Saturday, 17 December 2016

OSR Demons 3: Demonbringer

Demonbringer is a RPG featuring the demons from Stormbringer 1st Edition by way of the OSR (specifically Whitehack), Everway and the WaRP system.

This is the character sheet I’ve been working on:

Here is the character sheet as a PDF

Notes

Previous entries for “OSR Demons”:

It uses SB’s 6 demon types, linking one per characteristic (see the previous blog posts). Powers are worked out according to type and Everway-inspired magical point buy — so powers are rated e.g. Major, Frequent and Versatile. It also uses Everway’s 3 resolution systems (see commentary here) and general loose approach.

It sort of uses a revised roll-under as described here, but that needs playtesting.

But it can be made to use a OSR-like combat subsystem. To do this it uses a dice clock.

It uses Groups or Traits — as applied in Whitehack and WaRP/Over The Edge.

System Uses

I’ve got two uses in mind. The first is for a fantasy game that’s basically like Stormbringer, in a massive single city. There’s a city-building mechanism or subsystem that both the GM and the players get involved in.

Second is an underlying system for Black Mantle, since the system should work for mecha too.

The two sort of complement each other; one is about having adventures inside a city, while the other is about exploring the unknown outside (or capital-O Outside).

Further Notes On Demons

The rest of the text below are some notes I’ve been making on demons. Putting them here by way of elaboration and explanation. This has been written with the fantasy city setting in mind.

1. The Riddle of Demons

The following definitions may be useful:

  1. (Classical) an otherworldly entity summoned and bound to do the conjurer’s bidding
  2. (Literal) a projection of a person’s will or motivation on the external world
  3. (Metaphorical) a skill or ability that outclasses and reaches beyond that of others or which is considered possible

In addition, demons are described from two perspectives:

  1. By the game world; whatever the culture calls a demon is a demon. This definition is extrinsic. Also known as “colour”.
  2. By the system and the GM; an object comprising a need, a relationship with the conjurer, and various services. This definition is intrinsic.

First comment: only the actual relationship with the demon is intrinsic; any assumptions of intelligence or motivation, and projections of a personality are extrinsic and colour.

Second, if you don’t bother with relationships with demons, you’ve basically got superheroes (and can run a game with “demons” using an appropriate system).

With a much broader scope any apparent expertise can be called “demonic”. For example: Conan’s obsession with “the riddle of steel” in Conan the Barbarian is a demon; the “service” of that demon is his uncommon ability with a sword, but he also has a relationship with the concept that drives him — and sometimes it gives him hope, other times disappointment.

So in more general terms, players should understand that their PCs’ powers are demons per the game system definition. For the actual game world they (and anyone else in the world) are free to rationalise their powers how they wish.

Furthermore different communities, religions and cultures will

  • have different views on what demons are, how harmful they are and where they come from; and
  • draw arbitrary distinctions between demons where there is no game-system distinction (e.g. angels and devils)

2. The City’s Demons

People have various skills and affiliations expressed as “groups” (see Whitehack) that benefit then in a situation — a Soldier will be combat-ready, a Black Hand Thief will know the nearest escape route, a Scholar from the Imperial Library will be able to tell you of the City’s rich and layered history.

Rare individuals may transcend this expertise — they have superhuman capacity to inflict violence, gain knowledge, withstand pain or cross distances. Such folk have aligned themselves with demons.

The Armaments

The most subtle of such demons are the armaments: these are personal extensions of mortal expertise. These often have a motif — a weapon, a piece of clothing or similar. But whatever happens it’s conjurer to which the demon is bound; thus their motif may be separated from them for a time, but it will always find its way back.

Advantages:

  • Discreet compared to other demons; they may be on show but they are not obviously demonic
  • Usually constant, i.e. always available (but there may be exceptions)

Disadvantages:

  • Not at all versatile; they typically have one function
  • Not autonomous; they cannot take decisions or act for themselves

The Embodiments

Embodiments are objects or entities that are separate from the conjurer, bound to do their bidding. Embodiments have a form in which they appear; frequently humanoid, sometimes monstrous, or possibly non-living but nevertheless autonymous.

Advantages:

  • They are autonymous, capable of taking instruction and then making decisions
  • They are much more likley to be versatile
  • They are usually constant

Disadvantages:

  • They are not discreet; although they may actively defeat detection

The Appeals

Appeals are short-lived interventions of other beings with whom the conjurer has a relationship. Basically the conjurer opens the way to great and remote powers, which leak through and cause brief but terrible change.

Advantages:

  • They are often major powers

Disadvantages:

  • They are not constant — their influence is brief
  • Their are inimical to life — wherever they emerge, they will cause great change and weirdness

Sunday, 10 July 2016

City Hierarchies

Some history: in late 2012 I had the idea for the City Accelerator, wrote down a few blog posts and then wondered how to turn it into a generic RPG tool. That tool is now getting used after a fashion in Black Mantle, but on its own it’s only really worth a couple of blog posts — which is what I’ve decided to do here.

A few months ago I wrote this minigame for exploring the high-level details of the City — putting it in the context of the country and surroundings, deciding on what the barrier(s) between the Outside and Inside look like, etc.

I’m considering the City in the most abstract, setting-agnostic sense — it’s an area defined by Outside and Inside, with an interior set of features and an interior population. And this next part covers the City’s hierarchy — the people and the factions.

The Three Tiers

There are three tiers to the City’s hierarchy:

  • the Upper Tier, occupied by the King and Queen; the ruler, law-maker, head of state, dictator or autarch
  • the Middle Tier is for Bishops and Rooks; these individuals lead bodies of people — corporations, pressure groups, unions, economic and political interests. They are accountable to the Upper Tier.
  • the Lower Tier is for Pawns and Knights. These are individuals with no direct authority, accountable to the Middle Tier

The Exchange

The Pieces are positions, not Citizens. Individuals can transition between the roles in any direction — laterally, upwards or downwards. The normal progression is upwards, tier by tier — so an ambitious Knight in turn becomes a Bishop and ultimately Queen or King. But sudden transitions are just as possible — a Pawn is elevated to the King position, a Queen falls to the position of Knight, and so on.

Pieces

The King

The King is an Upper Tier piece. It represents the overall vision of the City, the ideals and principles on which it operates, and even the connection between the City and higher powers. The King could be an actual person (a regent, a philosopher, a prophet, a god-king) or could be a set of principles (laws or history handed down, a connection with the past or with principles) or some thinking but inhuman force (a vast computer, a captive god, a source of magic).

On its own the King is powerless; it’s a figurehead that others look to for direction. It needs the other components beneath it to take any action. If the King is ever deposed (the Regent is replaced by a republic; the Computer is smashed by luddites; the Sacred Scrolls are burned in a revolution) then the whole tone and principle of the City will change to suit the new King. This may be reflected by thematic changes in the Heart of the City.

The Queen

The Queen is an Upper Tier piece representing the authority of, and acting on decisions of the King. It will never be abstract, always a person or group of people (a Prime Minister, a Vizir, a Council acting on certain principles of law, etc.) but it could be obviously separate from the other citizens — an elite priesthood, a cabal of magicians, undying robots or clockwork automata, etc.

The Queen has absolute authority and power in the Heart of the City. Outside the Heart they have no direct authority, but instead need the support of their Rooks to impose city-wide order.

The Bishops

The Middle Tier Bishops are individuals who lead bodies of people — including unions, political factions, cults and religeons, and corporations. Technically the Bishops are answerable to the King, and are kept in line by (but not accountable to) the Queen.

Bishops are the primary players of the great political game. Most Bishops pursue power, with intent to grow. Some Bishops will be content to grown within the Middle Tier, and others will have their eyes on the Upper Tier, their ambitions including the Queen’s throne, or even the King — and this takes a lot of power. There are several ways power can be acquired:

  • by outright conquest of another Bishop or Rook
  • by forming alliances or otherwise securing the backing of another Bishop or Rook
  • by getting power from some external source (e.g. Outside the City)

For City design there is typically one Bishop per District — if the Bishops are forced to share then they will tend to be weaker as a result, and if a District has no Bishop then something will move to fill the vacuum.

The Rooks

Since the Queen can’t exercise direct power outside the Heart, it needs proxies to carry out its will throughout the City’s districts. This is where the other Middle Tier pieces — the Rooks — come in. Functionally these are similar to Bishops in that they represent bodies of people — in this case police forces, a standing army, or other peacekeeping body. They’re not necessarily so overt, though — they could also be a secret police force, or even enforcers for organised crime.

In exchange for enforcing the Queen’s directives on their District each Rook enjoys some privileges (like the power to imprison or impose fines, immunities, etc.). These privileges mean each Rook is functionally on a similar power level to the Bishops, though unlike Bishops the Rooks don’t need to look to conquest or alliances for expanding their power — if they need to defend their position (or attack a Bishop) they can sanction resources from the Heart of the City.

Note that resources granted by the Queen are ultimately traceable back to that source — so if your Rooks are a shadowy organisation or deniable asset this could make for an interesting mystery game. Rooks might pose as Bishops, Bishops pose as Rooks, etc.

For the purposes of the Lower Tiers there’s not much difference between Rooks and Bishops — both represent employers of some kind, with internal drives and interests (primarily self-preservation, and growth). And indeed, some Bishops become Rooks, and some Rooks become Bishops. The main difference is where their power comes from.

The Knights

Knights are individuals with no political territory; they may have personal holdings and affiliations to others, but they don’t represent any kind of organisation. Like Pawns, they will work for a Rook or a Bishop; unlike Pawns they’re not fixed in place, and instead free to make contracts with whomever they choose.

In the most common RPG formats the Player Characters are all Knights — free agents with personal power who make their way on their own, forming short-term alliances with Middle Tier employers.

The Pawns

Like Knights, Pawns are individuals. Unlike Knights they are fixed in place, which is both an advantage and disadvantage. They will tend to belong to a particular workforce (headed by a Rook or a Bishop) and will be slow to change their working situation. Pawns are content to be where they are, forming deep links with their community, family and culture. This is the one thing an itinerant Knight doesn’t have; nor does the Bishop or Rook, even if they otherwise represent a community.

Pawns are most interesting when you consider what might cause them to transition from their current, comfortable position to another piece. What happened in their life that they suddenly became a Knight, a Bishop or even the King? All of these should be considered a “Kicker” — the Pawn character has been suddenly outlawed, made an offer they couldn’t refuse, or changed direction of their own life because something happened to disrupt their world (a death, a loss of position, an encounter with something or someone magical or mysterious, etc.).

Mechanics

This isn’t intended to be a game — there are no mechanics here. If you were designing a game using this template — with the view to having your citizens moving up and down the greasy pole, you might consider a currency to work out

  • how much power each Bishop has in their District
  • how much power it takes to knock over another Bishop or Rook
  • how much power it takes to depose the King or Queen
  • what alliances might look like when deposing a King or Queen (who gets to be the new King?), or conquering a Bishop (how do you divide up the previous territories? Does a District get broken up and its locations absorbed into other Territories?), etc.

Afterword: City Accelerator Manefesto

This is the point of the City Accelerator:

  • In overbuilt settings like Irilian a massive amount of effort goes into designing the location, but only a fraction of the content gets used…
  • …and because it’s so vast, it’s hard for the GM to focus on details in any useful way without extra work…
  • …and it’s also hard for the players to get an holistic sense of the city, because they’re overwhelmed with details…
  • …also, Great Clomping Feet

So the idea of the City Accelerator was

  1. focus on what’s interesting
  2. leave space to grow; write what’s interesting right now, play that, and avoid distractions from unnecessary details
  3. most importantly connect the player characters to the city — not only factions, but the actual, physical places using a system of locations and districts

There are a few other philosophical points like the benefits of Messy Design and the limits of Working Memory. TL;DR the harder it is for your players to view the City conveniently, the harder it is to get across the scope, scale, culture, or actually interesting details — they all get lost.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

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.

Bibliography

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

Thursday, 17 March 2016

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

Influences

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

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Playtest Metrics

There doesn’t seem to be much advice — that’s discoverable advice from a few Google searches — on how to run a playtest of your shiny new RPG. As an outsider1 to this process, the prevailing attitudes seem to be

  • play it until it breaks, and
  • if you’re having fun, you’re not playtesting. Playtesting should feel like work, not fun.

The first is good advice but rather broad, and the second stems to the same school-of-hard-knocks mentality that pervades some professions — that you do not learn your job from a book, you learn from doing, being knocked back a few times, and getting stronger. And I’ve been there and done that with a lot of things, both work-wise and hobby-wise, so I’m sympathetic to this view.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to organise my thoughts — and in doing so, maybe I can avoid at least some iterative navel-gazing that arises from the “just see what works” approach. So this post is about me thinking about what I want from the game in a fairly high-level conceptual sense, and how to gauge the response of the players.

I’ve picked four (fairly obvious) axes for the performance metrics. These are

  1. Character
  2. World
  3. System
  4. Change

The axes are approximately in order of presentation — players will see character first, then world (at least, the bits they influence), then system and finally longer-term change.

To measure along these axes I’m going to ask different questions of the players, and try to get a sense of their satisfaction in the different areas. It’s not going to be easy and will probably be even harder if I try to turn those responses into measures on an objective scale. But I’m probably getting ahead of myself. Let’s just ask the questions and see what happens.

Character Questions

Is your character’s Origin (childhood, motivations, skills and experience) expressed?

Are the character’s Power Levels expressed? These include

  • Explicit powers (i.e. written down)
  • Implicit powers (i.e. inferred by writing, character, mannerism)

Is there anything which is implied about your character that should be explicit?

Is there a direct path from what the character can do as written, to what the character wants to achieve in the world?

Is the character adequately tied to the game in play?

World Questions

Do the players understand where the game is?

Do they get the Scope2 of play?

Is it clear to them what will happen if they go Outside the Boundary?2

System Questions

Do the players know what is a pass, and what is a fail?

Do they have a sense of relative ability and relative success?

Rate the system for

  • Seek time (that is how long it takes to read the dice)
  • Transparency of Results (how easy it is to translate the reading to a success or failure)
  • Malleability or Agency (how easy it is for the players to make tactical dice rolling decisions)

Change Questions

Do the players get a sense of change in the game world?

Do they feel able to affect the world and achieve change themselves? Perhaps not immediately, but could they make a change through executing a longer term plan?

———–

Cross posted to the UK RolePlayers Design Collective blog.

Footnotes

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p>1. I say “outsider” in the terms of designing something experimental, then trying to turn it into something actually functional long-term rather than just mucking about for a session and discarding it. Done plenty of the latter.

  1. The terms Scope, Boundary and Outside are specific to my game, but I guess they could apply to any game.

Scope is the field of operations for the game to be played — for example the PC are occult investigators looking into a bizarre murder, or pirates after plunder, or modern magicians fleeing an oppressive regime.

Outside is the stuff outside the game “world”, which in my case is a city. It’s the place people don’t go, or there will be consequences. The Boundary is simply the line someone would cross to go to the Outside — it may be just a line in the dirt or it could be an obstacle.