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

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)

From wikipedia, Tacit Knowledge is

difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing

The fact that a lot of expertise is tied up in tacit knowledge is a problem for knowledge management. KM has corporate connotations but it’s really to do with managing knowledge on an organisational level.

What has this got to do with roleplaying? Just about everything. Every game a GM runs, every character a player players, suffers from the same issue: the GM or player knows more about the game and the characters than the other players ever will. We have plenty of tricks to make it easier to make tacit knowledge explicit, for example:

  • good character sheets
  • props (miniatures, maps)
  • music and other atmospheric effects

In Apocalypse World Vincent Baker tells us something that we already know: roleplaying is a conversation between players (including the GM), and it goes back and forth in the exploration of the shared world. In some cases that conversation is a negotiation, too. Most games build in the flexibility for PCs to turn their hand to any task; skills represent a breadth of function, attributes can be used where no skill applies (or exists), and the GM almost always has a scale to tune the difficulty of the task.

I think players value this very highly. The ability to loosely define the character initially and then negotiate capability in play takes the cognitive burden away from the player at character creation.

This means the needs of explicit, crunchy systems like D&D do not sit well with the tacit nature of character. Crunchy systems allow players to match their character to a particular task, and if that task isn’t well defined (as a lot of games aren’t at the start) you may be better off with a simpler system. That’s what I prefer, anyway.1

Negotiation vs. Mother-may-I

Of all the roleplaying buzzwords and phrases the roleplaying theory scene has spawned Mother May I2 is the one I care the least for, mainly for the relationship between player and GM that it implies. That doesn’t make it wrong, just rather obnoxious.

In the MMI style, players need constant approval for attempting tasks, because the player lacks complete information to make an informed (and usually tactical) decision. Range is an example: say a player wants to use their bow to shoot someone, but lacking a map that explicitly shows the distance between character and their target, the player must ask the GM for permission to be within range of their enemy.

The problem we have when accusing a playstyle of MMI is that it suggests the game world can be presented entirely objectively. Since the GM’s world is tacit knowledge, it can’t. The example above would ameliorate the range issues with a hex grid, an apply a granular system; and in doing so, places a whole load of restrictions (and cognitive burden) on the players that maybe they would prefer not to have.

Say Yes Or Roll

I don’t know the origin of Say Yes or Roll The Dice. Robin Laws mentioned it in a See Page XX article many years ago. Vincent Baker says Roll the Dice or Say Yes in (in that order) in Dogs in the Vineyard.

The point of Say Yes or Roll is not to prevent the GM from screwing the players over; it’s to sort the interesting outcomes from the routine. Most of us know to only make players roll the dice if there’s something at stake (and yet we still make them roll one too many times, even with all this experience).

But let’s go back to the fear3 that the GM is trying to screw the players, which is the same fear that causes people to use MMI like a dirty word. Can Roll or Say Yes be an insurance scheme that lets players get what they want (a bit like Burning Wheel’s BIT System)?

If it’s incumbent on the GM to either say yes or force the players to roll the dice, it implies two things:

  1. The GM can’t just shut the players down and say no.
  2. In order for the GM to say yes, the players have to ask first.

The first point is pretty obvious and should be high on our mental list of “what makes a good GM”. All bets are off if the players are just asking for something absurd of course (the degenerate case), but then the GM should also be empowered to say “don’t be a dick”.

The second point is where I’m driving to in this little essay: in all games it’s implied that the players can negotiate with the GM in the course of play, but I can’t think of many that say explicitly that the player should plan on negotiating with the GM. That’s another piece of roleplaying tacit knowledge; we all do it, and yet we don’t talk about how we go about doing it.

I think it’s important, particularly for games where the initial definition of character is loose. In WaRP (my current RPG obsession) you start with only three traits. There’s no way you can describe the entire range of skill and experience represented by the Central Trait from the get-go; and why should you? Roleplaying is best when it’s show, don’t tell.

Per the WaRP SRD the assignment of bonus and penalty dice is based on GM judgement (page 8) and that’s fine. Also, Traits need operational boundaries, else the trait become applicable in all situations and the character turns into a Mary-Sue. Still, saying up front to players that they’re free to explore the boundaries of their Traits in play and to ask for bonus dice when they feel they deserve them is a good, proactive step.

So, is MMI inevitable if negotiation over traits happens? Probably. There’s no way around the fact that the GM is granting the player permission to roll extra dice. On the other hand, a negotiation is active, whereas waiting for permission is passive.

Since Traits are purposely broad and include a range of behaviours, it’s fair to assume that if the character wants to complete an action they will remove all obstacles that make the action impossible. In the “am I in range?” example the distance between the shooter and target isn’t a function of the GM’s mental map, but a function of the character’s expertise. They’ll move closer, or take the shot from further away and accept the penalty of doing so. It’s the player’s prerogative to say “I think my character can do this, so I am taking this action”. At the same time the GM will set conditions, like “if you do this, it will take time” or “doing this puts you in harm’s way”.

If the GM starts setting conditions like that, they’re also asking “are you sure you want to do that?” Just as the player is free to act the GM is free to impose a heavy cost on taking the action, and the player can then change their mind if they want to take less (or maybe more) risk. That’s the negotiation, and regardless of outcome, or whether the character took the action in the end, it’s the player’s choice.

The workflow for negotiation in WaRP should look like this4:

  1. GM frames the scene (giving additional details if the player needs it)
  2. Player says
    1. what action they want to take
    2. what Trait applies
    3. what other advantages they might have
    4. the desired outcome
  3. GM decides whether to roll the dice or just say yes. If rolling the dice is needed, decide
    1. If the Trait applies (use the Trait dice), partially applies (just grant a bonus die), or doesn’t apply (just roll 2 dice).
    2. If there are any bonuses or penalties to completing based on relative advantage / disadvantage
    3. If there’s any kind of delay
    4. If there’s a consequence of taking the action that will happen (either regardless of success/failure, or due to failure)
  4. Player either re-negotiates (go to step 2), takes the offer (roll), or backs off (do something else).

Perhaps this is just MMI dressed up in new clothes, but the key point is this: players should feel confident to talk about their characters, and the GM should listen to them.


  1. But if you’re going for a crunchy system, there’s an argument that you should be min/maxing all the way. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

2. Whitehall Paraindustries’ article is a reasonable definition that isn’t conflated with indie RPG terminology, but there are other examples, e.g. this one [RPGnet] discusses MMI in the context of D&D.

  1. Honestly, are players really afraid that the GM is going to shaft them? There seems to be a lot of paranoia around game design these days.

  2. I’ve conveniently ignored the fact that WaRP has disproportionately detailed rules for fighting, including range tables. I’m inclined to take the pruning shears to those.

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.