Tuesday, December 21, 2010

RPG Solitaire Challenge

Here's a different kind of RPG design contest from Emily Care Boss:
Starting January 1, 2011, you are invited to to make a role playing game for one person to play on their own. There are several challenges that you can choose among to guide the direction for your game. Each game submitted will get overall feedback, as well as input from the judge who created the challenge.
More info on her blog.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Game Chef 2010: Mission Accomplished!

A while ago, I exhorted you, dear reader, to help me almost win Game Chef 2010. And with your tireless support, I'm pleased to announced that Action City! did, indeed, almost win. Second place! The most almost-winningest place there is! If you playtested Action City!, thanks for making it happen. You kept the dream of alive and brought us to the very brink of victory.

The top five entries, in order of playtest sessions:

  1. "Never to Die" by James Mullen
  2. "Action City!" by Mike Olson
  3. "Chronicles of Skin" by Sebastian Hickey
  4. "Long Shot" by Nick Wendig
  5. "Deserting Paradise" by Joe Mcdaldno
Congrats to James Mullen and everyone else involved. I'm going to continue to work on Action City! just as soon as March rolls around.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ronnies 2011

Hey, another contest!

Ron Edwards is having another Ronnies game-design contest. Past winners include 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars, as well as... some others, I'm sure. The basic set-up is a 24-hour design competition done in a series of elimination rounds. The first round starts January 1st, and ends January 14th or 24 hours after the ninth entry has been received, whichever comes first. Entries have to incorporate two of four keywords (which will be revealed January 1st). Winners get a cool $50 (American!) and feedback/playtesting from Mr. Edwards himself.

I mention this not for my own benefit, but for yours. As much as I'd love to do this, there's just no way I'll have time. However, I definitely encourage you -- yes, you! -- to take advantage of this opportunity. It's not about winning. It's about being forced to stretch yourself creatively and make something that wouldn't have occurred to you otherwise. Limitations breed creativity!

Anyway, check out the link for more info.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Game Chef 2010: Action City!: Special Features

Based on some productive discussion with the first group of playtesters, I've compiled some errata, clarifications, and other stuff into a document called Action City!: Special FeaturesCheck it out if you have any interest in playtesting; I think it's kinda invaluable for those of you out there who can't read my mind.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Game Chef 2010: Action City! v0.3 Ready for Playtesting (UPDATED)

Action City! v0.3 is online and ready for playtesting! So if you want to playtest it, download it and do that thing, then tell me about it here, or email me at the link provided in the document.

While this version is a bit longer, it's still only 18 pages including two pages of character sheets, a "Final Thoughts" page, and copious white space. What can I say? It's not a game that requires a lot of rules text.

Here's what's new:
  • Explicit guidelines for what each of the roles (Hero, Opposition, Friend) is supposed to do in the game
  • Expanded explanations of what the different difficulty levels mean and how they fit into the narrative
  • A new type of scene (the Cutscene) for the Opposition and how it's used
  • What it means to frame a scene
  • A brief but concrete paragraph on how to select appropriate Methods when rolling
  • A little more on the Arsenal to further delineate how it works
  • A bit more on how to use Goons, the Muscle, and the Functionary in play
  • And not much more! 
Winning Game Chef isn't nearly as important to me as getting valuable playtest feedback, so check it out, play a game, and tell me what worked and what didn't. I do not expect to win Game Chef, but I do expect to leave this a better designer than when I started, so any help you could give me in that regard is greatly appreciated. Thanks!

UPDATE: Playtest reports can be (should be, really) submitted at http://gamechef.wordpress.com/2010-playoff-rules.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Game Chef 2010: "Nice Job, Finalist."

So the word's come down from Game Chef 2010 Master Chef Jonathan Walton's chosen Action City! as a Finalist, which is great news. More importantly, he had some insightful commentary on the game:

Concept: A game about 80s action movies. Explosion-tastic.

Execution: Unlike several other games, which have several single-protagonist stories happening in parallel, this game is explicitly about one character, the hero, with everyone else playing allies or enemies. The explicit division between scenery chewing, talky scenes and action scenes makes good design sense. It’s perhaps a bit strange that both the hero and the other characters have equivalent stats, since the hero in these movies is usually both super-competent and unkillable (i.e. they die hard, but these movie often try to portray them as normal dudes, so perhaps that make sense. Resolution contains an unusual combination of both stat+trait invocation and setting difficulties, though, in this case, it seems as if the acting character sets their own difficulty, taking a bonus or penalty to their roll based on either personal preference or the fictional circumstances (it’s not really clear which). Additionally successes can be banked to help in later conflicts, so the mechanics seem to incentivize making some easy rolls in the beginning, which could be weird if players decide to roll for things that don’t really matter. Failure gives characters conditions that prevent them from selecting the easier options when assigning their own difficulty, which is a pretty smart mechanic. There’s also a Once Upon a Time-like mechanic where the players are incentivized to incorperate specific action movie clichés (“vehicle of convenience”) into the narrative, with any remaining clichés counting as resources for the GM and bad guys in the final conflict. While my concerns about “forced incorporation” mechanics remains, I like the way teamwork between the players might be required to set up some of these situations. The bad guy generation guidelines also look like a ton of fun.

Completeness: feel like the main thing missing from this game is some sense of how pacing and scene distribution is supposed to work, especially when the hero might end up with the crap beaten out of them after just a few scenes. When should we cut from the hero to the various other characters? The hero is supposed to get more spotlight time, right? But how much is “more”? Does the GM frame all the action scenes while the players call for and frame the personal scenes? That seems to be the way it works, but the rules don’t say that explicitly. How do we know when we are reaching the final showdown? Should the GM specifically try to target the friends of the hero, or just allow them to become entangled in the caper?

Cookery: Some of the uses here are a bit of a stretch, but this designer was smart not to let the ingredients been too restricting.

Conclusion: Nice job, Finalist. This game is definitely ready to be played, but needs to keep an eye on a few things, including refining the scene framing guidelines and figuring out how the non-hero characters can become involved in things.
Pretty much everything in the Completeness section is a concern I already have about the game as it now stands, which is kind of a relief. I was a bit worried that I'd missed something vital and game-ruining, so if the worst thing about it is stuff I already knew about, then I feel much better about the next revision.

Speaking of which, here are a few things off the top of my head to hit on:

  • There isn't necessarily a "GM" here. The critique makes reference to the GM and "the badguys" as if they were separate entities. The Opposition isn't, strictly speaking, the GM, though -- he's a player just like the Hero and the Friends, but with different rules. Like them, he has resources and limits and all that, and completely lacks the arbitrary authority which is so commonly associated with the classic GM role. The Opposition really only controls two things: The actions of the Badguy and other individuals/forces which oppose the Hero, and the framing of Setpieces (more on that below).
  • Cakewalking has a cost, always. I'd argue against Jonathan's inference that "the mechanics seem to incentivize making some easy rolls in the beginning" -- win or lose, if it's a Cakewalk the Opposition gets a bonus die. Making an obstacle a Cakewalk is essentially saying, "This is so important to me narratively that I'm willing to take my lumps later for the opportunity to advance my Arc/overcome my Hang-Up." If anything, I'd argue that the rules incentivize Close Calls, because they don't offer a reward for success or a penalty for failure apart from whether or not you get to advance your Arc.
  • Every roll does matter. Jonathan's concerned that the players might "roll for things that don't really matter," but they only break out the dice if the Opposition says so. It's only when the Hero or Friend and the Opposition reach a stalemate that anyone rolls dice, so if the Opposition wants to make everything an uphill battle for them ("No, you don't fix that leaky faucet before heading out to the FBI office! Roll some dice!"), then that's his call. So while the Hero or Friend is in charge of how difficult an obstacle is to overcome, the Opposition is in charge of determining what the obstacles actually are. As long as every scene has at least one roll, I don't foresee any problems there.
  • The Arsenal doesn't really work like that. Unless I'm misunderstanding the critique, Jonathan's main concern with the above two points is the Arsenal, which lets players set aside a die from a second matched set to use later on. However, since the Arsenal can never have more dice in it than non-Opposition players, there isn't a huge opportunity to, as it were, "game the system" there. Besides, Cakewalking doesn't let you roll more dice -- just more than the Opposition. Your odds of adding a die to the Arsenal are the same no matter what difficulty you set.
  • Rolls don't really work like that, either. This is perhaps a minor point, but an important one. When Jonathan says, "it seems as if the acting character sets their own difficulty, taking a bonus or penalty to their roll based on either personal preference or the fictional circumstances (it’s not really clear which)," it makes me think I may not have explained the core mechanic well enough. You never get a "bonus or penalty" to a roll -- you just impose a bonus or penalty on the Opposition. That's a distinct difference, to me. The difficulty you set is solely a matter of personal preference, but the narrative needs to bear it out, too. If you're trying to punch out some thugs and decide it'll be a Cakewalk, the narrative should describe you quickly dealing with them and moving on; if you're going to beat them by the Skin of Your Teeth, the narrative needs to describe a more protracted, desperate situation. (I know it's out of genre, but the first example that occurs to me is Aragorn at the end of the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring. He mows through those Uruk-Hai minions like they're nothing, then spends three minutes in a nail-biting slugfest with Lurtz.)
  • Equivalent stats aren't everything. Even though Heroes and Friends have "equivalent stats," as Jonathan points out, Heroes still have the edge. Heroes can't be compelled to act against their will like a traitorous Friend can. Heroes have longer Arcs, and therefore get to frame more Talking scenes, which means more screen time. And Heroes can't be killed, which seems pretty major to me. That said, it's probably worth thinking about how else Heroes can have a practical advantage without mechanical fiddliness.
  • Scene framing has rules. I clearly need to be more explicit when it comes to who frames which scenes. Heroes and Friends get to set up their own Talking scenes, but the Opposition gets to frame Setpieces. Maybe it's the "framing" part of that that needs to be better defined, though. I.e., what does it mean to frame a scene? Is it just getting to determine who's there and where it's taking place? Or does that extend to being the one to decide what success and failure actually mean within the context of the scene? All of that needs a better explanation than I could muster when I originally wrote it at three in the morning.
The timing on all of this is pretty good, as it turns out. If Jonathan had stuck to his original timeline, I would've been neck-deep in writing "Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle" and completely unable to switch gears back to game design.

I'll post the revised version here sometime, say, this week. Hopefully I can coerce some suckers -- er, recruit  some friends to do some playtesting for me. I may be able to playtest it myself, but given the way my schedule usually goes that's not a guarantee. Besides, blind playtests are the more informative. Stay tuned!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Game Chef 2010: Unofficial Reviews

So while the esteemed Monsieur Walton has only gotten through 13 of this year's Game Chef entries so far, one Jonathan Lavallee has taken it upon himself to briefly review all 59 of 'em (including his own Over the Wall). Not only that, he's already done it, and it's an interesting read.

I was pleased to discover that Action City! made it into his folder of games he and his group may play one of these days (which, admittedly, contains about two-thirds of all the submissions). Does this bode well for my chances in Game Chef itself? Well, it doesn't bode poorly, I guess, but other than that one pretty obviously has no bearing on the other. To be honest, it was just gratifying to read someone else's thoughts on Action City!, contest or no. Thanks, Jon(athan)!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Game Chef 2010: Action City! Revised

What with one thing and another, I've revised Action City! for anyone who wants to check out a slightly expanded, much more complete version of the game. You can get it here.

At 14 pages (including a character sheet and a brief explanatory epilogue), it's a wee little slip of a game, but I like it. My only trouble is that I'm not sure I have the narrativist chops to give it the treatment it deserves in play. However, plenty of people do -- people I know, even! -- so hopefully someone out there will give it a shot.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Game Chef 2010: Action City! -- Available for Perusal

I was going to say "Action City! -- Now Complete!" but I kinda doubt that's true. I put the finishing touches on it at about 4:00 this morning, so I'm sure something important is missing or incomplete. Like, if there's a sentence somewhere in those last few pages that just ends, period be damned, it wouldn't surprise me.

So instead, I'll just say that you can take a look at it here.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Game Chef 2010: Action City!

I still question whether I'll be able to finish something in time for submission to Game Chef 2010: Sojourner -- I'm pretty busy with, of all things, writing a musical tribute to an old Top Secret module -- but... I'm gonna give it a shot.

So here's what I'm going with: Action City! With an exclamation point!

The goal is to recreate the most Hollywood action movies Hollywood could possibly come up with. Think Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys II -- even stuff like Escape From New York or Beverly Hills Cop. We're talking about movies that embrace (or invented) the most cliched of action-movie cliches. The heroes are one-dimensional badasses with a humanizing flaw, accompanied by some friends and/or hangers-on, up against crafty villains and seemingly insurmountable odds. Y'know. That kinda thing. I'm taking my inspiration as much from the movies themselves as I am from convention screenwriting wisdom.

As for how all of that relates to the parameters of the contest:
  • Journey: I'm interpreting this metaphorically as the character's narrative journey, or story arc, which provides a sub-plot to parallel the main conflict of the story. Every character begins with a pre-existing problem in his or her life to be resolved. The starting point of this arc is determined randomly (I hope), but the resolution -- the endpoint of the sub-plot -- is determined by another player. So if your sub-plot is "Trouble with the Ex," when the story starts you and your ex have something contentious going on, but your resolution could be anything from winning your ex back to just getting on with your life. Progress in your sub-plot is measured on a stress track; the fewer checks in your stress track, the harder the opposition will be.
  • City: Everything takes place in an urban environment. That's it. Plus... Action City! It's right there in the title!
  • Edge: An advantageous personal trait, like "Crazy Like A Fox" or "Die Hard" or "I Know Kung Fu." I realize this is going to be the most common interpretation of this ingredient, but it's too perfect to pass up.
  • Skin: When a character is in a conflict, the player chooses how difficult of a challenge it is. There are three degrees of difficulty: Cakewalk, Close One, or Skin of Your Teeth. (See? Skin.) These difficulty levels are always relative to the character's own odds of success. There's a mechanical incentive to make things harder on yourself: Winning a roll by the Skin of Your Teeth gives you another Edge relevant to the scene.
Some important non-ingredient components:
  • In addition to a sub-plot, each character also has a Hang-Up -- some personal quirk or challenge that can potentially interfere with his or her life. Though distinct from the sub-plot, the Hang-Up should interface with the sub-plot in some significant way. For example, if your sub-plot were "The Ex" and your Hang-Up were "The Bottle," well... that might give you an indication of why The Ex is The Ex. I'd like to determine these randomly, too, but that might not be practical.
  • Each session consists of a number of discrete scenes: Talking and Setpieces. Talking scenes deal with either your sub-plot or your Hang-Up. You might use a Talking scene to have a conversation with your ex, or explore your self-destructive fascination with alcohol. Either one would have different mechanical ramifications going forward. Setpieces are for directly tackling the central conflict. Regardless, all scenes involve at least one die roll.
  • Ah, the dice. Action City! uses d6 pools; you're looking for matches, or sets. Biggest set (i.e., the highest number of matching dice) wins. Ties go to whoever rolled the fewest dice.
  • There is something like attributes, although I'm not sure what I'll collectively call them (hopefully not "attributes"). These are Action (any sort of physical activity), Brains (planning, foiling security systems), Mouth (talking, lying), and Guts (courage, mettle). Each of these is rated from 2 to 4, and any given roll involves two of them. The rating is how many dice that attribute adds to your pool, so if you have Action 3 and Guts 2, you're rolling 5d6.
  • Every applicable Edge adds another die to your pool. This is why it's especially good to rack up additional edges by the Skin of Your Teeth.
  • About those difficulty levels: If it's a Cakewalk, the opposition rolls two fewer dice than you. If it's a Close One, you roll an equal number of dice. If it's by the Skin of Your Teeth, the opposition rolls two more dice than you do. Still trying to figure out a mechanical disincentive for a Cakewalk.
  • Every player has a role. At the start of the game, everyone rolls 2d6. The high roller is the Hero. If there's a tie for Hero, there are two Heroes -- it's a buddy movie. Everyone else is a Friend of the Hero's. A Friend who rolled doubles for this roll, though, will betray the Hero at some point during the story. The low roller is the Antagonist: half GM, half competitive player. The Antagonist doesn't have to play all the NPCs, but... odds are he'll play more than the other players, since he's the guy actively working against them. Plus, the Antagonist does have a character -- specifically, he's the villain of the story. He also gets to determine when a traitorous Friend will turn on the Hero, though he's mechanically incented to do it later rather than sooner.
  • In addition to scenes, the game also has a three-act structure (I think; I'm still waffling on this). Each act has at least one Talking scene and one Setpiece.
  • If your Talking scene relates to your sub-plot and your roll succeeds, you get to check off a box on your sub-plot track. If you fail, you don't -- and in every Setpiece, the Antagonist gets a number of bonus dice ("consumable" dice that can be added to a single roll, one or more at a time, then discarded) per scene equal to the number of unchecked sub-plot boxes at the table. So it's a good idea to deal with those sub-plots.
  • If your Talking scene is about your Hang-Up and your roll succeeds, you get to use that Hang-Up as an Edge in the next scene. You've overcome it temporarily, or learned something from it, that helps or inspires you later on. If you fail, one of your Edges is unavailable in the next scene. Your Hang-Up has bested you for the time being and is preventing you from operating at peak efficiency.
  • The more beat-up you are, the harder things are for you. Something like "Health" will measure a character's general physical condition. Every failed defensive roll (for lack of a better term) in a Setpiece means checking one of those three boxes. If one box is checked, your lowest difficulty is Cakewalk. If two boxes are checked, your lowest difficulty is Close One, and if all three are checked, the only way you can overcome a challenge is by the Skin of Your Teeth.
  • Each game has, say, five Cliches. Preferably, these too would be determined at random at the start of the game. (I'm big on the random thing for this game -- I see it as a pick-up one-shot kinda thing.) Examples include Outrun the Explosion, Crashing Through the Window, and One-Hand Helicopter Hang. Incorporating a Cliche into the action means... uh... something good. For every unused Cliche, the Antagonist gets a bonus die in the last Setpiece. So maybe the good thing they do is denying the Antagonist another advantage.
That's about it, for now. It obviously needs a lot more work -- it's about 80% conjecture at this point -- but it feels like a pretty solid base to me.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Game Chef 2010: Now More Than Ever

So the ingredients for this year's Game Chef are up:
The Basics
Design and submit a playable draft of a roleplaying game between Sept 11th-19th, preferably inspired by the theme and ingredients listed below.
2010 Theme
Game Chef 2010 is official known as Game Chef: Sojourner, and the theme is Journey. As always, you are free to interpret that however you like.
2010 Ingredients
In addition to the overall theme, pick 3 of these 4 ingredients to design your game around.
First thoughts: City, Edge, and Skin all jump out at me. I'm picturing a very scenario-focused game along the lines of The Mountain Witch or Lady Blackbird about accomplishing something very specific in a city. Probably getting from one place to another safely. More than that, though, I just can't say right now. Hell, something like Escape From New York or The Warriors isn't completely unreasonable.

Second thoughts: Fred Hicks, Ryan Macklin, Willow Palacek, and Josh Roby are all participating, I believe, so... I'll just consider this a learning experience.

Third thoughts: Damn it, why couldn't there be any mechanics-focused ingredients? I mean, I can make a mechanical element called Edge, and possibly Skin, but I'll be honest: I like constraints, especially mechanical ones. They spur more creativity in me than total carte blanche to do whatever I want. Total creative freedom absolutely ruined last year's Game Chef for me.

Fourth Thoughts: I absolutely don't have time for this, but I'm doing it anyway.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Sigils [was: Icons & Sorcery]

This is a little tardy, but: I've updated and renamed my swords & sorcery hack for Icons. Now it's called Sigils, at the suggestion of someone on RPG.net whose name escapes me. The big change for this version (v0.4) is the addition of rules for summoning and the detailing of three types of spirits, three types of demons, and 12 types of elementals (really, it's just three tiers of the same four elementals, but still).

That was the big piece of the puzzle that was still missing, in my mind, so it's satisfying to have it taken care of for the time being. ("For the time being" because I haven't playtested those rules or anything, and I'm relatively sure I left out something very important somewhere or other.)

Even though I haven't been able to play or run it yet, I can at least say that it's fun to roll up characters, so go check it out and get back to me.

UPDATE: It's since been replaced by Sigils version 0.5, and will soon be replaced again (but look for that in a new post).

Monday, September 6, 2010

Gateway 2010 Wrap-Up

So! As I expressed elsewhere, this year's Gateway was an unfailingly fun convention. The least-fun game I played in was still a lot of fun, so I have no complaints. Plus, I tied for the win in a game of Dominion, which was notable primarily for how unlikely it was.

I'll go in chronological order (Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon) so I don't leave anything out.

Beyond Thunderbowl (Leftovers): I'd never run anything in the Friday 2:00 slot before, but with the 8:00 slot taken up by a game I didn't want to miss, I didn't have much of a choice. Thankfully, I had a full table -- an overfull table, actually. I advertised four slots and ended up with five players, including Leftovers fan and super-playtester Larry Harala, who's run a five-session Leftovers campaign with his group in Utah that sounds like a lot of fun and about which I'd like to hear more. Of course, since I only see him at these conventions twice a year, there isn't much hanging-out downtime, so... yeah.

Anyway, "Beyond Thunderbowl" starts with the PCs captured by Grafters and forced to fight in a series of gladiatorial games on behalf of their captors. It's sort of how the various Grafter gangs earn prestige and settle disputes. Everyone had a good time (especially me), and it ended the way I'd expected it to: with hundreds of creepers flooding the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and (most of) the PCs barely escaping with their lives. My only reservation was that I feel like I pushed them too much toward that resolution, but as I said at the beginning of the game, "Welcome to the beta test for tomorrow night's Leftovers game." Afterward, Larry (I think) wanted my autograph on one of the ashcan copies of the rules I gave out, and I obliged under protest.

A few situations came up that required some off-the-cuff rulings, including one that's likely to find its way into the published version of the rules because I've encountered it so frequently. I've been referring to it as a Circumstance die. Basically, it's a one-use die that comes about as the result of some player-created advantage. This first arose at Hyphen-Con, when a map was used to gain advantage in a negotiation with some Grafters. The ruling then was to compare the Resourceful roll to the difficulty table, with each difficulty corresponding to a die size (Tricky = d4, Challenging = d6, etc.). The more resourceful you are, the better the map.

In this session, it happened another way: Someone wanted to climb up on the side of the big metal dome in which they were fighting to get an advantage on an opponent by dropping down on them. I had him make an Athletic roll, which produced a die he was able to include in the next round when he made his attack. It worked great. It's basically the Leftovers equivalent of a Maneuver in FATE, except instead of an aspect you get a die. As soon as I figure out a succinct way of explaining it, it's going in the book.

One last development of note: I'd previously been stumped for why anyone would voluntarily take a "negative" Bond with another PC. This led to some thoughts on how I could mechanically encourage that sort of thing, but I didn't like where it was going. Finally, I realized that there's a simple solution: Make it mandatory that each PC not get along with one other PC. Ta-da. Works fine.

The Treasure of Hoth (Smallville): Smallville designer Josh Roby started in on a Star Wars hack for the game about a month ago, and I was damned if I wasn't going to experience it for myself at Gateway. The setting was Hoth in the Old Republic, with a lot of political maneuvering and intrigue (which Josh always does well, and which I never even attempt). I played EX-47, an assassin droid with orders to kill this NPC labor union leader. How did that go for me? Well, we made repeated comparisons to Michael Palin in A Fish Called Wanda. So... about that well, but without the guilt.

Regardless, I had a good time, and really enjoy the mechanics of this game. It's something I think I'd love hacking to bits (in a good way). Just by changing the characters' Values, you completely change the tone of the game. What I particularly liked about Josh's pre-gens was how the Values were worked into a statement instead of set apart from them -- e.g., "Nothing is more important than my Duty to my Master" instead of "Duty: Nothing is more important than obeying my Master." Not every Value was like this on every character (although all of 'em were for mine), but it really gets me thinking in terms of using Cortex-K for other settings.

I mean, imagine bog-standard fantasy gaming in the vein of D&D using Cortex-K. It'd be a hilarious subversion to plug in the ol' six abilities: I can always rely on my Strength. I've never had much use for Intelligence. Wisdom's better than luck. Etc. That, to me, is very funny.

Smallville is one of those games like Houses of the Blooded that makes me want to use it for dungeon-crawling, just because it's so not made for that -- but can absolutely handle it.

The Doom of Damocles (DFRPG): I talk about this game here, just to keep all the FATE stuff together.

To Steal the Orb of Orwand (Shadow, Sword & Spell): I have to say this up front, just to get it out of the way: I'm increasingly dissatisfied with this book. First of all, many of the mechanical elements feel wonky and poorly thought-out. Much has been made of the game's treatment of skills elsewhere, and even the game's author seems confused about how things should work, but that's such a huge part of the game's mechanics -- really, characters are defined almost exclusively through an extensive skill list -- that it isn't easy to ignore. Second, the way it's written reads like it was translated into another language and back again. The result was that everything we did felt houseruled, like we were banging the game into a usable shape as we went. It's one thing to do that after you have a bunch of experience with a game and feel like you want to tweak it here and there to make it do what you want it to, but this was our first contact with SS&S. We weren't going for a nuanced version of the rules -- we just wanted something playable and reasonable.

None of that, though, could slow down the adventure Andy had prepared, which was a classic S&S tale about stealing a thing from some guy. The setting had a vaguely Middle Eastern or Indian tinge -- f'rinstance, we were breaking into the raja's palace. We had a Cimmerian-type barbarian with us, but I figure he was part of the 13th Warrior Exchange Program.

Two especially funny things happened in this game: I freed a guy from a prison cell in the bowels of the palace who'd been locked up there for decades. His name was Manfred, and we almost completely failed to find a use for him despite dragging him around with us wherever we went. Andy did a great job with him -- he was always asking us quite sensible questions in a quavering old-man voice, like "Shouldn't we be trying to get out of here?" and "Why are you bringing me with you everywhere you go?"

The other funny thing was when one of the players, a 10-year-old kid, said that D&D 4E was "not even a roleplaying game" and "like a boardgame now." If you want to think that about D&D, fine, but hearing it from a fifth-grader was just too much. "Yeah, it's not like it was back in '74, right? Those were the days!" A 10-year-old grognard. Now I've seen everything (until someone comes along with a 9-year-old grognard, I guess).

Castle Ravenloft: Woot! I figured I wouldn't have time to try out this new boardgame, but Scott and the Vegas/Utah contingent busted it out during the dinner break. We thought it'd take an hour... it took almost the entire two-hour dinner break. But that's okay, because it was a lot of fun (and we had pizza delivered in the middle of it, so dinner was taken care of). It's a very well-designed, super stripped-down version of D&D 4E bolted onto a tile-placing boardgame. It also reminds me quite a bit of DragonStrike, which I ran at Gamex this year, in that there are distinct characters with individual abilities and a book of different scenarios using a variable map.

Actually, in terms of gameplay, it honestly isn't all that different, apart from a few important points. One, there's no GM. Every player will be responsible for controlling one or more monsters at some point, but since the monsters have such basic scripted attack routines, there's no fudging things to your advantage. Second, the characters can level (only once) using an Arkham Horror-like mechanic that involves trading in XP gained from defeated monsters. Third, each character has a selection of D&D-style powers, and can get more as the game progresses. Fourth, as soon as one character dies for good, the game's over and you lose. Fifth, the tile-placing thing and a very effective mechanic that encourages you to keep moving forward and exploring (placing tiles) instead of just hanging out and taking it easy (which is nearly impossible anyway).

I mean, there's more, but those are the big ones, IMO. Our party ended up victorious, but it was extremely Pyrrhic -- I think all but one of us was dead when Rob's wizard fireballed that room.

Beyond Thunderbowl (Leftovers): Saturday night, I ran Leftovers again. As expected, the previous day's game greatly informed and improved things on the second go-'round, including not making certain things too obvious. The party composition was significantly different -- three pure-human mechanical-types and two Grafted-up ass-kickers -- and I didn't roll nearly as well (Friday afternoon I was routinely rolling in the high teens or low twenties on three or four dice), but the end result was exactly the same: a boiling sea of creepers rising up to throw things into an utter panic and obliterate at least one PC.

For whatever reason, this session involved quite a bit more talking. The PCs managed to convince Blackbeard (the Grafter gangleader for whom they were forced to fight) that the Thunderbowl itself was badly in need of maintenance before it fell apart completely. After some cajoling, he let the three mechanics in there to fix it up, but in the process they set it up for a future sabotage -- which meant a d12 Circumstance die to their later efforts to collapse the metal-grate floor into the seething pit of creepers below, allowing them to come tumbling up out of there and etc. So yeah -- that Circumstance die thing is in.

Dominion: Then we went back to the room and played some Dominion. I suck at that game. Moat it up!

Treachery in the Skies (Swasbucklers of the 7 Skies): I'd been dying to play this for a long time -- since before it came out, really -- and it didn't disappoint. I'd read PDQ# and got a feel for how good it was, but actually experiencing it in action was something else entirely. Chris (the GM) loves games with intrigue, inter-party conflict, and romance, so needless to say that's what this game was all about. I played a Sha Ku Ruqrider -- a sorta primitive island-warrioress type who rides what's essentially a giant parrot -- in love with the first mate of a pirate ship, who was in love with this princess-type who we were "rescuing" from her wedding and taking to safety somewhere.  Turns out the pirate captain wanted to sell her to some shady types on Floating Pirate Island to pay back a debt of his, while the sorcerer wanted to deliver her to his master for a ritual sacrifice.

The final conflict of the game, after a number of double-crosses and backstabbings (and frontstabbings, for that matter), was convincing Hamish's first mate (now captain) to choose me over the princess type, and according to the dice, he did. So I'd like to think that I won that one.

Chad Underkoffler says that S7S is his love letter to every bit of swashbuckling entertainment out there, and I'm happy to say it shows. I don't own the book and only got to flip through it a little, but it's well-written (as is Zo) and loaded to the brim with quotations from relevant movies and books. That latter bit was just as fun to read as anything else. I'm picking this up at my first opportunity, then hoping against hope that I get a chance to play or run it.

Vanguard: Rookie Year (FATE Supers): Amply covered here.

Dominion: We played a little more Dominion before heading home, and this time I tied for the win. Boosh.

All in all, a great convention. My thanks to everyone who made it that way. I'm definitely re-inspired to finish off Leftovers and get it up on Lulu by the end of the month. The plan is to finish off those final few chapters (of advice, really) this week and get it into final layout ASAP.

Coming up next week: Game Chef!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Gateway 2010: Beyond Thunderbowl

Hola amigos -- I know it's been a long time since I rapped at you, but...

Wait, I've already done this bit once, haven't I?

Anyway, this weekend at Gateway I'm running two sessions of Leftovers: Friday at 2:00 pm and Saturday at 8:00 pm. Pre-reg slots are all full, which leaves only two seats per game for day-of participants to sign up.

Here's the blurb:
Captured by Grafters, stranded in an irradiated wasteland, beset by Horrors -- and the only way out may be... the Thunderbowl! Do you have what it takes to make it through intact, or will they send you back to the Trench in a series of small leaky boxes? Leftovers is a roleplaying game of post-apocalyptic survival in a world of Lovecraftian Horrors... one of which is probably you.
The name "Thunderbowl" is ripped off from a loving homage to "the largest table top Blood Bowl league in the western hemisphere," run in part by a good friend of mine up in Vancouver, BC. Those guys love Blood Bowl.

If you're going to be there, come on by and pull up a chair. Actually, go sign up at RPG HQ, then come on by and pull up a chair.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Leftovers: Updated to v1.4.1 -- Already!

Some quick and small but important revisions to v1.4 more or less force me to update the PDF again. I declare it to be Leftovers v1.4.1 and available for download. (A full list of what's gotten some attention is at the link.)

Here's some more art!

On a related note, I checked out Colin Chapman's Atomic Highway in the ol' FLCS* the other day, and man... well done. It's funny, because, as a post-apoc game, it and Leftovers tread on some common ground, but in terms of tone and content, they're pretty divergent. This is good, because I wouldn't want to be in direct conceptual competition with Atomic Highway. I was surprised to see it on the shelf. The only reason I didn't pick it up right away is that I now have a bunch of store credit elsewhere, so if I'm going to buy a game, it'll be from there. Also, we're moving in a couple weeks, and bringing more stuff into the house would not go down well, let me tell you.

*They sell games, too!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Leftovers: Updated to v1.4

Just a quick note: The current version of the Leftovers PDF available online has been updated to v1.4. You may notice that v1.3, the version I handed out at Gamex, was skipped altogether; that's because I did some more revising as a result of the playtest there before I'd ever gotten around to uploading v1.3 in the first place.

Anyway, quite a bit's changed; a list of revisions is available at the link above.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Gamex 2010 Wrap-Up

(Cross-posted on Spirit of the Blank.)

So! Gamex was last weekend, and I'm only just now getting around to talking about it. I've had a theoretically busy week. I'll just do this in chronological order, starting with Friday afternoon and ending with Sunday afternoon.

This was only the second time I'd played Smallville, thanks to my inability to get a playtest group together since joining the beta back in February. Oh well. Anyway, it's definitely a big improvement over the Cortex I remember from Serenity, which was rather... meh. As befits the superheroic melodrama sub-genre, traditional attributes and skills have been tossed entirely in favor of motivations, relationships, and rule-bending assets. Has there ever been an RPG this mainstream that defined characters with stats like Love, Power, Glory, and Justice? Didn't think so.

My only real issue with the system is surely only a product of having a table full of newcomers for players. Sometimes there was a lot of dithering over exactly what dice to roll. Is this a Justice situation? Would my relationship with Clark be relevant here? Etc. Sometimes a single player's turn could take five minutes with all of this -- or maybe it just seemed like it did. On the whole, though, I look forward to this one coming out (this month, I think). Kudos to Josh et al. for their work on this.

This was the most disturbing game of Leftovers I'd ever run, and probably the most disturbing game of anything I'd experienced in quite a while. Not that that's a bad thing, I guess -- and I guess it's actually a good thing that the game as presented encouraged some disturbing character choices during play. We had a Grafted-up private investigator, a Grafted-up former boxer, a weird little kid with an eyeball on his tongue (this rendering him mute, something he had in common with his no-voice-having player), and a pure human big game hunter. The scenario was pretty much the same as the one I ran at Hyphen-Con, with a twist near the end that led to the aforesaid disturbing behavior.

Nick's ex-boxer character confirmed a suspicion that I've had for a while: High Physical Defense and Vigor are too easy to get. I could not hurt that guy. Same thing happened with Desmond's character Denise Richards at Hyphen-Con. So I'm changing the calculations for that slightly. I'm also thinking about making the character concept -- right now just a flavor-only spot on the character sheet -- mechanically significant somehow, like maybe +2 steps to one roll per scene. Nothing huge.

Marvel SAGA
Say what you like about TSR in the '90s, but this was a fantastic game system. Seriously, I can see now what all the fuss has been about. It's quick, intuitive, and fun, without sacrificing things like tactics or character details. I don't own it, so all I know is what I saw in play, but there's a ton of potential there for a generic game built on the same mechanics but using a regular deck of playing cards. So when I got home Sunday night I wrote a bare-bones version of one that'll probably never see the light of day.

At any rate, I got to the game about an hour late, thanks to that quiet, private hotel room that made me (made me!) oversleep. We started off playing first-string Avengers, then, when they were captured, switched to third-string West-Coast Avengers. I played Captain America and US Agent, and let me tell you, I couldn't wait to rescue Cap already so I could get back to playing him. Before playing US Agent, I hadn't realized just what a bad-ass Cap was, even when shoulder-to-shoulder with Thor and the Hulk. As it should be! US Agent, in contrast, was like... I dunno... Avengers Babies.

Dresden Files RPG
Morgan Ellis -- who has suggested I call him my "hetero FATE mate," although I think "platonic FATE mate" might be more accurate -- ran a bunch of DFRPG games at Gamex, in preparation for the ton more he's running at Origins and GenCon. I'd read bits of the playtest doc, but hadn't played it yet, so it was good to finally check the box on that one. Not surprisingly, the system is very familiar; the only real bit of difference there was the magic sub-system, which, for my character, was pretty hand-wavey and loose. That was fine with me. I got to be effective but non-violent, which was cool. Really curious to see the forthcoming FATE 3.0 corebook, whenever Evil Hat gets around to it.

Icons Superpowered Roleplaying
I had a full table plus five alternates for this. Well, four alternates -- the name "John Wick" was on there, but fortunately that was just a prank of Sam's. Character creation was fun, as expected. I made some quickie little chargen cheat-sheet packets, but still had to spend one-on-one time with each player to finish 'em off. The whole process, with five players, probably took about forty minutes, which isn't bad. One thing I didn't tell them about was bonus powers; I figured that giving the players even more to read and sort through would've delayed things even further. So we got some wacky characters, maybe wackier than we would've otherwise.

My favorite was Brian's. He rolled the Gimmick Origin (so all his stuff comes from devices) and two powers: Life Support and Supersenses. The backstory he spun out of this was that he was an MIA astronaut who'd been drifting through space for decades, running into alien civilizations and modding the Hell out of his spacesuit. The Lost Astronaut! What gets me is how he went from astronaut to crime-fighter, but whatever. It's funny. We played up the astronaut angle to a ridiculous degree. He ran around in slow motion, hit badguys with a golf club, and so on. With a 6 Prowess and 6 Strength, he was no slouch in combat, even without offensive powers.

There were a couple things that stood out about the system. One, it's definitely not FATE. Everyone clear on that? Steve Kenson said it, Fred Hicks said it, but still the misconception persists that Icons is somehow "FATE-based." The only area in which it comes close is aspects, but even those work significantly differently in Icons, so much so that it threw all of us FATE vets for a loop. In brief, Determination can only be spent to tag aspects before a roll, not after -- and even then, it isn't a straight-up +2-per-point thing. Not only that, but if you're making a Determined Effort (the closest thing to the way aspects work in FATE), there's a decent chance the Determination you spent will be wasted. The Determined Effort rules feel like a lot of fiddle for not much tune, if you know what I mean, so they didn't see much use in play.

Also, the players-make-all-rolls thing sounds like a good idea, but in practice it sometimes slowed things down. I'm not going to go into all the details here -- it was just a matter of the RAW not conveniently lining up with actual play.

More problematic, though, was the adventure, Steve Kenson's own Sidereal Schemes of Doctor Zodiac. I wish that weren't true, but unfortunately it is. The scenario is very railroady and rigidly linear, with a dozen rather pushover opponents fought in three groups of four. To give you an idea of how non-challenging they were, Ability Levels in the game range from 1 to 10. Human Ability Levels are between 3 and 6. These NPCs had Ability Levels of 3 or 4 across the board. Remember the Lost Astronaut? Bereft of powers though he was, he could one-shot these guys with relative ease. Admittedly, I did manage to knock him out, along with a few of another character's duplicates, but it was via a rather limited-use attack (a charge from the only superstrong antagonist -- whose Strength, BTW, was only one point higher than the Lost Astronaut's) that couldn't reliably be replicated with any fairness. The final fight was with the titular doctor, who had about two dozen powers for me to manage all at once. Fortunately for me, he still wasn't too much of a challenge for the PCs. In stark defiance of Silver Age conventions, they literally gutted him to death.

My key takeaway: It'll be fine with some house rules. And it'd be great in another genre!

InSpectres: The Venture Brothers
I hesitate to tack a system on there. This was a mostly freeform after-hours Venture Brothers game run by Morgan and featuring whatever BarCon holdovers could stay awake. I played 21 and 24, because I do a frickin' flawless 24 and an occasionally acceptable 21. In a similar vein, Colin Jessup played Hank and Dean. Josh's wife Meghann was Brock, Dan was Rusty, James (Ritter, who bravely admitted that he didn't really know Venture Brothers) was assigned H.E.L.P.eR., Hamish (another guy who didn't know the show, but who has a uniquely suited voice) was Dr. Mrs. The Monarch, and Laura Bishop was Triana (absent Orpheus, which was... odd, but whatever -- it's a game!). People wrote down InSpectres stats under the delusion that they'd matter, and off we went.

There was only the barest shadow of a plot, and it ended up being mostly me, Morgan, Colin, and Meghann tossing around Venture Brothers in-jokes posing as dialogue, but y'know... it was also hilarious. It was about two hours of near-constant laughter around the table, so I declare it a rousing success. Next time, though, I want a system in there somewhere!

Sunday morning I ran a couple hours of DragonStrike, TSR's super-sweet, super-low-rent boardgame from 1991. Not a lot to report here, other than it was fun and I may run it again at Gateway.

Cthulhu Dice
We passed the lunch hour with a six-man game of Cthulhu Dice, which was a big hit. Later that night, at Red Robin, four of us played some more, with similar results. I expect to get a lot of enjoyment out of my five-buck investment in this goofy little game.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 3rd Edition
I was totally psyched to get into this game (with only four players, pre-reg was cut off after two) and glad I finally got to try it out. The dice have fascinated me ever since I first saw them last year. And they didn't disappoint in play -- putting a dice pool together was intuitive and fun, and interpreting the results neatly added to the fiction. Everything else, though, was a super-crunchy baffling ordeal.

Well, maybe not that bad. But there's a lot of fiddliness surrounding that elegant dice mechanic that feels all the more fiddly in comparison. The mandate of the design is clear: Never write anything down. That's admirable. I get it. But WFRP's solution is to manage a glut of chits, cards, and tokens seemingly left over from a dozen other high-priced boardgames Fantasy Flight had laying around in the warehouse. For example, every wound you take is a critical card, dealt face-down from a deck. When you have more of those cards than a certain threshold number, flip the top card over, and that's your critical hit. Clever. But is it more fun or convenient than just rolling on a table? That's debatable. Every special ability and spell has a cool-down time tracked in little tokens on its card. Again, a logical and balanced solution, but keeping track of "Did I take one of these off last round?" doesn't add to the fun in play, IMO. I haven't seen that kind of micro-management in a game since Weapons of the Gods, but WFRP leaves that game in the dust in this regard.

So! As always, Strategicon was a good time. I'm already looking forward to Gateway in September.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Leftovers: Setting a New Standard for Disturbing

Just finished running Leftovers here at Gamex. That was without a doubt the weirdest, most bizarre, and definitely most disturbing game of Leftovers I've seen yet. Samuel Mitchell, you are a bad, bad man.

However, it was also highly successful -- again! So that's encouraging.

And here's some more art, courtesy of artist Stacey Montgomery!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Icons & Sorcery

Just a quick note here to let people know about Icons & Sorcery (link fixed!), my swords & sorcery hack for Adamant Entertainment's Icons Superpowered Roleplaying. It strays a bit here and there from the way Icons works, but not dramatically so. The idea was to retain the random character generation of Icons, but for a typical Howardian/Lieberesque fantasy setting -- so instead of Origins (Trained, Birthright, Artificial, etc.) there are Cultures (Great City, Decadent South, Frozen North, etc.), and since only shifty sorcerer-types actually have powers, there's a greater emphasis on Specialties, although these two rely heavily on the roll of the dice. "Equipment" in the conventional sense is practically a non-entity for the superheroes and villains in Icons, but not so in Icons & Sorcery. And so on.

Incidentally, I'm running Icons this weekend at Gamex, in case I hadn't already mentioned that. Icons hits the e-market June 1st, with a print edition coming soon after.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Leftovers: Art!

Development continues apace on Leftovers. Jenny's initial layout looks great, and Tony just sent me some similarly great art. I figured I'd post it here for interested parties to peruse.

Click on it to see it full-sized. From left to right, that's a Fangfist, a Gut-ripper, and a Fly-By-Night.

On a related note, I'm running Leftovers at Gamex on Friday the 28th, so if you're in the area come check it out! Event pre-reg begins tomorrow. Get on it!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

[CLASSIFIED]: Simplified

So in looking over [CLASSIFIED] and thinking about it in terms of this contest, I realized that it's rather... well, needlessly crunchy. There's some nostalgic crunch in there, what with the separation of stats and skills and skill categories, and the way your base rating with a skill is determined by adding two stats together, and the fact that the number of skill points you have available to spend in a given category's skills is dependent on adding another two stats together, and so on.

The simplest solution is to ditch the stats altogether, and just have skill categories (Areas of Concentration, or AoCs -- an obvious nod to Top Secret's Areas of Knowledge) and skills (specialties). The AoCs are Combat, Academics, Technical, Athletics, Subterfuge, and Interaction. Your rating in an AoC is the base rating for every specialty that falls under it, so if you have a 12 in Combat, all of your Combat-related specialties are also rated at 12 by default.

I was a little torn on how to determine what your starting AoC ratings would be, until I fully committed myself to the central, unifying idea of [CLASSIFIED], which is, essentially, "antiquated but relevant." I want things to have a somewhat retro feel, but not to the point of just being derivative or clunky for the sake of it. Likewise, in terms of setting, this applies to the PCs: Former government spooks, spies, and assassins turned loose with the end of the Cold War in the mid-'80s (alternate history!), they're now high-priced "consultants" for a "private security corporation." In other words, they're still doing what they've always done, but now they're doing it for cash instead of duty. They don't really know another way of life, even though the world has ostensibly passed them by. Their ways and worldview are somewhat outdated and out of step with those around them, but they're still frighteningly effective. I want the system to feel the same way: a little passe, in some ways, but still fun and playable.

Anyway, with that in mind, I think I'm taking a page out of Star Frontiers. I want AoC ratings to range as high as 20, and this is a contest based on the use of d10s, so instead of some point-buy thing I'm going with actually rolling dice and determining those ratings randomly -- but with a sliding scale of bonuses to those rolls to forestall feelings of uselessness in a given AoC. I think it'll just be 2d10 six times, arrange to taste.

Then it's eight points to spend on specialties, on a 1:1 basis. Eight's enough to probably max out one or two specialties at 20 at the cost of effectiveness in other areas, which is fine with me. I want these PCs to start out as more than competent; a 20 in Marksmanship or Security Systems is not only acceptable, it's desirable. It may vary a little from this. Maybe it'll be six points, plus another two in a chosen AoC's specialties to represent something along the lines of departmental specificity, like Eliminations or Infiltration. I dunno. Details.

Toughness -- the measure of how easily a character takes major injuries -- used to be based on a couple stats, but now it's (Combat + Athletics)/5, which should make for a practical range of 4 to 6, and a possible range of 3 to 8.

The big honking resolution table stays the same, as does the method of injury determination by hit location and weapon Damage Factor. From a design point of view, the latter is the most genuinely interesting or innovative, or at least unusual, so I'm not dropping that.

As for layout, I have this crazy idea to make the whole thing feel like government documents, with redacted words or sections and slightly crooked, typewritten pages. I don't know how practical that is to do without it getting annoying, but it intrigues me enough to find out.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Hyphen-Con VI Debrief and... So On

Hola, amigos! I know it's been a while since I rapped at ya, but you wouldn't believe what I've been going through lately. First of all, I lent Ron the Festiva for a beer run last week, but he got pulled over on account of a busted tail light. I'd totally forgotten about it. I'm not even sure I knew about it in the first place, since it's in the rear and I never see it back there. I don't know how it's legal to give a guy a ticket for something he can't even see, but that's the pigs for you. Anyhow, turns out the vehicle registration expired two years ago because I never got around to renewing it during the Christmas rush of '08 when I working at the tree lot, and that plus a few bogus unpaid parking tickets meant they impounded the old girl right then and there. I had fifty bucks' worth of scrap metal in the back seat, too. That's the last time I ever let Ron drive stoned.

No, seriously, none of that happened. I'm just a Jim Anchower fan, that's all.

Last weekend was Hyphen-Con VI (Believe the Hyph!) in San Diego, which was, as always, a good time. I ran Leftovers in the evening slot (6-ish to question mark) for five players, and what with one thing and another the PCs ended up being Denise Richards, Neve Campbell, Steve Irwin, Neil Patrick Harris, and, for some wonderful reason, James Garner. (Desmond unwittingly named his character Denise Richards without realizing who Denise Richards is, then it spun out of/into control from there.) The plot involved raiding a Humanist encampment for guns, ammo, and anything else the PCs could lay their hands on. The action culminated in confusion, blood, and lots of gunfire, so... success!

The combats in the Humanists' compound raised an interesting point: The players would much rather fight Horrors than humans. Why? Because you can't stick a human arm on yourself to heal your injuries, that's why. S'kinda funny. Nothing objectionable or problematic -- it just amuses me.

Another thing that came up: Hudson (playing Steve Irwin, the party's token d12 Human Nature guy) noted that Bonds with Allies don't necessarily have to be positive, and asked why anyone would want to take a Bond with another PC that wasn't. My response was, basically, "because roleplaying!" That's a perfectly cromulant reason, but cromulance without mechanical backing bugs me.

So I was thinking of instituting a slight change: Taking a negative Bond gives you +1 step to that Bond's die. This reinforces the idea of the dysfunction of the post-Horrors world extending even into personal relationships. The benefit of a bigger die is balanced somewhat by the lessened utility of the Bond -- but I guarantee you that if you had a negative Bond with a fellow PC, you'd find ways to use it. Also, I'd guess that those with Grafts would be more likely to take at least one negative Bond; the bigger die size and the lessened utility are actually beneficial there, in a way, because you'd probably just burn it with a Graft-related roll rather than use it as a Bond on its own. That may be a problem, but I'm still mulling it over.

Anyway, it was a good time, and the three new players liked the system, the setting, and their characters (we did chargen at the table), so I don't think I could ask for anything more than that. Hudson stretched the system a bit by taking a pet dog as a Contact, which sort of challenged the whole notion of how Contacts are used (e.g., in general, Contacts don't travel with you anywhere) but also amply demonstrated that the system is flexible enough to handle something like that with ease.

Another great moment for the system was when Hudson (again with that guy!) wanted to use Resourceful to try to lay his hands on a map of the area, which ended up giving him a d4 Map Tool (hey, MapTools!). Anytime he did something that might benefit from having a map, he got to add another d4 to his pool. This came into play most prominently when they were negotiating with Grafter gangleader DJ Beastly to get his support in their assault on the Humanists (which the Grafters might want to do anyway, since they and the Humanists are sort of natural enemies). Steve Irwin threw that map down on the table and said, "Here's a map to the nearest Humanist camp," which let Hudson add a d4 to the party's pool for their Friendly roll. Good stuff -- a nice non-standard use of a Tool. Similarly, Neil Patrick Harris (the party's resident doctor and evil scientist) gave the Grafters a couple home-made smoke grenades to sweeten the deal, which meant another d10 for the pool.

The next day, I met with my layout artist to sort through some outstanding layout and art issues. I've given up on trying to make a finished product available on Lulu.com by Gamex (Memorial Day Weekend). I'd rather we all got to do a good job instead of forcing us all to do a fast one. I have no doubt that Leftovers will be a beautiful, well-designed book. I keep telling people I want the layout to be better than the game itself, so even if the game is poorly received by the public, they'll have to admit that it's at least a good-looking book.

In other news, I'm shifting gears for this Simian Circle d10-based contest. The initial idea I had is simply bigger than a 20-page mini-game, and I want to give it all the room it needs. Plus, I love the dice mechanic, and it's something I'd rather develop independent of any other artificial constraints. So in its place, I think I'll finish up [CLASSIFIED]. It has a lot more potential as an anthology game than Last Resort does (that's the name -- Last Resort), in that it requires virtually no setting for it to be understood by the average gamer. It has a cool resolution mechanic of its own (IMO, anyway) and a bit of retro charm without straying too far into high-crunch territory.

Monday, April 12, 2010

[CLASSIFIED]: Damage Redux

I've never written anything quite this... uh... math-intensive before. It's not especially math-intensive in play -- there's a table lookup, a d100 roll, and the multiplication of two single-digit numbers -- but figuring out everything on the front end has been a challenge. I knew I had a solid concept with the way I wanted to do damage, but sorting it out so it all makes sense, and works in a way that makes sense to provide results that make sense, has taken a lot of trial, error, and math.

Most of the original idea is still there. On a successful attack, there's a roll for hit location that doubles as a damage roll -- every location has its own damage rating. Multiply that number by the weapon's Damage Factor (DF) to get the total damage dealt. Compare that number to the target's Toughness:
  • If it's less than his Toughness, he shakes it off. No big deal. This is only likely to happen with run-of-the-mill unarmed attacks. Bullets, knives, clubs, etc. can't be dealt with as easily as fists.
  • If it's between Toughness +1 and three times Toughness, the target gets a 1st-Degree Injury (1DI). The exact effects of this vary by hit location, but in general these are single-round effects: a penalty to actions (something like -4 skill -- modifiers always affect the skill, and never the roll itself), or dropping whatever that hand was holding, and so on.
  • Between three times Toughness and five times Toughness, it's a 2nd-Degree Injury (2DI). These are more serious: broken bones, ruptured organs, severe bleeding, and the like. Penalties associated with these injuries are longer-lasting, usually for the length of the scene, if not longer.
  • More than five times Toughness and it's a 3rd-Degree Injury (3DI). These are debilitating, up to and including death. They're scene-enders for the victim, more or less, but still location-specific. A 3DI to the hand is a lot different than one to the head, but either one's going to ruin your day.
That Toughness score? It's the total of the character's Brawn and Focus. That means it's likely to range between 2 at the minimum and, say, 7 at the maximum. A Toughness of 7 would be remarkably high. You'd pretty much have to devote your entire character to just being "the tough guy" to get that.

Yeah, exactly.

It's important to remember -- I had to keep reminding myself, in fact -- that we're not dealing with anything along the lines of hit points here. All we care about is how the hit location times the DF compares to the target's Toughness score. That's it. Thus, it's not as easy as saying "A shot to the head is almost always going to be worse for you than a shot to the hand." In fact, that's almost an irrelevant consideration.

What happens when you stab someone in the head? It's real bad for them, sure. What happens when you stab them in the hand? It's not as bad for them overall, but it's still going to jack up that hand. In mechanical terms, hands should take 2DIs about as frequently as heads do, but the difference is that injury's holistic effect. The head injury has a greater effect on the target's ability to function and even stay on his feet, whereas it's not totally inconceivable that he could completely lose that hand and still be in the fight (albeit distracted by the bloody stump where his hand used to be).

Another issue is that I can't ignore the different threats posed by fists and blunt weapons and those posed by edged weapons and firearms. Keeping in mind the above stuff re: head and hand, being punched in the hand is highly unlikely to be a big deal, but a fist to the face is another story. Even a club to the hand won't be a huge matter -- you can break it, sure, but odds are slim that you'll render it useless forever. However, a .45-caliber round to the hand is going to be pretty devastating as far as that hand's future is concerned. So's an axe blade. You might lose the hand altogether.

There's some cinematic-type consideration here, too. Yeah, sometimes the most mundane and unlikely attacks will totally incapacitate a person, or extraordinary circumstances will intervene when double-barreled death looks like an absolute certainty, but I'm drawing inspiration from movies that aren't exactly sticklers for realism. This is Connery and (God help me) Moore, not Brosnan and Craig. I don't want every tire-iron to the arm to result in a broken limb, nor do I want every head shot to mean instant death for everyone. I want fists and clubs to have the potential to cause serious injury without guaranteeing they will, and I want bullets and blades to tend to be brutal without losing the possibility that they won't be. It's a fine line to walk, I've found.

So blunt and -- for lack of a better word -- "lethal" attacks have different location-specific damage ratings. Same probabilities, same basic table, different associated damage numbers. Likewise, instead of DFs ranging from x1 to x5, as I previously had wanted to do, now they go from x1 to x8, roughly following these guidelines:
  • x1: Unarmed attacks using the Brawl skill.
  • x2: Unarmed attacks using the Martial Arts skill.
  • x2 to x4: Bludgeoning weapons.
  • x4 to x6: Edged weapons.
  • x5 to x8: Firearms.
So edged weapons and firearms will always do greater minimum damage than blunt weapons' minimum damage, but a blunt weapon's maximum damage can be equal to or greater than their minimum damage, depending on the hit location.

For example, on the non-lethal hit location table, the head is 8 damage and the hand is 4. You hit someone in the hand with your bare fist and he's likely to shake it off -- his Toughness would have to be 2 or 3 to take an injury from that. However, you punch him in the face, and he'll feel it, because an 8 Toughness is highly unlikely. It'll only be a 1DI, of course, but it's something. Hit him with a crowbar (DF x3), though, and it's another story: 24 damage to the head means a 3DI (i.e., unconsciousness) for anyone with a Toughness below 5, but that 15 damage to the hand is usually going to result in a lesser injury. You might break that hand (a 2DI), but it'll heal.

Compare that to lethal damage. If that attack were with a knife or a pistol, for example, the head would mean 6 damage and the hand would mean 5 -- the difference between the two is much less, because the hand is more vulnerable to these types of attacks. With a pistol, typically DF x6, that's 36 to the head or 30 to the hand. That'll disable the location in question unless your Toughness is 6 or more (you'll still die to the head shot, but at least the hand will still be partially usable).

Yes, it's brutal. I don't have a problem with that.

That's where some resource or other comes in. I've been calling it Cool, but it might be something different. I dunno. Anyway, spend Cool to reduce the DF of an incoming attack. If you can get it down low enough, you can turn a 2DI into a 1DI or even into a "0DI" -- and just shrug it off.

After a bunch of test rolls, I have to say... it works. I'm utterly convinced there's an easier way to do it, mathematically speaking -- surely it isn't really necessary for lethal attacks to have both higher DFs and different damage ratings, for example -- but I'm satisfied with the system as it works now. I may be the only person who'll ever say that about [CLASSIFIED], but that's another issue altogether.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

[CLASSIFIED]: The RPG That Came In From the Cold

So for some reason, fresh on the heels of the relatively rules-light Tales of the Glass Slipper, I've made significant progress on a modern-day espionage game that uses:
  1. Percentile dice.
  2. A big 20x20 table to resolve everything.
  3. Nine stats.
  4. 34 skills in five different categories (plus one derived stat!).
  5. Skill points, the exact number of which depends on your stats.
  6. Multiplication.
  7. Hit locations.
Who would play this game? Man, I have no idea. But I am so taken with it right now, I can't even tell you. I'm dying to see it in action.

It's called [CLASSIFIED] -- the name's an homage to Top Secret, but I also think it has a nice ring to it all on its own. Like I said, I can't imagine interest in it would be very high. It's like a Jurassic Park velociraptor: Recreating a dinosaur's an interesting accomplishment and all, and people might be curious about it, but not many are going to want to get too close to it. What do you call a fantasy heartbreaker than isn't a fantasy game? Is it just a heartbreaker at that point?

Regardless, I'm going to post about it anyway, because I'll enjoy it, and that's what this thing's for, right? (Answer: Yes.)

So where to start? Well, I already posted that awesome table the other day -- that's central to all of this. Just about everything in the system comes down to your skill rating (1-20) vs. either an opposing skill or a difficulty rating (also 1-20). For example, trying to punch someone is a skill vs. skill contest; trying to shoot someone is a skill vs. difficulty contest (specifically, a weapon-specific and range-specific difficulty). The percentage chance for you to succeed is X/(X+Y), where X is your skill and Y is the opposing skill or difficulty rating. The nice thing about this is that even with a 20 skill, your odds are never greater than 95%, and that's against a 1 skill -- which is, like, not especially likely. Against a 10, you're still only looking at a 67%, so the min-maxing factor is reduced a bit.

The nine stats are divided into three categories: Physical (Agility, Brawn, Dexterity), Mental (Awareness, Brains, Focus), and Social (Charisma, Empathy, Style). The skills are divided into five categories: Combat, Balance and Coordination, Subterfuge and Infiltration, Interaction and Deceit, and Academics. Characters start with a number of skill points, also divided among those five categories; the amount you have to spend in each category is the sum of the category's two key stats. You also get additional Background skill points equal to Brains + Charisma + Focus to regardless of category. This is stuff you either picked up before you became a spy/assassin/whatever, or learned on your own time since then.

Each skill starts with a base rating equal to the sum of two stats. Advanced skills, like Explosives and Medical, halve this base rating. (I figure this is easier than charging double for them or something.) I've tried to consider both game balance and verisimilitude for each skill's two stats. Usually, every skill within a category will use at least one of that category's two key stats. For example, most of the Combat skills involve Focus, which is all about willpower and discipline, because I think it's interesting to address, in mechanical terms, the guts it takes to wade into combat or pull a trigger. Marksmanship is Awareness (sensory perception) and Focus, Martial Arts is Agility (bodily control and coordination) and Focus, Heavy Melee Weapons is Brawn and Focus, and so on. At character creation, skill points improve skills on a 1:1 basis.

As for combat, damage is the product of two factors: hit location and the weapon's Damage Factor (or DF, because a game like this needs all the acronyms it can get), which ranges from x1 to x5. Most guns would be around a x3 or x4. Unarmed attacks are x1. Melee weapons are x2 to x4; if your Brawn's higher than the weapon's DF, increase it by +1. Each hit location comes with its own damage. Multiply that by the weapon's DF to get the damage dealt by the attack. Believe it or not, there are no hits points. (I know, I'm surprised too.) Injuries come in three degrees: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. The higher the degree, the worse it is. The degree is determined by your Toughness (Brawn + Focus).

If the total damage is less than your Toughness, you shrug it off -- you're just too much of a badass to be affected by it. If it's more than your Toughness, but less than three times your Toughness, it's a 1st-degree injury. From there up to seven times your Toughness, it's a 2nd-degree injury, and if it's more than that, it's a 3rd-degree injury. If a location already has an injury of a particular degree and you take another to that location of the same or a lesser degree, you take the next-highest degree instead -- so if you already have a 2nd-degree injury to a hand (either one) and you take a 1st-degree injury to that same hit location, that hand now has a 3rd-degree injury. First-degree injuries are relatively minor, and often do nothing more than take up an injury slot -- it might leave a mark, or you might drop your gun, but other than that the main danger is that you can't take another one of those in that location without it getting worse. Second-degree injuries are things like fractures and significant bleeding. Third-degree injuries usually involve whatever's hit being rendered useless. If that's your head, then... well, you get the idea.

That's why you need to be Cool. Cool is a resource spent to adjust an attack's DF. Spend it on your own to increase DF; if you're the target of an attack, spend Cool to reduce the attack's DF. Thus, a punch has potential to do a Houdini-killing amount of damage, and a head shot from a 10-gauge can be reduced to a glancing blow.

How do you earn more Cool? I dunno yet. Put that on the list of to-dos.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

You Only Cross-Reference Twice

OMG, I'm obsessed with this table I made yesterday:

(click on it to see it full-sized)

Attacker's skill is the Y-axis; defender's is the X-axis. Cross-reference attacker's skill with defender's and roll that number or less on d100. Formula is Y/(X+Y) = Target Number. Against someone of equal skill, you're evenly matched. After that, your odds of success are essentially how much "dog" you have in the "fight," as it were. This was inspired by ShanG of RPG.net and his quest for his ideal dice mechanic.

I'm unreasonably enthusiastic about putting this dinosaur to work in a Top Secret-like espionage game. Why not just play Top Secret? Because... I dunno. Because I like this table, that's why.

I mean, I'd like to play Top Secret again, but I honestly think the odds of running this as a playtest of some kind are better than the odds of getting a group together to play a 30-year-old game like Top Secret. That's just the way it goes, usually. Top Secret isn't RC D&D or anything -- it's pretty crunchy, with lots of little calculations to be done and modifiers to be considered. It doesn't have the charm of a rules-light old-school classic like OD&D or T&T. There are arguably better options to serve your espionage gaming needs these days.

(I've thought about doing a retro-clone of Top Secret called Open Secret, but... then I made this table, so....)

So this, then, would be something like an homage, what with the roll-under d100 mechanic and all, but after that they don't have a lot in common. I did an embarrassing amount of work on the rest of this last night in the wee hours. It all came out in a feverish stream of skills and derived stats.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Game-Fu 8: Tales of the Glass Slipper

Today I finished off my Game-Fu entry, which I ended up calling Tales of the Glass Slipper. The extra week we were given to complete our games resulted in mine being much more complete than I could've imagined last week. There's art! An index! The impression that, at some point in the process, layout was briefly considered! I'd say it looks pretty good, considering it was created using MSWord and MSPaint.

You can take a look at it here, if you've a mind to, but be warned that it's 4+ megs. Must've been all that art. (By comparison, the latest version of Leftovers is less than 1 meg.) Forty pages in the end, including the cover, TOC, and index. That's five times longer than I'd thought it'd be, back in the day. Were we ever so young?

As for the name: The PCs in the game are members of a knightly order called the Order of the Glass Slipper. This organization is charged with something along the lines of "inventory control" for the Fairy World. When fairies run off to the World of Man with a fairy-tale treasure, it's their job to track 'em down and get it back. No pun-name for me this time.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Game-Fu 8: Oh, the Hardships of Game Design

Well! That additional week to work on this game has resulted in another 15 pages or so -- so far. I'm guessing about 40 pages by the time I'm done. I can't believe I ever thought this would fit on eight pages. Sheesh.

So here's a little interesting game-design moment: I'd decided to use the "Character sheet fits on an index card, front and back" ingredient, specifically because I thought it'd be cool to have one side be the character's mortal self, and the other be the character's fairy self. Besides, there are so few stats to worry about -- Gifts, Curse, Possessions -- that I knew I'd be able to fit everything on there with room to spare.

(I still consider this a huge strength, BTW -- making a character is literally picking four or five Gifts and one Curse from a few lists,)

The way I'd finally settled on tracking damage was with Hardships -- take some damage (in short, points of effect achieved by your opponent in combat) and it turns into a short phrase describing what just happened to you. Yes, they're pretty much just consequences from FATE.  You wanna make something of it?

The original plan was to put them in three rows on the index card, in two separate columns on each side: physical and mental on the mortal side, and magical and mental on the fairy side. The lower the row, the worse the Hardship. Every point of damage becomes a Hardship, so being shot for three points of damage means recording three physical Hardships, one on the top row, one in the middle, and one on the bottom.

But that soon became rather impractical. What's a magical Hardship, anyway? The magic rules are pretty all-or-nothing; you spend your effect to determine the bounds of your spell, so there'd never be any left over to deal "damage," really. Plus, none of the different types of magic are directly damaging in the first place. Fairy tales aren't exactly rife with fireballs and magic missiles.

So okay, new plan. I'll have one column to handle all Hardships, but with three spaces on the top row, two in the middle, and one on the bottom, and assign damage limits to each row. Y'know, 1, 2, and 3 damage corresponding to the top, middle, and bottom rows. By filling them all up at once, you could take as many as six points of damage at once without going down, but you'd be really, really messed up.

Then I went to draw that on the index card, and the three spaces on the top row took up, like, three-quarters of the width of the card. So that got nixed for being impractical, in favor of just one space in each of three rows: The top for hits dealing 1 or 2 damage, the middle for 3 or 4 damage, and the bottom for 5 or more damage. If one row is full, go on to the next one.

But... well, really, that's not much different than just saying "You can take three Hardships." Five-damage hits are going to be exceedingly rare, so odds are good that you'll end up taking three 1- or 2-damage hits and filling those spaces sequentially. I worked a couple variations on that, but they all ended up with pretty much the same problem.

Finally, I realized something. The concept is sound, but why lock these Hardships down with pre-defined damage ratings? It's needlessly restrictive both mechanically and narratively. It's also needlessly almost identical to how I treat consequences in FATE, and surely I could put a little distance between us, for once.

So here's where I ended up. You can take up to 5 points of damage in Hardships. When you take damage, write down the Hardship and the amount of damage you took to get it in parentheses next to it. When those numbers exceed five, you're out.

But! I'd been working from the idea that each Hardship your opponent had would mean +1d6 for you, not to exceed +1d6 per row (just to keep the dice pools manageable). Without rows, how does that work? I don't want to do +1d6/Hardship, because again, that'll make dice pools too big. So instead, you get a number of additional d6s in your pool equal to the damage rating of the highest-rated Hardship your opponent has. Yes, this could potentially mean getting +5d6, but the odds of that are low -- and that guy's dead meat anyway, if he's already taken that much damage at once. It's far more likely that you'll take only 2 or 3 damage at once. Plus, typical NPCs will only be able to take a max of 3 damage or so.

So anyway, that's where things are. All that additional material I've written? Fluff that wouldn't even occur to me. I realized I hadn't explained a bunch of central setting conceits, but had left most of them implied. I'm still waist deep in it, but making good progress.

Also, art! I leaned on Andy to draw a few pieces for me, and they're great.