Month: March 2016

Design Diary: Order from Chaos

(this is a placeholder post to keep momentum)

One of the things I like about index cards for brainstorming is the way they focus down on one subject at a time. Another thing I like is the way you can work your way through a stack of blank cards and discover thoughts you had weeks ago that are actually good.

And the third thing I like about physical index cards is the satisfaction of handling them, ordering them into stacks, and pinning them to a corkboard:




This highlights the vital step that’s often missed in all brainstorming (and I encounter this in my day job a lot), which is turning the messy group of ideas into a coherent whole is an essential part of brainstorming. People skip this step because it appears to be the boring bit; the brainstorming typically involves talking animatedly about your ideas, making contact with other humans, but the write up is solitary, lonely stuff. But necessary, because otherwise everything up to that point is masturbation.

So, one of the things a brainstorming method does is to give you an overview of the whole thing your making… and that can be tremendously satisfying if it comes together. So I would say that whatever brainstorming visualisation tool you pick, you need to pick something that satisfies you. Card, pen and corkboard satisfy me much more than digital, and while this mess must go digital at some point, seeing the cards laid out like this is enough to keep me motivated in the interim.

the brainstorming is for Black Mantle. The split between Interior and Exterior is intentional, but the fact I have two corkboards is a happy coincidence. I was going to say I need a bigger board, but working within the constraints of a fixed board is possibly helpful


Dystopocalypse Bingo Card

Dystopocalypse? See here

Here’s a Dystopian/Post Apocalypse bingo card. Inspired by Hugh Howey’s Wool and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, and preparation for Black Mantle


He Left This Message For Us

This article by Zach Sokol talks about tapes and it gives me warm and fuzzy feelings.

An individual under the name Bluesmojo wrote about running a cassette label: I run a cassette label. It’s not a “hipster” thing (if you have a problem with how other people consume music, you’re the “hipster”). It’s not about being analog snobs; most labels have Bandcamps and you can just download the releases if you don’t want to buy the tapes. I think the medium is an artifact of the origins of this scene, which grew organically out of other movements that never abandoned cassettes (noise, punk and metal). At the end of the day, I think it’s about community.

Yesterday in Truck I saw a tape release by Laura Marling for 9 quid, which raised some questions

  • does it come with a download?
  • who pays 9 quid for a tape these days?
  • and what are they playing it on?

Looking for more sensibly priced tapes I found A Giant Fern in Leeds which does cassette releases with accompanying streaming, FLAC and mp3 downloads. I found them via links in United Cassettes. Having bought vinyl for 20 quid and then only listening to the free download, a fiver for a download plus a nice physical artifact seems like a much better deal.

For hardware, unlike turntables not may people are making new tape decks — this TEAC is the only one I can see, and it will cost you 300 quid, and it has all the things that tapeheads supposedly don’t want like auto reverse. Unfortunately getting a s/h deck is a lottery — I bought a mid-range Yamaha Natural Sound deck a few years ago and its motor was knackered. The Sony I have now is low end (TC-WE435) but it’s OK and only cost me 30 quid. Anyone with 300 quid to burn on a tape deck should be looking at a secondhand Nak and a service anyway.

Anyway, the best thing about tapes are mixes from friends


The second best thing is the way tape, like vinyl, forces you to listen from start to finish (when I got a sony CDP with a skip wheel it was the beginning of the end).

The third best thing are the RYKO Bowie releases which are still good.

I also discovered my taste wasn’t completely awful:





It’s all about the physical artifact — just like vinyl, or a handwritten letter, or a RPG zine. But also while I appreciate vinyl as a thing, I don’t feel a nostalgic tug the way I do with tapes which are tiny and portable and can be made very personal.

Last, anyone who tells you that “cassette will wipe the floor with an mp3” is probably not making a fair comparison because they’re a tapehead playing their tapes through a Nakamichi Dragon and their mp3s from their laptop. Tapes have something magic, like vinyl. But playing tapes again made me appreciate my modern DAC and Amp.

RPG First Look: Black Hack, Malandros and Blades in the Dark

I backed the Kickstarters for the three games below. In no particular order:

The Black Hack


The thing I admire most about OSR games is how they’ve taken the moving parts and tuned them for a particular kind of experience. The Black Hack is a stripped-back second-gen OSR title, extremely short in presentation and focused on the dungeon combat experience. Whereas Whitehack applies nuance and narrative creativity to the D&D class formula, The Black Hack goes in the opposite direction and focuses on class activities in the dungeon context. The text’s sole concern is on fighting monsters, healing and resting, and carrying around stuff. There are magic spell lists in the back but no actual spells, because why reprint them when they’re available in the SRD?

Nevertheless there are innovations here:

  • simplified rolls against attributes (a de facto standard)
  • roll with advantage or disadvantage is taken straight from D&D 5e
  • armour rules are very elegant both for function and handling people wearing the wrong armour; you have to rest to recover armour function
  • weapons are simplified and damage is class-based
  • usage dice for consumable items
  • simplified monsters
  • a great character sheet:


This feels like the kind of game you’d want for a one-shot tabletop version of Gauntlet. There’s no world, or discussion of the characters’ lives outside the dungeon, and that suits me fine; but clearly this game is speaking to the kind of player who’s already absorbed the tropes (either first time around, or as an OSR enthusiast). That’s my only reservation: this isn’t a complete game so much as a layer or filter for another game, and it relies on familiarity with other properties — and while you can find those for free, you need to know where to look.

I should mention Into the Odd as the closest “competitor” for “0-60 dungeoneering”. Both games make me think Dungeon Crash as opposed to Dungeon Crawl. ItO has the edge with the flavour of Bastion, while BH has the advantage of familiar assets. For flavour I might pick the former, but I’d love to plug BH into some LotFP modules.



I backed Malandros on impulse and G+ recommendation. It calls itself a Dramasystem game but deviates from Hillfolk in the procedural system.

The Book

Malandrosis absolutely gorgeous, with art throughout that immerses the reader in the setting (late 19c Rio de Janeiro). Thanks to the format Malandros is also way easier to read on my iPad mini than Hillfolk.


System-wise it feels like Dramasystem in the split between procedural and dramatic scenes, scene calling, emotional concessions, etc. It’s simplified in that there’s only one kind of token in Malandros (the Drama Tokens still move around according to whether emotional concessions are granted).

But there’s a heavy dose of Powered by the Apocalypse in there both for Procedural “signature moves” and “progress tracks” (a.k.a. clocks). I need to play this to see how it works but on paper it’s a vast improvement over the original, and potentially a case for the whole being much greater than the sum of parts.


I have a couple of gripes. The first is about how the GM role can be passed around. Brilliant, I think — a feature I’m eagerly awaiting in Alas Vegas — but very little mention of this in the game aside from flavour text in the introduction and how to handle the GM’s drama tokens in that section.

This leads to my second gripe: this isn’t a game for newcomers. While that’s true of a lot of games in that generally you have to have played a RPG before, in this one it helps to understand both Dramasystem and PbtA. The text order doesn’t help — Signature Moves are mentioned in Character Creation, written about in the following chapter, but Procedural Scenes are only explained 30 pages after that. This isn’t a problem if you’re either looking to make the connection between character, setting and mechanics, or otherwise have the discipline to read the game cover to cover (and Malandros has a sane word count and little padding). But it is a fundamental problem to ask players to make decisions about their character which have mechanical weight, without knowing what those mechanisms are.

My third and final gripe is that in odd places the text indentation isn’t consistent (e.g. in People You Meet the indents for Abilities/Signature Moves). But that’s easy to ignore.

Alternative Settings

Just as Hillfolk has Series Pitches Malandros has its own alternative settings. The first of these, Aluminium Wars by Mark Galeotti follows a similar format to the core book — there’s setting, character types, then a discussion of signature moves, then finally some location-based fluff.

This is possibly the most interesting because it shows off the full potential of the system — by breaking out new Signature Moves it’s basically doing the AW hack thing but in a much more consistent framework, and well supported by the overarching system and micro-setting. At first glance Aluminium Wars offers a great deal more structure and support than Hillfolk’s series pitches.

Bottom Line

Malandros does for Hillfolk what Urban Shadows does for Apocalypse World (and what second-gen OSR games like the Black Hack do for BECMI D&D). It’s a second generation spin on a foundation text, clarifying and retooling innovative system into something more accessible and functional, but also a conscious deviation. Malandros is something special, and if you’re a tablet reader the PDF is a bargain.

For hardcopies I don’t know what’s happening yet — during the Kickstarter the POD provider was switched from DTRPG to a US-only service provider (slightly annoying since pledges were in sterling) and although it seems shipping charges aren’t much worse, I guess it will complicate returns if there’s a problem with your delivery.

Blades in the Dark


This one was kickstarted around a year ago, and just won the Golden Geek Game of the Year award. I’ve played with version 0.4b of the Quickstart rules with a range of different players. I think it’s now locked in at version 0.6, so we’re waiting for physical products as well as the many stretch goals.


This is a post-PbtA design with associated trappings — notably playbooks and advancement. Other comments:

  • it’s slightly more traditional than PbtA with three groups of skills (insight, prowess and resolve) and a single action roll
  • your band of thieves has its own playbook
  • rules for group actions
  • stress plays a factor; aquire stress during the mission, burn it off by indulging vices in downtime
  • take territory from other higher tier gangs in Duskwall
  • avoid planning out the mission; instead, dive in and make use of flashback mechanics to justify on-the-fly mission conditions (e.g. “I brought the Head of Vecna, just in case”). I suspect this is close to the approach in the Leverage RPG, just as it’s implied in Hollowpoint

Because play is funneled into missions and downtime it’s very easy to grasp the flow of the drama during and between missions. The players I ran it with came from more of a trad background than indie, and it took some encouragement to get them to stop planning the mission up front and just go for it and use flashbacks. I found a similar problem when running Hollowpoint for a more traditional bunch of players. But unlike Hollowpoint the mission structure is less abstract and the support materials are there to guide newcomers into the BitD way.

The discussion on Clocks is more in-depth than any I’ve seen in Apocalypse World or hacks, and inspired thinking into Dice Clocks. I’d say it’s essential reading for anyone interested in ramping tension up in their RPG (which should be every GM, right?).


This is the same setting as John Harper’s Ghost Lines. In the QS it’s implied rather than absolute, and while there’s a lot of evocative characters and places there are also a lot of gaps. Will this get ironed out in the final product? I don’t know; there’s a trend in indie games to assume both tacit knowledge of how to play “the indie way” and also how to parse the text and fill in the blanks.

The problems happen when player-facing documents present some setting element which has no counterpart in the GM materials, putting the GM on the defensive. So, when in Blades a certain character or setting element gets mentioned, it’s hard to tell whether this is

  • a gap that the GM needs to fill, or
  • a load-bearing element that the GM should already be aware of

Examples I have in mind include the nature of the undead, demons and devils in the setting, and specifically how these mesh with the supernatural powers of the Whisper and the Leech. To resolve this the GM has not only to have a broad overview of the setting and the parts of the book (Unquiet Dead and Strange Forces, pp. 60-61) but also look carefully into the detail of the playbooks themselves. With enough time and careful thought these issues can be resolved; but with that much cognitive overhead, the Blades quick start is no longer quick.


It’s a testament to Blades how quickly my players (with a very broad range of experience, both in style and years of play) all just got it after a few rounds. I recommend reading in any case for the ideas on Clocks, the examples of how to build great player-facing game aids, and the interplay between mission and downtime.

BitD cites Thief as an influence, so it was always going to be an easy sell to me. But also interestingly both Blades and Malandros claim The Wire in their touchstones. And since the latter draws heavily on PbtA, the logical next step may be a Blades/Malandros/Dramasystem hybrid, a heterogeneous design which deliberately weaves in dramatic scenes and emotional concessions between missions as part of downtime, with mechanical feedback.

The City Shared

Here is a collaborative World-Building mini-game thing I’m contributing to the #3nano16 hashtag. Suitable for one GM, a traditional gaming group of GM and players (writing assumes this arrangement), or as a GMless collaborative exercise.

You will need writing materials — I recommend index cards, and a large sheet of paper. I recommend a different colour card or ink for the nominal GM’s answers.

One: Survey Points

There are four Survey Points in the city:

  • Outside the City
  • The Boundary between Outside and Inside
  • The Inside (contains Districts and Locations)
  • The Heart at the (physical or spiritual) centre of the city

Get your big sheet of paper and draw this:

City Building

When you generate your index cards, put them in stacks in different parts of the city.

Two: The Outside

GM, answer these questions:

  • What does everyone think is Outside the City’s Boundary? e.g. other cities (allied or enemies), low-tech settlements, radioactive waste, a sworn enemy, predatory creatures, farmland, storms
  • What can you see from the Boundary looking Outside? e.g. miles of farmland, swamp, impenetrable fog, other cities in the distance, a starlit icy plain, a void. This assumes it’s permitted to look at the Outside from the Boundary.

Write these on index cards (of chosen GM colour) and put them Outside the city.

Three: View from the Outside

Each player, answer this question:

  • What feature of the City would an arriving traveller see from the Outside when looking upon the City? e.g. a large wall or gate, a jagged skyline, a large harbour, zeppelin moorings, parabolic reflectors on the top of buildings, guard towers with flower-shaped cannon facing outward or inward, crumbling walls almost overwhelmed by jungle vines

Go around the table more than once, if you like. Write these on index cards and put them Outside the city.

Four: the Boundary

GM, answer these questions:

  • What does the Boundary look like? e.g. a high wall, an area of no man’s land, a gate, outlying suburbs, shanty towns, abandoned buildings
  • Who is allowed to cross the Boundary? e.g. anyone with papers, a government sanctioned expedition force, a secret fraternity, no-one

Write these on index cards and put them at the Boundary.

Five: Interior Views

Take the cards each player generated in the View from the Outside, and pass them around. For each card, look at the detail and answer this question:

  • From this point in the City, what does my view look like? e.g. are you high up? Is the area industrial, commercial, military, political?

Write them on new index cards, and put them inside the city.

Six: Interior Details

Each player, answer this question:

  • What else can you see from the Boundary looking Inside? e.g. tall buildings, low buildings, horse-drawn carriages, gargoyles, manufacturing industry, food industry, art, police or military presence, propaganda, commerce, transport

Go around the table one to three times. Build on what has been previously revealed. Write them on new index cards, and put them inside the city.

Seven: the Heart

GM, answer these questions:

  • Who rules the City? e.g. a monarch, an autarch, a government, a council, a hidden force
  • What is the central feature that represents their strength? e.g. a tower, a church, a city hall, a palace, a fane

Write these on index cards, and put them in the Heart.

Eight: Balance

Players, each answer these questions:

  • What previous feature you uncovered is reflected in the Heart of the City? e.g. military, propaganda, transport, trade
  • What previous feature you uncovered is different or inverted in the Heart of the City? e.g. wealth, fashion, art, colours, size of buildings

Write these on new index cards, and put them in the Heart.

Nine: Next

Admire what you have done, and plan your game in your new City, or go and play something else, or have some gin.


Some “City Fiction”

  • Rats and Gargoyles by Mary Gentle
  • The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Inverted World by Christopher Priest
  • Embassytown and The City and the City, both by China Mieville

Some nonfiction

  • The City Shaped and The City Assembled by Spiro Kostof
  • City by P. D. Smith

Designer Diary: Pitching Black Mantle

One of the reasons I started this blog was to keep my hand in writing something, anything. It helps, because for some reason I can have ideas and be really lazy about writing them down. I have bad habits.

Anyway, this is my game. It’s called Black Mantle.

Fluff, Colour, Tone, Setting, Yadda Yadda

This is a game about a dystopian City where Citizens are born into “Work Philes” or vocational tribes. That will be their life unless they can ascend the PRIV ladder and become higher-tier citizens. But while the propaganda is that anyone can achieve a higher tier through hard work, the economic realities work against anyone even trying to make it out of zero level.

The exception is for Mantle pilots who plug themselves into the Mantle exo-suits and venture outside the City, at the behest of one of the City’s Corporations. No-one knows what exists Outside, and pilots contracted to the Corps are forbidden from talking about their missions within The Interior. But if you have the neural aptitude to sync with a Mantle, the Corps will want you. These are the Player Characters. They are young and inexperienced, and the only thing they know about the Outside is rumour.

Mantle pilots are rewarded handsomely with PRIVs. Previous zero-level workers can suddenly find them ascending the citizenship tiers (levels 1 through 10) and mixing with higher level citizens, including the movers and shakers in the Corps and Government. They’ll be instant celebrities. The PRIV system also allows them to take their family with them to the upper tiers; some do, others leave their old Work Phile far behind.

  • What did you see Outside? Why does it Haunt you?
  • What did you take back from Outside? Why do the Corps want it?
  • Where is your family? Do you need them?
  • Where and what is the City?

Crunchy Bits

This is a consciously “heterogeneous” i.e. not unified design. It is also “asymmetric”. The Interior system which represents the characters as Citizens is fairly freeform and designed to cover the relationships between the characters. Not sure about this system; maybe borrowing something from Dramasystem.

The Exterior system is (at the moment) all OSR, with some tweaks (e.g. some of the Death Comes To Wyverley extra rules to change survival, and add scaling mechanics). Exterior missions should function very much like dungeon adventures including exploration, combat, and mission reward. Rewards specifically are experience points but these are an in-game property; do better in your mission and get PRIVs, rise up the ranks, and get access to better gear.

Other OSR-like bits include considering what is “player facing” such as charts and tables; and how to efficiently support the GM in managing factions and their motivations.

There is a feedback mechanism between the Exterior missions and the Interior setting, but I don’t feel confident in talking about that just yet. There’s also a collaborative element to starting the city, something that’s evolved since I thought of the “city accelerator” tool.

There should be a discussion about what happens when the meta-game Wall breaks down, and the Exterior OSR procedural-style games bleeds into the Interior drama-style game.

There will be Mecha and/or Werewolves. There will be Relationships. There may be Dice Clocks. TBD


Mainly influenced by two manga/anime which are surprisingly similar: Attack on Titan, and Knights of Sidonia. Both feature young protagonists with limited knowledge of the space outside the wall. In addition there are internal hierarchies and political struggles within the human community. Oh yeah, and giant robots / three-dimensional movement gear / titans.

Most important feature of these two series is their asymmetry. The protagonists work by a different set of rules inside and outside the “City”; this is particularly apparent in Knights of Sidonia where the interior scenes are all about exploring Sidonia and the relationships between Nagate, Izana and Yahuta, and these characters can be strong inside and weak outside, or vice-versa.

(it’s colour/fluff, but Izana’s non-binary gender also influcences gender in Black Mantle)

Mechanically influenced by Flatland Games’ Beyond the Wall. Various discussions of the transition between the interior (village) and exterior (beyond the wall) are elsewhere in my blog. Also influenced by various Sine Nomine OSR games.

Secondary influences:

  • consciously derivitive of YA dystopian fiction e.g. The Hunger Games and Divergent
  • but also inspired by much older YA (before YA was a thing) such as H.M. Hoover’s Children of Morrow
  • Christopher Priest’s Inverted World
  • China Mieville’s City and the City

The GM, and Secret Knowledge

I have strong views on settings, in that when I buy a game I don’t want to be spoon-fed someone else’s setting or worse, metaplot. One of the strengths of some OSR games is how they provide a framework for creation of the sandbox and the GM’s own setting, so I’m bearing this in mind.

Another issue is the Big Secret, which IIRC was a problem with the Engel RPG. It goes like this: there’s a big mystery to do with the world which the players are ignorant of, and which forms the central piece of interest in the GM’s section, and often the whole motivation for the core activity of the PCs. Once you know that, the central interest is lost. This is also a feature of some of the fiction above (notably the millenial YA genre) so while genre appropriate it limits the lifespan of the game.

This is a non-trivial problem to solve, and at this stage I don’t have a good answer. But something to be very mindful of. Having enjoyment as player limited by having previously GMed is something to avoid.

Other Systems

Other systems I considered:

  • FATE, no way. Sterile, unified, boring. I don’t get on with it
  • PbtA is a much stronger candidate, and the proposal above could almost be a hack of Night Witches (I guess; I don’t own it). However I know how much effort it is to design for that system, and it hasn’t clicked with me yet
  • I love WaRP / Over The Edge. This might not be the game, but it’s always in the back of my mind as an option

Last, I stand by my previous comments on heterogeneous design which have come from ideas on the internal/external game and internal relationships in Beyond the Wall, e.g. here

To be continued

Five Analog Brainstorming Tools

Following on from Messy Designs and prompted by the Design Games Podcast (around 19 min in this episode) I would like to talk about five brainstorming tools I like for creating things.

However the aim is not to talk about how to brainstorm (because the reader knows this) or how to use each tool (because there are plenty of online articles for that), but to talk about how each tool affects the process

Assumption 1: Brainstorming is a process of

  1. Meditating on a concept or heading
  2. Writing isolated nodes of information representing single ideas
  3. Connecting these nodes together
  4. Reorganising these for an holistic view of your overall concept
  5. Repeat

The above process is true for all five techniques below; they are different ways of doing exactly the same thing, namely mapping out the ways that single ideas branch out into smaller headings.

Assumption 2: How Each Technique Could Influence Thinking

First, working with each method has two modes:

  1. Authoring of new ideas
  2. Reading and revising

Second, when writing new ideas, the nodes are not created in isolation but are influenced by the visibility & spatial representation of neighbour nodes.

And third, when you’re looking at the whole thing, your ability to get value from the design comes from

  • context around each node, i.e. what is the thought process connecting one node to the next (is it implied, or explicit?), and
  • ability to reorder into a coherent view.

The Techniques

Considering 5 techniques:

  • Index Cards
  • Mind Mapping
  • Concept Mapping
  • Mandala Charts
  • Outlining

Note: I really prefer a physical piece of paper to interact with (“analog note taking”) but I’ve mentioned software options as well. I like the physical thing because

  1. less temptation to delete
  2. less distraction by screen elements
  3. more fresh air and natural light

Index Cards

Get a stack of index cards and write thoughts on them, then reorder, sort into piles, etc. Cheap, very portable, very tactile.

  • Writing: cards created in isolation, no visual influence from other nodes. No shape, no implied hierarchy.
  • Reviewing: sort and stack. May be harder to get an holistic view of the project, simply due to the size of each card. You can get an holistic view of the stacks as headings though.
  • Chaos: very messy

Software options: Scrivener (cross platform), SuperNoteCard (cross platform), IndexCard (iOS)

Mind Maps

Tony Buzan’s technique has the user start with a central topic and branch out in all directions, creating a hierarchy of nodes.

  • Writing: nodes created as subordinates and peers of other nodes. Central concept will always impose itself on the process. Radial hierarchy.
  • Reviewing: drag and drop (for software) and colour coding. Pretty good for holistic view, but focused on one central concept or question.
  • Chaos: moderately messy in that order isn’t imposed in the writing process and the map grows organically

Software options: FreeMind, XMind

Concept Maps

Joseph Novak’s technique involves a branching map much like Buzan’s Mind Mapping, but crucially differs as there’s no central node and nodes are connected by contextual statements.

  • Writing: nodes have peers but no subordinates. No hierarchy.
  • Reviewing: draw connections and colour code. Gives a fairly good holistic view although its main strength is being able to follow a thought process jumping from node to node
  • Chaos: messy, although it requires discipline to apply the contextual information around each node at the time of writing that node

Software options: C-Map Tools

Mandala Charts

This is a 3 by 3 grid with a concept at the central box; each other box in the grid then becomes the central box in one of eight secondry grids. There is some interesting method around creating the opposites as flexible pairs. Look here.

  • Writing: nodes have peers and subordinates.
  • Reviewing: highly ordered and focused on the headings you have chosen. 2-level hierarchy, and rigid shape. Good holistic view of the grid.
  • Chaos: low mess.

Software option: MandalaChart for iOS

Document Outlines

Document outlines are a series of headings and sub-headings, and you can move them about, promote and demote headings, etc.

  • Writing: nodes are subordinates of headings. Strongly hierarchical. Furthermore, because this is written vertically, higher priority implied for the top of the sheet vs. the bottom.
  • Reviewing: again highly ordered and focused on the headings. Promote/demote headings in the outline. Holistic view is good but priority of headings is implied due to the vertical listing.
  • Chaos: low mess.

Software options: Scrivener, MS Word, OmniOutliner


Preference will dictate what each technique does for you, but in summary I feel that

  • Index Cards maximise the “blank sheet” and minimise influences of other nodes on thinking during the writing stage. Plus they’re very portable
  • Mind Maps work well to promote one central concept and allow ideas to grow organically
  • C-Maps do the same, but they’re more about meandering cognitive pathways than a central concept
  • Mandala Charts are about top-down order and starting with an holistic view of your concept (or life). But they can do interesting things by pairing up headings on opposite sides of the charts
  • Outlines are about preparing a structure for consumption by someone else (e.g. a document). I know people like making lists so they have that advantage, although I don’t care for them for brainstorming


Messy Designs

This post makes a case for a “hodge-podge” (a.k.a. heterogeneous, incoherent) design on the basis that different genres demand different mechanics and crucially

Games which typically spawn the longest-running campaigns embrace the largest variety of genres and subgenres (to keep the game interesting over time).

While I think there’s some tenuous logic here (what’s typical? How broad is the sample set? Who observed this?) it chimes in with something I already had in draft. So, here is my case for why a heterogeneous, incoherent hodgepodge might actually be better than a unified mechanic, both for learning and for play.

One: Chaos

Here Tim Harford talks about mess and creativity


Chaos, mess and sub-optimal conditions makes for creativity. And in related news procrastination makes us more productive according to Professor Adam Grant.

So the argument here is that a heterogeneous system that defies expectations is more challenging and stimulating. That might suggest that your heterogeneous design works better as a learning tool, and provides more variety in the long term. However the design relies on getting better results through uncomfortable or stressful (even adversarial) situations. Whether you can dial that back (so the players don’t revolt and leave) and still make for a varied challenge is something to be tested. Need more data.

Two: Working Memory and Chunking

The other hypothesis is to do with working memory. For Knowledge Management and Cognitive Tasks we like to throw around the Magical Number 7, i.e. the number of objects in working memory being 7 +/- 2. These are the disparate elements in your game design, which together make your holistic view of your complete system.

Well then, you think: obviously your one, unified mechanic represents a less complex system than seven disparate ones. A unified system is still better.

But it’s not that, for a couple of reasons. One, for the average player, it probably makes little difference to them whether they’re looking at seven objects or just one; the cognitive burden is similar.

Two, the emphasis with heterogeneous systems is on elements that look and feel different, and that disparity could actually aid recall, perhaps by a chunking mechanism. And this also leads to your unified mechanic’s weakness: everything looks the same. A single mechanic isn’t just a single mechanic, it’s a starting point with an unbounded number of usage cases. This is arguably more complex than seven disparate objects with clear boundaries.

Consider a game where the only mechanic is a percentile skill list of 200 skills. Simple to grasp, but near impossible for the average player to get an holistic view. This is compounded when

  • every skill looks the same but has wildly different context and even power levels (e.g. Vampire’s skills, attributes and disciplines are rated on the same scale), and
  • when designers split up their list into four or more smaller lists (listen to the Gauntlet podcast moan about Night’s Black Agents here)

Now maybe your heterogeneous design may have more than 9 parts. If they’re all in play at the same time, you will have a problem with cognitive burden. But if you just swap conditions in and out of play (circumstantial mechanics, custom tables, things to interact with on the table) the holistic view of the game can be preserved. My further theory is granting the players this holistic view may have a positive influence on player satisfaction, although I have a strong bias here because that’s what increases my satisfaction. But you can have a system of “core” and “transient” modules that, at any one time make up your 7 +/- 2 pieces that the players call “the game”.


The social media debate around whether unified or disparate mechanics are better for long term isn’t high value; it’s supposition or based on anecdote. Resolving this means you need to be able to measure

  • player satisfaction and engagement
  • how much the GM sticks to, or deviates (hand waves) from their unified system (as a control)
  • the number of disparate elements, i.e. does my theory that 7 +/- 2 disparate elements produce no more cognitive overhead than just one?

and apply this to several groups running both unified and heterogeneous systems.

(when there’s time left over, you can also test the idea that most long-running campaigns need someone for the other players to look down on)

7 Ages of Magic

Reworking a thing I did a couple of years ago. Originally it was inspired by The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions, but considering society as a vehicle for magic.

The seven ages are:

  1. Age of Reclusive Sorcerer
  2. Age of Itinerant Sorcerer
  3. Age of Folk Magic
  4. Age of Regulation
  5. Age of Revolution and Innovation
  6. Age of Incorporation and Ignorance
  7. Age of Mistrust and Decline

The graphic.

7 Magical Ages

1. Age of the Reclusive Sorcerer

Magic is feared/forbidden/evil. Magicians are separate from human civilisation. The Divine is separate from Earth. Humans pay dearly for venturing outside.

Thematic Elements: hidden horror, secrecy, things humanity was not meant to know

Games: Wraith, Kult, Call of Cthulhu

2. Age of the Itinerant Sorcerer

The magician walks into the Earth to connect with human communities, seeking disciples. Magicians as Gods/Divine Spark on Earth.

Thematic Elements: magicians as deities, ages of myth

Games: Exalted, Stormbringer, Barbarians of Lemuria, Everway

3. Age of Folk Magic

Human communities in balance between their civilisation and liminal elements of their community (fair folk, ghosts, myths). Wise women and cunning men.

Thematic elements: village magic, fairies and ghosts, walking legends, small communities

Games: Beyond the Wall, Runequest (Spirit Magic/Primitive cultures), Everway

4. Age of Regulation

Human civilisation realises a taxonomy of magical and Divine elements; seeks to categorise, gain control over. Humanity divided between minority of powerful sorcerers and majority of peons. Humans, not the Divine, decide who is worthy of Magic.

Thematic elements: secret societies, initiation rites, religion, vampires

Games: Ars Magica, Vampire, Runequest

5. Age of Revolution and Innovation

The human majority take back power from minority gatekeepers. Individuals find new ways to do magic outside prescribed methods. Freedom to conjure. 

Thematic Elements: personal empowerment, meritocracy, superheroes identified as ordinary humans

Games: Wild Talents, Unknown Armies, Mage, D&D, Ghostbusters, Spirit of the Century

6. Age of Incorporation and Ignorance

Magic becomes commodity, weaponised, mass manufactured, disposable

Thematic Elements: technology and science, greed, separation from the Divine, spiritual listlessness

Games: Cyberpunk, the Bret Easton Ellis RPG, Changeling

7. Age of Mistrust and Decline

Humanity mistrusts magic. Earth is purged of self-serving magic. Magicians withdraw wholly to the realm of the Divine.

Thematic Elements: the Apocalypse

Games: Apocalypse World, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Werewolf

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén