Thursday, 10 August 2017

RPG Backwards Look: Daytrippers Core

I’m posting this today for a couple of reasons.

First, today’s #RPGaDay 2017 question is “Where do you go for RPG reviews?”.

Second and more important AsIf Productions the author and publisher of DayTrippers whose primary job is in web development has been struggling to get new clients and sent out a general message to the RPG community about the kind of services they can provide, and I want to boost the signal.

So, if you’re looking to hire a web developer they do small business sites as well as solutions for larger business, and they’re available for freelance writing and editing. Have a look at their website.

If you like the sound of the game you can support them by buying their books, or via Patreon donations for their ongoing content. Go to the DayTrippers RPG site for more information. They sell their content on a range of platforms including DriveThruRPG and RPGNow, where you can also order print copies.

Having read the core rules I’m going to pick up Golden Age Adventures which includes not only 16 adventures, but the fiction that inspired them (Jack Vance, Philip K. Dick and others) and sounds like a great deal.

Now, onto the post.


I am a terrible RPG reader, for the following reasons:

  1. Signal to noise. I have so many pdfs (impulse purchases, Bundles of Holding, etc.) that they all blur into one.
  2. Heuristics and bias. I’ve read a lot of RPGs and when I scan a book and mentally sort the sections into fluff, system, examples, adventures; then I’ll scan each section looking for familiar frameworks. This means I don’t read in detail, and instead make assumptions about the content of the bits I haven’t read yet.

I think my first read-through of DayTrippers core went like this:

“OK, a fluff section. I know how that works, I’ll come back to that later.”

“OK, a point-buy character generation bit. I know how that works, I’ll come back to that later.”

“OK, the combat section. Yeah yeah, I’ll come back to that later.”

“OK, bits on taking damage, vehicular combat, etc.”

“Oooh! Vector slipping. I’ll definitely come back to that later.”

“Dream worlds… survival suits… slipships… right. I’ll need to come back to those later.”

“Oh! And a mission section. That’s probably going to be useful. I’ll come back to that later, after I’ve read all the other bits I said I would come back to later. After I make dinner.”

The second time I read through I took a leaf out of Baz’s book and started reading from the back, which is a great technique because the first place you hit (skipping over appendices) will usually be a scenario or mission, and barring an actual demo play session that’s the place where you get the best first impression of how a game should play.

(this way you also get a good look at the character sheets first. They’re the windows into the soul of an RPG; a bad sheet won’t necessarily kill your enthusiasm but a good one certainly whets the appetite. Take a look at the sheet for Lacuna Part 1, or the toe-tag sheet for Hollowpoint)

DayTrippers, back to front

Here’s what we know from the website:

The time is shortly after the year 2100, the location is the first world. Massive megacorporations dominate the economic landscape and incredible advances in technology make the most miraculous things possible, from genetic modification to medical nanotechnology and microfusion power generators. But the most earth-shaking development of the 21st century is one we’re just beginning to see the ramifications of: As the 22nd century enters its second decade, the inner and outer realities of SlipSpace are opening up to human exploration. The Slip Capacitor, based on the groundbreaking work of Zayim Diaspora, is an amazing device that allows travel to other dimensions in vehicles known as Slipships. The bold explorers who pilot these vehicles face a multiverse of physical and psychological dangers to bring back priceless knowledge and powerful artifacts from far-flung dimensions and other realities. They’re called DayTrippers, and you’re one of them.

Now, content.

Mission Types (p37-39)

First, a taxonomy of mission types. From this we know that the characters will be taken out of their base, home or comfort zone and participate in an adventure: exploration, rescue, fact-finding, making diplomatic contact, etc.

Next, we find out that each mission type has a clearance level and the PC’s SlipShip (whether their own or borrowed) must be up to the mission. This is a nice way of gatekeeping or power-capping the adventure, or signposting the clearence level (Paranoia-style).

More tables and bullet points follow for different choices: the Node type, the Opposition, any Perks they get before the mission, Rewards, and Complications. Several of these are rolled beforehand. This looks like something right out of Sine Nomine’s offerings with a breadth of choice and random results, so I’m already loving it. Round that off with a sequence of scenes, from downtime accepting the mission, challenges, climax and return home.

Overall impression: this is a game with a strong format of mission, promise of reward, excursion and return. I already want to play it. Next!

Slipship construction (p32-35)

OK, we know that Slipships are important for getting about. They have a capacity, components, amenities, tonnage… I don’t feel the need to go into this now but I am interested that the ship is being created like a PC (it has its own character sheet). Possibly there’s shared ownership in mind — something I really liked in the point-buy base of operations in the Conspiracy X 2.0 (Unisystem) game.

I have one gripe with the ship sheet. Since I peeked ahead and know that the survival suit consumes kilowatts, does the Slipship really only consume milliwatts? I assume it should be MW not mW on the sheet. Unless of course there’s some Grant Morrison / In The Night Garden trickery with micro and macro-scale universes. In which case, having the power consumption of your encounter suit be one million times that of your Slipship is an interesting technical point.

Experience Points (p30-31)

A workmanlike section but very clear on what you get XP for and what you can spend them on (stats, skills, drama tokens if you use them, inventions, luxuries, fame, etc.). The most interesting part is the tracking of Total Character Value, XP Spent and XP Available. Why track both XP Total and XP Available? I’m hoping the answer is interesting.

Your Automated Survival Suit (p29)

Here’s what we know about the game from this section:

  • DayTripping is dangerous enough to need a suit
  • The suit has limited power: you get 100 kW from a full charge, and expend 1 kW doing certain tasks.

The scale is interesting because with 100 points to play with, people are less likely to quibble over spending a point here and there at the start — but the steady tick tick tick of the power meter going down will likely force some harder resource choices later into the game as the climax approaches.

Vector Slipping (p26-28)

This is the method of travelling to all different “Slip Nodes” in the multidimensional maestrom of the “Multiversal Chao”. OK. What we really have is a set of difficulties for travelling to different kinds of nodes (alt. Earth, Time Travel, Dream Worlds, etc.). There are consequences for failure, for missing the “Slip Window” and so on. There’s a whole page on Dream Worlds.

What this bit tells me is that this game is about travelling from a society that has somehow broken the barriers between many different levels of alternate existence; and that they probably lump different concepts of other times, other Earths, dreams, other planets all into one single category; as far as the DayTripping society of the 22nd century is concerned all of these can be written onto the same topological map provided the sheet of paper is big enough.

It’s also clear that the easiest jumps are the ones closest to home — alt Earths, time travel and known planets.

This gave me a few ideas already. All slips are conceptually the same but depending on classification, some may be locked down — depending on how the game world is run (corporations? A multiversal hegemony?). This also reminded me of the hyperspace navigation in Delany’s Babel 17 and the multiple gated realities of Ian McDonald’s Everness series.

Actions, Combat, Helping, Healing, Vehicles (p18-25)

This bit is the standard middle chunk of a RPG — a mix of rules for different circumstances, starting with taking actions. All you need to know is there are difficulty levels, you roll a bunch of dice and pick the highest, and there are a range of results depending on whether you make or miss the result. For example it matters if you hit your number exactly, miss or hit by 1 or more than 1. This granularity feels a lot like the results in FATE or Unisystem BUT I think I like the dice rolling here a lot more since it’s regular D6.

I particularly like the opposed rolling in theory with the “Yes, BUT”, “NO, and” style of results, and because the numbers are low the cognitive overhead shouldn’t be too bad. Everything else seems to work just like any other trad RPG — setting stakes before rolling the dice, interpreting afterwards. I’d need to play through it to see how smooth or crunchy it is.

Character Development (p14-17)

This is the bit that comes directly after Character Building but it’s frankly way more interesting; character generation is a hump that players just go through and this one, while simple, is still point-buy with options. More on that in a moment.

This bit looks very interesting because it talks about what happens to your PC during play. “Progressive Character Generation” is used to let the players “wear” their PC and defer actual backstory until later, by holding back Character Points to retroactively spend.

“LifeShaping” is a mechanism to mark dramatic character development, including motivations, personal problems, relationships, etc. I like the concept although I’m not entirely clear on the in-game process; nor am I clear on how (if) these relate to the once-per-session Character Development Scenes.

I guess this is partly where the claimed OSR-Narrative hybridisation comes in, and for me it provides opportunities for narrative expression of the PCs without stepping into the narrative-shaping role of the GM.

Character Building (p8-13)

This is another workmanlike section of point-buy setup, and it’s necessary but to be honest, this is an overhead I have to pay both to learn and play the game, rather than a bit I actually enjoy. I’m glad I read the book backwards. All I can say is there are lots of options for flexible skills, packages of skills and experience (“class advances”) etc. It’s not too crunchy.

I do like the way that skills are written on the same line as the Stat they apply to — this helps parsing the character sheet a lot.

The World of DayTrippers (p6-7)

Here we learn that the big movers and shakers of the 22nd century are corporate (rather than national/political) and the one thing they have in common is the disruptive technology that allows people to the Nodes. This is an important SF conceit — an extrapolated future based on a single scientific advance. The world is otherwise a blank canvas — there’s a half-page devoted to bullet points of technologies which might be available, but it’s up to you. The best description we get is the overview:

The world of DayTrippers is kinda dull, stupid and ridiculous, punctuated by spectacle, festooned with advertising and dripping with irony. It’s a place of technological progress and rampant global capitalism, complete with continuous media charades and enormous social inequity, somewhere between “2001” and “Idiocracy”.

This is followed by a laundry list of corporations. It doesn’t really matter who or what they are; as we’ve learned (by reading later sections) all that matters is you go on missions in slipships, those ships may be party- or corporate-owned, and the missions have classifications, and the people paying you to travel are mercenary capitalists.

The Introduction (p2-5)

Finally, the fiction which tells you how the world came to be the way it was. It serves its purpose; the most interesting bit is at the end where we read about SlipSpace and the five different kinds of slips (Cartesian, Paraterran, Temporal, Subjective and Compound) which map onto five kinds of Vector Slipping.

Final Remarks

DayTrippers feels weird and goofy, and not at all serious, and I’m not sure why that is — maybe it’s the New Wave SF surrealist sensibilities or the apparently disposable mission-based approach. Once I’m over that I can see a lot of depth and potential to be both superficial and lighthearted, or serious and deep. It could be a comedic franchised exploration company, contracting out to corporate clients a la Ghostbusters or InSpectres. It could be a serious, military SF style game if you replace the corporations with a military chain of command; it could take a conspiratorial tone if certain Nodes were classified or forbidden. I could see a mission focused game, or a sandbox where the PCs hire themselves to the highest bidder. I could see a game where the downtime drama scenes become as important as the missions.

By limiting the kinds of nodes you can tune the conceptual boundaries to make a game that’s only about alternate Earths, or space travel, or time travel, etc. And by tuning the power levels of the characters you could expand the scope further — I might fancy playing a superhero game like Planetary or Zenith (Phase III), sending supers to fictional universes using a fiction suit, or the Omnihedron’s alternate earths via. an Einstein-Rosen bridge. You can probably tell this is right up my street.

I can’t say what the system will be like yet, but it deserves a fair shout; the scale of results, the use of d6, the attrition of resources and the yes/and/no/but approach all sound like a really nice balance of “narrative” and “trad” — but then that’s exactly how we’ve played for years. But if you really don’t fancy it there are conversion rules for d20, PbtA and percentile.

So in summary: this is a smart and interesting game with an intriguing system and a very strong, yet adaptable premise. It’s not too long, and it’s good value for money.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Primary Sources

At about 0:40 into Episode 70 of the Gauntlet there’s this quote concerning The Black Hack:

it seems to have taken a few things from other games… I saw a little bit of D&D 5e in there, I thought there was a touch of Torchbearer and Dungeon World in there as well…

It’s a throwaway remark and as such not really fair to second-guess the thought process behind it. At face value it suggests that TBH is maybe derivative of Dungeon World and Torchbearer; it makes more sense that all three are derivative of the same perceived root (namely the cartoon image of zero-to-hero dungeon exploration that continues to dog the OSR). Besides, what kind of masochist would write a game that’s derivative of Torchbearer?

These assumptions are made because

  1. Oral tradition and playing the game is and always will be the primary way the game is communicated
  2. The idea of only oral tradition isn’t really challenged, thanks to cultural inertia and confirmation bias.

Some hobbies are actively hostile to anyone who deviates from oral tradition. Western Martial Arts had this problem in the early years where to prove yourself you needed a credible line of succession — anyone who claimed to learn their art from a treatise alone was at best a poor cousin to those who’d paid their dues doing 3-weapon sport fencing (or if they were lucky, some living tradition like singlestick or classical foil). And no, it wasn’t enough that you’d spent two decades doing Wing Chun and used that to inform your style of 19th century boxing — if the living line from master to student was broken, you had to start over.

Anyway, here is a review of Elizabeth Lovegrove’s Rise and Fall:

This is a game that taps into the zeitgeist by exploring dystopias and fallen societies.  It’s clear that the author did their research, and have built on the excellent work of past designers including Ben Robbins (Microscope, Kingdom), and Caroline Hobbs (Downfall). The game uses rather elegant tools of world-building to present a clear story with minimal systems.

Of course I have my own bias here, but I was still a bit surprised by this bit… because I’d been aware of Liz’s design process not only for Rise and Fall but the traditional (i.e. GM-led) games that preceded it, and also her primary sources (e.g. Children of Men, The Handmaid’s Tale). All of which are literary, none are games.

In fact, when we were at the Nine Worlds con I picked up a copy of Ben Robbins’ Kingdom and waved it under her nose saying “I think this is a lot like that idea you had for your dystopian game! We should play it for research!” We still haven’t played it.

(also I believe the PDF release of Downfall was 30th November 2015 to Kickstarter backers, while Seven Wonders was launched at Dragonmeet in December 2015)

Does this matter?

It’s definitely useful to have someone enthusiastically say “like X? Try Y!”. The benefits of comparing The Black Hack to Dungeon World are both games acting as gateway experiences for two overlapping cultures.

But only focusing inward is a pernicious habit, meaning your genre expectations are set by secondary rather than primary sources. Say you only assume D&D is only about violent dungeon exploration and then you create derivative works that reinforce that stereotype. This further influences the third generation, and so on.

Not that you should be blindly worshipping at the altar of Appendix N, either. Appendix N has become shorthand for a similarly reductive kind of “D&D experience” (which I have opinions about here) and pigeonholes the whole gamut of OSR titles — when titles such as Beyond the Wall are open about their literary roots, roots which lie outside Appendix N (though interestingly lie within the broader reading list recommended by Moldvay D&D).

The assumptions of derivation rather than common literary root will continue to be a hazard of those games on the fringe. Take Silent Legions — a game which I feel represents the peak of Sine Nomine’s offerings, and is a masterful deconstruction of different kinds of horror. Even though it offers much more than Call of Cthulhu, it will always stand in CoC’s shadow — mainly for the assumption that it’s nothing more than “the OSR does Cthulhu”.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Fictoplasm

Let’s do this:

fictoplasm itunes 2

Fictoplasm is a podcast about fiction and roleplaying games. Each episode we talk about a book we like, then we talk about the games we’d like to run based on the ideas in the book — maybe picking up the setting wholesale, maybe just cherry-picking tropes and world-building bits.

The first episode discusses Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. Coming up is Garth Nix’ Sabriel, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, followed by some Le Guin, Moorcock, Zelazny, Christopher Priest, J. G. Ballard, Mary Gentle, Octavia Butler and more.

Baby wrangling means that our recording schedule will likely be erratic, and the first episodes will likely sound a bit ropey as we get the hang of room acoustics and Audacity. But, it’s a thing.

RSS feed: http://www.fictoplasm.net/feed/podcast

Site: http://www.fictoplasm.net

Friday, 20 May 2016

RPGs: Surviving Loneliness

I Am Legend

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

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

The Grace Period

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

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

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

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

Survivalist RPGs

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

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

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

Here are some typical examples:

All Flesh Must Be Eaten

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

Summerland

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

Other Dust

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

Apocalypse World

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

Survival Modes

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

Unknown Armies — madness meters

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

UA has five stress tracks:

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

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

The Black Hack — Usage Dice

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the Wall — making friends

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

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

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

Dream Askew — many GMs, one character

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

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

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

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

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

7 Ages of Magic

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

The seven ages are:

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

The graphic.

7 Magical Ages

1. Age of the Reclusive Sorcerer

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

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

Games: Wraith, Kult, Call of Cthulhu

2. Age of the Itinerant Sorcerer

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

Thematic Elements: magicians as deities, ages of myth

Games: Exalted, Stormbringer, Barbarians of Lemuria, Everway

3. Age of Folk Magic

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

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

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

4. Age of Regulation

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

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

Games: Ars Magica, Vampire, Runequest

5. Age of Revolution and Innovation

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

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

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

6. Age of Incorporation and Ignorance

Magic becomes commodity, weaponised, mass manufactured, disposable

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

Games: Cyberpunk, the Bret Easton Ellis RPG, Changeling

7. Age of Mistrust and Decline

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

Thematic Elements: the Apocalypse

Games: Apocalypse World, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Werewolf

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Preface: Demons

A preface to something…

What are demons to your game world?

  1. Representatives of an absolute, objective evil (Hellblazer)
  2. Ancient races who walked the earth aeons ago (Buffy)
  3. Extra-planar beings separated from our world by a metaphysical barrier (Moorcock/Stormbringer)
  4. A breach in consensus reality (Sorcerer)
  5. A manifestation of personal power or psyche (also Sorcerer, early Stormbringer RPG)

That list moves from objective to subjective; in the middle point you get some kind of hand-waving “other dimensions, too numerous to count, fluid reality” explanation.

Consider two axes — on one you move between an objective and consensus reality to a subjective one, and on the other you move between summoning (and bargaining with) something other to conjuring something from the self. For example:

Demons

Until next time.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Dystopocalypse

Idea: people mix up dystopian and post-apocalyptic genres for two reasons:

  1. the precedent for many dystopias is a collapse or near collapse and significant loss, and hierarchies are put in place to mitigate against a repeat event (erroneously, disingenuously, or earnestly). Terrible concessions are forced on a population, justified through fear of The Past.
  2. we wish the protagonists to survive on their own terms in both cases. Also, both concern the struggle to be human in a dehumanising environment.

Dystopia is about control, restriction of freedom, acceptance of hierarchy, acceptance of inequality, loopholes and technicalities, banal certainty of the future, the struggle to be human within a confining structure, and to escape society.

Post-apocalypse is about loss of control, loss of shelter, horrible uncertainty of the future, the struggle to form a society and be more human within it than the environment will allow you to be outside it.

Dystopia can naturally follow a post-apocalyptic scenario, where the fear of external threats is used as a justification for the awful things that the survivors must endure, things that become commonplace. Perhaps there is a period of brief optimism when society is reformed; positive vision is needed to survive, and the dystopia can only be realised after the walls of utopia have been rebuilt. The switch happens once the citizens are no longer able to see clear into the abyss of the violent outside, once they have erected walls and turned their attention inwards, only listening to their leaders reminding them how much worse it is out there, and not bothering to check for themselves.

Some might ask why I make a fuss. I think it’s helpful to keep in mind for games or fiction, because you need to know in which direction your protagonists are running. So my handy rule of thumb is:

  • if they’re running into the settlement, it’s Post Apocalypse.
  • if they’re running out of the settlement, it’s Dystopia.

Job done.