you really need it. Maybe just make a Blood Pool of dice to power your Fringe Powers and otherwise use for Blood Buffs, and replenish it by roleplaying the hunt. Job done.

Vampire the Masquerade, 1st Edition

Back in the 90s before all the splatbooks, before Werewolf and the others, before being collared in goth clubs having your ear bent about metaplot, there was only one rulebook with messy layout and inconsistent rules and a pretentious goth bibliography/soundtrack. If you’re not so bothered about Rules as Written (we weren’t) Vampire the Masquerade First Edition is as worthwhile as any version. For me it’s the best; VtM 1e left a lot of blank space to fill in (lupines, cities, etc.). I also liked the non-glossy pages and the understated fonts and understated clans and the many ideas for chronicles. Yeah, OK, we’ll never get that back, but at least we were free to create our own incongruous scenarios and sophomoric characters