Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Sexiness and RPGs

Still waiting to see where the Story Games thread about this will go. I wanted to pull out a thing I said there (which I originally said on Vincent's blog):

Roleplaying is a really intimate, intense, vulnerable act. It's kinda sexy, even. But for a lot of us we learnt to play, and most of our experiences of play are with groups of just men (or boys) often during adolescence, a time of incredible insecurity, messed up interpersonal relationships, and frequntly homophobia (and the attendant hatred of the feminine, and anything that makes you vulnerable). Basically, roleplaying is kinda gay, so we butch it up with swords and guns and fighting and shit.

I think we also inherit from that tradition a stringent divide between players and characters. I think a lot of games really strictly police that boundary, maintaining the fiction that it's just a game, that it's not personal.

I think there's fertile ground for design in breaking down that barrier - play that's more personal, more intimate, more dangerous. Whether people want to play those games is another question. To be honest, I'm not sure if I'm even ready for that, or who I'd play with.

It's kind of where I'd like my most recent project, Dungeonfuckers, to go.

Monday, November 22, 2010

World of Conan - Done!

It's done! Or, it's as done as it's going to be! (Unless I get some serious internet love for it, in which case who knows?)

Here's the link.

Feedback is welcome, either here or to my email, simoncarryer at gmail.

Which reminds me, I forgot to put my name on it. Don't steal it, anybody!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Give yourself over...

When you give yourself over to the inexorable urgings of your blood, roll +weird. On a hit, you hold yourself in check. On a 10+, hold 3. On a 7-9, hold 1.

Spend one hold to:

- When you inflict harm, inflict +1 harm.
- When you take harm, take -1 harm.
- When you act under fire, roll +1

On a miss the MC will make a hard move.
What does giving yourself over to the inexorable urgings of your blood look like? That’s for you to answer, but probably look at your race for some clues.

World of Conan is pretty much done! I'd love to get an external eye to read over it before I show it to the world though. Let me know if you've got a spare 20 mins to give it a once-over.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

World of Conan - The Sorcerer

Here's a playbook for the AW Conan hack I'm fiddling with. He's pretty nasty.


Stygian, Khitan, Vendyhan, Zamoran, Pict, Thurian, Lemurian, Other.

Man, woman, other.

Frail body, lanky body, starved body, powerful body, desiccated body.

Stony eyes, crazed eyes, hollow eyes, piercing eyes, blazing eyes.

• Steel+1 Thews+1 Allure-2 Cunning+1 Weird+2
• Steel=0 Thews=0 Allure+1 Cunning=0 Weird+2
• Steel+1 Thews-2 Allure-1 Cunning+2 Weird+2
• Steel+2 Thews-1 Allure-1 Cunning=0 Weird+2

Choose 2:

Whispers: you can roll+weird to get the effects of going aggro, without going aggro. Your victim has to be able to see you, but you don’t have to interact. If your victim forces your hand, your mind counts as a weapon (1-harm ap close loud-optional).

All-seeing eyes: when you read someone, roll+weird instead of roll+cunning. Your victim has to be able to see you, but you don’t have to interact.

Mesmerism: when you try to seduce someone, roll+weird instead of roll+allure.
Genius: When you declare retroactively that you’ve already set something up, roll+cunning. On a 10+, it’s just as you say. On a 7–9, you set it up, yes, but here at the crucial moment the MC can introduce some hitch or delay. On a miss, you set it up, yes, but since then things you don’t know about have seriously changed.

Immortal: when you meet someone important (your call), roll+steel. On a hit, they’ve heard of you, and you say what they’ve heard; the MC will have them respond accordingly. On a 10+, you take +1forward for dealing with them as well. On a miss, they’ve heard of you, but the MC will decide what they’ve heard.

Visions of death: when you go into battle, roll+weird. On a 10+, name one person who’ll die and one who’ll live. On a 7–9, name one person who’ll die OR one person who’ll live. Don’t name a player’s character; name NPCs only. Thee MC will make your vision come true, if it’s even remotely possible. On a miss, you foresee your own death, and accordingly take -1 throughout the battle.

Death Spell: your pointed finger and a spoken word counts as a weapon, (6 harm ap close reload). If you are using a Death Spell, on a miss, you take 6 harm ap.

Youthful guise: in darkness or near-darkness, you have allure+2.

Master of Darkness: you get +1 weird (weird+3)

Then choose two pieces of Sorcerer gear:

Books of Lore: When you spend hours poring over your books of lore, hold 1 (max 1). Spend 1 hold to use any Sorcerer move, even if you don't have the move.

Altar Stone: When you sacrifice a human life or goods worth 1 riches on your altar, ask 1:
• who wishes me harm?
• which enemy is most vulnerable to me?
• which enemy is the biggest threat?
• what should I be on the lookout for?
• what’s my enemy’s true position?

Demon Familiar: The demon familiar counts as a weapon (3 harm remote alive, 2 armour). If you use the demon familiar with a move, on a miss it suffers any consequences, as an NPC, not you.

Mummy Dust: Mummy dust is a weapon (hand s-harm infinite).


Everyone introduces their characters by name, look and outlook. Take your turn. List the other characters’ names.

Go around again for Hx. On your turn:

• You are mysterious and inscrutable. Tell everyone Hx=0.

On the others’ turns,
Choose the character who you’ve sworn assistance to. Whatever number that player tells you, ignore it; write Hx+3 next to the character’s name instead.

Everyone else, whatever number they tell you, give it +1 and write it next to their character’s name. You see the truth about people.

At the end, find the character with the highest Hx on your sheet. Ask that player which of your stats is most interesting, and highlight it. The MC will have you highlight a second stat too.

Sorcerer Special

If you and another character have sex, Roll+weird. On a 10+, hold 3. On a 7–9, hold 2. they can spend your hold, 1 for 1, by:
• giving you something you want
• acting as your eyes and ears
• fighting to protect you
• doing something you tell them to
For NPCs, while you have hold over them they can’t act against you. For PCs, instead, any time you like you can spend your hold, 1 for 1:
• they distract themselves with the thought of you. they’re acting under fire.
• they inspire themselves with the thought of you. they take +1 right now.
On a miss, they hold 2 over you, on the exact same terms.

Sorcerer Improvement

Whenever you roll a highlighted stat, and whenever you reset your Hx with someone, mark an experience circle. When you mark the 5th, improve and erase.
Each time you improve, choose one of the following. Check it off; you can’t choose it again.
__ get +1steel (max steel+2)
__ get +1thews (max thews+2)
__ get +1allure (max allure+2)
__ get +1cunning (max cunning+2)
__ get a new sorcerer move
__ get a new sorcerer move
__ get a new piece of sorcerer gear
__ get a move from another playbook
__ get a move from another playbook

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Red Box Agendas

When I don't get immediate fawning attention for a post on Story Games, I take it to my blog.

Here's a thing I said about how I run red box D&D*, expressed as Apocalypse World agendas and principles.

Make the world seem real
Play to find out who survives
Show off the thing you've made

Do this by saying:

What your prep demands
What the rules demand
What honesty requires
What the principles require, namely:

Principles (not exhaustive):
Look at the player's characters through crosshairs (and your own monsters even more so)
Jump forward with quirky and memorable characters
Interpret the characters' actions charitably - give them a chance to reconsider
Digress occasionally - describe the mushrooms on a cave-wall or the stonework on an archway
Treat your monsters as real, living beings.
Look to the fiction first, and the rules second - roll as a last resort, but always roll when it's called for
Think offscreen (especially about adjacent rooms)
Revel in violence and gore - describe the terrible results of an axe-blow, the screams of dying goblins, the sound of arrows hitting flesh.

Principles for Prep (i.e. dungeon design):
Design an interconnected dungeon (see here for advice)
Include unbeatable threats
Make opportunities for experimentation and exploration
Make your dungeon part of the natural world
But also make it fantastical and weird
Include non-combatants, neutrals, and possible allies

*Mentzer, mostly. Moldvay is for RPG hipsters.

Monday, October 4, 2010

World of Conan

I'm having just about the most fun possible noodling away on a Conan hack for Apocalypse World. Mostly I'm just reconfiguring and rewriting the regular classes, but check it out:

For the Tyrant:

When you send your armies to do battle, roll +army. On a 10+, you drive your enemies before you. You can:
- Capture territory along your border
- Quell rebellion and crush dissent
- Secure contested territory
- Loot and pillage an area, extracting slaves, food, and wealth
On a 7-9, choose one of the above, but:
- You must face your enemy on the battlefield
- You take heavy losses (take -1army forward)
- You incite rebellion and dissent
On a miss, you are exiled, besieged, or face a coup or assasination attempts.

Now I'm working on a replacement for open your brain. I'm thinking "when you give yourself over to the inexorable urgings of your blood..."

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Conflict and Task

Task vs. Conflict resolution is one of my favourite subjects, because it's straightforward, easy to explain, and immediately useful to design and play. This came up in a post on the Barf Forth Apocalyptica forums, and I thought it would be worth sharing more broadly, if only to provide me something to link people to, rather than swamping threads all over the internet.

Here's a task: "Swing my sword at a guy"
Here's a conflict: "Kill a dude"

Here's a task: "Drive my car real fast through the city"
Here's a conflict: "Get to the hospital in time to save my buddy"

Here's a task: "Climb in through a window"
Here's a conflict: "Get into the tower without being seen"

Tasks are what your character is doing. Conflicts are about what your character wants. It doesn't matter what scale your conflicts and tasks are at. Tasks are what the characters are doing - what's happening in the fiction. Conflicts are about the outcome - what do we care about?

All instances of play have task resolution. A character does a thing, and there's a way of finding out whether they do it well or badly. That system could be explicit in the text, or it could be implied (usually they're explicit though). The system could use some kind of randomiser or other resolution "Roll a d20, add your skill, and try to beat the number the GM says" "See if your Skill score is high enough for the task you're doing, and if it is, you do it well" or it might not: "Say how well your character does a thing. That's how well they do it".

I say "all instances of play" because although the text of the game's rules might not say anything about it, as soon as you have fictional characters in your game performing any kind of action, you have a system for deciding how well they do them.

All instances of play have conflict resolution. A character wants a thing, something is in the way, and there's a way of finding out if they get what they want or not. That system could be explicit in the text, or it could be implied (in traditional games, they're often implied or absent). The system could use some kind of randomiser or other resolution "roll a d10, add your strength. Subtract that number from their hit points. If they've got none left, they're dead" "See if your Will is higher than theirs. If it is, they tell you what you want to know" or it might not: "See how well you did the task, and then the GM will tell you whether that got you what you wanted or not"

That last example is the most common kind of conflict resolution in traditional games. Call of Cthulhu, AD&D (outside of combat), World of Darkness (mostly), all of those pretty much exclusively have systems where the dice tell you how well the character does a thing, and then it's entirely up to the GM whether that gets them what they want or not. People call those "task resolution" games, but in play they have conflict resolution too, it's just handled almost entirely by the GM.

A common thing GMs in those games do is to make conflict resolution depend on task resolution. They'll say "If you make your driving roll, you'll get to the hospital on time" or "If you make your climbing roll, you'll get into the tower without anyone seeing". That's not written down anywhere in the rules text, it's just a thing a lot of people have learnt to do.

Another thing a lot of GMs of these games do is make their decision dependant on their sense of drama and timing "Ok, you've succeeded on your roll, so you're driving fast through the city, and you're nearly at the hospital. But your buddy in the seat next to you, he's burst his stitches and he's bleeding out. You're gonna need to put pressure on the wound and drive at the same time!"

One more thing some GMs do is make their decision based on the needs of the story they have planned in their heads, or that they're imagining the players want. "You're driving fast through the city, you don't hit anything, and you pull up outside the hospital. You run around to the other door to drag your buddy out, but by the time you get there it's too late. He whispers one last thing: "Project... ...Manticore"

So that's one way of doing conflict resolution. Now lets look at an explicit (as in, contained in the rules text) conflict resolution system. D&D3E.

I know. You're all like "But!" and I'm like "Deal with it, haters." D&D3E has an unambiguous conflict resolution system. It's just really difficult to use, time consuming and fiddly, and frequently ignored in play. Except for combat. Combat is the most straightforward conflict resolution system in the game. Let's take a look:

You want to kill a thing, so you take out your sword and hit the thing with it. That triggers the combat conflict resolution system. There's some fussing with initiative and such, but the core of the system determines two things: How well you hit the thing with your sword, and whether or not that kills it. That's task and conflict resolution right there:

"Roll a d20, add your strength and attack bonus, plus any other modifieres, and try to get over the target's AC" This is task resolution. Do you hit it with your sword?

"If you hit, roll a d10, add your strength, and subtract that number from the target's hit points. If they've got zero or fewer left, they're dead." This is conflict resolution. Have you succeeded in making them dead?

All right? Now lets look at non-combat conflict resolution. Your dude wants to climb up a tower into the window, and he doesn't want anyone to see. The DM has prepped this area, so we know where the guards are and how high the window is off the ground, and all that. Lets assume right now that the guards are all elewhere, and all we need to worry about is getting in that window. The system says (and I'm paraphrasing right now because I don't have the books with me) "Roll your climb skill against a difficulty set by the DM. The difficulty is 15 for masonry walls, +5 if it's slimy or wet (which it isn't, according to the GM's prep). If you succeed, you move your speed score in feet up the wall. If you fail by less than five, you move half your speed. If you fail by five or more, you fall."

We roll the dice, you get a 20. So your dude moves 30 feet (your speed) up the wall. That's task resolution.

Is that high enough to reach the window? We look to the DM's prep. If so, you're in, if not, you have to roll again. That's conflict resolution.

In practice, most groups don't rigourously apply the conflict resolution rules in D&D3E, and end up leaving conflict resolution entirely up to the DM, who uses one of the process I described above. D&D3E conflict resolution requires immense dedication to following a lot of fiddly rules, as well as detailed and comprehensive prep from the DM. It's a huge pain in the ass, and hence, in my opinion, not a good set of rules.

Apocalypse World has an explicit conflict resolution system because if you follow the procedure set out in the books, conflicts between fictional characters will be resolved, without the decision being left up to the MC or to any player. Sometimes the MC will have to make a judgement about the fiction of play (will they suck it up, or give in?), and sometimes the player will have to make a decision (inflict terrible harm, or take little harm?), but those aren't usually in and of themselves deciding the outcome of the conflict. Sometimes conflicts won't be resolved by a single move. Sometimes there'll be a whole snopwball of moves before a conflict is resolved. We don't always know whether a given move is going to resolve the conflict right now or not. Sometimes it will be left unresolved for a while, but the immediate situation will have changed. This is what makes Apocalypse World different from explicit stakes-setting games like Dogs in the Vineyard or PTA, and more similar to other conflict resolution games like Sorcerer or D&D3E.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Thing I've Been Thinking About

At the risk of stirring shit up just when folks were starting to have productive conversations.

"Play should be personally and socially fulfilling" is the one big thing to come out of the Forge in the last ten years, apparently. I'm like "Yup. Cool." Creative Agenda, as a thing that exists and makes play personally and socially fulfilling is something I can get behind, no problem. Things happen in a game, stuff changes, on your character sheet, in the fiction of the game, and in the social relationships between the players, and you notice and appreciate that change. You see it as "progress" rather than just change, because you've got a creative agenda.

So no problem with that.

But! I'm not sure that the specific formulation of creative agendas as falling into three general categories of "Story Now", "Right to Dream", and "Step on Up" is a useful way of thinking about Creative Agenda. I don't see it helping in design, nor do I see it helping in fixing problems in play. I do see specific understandings about how to design for Story Now play as being useful, but I don't see correlated insights into Step on Up and Right to Dream play. I do see a lot of arguments and explanations and wars over definitions.

So, anyway. Maybe related to that, maybe not, here's a thing I've been thinking about: There are three general things going on in roleplaying games, all of which seem rewarding to players in greater or lesser degree.


If you looked at the fiction of play as if you were reading a book, what would the book be saying? What's the game "about"? Is it about good triumphing over evil (or failing to do so)? Is it about what difference one person can make in a corrupt society? In the ficton this looks like when you find out that no, your Dog isn't going to shoot that woman in the face, or oh shit yes he is. It's when you discover (to little surprise) that there are no repercussions for killing all those orcs. On character sheets, it's you scratching out that "I will become King" belief, and writing in "I have no use for Kings". It's you checking off that last experience point for killing that dragon, and leveling up your character. Socially, it's having this shared understanding of an issue or an idea not because you've argued about it or maybe even talked about it, but because you've shared a story about it, and maybe you don't quite agree on how to interpret that story but you both see the story itself as true and right.


How does it feel when you're playing? Are you feeling what your character is feeling? Are you sweating over tough decisions for your character, or do they come easy? Is it scary? Is it sad? Is it hard to do or is it easy? In play this looks like how it feels when you are playing The Mountain Witch, and you're looking around the table trying to figure out what Dark Fate the other players have drawn. Or in Apocalypse World, your character is pinned down, under fire, and the MC gives you an ugly choice and you can feel that knot in your stomach. Or in Bliss Stage, that kind of weightless, shadow-punching feeling the first time your character goes into the dream, where you don't know how to make it work and you and the anchor play feel it out together. Most noticeably, it's that thing some people get where if their character is sad, they're feeling sad themselves, or angry, or whatever. I don't experience that so much myself, but it totally happens. I don't know what this looks like on character sheets. Maybe it's the feeling of leveling up a character - choosing different options and thinking about their consequences. Socially, it's that thing where, hey, our characters slept together and we both know that it's just a game and doesn't mean anything, but at the same time it totally does mean something and you flush a little when you think about it.


What skills are you showing off when you play? Acting skills? Like, you're speaking for your character, trying to give a convincing portrayal of emotions, an entertaining performance. Also, it's when you're showing off other skills, like, putting your guy in the right spot in a combat so you improve your chances of winning, or when you think of a smart plan and enact it well. In play it's any time you're speaking for your character, but especially when everyone is watching you speak for your character, the big moments. It's when you spend an hour arguing semi-in-character about the best way for your made-up dudes to attack a made-up fortress. On character sheets, I guess it's choosing the best options to level up your dude, or to demonstrate that you can make a better, more creative, more interesting character. Socially, it's like, when you are around the table, who shines brightest? Who is the best? How well did you do last week, and how well will you do this week. More charitably, it's like, we're all playing at a certain level, and we're all egging each other on, trying to see if we can take it to that next level. How far can we go, as a team? How good can we get?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Review Manifesto

Here's what I want to see:

"I played this game X many times, with Y people, in Z circumstances."

"I think the circumstances in which I played the game had the following effect on play:" (If you do a bunch of stuff in play that's not in the text, talk about that and why you did that stuff. If it's in the text, but maybe not obvious, point it out.)

"I was expecting this from the game, but the experience it gave me was like this"

"The effect of this mechanic on play was to..."

"This aspect of the game was effective in producing this kind of play"

"Games with similar mechanics are the following...'s how this game is the same, here's how it's different"

Criticism sandwich! Say something nice about the game at the beginning and the end of the review. Even if you don't really mean it. Even if you have to work hard to think of something. I cannot overstate how effective this technique is in making people actually read and understand things they don't want to hear.

Comparison with other games, or other techniques (in terms of effect on play, not in terms of quality).

Discussion of principles of design.

I care about what the experience of play is like, and how the game's mechanics influence that experience.

Oh! Make the review as short as you reasonably can, without compromising the content.

Here are some things I don't want to see:

A review of the game as a product. I don't care whether you would recommend I buy it.

A biography of the designer. It's cool to put the game in historical context, but it's a review of the game, not of the designer.

Words like "good" or "bad" or "quality". I think words like "useful", "effective" and "taste" are better (and more useful).

A review of the text. I don't really care if the text communicates effectively or not. Let someone else review for that.

Argument from authority. Don't reference theory in the body of the review, unless it's straightforward enough to be explained right there. It's cool to link to "further reading" at the end though. Quotes in the body are iffy. Only do it if it's really the best way to communicate the idea, not to make it sound like some important internet person agrees with you.

Don't make a whole bunch of other essays required reading for your review. Absolutely draw on that knowledge and those ideas, but if it's too complicated to explain in the review, it's probably not that clever anyhow.

Don't affect academic language. The Academic style is a shibboleth for excluding those who haven't paid their dues to the academic hierarchy. Just write like regular. Conversational.

Here are the kinds of games I think should be reviewed:

Any game. All games. Probably your decision about what to review should be informed by how useful your review will be to helping people understand broader concepts of design and play. So, probably a bunch of reviews of near-identical trad games isn't super useful. But I'd be pretty interested in a good review of a few of the more diverse traditional games.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Master of Illusion

GM's Guide

When the characters aren't doing anything, choose one of the following:

Threaten something they care about
Offer a clue to a mystery
Hint at a greater threat
Introduce immediate danger

When a character does something chancy, have the player roll a die, then choose one of the following:

They get what they want, but with a price
They don't get what they want, but they do get something else

If they rolled a 6, add:
They get exactly what they want
They get what they want, and something else as well

If they rolled a 1, add:
They don't get what they want, and now they're in even worse trouble
They get what they want, but it lands them in even worse trouble

When a character is seeking information, have the player roll a die, then choose one of the following:

They get a small clue, enough to lead them further
They get nothing about what they wanted, but they spot a different opportunity

If they rolled a 6, add:
They get a major break
They get nothing about what they wanted, but some other advantage instead.

If they rolled a 1, add:
They get stonewalled: Nothing
They get nothing, and they land themselves in trouble

In all cases, always:
Misdirect: Don't tell the players which option you chose from the lists. Pretend something in the fiction made it happen.
Make them Work for it: The more the character cares about something, the harder it is for them to get it.

Player's Handbook

Character Creation
Create a character which is a product of your unique artistic vision, and reflects what you desire from play
Make sure your character is compatible with the other characters in the group
Make a character which fits into the setting and story of the game to be played

Players, at all times:
Have your character act as you believe that character would, if they were a real person in those circumstances
Ensure your character is willing and able to follow clues provided by the GM
Speak for your character and have them only act on information available to the character
Express your character's unique personality, and try to "immerse" yourself in the game
Stick with the other characters, and don't fight with them too much
Do not question the Player's Handbook, or the GM

If anyone breaks any of the above rules, choose one of the following:
Accuse them of "metagaming" and make a scene
Complain to the GM that they are hogging the spotlight and being a primma donna
Put up with it, but sulk
Feel smugly superior, and look for a better group

If the player is a woman, add:
Tell them that girls don't understand roleplaying games
Explain to them in simple terms exactly what they did wrong

If you are the GM, add:
Have their character fail more often, until they learn how to do things right

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Modular Pre-gens

I wrote a Story-Games post about the Cold City game I ran at Day of Games, but I wanted to pull out here what I think is the stand-out technique that I used in that game, a technique for producing pre-generated characters, suitable for a convention game or a one-shot, that gives the players some choices about their characters. I think it helps make the players feel connected to their characters and to play them with more nuance and empathy.

I did this for a game of Cold City, but I think it'd work for any game where the characters have shifting agendas or motivations, and where revealing those in play is part of the fun.

I wrote four characters, each with a different national background and a different draw into the situation. By themselves, the characters were fairly stereotyped, straightforward archetypes. An American ex-diplomat, a Russian former soldier, a French Resistance fighter, and a German Bureaucrat.

I also wrote up four "secret agendas", representing a mission given to the character by the spy agency they work for, organisations like the CIA, Gehlen Org, and so on. Here's an example one:

Your Mission: There’s a Soviet mole in the RPA. Intercepted transmissions indicate that they’ve been assigned to this mission, but don’t give any clues to their identity. Find the Russian agent and eliminate them. You have a syringe of insulin which will kill someone without leaving any traces.
Answer now: How did you come to work for the CIA?
Answer during play: Are you willing to kill a colleague, and possibly a friend?
As well as the secret agendas, I wrote "personal motivations", individual motives for the characters, these were also randomly assigned. Here's an example:
You did something terrible during the war, something you can’t forget. Maybe this mission is your chance to redeem yourself, or maybe it’s where you finally meet your punishment.
Answer now: What terrible thing did you do?
Answer during play: What will it take for you to find absolution?
So you'll notice that in those examples there's a bit that says "answer now". After the players chose their characters, I randomly handed out the secret agendas and personal motivations. The players then had to work out how these three elements fit together into a whole person.

My hope was that building the character themselves, out of pre-generated pieces, the players would feel a little more ownership of the characters, and play them with a little more nuance. I've found that sometimes in convention games, players can play their characters as slavishly devoted to whatever cause or motivation they're given at the start of the game. For this game, as I think Cold City requires, I wanted the characters to have multiple conflicting goals. I think having the players work on their characters themselves helped them buy into the characters' goals, but also helped them see those goals as negotiable.

In play, it worked out pretty well. The players all reported feeling pretty connected to their character, and they enjoyed answering the questions before and during play. I was really happy with how that aspect of the game worked out.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Fiction

This is adapted from the introduction to a game I'm writing.

Imagine you’re watching a group of mimes, performing for you. There’s three or four of them, and they’re doing some ordinary thing, like cooking a meal or cleaning the house, except that all the things they interact with are imaginary. They’re very skilled. When one of them picks up a bucket full of water, we see him strain against its weight, even though we don’t see the bucket itself. He sets it down. Another mime picks it up. We still don’t see the bucket, it’s imaginary, but when the mime goes to pick it up, she picks it up from exactly where the last mime put it down. The mimes pass each other things, open and close doors, trip over objects someone else left lying on the floor, and so on. Even though all the things they interact with are imaginary and invisible, as we watch them we feel we can almost see the bucket, or the doorway, or whatever it is. The rigourous discipline of the mimes, treating every object as if it were real, remembering where things are, their weight, their size, creates the illusion of reality. That’s what makes the mime show compelling (and creepy).

In roleplaying games, we’re doing the same thing as those mimes, except that instead of acting out a scene ourselves, we talk about a scene, describing imaginary characters and things. We each take responsibility for describing the actions of an imaginary person, and talking about how they interact with the world around them. Just like the mimes, when one person describes putting something down, the other players can describe their character picking that thing up. The characters pass each other things, open and close doors, trip over things, and they also explore dungeons and fight monsters.

Just like the mimes, the illusion of reality is important. We know the things we describe aren’t real, but we treat them as if they are, in the game. The sword your character wields has a particular weight and length, the weather is a certain way. Your character dodges like so when the strange subterranean horror lurches in her direction. We remember these things, and they form part of the ongoing narrative of play. They take on an illusion of reality.

In roleplaying games, that narrative, the things we’ve said, the weight of your sword, the slavering fangs of the monster, is called the “fiction”.

The rules of the game will sometimes refer you to the fiction of play. They’ll ask you “what is happening now?” and say “when this happens, do this”. You’ll know what rules to use by looking to the fiction of the game. You make a decision about whether the rules apply, but you make that decision based on the things people have said and that everyone has agreed to. It's not the same as looking at a number someone rolled on a die, or the card they drew, or the position of a miniature on a map. But it's not the same as someone making an arbitrary ruling either. You make your decision based on maintaining that illusion of reality. Just like a mime can't walk through the imaginary wall they've created without shattering the illusion, when you look to the fiction in a roleplaying game, you're making a judgement that's constrained by that illusion of reality, the fiction.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Thing I Noticed

Recently I've been interested in how players make decisions during play - how they decide what to say next. I made a diagram of it, and posted in in some places. Here it is again:

The things around the outside are what influence the things on the inside, if you see what I mean. Maybe it's interesting to some people? There's no space for "What would my character do?" I'm not sure if that's a mistake, or the whole point of the thing.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Abandoned Games

Vincent was saying on a podcast somewhere about how folks could talk more about abandoned games - that it's dangerous to think you've gotta publish every idea you have.

Since apparently I do everything Vincent says, let's talk about that!

I'm a really productive writer. Or at least, recently I have been. I can crank out pages and pages of notes for games, polished game-text, layouts, designs and such. I think part of what fuels this is that I absolutely do not edit myself in terms of what I produce. I work on whatever I'm excited about, for as long as I'm excited about it, and then I stop. Recently I've been pushing myself a bit more with On Mighty Thews, but what I find is that I actually do more work on difficult projects like that when I give myself the time to also work on fun, exciting ideas that may never see the light of day.

I used to be worried about being a chronic non-finisher, always starting new projects and never bringing anything to completion. I think what I decided was that this is my hobby, not my job, so there's no reason I shouldn't work on stuff that's fun, even if it might not become something one day. It's valuable for practice and for the joy of it.

Where I do make more of a commitment to finish things is as soon as other people have commited their time to a project. I find it much harder to abandon playtested games, especially when they've been externally playtested. Other people's enthusiasm is a valuable resource, and I'm loath to waste it. It's a conundrum though, because often it's only after playtesting that you really realise that a game isn't going anywhere.

So, with the above in mind, here are two games I wrote just for the fun of it, and for practice. They've never been played, and they maybe never will be:

Beneath the Honeysuckle

Beneath the Honeysuckle is a game I'd been thinking over and stewing in my mind for a couple of years, and then Ben Lehman had a contest to write a game about love, so I banged it all out in a week (the first game contest I've ever entered). It's about Arthurian Knights and Ladies in love, jousting, going on quests, casting spells and doing embroidery. Ben described it as "surprisingly gay", and still owes me a review. I hereby let him off the hook for it though.

There are things I like about the game, and definitely some fun ideas in there. I think the main thing holding me back from finishing it is that I'd never be able to playtest it enough with the players around my town, and the game would need a lot of playtesting to get right. It's got a kind of economy, which I know would need careful balancing and I can't really see myself doing all that work. I'm still kind of in love with the concept though and the art makes me think it would make a really pretty object.

Shadow of the Ninja: Everything you've ever heard about ninjas is true

Shadow of the Ninja I actually kind of sweated over. It took me a few months. It's a game about Ninjas sneaking into fortresses, and the horrible life they lead between missions. It's kind of "My Life with the Master Ninja". I wrote it mostly to get to grips with some of the stuff Vincent was talking about with judgements of the fiction and such. I still like how in the game mostly all the mechanical information you need about a thing is embedded in the description of it.

I guess I think the world doesn't need another game about ninjas? I don't have much insight into the genre, I suppose. There's some stuff in the game about bullying and power, but it's mostly the same stuff that My Life with Master did with more subtlety and power, so I don't feel a pressing need for it to be in he world.

Of course, I'm working on a bunch of other things at the same time. A thing about medieval fantasy war stories, a thing about what if David Cronenberg wrote D&D, and of course On Mighty Thews, which is actually going pretty well at the moment!

Monday, May 3, 2010

The distant future... ...the year 2000

I thought the world would be better if more people saw this:

Friday, April 30, 2010

Conan and Racism

In my continuing project to talk about On Mighty Thews until everyone is sick of hearing about it, here are some things I've been thinking about as I delve into the source material. I've been doing a lot of critical thinking about the pulp fantasy genre, especially Howard's Conan stories, which are my first and greatest love in the genre.

Loving Conan puts me in a pretty difficult position though, given the incredible racism of the stories. How racist are we talking? Pretty damn racist:
The blonde Achaians, Gauls and Britons, for instance, were descendants of pure-blooded AEsir... ...and from pure-blooded Shemites, or Shemites mixed with Hyborian or Nordic blood, were descended the Arabs, the Israelites, and other straighter-featured Semites. - in "The Hyborian Age"
People try to dismiss the racism of the stories by comparing them to other sources from the time, saying Howard was just echoing views popular at the time the stories were written. I'm not convinced. It doesn't make it less racist just because everyone else was doing it too. If you want to make an argument about whether this makes REH a bad person or just someone who lived in a less enlightened time, then go ahead. That's not my issue. I don't care about REH the person, and whether I'd have him over for dinner or whatever. What was going on in his head doesn't matter. What matters is what he wrote, and what he wrote is unambiguously racist:
The hut door opened, and a black woman entered - a lithe pantherish creature, whose supple body gleamed like polished ebony, adorned only by a wisp of silk twisted about her strutting loins. The white of her eyeballs reflected the firelight outside, as she rolled them with wicked meaning. - in "Vale of Lost Women"
So I used to say that I liked Conan despite the racism, that I "read around it", enjoying the action stories and glossing over the racism. But that never quite sat right with me. It felt like a cop out. Racism is so central to what the books are about. The whole theme of the stories is about the difference between civilisation and savagery. Ignoring the racial politics of the stories seems like missing the point. And besides, when I thought about it, I didn't "read around" the racism. I actually enjoyed reading those parts.

Now, maybe it's just the thrill of the forbidden. A guilty pleasure, indulging in the taboo. Maybe it's the seductive simplicity of it, shrugging off the weight of history and enjoying the power and priviledge of being white. That's a pretty ugly thought, and I'd like to think it's completely untrue. But if I'm being honest, there's probably a bit of that going on.

But there's also something else. It was reading Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Tarzan of the Apes" that threw it into relief for me. Tarzan was a big influence on Howard, I'm sure (Burroughs' description of the "Cimmerian darkness" of the jungle seems like an irresistible clue for a possible Conan origin). Burroughs' racisim shares some traits with Howard's:

Presently they reached the center of the village. There D'Arnot was bound securely to the great post from which no live man had ever been released.

A number of the women scattered to their several huts to fetch pots and water, while others built a row of fires on which portions of the feast were to be boiled while the balance would be slowly dried in strips for future use, as they expected the other warriors to return with many prisoners. The festivities were delayed awaiting the return of the warriors who had remained to engage in the skirmish with the white men, so that it was quite late when all were in the village, and the dance of death commenced to circle around the doomed officer.

Half fainting from pain and exhaustion, D'Arnot watched from beneath half-closed lids what seemed but the vagary of delirium, or some horrid nightmare from which he must soon awake.

The bestial faces, daubed with color—the huge mouths and flabby hanging lips—the yellow teeth, sharp filed—the rolling, demon eyes—the shining naked bodies—the cruel spears. Surely no such creatures really existed upon earth—he must indeed be dreaming.

The savage, whirling bodies circled nearer. Now a spear sprang forth and touched his arm. The sharp pain and the feel of hot, trickling blood assured him of the awful reality of his hopeless position.

Another spear and then another touched him. He closed his eyes and held his teeth firm set—he would not cry out.

He was a soldier of France, and he would teach these beasts how an officer and a gentleman died. - in "Tarzan of the Apes"

But then there is also this characiture of a black servant, Esmerelda:

Esmeralda opened her eyes. The first object they encountered was the dripping fangs of the hungry lioness.
With a horrified scream the poor woman rose to her hands and knees, and in this position scurried across the room, shrieking: "O Gaberelle! O Gaberelle!" at the top of her lungs.
Esmeralda weighed some two hundred and eighty pounds, and her extreme haste, added to her extreme corpulency, produced a most amazing result when Esmeralda elected to travel on all fours.
For a moment the lioness remained quiet with intense gaze directed upon the flitting Esmeralda, whose goal appeared to be the cupboard, into which she attempted to propel her huge bulk; but as the shelves were but nine or ten inches apart, she only succeeded in getting her head in; whereupon, with a final screech, which paled the jungle noises into insignificance, she fainted once again. - in "Tarzan of the Apes"

That was really hard to read for me. It was ugly. It felt like an insult, unneccesary hatred sitting in the book like a turd on a tablecloth.

So what's the difference? Why am I cool with reading about "naked savages" and "primitives", but not with Burroughs' caricature?

Here's what I think it is:

I don't believe that an author's intent matters when you're interpreting that work. I don't think Howard's personal racism matters to how we interpret his work. I don't like Farenheit 451 any less knowing that Ray Bradbury thinks it's all about the evils of television. He's wrong. What matters is the words on the page, and how we interpret them in this, modern context. So how do I interpret Howard's Conan stories?

I think the Conan stories, taken as a whole, are about the position of "Man" in the universe, between poles of civilisation and savagery, between the cultured world of cities and technology and sophistication, and the howling wilderness. On the one hand, there is the corruption of civilisation, the filth and the lies and the weakness. Howard has a strong vein of homophobia running through his depiction of civilisation. It is a weakening influence. It makes men soft.

On the other hand, there is the throbbing, black, remorseless jungle. Here, strength prevails, but it is an awful strength, devoid of reason. The primitives are strong but ultimately disgusting, stupid, bent to the will of a stronger white man.

What I see in Howard's Conan is the confrontation of white supremacy with the undeniable humanity of black people. It's an attempt to reconcile the position of white people in a world of increasing social change. It reveals the concurrent fascination with and horror of blackness in our society. The savage is both more powerfully masculine, and yet less fully human, stronger, more vital, and yet more cowed to a stronger will. I think Conan himself is an embodiment of the fantasy of the white man to be fully master of both the savage and the civilised, and yet it's an uneasy fantasy. Conan is a monster. We love him, and yet we are repelled by him.

What if, when we ignore Howard's obviously racist intent in writing the stories, we can see his Conan works not as racist texts, but as texts about racism?

I think that reading Conan today, it reads as a perfect parody of every fear white people have about black people, as an examination of the paradox of the myth of the savage Other. I think Conan shows the natural conclusion of our peverse constructions of the meaning of whiteness and blackness, hysterical masculinty, the peverse fetishisation of purity, justifications for colonialism and slavery, and the continuing opression of people of colour.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

On Mighty Thews - The Grind

I'm working now on layout and design for On Mighty Thews. It's coming along, but it's a long hard process where I'm having to teach myself how to do everything before I even get to the step of making design decisions and implimenting them. I'm getting pretty handy with Photoshop and my layout program now.

I've had some invaluable assistance from Joshua Newman and others at Joshua's design studio. Seriously I don't think this thing would have come together at all without that forum.

On the publishing front, I'm in discussions with Malcolm Craig about a deal to get the game printed with Contested Ground's help. Living in New Zealand makes it punishingly expensive and monumentally difficult to publish overseas, and I think Malcolm's help is gonna make publication possible.

At this stage the whole thing is pure grind. Enthusiasm and love of the game will only get you so far, and I think that dried up for me a while ago. Now I'm running on determination and guilt. I've spent money on this thing, so I'm gonna at least recoup those costs, or break myself trying. I still have faith that it's a good game, a great game even, and much better than it was when I started the publishing process. But the step between "game that's fun for me and my friends and that works fine when I run it" and "game that's reliably fun for people running the game straight out of the book, and that consistently contributes to fun play" was larger than I ever imagined.

I was always an advocate of publishing free games, and I think that worked well for me in the early stages of this design. The ability for the game to be done, and then to come back to it with fresh eyes having received some great external playtesting was invaluable. But I think for me at least the hurdle of taking this game from free on the internet to a thing people spend actual money on has driven me to make the game better than I ever thought it could be. It started as a thing I banged out in five minutes to give me and a friend something to do, and now I think it's a provocative, fun, and sometimes challenging game, with a few genuine innovations.

I think what gives me the drive to actually finish this thing is not my own enthusiasm, but the enthusiasm of others. I'm a productive writer. I've written maybe four or five games since the first draft of On Mighty Thews, but they're all mouldering in my hard drive. They've all helped me to improve as a designer, and been interesting experiments, but I doubt any of them will go firther than they already have. On Mighty Thews is the game I'm taking to completion, and that's fuelled by the enthusiastic contributions of the people who have played the game.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

On Mighty Thews

A while ago on his blog Vincent posted a thing about the "Three Insights" that go into creating an RPG. He says:
First, you're saying something about the subject matter or genre of your game: something you think about adventure fiction, or swords & sorcery, or transhumanist sf, or whatever. Second, you're saying something about roleplaying as a practice, taking a position on how real people should collaborate under these circumstances. Third, you're sying something about real live human nature.
Here's the insights of my game "On Mighty Thews", which will be published this year.

1) Pulp fantasy like Conan, Tarzan, and all the derivative stuff like Jongor and Throngor and so on is basically about "Man's" position between civilisation and nature. Leiber, and then later Moorcock, were more about the tension between predestination and free will. What these things have in common is that the philosophical contradictions exist within the protagonist (Tarzan is a white man raised in the jungle, Conan is a savage mastering the ways of civilisation) but are never resolved within the protagonist. Tarzan never chooses the jungle or civilisation. Conan remains unchanged by his adventures in the civilised world. Elric never meets his fate. Instead, the protagonists inflict their contradictions on the world around them. The adventures are a lens for examining the contradiction at the core of the protagonist.

2) Creativity is kind of a product of the friction between freedom and constraint. Everyone contributing a small, obvious step can create a big, unexpected whole. The tension between protagonists trying to get what they want, and the world standing in their way creates a canvas for players to create a story.

3) I think people are the sum of their actions. We don't have an "inherant nature", and there isn't a "true" self. We exist as competing narratives and the expressions of such. We are what other people think of us.

Until recently, I think I struggled to realise these three insights well in the context of the game. Especially the first. The game was functioning well at producing interesting characters, and good plot. It flows well, with the creative burden passing around the table. But the story of most games never really exceeded pastiche. It was an imitation of a sword-and-sorcery story, rather than an original composition.

But a small change in the rules has, I think, changed all that.

In "On Mighty Thews" you start play by making a map of the world in which the game will take place. Everyone draws a couple of things on the map, and you end up with an exciting world of adventure and mystery. But it always felt a little flat. Sometimes there'd be original and compelling additions, but often they were kind of uninteresting. What was missing was the symbolic import of the locations on the map - their meaning in the world.

I've always been fascinated by old maps of the world - the way the geography was organised into a culturally-specific structure. Roads radiating from Rome. The Vatican as the center of the know world. Christian nations surrounded by the infidel. I wanted some of that symbolic meaning for my maps in "On Mighty Thews".

Characters in On Mighty Thews have a "d20 trait" which is the theme their character exposits. A character with the trait "Violent" will get a small advantage for every scene in which they are violent, and a large bonus for individual actions in which they are non-violent. Through play we see a picture of a person halfway between violence and non-violence. They are neither one nor the other.

My new rule for On Mighty Thews is that before you start drawing your map of the world, you mark "poles" on the map, and write your characters' d20 traits next to those poles. Things on the map near the poles take on the nature of that trait. People who live near the pole of Violence have a culture steeped in violence, while people grow more peaceful as you travel away from it. In this way, the themes of the characters are writ large in the world around them. Their tension becomes not just an internal tension , but a literal struggle between forces in the world. The characters are outsiders, not fitting into any part of the world with ease. They live on borders, they travel, they are wanderers and adventurers, bearing with them the inevitable contradictions of the world around them.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mountain Witch

Last night was the first session of a planned four-session game of the Mountain Witch. TMW's a bit passe now it seems, since everyone's played it so many times, and even I've played it a lot, though this is the first multi-session game of it I've played.

There are things about the game though, which I think are still very interesting in play, and that aren't really present in many other games. Specifically, the way that the Dark Fates create a frisson of secrecy around characters actions, how everything the characters do and say is imbued with a deeper significance because it all gives clues to the Dark Fates, is surprisingly enjoyable even after playing the game a number of times.

I think multi-session play definitely makes the game shine. The limited scenario makes it a tempting game for scenario play, but the development of characters that comes across multiple sessions is adding so much to the game.

With four sessions to play with, I let the first session build very slowly, with almost no conflicts at all. We started play with the Ronin showing up in a grimy sakeya in the village at the foot of the mountain. The terrified villagers make their offer, and the Ronin each accepts. This let the players introduce their character in interesting and often significant ways. Some of them were clearly just in it for the money, while others appeared to genuinely care for the villagers.

We left on a cliffhanger, with the hostess of a dilapidated teahouse who had taken the Ronin in for the night transforming into her Ogre husband. Suitably bizarre for Japanese myth, and certainly a surprise for the Ronin, who were taking an onsen after a hearty meal of the local specialty, live nore sore.

Monday, January 4, 2010


That's Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan, not Kabbalistic Kleptomaniacs Kidnap Ku Klux Klansmen, or anything else.

I'm playing it with a friend on wave, and enjoying the heck out of it all over again. Playing Kyoko instead of the Khan is making me appreciate games with different rules for different character types, and the whole structure of the game, which feels like a kind of shadow-boxing or Capoeira display, is making me thing about Mo's "Push and Pull" in a way that makes it super relevant to game design.

I keep thinking that the game shouldn't work, that there's nothing to push against, that I'll fall over, and yet it keeps working, just fine. As a rule, I dislike games that are just free creation of fiction, without tension or consequences. And yet the game has subtleties that make it work, that provide friction and consequence.

Too much out-of-play discussion would collapse the game, I think, turning it into just another creative writing exercise. But the uncertainty of expectations, the tension between your desires for the story, the other player's desires, and then the sexual nature of the content, preserves a feeling that each statement is a concrete "move" in a game where something real is at stake.

Alien World discovered in Math