From Coil’s Moon’s Milk in Four Phases:
p>Faithless or faithful, have a splendid holiday.
Now I have a couple of Districts, it’s time to turn them into the first chapter of my game.
I’m going to consider the City Centre. It comprises six locations:
Of course, I wouldn’t itemise it like that to the players–I’d say something like
“You’re in the airfield at the centre of the Capital of your glorious Republic. Zeppelins small and large alight and depart in complicated patterns, carrying travellers from far away on business and pleasure. Sunlight glints off the artillery batteries which are dotted over the city and protect against aerial attack. The plaza is overlooked by the Senate building, including its curious monument of a snake-headed statue, and the Solar Chamber used for state executions and suicides.”
How much exposition you use is up to you–perhaps you’ll wait for the PCs to ask “what do I see?” Perhaps you’ll give a long diatribe on the history of the statue. That’s up to you. Whatever happens the different locations (with exception of the rooftops) are clearly indicated, there aren’t too many of them, and they’re all accessible to the PCs if they want to investigate. Of course if there’s a sudden change about to happen, that may divert attention away from the scene–which is another reason not to over-work the location.
I didn’t mention the rooftops. Why? Well, they’re commonplace, but also I don’t want to draw attention to them right now. Of course if I had a particularly paranoid character who tended to look up for danger I’d let them–I might even allow them onto the roof if they can make a case for action. That could change the entire course of the plot–which is a good thing! It would be dishonest to the players if I deliberately omitted something that was unusual and obvious, but I think omitting details like rooves, doors, and maybe trapdoors (if they’re hidden) is fair game. Make the players ask at least a few questions, but don’t be dishonest.
I digress. This isn’t meant to be a discourse on scene presentation. There are plenty of good RPGs that do that already. Back to the tools.
Now we have one District broken down into six mangageable Locations, it’s time to apply some numbers. These will determine the relevance of each location and what the PCs can do there. To recap, there are four axes:
Without spending too much time thinking about each location, I rank the axes from four down to one (with four being highest priority). Four means something that definitely will be seen or experienced by the players if they go there; one means nothing to see.
I go for this one first. Immediately rank Catalyst 4 (there’s a clue here, if the players look). Portal is ranked 3 (the Rooftops connect to every other District in the city). Tension is 2 (if the PCs go here there’s a minor risk of peril from falling, etc). Domain is 1 (there’s no-one of consequence.
This all ties in with my Assassin plot: the shooter appears on the roof, kills someone, and makes an exit. I haven’t decided who that is yet (but of course with the proximity to the Senate they’re bound to be important).
I could have made Tension the highest ranked; this would be appropriate if the PCs were able to effect any change in the conflict. But since I chose low Tension, high Catalyst, they can’t–they’re not even aware of the shooter until the shot is made.
I ranked this one Domain 4. There’s someone powerful here. Possibly the Snake represents foreign soil, or something powerful is sleeping within. Next comes Catalyst at 3. There’s a plot here, if the PCs want to explore it. Since it’s not ranked 4 the PCs won’t automatically uncover it, but they may get some interesting clues. Tension is 2 (there’s a minor threat, possibly if the PCs are spotted snooping by the wrong people) and Portal is 1 (it’s in the middle of the plaza, so doesn’t go anywhere).
This one’s Domain 4 as well, because of the strong military presence. Tension is 3, on account of them being on alert for some reason; if the PCs get on the wrong side of them, they could be landed in jail or worse. Portal is 2 since the guns represent a transition between the City Centre and a military prison, although that’s unlikely to happen. There’s no clue here, so Catalyst is 1.
The Portal is 4–jump on a Zeppelin and you could go anywhere! Tension is high at 3, and I decide it’s for the same reason that the military are on edge–although the civillian ground crews have not been given the same reason as the military for heightened security. Domain is 2 (there are air crews everywhere, but unlikely to stop the PCs if they nose around). Catalyst is 1.
Portal is 4–this represents a transition from the outside into the secret political world. Something is going to happen that will transport the PCs from the world they know into one they don’t. The Domain is understandably high at 3 with all of those powerful people around. Tension is 2 (there are stirrings but probably only foreshadowing). Catalyst is 1.
Domain is 4 here. The Collector represents Law and Justice. Tension is 3–someone is about to be executed. Catalyst is 2, and Portal is 1 (again, it’s in the middle of nowhere).
|City Centre and Airfield||Catalyst||Tension||Domain||Portal|
|The Solar Collector||2||3||4||1|
Hilighting the 4 and 3 ranks gives some useful information. First, Domain is very strong in this area–displays of authority and law, more than one power group is directly involved with whatever plot happens.
Second, Portal is strong. This area stands on the threshold of several other important locations. It’s possible that the PCs will be drawn back to this location again and again, simply because they are passing through.
Third, Tension is not Mandatory. In other words, there’s definitely something going on but it doesn’t directly involve the PCs unless they stick their noses in.
Catalyst is poorly represented, but that’s OK–if this is the start of the campaign then a couple of clear leads will be nice to get things rolling without swamping the party in information.
To paraphrase Vincent Baker, if you do it, you do it. You’ve decided on the rankings, now think of how those elements make themselves felt to the PCs. Things which will impose themselves on the scene without PC intervention are
Things which will also be apparent if the PCs stick their noses in are:
Or to put it another way, PCs take a reactive role against rankings of 4, and a proactive role (if they choose) for rankings of 3.
Hopefully the locations and their rankings will make it easy to separate action from fluff. It should be clear than a Tension 1 or 2 will be merely some general disquiet or complaints which will quickly cave to PC pressure; however at Tension 3 if the PCs exert pressure on the location it will push back with real consequences, and at Tension 4 the location will exert pressure on the PCs as soon as they enter.
These locations you’ve designed are now set. They are features that you can and should return to in later sessions. Hang on to the cards. If it helps, draw a rough map of how the districts connect and mark on your individual locations.
Those numbers that you gave–they can change, up or down. Some of them can go higher than 4. When a party comes back to the Senate, suddenly its Domain has gone way down (as it opens its doors to the adventuring hoi polloi) and the Catalyst has gone up. But that’s for another discussion.
From here I got the environment for my first session; I also got some ideas on what will actually happen. Here are a few:
p>This tool started off as a way for the GM to dump their brain and focus down on the important stuff. Like Mind Mapping, Mandala Charts and other techniques, this tool should be great at starting ideas. But I always found Mind Maps to be bad at sustaining creative activity; they’re great for an hour of intense thought but when coming back to them I’ve had a tendency to repeat the ideas I’ve already had, rather than springboard off existing ones.
So, for this tool I want to close that gap. I want to be able to build and sustain the city as a place where stuff happens; at the same time I want to maximise visibility of the locations for the players. The next instalment will deal with sustaining the City creation.
A different city tool here. Vornheim is “not about Vornheim, it’s about running Vornheim – or any other city – in a fantastic Medieval setting. And about running it with a minimum of hassle – so you and your players can get to the good stuff…”
However like the rest of the OSR Vornheim has a strongly Vancian flavour. The early part of the book is littered with random details like the breeding of slow pets that enable their owners to display their own indolence, superstitions (“anyone buying a hat for a fisherman will be struck dumb for 3 days”), the lucky number 6 and unlucky 7 (giving the DM permission to grant their players a stroke of good or very bad luck if they roll such numbers on a d20 in the course of play) and other tidbits.
OK, fine. It’s all very entertaining, but didn’t give me much hope for the utility of the book; at best it’s likely to be a closet drama that will sit on a bookshelf (or in my case, my iPad) and flicked through for the odd chuckle.
Next up were some locations, seemingly picked at random. These are (I assume) straight from the author’s D&D campaign, and as printed “modules” they’re stripped of any context Zak S and his group may have felt during play. At least, that’s how I assume they saw light (as someone said of Arduin in the recent Walking Eye Podcast, “hey someone got their campaign printed”).
The locations themselves are fantastic, but they require a paradigm shift for me to use them; location-based adventuring was something I dabbled in at best, and isn’t what I’m used to. I can take or leave set pieces, as I used to when White Dwarf was a proper RPG magazine (i.e. just before I properly got into gaming). Still, I feel the quality is up there with Death Frost Doom.
The next section is peculiar. It’s the reactions of the author’s players to the content; or in other words, here’s some of that context we missed earlier. I’m not sure what this section does other than stroking the author’s ego; although it is entertaining, it’s like reading a load of clever quips at that great party that you didn’t go to. I loved the comments on hairdressers, though.
The next section is the Urbancrawl Rules, and Now We’re Fucking Talking. This section is pure gold, talking about how to quickly map out a location. The approach to mapping out an uncharted space quickly (using actual words and numbers as areas and topological pathways) is sublime; not only is it functional, creating nice twisty streets, it conveys the weirdness of the city as well. The supporting text is clear and expresses the author’s intent very well. The difference between Dungeon and City is laid down in a section called “Moving vs. Crawling”. This is what I paid my money for.
A single page “floorplan shortcut” serves as a nice coda to the previous section with tools to (you guessed it) make floorplans quickly.
Next, a few short bits to do with the law, libraries and so on. There’s some notes on open-ended city adventures, and some further reading and… what, is that it? Usually the bibliography comes at the end. It’s stuffed with the usual suspects (Leiber, Vance, Lovecraft; I was pleased to see M. John Harrison mentioned too, though surprised that Mervyn Peake didn’t get a namecheck).
But it’s not the end, because next we get another treat: God’s Chess. This is a game to be played between sessions, a normal game of chess between a player and the GM but whose final resting places of pieces will denote changes in the political landscape. Fun!
Now, the tables. These occupy a good quarter of the book. They cover randomised NPCs and their connections to each other, aristocrats, books, encounters and so on. They’re not supposed to be balanced or make sense; they are supposed to be entertaining and give the GM a quick route to generating “colourful and useful details”. There’s even a table for “I search the body”. Bravo.
The disadvantages of the PDF are several–firstly the borders are black text, meaning that printed versions will suck up toner, and more importantly the box itself is designed to be a random generator for common encounters and “attacks from multiple foes”. In order to make it work you really need to make a box like this chap has.
Lastly, I’m really taken with the art.
Taken as a piece of RPG ephemera to read for amusement alone it’s great. Taken in the spirit of the OSR, it looks tremendously handy for generating a random city as it’s played. Even if you’re not interested in D&D (old or new) it’s virtually systemless and contains some innovative tools for on-the-fly mapping. Recommended.
The point of the City Accelerator is workflow: how do you construct a really cool space to set your game in the shortest possible time?
For a city, where do you start? Well, you probably consider people first–as in “who lives here?”
Alternatively, you could first ask “what can I see?” This is the approach I’m going to consider. It’s not that factions and characters aren’t important; however when I started thinking about this tool I wanted something to aid the GM in their visual description and presentation of locations. I especially wanted to capture the ambience of CRPGs like [Morrowind] and [Oblivion] (I don’t really care for the gameplay, but they look great).
You could “grow” your city organically, beginning from one corner and then adding logically connected locations. I don’t recommend this, because it will probably lead to a lot of irrelevant bulk and won’t achieve the tool’s aims–namely to build a city quickly and get to the exciting stuff.
I favour a shotgun approach. Here’s how to start:
The bare minimum you should include is a title of one or more words. If the title suggests people, activities, conflict, treasure or other aspects that’s fine. If you absolutely must have extra definition that’s fine–add keywords, a short sentence, or other description on the same side of the card where you wrote the title. When you’re satisfied, put that card on the “in progress” stack and move on to the next one.
You’ve got a stack of cards that have some writing on them, but aren’t finished. Each one represents a location, with or without context. What next?
Pick and choose: grab your favourite cards that would fit into your game right now, and work on those.
Shuffle and deal: if you prefer to draw cards at random–especially if you like Tarot or other divination tools–then you could do worse than deal a few of your cards and see what sort of environment comes up.
Organise into districts: if you like to logically organise your city into a 2D plan, you could begin by grouping your cards into districts. You can do this for the whole deck of In Progress cards, or for the subset you’ve picked out already (i.e. step 2 or 3).
This is what I did. I kept writing until I ran out of cards, and I came up with two dozen locations.
2. Botanical Gardens
3. Solar Collector (with the keyword “executions”, not sure why right now)
4. Coffee House Absolute
5. Graveyard (with the keyword “Zombies!” because, well, zombies)
6. Snake-headed statue
7. Artillery Battery
8. Zeppelin Mooring
9. Police Station
14. The Three Fingers Inn
15. Barracks and Prison
16. The Streets
17. Opera House
18. The Catacombs
19. The Church of the Wheel
20. The Senate
21. Guarnam’s Laboratory
22. The Court of the Crystal King
23. Trading Post
24. Hall of Shadows
First I’ll say that half of these locations do nothing for me. I wrote them down automatically and now I’ve come back to them they fail to resonate. The cards will go into a recycle pile for whatever (e.g. monster record cards for Buffy or LOTFP).
Next, I think of my first district. I started to think about the civic centre. What happens there? Probably transport, government, displays of affluence and power.
1. Snake-headed statue
2. Zeppelin Mooring
3. Solar Collector
4. Artillery Battery
5. The Senate
While I was thinking of the location I picked up [The Adventures of Luther Arkwright] and looked at the scene in St Peterberg (para 00.72.87).
I chose the Snake Headed Statue as a display of affluence, and the Solar Collector and Artillery Battery as displays of power. The Zeppelin Mooring obviously represents commerce and transport, and the Senate building is the seat of government. Finally the Rooftops are interesting. I want to give the players a sense of looking up as well as around them.
All of these locations are what the PCs will see if they go to this location; furthermore they’re places that they can interact with. I’ve omitted the other buildings around the airfield. I haven’t mentioned the people.
While I think of it now I add other details that the PCs will either see, or they will know. I note that the Senate building has guards in dark brown long leather coats with lots of buckles that cover the lower part of their faces, leaving their shaven heads exposed. I add keywords to the Snake Headed Statue such as “affluence”, “gift” and “mad king”, denoting that the statue has a plaque that commemorates it being gifted to an ancestor of the current monarchy by some alien race. All of this is colour so far, with one exception–I was inspired to write “assassin” on the Rooftops card. I’ll decide why later.
So, that’s my centre of the city, where exciting things will happen at some point. I stack them together as my “City Centre” stack for now.
I look at what’s left, and quickly think of a rough neighbourhood of slums and mean streets, where the police have trouble keeping order.
4. Police Station
5. Barracks and Prison
I randomly call this district “Lorms”. It’s a violent, spooky place. However, something’s missing. The Rooftops I used in the Centre would also be good here. No problem: I create another card:
7. Rooftops (Lorms)
Now, do the Catacombs really belong in this run-down area? Maybe not; I assumed they’d be the tombs of long-dead royalty. But perhaps there’s a vast catacomb that spans the city, and the location in Lorms is just a local entry point. I annotate the Catacombs location and change the name to
6. Catacombs (Lorms)
OK. I now have my second district. I briefly add a few keywords to each location:
1. Abbatoir – Stench, Animals
2. Slums – Poverty, Gin, Thieves
3. Graveyard – Zombies
4. Police Station – Constables, Science, Ichabod Crane
5. Barracks and Prison – Army, Madness
6. Catacombs (Lorms) – Linked, Horrors
7. Rooftops (Lorms)
Not all of the locations can be grouped into Districts just yet, but they’re still places I want to set events in. At the moment I really want to use the Opera House. I could go to the trouble of creating a whole new District full of nobles, with beautiful houses and quiet streets.
But I won’t do that. What matters is what the PCs can see and what they will interact with. If the Opera House is the only thing of interest in that location, then it’s the only location worth recording. Instead I’ll bring the colour to the Opera House, noting that it has rich patrons and is a cultural centre for the city:
1. Opera House – Rich Patrons, Tradition, Culture, Opulence
There’s nothing stopping me from adding to this district of one later (perhaps the Catacombs connect to the Opera House basement).
That’s it for now. Next time, working in the hooks.
p>Don’t bin all of the lame cards just yet. They may be a name change away from being a useful location. But also, don’t force it. Don’t be tempted to make a location work if you don’t believe in it.
I’m not sure what to make of it. For a new-school indie game it’s remarkably like the aimless Rifts / TMNT / Paranoia games I played in my teens; we’d get together to generate characters who had nothing in common and no reason to interact, and the game would progress as a series of vignettes. Occasionally the GM would find some contrivance that would bring us together but give us a chance and we’d shoot off in different directions again. Maybe that’s a backlash against the staple dungeon-and-party games at the time; the games kept the old-school crunch but characters were special snowflakes (Rifts) with hidden agendas (Paranoia). What a delightful mess that was.
I think that’s partly a feature of the post-collapse feudalism that runs through those types of games; it’s no surprise that AW feels similar. AW at least has a support structure that helps with scene oriented play.
Rabalias reckons AW isn’t a story game. It’s hard for me to argue against this since AW is like no other game I’ve played, but it does seem to tick the Story Now boxes, chiefly with the emergent conflict, single character focus and avoidance of mission as pretext (there is mission, but we can engage with it as we choose). As an outsider I can also spot other Storygame tropes such as shared narrative/descriptive duties (the MC asks questions, the player describes certain features). The AW system hard-codes questions and responses into the mechanics, providing a perpetual cycle of action and reaction that encourages players to engage. The constant pressure to make a move reminds me of the questions at the end of each chapter of Breakfast In The Ruins.
Story games allow us to experiment with storytelling, in a way that’s detached and playful. We can take on new roles, experiment with new ideas, and we can leave it behind when the game is over. That it’s a game takes away a lot of the pressure – of doing it well, of proving anything, of impressing anyone. The point is simply to play.
OK, but I don’t think the game aspect alleviates pressure. It requires the MC to ask all players in turn what they are doing and put them in the spotlight; and while I think all PCs should be given this opportunity some players will just want to play the thief that skulks in the background, opening locks and disarming traps when asked and occasionally backstabbing a troll for triple damage. The reward system in AW is contingent on characters making moves and will not tolerate passive characters. The fact that people are not under pressure to succeed or perform in a thespian manner is a red herring; they are under pressure to be involved, regardless.
So maybe AW isn’t a story game. It is a game about accumulating and using powers, and in that case it shares a lot (bizarrely) with Feng Shui and Exalted. The fact that the pressure is off regarding “winning” is what makes it different–it truly feels narrativist rather than gamist.
The framework makes player-player interactions work better than I’ve seen in any other game. This is partly because moves that might be considered taboo are written down with effects and consequences, and promote strong reactions. In yesterday’s session my Brainer tried to scan another character and unintentionally caused them harm, provoking a reaction from them as well as rewarding them with Hx and developing the relationship between PCs. In any other game there would be confusion and debate about whether the effect could happen, and probably bad feeling about the resulting fallout (especially with psionics).
On the other hand the freedom to connect with character histories and motivations requires a lot of the MC–either they prepare character motivations in advance, or they have to make a lot up on the fly. It’s helped a lot by the way the moves ask the right questions and so do the same for NPC exposition as they do for PC, but it requires the same level of contingency that one might build into a “Story Before” game, i.e. mapping likely patterns of PC behaviour based on what they experience and succeed or fail at. Mostly it points out that most games don’t fall into one or the other of Edwards’ diagrams, but somewhere in between.
p>When I pick up a new game I mainly think about how I can bend it to my style, rather than how I can play in the given world. AW is exciting because in the words of its creator it’s designed to be hacked. Now I’m wondering what value hacking will bring over using a familar system that I’m comfortable with.
Death Frost Doom is a module, adhering to the principles of location-based adventure and exploration. As James Maliszewski notes:
“If you’re looking for a good signpost in determining where the old school ends and the new one begins, it’s the shift in emphasis from locales to plots.”
This makes DFD an interesting property: a contemporary scenario that takes its structure from the old school, but with a very modern tone. It’s chock full of atmosphere, foreshadowing the gothic and weird tone of LotFP (which it predates–it’s a generic OSR product).
How do you get your party to voluntarily travel to a dangerous location and explore–especially in a game called Death Frost Doom? The answer is your reward structure (something that is praised in the Burning Wheel forum). As noted earlier, LotFP only gives advancement to PCs in two ways:
p>The OSR location-based scenario eschews imposed “story”; as such it comes closer to the Story Now pretensions of the indie crowd than the early 90s rennaissance. It also eschews any system-imposed moral standpoint–one of the concerns raised in Vincent Baker’s lies thread–and something I have no problem with given its Vancian subjective morality.
One of the later refinements of Ron Edwards’ Story Now approach is his essay Setting and Emergent Stories in which he notes there are honest and dishonest Story Before approaches. The honest approach is “Participationalist Play”, which Ron notes is pretty much how most Cthulhu games are run–players encounter ancient evil and investigate at the cost of their sanity, but regardless of their actions the plot has been set and the Old Ones are on a schedule.
This is also true of OSR scenarios in that the dungeon is just waiting to be discovered and plundered; but without linked plot the plundering is entirely at the player’s discretion. Therefore it isn’t participationalist, but it isn’t narrativist either.
LotFP and CoC supposedly share the same crushing cosmic nihilism; however if you tell the players in each game “if you don’t like it, go home”, the LotFP party will either say “but there’s still some treasure” or they’ll say “fair enough, we’ve got enough loot”. The CoC party on the other hand shouldn’t feel they can return to their normal life ever again (whether this is reinforced by mechanics or not).
I’ve said hardly anything about the scenario itself, but if you want to know more then there are any number of reviews available. What I will say is that I bought the scenario (for the princely sum of $2.50) not with the expectation to run it, but to get a sense of James Raggi’s particular take on OSR (both the reward structure, and the Weird Fantasy). Partly I was influenced by the Grognardia review, since it seemed to resonate so strongly with the reviewer and yet was something he found “difficult to talk about”, which is exactly the response I’d hope for in a “weird tale”. On reading the book I do think it’s something that has to be experienced by a gaming group–and probably one whose members played the Red Box BD&D set when it was new. In the spirit of balancing out my slew of new school of indie games I think I’ll give the old school a go and run it to see what happens.
There’s a couple of great comments in the lotfp response to the lies thread. Firstly James Raggi comments:
I figure that PCs in RPGs are pretty much insane by definition, especially in the Lovecraft mold of their insanity being a result of seeing more of the true nature of the world than most people.
Geoffrey McKinney’s response:
Anyone who would go on a D&D-style adventure would have to be some sort of maniac. A sane person would respond: “Crawl down into a dark, dank hole full of monsters and traps and who-knows-what for the chance of getting some treasure? Forget it. I’ll either get a job or go alley-bashing.”
And Vincent Baker:
I’m taking my lead here from Howard, Leiber and Vance: in my game, if you’re easily cowed, you can look forward to a short life of grueling labor and ignominious danger, whether you get a job or go alley-bashing or what. If you’re in any way imaginative or bold, like the PCs are, the “sane” life is unappealing! The adventuring life is risky, but the common life is guaranteed miserable.
My name’s Ralph. This is a blog about all kinds of RPGs, HEMA, music and anything else that interests me.