Thursday, June 9, 2011

More Apocalypse World/Cyberpunk

I forgot to say the best thing about the cyberpunk/apocalypse world game we're playing, which is the rules for the internet, which is just "open your brain" with no changes at all. It it sweet, sweet, sweet, and absolutely just like what the internet is like. Sometimes the internet is friendly and nice. Sometimes it's scary and dangerous. Sometimes it shows you eight hours of wierd porn instead of what you wanted. The internet is the psychic maelstrom.

The game is heating up. I was a bit worried about it at first, but the rules are doing their thing, spinning simple situations into wonderfully gnarled disasters.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Kinds of Rules

Here's something I said on Vincent's blog, which I think is kinda smart. It's about classifying different kinds of rules. I'm usually pretty skeptical about classification systems, but I think maybe games are better when they use a variety of different "kinds" of rule, which this may help with:

Rules can usually be broken down to an "if/then" statement. That's almost never the best way to communicate them, or to remember them, but for the purposes of this analysis, it's useful.

"If [thing] then [action]"

The "thing" referred to above can:

a) Happen in the real world, or in the fiction
b) Happen frequently, or rarely

The "action" referred to above can:

c) Tell you something happens in the fiction, or tell you to do something in the real world
d) Be very predictable, or very unpredictable

I think that covers what Ben's talking about in this post, as well as Vincent's "Mediating Cues" stuff.

Very often, if the "thing" is very common, and the "action" is very predictable, we tend to internalise the rule, and it's never overtly invoked. That's what Ben means by "continuous" rules. They become part of the landscape of play. For example:

"If [someone is talking about something 'their' character does] then [give that credibility - it happens in the fiction]"

That's a very common rule, which is almost never invoked during functional play, because it happens very frequently, and the action is very predictable. The rule is rarely stated outright, but the rule influences our play anyway.

"If [a character is going aggro], then [roll +hard, ...]"

That's a rule from Apocalypse World. It's almost always invoked when it comes up, because it happens infrequently, and the resulting action is unpredictable (in this case, because you have to roll the dice).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Guest Post on Border House

I have a guest post up on the fantastic blog "Border House" about the process of getting a piece of cover art for my game On Mighty Thews.

Check it out!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Moorcock on World Building

My buddy Steve showed me this great quote from Michael Moorcock, which sums up exactly the approach to world-building used in my game, On Mighty Thews:

I hardly know what this means. I used to draw a rough map if the story was a 'journey' adventure and made up the rest as needed for the story. My worlds are always inner (unconscious) worlds made manifest. I just learned to tap and shape that unconscious. I've never really understood 'world building' and it seems to derive from D&D etc. about which I know almost nothing.

I honestly believe this is what Howard was doing and what Leiber was doing. I grew up reading Freud and Jung (as it were) and I respond well to plots about people creating their own worlds in their minds. When writing s&s I made my landscapes and weather conditions fit the mood of the characters in straight Romantic tradition. Everything is co-opted into narrative and to a lesser extent character development. Realism or quasi-realism wasn't what I was attracted to in s&s and it's what I rejected in fantasy/sf. It became a convention to suspend disbelief by making the invented world as 'believable' as possible. I preferred mine to be as supportive of the story as possible and not bother to suspend disbelief because my readers already knew what they were reading and why. You don't have to persuade someone who has picked up a fantasy book that it is 'real'. What they want is a good story and characters, some good marvels, and maybe a bit to think about.

That's how you do it. I wrote a little about On Mighty Thews' map rules, which follow this process exactly, here.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

On Mighty Thews - Available for Purchase

In 2007 I was living in Japan, starved for gaming, and reading about amazing developments and innovations in design I was missing. I wanted to be playing these games, exploring these new ideas about play, and contributing to that conversation. But I was stuck in the wilds of Hokkaido, with no one to play with, and no way in.

Into that situation came my friend Rob. A victim of the collapse of the Nova English school, he was stopping past on his way back to New Zealand. Two or three nights, my chance at gaming for the first time in a year. I wanted something to play with him, something easy and fun, that showed off some of the exciting new ideas in gaming I'd discovered and wanted to explore. I hit the web, looking for something to play. "Donjon" was one of my favourites, but it was too complex, and the D&D parody aspect wasn't my thing. Dungeon Squad looked fun, but it was too traditional for what I wanted. I knew we wouldn't have the time or the inclincation for lots of prep or world-building. Time was limited, so I wanted to get into it right away. Nothing on the internet seemed to satisfy my needs: Quick, easy, "player-empowered" gaming.

So I wrote the game I needed myself.

The first iteration was a rough mashup of Donjon and Dungeon Squad, using some bits of my old favourite, Savage Worlds. I wrote it in fifteen minute while Rob waited in the other room. "We'll play for one scene", I said, "and see how it goes."

We played for two hours.

It was fun, it was easy. It showed off some of the exciting new ideas I was reading about. It did the job. There were rough edges, and I made most of the procedures up as I went along, but the idea was solid: If each player is called upon to create just a tiny bit of fiction, something fun and interesting, a little bit at a time, what the group creates together can be something greater and more exciting than they could have imagined.

I played the game non-stop for the next year. I introduced it to everyone. I met friends in Japan who loved to game and we played it every chance we got. I worked on the rules, defining the procedures and honing the rules to get at just what I wanted. Into the mix I added my love of Sword and Sorcery.

I was re-reading a lot of Moorcock, and discovering Tanith Lee and Clark Ashton Smith. The weird worlds these authors created seemed perfect for the games I was playing, filled with the bizzarre and the outre. My old favourite, Robert Howard's Conan, provided the style of action I wanted to create - bloody, visceral, filled with dangerous feats and daring escapes.

There was something I was trying to get at, something I loved (but not uncritically) about sword-and-sorcery stories. It was the way the characters lived in a kind of limbo, halfway between one thing and another. Conan, half-civilised, half-savage. Elric, caught between his fate and his passionate free will. These characters embodied a conflict that was reflected in the world around them.

Malcolm Craig (of Cold City and Hot War fame) provided the impetus to get the game finished. The game we played convinced me of its potential to provide really compelling fiction. Malcolm was excited about the game, and gave me the push to get it finished.

That was a journey in itself. Publishing is hard - far harder than designing. It's taken me years to get the game to its final state. In that time, the gaming world has moved on. What was cutting-edge in 2007 is old-hat now. My own tastes in gaming have changed, and what I'm excited about now is not what I was excited about then. On Mighty Thews is now an old-fashioned game.

But when I read over the text, when I look at the emails playtesters sent me, and when I think about the games I played, I can see there's still life in this game. It's not revolutionary, it's not life-changing, but it's a solid, fun, functional game, and it fills a niche.

If you have a couple of hours to fill, one or two friends, and a love of sword and sorcery stories, you could do worse than giving this game a go. I think you'll love it.

I'm proud to announce that my game, On Mighty Thews, is available for sale.

You can buy the pdf ($5) through its page at the un-store, here.

And check out the website for free downloads here.

Apocalypse World/Cyberpunk

I recently played the first session of an Apocalypse World game I'm MCing, where the concept is an Apocalypse World that's more cyberpunk-influenced. We're using the core rules, unchanged, but altering our setting expectations.

A key influence is the book "He, She, and It" by Marge Piercy. This is a fucking great book, and I can't understand why it's not part of the core cyberpunk canon. It was written in 1991 and won an Arthur C Clarke award, and yet somehow people who will happily rave at you about Blade Runner and Neuromancer and Snow Crash have never heard of it. I suspect if it had been written by "Mark" Piercy, and if it didn't have so many icky girly feelings in it, it would be more popular.

The setting of the book is one of environmental and societal collapse. A few large corporations control most of the resources, much of the world is uninhabitable, and most people live in giant sprawling burbs around the corporate enclaves, or else in independant towns struggling to survive in the wilderness. We've pretty much stolen that setting wholesale.

One of the things I'm finding exciting about doing the prep for the game after the first session is how the rules for threats are sparking off the setting in really provocative and unexpected ways. A mercenary working for one of the corps becomes a grotesque threat - a mutant, who craves restitution and recompense. The character leaps to life in my mind. The sprawling burbs aren't just a place to live, they're a landscape threat - a breeding pit, generating badness. The place takes on a life of its own.

As with the last game of AW, things feel a little thin after the first session. I'm worried that there's too much of a status quo, that we'll have to work hard to destabilise things, and I'll be working against the characters' best interests to change things up in the town. The character class mix is part of that. We have an Angel (with a clinic), a Savvyhead, and an Operator, all characters with established operations they're loath to jeopardise. We'll have another player joining us next session though, who hopefully will add some violence to the mix.

There are some juicy things coming out of the first session though: Mother/daughter conflicts, drug addiction, a creepy stalker in a position of power, shadowy corporations, a mysterious illness. I'm looking forward to seeing where they go, and trusting that, like the last game, the sauce will thicken up with cooking.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Stock Photos

Nowhere is the tyranny of white supremacy, patriarchy, and agism more visually apparent than in stock photo galleries.

"Woman" means "sexy woman".
"Police officer" means "white police officer".
"Person" means "young white man".

It is seriously grinding my gears.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Stakes Setting

This thread on Story Games is what I'd like to see more of on that site, and I hope that it doesn't turn into a stirring defence of Shock: that would make people feel better but wouldn't really achieve anything else. There are real issues to discuss. Here's what I said on the thread:

"The issue of "downtime" in Shock: (and it is a real issue) is the same issue as exists in almost all stakes-setting games. Here's what I see the problems being:

a) There's uncertainty about when to engage the resolution mechanic. Has a conflict started yet or not? Sometimes, especially with talking conflicts, you're halfway through the conflict before you realise that you should be rolling dice.

b) Deciding what the stakes are takes time. Often there's negotiation, and that negotiation takes place outside of the fiction of the game. This problem is sometimes worse in Shock: because you have to decide on two non-contradictory sets of stakes, which isn't always easy.

c) Often if your resolution system is complex, it takes time to resolve who won which stakes. If resolution doesn't add more than yes/no to the fiction, this can feel like wasted time. I actually think Shock: is fairly economical in this regard.

d) Incorporating the results of the resolution into the fiction is often complex. If resolution assigns narration, that can be a help, but often there's a pause as people unpick the ramifications of what has been resolved (Shock:'s double-stakes can add to that).

e) Throughout, there's often an issue where it's not clear who is supposed to be talking, who has responsibility for deciding when there is a conflict, and how you arrive at good stakes. I think Shock: is better than many games in clarifying these issues, but they still exist.

In other words, I think Shock: uses the best technology that was available at the time it was written. These problems are more-or-less present in Dogs in the Vineyard, Legends of Alyria, Cold City, and a lot of other well-regarded games that use stakes-setting as part of resolution. I expect that Human Contact will contain a lot of advances that will help with the above issues, based on Joshua's evolving understanding of how to play the game."

I'll go further here. I think that roleplaying games currently are only scratching the surface of good design. Most games up until now have been average at best, in terms of what they can potentially be. Games like Dogs and Shock and Sorcerer were all brilliant and cutting edge when they were written, but they use old technology. They're steam-powered.