So, how’s it going?

Not so bad, thanks for asking. Apart from updating this blog, it seems.

“Esotericism now classes these seven variations, with their four great divisions, into only three distinct primeval races — as it does not take into consideration the First Race, which had neither type nor colour, and hardly an objective, though colossal form.”

Helena Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. 2: Anthropogenesis

In trying to wrap my head around WaRP, I seem to have written a completely new game by mistake. It’s approaching readiness for public consumption, and I’m quite pleased with it.

It started with me putting a bit of meat on the bones of the Fringe Powers section of the WaRP rules. Not in the sense of greatly expanding the list of available powers, but more in the sense of making a “fringe powers toolkit”. I’ve long admired Everway’s approach to constructing powers and I wanted something similar in this system.

To that I’ve added stress loading mechanics (taking inspiration from Don’t Rest Your Head and Greg Saunder’s Summerland). Partly this leverages WaRP’s Flaws, Motivations and Secrets, making them slightly more mechanical.

The third item is agency building. Nothing complicated. But in this game, the characters are under constant observation by agencies with (a) different motivations and (b) different lines they’re willing to cross.

Anything else?

Well, it’s urban fantasy, it’s characters-as-the-monsters, so it’s well-trodden ground by both mainstream and indie RPGs, well into my comfort zone if not very original. Closer to the spiral into madness of DRYH (i.e. the way Vampire: the Masquerade should be) than the messy relationship territory of Monsterhearts.

But it’s bring your own myth. There’s a bare minimum of premise (where the monsters really come from) but after that, well — a fairy is a fairy, a vampire is a vampire. Any creative player interested in this genre will put their own spin on the myths, no need for me to provide mine. Although for the record, I’ve been watching Grimm and re-reading Clive Barker’s early fantasy.

So I’m feeling fairly positive about the exercise, and the modular approach is working — the components here also slot right into my other game.

Anyway:

[we are]

There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m going to come out with it.

You’re a vehicle for an Atlantean colony. Somehow you became infected with a microscopic pre-human civilisation. Possibly you inherited it from your parents. Or maybe you were bitten recently by… something… and the colony found a new vehicle. Maybe someone deliberately infected you for their own reasons. Do you remember being bundled into a black van by people in ski masks and given an injection against your will? That’s how it happens sometimes.

Vehicle is one of their terms, by the way. You’re a means to an end, something that they can steer. They’ll steer your body, your thoughts, your feelings, your life. Eventually, none of this will be yours.

Have you been experiencing any side effects? Altered perception? Strength, speed, appetite? Urges to meet strangers in remote gothic locations to compare clothing?

The Institute is here to help. We’re just going to need a sample. Lie still.

(Cross posted to the UKRPDC)

RPG Second Look: FATE (and Bundles of)

Be quick! The Bundle of Holding has re-released its Bundle of FATE, an offer good for another 4 days or so. Also this could be your last chance to look at Starblazer Adventures and Legends of Anglerre from Cubicle 7, as the license is about to lapse.

Now I’ve absorbed the Bundle of FATE, my roll-call of FATE-related games is:

  • FATE Core
  • FATE Accelerated
  • Spirit of the Century
  • FreeFATE
  • Bounty Hunters of the Atomic Wasteland (UKRPDC)
  • Nova Praxis
  • Bulldogs!
  • Ehdrigor
  • Full Moon
  • Diaspora
  • The Kerberos Club (which I have in its Wild Talents edition)
  • Legends of Anglerre
  • Starblazer Adventures

That’s a lot of FATE.

Titles of particular note are:

1. Bounty Hunters of the Atomic Wasteland

This is a free game, it’s easy to learn, it’s from the UK Roleplayers Design Collective. Good introduction to FATE concepts.

2. Nova Praxis

Interesting for its iPad-specific layout (an “enhanced PDF”). Obviously competing with Eclipse Phase for the Transhuman crown, possibly more digestible, and nice to see someone doing something cool with the electronic format. Roots in both FATE Core and Voidstar’s own Strands of FATE.

3. The Kerberos Club

I’ve mentioned my Wild Talents version before. This is the same great game in what’s probably a better overall package (it’s self-contained, for one thing).

4. Diaspora

This is the game I’m most excited about, because it’s from the folks who wrote Hollowpoint. (Brad Murray even signed the BoH version with a special message!)

5. Other Free Stuff

FATE Core and Accelerated are pay what you want, and Free FATE is, well, free. But of course, the FATE Core is included in the Bundle, which is both a bargain and supporting a good cause. The FATE Core SRD is online, too.

There are a few guides to the different versions of FATE out there:

Why Pay For Free Stuff?

FATE

I’ve been anticipating a deeper look at FATE for a while, although I’ve not had time to digest the contents of the bundle yet.

FATE is sort-of the Linux of RPGs. It has very specific moving parts, and it has loads of forks where the designers have put the moving parts in subtly different locations. And of course, it’s free.

That begs the question, what are you paying for in Spirit of the Century that you don’t get in FATE Core?

First, you get a complete package for pulp-genre play. This includes examples to put the game into pulp context, as well as a compelling backdrop (the Century Club) and the “novelisation” of the characters. I love all of that, and I don’t really like pulp.

Second, I felt I got a lot more hand-holding, advice, and a sense of how the game is supposed to be played. But, I have read SotC much more recently than FATE Core. Overall I preferred SotC as an introduction to FATE, and I felt the Core was a bit sterile. On the other hand I like the Core’s workflows and toolkit approach.

(Spirit of the Century is also “pay what you want” now, so I would vote for it in a toss up between SotC and FATE Core. But of course, if you’re in time for the bundle…)

Beyond the Core

After basic usability, the other way FATE editions differentiate themselves is the extra stuff. The thing about Diaspora that really got my attention was the idea of generating the stellar map from player interaction. See the GameGeeks review (also includes a review of Bulldogs!):

(The classic GameGeeks episodes also cover Spirit of the Century and FATE Core nicely.)

Similarly the Kerberos Club marries FATE with the concept of superheroic Archetypes from Wild Talents (a part of that system I actually like), adding examples of Aspects and when to Invoke them.

Last Words: It’s all FATE, right?

When the system is basically the same, products are differentiated on usability. I approve of this wholeheartedly.

I’m a big fan of the Open Game License, too. It gets us away from me-too systems and focuses effort on doing creative things with games.

That said, FATE is FATE. I’m still on the fence regarding the system itself. I’m a fan of dynamic point economies (e.g. Don’t Rest Your Head), but the Aspects (and invocation / compulsion) need some thought and some familiarity with the game to get it to run smoothly. Two great quotes from Kurt Wiegel of GameGeeks:

In GameGeeks #221:

I don’t really want to call [FATE Core] rules-light. It’s really more rules-medium, with a very different focus than what we’re accustomed to as gamers.

And from GameGeeks #24:

Properly done, Fate Points should really be flying across the table left and right.

Anyway, if you’re reading this in time, check out the Bundle of Holding!

(And if you’re reading this from the future… do we have jet packs yet?)

To SRD, or not SRD?

I’ve been going through a crisis with my game. The various procedures for city building and play are coming along nicely, but the thing I’ve been lacking is what happens at the individual level. You know, on the character sheet.

I’d convinced myself this would have an entirely new system. In some ways that’s a bit absurd: I’m influenced by certain kinds of games, and those influences are going to shape any kind of game system I design. Whatever I make up it won’t be from whole cloth; in fact I want it to closely resemble the games I like running today.

So, over the last month I’ve been going back and forth between different designs, trying to conceive the perfect, minimalist system as a base for the procedures of play, and beating myself up a bit in the process.

The first lightbulb moment came listening to fine folks on the UKRoleplayers board talking about their designs, and false dawns in their creative process. Now, I was nowhere near the dawn with this particular problem, but what it did remind me is that plenty of creative people will look at something they’ve done, and they will find fault with it, and that’s OK. Something in my gut was not satisfied with my base system. So I listened to it, and I felt better about saying “no, that’s not going to work.”

After that hurdle the second lightbulb came pretty quickly, and that was if you’re not going to design something yourself, why not look around and see what’s free? So I looked into open gaming.

FATE, fascinating system that it is, is not right for what I want to achieve. Neither is an Apocalypse World hack. Anything resembling BRP (such as the rather good Renaissance) is too fiddly, and Traveller is too stark. And d20? Not for me, thanks.

What I really want is a game where traits are painted with a very broad brush, with minimal moving parts. Something like Everway, except Everway isn’t open. But there’s another minimalist system by Jonathan Tweet (with Robin Laws): WaRP.

It’s Just A Jump To The Left

And that’s my third lightbulb moment. I knew full well that the system had been released under OGL following OTE’s 20th anniversary, but for some reason it took a while to sink in that I could use it for my own game.

I suppose it’s a peculiar choice in this day and age. WaRP’s three broad traits with a fourth fault satisfy my numerological tendencies, but they’re not exactly descriptors like FATE’s aspects, they don’t have the granularity of OpenQuest, or the familiarity of the OSR, or direct agency of AW’s moves. They’re kind of a throwback to 90’s minimalist gaming; exactly the kind of play I like the most, but not what you could call popular.

We shall see whether it works. These are the reasons I really like WaRP:

First, there’s the three traits. The central trait is basically a career trait, not dissimilar to Barbarians of Lemuria’s non-combat careers. The two side traits are slightly narrower descriptions of actual competencies (like driving, engineering, fighting).

The kind and number of dice are just right: good old D6, with small numbers in the pool so every roll doesn’t become a tiresome hunt-and-peck for numbers. The WaRP SRD gives various options for interesting results such as the effect of 6s (exploding or otherwise).

Fringe Powers (magic) are freeform, and limited use per session. Not per day, per session. That’s a smart mechanic that encourages continual use of Fringe Powers, but not so much that they dominate the game.

I also like the experience system: it’s measured in dice, as in real d6 that can be used to augment rolls, again per-session. However you also spend those dice to improve, leading to a choice: keep a large Experience Pool to help you out of sticky situations more often, or spend it to improve your core abilities?

Some features will need clarification, or expansion, but on the whole I feel very comfortable about using WaRP, modified or straight. It’s also something of a relief to have made a decision to use this system, at least in the interim. Now I can focus on other things.

Cross-posted to the UKRPDC.

Who Will Buy?

Simon Burley’s article on USP touched on a subject I’m also concerned about. Who am I selling my game to?

My game started as a setting-free toolkit, but I’m told that toolkits are hard to market. Since I’m a consumer of games I can do some handy market research on my bookshelf (or hard drive). I reckon I’ve identified five marketing levers:

  1. Genre
  2. Setting
  3. Tools
  4. Procedures
  5. Experimental

1. Genre first

Genre tempts the player with promises of faithfully emulating their favourite milieu, while giving enough flexibility to make the world their own. Examples:

  • Wild Talents
  • Traveller
  • All Flesh Must Be Eaten

Genre emulating games are meant to get the GM (and play group) as far as the basic premise, but allow the group to build their own world. Wild Talents is clearly written with this in mind, with its axes of design for superheroic history. System often supports genre tropes, too (and if it’s a generic system, it may have been tweaked).

2. Setting / World-first

Unlike Genre, a Setting-first game has a world that is locked down with its own metaplot. A big part of negotiating that lockdown is deciding which bits of canon you’ll use and which you will ignore in favour of your own stuff. Examples include:

  • A|State
  • Call of Cthulhu
  • Over the Edge
  • Exalted
  • Book, Film and TV tie-ins such as Buffy, Smallville, Dresden Files, the Laundry, etc.

Unlike Genre games which promise a solid foundation, Settings promise a complete world to play in. That’s not really my bag, but a lot of games are marketed that way. The crossover is strong and most games exist on a line between genre emulation and setting.

I guess Genre and Setting are responsible for nearly all fiction purchases; either you’re interested in the book or film for its setting/character/situations, or you’re interested because it’s like something else you’re interested in.

That presents a slight problem for the next one:

3. Tools First

Some designers, myself included, can’t get past the system. System is interesting but it’s really a means to an end. Most games marketed on system are generic systems, like GURPS.

However, GURPS isn’t just a generic system; it has the support of hundreds of supplements that you can pick and choose from and blend to make your perfect genre. So it’s really an omni-genre game; it’s sold on many genres at once. Same goes for FATE and Savage Worlds; they’re stand-alone engines but they have the backing of many supplements.

Also, a lot of Tools First games are generic by design. They’ve been built for mass appeal in a variety of situations. I’m sure that some consumers will pick one game over another similar one because it’s based on Savage Worlds and within their comfort zone.

4. Procedures First

There’s a temptation to lump these in with Tools First; but really Procedures are the antithesis of generic Tools. Indie or niche market games do well with specific procedures, e.g.

  • Lacuna
  • Hollowpoint
  • Apocalypse World
  • Don’t Rest Your Head

However arguably the Riddle of Steel falls into this category too. It claims a procedural benefit over other games, i.e. emulating medieval combat.

Procedures rarely stand alone — they’re usually the bread-and-butter of specific genre emulators (e.g. character creation is an innovation of Golden Heroes/Squadron UK).

I don’t know how easy it is to sell procedures on their own. I guess Burning Wheel is an example, being chock-full of modular sub-games. I was sold on Hollowpoint for its play procedure; but even so, it’s marketed as a heist-genre game (but it’s so much more!). On the flip side I like the *World games, but the genre of Apocalypse World put me off.

5. Experiments

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p>Lacuna claims to be an experimental game. Other games have very specific “creative agendas”; sometimes clear, often veiled and only implied by system. Now is not the time to analyse such claims. Instead, let’s think about the consumer who buys such games. There is a niche in our hobby for people to learn about and enjoy new games as a creative exercise. I wonder if it’s the same itch that drives people to buy jigsaw puzzles.

The aim of this post is to discuss why people make purchasing decisions and then consider what my game needs to make it marketable. Before I wrote this, I thought of it as a Tools game, but on reflection it’s really a Procedural game. That also makes it a Genre emulator of sorts — but what genre?

I guess the answer is “city fiction”. Transmetropolitan. Sin City. Thief: the Dark Project. John Brunner. China Mieville. Armistead Maupin. I’m not sure what that means yet, but it feels like progress.

Cross Posted to the UKRP Design Collective.

Threats and Promises

Remedy this situation, restore spice production, or you will live out your life in a pain amplifier.

Spacing Guild Representative to Emperor Shaddam IV

Conflict in RPGs is king, and identifying conflict is the keystone to successful implementation. Without conflict there is no challenge and no drama.

So of course there’s conflict in a roleplaying game. All of our game subsystems are geared to managing, measuring and resolving conflicts of one kind or another. This can be detailed or simplistic depending on tastes, system familiarity and priorities, but I think it’s fair to say that combat gets a disproportionate amount of attention in most games.

Furthermore, most complex combat systems focus on the minutiae of procedural combat skills — fine in a dungeon where everything you meet attacks on sight, not so interesting for any game with a bit of negotiation or social contact (i.e. most games). All the really interesting social stuff happens before it gets to a fight is usually muddled through with a mixture of freeform roleplaying and the odd charisma check.1

Outside the actual combat procedure, conflict includes:

  • Ideology (why two sides are at war)
  • Territory (what they’re fighting over)
  • Threat and Consequence — i.e. if you cross the line, what are the consequences
  • Target prioritisation
  • Escalation, as in what happens if the above threat and consequence isn’t enough to satisfy both sides.

All of these are decisions made by the monster (I’ll use that as a generic term for potentially threatening NPC). Some of these decisions will be obvious to the GM (who has decided what their ideologies and territories are beforehand) and some will even be obvious to the players. But these are not easy decisions to make, especially on the fly — and yet we rarely have any support for such a decision making process in games. Usually the best we have are essays about “making your villains real” and “making scenes dynamic” tacked onto the end of a 300 page manual that mostly concerns itself with combat procedure, spells, equipment and setting colour. Is it any wonder that the most common decision for a monster is to attack?

One of the goals of City and Square is to telegraph this decision making process for the benefit of both players and GM. CRPG’s use Aggro, something I have discussed before. I’m still refining the procedure, but for now I want to consider three things:

  1. Attributes in the domain of the player that influence the conflict
  2. Attributes in the monster’s domain (In City and Square this is provided by the location)
  3. Escalation Counting.

The PC domain attributes that may influence the conflict could be

  • status/notoriety (people know who you are and will either acquiesce or otherwise behave favourably)
  • a disguise or some other means of blending in to avoid attention
  • a contact who can vouch for you
  • history or background with the social group
  • something to offer or sell

Situation will determine the usefulness of each, and the strategy employed by the PCs. Clearly a situation that demands a disguise is not one where notoriety can be employed. These attributes are fairly passive and will tend to affect the base response of the environment to the PC’s presence. Collectively I’ll call them Belonging.

Once in the scene, as the tension begins to mount the PCs may be required to take active steps either to stop themselves accumulating aggro, or to draw the aggro away from other team members. Collectively I’ll call them Defending.

The attributes in the Monster’s domain will include

  • the scale of the threat
  • the type of threat (which will indicate what sort of Belonging is applicable)
  • escalation decisions for when a Threshold is crossed (questions, physical violence, threats, social humiliation, etc.)

Escalation Counting relates to both the Scale of the Threat, and the Decisions the monster will make if the PCs pass a Threshold.

Let’s say you have a scale of 1 to 9, with thresholds at 3, 6 and 9. When a PC accumulates enough aggro they trigger the Threshold. Such thresholds might be defined as

  • First Threshold (3 points): questions, verbal threats
  • Second Threshold (6 points): being ejected from the location, being followed
  • Final Threshold (9 points): violence, incarceration, damage to personal status

<

p>(Possibly three levels is too much; two levels may be enough to differentiate between awkward questions being asked and actual action being taken against the party.)

PCs can accumulate aggro individually, or the players may have a single aggro counter. I prefer the former, as it creates a need for team interaction to divert attention away from members (e.g. the classic tank soaking aggro from another party member).

Additionally since aggro is a game currency and is transferrable between party members one can imagine other means of transferring — for example if one character’s cover is blown, the immediately distribute their aggro points to the rest of the party, causing trouble for everyone.

Cross-posted to the Design Collective.

——-

1. A couple of notable games for their treatment of conflict:

  • Burning Wheel scripts both social and physical combat, although the latter is more complex with all of the medieval martial stuff.
  • Dogs in the Vineyard features escalation of conflict.
  • Hollowpoint abstracts conflict to include multiple different kinds of actions from different team members in the scope of one conflict.

Playtest Metrics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Character Questions

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

Are the character’s Power Levels expressed? These include

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

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

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

Is the character adequately tied to the game in play?

World Questions

Do the players understand where the game is?

Do they get the Scope2 of play?

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

System Questions

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

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

Rate the system for

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

Change Questions

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

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

———–

Cross posted to the UK RolePlayers Design Collective blog.

Footnotes

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

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

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

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