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


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.


  • 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)


  • 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.


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


  • 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.


  • They are often major powers


  • 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.


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.).


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.


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


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.



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.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Constellation / OxyContin

Our extended gaming family is old and grumpy1 and living in different parts of the world. We mainly converge once or twice a year for a “con”, a week packed with gaming. This tradition started around the end of my university years, where we’d pack off to squat in a friend’s (very understanding) parents’ house for a week. Scheduling was a free for all, games were written overnight, crash space was a sleeping bag on the floor. These days we stay in holiday cottages and actually plan our games in advance. Hence this:

Jobs 1

I’m in the nice position of being in touch with two different con-organising gaming circles, which sometimes means two holidays. This year I hadn’t expected the two holidays to be back-to-back, though. We arrived back from Derbyshire, put some washing on, took a nap and then packed off to the second holiday which was thankfully 20 mins away.

The games I write tend to get repeat play these days, but rarely so close as one week between sessions. That meant the successes and failures of the previous sessions were still fresh and I could reshape the bits that didn’t work.

Games I played

Some of these games I can talk about more than others, since the GMs may want to run the games a second time.

The Hunt was a simple, strong premise: the PCs woke up in cages in the middle of rural Derbyshire in winter, to the sound of horns and snarling dogs and the sight of elfin creatures lined up on a nearby ridge. System was very light, atmosphere was very heavy. I’m a big fan of the GM’s style–she’s a devotee of fairly obscure computer mystery games.

Vikings followed the fortunes of six heroes on a voyage to Constantinople. System was light, but a decent enough framework for a good cinematic fight scene at the end. The GM did a great job of ensuring players never missed a turn during the action. I played Peter Dinklage Erik the Dwarf, and murdered the King of Denmark.

Mobile Frame Zero is a wargame by Vincent Baker and Joshua Newman that uses lego. This was the game I was least certain of, mainly because I don’t have an obsession with Lego. The game itself is great, though–it took me back to living-room sessions of Adeptus Titanicus. It doesn’t demand management of large numbers of miniatures (unlike WH40K). I really liked the coloured d6-based system, with its defence and spotting rules. And of course when you blow up enemy mechs and terrain features you get to take them apart and scatter the debris over the table. It is a game about scoring points though–I wonder if it could be adapted to RPG duty and remain balanced. even unbalanced I’d take it over Mekton Zeta. Lots of delicious lego mecha here and here and here (last one is Soren Roberts – I believe he gets a design credit in MFZ).

It Takes Two, Baby used the Unbelievably Simple Role Playing system, with two players playing two personalities (light and dark) inside one head. All characters were being treated at a residential facility. A lot of the interaction was between light and dark halves, vying for control of the same body and whispering to one another–we had a Tyler Durden-style pair of twins, a child paired with an imaginary friend/terrifying poltergeist, and a student haunted by her dead grandmother (who described herself as “corporeally disadvantaged”). Players paired up and collaboratively generated their light and dark halves, which was a really great way of getting into character.

Vampire: The Welcoming Party was a blast from the past–specifically 1995. We were reminded of the true misery of being a neonate, never being given a straight answer and being continually strung along by elders. With that in mind I felt the game managed to parody the kinds of games we used to play quite nicely, and I enjoyed playing my Nosferatu. 

Mao Tse Tung Said was a game about university friends who were once revolutionaries and had since sold out. The GM has a great feel for satire and situational comedy-drama–a few years ago he ran The Thick Of It as a game (and coincidentally came very close to a Malcolm Tucker impression in Don’t Waste Your Life). This game used a trait descriptor system with the option to burn resources (flashbacks, current affairs) to get information from the GM.

Also-rans that I didn’t get to play included sessions of Monsterhearts, Witch, Dog Eat Dog; Paranoia on a generation ship; various mystery games which sounded great but I don’t have much detail on; and Modern Times, a game whose prep involves many different cards and dwarfs the effort I put into Sunder’s Children.

My Games

I chose commercial systems for both games, with the intention of sticking to the rules as much as I could. This hasn’t always worked in the past (e.g. Wild Talents was a bad choice). 

1. Don’t Waste Your Life

This was my Don’t Rest Your Head offering, about newly Awake characters who had just graduated without the grades to realise their dreams. I gave the players a blind pick of powers lifted from the excellent Don’t Lose Your Mind.

The prep time was one tenth of that for my other game–no silly props, just character sheets and powers in envelopes. Since the system effectively manages resources via dice, the players found it very easy to grasp. Also it uses d6 with spots rather than d10s with numerals – for a hunt-and-peck success game traditional d6 have a huge advantage for Search vs Handling Time

I was expecting the players to collapse into nightmare within the single session. This didn’t happen because as the GM aquires Despair tokens and spends them to cause either Exhaustion or Madness to dominate, the players in turn gain Hope tokens that allow them to remove Exhaustion or Madness checks. This tended to be self-limiting (at least for Exhaustion) and the players hovered around 3 exhaustion dice throughout. Increasing the difficulty forced the players to risk rolling more dice but meant that Pain often dominated, feeding the Despair and Hope economy. The GM is encouraged to spend her Despair tokens regularly to keep the economy going, something I didn’t do enough in the first run.

With the Despair economy working the only thing that was likely to push the PCs over the edge would be over-use of Madness talents, or doing something reckless like sleeping. My first group hadn’t fully grasped that sleeping was a bad idea, and so when they volountarily took a nap their characters were hollowed out by nightmares and became adversaries (with new powers). Interestingly I could have killed those characters as they slept, but they were later unable to directly kill the other PCs (even when one enemy player stabbed anther character over and over again). The game doesn’t have hit points; the way nightmares get you is persistent needling until they drive you to exhaustion or you drive yourself to madness.

I was rather pleased that in my second group one player aquired a point of permanent madness through excessive use of his power–a power that required creative and excessive swearing that would make Malcolm Tucker blush.

Overall I got very positive responses from both groups on the system. At the same time the whole game was markedly different between the groups–I’d designed it as a sandbox using the City Accelerator methods, and the players were free to explore. One side went looking for trouble, the other side ran away all the time. The game also confirmed that games that can run over several days rarely do, because players will rarely take downtime volountarily–especially with a mission-focused game where there’s no resource-replenishing benefit to sleeping.

One final comment–it became clear that this was not a game the GM could fudge. In other words, the GM had to always roll to oppose a skill check, on a direct 1-to-1 roll. No asking the whole group to “roll for Perception to see who notices” as an unopposed role – if you do that, there is no chance for Pain to dominate. Also the GM can’t just roll once and ask the players to roll against their single roll. In both cases you diminish the chance for Pain to dominate, making it more likely the PCs will become Exhausted or mad, and stifling the Despair Token economy.

2. Sunder’s Children

Sunder’s Children was also a game about people being left behind–in this case, being part of a village community and watching your friends and family go off to war and adventure, leaving you at home to watch the farm. 

The game scratched several itches:

  • I wanted to run a Lamentations of the Flame Princess game.
  • I wanted to use cards to track spells, equipment and so forth (kind of a poor man’s WFRP 3e).
  • I also wanted to use a dynamic hex map: 

Sunder Map

The map grew as the PCs explored, with view distances limited by hills (pink) and trees (green) but further over water or plains / settlements. The downside to a big map made of component tiles is that eventually we reached the edge of the table and we’d have to spend 5 minutes relocating tiles. The table was already choked with character sheets, spell and equipment cards and handouts, so the late stages of the game became an exercise in prop management.

The whole thing was pretty indulgent of me, and I’m grateful to both sets of players with putting up with several things they didn’t like, such as:

  1. Random character generation. LotFP uses 3d6 for each stat, rolled in order. No “roll 4 and take the best 3” or point-for-point adjustment of ability scores.
  2. Character death. Two characters died, and three others became so horribly maimed as to be unplayable. One death was from a late-stage failed saving throw, and probably felt completely arbitrary (and as a result I didn’t use that trap in the second game–it went slightly too far).
  3. Random tables. There were a lot of these, including the Misery and Drudgery tables for farm work, and the Strangeness, Weather, Creature, Corpse and Omen tables in the later stages of the game.
  4. Narrow spell definitions. More than once player tried to use spells to do things that could be inferred from the spell name but were outside their function.

That last item is a consequence of the kinds of fantasy games we play these days–very little mechanical crunch and high on description, with magic as a broad field of ability rather than a very narrow and specific effect.

As for random character generation, one of my players said it was a useful example of “how far RPGs had come” since the days of random rolls to generate a PC. I think that’s a peculiar statement that belies a particular style of play favoured by that player–they like to play very competent characters where those competencies are mechanically described in the rules and win/lose can therefore be ascribed mechanically and randomly. That attitude is also pretty much outdated in today’s indie gaming culture where PC response to success or failure is more interesting than the pass/fail conditions themselves.

Other notes from the game:

  • I changed the class assignation between the games, as well as the way spells were distributed. I felt the second game was a lot more successful, although there was some confusion regarding spell cards–they all looked the same but spells could come from books, scrolls, or just be available to cast as one-shot bits of magic. That can easily be fixed by changing the card mixes if I run again.
  • Spells were self-aware and could infect humans in the second game. This is how a bunch of 0 to 5th-level humans ended up running around with high level spells. Some of them did more harm than good.
  • In both games I managed to run an ooze and render one or more characters unplayable through the loss of body parts.
  • One of my players cast Contact Outer Sphere, which I really hoped would happen.
  • The Summoning spell is complicated and needs a crib sheet written for it.
  • The Web spell was probably the best mass effect battle spell, with Magic Missile a popular second.
  • Traditional cleric spells (Cure Light Wounds, Turn Undead) didn’t get much use. Players were too busy Webbing monsters and chopping them up.
  • Part of LotFP and D&D in general is the reward mechanism. I had to break the rules here and give the players outrageous XP rewards to allow them to progress levels.

On the whole, I like the system a lot for its simplicity and the way it allowed me to run big fights fairly quickly. I don’t think it’s a game either I or the players would take particularly seriously, though, so doesn’t have much repeat play value for us. The encumbrance system is as good as I expected it to be–in fact the whole game is what I expected, i.e. suited for high-bodycount dungeon crawling and not much else.

Final Thoughts


p>DRYH and this particular implementation of LotFP have a couple of things in common. Firstly, they allow the GM to take a very adversarial role. Second, the use of tokens on the table allows a high degree of player self-organisation.

Normally buckets of dice systems are attractive to players because of their tactile nature–they feel more in control the larger the dice pool they manipulate. Those dice however only exist in the hand. In DRYH the dice exist on the table as physical markers–Discipline and Exhaustion dice as permanent, and Madness as temporary. Players gain a lot of autonomy by being able to voluntarily pick up dice as a response to a particular threat.

In LotFP, because I distributed spells, weapons and armour and other items as cards, players could also self-organise. In the late stages of the game this may have been counter-productive since play shifted from GM-centric (where GM has a strong narrative role) to table-centric, with the GM a facilitator at best. Because the players could claim different effects on cards without asking for verbal permission from the GM (since it was written down) they began to debate in-party on strategy rather than query the GM. In other words, they played the game like a collaborative board game. However unlike a board game there was no defined turn structure, so more vocal/forceful players could command attention for longer and dominate the direction of the party. I tried to keep the combats fair in terms of actions, but player-player resource negotiation and strategy discussion spilled over into other parts of the game and made for multiple conversations. Player-player strategy discussions happened during player-GM tactical/scene discussions, and confused things a bit. 

DRYH will see repeat plays; additionally it’s made me think about other d6-as-resource games. Mobile Frame Zero is another one. Hollowpoint could also be considered the same, since the pools remain on the table and may be later adjusted by burning Traits. By extension, Sorcerer has similar features.

I am less sure about LotFP. It’s fiddly, the most fun parts–the magic system–emerge over campaigns and require familiarity with OSR tropes (Vancian casting, etc). A large part of the system is rewards and level gains, which aren’t really suitable for one-off games. Still, it could see repeat use.

  1. This is the year a lot of us turned 40!

Saturday, 9 March 2013

City Accelerator part 9: Sunder

Previous examples of the City Accelerator were just made up for demonstration purposes. Here I’m going to try to use a real game I am running as a worked example.

The game is called Sunder’s Children.

Sunder is a village at the edge of a Kingdom at war. Every year the Army comes to recruit the brave, the adventurous, and the ambitious to cross the Valley and do battle with the Foe. Glory and riches are promised to the returning heroes; horror and death to everyone else. The Children of Sunder compete for the Recruiter’s attention as a means to escape the drudgery of a farmer’s life.This year you were not picked, and watched your friends and family go off to war. Were you too weak? Too young? A coward?

The game will be about… farming.

Step One: Start Writing, Stupid

I got a stack of index cards, and started writing a heading on each card for the location. I wrote each location down as it came to mind. I didn’t worry about whether the location was out of place. I didn’t try to flesh the location out. I didn’t consider it in geographic space, although some of the cards include compass points in the description. I just tried to keep writing locations until I ran out of ideas.

The Mill

Here’s the thing about brainstorming: at some point, you will run out of ideas. This is a natural part of the process. You can then do one of two things–push through the mental block and continue to write crap until you write something decent, or take a pause for an overview and identify gaps or areas that deserve more detail.

I did a combination of both. First, it took me about 5 minutes to make around 30 cards–locations ranging from the scary woods at the edge of the village, to those key locations at the centre of the village.

Once I’d ran out of steam, I gathered them into Districts.


Step Two: Assemble Into Districts

To make more progress I needed to have an overview. The second stage was to gather my cards into Districts. That terminology doesn’t quite work outside of a city, but I’ll keep it for now.

I decided the first District would be the village centre; the second would be the area to the West of the village that included the mysterious territory of the Enemy; then eight more, one for each farmstead. Lastly I grouped Everything Outside The Village as one District–this included everything from the nearby lakes and mountains to the closest large town and the Capital itself. Yes, they’re all in completely different locations–but from a villager’s point of view, they’re all equally distant and therefore can be lumped together.

Districts Assembled

Many of the locations are farming locations–I simply stacked those into different farmsteads. Now, the emphasis of the tool is identify the important bits. If I mention the onion patch of one farm, it doesn’t mean none of the other farms have onion patches–it just means that this particular onion patch is important. This is important in the next step…

Step Three: Fill In Blanks

My village isn’t done yet. There are an awful lot of farmhouses an no actual farms. I go back to Step One and Start Writing again.

The difference is this time, I know what framework I’m working to. This focuses my attention. I write more Farm locations. Then the village centre looks a bit sparse, so I think of other locations there. Then I think about the surrounding area some more. Gradually I produce more cards and fatten up those District stacks.


At some point I think I have enough. I might add a card here or there later, but for now it’s starting to feel like a community. I could run a game here. What I need now is…

Step Four: Make Maps (Like Crazy)

Optional, but probably useful. I considered Everything Outside The Village beyond the boundary of the paper. This at least gives me an idea of where different farms are.


Step Five: Numbers

I have several stacks of cards. I now need to decide on their Priorities. My approach was a lot like Step One–I didn’t think too long about the numbers I applied, simply went with my gut feeling on what the numbers should be.


This was the most time consuming part, because it involved drawing a lot of straight lines:


Very satisfying.

Step Six: Summary Table

Once I’d rated each card, I summarised them by District.

Table Blurred

I’ve blurred out the names of the locations in case any future players read this (unlikely, but hey). The table lets me see at a glance which aspects are dominant in which district.

Last Words

This is the first time I’ve used the tool in anger. What do I have to show for my efforts?

  1. I have a framework in which to base my game. If players move to a location, I have a stack of cards at hand for the areas they can explore. Naturally some areas will be more complex than others–fields will occupy a much greater area than houses, and houses will have more individual parts compared to fields. I don’t feel the need to map out my houses. What matters is that players know the house is there, and the field is there.
  2. For each location I have a priority. This means I know that when a player enters the area, they will be immediately affected by either Tension, Domain, Catalyst or Portal.
  3. By tabulating the priorities by District, I know the tone of each District. Some are highly controlling, while others are chaotic. Some are laden with clues while others are just a gauntlet for the PCs to run.

There are still a few unknowns, however. Foremost in my mind: I don’t know if the four criteria I picked are going to remain equally useful. Already in the numbers I can see a bias against the Portal axis. Is this just a consequence of this game, or a general indication that it’s not so useful?

A final comment. Although I have a general plot/scenario worked out, I have no specific encounter-by-location established yet. That’s for this tool to help me fill out. I have a general idea of the game’s direction, and what I want to achieve with this tool is a decent fleshing out of detail, establishing side plots, and so forth. That’s what the numbers should do–tell me where the clues are, where the fights are, where the powerful people are, where the mystery is.

About People


p>Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World is all about the people. He also says you should make maps like crazy. I totally agree.

In AW the structure is the people; the maps that are drawn are a consequence of the emergent story, but what matters is how the PCs relate to the NPCs.

My approach has been location-centric rather than people centric. There’s no-one living in my village yet (aside from family names). That’s OK. In this case, people are a consequence of locations. This is not denying NPC agency, but it is a reality of a fictional world: people are found in the areas where the action is, and become part of the story. You can start with the people, or you can start with the world. The two are intrinsically linked.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

CIty Accelerator pt 8: Area Knowledge

I’ve always had trouble with Area Knowledge and Streetwise skills. What do they represent? What is the benefit of a successful roll? What’s the consequence of failure?

For GURPS I guess they’re supposed to work like this. In Storyteller games, goodness knows. Streetwise is a weird hybrid of savoir faire, larceny, situational awareness and familiarity with the locale. Ah, well. We know that the five-dots-fits-all of the WW games is just for show; no-one takes it seriously, do they?

The problem with all of these nebulous skills (like Contacts, Allies, Influence, Area Knowledge) is that they rarely require any stake, have no underlying mechanism, and rely on GM judgement calls. They’re a lottery; their value is subjective and reliant on GM-player relationship and are entirely at the mercy of the GM’s sense of fair play. 

I prefer Area Knowledge to be a consequence of a chosen lifepath (“Back when I was picking beans in Guatemala, we used to make fresh coffee, right off the trees I mean.”). It should be colour used to illustrate aquired skills, rather than skill in its own right. I’m going to discuss how to use the City Accelerator to generate interesting personal histories. But before that, let’s consider:

The View from the Outside

If you’re beginning a game outside a city and bringing the PCs to it, all you need to know is what Locations they can see from the outside. You don’t need to worry about grouping anything into Districts yet (although if you want to, go ahead).

What you need to consider is – what can they actually see? – what have they heard about? – what do they actually know is there?

If someone were looking at my city from the outside, they might see airships, a couple of prominent towers, a large wall surrounding the city with a gate, armed guards outside the city, a palace, gun emplacements, several canals passing into the city carrying commercial barges, and so on.

Of course, that’s what they can see. They can infer the presence of an airfield, and they can assume houses, taverns, sewers and so on. But one of the aims of this tool is to avoid the distracting ephemera that crops up with city design–so unless you plan to do something exciting with the sewer (and who doesn’t love a sewer) don’t bother writing a card for it. Let them assume.

Those are the features they can see. On the next tier are the places they’ve heard of, but (as first-time visitors) have never seen. If something is important enough to be in a guide book (“see the moon-pool at N’dregh, where the milk-fed boys dance and are devoured by captive sheep-dragons!”) then it might deserve a card. Again, no need to group that detail into a District.

I’ve Seen Things You Wouldn’t Believe

Let’s say your game starts in a city that’s home to the PCs. They are not external observers; they’ve lived there, and know all the places that aren’t in the guide book.

The obvious problem is getting your players to agree on what the city looks like, which will vary based on their PCs’ respective experience growing up (or passing through).

Well, no problem. Firstly, PCs should have different perspectives, and secondly this tool is here to help. Start from the perspective of an outsider: what are the features and landmarks that everyone knows? Lay the cards out on the table so all your players can see. Draw a map if it helps everyone get a sense of scale and relative position. Let the players look through the stacks.

At the start of the game, or when the party are visiting a new city (or town, or other environment), do this:

  1. The GM lays down the cards for The View From Outside in front of the players. This includes everything they could see as an external observer, and all the landmarks inside they may have heard of. It does not need to include all the Districts (or even any of them).
  2. Each player mentions a place in the city that their PC knows. If it’s in a stack, great. If not, they write it down on a new card. That card goes in front of them.
  3. Go around the table three or four times until each player has that many cards in front of them.
  4. You’re relying on your players to be honest. If their PC has never been here before, they can knock on the table and pass.
  5. You’ll have a new stack of cards; at some point you’ll file them into the stacks of your city. For now you might want to mark them on the front with each PC’s name. Also for a final check, you could ask around the table if anyone else in the party also has experienced that Location.

There–that wasn’t hard, eh? Some parties are full of players who love to write screeds of background, and then expect you to build it into your game. Well, you should, if they’re going to that sort of trouble. However managing all of that creative work alone as a series of GM to player relationships is hard. Much better to get everyone to talk about it at the same time, and manage it GM to party. Also you get a nice little metagame where the thesps in the group get to do some character exposition.

Of course, some background is secret knowledge to be kept from the other players. I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly want to conspire with one player against the rest of the group. That’s not how I roll. There’s a great bit of advice in the Burning Wheel Gold book on p.99:

“If you have a secret about your character, make a Belief about it. It seems counter-intuitive, but in order to make a secret work in this game, you have to tell everyone about it!”


p>And we’re not really asking them to give up secrets, per se. We’re asking them to be candid about the places they’ve been. If the other players infer something about that character as a result, well that’s great!

And the best part of this exercise–you’ve taken your player’s creative energies and embedded them into your world in a very tangiable fashion that the other players can touch. And they’ve done the work, not you. Hurrah!

There are plenty of variants on this exercise. At character generation, you could give each player a stack of 10 cards and ask them to write down 10 interesting locations their PC has seen. If you’re playing Burning Wheel, make it a rule that each player owes you 5 locations for every Lifepath stage their PC has.

This shouldn’t be hard. We’re not asking the players to come up with back plot involving people, events and outcomes, just all of the interesting, marvelous places they’ve seen. They can be broad like a mercenary who’s seen a dozen campaigns in as many countries, or deep like a mage who knows every book and brick in the Great Library that’s been her home for four decades.


City Accelerator pt 7: Sustained Creation

Say you’ve got a bunch of cards, stacked into Districts as the product of an afternoon’s planning (and possibly drinking). What next?

OK, back up a second. Let’s define a District:

A District is a discrete collection of Locations, with defined Entry and Exit Points.

(On that nomenclature: if you don’t like the word District, feel free to use a synonym like Sector, Quarter, Cluster and so on.)

Taking that a bit further, a District has its own mood, current affairs, events, themes and so on. Yes, many of those may spill out into other parts of the city, kingdom, continent, whatever… but the District is where it begins, and where the PCs will come into contact with that mood, those people, those catalytic events.

Therefore, a transition between Districts must be accompanied by a change in mood and tone that the players notice. You may laugh that the players could be so oblivious (“we’re in the sewers? What happened to the Cathedral?”) but I have both been that player and GMd that party.

(If you haven’t guessed already, this tool is all about stating the obvious. Never underestimate the power of stating the obvious.)

A District has defined Entry and Exit Points because even when it’s easy to travel between Districts, it should not be trivial. At the very least time passes, money is spent, Travel Fatigue rolls are made, etc.


Those Entry and Exit Points are where the Portal attributes come in. 

Portals are either barriers or signposts. Either way they mark a threshold between one District and another.

In Part 6 I ranked the 6 locations in the City Centre. Three of the location cards were ranked 3 or 4 for Portal:

  • Rooftops
  • Zeppelin Mooring
  • The Senate

I ignore the locations ranked 1 and 2–they probably go somewhere, but it’s unlikely to be important to the game or the players, or particularly visible. It is important that the players know that the three top-ranked locations go somewhere.

I already decided that the Rooftops go to the Lorms district. It’s not a stretch to define the other two:

  1. The airfield links to other parts of the empire, via The City Airspace.
  2. The Senate links to its Interior.

Both of these are considered their own District, with their own Mood, Tensions and so on. Neither needs to be more than one location, although I could expand the City Airspace according to compass points, to help map the air with the surrounding terrain. This might matter in the future if the PCs choose to leave the city via zeppelin, but for now it doesn’t need further exposition.

(another interesting point; it may be necessary to consider Districts within Districts for, say, the interior of a large zeppelin travelling in a particular direction. Something for another time.)

I’ll set aside those two locations and focus on Lorms for now. But before I go on, there’s something very obvious missing in the City Centre–the Streets.

Whoops, I should have spotted that.

Well, GMs are human after all. Sooner or later–and probably during play, helpfully pointed out by your players–you’ll realise a gaping hole in your city. Don’t worry. The whole point of this tool is to focus on what’s important for the world and the game and not worry about details that may never come up. But now we’ve decided the Streets are important, it’s trivial to add a card for them.

The Streets are a location like any other–if you’re in that District, you can enter and exit that Location freely. I give them a Portal 4, Domain 2, Tension 3 and Catalyst 1; Tension is ranked highly due to a strong civillian crowd anticipating a state execution.

Clearly the Streets need to lead somewhere. In fact they form the foundation of the city’s infrastructure, and will have equivalents in all Districts. I’ll discuss that later.


Locations in Lorms (from Part 5):

  1. Abbatoir
  2. Slums
  3. Graveyard
  4. Police Station
  5. Barracks and Prison
  6. Catacombs
  7. Rooftops (Lorms)
  8. Streets (Lorms)
I went through each location and assigned axes as I saw fit, then put the lot in a table:

Lorms  Catalyst  Tension  Domain  Portal 
Abbatoir 2 4 3
Slums 3 4
Graveyard  1 4 3 2
Police Station 3 4
Barracks and Prison 3 4
Catacombs 2 3 4
Rooftops (Lorms) 1 4 2 3
Streets (Lorms) 1 4 3

It’s a bit heavy on the Domain side, but that probably only represents two or three power groups at best–the Law will be concentrated in the Police Station and Prison, and organised crime will be found in the Abbatoir and Slums. As for the Graveyard… that’s something else.

The defined Entry and Exit points for Lorms (locations we have ranked 3 or 4 in Portal) are:

  1. Abbatoir
  2. Catacombs
  3. Rooftops (Lorms)
  4. Streets (Lorms)

According to the earlier scheme, a ranking of 4 indicates something the PCs must react to if they enter the location, and a ranking of 3 indicates something if they go looking for it. With that in mind the Catacombs must be something big and obvious. A big under-city populated by the undead is a massive cliche, but I like it anyway. I decide to rip off Thief: The Dark Project and have the Catacombs lead to the haunted Old Quarter of the city. In my original shotgun list I had a card called “Hall of Shadows”. Until now I didn’t have a clear idea of what this location is or does, but if it fits anywhere in the City it fits here. I add the Hall of Shadows to a new stack called “Old Quarter” and call it done for now.

With the high incidence of organised crime in this District, the Abbatoir makes a good front for a criminal gang. However while Lorms is a haven for violent opportunistic crime, organised crime is something different. If the PCs look they’ll find the true criminals hidden away, but they’ll also be entering a different District where the rules and the mood are different. I call this “Lorms Underworld” and create a new stack. This is the place that the Police don’t go.

Here’s where it gets slightly complicated. Lorms Underworld effectively overlaps Lorms in space; however the locations in Lorms Underworld aren’t normally visible in Lorms because they’re nondescript areas used to hide criminal activities. PCs enter the Underworld by aquiring membership or familiarity with the criminal element; at that point the Underworld locations are revealed. If you’re running a police procedural game in this city then at some point you’re going to amalgamate the Lorms Underworld with the rest of Lorms. But early in the plot, you will want to keep them separate.

Now we need to consider the Streets and Rooftops. It looks like this city does have a rooftop “Thieves’ Highway” in addition to the streets; availabiliy of Rooftop locations will depend on how closely spaced buildings are. It also begs another question–what new Districts can be linked to the Rooftops and not to the Streets? Just for the hell of it, I think of a new District location called “Sky Shanty” and write a card for it; this will be a community of scavengers living in dwellings suspended above the forbidden Old Quarter.

Filling in Blanks

At some point the Shotgun creativity phase will no longer be enough to hold the City together. So far I’ve been thinking of cool locations in isolation, but gradually I’ve moved to thinking about whole Districts. This is expected for the creative process–after you’ve created a few Districts you start to think not about the City as a whole, and what it lacks. Commerce. Rich People. Poor People. Transport. Entertainment.

I know instinctively that my City needs a Merchant quarter and a Noble quarter. Maybe it has an Industrial quarter as well. That’s fine; I’ll start off stacks for each of them. However, I will resist the temptation to populate them for the sake of it. This tool is all about economy of effort. If the PCs are never going to the Docks then you don’t need locations for the Docks; it’s enough to tell them that yes, there is a Merchant Quarter in the city and the bustling docks are visible on the south side. Until the plot requires it, don’t put too much effort in.


“Make maps like crazy” is good advice. At some point you need to make sense of your new creation in 3d space. Maps help with a lot of things–from identifying blanks to drawing attention to dominant forces.

Here’s my map. It took all of five minutes (don’t get your hopes up).

Rough Map

And here’s my stacks:


OK, it’s not exactly pretty, but I’m getting a feel for this place. Lorms is a big sprawling mess on the east side of the city, embarassingly close to the centre, a hive of scum and villainy built on the haunted ruins of the Old Quarter. On the other side are the nice shiny houses of the Noble quarter. Jolly good.

More City Growth


p>Cities will grow according to the needs of the players as their PCs explore. The reasons for that exploration are usually plot driven (and by this I assume there are catalysts that the players have noticed and are following, rather than just railroading) but could be curiosity, conquest and so on.

The examples above are of pre-session prep, focusing on the geography of the city; as a result, they make use of the Portal attribute for growth and development. But that isn’t necessarily the only approach.

You could grow your city according to plot drive. For example, the PCs find a clue (catalyst) on the rooftops near the Senate building points to the Opera House. The development of the Opera House’s District is a consequence of the needs of the plot. You don’t need much more to run a scene in the Opera House itself, but it will probably help to at least name the District it sits in, and add a Streets location as an Entry/Exit point. But that’s all you need to do.

Similarly the players may focus on Domains (where are the powerful people) or even Tensions (where is the action) for exploration. They aren’t concerned with geography so much. But to help you to visualise your city and to make it real to the players it will help to name the District and to provide at least one Entry/Exit point.

If there is one certainty it’s that no matter how much prep you do, your players will find a way to ignore your carefully prepared world and explore the uncharted territory. That’s why obsessing over minutae of a District when you don’t really care or plan to run a game in that District is a waste of time. Until the players care, it’s not worth bothering about too much. And since you’re going to be on the defensive at some point regarding your city design, it’s good to get some practice. Next time I’ll talk about reacting to player creativity and exploration.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

City Accelerator, part Six: Adding the Axes

Now I have a couple of Districts, it’s time to turn them into the first chapter of my game.

I’m going to consider the City Centre. It comprises six locations:

  1. Snake-headed statue
    2. Zeppelin Mooring
    3. Solar Collector
    4. Artillery Battery
    5. The Senate
    6. Rooftops

Of course, I wouldn’t itemise it like that to the players–I’d say something like

“You’re in the airfield at the centre of the Capital of your glorious Republic. Zeppelins small and large alight and depart in complicated patterns, carrying travellers from far away on business and pleasure. Sunlight glints off the artillery batteries which are dotted over the city and protect against aerial attack. The plaza is overlooked by the Senate building, including its curious monument of a snake-headed statue, and the Solar Chamber used for state executions and suicides.”

How much exposition you use is up to you–perhaps you’ll wait for the PCs to ask “what do I see?” Perhaps you’ll give a long diatribe on the history of the statue. That’s up to you. Whatever happens the different locations (with exception of the rooftops) are clearly indicated, there aren’t too many of them, and they’re all accessible to the PCs if they want to investigate. Of course if there’s a sudden change about to happen, that may divert attention away from the scene–which is another reason not to over-work the location.

I didn’t mention the rooftops. Why? Well, they’re commonplace, but also I don’t want to draw attention to them right now. Of course if I had a particularly paranoid character who tended to look up for danger I’d let them–I might even allow them onto the roof if they can make a case for action. That could change the entire course of the plot–which is a good thing! It would be dishonest to the players if I deliberately omitted something that was unusual and obvious, but I think omitting details like rooves, doors, and maybe trapdoors (if they’re hidden) is fair game. Make the players ask at least a few questions, but don’t be dishonest.

I digress. This isn’t meant to be a discourse on scene presentation. There are plenty of good RPGs that do that already. Back to the tools.


Now we have one District broken down into six mangageable Locations, it’s time to apply some numbers. These will determine the relevance of each location and what the PCs can do there. To recap, there are four axes:

  • Catalyst: clues, plot hooks
  • Domain: people and power groups
  • Tension: events unfolding, emotions and conflict
  • Portal: gateways to other areas

Accelerator ranked

Without spending too much time thinking about each location, I rank the axes from four down to one (with four being highest priority). Four means something that definitely will be seen or experienced by the players if they go there; one means nothing to see.


I go for this one first. Immediately rank Catalyst 4 (there’s a clue here, if the players look). Portal is ranked 3 (the Rooftops connect to every other District in the city). Tension is 2 (if the PCs go here there’s a minor risk of peril from falling, etc). Domain is 1 (there’s no-one of consequence.

This all ties in with my Assassin plot: the shooter appears on the roof, kills someone, and makes an exit. I haven’t decided who that is yet (but of course with the proximity to the Senate they’re bound to be important).

I could have made Tension the highest ranked; this would be appropriate if the PCs were able to effect any change in the conflict. But since I chose low Tension, high Catalyst, they can’t–they’re not even aware of the shooter until the shot is made.

Snake-Headed Statue

I ranked this one Domain 4. There’s someone powerful here. Possibly the Snake represents foreign soil, or something powerful is sleeping within. Next comes Catalyst at 3. There’s a plot here, if the PCs want to explore it. Since it’s not ranked 4 the PCs won’t automatically uncover it, but they may get some interesting clues. Tension is 2 (there’s a minor threat, possibly if the PCs are spotted snooping by the wrong people) and Portal is 1 (it’s in the middle of the plaza, so doesn’t go anywhere).

Artillery Battery

This one’s Domain 4 as well, because of the strong military presence. Tension is 3, on account of them being on alert for some reason; if the PCs get on the wrong side of them, they could be landed in jail or worse. Portal is 2 since the guns represent a transition between the City Centre and a military prison, although that’s unlikely to happen. There’s no clue here, so Catalyst is 1.

Zeppelin Mooring

The Portal is 4–jump on a Zeppelin and you could go anywhere! Tension is high at 3, and I decide it’s for the same reason that the military are on edge–although the civillian ground crews have not been given the same reason as the military for heightened security. Domain is 2 (there are air crews everywhere, but unlikely to stop the PCs if they nose around). Catalyst is 1.

The Senate

Portal is 4–this represents a transition from the outside into the secret political world. Something is going to happen that will transport the PCs from the world they know into one they don’t. The Domain is understandably high at 3 with all of those powerful people around. Tension is 2 (there are stirrings but probably only foreshadowing). Catalyst is 1.

The Solar Collector

Domain is 4 here. The Collector represents Law and Justice. Tension is 3–someone is about to be executed. Catalyst is 2, and Portal is 1 (again, it’s in the middle of nowhere).


City Centre and Airfield  Catalyst  Tension  Domain  Portal 
Rooftops 4 2 1 3
Snake-Headed Statue 3 2 4 1
Artillery Battery 1 3 4 2
Zeppelin Mooring 1 3 2 4
The Senate 1 2 3 4
The Solar Collector 2 3 4 1

Hilighting the 4 and 3 ranks gives some useful information. First, Domain is very strong in this area–displays of authority and law, more than one power group is directly involved with whatever plot happens.

Second, Portal is strong. This area stands on the threshold of several other important locations. It’s possible that the PCs will be drawn back to this location again and again, simply because they are passing through.

Third, Tension is not Mandatory. In other words, there’s definitely something going on but it doesn’t directly involve the PCs unless they stick their noses in.

Catalyst is poorly represented, but that’s OK–if this is the start of the campaign then a couple of clear leads will be nice to get things rolling without swamping the party in information.

That’s Nice, How Do I Use It?

1. Stick to your numbers and play them out

To paraphrase Vincent Baker, if you do it, you do it. You’ve decided on the rankings, now think of how those elements make themselves felt to the PCs. Things which will impose themselves on the scene without PC intervention are

  • Various factions being present (with accompanying tension) and directly interacting with the PCs;
  • The fact that the airfield connects to both politics and travel; even if the PCs aren’t travelling, you can bring a flavour of the exotic with travellers appearing before them;
  • Someone or something is going to make their presence felt from the roof.

Things which will also be apparent if the PCs stick their noses in are:

  • There’s a lot of tension, and the PCs could land themselves in trouble but only if they go looking for it
  • There’s something about the statue, if they want to look
  • The rooftops go somewhere, if they choose to go there.

Or to put it another way, PCs take a reactive role against rankings of 4, and a proactive role (if they choose) for rankings of 3.

2. Separate Flavour from Action

Hopefully the locations and their rankings will make it easy to separate action from fluff. It should be clear than a Tension 1 or 2 will be merely some general disquiet or complaints which will quickly cave to PC pressure; however at Tension 3 if the PCs exert pressure on the location it will push back with real consequences, and at Tension 4 the location will exert pressure on the PCs as soon as they enter.

3. Mark on the Map

These locations you’ve designed are now set. They are features that you can and should return to in later sessions. Hang on to the cards. If it helps, draw a rough map of how the districts connect and mark on your individual locations.

4. Evolve

Those numbers that you gave–they can change, up or down. Some of them can go higher than 4. When a party comes back to the Senate, suddenly its Domain has gone way down (as it opens its doors to the adventuring hoi polloi) and the Catalyst has gone up. But that’s for another discussion.

What Next?

From here I got the environment for my first session; I also got some ideas on what will actually happen. Here are a few:

  • A convicted political prisoner has been transported to the City for public execution. (Who are they to merit such a massive show of force? Why are tensions so high? Why must the execution be conducted quickly?)
  • Members of a political faction are meeting in the shadow of the Statue. (Why did they pick that spot? Who are they in relation to the establishment–enemies, spies, secret police? What information are they sharing?)
  • A lone sniper oversees the plaza during the events. (Who does she kill?)


p>This tool started off as a way for the GM to dump their brain and focus down on the important stuff. Like Mind Mapping, Mandala Charts and other techniques, this tool should be great at starting ideas. But I always found Mind Maps to be bad at sustaining creative activity; they’re great for an hour of intense thought but when coming back to them I’ve had a tendency to repeat the ideas I’ve already had, rather than springboard off existing ones.

So, for this tool I want to close that gap. I want to be able to build and sustain the city as a place where stuff happens; at the same time I want to maximise visibility of the locations for the players. The next instalment will deal with sustaining the City creation.