Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Of Stars and Whales

With the publication of the Leverage RPG I have caught my white whale. The prospect of a caper RPG was one of those ideas that had pricked at my brain for years as something that could be done, but hadn't. It was the big challenge, and if the opportunity to do Leverage hadn't come along I would have had to make something on my own. Leverage was a perfect opportunity though, and I'm happy with it. Happy enough that I intend to mess around with hacks and modifications for it as time goes on, but for the moment I'm just going to bask in the joy of it being out.

Well, mostly bask.

The problem about white whales is that they're a lot like good snack food. One isn't enough. I find myself pondering the next real challenge.

By coincidence, I have recently started sating my curiosity about the Star Wars Saga game. This is the recent d20 version of the game released at the end of the D&D 3.x life cycle and is a weird sort of bridge product between that iteration and 4e. It's a good game, full of good ideas, many of which were real improvements on 3.x. In some ways it seems to represent a a path not taken for 4e.

This has lead to me hunting down the more interesting looking supplements for the game, which have been by and large the slightly fringy ones. I cannot for the life of me imagine wanting to play a game in the movie eras. I did it in college in the old d6 game, and it was fun, but I really feel like there's nothing I particularly want out of the setting. Similarly, the post-movie material has been a pretty serious turn off every time I have delved into it. However, the period between the movies (the era of The Force Unleashed) and historical periods (as in, Knights of the Old Republic) both are fun. So I got to looking at books.

It's been interesting, and it vindicates all the worst part of my collector's instincts. Specifically, the little voice that tells me that if I don't get something now the opportunity will pass me by looked at the prices for some of these out of print books and laughed. That instinct used to be a big motivator for my my purchasing, but I've gotten more chill about it over the years, especially because most things either stay in print or are available in PDF. The two big exceptions are licensed products (because licenses expire) and anything WOTC puts out (because they just don't do PDFs). The Star Wars games are a 1-2 punch in that category, and the net result is that some of the books are going for more than $100.

Anyway, I mention all this because one of the books I picked up on a lark was the quite fantastic Galaxy of Intrigue which may have set up my next white whale. It's a good book full of interesting thoughts about how to run an intrigue-centric game. I'd like to talk about some of the ideas from it later, but it ends up falling a bit short of what I would like it to be because of the necessities of it being a Star Wars product. Those necessities include races and tech and trivia, all of which is excellent Star Wars material (and there's even a page on the Tapani Sector, one of my big weaknesses) but is separate from the nugget of intrigue at the center of things that really holds my interest.

Anyway, not sure where this is going to go yet, just wanted to kick it around to see what it knocked loose.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Reverse Anchors

I've mentioned a few times how much I like the idea of anchors as a way to concretely draw aspects into play. The idea is simple: after a player picks an aspect, they name some element of the setting (a person, place or thing) that is tied into that aspect in some way. It provides the player easy ties into the setting and it gives the GM convenient handles with which she can grip onto character's aspects. Win-win all around.

The other night I was talking with my friend Morgan about some ideas that we'd kicked around for Dresden but which has never really materialized. One of them revolved around thematic categories for aspects to fall under, and we were kicking around ways to capture that, and it occurred to me that you could really make this work by turning anchors on their head.

That is to say, you could begin a game with a limited set of anchors, and say have aspects tie into those. Exactly what those anchors would be depends entirely on the game and the genre. Amber, arguably, provides a great example of this in the form of the cast of characters (the royal family) plus a few key locations. The same thing could easily be done with the little town outside the dungeon or a city in a Dresden or cyberpunk game.

Now, there are some obvious benefits to this approach - a fixed list of anchors and an open list of aspects means you have a pre-built set of tools for building adventures, but this also taps into the same mojo as The Trick. The fixed set of anchors provide linking points for the characters through the anchor rather than directly.

One important qualifier is that the list of anchors is a snapshot, not a fixed list. The initial list should allow for some room to grow as players come up with ideas. After chargen, the list may change (slowly or quickly) over the course of the game. How it changes depends on the game - the game might be complex and call for only occasional changes or it might start with only a few anchors and expand over time.

Obviously, this calls for a little thought before character creation, but it's actually pretty light duty stuff, and it has the advantage of helping prune the field of unwelcome elements. Any potential elements that don't interest players enough to tie to their aspects probably deserve to be shuffled off to the sidelines. But with that small amount of work, you have created an easy way to keep a game's central elements in the middle of play without breaking a sweat.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Dog in the Microwave Job: Lessons

It’s always interesting to see a finished product. No matter how much work you put into it the original product, there is always room to be surprised. While there were no real surprises, there were plenty of tweaks and points of polish that caught my eye. Similarly, there is a difference between playing to see how the game works and playing something that’s done. Which is to say, I learned some unexpected lessons in actually playing the finished game.

The talents were a lot of fun since they were mostly new to me, having been written up by the ever-talented Clark Valentine. Lots of good stuff in them, and the section on creating your own is nicely concise (and very handy for potential hacks). That said, upon seeing them in action, I was pleasantly surprised to find the ones that really engaged the system were more fun. Not to say the ones that just added dice to certain activities didn’t work well, but the ones that did things like enhance asset dice or move plot points around were awesome. In retrospect, I would try to make sure every character has at least one talent too take advantage of opportunities because I think those might be the most fun of all.

The Complication Dial

Cam pointed out that I’d made a mistake in play by creating complications as d8s rather than d6s. He’s right, but that got me thinking - the d8’s actually worked fine and, I think, accidentally kept the challenge level up for a short job. That lead to my thinking that it makes a fantastic dial to set the seriousness of a job, with d6 being the normal level for the show, d8 for a bit harder, and d10 for the fecal matter hitting the rotating blades. Similarly, saying the GM’s complications start at d4 is a great way to declare a job will be more wacky and lighthearted than average.

It also could be used as a tool for escalating tension, if you’re playing a game for which that is appropriate. At some point during the game (either time-based or event-based) tension ratchet’s up, and complications now start at d8, and by endgame, maybe they’re d10s. There are definitely specific genres and styles this suits better than others (and default Leverage only really suits this for the two-parter episodes) but it’s handy for hacks.

Looking for Info

I made a call on the fly that I’m very happy with to handle situations where the player wants to hit the streets and talk to people to get information. The player may choose whichever role they like when they make this roll, but the roll they choose indicates the kind of people they’re getting information from. That is to say, you can always excel at this, but it’s always looking for trouble.

That said, the more useful trick for players in this situation (which I’d forgotten to suggest) is that this sort of scene is exactly the right time to create an asset for the person you intend to talk to. Let’s the player create their own informant and gives them a bonus at the same time. Much more satisfying.

The Bucket of No

When in doubt, the GM rolls 2d6 in opposition to the players. This is a handy rule of thumb, and when the actions speak directly to the various assets and complications in play, it is very easy to build an opposition roll that it about right. The problem comes when the players are making rolls against things that are tangential to the job but are still important enough to roll - without modifiers to really tilt the rolls, things can get a bit weird.

The first example of this came up when the thief was stuck in the office with a “Big Dog d8” and the grifter attempted to soothe the dog over the comm. Strictly speaking, that should have been a d6 (the default) and a d8 (for big dog) against the grifter. Sure, I might have thrown in a complication to represent the difficulty, but this was a full on crazy idea, one so improbably that I was inclined to just say No. Instead, a turned to a physical manifestation of the “Say Yes or roll the dice” principal - three d12s that I have set aside as my bucket of no. The are respectively labeled, “No”, “No Freaking Way” and “Are You Kidding Me?”. When I am tempted to say no, I just add the appropriate number of these to the roll. In this case, I dipped in at the “No Freaking Way” level, but the players still won the roll

There were a few other lessons, but they’re a bit more involved, and more suited to making very extreme hacks of the system, so those will probably percolate for a while until something comes of them.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Turkey Day

Happy Thanksgiving! It's a holiday here today, so I'm gong to treat it as such and wrap up the Leverage posts tomorrow. Today, I will eat pie and be thankful for this hobby which has brought so much happiness to my life and which I look forward to sharing with my son as he gets older. I hope the day treats you well and gives you something to be thankful about.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Dog in the Microwave Job: Play

I don’t want to get into a play by play of every scene that lead us to our finale, partly because I don’t think that would be useful and partly because I’d be hard pressed to recall all the details precisely. Instead, I’m going to talk about _how_ it played and the sort of things that happened at the table.

One of the player’s remarked that if the game does well it might be worth investing in 3M based on the sheer number of post-its used. By the time the game was finished I had pretty well covered the table in front of me with them. Index cards or a whiteboard would probably have worked equally well, but post its definitely hold up. Pro-tip: Use a sharpie if you can, to make them legible all across the table.

The first three notes were the three objectives for the game: Find the dog, sort out Rose and get the client to the hearing on time. The 4th had the time written on it. While the time changed, none of these had any direct mechanical impact on play, but they were useful for providing focus (at least for me).

Next, I put down post-its for the situation. One for the mark (Grifter d10, Evil d12, Psycho d12), one for the client and one for the dog (“Mr. Whuffles, yip dog d4”). It was only after Max’s player’s comment to this effect that I added “In a microwave d8”. Since there was also a guilty conscience in play, I put in Rose’s secretary (Secretary d8, secretly in love with Rose d8, guilty d4). Then I added “The Mob is Interested, d4” and that was pretty much the starting spread.

Thankfully, at that point the system stepped up and helped start bring things to life. After the characters talked to the client (at one point sending her further into hysterics with the kind of tact that makes it clear why Nate doesn’t invite the whole team along on client interviews) and things switched into investigation mode, something that many GMs may recognize as a bit of a bear trap.

Right off the bat, the players threw a curveball at me that I hadn’t planned for, asking if the dog was chipped (that is, had a microchip implanted for tracking purposes). I hadn’t even considered that, and there was an instinct to just say “no” since that would make things too easy, but that was a bad instinct - I just needed it to be playable, so I switched it to a “Yes, but…” - the dog was chipped, but the client didn’t have the code for it, her vet did, but he was out of the country (but presumably had it on file in his office).

I want to flag this one to any would-be Leverage GMs. What followed from this was procedurally very simple (and right out of the Fixer advice in the book) but was great fodder for play. The players had a clear goal (track the chip), a clear obstacle (It’s locked up in the office) and a clear course of action (Break in!) with the added bonus that it was clear _who_ should do this (the thief, of course). All of which is to say, when that little voice that says “no!” pops up, you should listen, but not obey. It I probably a great opportunity to throw up an obstacle rather than an insurmountable barrier.

The break-in ended up illustrating failure and complications very well. The thief utterly botched his original roll to case the joint, not only failing, but also handing me a complication (more on that in a second). Obviously, I didn’t want failure to stop things cold, and it would be silly to not have the thief be able to break in, so I asked the question instead “How can I move success to a different arena?” and determined that the issue was no good external access - to get in you’d want to go in through the adjacent office, which was open for business. The thief was forced to roll some grifter but managed to pass himself off as a patient, and got into the office, which is when the complication came up.

Procedurally, whenever a player rolled a 1 (creating a complication) I would pick up a d8 from the pile and put it on top of my post-it pad. When it came time to use it, I’d either write the new value on a post-it already out there, or I would (as in this case) take a new post it and write down the new complication. In this case it was “Big Dog d8” for the pooch that had busted out of his kennel. The subsequent scene of the grifter attempting to be the dog whisperer over the comms was unbelievable, even more so for it working.

Anyway, I won’t get into the details of the other scenes. The Mastermind talked to people in the mob (mechanically, the mob interest go bigger, then I later introduced “the real Danny Rose d10” into play). The Hitter found the guys who had stolen the dog and beat some information out of them. THe Grifter spoke to Rose’s secretary and as a 7-11 (using That Thing I Gave You) managed to acquire video footage of the Mark. Eventually the Hitter and Mastermind descended on the place the dog was being held. The Mastermind took out the guy at the door (somewhat to his own surprise) while the hitter took out the three upstairs, incorporating the “Dog in the Microwave d8” into his roll (A piece of debris bounced off one thug, opening the microwave, and the tiny dog jumped on another thug’s face). I rolled three 1’s on that fight, and our Hitter was a Badass (He basically takes out a mook every time I roll a 1) so it was about the most decisive victory imaginable. They got the fog back, got the client to the hearing on time, and as the wrapup, arranged for the two Danny Rose’s to meet, leaving that outcome to the viewer’s imagination.

It was a good game, and as noted, finished very quickly, and while I could probably have stretched it out a little, I think fast was just right for the room So with all that in mind, next post I’ll wrap up with lessons learned.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Dog in the Microwave Job: Caper

For the caper, I went straight to the tables and rolled it up in front of the players. I note I could have kept some of the elements obscured if I had wanted to surprise the players, but I opted to lay it all out there and trust the players to keep IC and OOC clearly separate. The caper rolled up as follows:

Client: Politician or Public Servant
Problem: Threatened
Pressure: Out of Time and The Courts Can’t Help (rolled twice)
Mark: Grifter
Mark’s Angle: Evil
Mark’s Power: Scary, Sociopath (rolled twice)
Mark’s Weakness: Phony
Mark’s Vulnerability: Time
What Else is in Play: Guilty Conscience, Hostage
The Twist: The Mob Has Their Eye on This

This ended up being a surprisingly tricky spread, even beyond the number of 10’s (which spawned the double rolls) that came up. Certain elements gelled immediately. A threatened politician or bureaucrat is almost certainly an honest one who the mark is trying to stop from doing something. Plus, the mark’s vulnerability to time dovetails well with the Out of Time pressure suggesting that this job was going to be very much on the clock. The problem was the Mark.

That particular combination (Evil, Scary, Sociopath) is a tricky one to use, in part because they’re all secondary elements. They are fantastic for complimenting some other foundation for the mark to stand, but they’re a really, really strange match with Grifter. Not that it’s hard to envision and evil, scary, sociopathic grifter, but that’s only half the challenge. A mark like that would be one that the players would be inclined to go after head first because Scary and Sociopath are the sorts of things that work on other people, but not on heroes (even somewhat tarnished ones). And since the whole point of designing a caper is that you can’t just rush in and kick a guy’s ass, I couldn’t go with any of the obvious options.

The key came in the combining his weakness (Phony) with the Twist (The Mob’s interest) - Our Mark is not actually a scary guy, but he’s trading on the name and reputation of someone who actually _is_ that scary. That worked well because it gave him access to underworld resources (thugs!) but it clearly suggested an endgame where the mobster in question finds out about someone using his name. Awesome. That’s a workable mark. But what the hell was he doing?

Again, the answer came out of the table: the Hostage. I had originally envisioned some undefined person, but then I thought about the mark, who was a very small man pretending to be a much bigger one. He wouldn’t have the moxie to actually kidnap someone, would he? No, probably not, unless it was by accident. But he would be willing to kidnap a pet.

And bam, there it was. The Mark had kidnapped the client’s dog and was threatening it to keep her from doing something in the very near future. With that skeleton it was easy - I picked zoning out of the are because, hey, real estate development is big money. The woman had a damning report to present to the zoning commission before the voted on the site for the new All-Mart, and the commission was meeting today at noon. The Mark had taken her dog and made it clear that the report should not be delivered. To emphasize the time crunch, I had the crew find her (a woman crying on a park bench) and started out with the frame that the vote was at noon and it was now 9:45am. Go.

All in all, I think it was a great illustration of the generator in action. Even with a slightly rough spread, it had all the materials needed to make the game work.

Tomorrow: Actual Play!

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Dog in the Microwave Job: Chargen

Fred held the Dresden Files dice packing party on Saturday, and it was a great opportunity to see people, new and old. I also got roped into running a game of Leverage for some of the attendees which did not, I admit, take much arm twisting. It did demand some rapid reading of the parts of the game that I didn’t write and some of those I did, but that worked out fine because I got to be really impressed by the game several times. There’s some really good stuff in there

I’ll talk about the game in detail in a minute, but I don’t want to bury the lead, so here’s the thing that really impressed me: including caper design and character generation, the whole game was done in just about two and a half hours, and it was a complete (if not overly intricate) caper. I was utterly gobsmacked by this - it was a lot of well structured, fast moving play in a small window. This suggests some pretty fantastic things for weekday nights and convention games.[1]

Anyway, rather than do a recruitment job (a fantastic chargen method) I opted for fast chargen because I wanted to take the caper generation system for a spin. Chargen was, I admit, made easier by the fact that everyone at the table was familiar with Fate, so explaining distinctions was very easy. I also listened to their descriptions and just picked two talents for everybody (like stunts in SOTC, Talents are the element most likely to slow down chargen because there are the most choices and interesting options). The crew ended up being:

Hitter - Hare (properly, Peter Rabbit, which might or might not have been his real name) a Badass with a penchant for improvised weapons.

- Max, a seriously antisocial woman who spent much of her time snarking at all her teammates except sledge, because he was the boss. Max’s player gave me one of my favorite moments of the game upon realization that I was cheerfully taking the throwaway snarky comments and folding them into the game fiction, which is where the eponymous “Dog in the Microwave d8” came in.

- Benny, who just wanted to help. And if helping required a doctor, well, he could slap on a lab coat and step in, right?

- Sam, and older black gentleman in a bowler cap, modeled after the Fables character of the same name. I am pretty sure Same generated more complications than the rest off the crew put together.

- Sledge, scion of a an extended (and connected) Jewish family whose bagel shop served as the team’s base of operations. His mastermind schtick was less about having complex plans so much as knowing a lot of people. He was also the team’s leader, though only tenuously, since everyone else but the hacker had taken Mastermind as their secondary role.

Thoughts on Chargen:
  • I needed a better summary of what Mastermind does, or more concretely, when you might roll it. The other roles are very clear in their application, but Mastermind is a bit fuzzier. Having chewed on it a bit, I’m pondering summarizing it as the thing you roll when your action is really asking the GM a question, but that may not quite be right.
  • The talents were very well received for their clarity and color. I’m pretty sure those came from the ever-talented Clark Valentine, and I think they ended up being a big selling point for the game.
  • I definitely could have used a cheatsheet during chargen, since the material is a little spread out. This was mostly made a problem by the fact that I was running it out of a PDF copy on my ipad, and much like my experience with Icons, a PDF copy tends to fall short at the table when you need to reference it a lot (as is the case in chargen). The inability to flip or mark pages is pretty telling.
  • I ended up pulling a few framing questions out of the air (Where’s your home city? How long has the team been together? Is the Mastermind the boss? Where’s your base of operations?) and they were useful enough that I need to see about building a fixed list of them (or see if such a list exists in the book)
  • It was not instantly obvious to the players where to write specialties on the character sheet because the line under each role looks like a divider. Small thing, but something I’ll bear in mind if I do a character sheet redesign.
  • Specialties, as it turns out, are almost as much fun as distinctions as a way to flesh out the characters. Really happy with their final form.
  • One of the players (Ben’s I think) noted that a structurally pleasing element of the game is that the talents can be easily modified to add other genre elements (like magic and such) without touching the bones of the system. He’s right, and that’s a pretty big plus, though I think a lot of genres also end up needing a bit of redefining of what “Hacker” means.

Tomorrow: Caper Design!

1 - I’ve obviously run short games before, but usually they’re the result of me freeforming a bit, so the throttle is entirely in my hands. Leverage has more rules structure than that yet still plays very fast. Like, Fiasco fast.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Bit of Leverage

So, there’s a mechanic in Leverage that I’m super pleased with. Ok, there’s actually a lot in Leverage I’m super pleased with, and the prospect that it will end up being an actually working caper game is a prospect that is hugely, hugely exciting to me. I, naturally, already think it is one, but the ultimate test of such a thing is in people playing it, so I need to be patient and wait and see how that goes. I am not very good at that.

But the mechanic I’m thinking of is actually almost entirely tangential to the idea of capers or anything else. To set this up, consider that it’s not hard to make a game, specifically a skill list for a game, that covers 90% of the situations that come up, and that reality allows for the creation of broad, stylized skill lists (such as Hitter, Hacker, Grifter, Mastermind, and Thief - the Leverage Roles) which are very playable. There are, however, two flaws in such a list. First, there will be skills - usually specialized ones - that are not covered by the broad skill list, such as piloting a helicopter or performing neurosurgey. Second, it will not always be entirely clear which broad skill a specific skill falls under. Handling explosives, for example, is something that might reasonably fall under the domain of the Hitter, Hacker or Thief.

Now, the good news is that these limitations are not huge drawbacks in play. The exception skills come up less often than you’d expect; partly because they’e usually suited to uncommon circumstances, but also because the existing skills tend to naturally funnel player behavior towards themselves. The unclear skills can be a problem, but every GM comes up with their own ways to handle that such as best skill applies, worst skill applies or determining appropriate skill based on context.

Still, they do come up and they do occasionally create issues; and that’s where the Leverage specializations come into play. Now, on paper, they look like any other specialization in any other game you’ve seen. You take a specialization (say, “Fighting when outnumbered”) and apply it to a Role (like Hitter) and voila, it gives you an extra d6 when appropriate. Mechanically, nothing new or interesting.

But here’s the trick. And extra d6 in Leverage is not that big a deal. It might help in an arena you’re otherwise terrible at, such as when you want your d4 thief to have at least a little bit of a chance of picking a pocket, but once you start moving into a character’s area of strength, a single d6 is nice, but not critical, and it’s usually pretty easy to generate some other d6’s from being awesome anyway. That would seem to suggest that specializations primarily exist to help compensate for a character’s weaknesses, but doing so misses their much more potent role.

In Leverage, the player decides which role the specialization is associated with, and that means that the player can use a specialization to “pin” a skill to a specific role, ideally a role they’re good at. This offers a much bigger bonus to that sort of activity by moving it to an area of strength, and it addresses the weaknesses of the broad skills very tidily. If there’s a skill that falls outside the sphere of things, like helicopter pilot, then a player can attach it to a role they already excel at, and they are now a *good* helicopter pilot.[1] Similarly, it means that if a certain activity (like, say, explosives or medicine) is important to the character but subject to interpretation in terms of which role it uses, the player can choose a specialty to guarantee that when their character rolls it, they use the role the player has chosen.

In the grand scheme of things, this is a very small rule, and in Leverage it’s even smaller because characters have other ways around these issues as well, but it’s exactly the kind of rule I really like because it’s small and easy to apply while quietly offering a very broad and useful impact.

Anyway, time to go back to waiting for the print edition to come out!

1 - Yes, that skips over the whole issue of characters being obliged to suck at certain skills unless they want to spend heavily just to cover some part of their concept that doesn’t come up that often. What a shame, that.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dangerous Equilibrium

Equilibrium is a very tempting state in setting design. I has lots of fun trappings like a balance of power and broad opportunities for commerce and travel, and more importantly it lets the author really drill down into the things that make the setting interesting (at least in his eyes) without them getting all broken or overly complicated. The problem is that while this is very compelling from a perspective of creation, it’s a bad approach from the perspective of play.

Interesting things when systems fall out of equilibrium. Change, wars, revolutions, reformations and pretty much everything else, and all of these things are fertile grounds for play. When a game takes place someplace out of equilibrium, it has a sense of inertia and movement that is what many railroading games are trying to capture without realizing it. It’s a sense that the world if a moving, and you better keep up. By leaving things in equilibrium, that energy goes to waste.

As with many failings in setting design, I tend to pin this one on the terrible nature of social studies textbooks, which are the only model that many people have when it comes time to write up a setting. Having history presented in clean, digestible chunks warps the mind into thinking that’s how things should be, and overlooks both the narrative (which moves) and the reality (which is messy) in favor of simplicity and the least common denominator.

The trouble with equilibrium is, of course, that it has no trouble at all. If there was no game, things would proceed pretty much as they have, and even if there is a game, it’s likely to have a small impact as things play out. Now, a low-impact game may be desirable. Many styles of play emulate fiction where the main characters mostly drink and fight and while they may do hugely heroic things or even save the world, they’re likely to do it in ways no one particularly notices. Thinks like the earlier stories of Fafhrd an the Grey Mouser. But in such games, setting is usually designed very loosely, in broad strokes, with whole swaths of territory easily summed up in a sentence or two. Adventure is found in the exceptions and anomalies. Such a setting may well be at equilibrium, but it would also be almost silly for it to be more than a collection of notes, and maybe a really cool map.[1]

It is also possible to bring change to a system in equilibrium through the agency of the characters, especially if they’re the chosen ones or whatnot, but it’s a very brute force solution. It’s very nice and empowering, but it’s also not much of an improvement - unless the world responds to the change in a way that creates tension and problems, it’s just a kind of showpiece.

There’s been one interesting trend in setting design to address this, something I’ll call aftermath design. The idea is that in the setting, something big has just happened, such as the emperor being killed or whatnot, and the setting is going through changes as it sorts this out. This is a promising idea, but it bumps up against old habits. Too often, that change occurs (before play begins, natch) and it is then the ONLY change that’s going to ever happen. It’s just a push towards a new equilibrium.

And that, there, reveals the true rub. There is absolutely a tendency of system to move towards equilibrium, but even if they reach it, they don’t sustain it. Change is ongoing. For a GM, this is intensely liberating. For a setting designer, this creates a challenge of how to express that dynamic in a useful. Which is the thing I now find myself chewing on.

1 - Not to say this stops people from getting encyclopedic about it, but it’s a different beast.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Man, the Cold War game is kicking my ass. The mechanics have been working just fine[1], but man it is making me bump up against most of my real weaknesses as a GM. Some of it is no doubt that any night, any time, might not go well. I’m ok with that. Everyone has an off night. But some of it is that I think espionage may be my Achilles heel.

See, the heart of the matter is information. A spy game revolves around information, and as I had no desire to just infodump at the players, I needed to put information into play in a way that actually put it into mind through experience. In the abstract, that’s fine, but in an information-centric game, that’s a lot of data to push down the pipe, and it impacts the play experience.

This last session kind of came to a head. At the culmination of 3 sessions, the players busted up an underground auction of Marktech (technology related to supers), saw a number of players in action, had numerous reveals and move the plot forward, and at the end of the night, I felt like crap. That session felt much more about me revealing plot than about the players than about them, and that’s no way to run a circus, but at the same time I'd be hard pressed to say how to do it differently and still stay within the genre we're shooting for.

Part of the frustration is that I dislike having to say no to players based on something I know about the setting and they don’t, especially when it’s about genre expectations. In a more fast and loose game (my preference) it is easier to roll with player ideas, but when there are hard limiters on tone (such as, specifically, guns are dangerous and your opponents are dangerous because they're smart, not because they're strong) it gets harder. Worse, when I throw up a barrier to something on that basis, I feel like I'm just being that asshole GM saying no because it's not the way I want things to go.

It gets exacerbated by having thematic barriers but no real thematic core. The spy (and crime) stories I enjoy revolve around some sort of actual moral core, usually loyalty (Bond) or some sort of moral limits (Burn Notice)[2] but I shot that in the foot a little bit in the premise - things are sufficiently gray and muddy that there's not a lot of purchase there. The players have brought some core to the table on their own, but it is sometimes better suited to a different kind of game. On some level, I wonder if I would just be better off flipping the lever from espionage to thriller. Thrillers require much less beyond the immediate situation to be engaging, and lord knows that would be easier to run.

Anyway, sorry for the down note, but chewing over this stuff is how I improve.

1 - With one exception - I may need a tweak to make a guy with a drawn gun more dangerous.

2 - This applies to other morally gray games too. Amber, for example, is full of villains, but at least they're a Family

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Faces and Places

Edit: Seems I screwed up my scheduling, so there's a double post today - this one and the one below. Enjoy the fruits of my inability to read dates!

Dresden Files’ city generation is one of my favorite parts of the game, but it can occasionally create problems for groups that are trying it for the first time, especially if they’re using the Vancouver method of sing a generic city as a backdrop. The problem tends to be the points of inspiration - the usual model is to outline places, the come up with the faces associated with them, but that can be rough when you have no starting point.

So this came up in discussion the other night with Chad “Robot from the future powered by beer” Underkoffler, and his solution is probably the most straightforward - if you don’t have places, then start with the people and then figure out where they are. That works pretty well, but I know that some people like a little more inspiration, so I got thinking about how to do that for a city.

The trick is that you’d basically be generating “A [QUALIFIER] [PLACE] with [SITUATION]” and that’s easy enough to turn into a set of tables, so I sat down and started doing so. Simple enough, at lest for qualifier and place, but situation is a bit trickier. Yes, sure, it’s totally possible to come up with a random list of situations, but I think that would ultimately be counterproductive. Generic situations are all well and good, but the point of doing collective city creation is to come up with things that are relevant to the players. Now, I am sure your players are creative, and they would tie themselves into the events that rolled up with no problem, but that feels enough like cheating that I’m leaving that out. Instead, here’s a simple table of qualifiers and places. My suggestion is that before you roll on one of these, pick an aspect, and let that be the inspiration for the situation in the place.

Open Games Now

I cannot play 4e (or now Gamma World) without regretting the lack of openness of the system. I really dig the 4e engine, and I love the sheer breadth of things that one might do with it. When something new, like Essentials comes along, I get excited and think about the things I’d do with that (like make more classes - I would SO much rather make an essentials class than a core one). Then I remember that no, that’s not really an option.

I mean, yes, I can still write about it, and if I have an idea for a hack, I can blog about it, but if I really want to put some serious work into making something solid? I immediately balk.

Now, yes, nominally I have the same problem with any other closed system, but the reality is more messed up. Posting a hack for Leverage or Dragon Age theoretically has the same problems, but I’m much more open to doing so for a couple reasons. Some of them have to do with the respective companies, but that’s actually a very small part of it. The big issue is that 4e is a _little bit_ open, and in many ways, that’s worse than not being open at all.

That may seem paradoxical, but consider this. If I hack Smallville, I feel that so long as I proceed on good faith, I’m fine. I might write up an adventure or some alternate rules, and if by some chance I ever go to far, I can be told to back off, and I will. It’s MWP’s game, and I’m just showing it some love. In contrast, with 4e, there’s no issue of good faith. WOTC has laid out in black and white, via their GSL, where they consider the boundaries to be (and that I need to sign an agreement to go that far). Yes, I could ignore the agreement and treat it like any other game, but that feels like playing with fire. The simple reality is that if I’m going to make a mistake in my enthusiasm, I don’t want to make it with WOTC. Too much likelihood of a response that I won’t like.

This might be ok if the boundaries of the GSL were at least broad enough to play in, but they’re explicitly not. In fact, the scope of the GSL is treated as an afterthought in every way except the things it excludes. Hell, I’d even be leery of writing and adventure for fear of accidentally using a monster that WOTC considers protected content.

Now, maybe I worry to much. I’ll cop to that. But whatever the amount of worrying you consider appropriate, I’d suggest that it’s still more of a headache than dealing with a truly open system. And that’s a big part of why we dig openness in games. We like what people do with Fate, and we’re glad they have the chance to do so.

To my mind, the only downside of open systems is that at the moment there are only so many of them that are reliably open, and that may sometimes result in people choosing to use one that may not be the best match for their project because they can’t find a good alternative. D20 saw a lot of this, and Fate is hardly immune, but I like to look at this as incentive to get more open systems out there.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Open Games and Me

So, back in the Day, Steffan O’Sullivan and a bunch of folks on usenet got together to collectively create an RPG. That rpg eventually became Fudge, and in the spirit of community that lead to its creation, S.O.S. declared the game to be open to all comers. Do what you like with it, and if you want to make a commercial product with it, just bounce it off Steffan, and send him two copies. Steffan did say no to one guy, once, and regretted it later, but by and large, it all worked pretty well. A community of independent developers grew up around Fudge, taking it in a number of different directions and producing a number of great products, some free and some commercial. Yet despite the vibrancy of this community (and it was vibrant in its day) there was never a real break-out Fudge hit. Fudge never truly went mainstream.

There was a lot of discussion of this back in the day, and as many theories for why as you might expect, but for me and Fred, it eventually became a very practical issue. We had produced the early version of Fate, and had gotten a fairly positive response, winning a few awards and so on. This was great, and this success can directly be traced to the eventual creation of Spirit of the Century and The Dresden Files, but it put is in a tough position. See, it was all well and good to do a small game on what amounted to a handshake and good faith, but did we really want to put ourselves in the position where we built our house on that foundation? It’s not that we distrusted Steffan, but what if something happened to him?

This was ultimately a matter of risk evaluation. The odds of there actually being a problem were quite small (at least in the near term) but if there was a problem, there was a chance it could be an utter dealbreaker. If we were going to proceed like a real business, we needed to move away from the risk, and with that in mind we started working on a “fudgeless” version of fate. However, while we were doing this, we were not the only people having this conversation, and Grey Ghost Games (who had published the print versions of Fudge) acquired the rights to Fudge in 2004, and began a discussion of how to open it up. In 2005, Fudge was released under the familiar-to-gamers OGL and that allowed us to stick with Fudge as the underlying engine of Fate in SOTC and Dresden.

As an upshot of this, I’m always curious what people mean when they say an RPG is open. While some games are explicitly open (either under the OGL or Creative Commons), other games are much more hand-wavingly open, especially many so-called indies. This can be a bit muddled - copyright issues around games and rules are wonderfully messy in practice - but it also usually means a creator who is positively invested in what other people do with his game. Whatever this may mean commercially, such games tend to offer fantastic opportunities for a budding designer to sharpen their teeth, and we’re lucky to live in a world these days where these things are possible.

It’s a good future. But I want more. But that’s for another day.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Gamma World Impressions

So, Fred ran some Gamma World last night, and in addition to an opportunity to play with some locals who I usually only see at conventions, it was a chance to change the game from hypothetical to actual. We had a good time on the outskirts of the Baldy Moor, seeking the fabled All-Mart. and getting into some trouble along the way, and my impressions follow.

  • The Gamma World box is nice, but it's awkwardly sized to use as an actual box (A point that was reinforced by Fred showing off his Monster Vault and City Tile boxes). For any future play, I will certainly migrate it into something more compact. If I was younger, I would see if it all fit in an ammo box.
  • We only had one death, but it was a very near thing - several other characters came very close. This was expected - GW has a reputation for lethality - and I was curious to see why that was so when compared to a D&D group. Having seen it now, I think I have a sense of it, and I think it's two things.

  • First, there is less overall alpha strike capability, which 4e provides with its encounter and daily powers. This is not so important in terms of general output so much as the ability to respond to specific threats (since it is often the case in combat that one enemy proves a disproportionately high level of threat) by concentrating fire on a dangerous enemy to tip the balance. Alpha mutations and Omega tech fills some of this niche, but unreliably, and in fact we had a generally stronger draw of tech in the second fight (which was nominally harder than the first) which proved much easier. I don't think these facts are unrelated.

  • Second, there is less synergy between the characters than there is in 4e. This is partly a result of how the powers are structured, but it's also a result of the more freeform chargen. Without roles or clear ways to make other players more awesome, figuring out how to get a group to work as an effective team takes some time and experimentation.

  • The random gear table is actually a surprisingly powerful tool for telling you what your character's story is. If anything, I wish it had more stuff - we had a lot of repeats, and certain things (like canoes) suggested more about the character than more practical things (like flashlights).

  • This didn't come up, but does anyone know: When you hit 6th level do you get both crit effects at once, or do you get to choose which one applies on a per-attack basis?

  • Doppelgangers, BTW, are particularly awesome, especially when paired with a good secondary power. Having now seen more of the templates in action, the logic of their balancing makes a little more sense. It would be very easy to create new templates of a certain type (like the pyrokinetic or radiation ones) but others, especially the ones with odd novice powers (like Doppelgangers) or novice powers that are encountered rather than at-will (like Rat Swarms) are often balanced against something less obvious.

  • While the Alpha Flux rules (which kick in on a 1) are nice in theory, the don't help much when everyone is rolling 3's.

  • Having now seen it in action, the temptation of the custom deck is very clear to me now, for two different reasons. The first is thematic - After I finished making my character (Doppelganger/Mindbreaker) I quickly pulled all the biological mutations out of my deck - I did not see this guy growing spines or spitting acid, so I themed the deck to that. I didn't feel this was terribly abusive or cheaty. The second is practical - the range of utility of the mutations and tech is insane. One mutation might mean you get to attack twice every turn while another means you can breathe underwater[1]. The range in Alpha Tech utility is similar. This means that over and above the temptation to stack the deck in a way to suit your character, there's a temptation to just make a deck out of "the good stuff".

    I cannot decide if I consider this a hurtful design decision (effectively designing cards to not be used) or a profoundly cynical ploy to drive players to buy cards, rather than leave them at the whims of the GM's deck, which is going to be neither thematic nor optimized.

  • Despite the specifics of its implementation, the deck idea is pretty fantastic. One thing Fred and I were discussing is that you could easily tweak things into Torg by doing a GM-Deck game where the GM's decks change depending on the Realm you're in. The decks already have the hints of the ability to do this (with the various power and tech origins) and it would be a lot of fun to explore that. Unfortunately, cards are more work to mess around with than rules.
All in all it was a very fun game. A few warts that come from learning a new system and having a full table, but since the full table was full of fun players, it was quite worth it. I suspect I may take a hand at running it soon, and I'll be curious how it looks from that side.

1 - And since the GM doesn't know about these too far in advance, it's not liek he has time to make the scenario account of such things.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Leverage is Here!


It's Here!

The Leverage RPG went live yesterday! You can buy the PDF now, or if you order the book through the MWP Store you get the PDF with your order (Physical books are probably a few weeks out - shipping is a bear). I've already got my PDF, and it's absolutely lovely, and I'm loving it as I read.[1]

This is a great game of capers and unconventional justice by a great team masterminded by Cam Banks (try his novel!) with Matt Forbeck (try his novel too!) and Clark Valentine casing the joint, Tiara Lynn Agresta and Stephanie Ford distracting the guards, Fred Hicks and Laura Anne Gilman taking out the security system and Ryan Macklin and Amanda Valentine making off with the goods. With a crew like that, it's hard not to rock out, and I'm super-pleased I got to be a part of it.

The development of Leverage was pretty interesting because a lot of it happened in parallel to the work Josh Roby's team was doing for Smallville, but neither team had any visibility into what the other was doing. Even so, there are some similarities between the games that sprung from similar inspirations, but they are definitely very different games designed to serve very different purposes. And I'm happy about that. Don't get me wrong - Smallville is freaking brilliant, but if we had just made a different version of it for Leverage, I think it would have hit the wrong note. Smallville is a relationship based action-drama, Leverage is a caper. There may be similar elements of relationship and action, but the emphasis is very different in ways that I think the two games reflect.

Now, obviously, I'm biased in favor of the game (though the one review I've seen so far was pretty positive so maybe it's not just me) so I absolutely think you should pick it up. But knowing that it takes more than that, let me note 3 different awesome things.

1. Distinctions
Distinctions are like aspects in that they are free form descriptors like "Crazy" or "Sterling Always Wins" which might be good or bad for the character in any given roll, but unlike aspects, their application is in the player's hands. When a player uses a distinction, they decide if it helps (in which case they roll an extra d8) or if it gets in the way (in which case they get a plot point and roll an extra d4). Why do they roll a d4 rather than take a penalty? I'm glad you asked!

2. The Rule of 1
So, the basic mechanic is roll some dice, add together the best two. The base two dice are one for an attribute (Agility, Alertness etc,.) and one for a role (Hitter, Hacker etc.) with other dice being thrown in by props, distinctions and other circumstances. Pretty simple, and given that characters are quite capable, it's not had to succeed within your sphere. But there's a catch.

See, 1's are problematic. Dice that come up 1's (even if unused) on a player's roll introduce complications into the situation, while dice that come up 1's for the GM create opportunities for the players, and many abilities trigger off this. The net result is that you can get very nuanced outcomes to rolls, with clear success at the task at hand, but all manner of trouble spinning off from it.

Because of this, d4s are dangerous[2]. Sure, any die can throw up a 1 at a bad time, but d4s just invite it. Adding a d4 to a roll is unlikely to help much but it greatly increases the chances of something going wrong without increasing the chances of failure, and that's a very important distinction. It is far more in keeping with the spirit of the show to have things go wrong than to have the characters suck.

3. Caper Generation Tables
Yep. Roll up a caper. I mean, yes, there's also advice for fleshing it out and running it, but random tables to roll up a client, a mark and a situation? How is that not super fun?

There are other awesome things. Cha0s's distinctions (page 153 of the PDF). The fact that you could really get away with index-card sized character sheets. That the book looks REALLY frickkin' sweet. But you get the idea.

I admit, I'm really curious to see reactions to the game. Part of that is normal egoism, sure, but there's a bit more to it. See, if you had asked a year ago, I think it would be safe to say that the Cortex system would have been described as workmanlike. It was a solid little stat + skill generic system, and while it had evolved through iterations[3], the system was very much second fiddle to the licenses it accompanied. With Smallville, I think this dynamic shifted - the Smallville mechanics are so good that the game has a lot of appeal for gamers who are not fans of the show.

My hope is that Leverage will have a similar mechanical appeal (though I love the show, so I'm also all for bringing in the fans), and that between the two games, we'll have helped create the idea that Cortex Plus (and by extension, MWP games under the guiding hand of Cam Banks) is a great system, one that makes for games as good as the licenses they support.

And, well, more shallowly, I love this game, and I hope other people love it too.

1 - I always need to read things I've written for, in part because my the time they come out I have usually totally forgotten what I wrote or, more problematically, I remember every version of it and can no longer recall which was the final one.

2 - Hat tip to Dogs in the Vineyard, for the roots of this idea.

3 - If your instinctive reaction to this is to tell me how badly it was a mismatch with Firefly, I'll ask you to hold on for a second. Yes, boating, I know. But the Big Damn Heroes supplement really put some polish on it, and is well worth a look. Of course, now that there's Smallville and Leverage, I'd probably use one of those, depending on how I wanted to emphasize things.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

3d6 and Bonus Dice

Gonna be a nerdy one today, with more noodling on the FATE Spies 3d6 mechanic (which I may need to start calling something else soon).

EDIT: I just noticed I didn't upload the key. Basically, the black line is a flat, familiar 3d6. Red line is 3d6 with 1 bonus die, blue is 2 bonus dice and green is 3 bonus dice. Click the image to see it in better detail.

Yeah, I was feeling a little crazy last night and wanted to see just how big an impact bonus dice had on a regular 3d6 distribution (the black line). But even so, I admit that's kind of crazy to see.

Bonus and penalty dice, for the unfamiliar, are a fairly simple mechanic I first encountered in Over the Edge. They work quite simply - when rolling a set of dice, say, 3d6, if you have a bonus die, you roll 4d6, and tally up the best three of them. If you have a penalty die, you roll 4d6 and tally up the worst 3 of them. The math is pretty easy, and so long as you're dealing with tallies that people can handle comfortable then I find it's a useful mechanic because it has a few curious attributes.

Most importantly, it doesn't change the range of outcomes, it just changes the likelihood of where a result will fall. This is a fantastic way to keep the numerical representation of the world consistent yet bounded, because the best result that can ever possibly be rolled is a known value, and you can reasonably set difficulties based on that.

This model works exceptionally well when the dice themselves represent values, as in Over the Edge (where your attributes were rated at 3d6 or 4d6) or in the newer versions of Cortex (where everything is described with a die value EDIT: as illustrated in the Leverage RPG which is out today!).[1] It is a little odd to be using it with a bonus system, as I am with the Fate Spies game, but it's proving a surprisingly good match for the relatively short skill ladder (only 4 steps, though I have a hunch 5 might be better) because the range of bonus seems large enough to tilt a roll, but not large enough to overwhelm it.

Consider, in contrast, if your roll a d20 and have a +2 bonus. Your bonus isn't going to make too much of a difference in the total value of your roll. It weights it a little, sure, but the range of outcomes is broad enough to overwhelm it. In contrast, if you have a +32 bonus, the bonus is much more telling. (Yes, this is partly math, but there are some caveats to that. But it's also about perception).

Compared to that, a +0/+2/+4/+6 set feels pretty good, especially on a 3d6 curved outcome. +2 is still enough to pretty impressively improve your odds (increases your chance of hitting a 10 by almost 25%) but is more likely to drop you in the 10-14 range (complicated success), which seems exactly right. Once you start adding bonus dice and penalty dice into this, it feels like a very potent range of options in a fairly tight package.

As a bonus, setting a hard limit on potential outcomes makes it easier to handle superhuman ones if and when they come up. If the best guy in the world's best shot is a 25 (18 + 6 + 1 point misc bonus) then I know that superhuman starts at 26 and can build from there.

Even more, it makes the game nicely compact in terms of materials. D6's are easy to come by and it's easy to get sets by color. If I'm feeling saucy, it's entirely possibly to hand out fate points[2] as differently colored d6's. Combined with the fairly minimal skill list, and the whole game kit could probably fit in an index card box. I love the physical elements of games, but I lean towards minimalism in my tastes, so I'm always thinking about what's involved in building a kit, and this may end up shaping into a true kit game.

1 - There's some similarity to Roll & Keep systems, such as L5R, but those have different benefits.

2 - Aspects in this system either grant a reroll or add a bonus die. I had worried that wasn't quite potent enough, but looking at the math, it pretty much is, but it offers no incentive for spending them before the roll. I need to decide if that's a bug or a feature. If it's a feature, ti means I'll assume it will _always_ be after the roll, and make specific narrative demands to that end.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

More Spy Results

Another session of the spies game last night. The mechanics are still present, just because they're primarily in my head (or on the blog), so I'm trying to keep them transparent, but I think they're holding up. Specifically, We're been playing the 3d6 variant and it's proving fairly robust.

Last night was the kind of session where things took a much more wiggly path than I anticipated, but I made a lot of unexpected discoveries. The sole downside is that the tempo system feels a little stretched in a close quarters gunfight - one that feels like it should be more dangerous than normal. While it's easy to give one side or another an advantage, there's no dial for making a specific fight nastier. I could probably tweak the margin of success in the background, but that seems a little ham-handed. Something to think about, but I don't think it detracted from the game.

On the upside, I think I finally internalized the need for penalty dice as a difficulty gauge. As it's a fixed-outcome roll (influenced by Apocalypse World, but it is definitely not an AW hack) the game has the frustrating habit of distributing outcomes independent of the fiction of the world. Tossing in a penalty die to say "This is harder than just doing the same thing in different circumstances" feels very natural, and since the impact of the penalty die is immediate and palpable, I get a lot of mileage out of just using a few. One means this is hard, two means this is really hard, and three means you're really pushing it. Keeping it down to 3 possibilities keeps it easy to grasp.

I also made a realization which Fred verbalized. As in AW, there is a "Success with complications" outcome that is the most likely of outcomes, but unlike AW, the complication is not automatic - in this, the complication is at the GM's option, and if he adds it, the player gets a fate point. This worked out very well in play, and added a few surprises to the game, but the real payoff was on the meta-level. As a GM, it allowed me to back off from a roll I shouldn't have called for or which I was just using to test the breeze. For the players, Fred pointed out that it removed a lot of the hesitation of using lower skills, since those were the ones most likely to hit these results. That last in particular pleases me.

Didn't get to test combat too much - two fights, the first one ending in rapid withdrawal (that was the close quarters gunfight), and the second ending under the weight of such an overwhelming opening roll that it couldn't really be categorized as a fight.

As a GM, I was reminded that I have a weakness for NPCs who manage to pull off an escape in the face of overwhelming PC firepower, and I had to let myself get comfortable with letting the dice shape the follow up. I've also made a note to myself to see how the tempo rules fare in a chase.

Anyway, all in all a good game, and this may yet shape up into a full system.

Monday, November 8, 2010


This has been stuck in my head as I've been reading through Influencer by Patterson, Greny et al. It's a book about how people change their minds - in some ways a practical companion to the Heath Brother's Switch - and it's chock full of interesting stuff. But the bit that's been riding me has been that about persuasion and how it works.

See, verbal persuasion (making a good argument and so on) works pretty well in lots of situations so long as the recipient trusts your intentions and your expertise and so long as they're not already invested in the subject. If another cook offers you a tip on how to prepare garlic, odds are good you'll change your behavior and give it a try provided you don't think they're trying to pull a fast one. But for less tractable issues, ones where there's already an investment or other sorts of gravity? Well, the book puts it quite well:

Consequently, whenever you use forceful and overt verbal persuasion to try to convince others to see things your way, they're probably not listening to what you say. Instead, they're looking for very error in your logic and mistake in your facts, all while constructing counterarguments. Worse still, they don't merely believe you're wrong, they need you to be wrong, in order to protect the status quo. And since the final judge exists in their own head, you lose every time.

I read that and had to go dig up a highlighter to mark it, because I had never seen every argument on the internet, ever, described so succinctly.

The author's go on to assert that the best real persuader is personal experience, and I have to agree with that. Seeing and doing real things impacts people profoundly, in a way that just thinking or talking about it does not. But they concede the problem with that is that experience can be hard to come by, especially specific experience. And that is where stories come in.

The book has an interesting output driven view on stories as our most effective tool for creating vicarious experiences. That is to say, if you can't actually be there, a good story from a good storyteller is the next best thing in terms of power to influence how you think. This is not news - marketing has been telling us for years that we sell with stories, but I found this the most practically explained framework for the idea to date.

And it also has me thinking about what we mean when we say stories. What's interesting about this approach is that it talks very little about how to tell good stories, instead acknowledging that it can be done well or poorly and moving on, and just concentration on the _outcomes_. This fascinates me because, I think, it highlights some of why the term is so contentious in gaming as some people talk about inputs and others talk about outputs, and are then so busy stabbing each other to sort it out.

Anyway, I'm still chewing on this, but I needed to get it out of my head and into circulation.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Glass Bead Fate

Ok, so before I start, I have to ask: did you learn how to play the game? You should have, and if you didn’t then this isn’t going to make a lot of sense.

The reason you want to learn the game is simple: the skills that make you good at playing the game will help make you better at designing adventures for FATE games, including the Dresden Files. The method is simple - once you start getting used to drawing connections between seemingly unrelated items, you can start applying those same skills to finding connections between aspects.

This is one of those ideas that is simple and powerful, so much so that there’s a temptation to just stop there and say “That. Do that.” because if you actually do it, odds are good its benefits will be sufficiently self evident that any explanation will seem like overkill. Still, assuming you don’t have the time to walk through it right now, let me break out an example. This is a variant on the default Glass Bead Game board:

Now, let’s combine this with some aspects from the sample Baltimore characters in the DFRPG.

Evan: Young White Council Wizards, In Over My Head, Heir to Montrose, Precision is Everything, Here’s the Plan, Hail Hail the Gang’s All Here, I’d Rather Not be a Warden, Thanks.
Biff: Trust Fund Jock, “Sorry Mouse”, Dumb Luck, Krav Maga, Mortimer Lewis Abernathy III, Hail Hail the Gang’s All here, Plays the Dumb Jock

I’ve randomly distributed these on the grid. How is not terribly important, you can do whatever you like to spread it out.

One curiosity of this particular map is it’s asymmetry - the item in the middle right is disproportionally connected to the grid, which has interesting implications when applied to adventure design - it suggests that aspect is going to be a crux of things. Something to think about when you fill in the grid for your game.

Next, let’s grab two of these and pluck the string between them to see what it makes. There are a few gimmes - Heir to Montrose and Mortimer Lewis Abernathy III are an easy pair since they suggest a range of issues about society and family and so on. To easy to even consider using as an example.

Let’s consider something a bit more challenging, like, say, Dumb Luck and Young White Council Wizard. White Council drips with hooks, but Dumb Luck’s a tricky starting point because, while it’s easy to bring up during play, it doesn’t have a lot of setting hooks, but the upside is that it’s a wildcard. If these two aspects were on the same character, it would be easy to put these two in conflict with some bit of mundane luck (like winning a lottery) drawing too much attention to his Council role, but it’s a little trickier to tie in both characters. The best bet would be to draw on Dumb Luck as an initiator - the lucky find or discovery of come sort, one that might be of interest to the council. Something that the council values or wants. If you want to introduce some tension, then you give Biff something cool that the council demands Evan take away. If you want to tie them together, then have Biff stumble upon one of the White Council’s secret’s (perhaps a way map, or something personal about a senior council member) that is personally useful, but which Evan either needs to keep concealed from the council, or Evan gets some pressure from the council to “do something” about.

Whew. Ok, that one took some work. ( This is, by the way, one more reason I like anchors - having concrete things to plug into the grid is much, much easier.) But whatever the case, it's doable, and something similar could be done with almost any pair on the grid, and I encourage you to try. But despite my saying so, you may not believe it.

It is easy to say "see the connections between these things and find potential points of intersection" but as advice goes that's only marginally more useful than "be creative." No matter how much you intellectually understand that's what you want to do, it still can seem impossibly hard.

And that, right there, is why you need to try the glass bead game. Yes, it's fun and interesting and that's great, but it's also a drill, a drill that makes you get better at seeing connections between things. Like any skill, it gets better with useful practice, but like many soft skills, practice is not easy to come by. That is, unless you can find something like the glass bead game. It's not something I can demand you do, but if seeing connections is something you want to get better at, whether to make for better games or for some other personal purpose, why wouldn't you give it a try?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Learn This Game

Nominally, the Glass Bead Game is an idea whose roots can be found in Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi, but I’ll cop to it right here: I’ve never read it. I picked up a secondhand copy once, but it utterly failed to grab me, and it ended up getting lost in one move or another. Perhaps I’ll give it another try sometime, but I’m not in any rush. Too many books, not enough time in life.

My introduction actually came through a very interesting (and old) website, Hipbone Games, presenting an actual Glass Bead Game based on the concept from the novel. This game is one of my favorite ideas of all times, combining an interesting game that’s curiously self-balancing with a thought exercise that is useful in almost any endeavor. Specifically, it’s incredibly useful for someone looking to run Fate, but I get ahead of myself.

The game centers around a map, but the details matter little. All that it requires is that the map be composed of spaces connected by lines. This can be as simple as a dumbell illustration or as complicated as one of those crazy cabala diagrams. Play is simple: the first player writes down something, anything, in an empty space. The next player does the same thing. They alternate until one of them fills in a space that is connected to another space by a line.

Super Simple Example

At this point, the person who just wrote comes up with a list of everything the two things have in common (if there’s more than one connection, this is done for each connection). After they finish, their opponent has the opportunity to come up with any new similarities his opponent hasn't thought of. After they’re done, each commonality is worth a point. Now, there are some potentially fiddly bits here - while you don’t necessarily need any limitations, depending on the nature of the players, some sort of time limit is usually necessary. Add one if you need it, but it’s secondary to what’s really going on here, the creation of connections between apparently unrelated things. And these connections can be pretty freaking crazy. To illustrate, consider the example of “Orange” and “Rock & Roll”. I might be able to score any of the following points:
  • REM’s “Orange Crush”
  • Both depend on Frequencies
  • Rhyming opposites (One depends on easy rhymes, one can’t be rhymed)
  • Both are passionate/fiery

If I could remember the name of that CD I can see SO CLEARLY that was safety orange[1] I could probably use that too, but I’m drawing a blank, so I might have to give that one away, and regret that it’s not Black, because, man, you could go nuts with that.

Anyway, It’s the kind of thing that people who see fractals underlying everything can go crazy with, but it also has a subtle twist that it favors your personal expertise, whether that’s 17th century french poetry or an encyclopedic knowledge of the members of G.I. Joe. You may not be able to draw connections between Voltaire and the Great Wall of China, but you might be able to go nuts between Optimus Prime and Jem and the Holograms. The way you think is the right way to think to play, but expanding the way you think can expand the way you play.

As a twist, you can also use found things to create the map. Rather than writing things down on the fly, you can take a stack of…well, almost anything, but cards work pretty well.[2] If the contents of the spaces are determined randomly, it changes the nature of the game again, and pushes the players even further.

And that space it pushed you to? That’s why you need to learn this game, if only to play it against yourself, for reasons that will make up much of tomorrow’s post.

1 - Safety Orange! Safety Dance! There’s another point!
2 - Though, again, it depends what you know. If I laid down the minis for various D&D monsters on the map, or books pulled off the shelf at random, I feel pretty confident some people could make a hell of a game of it.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Fate Inspiration

Not everyone is comfortable with Fate, and with aspects in particular. This is natural enough - no game is going to be to everyone's tastes, but in the case of Fate, there's a specific hangup that I think merits a little bit of attention, if only because it's easily addressed.

Aspects (and the use of fate points) serve a number of purposes in play, which means they cover a lot of different ground. A fair portion of that ground involves things that are normally considered within the GM's purview, like dictating the occurrence of coincidences, the arrival of connections and the convenience of gear.[1] For many players, this kind of flexibility is liberating, but for some it breaks their suspension of disbelief. They are comfortable with clearer lines of division that put the GM in control of the world and the player in charge of his character. For that kind of arrangement, giving the player authority beyond his bounds is as disruptive as giving the GM authority over the character.[2]

If so, that's fine - you can actually drop a lot of that material without disrupting the game in any real way. The simplest way to do this is to limit aspects to being literal and descriptive rather than abstract. The first step to support this is to replace Fate Points with "inspiration". Rather than representing the player's role in the game and their ability to help steer the narrative, inspiration is a combination of willpower, drive and sheer dumb luck. It's that reserve of capability that a hero can draw upon in the worst of situations. As a result, the things it can be spent on reflect tapping into that reserve to try a little harder or push a little further.

To support this, aspects should reflect training, background, something intrinsic (like a stat) or things that the character is inspired (for good or bad) by. Mechanically, nothing changes: Spend inspiration along with an aspect to get a bonus or reroll, or gain some inspiration when the aspect makes trouble for you. Under this model, compels are all about character behavior - accepting a compel means accepting a limitation (like being too tired to go on) or yielding to a temptation rather than making the "optimal" choice.[3] More abstract compels don't have a place under Inspiration rules.

This same thinking applies to other aspects in the game. They should be limited to purely to descriptive things like "Dark" or "Dazed." When they are tagged or compelled, the effects should have a clear cause and effect.[4]

Now, there are still plenty of borderline issues, but that's more or less the point. The inspiration model works because it's a discrete subset of the Fate system. Everything done with Inspiration could be done in generic Fate, but the reverse is not true. So while a generic Fate character might have a hard time in an Inspirations game, an inspirations character can play in any Fate game without missing a beat. Compatibility is king!

1 - This also shows up in certain skill uses, like using knowledge skills to make declarations
2 - If this doesn't apply to you, then don't sweat it.

3 - The thinking here is similar to some modern understanding about willpower as a limited reserve. Effort spent resisting one temptation makes it harder to resist another. What this means is that yielding to temptation can help make you more able to face a later challenge, must the same way that doing something unwelcome but which you know is the right thing can make you feel better about yourself.

4 - For example, if an enemy has the "Off Balance" aspect on him, a player can't compel to have him slip at a convenient moment, but he could compel it after a successful attack, describing the attack as successfully knocking him down. While the result may be the same, the former example depends on the player narratign events his player cannot control, which is exactly what we're avoiding here.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Friday Night 4-Fight

Hit Points are weird. This is hardly news, I know. Entire volumes have been dedicated to providing some sort of logical justification for them as an abstraction of health, luck, mobility and anything else that comes along. They might literally represent progressive injuries, but more often they represent you slowly getting tired and generally roughed up until things get really bad.

We've trained ourselves to be comfortable with this in a lot of games, but it always hits a little resistance when we add in guns. We have a harder time abstracting away the effect of guns for a number of reasons, the biggest being that it's very hard for us to reconcile the idea that a hit with a gun can be casually shrugged off.[1] That cuts to the core of the "health" component of hit points and makes it difficult to sustain. We can imagine the occasional grazing hit, but those quickly strain credulity. On the other hand, using hit point purely as luck or agility[2] to produce retroactive misses is pretty dull, and especially frustrating when players have guns to tell them their hit is a miss, but it's really a hit, you see.

One solution to this (beyond making guns stupidly high-damage weapons) is to decouple the scariness of guns from HP damage and instead reflect it with effects or conditions[3], and that definitely works well, especially if you want to introduce guns into an existing game.

But if you want to do guns from scratch, as in to just do a simple firefight with 4e, a more drastic departure might be in order, one that's been on my mind.

The idea on my mind is to turn Hit Points into a more generic pool, perhaps just called luck, reduce them, and make them a component of _defense_ rather than damage. The trick for this is the addition of Defense actions, At-Will interrupt actions available to all characters to represent things like diving out of the way or making a block. These actions do something descriptive, and also raise the character's defense by the number of "Hit Points" spent.[4] In the fiction, the _action_ creates a miss.

Mathwise, the result is very similar - HP slowly ablate from hits - but descriptively it creates a much clearer sense of when a hit connects and does damage.

Speaking of damage, this would of course call for a slightly different damage system, some sort of injury model. Perhaps an injury threshold - if an attack that hits rolls damage in excess of the threshold, you're out. If not, reduce threshold by the # of dice rolled, representing an issue.

It's still a kind of loose idea in my head, but some part of me has been wanting to take the quick play of Gamma World and drop it into something closer to Feng Shui (except, perhaps, with Planescape cosmology). This is a bit too much of a departure for straight D&D, but for a departure in the same style as Gamma World, it might be reasonable.[5]

I may have to try out a firefight or two soon to see how this fleshes out.

1 - And, in fact, a cinematic shorthand for things being out of the ordinary is a target that shrugs off bullets.
2 - Which would also demand HP not be tied to Constitution.

3 - Including @Wm_Bounty's brutal "Shot" condition - make a death save at +4 each round, Heal check DC15 to end.

4 - Maybe fixed values. Maybe some # of dice. Need to play test what's fastest.
5 - For straight D&D, @gamefiend pointed out the the Star Wars Damage Threshold (You have HP, but a single attack doing X or more damage has certain effects) probably works well.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Cool Monday: Gamestorming

As a gaming guy who has to work in a day job, I was utterly drawn in by Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo. Dave Gray has written a lot of interesting things about sketching and data visualization in the past, and this particular book is dedicated to using games in a business context. These are games designed to inspire creativity, build teams, brainstorm and otherwise do the things that are supposed to happen at meetings but very rarely do.

I admit, I'm an easy sell when it comes to the idea of finding utility in games, and this book makes a great case for that, with almost three quarters of the book dedicated to specific examples. That said, the fist section is actually a broad analysis to games which I found utterly fascinating. Specifically, there's a lovely analysis of games as creating a range of ideas, kicking those ideas around, then narrowing down the range of ideas until you have a winner. This struck me in large part because of something that has a lot of utility in Dresden Files city creation. The system's very good at creating a bunch of ideas and kicking them around, but I think the narrowing step could probably use some work. It's a great example of how a good model can give insight into an existing system.

Now, I think this is a great book from a business perspective, but my appreciation is a lot nerdier. See, a lot of the games that are useful for business could also be a lot of use when brought back to gaming. Specifically, a lot of situation, scenario and character design and collaboration can be acquired through these games.

Even better, a lot of the game techniques can be used to solve long-standing game problems. Specifically, a lot of the games are designed with checks to keep the more talkative members of the group from directing everything while at the same time working to draw out contributions form people who might normally be hesitant to speak up. For me, at least, this is a situation I've seen at many gaming tables, and any way to address it is welcome.

To illustrate, I'm going to pull out a couple of the games that really struck me as ones that could apply to RPGs, but I'm just scratching the surface here. If this is even faintly interesting, I strongly encourage you check out the book and the blog.

Start with a topic, (such as a setting element). Each player takes an index card and writes down an idea or object related to the topic. Redistribute the cards (pass to the write) then add to or enhance the idea on the card. Repeat several cycles of, possibly starting fresh. The result will be the equivalent of a loud brainstorming session, but you'll have gotten input from everyone.
As a twist, I note this one can be done entirely by email, if the GM is willing to administrate. Has the advantage of hiding handwriting or groups in which that matters.

Context Map
The context map is a visualization game to study and reveal the influences on an organization, such as the trends affecting a business. It can be applied equally well to fictional organizations and situations, and is a great situation builder.

Heuristic Ideation Technique
Fans of Shock or the 5x5 adventure design system will recognize this method. will recognize this one, and a mention it mostly for that. Basic Idea is a 5x5 grid, with 5 elements on each axis, and the grid used to review how those elements intersect.

Like a post-mortem for a problem, but done in advance, to consider the things that might/will go wrong. Struck me as a great way to design adventures by starting with a goal and building the problems from that.

5 Whys
Start with a problem, and ask everyone to write down why it's a problem. Line up those answers as the top of several columns, then go down each column 5 times, asking why the the thing above is a problem. This is a great way to boil down bigger issues, but in gaming it's a great way to build the backbone of a campaign with problem like "The Dark Lord Rising" and such.