Wednesday, 25 May 2016

OSR Demons Part 2: Needs, Relationships, Services and Forms

Just over 6 months since part 1, but better late than never, eh?

So, to recap: these are some thoughts on how to make Stormbringer-style demons work mechanically for OSR frameworks.

Here I’ll talk about demon Services and Needs. Later in part 3 I’ll talk about Costs, Contracts and Taxes (yawn).

But first…

What Are Demons?

In part 1 I hedged on a definition of what demons are — because (a) it’s not necessary and (b) use what fits with your campaign. However since it might be useful to understand where I’m coming from (and how specific or general I’m being) my out of game definition for demons is:

**Demon**
An entity which manifests when the sorcerer exerts their will on the world.

This may work for your in-game definition too. It still works when it’s dressed up in some lay belief or religious dogma, whether demons actually come from the other place or if they’re truly conjured from a piece of the sorcerer.

What Do Demons Want?

The classic answer is “to get out of the pentagram and devour their summoner”. Actually my demon is quite happy where it is, thanks.

My demon wants to (metaphorically speaking) hollow out the summoner and walk around in their skin. It wants to take all the humanity in the sorcerer and pervert it, diminish it, until the demon dominates.

The best example of how this works is the wraith’s Shadow in Wraith: The Oblivion. The Shadow has Dark Passions which are goals fuelled by a negative emotion; it may attack the Wraith’s own Passions and Fetters (i.e. connections to the mortal world, what’s left of their humanity); it has its own special powers as Thorns.

The Shadow is part of the point of Wraith. When your character dies and their Wraith comes into being, their Shadow just bubbles to the surface with all the other emotions, ready to cause mischief in a struggle for dominance. Naturally your typical White Wolf game takes 300 dense pages to communicate the idea, but it’s a great idea.

Now, what kind of power-crazed sociopath would deliberately bring out such a force into the living world?

One other demon trope I’d like to address is the idea of total possession, i.e. a skin-ridden character completely sublimated to the demon’s will. If you’re a demon and your end-game is to get the sorcerer to behave badly (to the point of complete self-destruction) then this seems like a good strategy. Here’s why it’s not:

  1. The demon exists thanks to its relationship with the summoner — it has no life or relevance without its master. That’s the in-game reason.
  2. There’s a place for the vampire’s frenzy, or the Darkest Self a la Monsterhearts, but not here. Such a total loss of control takes both agency and responsibility away from the protagonist. That’s the metagame reason.

There could be exceptions — say, when a sorcerer dies, the demon (or demons) decide to walk around in the recently vacated corpse and have a bit of fun while there’s still time. That would make for a nice antagonist, but it’s a short-term thing at best.

Needs

Stormbringer and Sorcerer both present the demon with some kind of need (which is often habitual and/or physical, like eating something). If you let the demon satisfy its need then you get a Service in return.

I don’t care for that, for these reasons:

  • Satisfying these needs is often trivial and not interesting plot-wise. Who cares if your demon needs to eat iron filings? That’s colour at best.
  • Demons are not infants throwing tantrums if they dont’ get what they want. Demons are smart, and they play a long game. And ascribing a trivial need to the demon trivialises the demon.
  • Most importantly it’s not the demon, it’s the sorcerer with the Need. They summoned a demon to meet their own shortcoming.

The most generic demon need is the need to transgress. That compulsion is an essential part of the genre — but it’s not a need, it’s a consequence. And it’s not really the demon that’s transgressing, it’s the sorcerer. It’s the Shadow’s Dark Passions at work.

Relationship

There are six needs, aligned with six demons, and six kinds of relationships — one for each attribute.

The relationship is pretty simple — it’s a struggle for dominance between the conjurer and their demon. The demon knows that it provides a needed service. When everything’s going fine that service isn’t in question, but during times of stress — if the sorcerer asks for something outside the original contract, or something that puts the demon in harms way, or refuses the demon some comfort, you might want to test the relationship.

The roll could be as simple as a pass/fail (e.g. roll under the attribute). It would be more interesting with more potential results, e.g.

  • Powered by the Apocalypse-style hits and partial hits (a pass means the Demon does your bidding; a partial hit means they do it on a promise; a fail means the demon rebels and Taxes the sorcerer)
  • A reaction roll like this using the stat modifier on the roll
  • Itras By’s cards for results as no/and, no/but, yes/but, yes/and.

Services

Demons provide (well, are) magical effects. Each kind of demon defines the scope of magical effects.

For an actual working system I can think of two approaches. The first is the “Whitehack way”: a general description of a power, and a negotiated cost for that power in HP — the cost may be modified by circumstance (in this case, how the demon is feeling, whether the sorcerer has partaken of transgressive behaviour to “feed” the demon, etc.).

The other way is the “Vancian way” where the demon can cast a number of spells per day of a certain class. There’s still room for negotiation though — let’s assume the demon’s power is limitless, and it’s only cutting the sorcerer off because of the contract. I’ll talk about contract negotiation in part 3.

By the way I’m not going to itemise D&D spells, especially since these will vary between publications. I heartily recommend Whitehack which does a sort of ranking of “classic” OSR spells by level for the purposes of judging spell costs, etc. Personally I like spells with no levels, e.g. Beyond the Wall, Wonder and Wickedness.

Six Demons

There are six kinds of demon — one for each attribute (although that’s a happy accident from Stormbringer 1e rather than design). Each follows the template:

  • Need (the sorcerer’s need that the demon satisfies)
  • Relationship (the attribute that forms the basis for struggles for dominance)
  • Services (the effects the demon can generate — expressed in fairly broad and generic terms)
  • Forms (sample forms for each demon type; just for a bit of fun.)

Demon of Combat

Need To physically dominate, overcome, cause harm.

Relationship Strength

Services Damage, Accuracy, Penetrate Armour, Poison or Disease, Cause Pain, Inhibit or Restrain, Extra Attacks, Elemental Attacks

Form A chattering sword. A bulging vein on the sorcerer’s arm that projects a limpid adhesive. A lantern containing a vermillion mist. A six-legged panther, steered by an insectile brain parasite. An oil-black ape with a mass of cruel quills at its back.

fingers

Demon of Travel

Need To overcome physical and metaphysical obstacles.

Relationship Dexterity.

Services Carry Burden, Flight, Jump, Scale Vertical Surface, Penetrate Wall, Open Lock, Teleport, Co-location, Breathe Underwater, Survive Space.

Form A seven-headed swan. A wardrobe full of fur coats. A circular gateway etched with hyroglyphs. A displacing cloak. A giant winged insect with a vial of amber potion.

Demon of Protection

Need To survive, to resist injury and death, to remain hidden, to have privacy.

Relationship Constitution.

Services Soak damage, Reflect damage, Redirect damage, Resistance, Immunity, Hide, Misdirect, Disguise, Sound Warning, Cause Fear, Guard Threshold.

Form A blackened brass shield. A penetrating sound. A cloak of dripping eyes. A riddling goblin. A hyena-headed bear.

Guardian

Demon of Knowledge

Need To perceive, understand, or know facts.

Relationship Intelligence.

Services Scrying; Divination; Knowledge of past, present, future; Knowledge of another’s heart or mind.

Form A mirror with a disembodied mouth. A hairless dwarf advisor with a bifurcated throat and duotone voice. An iron-bound book. A painting of shifting scenes. A dream with common themes. A deck of Tarot cards.

Demon of Desire

Need To imagine, to dream, to grasp desires, to have material whims satisfied.

Relationship Wisdom.

Services Conjure, procure or steal something. Provide sensation. Transform, modify, or heal.

Form A suit with an iridescent lining. A briefcase with a golden shining interior. A bronze-skinned youth with purple almond eyes. A chattering brass bird.

Bird

Demon of Possession

Need To control perception, thought, emotion, and action of others.

Relationship Charisma.

Services Control (thing or person or beast); Convince; Sow Doubt; Inject Thought; Command; Provoke; Sensation; Illusion; Emotion.

Form A drug, supplied from a jade poison ring. A red gold circlet. A slender bald human in a suit. The sorcerer’s mirror image, horribly disfigured.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Just One Drink: French 75

This is the recipe I used for a cheapskate French 75:

  • 25 ml gin
  • 25 ml lemon juice
  • 25 ml sugar syrup
  • 100 ml cava or prosecco
  • slice of pink grapefruit

french75ingredients

The IBA’s standard recipe is 6:3:1.5 champagne to gin to lemon juice, with a couple of dashes of sugar syrup. Cross’s Classic 1000 Cocktails halves the gin and uses a teaspoon of caster sugar. Ideally the garnish should be a maraschino cherry but I was out of those.

french75premix

Combine the gin, juice and sugar in a glass and mix with a bar spoon. Then just add ice and top off with sparkling wine and garnish.

french75chinchin

Chin chin!

Friday, 20 May 2016

Just One Drink: Gimlet

A gimlet is a small, sharp tool for drilling holes, and a gimlet cocktail is similarly short and sharp. According to my favourite cocktail book (Robert Cross’ Classic 1000 Cocktails) the Gimlet emerged in 1930 as a cross between two cocktails, a Gimblet (1 1/2 gin, 1/2 lime juice) and a Gimlet (1:1 msr Plymouth gin and Roses Lime Cordial). The adjusted recipe in the book is

  • 2 msr Gin
  • 3/4 msr Roses Lime Cordial
  • Soda Water (optional)

This may be traditional but it’s a crap cocktail. You can do much, much better with fresh lime juice and simple syrup (i.e. make your own cordial). There are more recipes on the wikipedia page here, but my recipe is even better.

Secluded Gimlet

Gather your ingredients. Always use a decent gin that you like enough to sip neat — Boodles here works well, but I’d use Bulldog if I had some. Even though there’s a strong citrus flavour, the wrong gin will give a soapy undertone.

gimlet-ingredients

The other ingedients are the juice of a fresh lime, simple syrup, and my special ingredient — orange bitters (Fee’s here).

  • 60 ml gin
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 20 ml syrup
  • A dash (or bar spoon — 5 ml ish) of orange bitters
  • Lots of ice
  • Cocktail shaker
  • Cocktail glass

There are a few ways to serve. An Old Fashioned glass works fine, but a conical martini-style glass is better to smell the fresh lime with the orange and gin aromatics.

gimlet-mix

Just combine the gin, juice, syrup and bitters in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake hard. I reckon you want to aerate the cocktail, which will change the mouth feel and aroma. When you pour there should be a little foam on top.

You could scoop out some ice at the end and float it in the drink if you want. Hold the glass by the base.

gimlet-done

Chin chin

RPGs: Surviving Loneliness

I Am Legend

The third act of the film I Am Legend is a crushing disappointment that betrays both the first two acts and the novel.

However the first 60 minutes still worth watching to see Will Smith as Robert Neville coping with a solitary life in post-apocalypse Manhattan. Aside from the spectacle of overgrown island with only the sounds of wildlife, it’s the way Neville establishes a daily routine and the mechanisms he uses to fight off boredom and loneliness that makes the film.

The Grace Period

First, I commend the reader to seek out Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven. It’s a great book that feels like an optimistic mirror image of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. More specifically chapter 6 contains one of the most succinct descriptions of everything we would lose in the apocalypse (in this case, a global pandemic):

No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played under floodlights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue. No more concert stages lit by candy-coloured halogens. No more pharmaceuticals. No more flight.

Lewis Dartnell’s The Knowledge runs through various scenarios of all the things that can go wrong during and shortly after the apocalyptic event. Following the apocalypse there’s a “grace period” where humanity can subsist and scavenge on the remnants of the past civilisation (after which you need to think about making food, medicine, transportation and power).

The proposal for a “survivalist RPG” mostly considers the grace period, or early years after that when a lone survivor may have established their base and needs to provide themselves with sustainable food to survive.

Survivalist RPGs

A let’s call the “survivalist” genre a sub-genre of collapse/post apocalypse. It’s preoccupied with resource management, and the first priority of your survivor has to be food and shelter. After that you can argue about whether transportation, power, or weapons and defences are more important.

All of these are fairly easy to model in a game especially because the consequences of not having them are similarly easy to predict — you can measure how far you can travel, how many bullets you can spare, and how may hit points you can cross off before you succumb to thirst.

But I’m hard pressed to think of one RPG that adequately manages social and mental resources; a game that captures the loneliness of Robert Neville. This shouldn’t be surprising since RPGs are (mostly) about interaction between characters.

Here are some typical examples:

All Flesh Must Be Eaten

The framework in All Flesh Must Be Eaten might as well be GURPS — hardly surprising given that it’s built on the highly generic (though functional) Unisystem. There are nods to scarcity only in the ammo record forms — otherwise it’s preoccupied with the many different permutations of zombies, which it does very well.

Summerland

This game does interesting things with traumatised characters — only characters with mental trauma can ignore the Call from the Sea of Leaves, so while these people are generally not accepted by the post-apocalyptic community, they’re vital to that community as the only ones who can shepherd “normal people” between settlements safely. Summerland’s Trauma’s are invoked voluntarily however; they’re not a resource to be managed, as the characters don’t degenerate any further.

Other Dust

Sine Nomine’s Other Dust is an OSR adventure game, and as such makes no real attempt to direct the character’s mental states. It does acknowledge the politics and tensions arising from scarcity, but manages this from a high-level view of factions (much like other Sine Nomine sandbox titles).

Apocalypse World

Actual mental degeneration isn’t baked into AW, beyond the Hard Moves the MC can inflict on the PCs. And Hard Moves represent short, sharp shocks rather than slow decline; the only lasting harm that can be inflicted is physical scarring. Apocalypse World’s characters are by default extremely self-reliant with a high self-esteem. Only the NPCs are influenced by wants.

Survival Modes

So, the existing canon of RPGs is (I think) generally thin on the ground for modelling the effects of limited human contact and dwindling resources. Here are some suggestions.

Unknown Armies — madness meters

For better or worse we do have mechanisms to model mental distress — the obvious one being Sanity mechanics. The most sophisticated, and probably very well suited to a post-apocalypse game, is Unknown Armies.

UA has five stress tracks:

  • Isolation — the most obviously useful in this instance
  • Helplessness — for the early-stage survivor, suddenly cut off from the resources and comforts of their previous life
  • Self — this is self-image and self-discovery. It points to a gradually changing character in the apocalyptic landscape, but could also be affected by past traumas (for example Robert Neville’s history with his wife)
  • Unnatural — supernatural and probably the least useful
  • Violence — will probably be relevant at some point.

The crucial point about UA is how these stresses are brought on — the PC is challenged with a stress at a particular level, and will either beat that stress or fail it. This means a post-apocalyptic scenario must have events that trigger stress checks.

The Black Hack — Usage Dice

The very pulpy Black Hack may not be an obvious candidate for survival horror, but on the other hand dungeoneering itself is a survival exercise.

 The Black Hack has already been, er, hacked into The Cthulhu Hack, and this points the way to using this system for deteriorating physical and mental condition by way of the Usage Die. Any physical or mental resource can be represented by a Usage Die. What matters is how the Usage Die roll is triggered (flashlight for clues, sanity for frightening experience, etc.).

Now, why not have a group owned Usage Die? You could use it to represent food, water, fuel, electricity, ammunition:

  • For fuel, decide how often you roll the Usage Die for your given vehicle (probably depends on how far you travel)
  • For food, when everyone eats, everyone rolls the Usage Die, and it gets knocked down for each mouthful. But here’s an idea — if a character rolls and gets a 1 or 2, they or another can voluntarily go hungry. Maybe that causes them to cross off Hit Points or drop a stat (Str or Con?).

You could also have a Loneliness Usage Die. When your character may feel isolated, roll the Usage Die and on a 1 or 2 they are overwhelmed with a feeling of loss, sorrow, and need for human contact of some kind. Extrapolate that further and you could have one die for each of the Unknown Armies madness meters above.

Beyond the Wall — making friends

Each Beyond the Wall character playbook includes an event where the chararacter forms a bond with the next person around the table. Consider a character generation round-table discussion:

  1. Describe the one thing the person on your right does that really irritates you.
  2. Tell us the thing the person on your left provides that you’ve come to rely on, and why.

That will give you a couple of talking points for each character. The GM can then use these for setting conditions when the characters are under stress — possibly forcing a roll of a Usage die.

Dream Askew — many GMs, one character

Finally, if you want a truly isolated RPG experience, and you can’t have more than one character — why not have one player playing their PC throughout, and the other players sharing the GM role? That’s not quite how Dream Askew does things, but if the other players only focus on the Situation Sheet (modified for a lonely experience) they can narrate, make moves, and push the protagonist in certain directions. If you were going to do that for I Am Legend you might have Situations including

  • Neville’s Dog
  • Ruined Manhattan
  • Vampire Society
  • Search for a Cure

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Just One Drink: Gin & Tonic

So, as a new parent I can only really have one or two drinks in the evening. Cocktails make it easier to ration alcohol, and I like gin. This is a really nice G&T.

The G&T was a way to make tonic water palatable by adding gin in the early 19th century (if you believe Wikipedia). The question is, were the colonial British consuming a London Dry gin which would have emerged in the later 19th century, or something else like genever, juniper spirit or Old Tom gin?

Wikipedia reckons the gin to tonic ratio can be as low as 1:1, which may have been a reasonable ratio with much more bitter tonic and sweeter Old Tom and a lower alcohol content in the gin. But for a modern G&T and a London Dry gin a 1:1 mix is too much. This isn’t a spirit with a dash of soda — a G&T should be aromatic and refreshing and cold.

The only reason to use a ratio stronger than 1:3 is if you’ve got crap tonic and/or watery gin and just want to taste alcohol. Avoid these both.

Gin

boodles

You can get away with something insipid like Bombay Dry or Gordons (that’s modern Gordons, vintage Gordons is apparently a different thing) but there are much better gins for the same money. I used Boodles here which is surprisingly light and delicate, but with a lot of aromatic juniper and coriander that works well in the G&T. Other worthwhile gins are

These three are around £14-16. If you want to spend more money (£25+) there’s Sipsmith or Chase Distillery’s Extra Dry gin. Boodles is right in the middle at £20.

Avoid anything really expensive like Botanist, you won’t get the benefit (sip that one neat). Also anything too floral like Bloom will be wasted because the other scents will overwhelm the gin.

Tonic

tonic

You can use a mediocre gin and make a pretty good drink with decent tonic, but the reverse is not possible. I’m biased because I can’t stand artificial sweeteners, but even so Schweppes has an undeserved reputation (like Bombay Sapphire) and is only acceptable if you’re not taking your G&T orally. These are good tonics:

  • Fever Tree is the most widely available, and comes in little fridge packs of 8x150ml cans. This is what I’m using here. They also do Mediterranean, Elderflower and Lemon tonics which are good
  • Fentiman’s tonic is harder to find and it’s more astringent than Fever Tree (in a good way)
  • Tesco does a “Finest” tonic water that doesn’t have artificial sweeteners. It’s nice but I always found it was a bit flat out of the can.

Glass

glass

These days people seem to be recommending balloon glasses rather than highballs, but I tend not to use our stemware much because it doesn’t fit easily in the dishwasher and I’m lazy. I’ve used an Old Fashioned glass because I like the way it feels in the hand and you still get a lot of surface area to enjoy the aromas.

Garnish

garnish

Lime or lemon is classic, and Mango and black pepper is scientifically proven to be the best. I like a big slice of pink grapefruit and I’m also adding black pepper.

Method

Hardly rocket science but you must chill the tonic (obv) and you can also chill the glass with ice, and drain off melt water using a hawthorne strainer (you could even chill the glass using a bar spoon, but that’s hard for me to photograph)

hawthorne

Then add the gin… a 30ml measure will give you a 1:5 ratio with the can of tonic, and still be a fine drink with around 6.5% alcohol and plenty of character if the gin is decent.

If you want to be pretentious you can pour the tonic using a bar spoon as in this video from Bombay Sapphire and this post to minimise loss of bubbles.

Cut a wedge of citrus, run the fruit around the edge of the glass then drop it in the drink. Add pepper over the top. Chin chin!

GnT

Thursday, 12 May 2016

The Cost of Everything, the Value of Nothing

You’ve probably seen the article about how people should pay what games are worth, not what they cost. There’s a fair amount of response about whether creators “deserve a living wage” for “their dream job writing games”. On the one hand I’m in favour of people being able to live to do things that benefit society, like fringe academic studies or art, because if we don’t support people doing those and just attach a pound sign to everything then these things that are hard to monetise but enrich society disappear. On the other hand, no-one is entitled to their dream job, though more power if they can achieve it. But that’s not what I want to get into.

There are two key points. The first comes at the end of the article:

Yes, paying sixty to seventy dollars for a core role-playing game will hurt financially in the short term. It might mean having to get fewer coffees from Starbucks, or bring a lunch to work from home rather than eating out for a few weeks. You will still get months and years of pleasure and enjoyment out of that book, and the people who made it for you will be able to pay their bills and be able to make more games and supplements for you.

So, in order:

That $60 dollar price point

The 60 dollar price point is a price threshold from AAA video gaming. Indie video games are a lot cheaper, and there’s an implication that you get what you pay for. But there are also weird justifications like “it takes a huge studio to generate this content, so the price must be higher” which in turn leads to outcry when a small studio charges the same price (see Jim Sterling’s commentary on No Man’s Sky here). The lessons here are that price does not equate to value or even long-term playability, and that companies will charge what they think the market can support, regardless of quality.

Let the company try to justify that 60+ dollar price point (by quality, longevity, brand recognition, etc.), and let the market decide. On the other hand appealing to the community to spend more money on the pretext that currently the companies aren’t paying their writers enough seems absurd, for these reasons:

  1. There’s no guarantee that a higher price point will improve price per word for authors
  2. It suggests that there is, or should be, a relationship between those authors and the buying public that obliges the latter to underwrite the lifestyle of the former

Point 2 is particularly important in light of indie self publishing. Indie authors get reputation by engaging with the community in various ways. But if you’re working for someone else and you’re not getting the pay or recognition you feel you deserve — why don’t you do the same? By working for a monolithic entity and arguing to raise the price point for that entity’s benefit, without getting any extra recognition for yourself — how are you making things better?

Years of enjoyment

The fallacy here is that this single, $60 game is the only game the consumer will buy and play. The reality is that most gamers will consume multiple game lines, and some of these products will be played for a brief while or even shelved and never played.

I can’t speak for anyone else but a higher price point will certainly make me think twice about an impulse purchase, and I’d lay odds that’s what a lot of RPG consumption is.

More Supplements

This is the same model as always. You’re not just buying a rulebook as a one-off purchase, you’re buying a subscription to a game line.

What you’re really saying is… our product that you’ve paid a premium for isn’t complete, and you need to keep paying us on the off-chance we’ll add to it in the future. Well, OK, there’s a proven market for multi-volume watered-down fantasy novels, and while I hold that in equal contempt who am I to tell the someone else how to spend their money?

But take another look at indie community crowdfunding and specifically patreon. That subscription model that puts the consumer in direct contact with the content provider, at a low initial outlay. By comparison there’s no name recognition for the author here; again, this spurious argument advocates for the company, not the beleaguered writer.

Not Getting Younger

This is my second point:

Game creators aren’t getting any younger.

I’m hugely sympathetic to the medical predicament. It must be terrible to have financial worries heaped on health issues, and I can’t imagine what it’s like to live without a national health service (though if Jeremy Hunt gets his way).

But there are two issues.

First, what, all the game designer slots are taken up and there’s no room for young designers? This infers that there’s an elite old guard of game creators and publishers, and they are the only people who can continue to give us the product that we want. This is establishment nonsense.

Second, how is this different to any other industry, where people get older?

This may sound insensitive, but… people will leave, one way or the other. This is a problem that companies small and large ignore. And the deification of the one true expert panders to that ignorance. Not that our venerable experts shouldn’t hold court, be treated with respect and listened to… but the way to address this problem is with succession planning.

The next generation will always pick things up, (if there’s something left to pick up), and the only question is how much will they have retained from the previous generation. And none of this is guaranteed by your premium price point.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Fugue Hacking

I’m posting this here but I’ve also written it into its own document, which you can download here. I’ve released this content under the CC Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 license, like the Fugue rules.

1.0 Introduction

Alas Vegas is basically a rules system and a campaign that are completely bonded together: the story can’t be played without these rules, the rules won’t make sense outside this story. It’s not a ‘story game’ as the market understands them–when did I ever design something that fitted a pre-existing niche?–and although I’m building the game-story within a flexible framework to allow individual GMs to modify it, to make the game about the characters’ journeys more than the setting’s secrets, I’m afraid its replayability is likely to be low.

(from comments on the Alas Vegas Preview, Pelgrane Press, 2012)

In November 2015 James Wallis published the Fugue rules he developed for Alas Vegas under a Creative Commons license. The ruleset looks great, and I’ve several ideas for content of my own. But on my first reading I found the Fugue rules wanting in a couple of areas:

  1. What do to with the Dealer’s “persona” (PC) when it’s their turn to run an act.
  2. How to hand over between sessions.
  3. How to weave flashbacks into the narrative.
  4. How to hedge on facts as the Dealer, when you don’t have enough objective information to provide the answers.
  5. How to write Content Sets.

My interest is in number 5 but to get there we need to consider the preceding 4 items, which should influence how the content is written.

2.0 Weaving in Flashbacks with Triggers and Anchors

I’m going to refer to Triggers throughout. These are pieces of text written into the act that elicit a response from one or more characters. Because Fugue features amnesiac, emergent characters these cannot be written in advance for a specific persona — which may sound obvious, but consider how many times exactly this happens in scripted traditional RPGs, especially short-term convention games.

The role of a trigger is to provoke a response somehow. Triggers include but aren’t limited to

  • Flashbacks (per the 4th condition for flashbacks in the core rules)
  • Prompted actions for the current Dealer’s persona (in Game Character mode)

Triggers are written into each Act. It’s the current Dealer’s responsibility to make sure the Triggers happen. Some of them may be off-screen (e.g. a trigger is applied to the Dealer’s persona, so they take certain action as a game-character) and some may be conditional (e.g. a flashback is only triggered if the party go to a certain location). A trigger should be

When the persona meets Saffron, trigger a flashback

When the persona walks onto Monument Hill, trigger a flashback

When the persona sees a tourist gunned down and turned into chip, trigger a flashback

The other concept is Anchors. These are also written into each Act, but rather than being something to provoke a response, they’re a potential linkage to emerging narrative information (i.e. generated by the other Flashback mechanisms); they’re a reason for the Flashback’s output. They’re relationships, past events, etc. Unlike triggers, you can’t guarantee that they’ll ever be used, but it may be nice to have them written in as a bit of GM support.

If a persona has a flashback here, maybe they have a relationship with Saffron

If a persona has a flashback, maybe it's related to the stash on Monument Hill

Etc.

3.0 Parking the Persona (and Eternal Champions)

Shared GMed games are not new. 20 years ago I played in a 4-session, 4-player, 4-GM shared game called Eternal Champions — we played Moorcockian heroes, each a representation of a cosmic force from their own realm, drawn together in a time of great need. That need was a very loosely defined existential threat to the entire multiverse, which would be addressed by the GM du jour’s adventure which took place in their PC’s world.

We used a macguffin for parking the current GM’s PC. Since each world’s Champion was part of a fine power balance in their own realm, they were unable to answer the threat themselves, and needed external agents in the form of the other characters. So the current GM withdrew their character and the other three players romped through the scenery tearing things up as only 500 point GURPS characters can do.

That macguffin may not work so well for a Fugue game owing to the single shared world. But actually James Wallis did write about this in the Dealer section of the Alas Vegas partial preview from September 2014:

When it’s your turn to referee a session, your persona remains a part of the group, though you must play them as a game-character. They cannot have flashbacks during this session, or give flashbacks to other personas. If their signifier comes up, nothing happens. You may want to use them as you would any game-character – as a patsy, stool-pigeon, double-crosser, blackmail, blackmailee or enemy agent, whether willing or coerced.

No spoilers, so I think it’s OK to reproduce here. This isn’t the only passage from the preview’s Dealer section that should have been in the core Fugue rules. Also I like it because it establishes how the personas are “owned” by the game and how attached the players should be to them. Feelings of character ownership are non-trivial, and failing to get on the same page re: character ownership, autonomy and disposability leads to inequity.

Now, this omission may have been an oversight, but there’s another reason. Fugue as published is only half a game, and that seems to be a deliberate decision. The authors of the content sets will turn the Fugue rules into a complete game — so how to park the persona must be a consideration of the content set.

3.1 Content Set—Parking the Persona

  1. When it’s the player’s turn to be Dealer, does their persona continue to be present in the game?
  2. If not, what’s the in-game rationale for their absence?
  3. If they are, is the Dealer obliged to make their persona a turncoat, stooge, or other antagonist? What are the Triggers for this?
  4. If the Dealer uses that persona to bring in other narrative elements, how should that be done?
    • Is there any latitude to bring in an external game character with a connection to that persona? Remember Alas Vegas is a closed world, and other Fugue games may be the same, and the personas are amnesiacs
    • If it is indeed a closed world, then the persona can only connect with the world as defined in the text. Do you need to write provision into each Act for this to happen? Are there any Triggers that apply?

On that last point: if you write in a trigger for the current Dealer’s persona, tie it into an event, location or game character that will appear in that act.

4.0 Handover and Shared World Models

James Wallis had this to say about handover between Dealers (again from the Alas Vegas 2014 partial preview)

To make this work you’re going to have to remember the golden rule of improv work – which is all a lot of storytelling games are, really. That rule is: never reject or contradict. Take whatever is offered you and work it into the story. so if you’ve discovered that what you thought was a tale of hunting in the frozen tundra and you’re started to get attached to your Inuit warrior, and suddenly you discover that it’s all supposed to be going off in a hyperreal version of las Vegas, then the key rule is not to overrule anything that happened in the previous session.

Wallis goes on to the second rule which is (in non-neutral language) to have it out with the previous Dealer for screwing things up in the first place. Well, OK, but there is a better solution: don’t play with people who are going to are so obviously on a different page from you that they will wreck the game for everyone by bringing their act to an unrecoverable end-point (more on that later).

Going back to Eternal Champions and games like them, we needed no special conditions for handover. Trust goes a long, long way. But, the Eternal Champions game was not a single supposedly homogeneous world, but four separate ones. Also, like Moorcock’s books, there was little enforced continuity between the worlds; what we were playing with were four different impressions of the same theme. We weren’t restricted by anything as ambitious as a script, and each GM was free to create within a set of very broad guidelines (the aforementioned undefined existential evil, the role of the Champion, etc.).

4.1 Models

Consider a game like Alas Vegas, where the GM mantle is passed from one player to another, but there’s a collective responsibility to one narrative and one group of characters. There are two ways to view this with the passing of time. One is a truly shared model:

Shared World Model

The circles are the start/end points for each act (and handover); the ovals are the scope of the game world. You can see that the scope starts small but as each new GM pitches in the scope gets bigger. This model assumes the improv rule of “accept and incorporate” and the scope of the previous act is always a subset of the next.

The alternative model is the coincidence model:

Coincidental World Model

The universe in each successive act is a copy of the last. Any continuity is an illusion brought about by the goodwill of the players.

Which of these makes more sense for structuring your Fugue game? Intuitively it’s the first, with a shared imagined space and those all-important rules of improve, especially add, don’t contradict. The second model looks like a chaotic mess by comparison.

Here’s a few reasons why the second is actually superior to the first.

  1. The game world has a strong tacit component, that cannot be articulated in full (i.e. made explicit) by the group. Even if it could, each player’s version of the world is skewed by their own heuristics and biases.
  2. Each player will have a limit to their working memory, such that minor details will be forgotten. Working memory is supplemented by writing things down, but since making things explicit is subject to limits too (q.v.) there will always be some detail that’s lost in transition.
  3. Given the themes (Lynch, Cronenberg, The Prisoner, Fear and Loathing) some ambiguity or contradiction may actually be good. The genre — and more generally horror — thrives on uncertainty.

So, this is my recommendation: don’t think of it as a single shared world. Think of it as four copies of the same world, with the personas transitioning between them unawares. Where there is uncertainty, worship the glitch.

4.2 Content Set—Facts and Reassurances

However, you still want to keep the players on the same page. Here’s a couple of ideas.

Let’s consider that other RPG about amnesia, A Penny For My Thoughts. That game features a very neat orientation mechanism in the Facts and Reassurances sheet. If you look through the alternative playsets you’ll see alternative Facts and Reassurances.

This sheet is your starting point to get the players on the same page regarding the world they’re in. For the Alas Vegas preview it’s the setting chapter (before the eyes-only chapters on each Act).

Write a Facts and Reassurances sheet (call it what you want) at the start. At the end of each written act write a Trigger for the Dealer to add to the Sheet before they pass it on to the next Dealer. This document stays in full view of all the players at all times; it represents shared knowledge.

Separate from the Facts and Reassurances sheet, you may want a Relationship map between game characters and personas. Draw this however you would like — on a big sheet of paper, on a cork-board with index cards, in a C-Map, etc.

The index card option

Not only does it allow you to pin, rearrange and pass around the individual cards, it also lets the incumbent Dealer send secret messages to the new Dealer by writing on the back of certain index cards. What messages? They could be questions like “what will Davey do when Saffron makes her move on his turf?” or they could be facts like “Saffron has a twin sister working in the penthouse of Capital Tower”. Whether you encourage this randomness in your content set is up to you. Bear in mind that any secret messages may be ignored by the new Dealer, especially if they forget to look over each and every index card before it’s their act, so they should be an optional extra.

I would suggest an index card for each game character, location, and maybe faction. These will form an add-on to your Facts and Reassurances. At no point do the index cards get flipped over for everyone to see. If the next Dealer down the line reads the back and does something with their predecessor’s idea, cool. Otherwise, let them rest there.

In the end, your collaborative world model will look like this:

Collaborative Model Model

Each act is its own little bubble, but each is successively larger than the previous one, and there’s overlap — the Venn diagram shows where the Facts and Reassurances are reiterated, expanded and inserted at the start of the next Act.

5.0 Building in Constraints

When authoring content, I need to choose which of these constraints to obey:

5.1 Structural Constraints

  • 3-4 hour sessions
  • limited number of acts
  • Dealer rotation
  • Amnesia
  • deliberately limiting player knowledge
  • use of the tarot deck
  • flashback mechanics

5.2 Thematic constraints

  • Tarot imagery in the game world
  • In media res
  • Start location is sparse (characters are naked in the desert, on the edge of civilisation)
  • Closed world with restricted exploration and isolation
  • A division between “tourists” and “locals”
  • Various factions

The above are based on the perceived constraints in Alas Vegas.

5.3 Content Set—Choosing Your Constraints

Switching these constraints on or off raises some interesting questions. For example:

  1. What if the personas aren’t amnesiacs? They’re fleshed out characters but with a collective gap in their memory (say, over a specific time period)
  2. What if the personas don’t start in media res, but there’s a well established mission briefing? How much of that briefing can they trust?
  3. What if the boundaries of the world are never tested?
  4. What if you don’t limit the number of acts in your Fugue game? Just keep the Dealer role rotating (as one might do in say Malandros)
  5. What if you don’t script out the game, just provide an initial premise? (this would make your game like an Eternal Champion game, for example)
  6. What other constraints can you add?
  7. What can you throw to the party right at the start? A map of the area? A list of names, some of which have been crossed out in red biro?
  8. How can you play with the start location? What if amnesiac characters emerge from a lift in an unnamed office building, soaked in blood? Or 5 meters under water, swimming to the surface? Or in free fall? (I actually ran that last one about 5 years ago)

6.0 Blast Play, Handover and Unrecoverable Situations

Alas Vegas is a ‘blast’—longer than a one-shot game but not a standard open-ended RPG. It contains a set of rules and a single adventure that plays out over four sessions, for a group of 4-6 people. It’s a neat format, and the rules and adventure complement each other perfectly to form a self-contained gaming unit unlike anything you’ve played before.

(from the Kickstarter)

So, one of the major constraints is the 4-act structure with around 3-4 hours per act. That’s not far off a convention slot for a one-shot game.

Also like a con game, each act has to be a short story rather than a novel — not much space for meandering plots or misdirection, at least as far as the GM goes. Some con games are experimental and/or open ended but the majority try to resolve and they do so with defined end conditions, e.g.

  • Mission success
  • Escape with the treasure
  • Achieving personal (on-the-sheet) goals

A con game is fire-and-forget — even games with very specific mission parameters can be left open-ended; they can result in objective “failure” (e.g. TPK); they don’t always satisfy all the players. But, the GM isn’t obliged to tidy up their game for the next GM, and they can just leave things hanging (or more likely wash up informally over a pint at the bar).

This isn’t a luxury you have if you’re handing over the GM mantle to the next player. Things at least have to make objective sense; more importantly the end state as written has to be communicated into an end state that all the players can see, so everyone knows where to pick up from.

As discussed above you can already get a long way with (a) trust, goodwill and a social contract and (b) some form of living shared Same Page document. But it should be noted that there’s no one mechanism or safety net built into Fugue that will deal with an unrecoverable end point. If the previous GM leaves the game in a spot which bears no relation to the next act, the world unrecognisable from the Facts and Reassurances, or with one or more personas dead, what can you do? It’s a bit late for “don’t play with those sorts of people”.

Here are two examples of unrecoverable situations and how a system can obviate them.

6.1 Example—Death

Death in-game makes it difficult for the player to continue to participate, but it’s trivial to make that recoverable through game design:

  • Send in the clones (Paranoia)
  • Mechanical influence of resource tokens after death (Mountain Witch)
  • Haunting the party, appearing in Flashbacks, changing the PC’s sphere of influence, etc.

So, this is an example of I write a hard rule or boundary condition that obviates this situation. Job done.

6.2 Example—Running Out Of Clues

Usually when the players are looking lost the GM will chuck in some stimulus (an event, a NPC with vital information); again that’s fine when you as GM are the sole arbiter of your game, but when you have a responsibility to the next player who will be GM, you need to be careful what you throw in off-the-cuff — which means that either

  • new NPCs or prompts need to be written into the original script, or
  • there’s a mechanism for generating new NPCs so that they can be picked up by the next GM.

The GUMSHOE system addresses the old Call of Cthulhu problem of failed Spot Hidden rolls with readily discoverable clues; but in doing so that game requires a heavily scripted product. It’s another example of your How to Host a Murder dinner party game, dressed up in RPG trade dress.

6.3 Content Set—Contingency

I’m not saying either of these are right, or even necessary — but since Fugue itself doesn’t address this problem, if you think it could be a problem in your content set, you might want to think of special rules or conditions, particularly if you have no control over who plays your game. But if the “accept and incorporate; never contradict” improv maxim is enough for you and your players, you probably won’t encounter this issue to begin with.

7.0 Summary and Remarks

Techniques to consider in play:

  1. Use a Facts and Reassurances sheet, and some kind of relationship map or cork board to keep all the players on the same page. Consider using the index cards to write secret messages to the next Dealer.
  2. Accept that this is one one homogeneous game world of expanding scope; it’s a series of iterative and expanding copies, with similarities built from goodwill and rubber bands.

Techniques to consider when authoring content:

  1. When writing your four-act content set, build in Triggers (to provoke Flashbacks) and Anchors (as potential linkages to Flashbacks).
  2. Decide how the current Dealer’s Persona is parked.
  3. In your written content, remind the play group to review the Facts and Reassurances at the start of the act/session, and to add to it at the end of the act/session.
  4. Look at the constraints of play, both practical and thematic. Which ones will you keep, which will you change, and which new ones will you introduce? How does that change the content set? These are potential levers.
  5. If you really don’t trust the players to take their turn as Dealers and not wreck everything, consider building in safety valves. But “accept, incorporate, don’t contradict” should be enough for most people.

7.1 New Content

This document came about for self-serving reasons: Fugue looks like a great, simple system and I wanted to write my own content. But there’s frustratingly little support in Fugue for writing a game like Alas Vegas; and so I started to second-guess how the other content set authors (Yet Already, Remembering Cosmic Man, Warlock Kings) had gone about writing their content. Without any examples for comparison — and with a moratorium on reading past Alas Vegas’ first act if I don’t want to be spoiled — I realise I’m contemplating my own navel. But there it is.

For my own content I have three ideas in the pipeline, although when I’ll get the time to complete them who knows — I’m writing this with a four-week old slung across my chest as I type on the kitchen table. Moments to cherish, eh?

Deep Season

A game of amnesia in rural England around that special season. I’m trading the David Lynch, Fear and Loathing, Americana feel of Alas Vegas for something closer to home. The Prisoner is still relevant, but there’s a heavy dose of teatime BBC1 young adult drama (think Children of the Stones, Tomorrow People, Russell T. Davies’ Century Falls) and of course Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising.

After The Poison Summer

Inspired by Greg Saunders’ Summerland. The characters emerge from a bunker to a verdant apocalypse.

Scanners Love In Vain

Former addicts emerging from indentured servitude, piecing their shattered memories back together which were destroyed by the drug they have been forced to cultivate.