Whiffing Forward – the role of failure in roleplaying games

July 21, 2015

DavidLewisJohnson_SYSCOMBAT (2)Whiff – the sound a sword makes in the air when it misses its target.

Failing Forward – a business concept found in a book by John Maxwell where you use the experience from failure to become successful. You learn from what went wrong, innovate, iterate, and keep testing until you reach success.

In discussion about roleplaying games, “failing forward” is often equated with eliminating “whiffing”.  A miss result commits entertainment’s cardinal sin of being boring.  So one of the design trends in gaming is a move away from a repetitive task system with numerous success/fail checks, such as the roll of a twenty sided dice for each attack in the various F20 games.  This can lead to mechanics where:

  • every task check result accumulates towards eventual success
  • mechanic systems that favour attack over defence (because being blocked, dodged, or parried is almost as boring as missing)
  • systems that require narrative input through twists, complications, compels or similar drama creation mechanics when failure occurs
  • systems use meta-currency (e.g. luck points) that players can choose to negate or mitigate failure with
  • escalation mechanics, where the chance or degree of failure diminishes the longer the scene lasts.

A good description on failing forward I saw on rpg.net was a three success level model: hit hard, hit, and fail hard. Eliminate boring failures, and only keep the failures that make life more “exciting” for the players by forcing them to adapt to the new situation and make a decision that can take the game in a new direction.

Meta-currency mitigation simply shifts the problem from one place to another. The characters do not experience any real stress until they run dry of meta-currency. Fumbles almost never happen in my Runequest 6 campaign, because players immediately reroll the dice.

Escalation mechanics add some book keeping, and they can be hard to scale in different dice mechanic systems. For example, 13th Age’s +1 to +6 modifer for escalating works okay on a 1-20 scale, but it would be weak in a 1d100 mechanic system, and overpowered in a 3d6 bell curve mechanic system.

Narrative input can be a burden on the GM. Sure, I want to describe cool exciting stuff, but having to make new stuff up on every second die roll can be exhausting on the imagination. Preparation can mitigate this burden, but I find any session where I have to do a lot of improvisation of complications to be mentally exhausting, rather than energizing. I want to take a closer look at the system Fantasy Flight Games has used in Edge of Empire, but I will have to wait until I can pick up a hard copy in Canada. I am also seeing some Kickstarter games using decks to generate complications in play (the new edition of Paranoia and the Schlock Mercenary Planet Mercenary games).

Failure is important – without failure success is meaningless

One of the oldest bits of gaming advice is “don’t run Monty Haul” games, where the rewards players receive greatly exceed the risks and challenges their characters had to overcome.  If you can never fail, then what feeling of triumph can you truly enjoy as you skewer your fifth dragon before breakfast?

If you always fail, that is not fun. Except perhaps in Paranoia.

If you never fail, that is not fun either. After six movies I got pretty tired of Legolas never missing a shot.

There should be a middle ground, where the characters are vulnerable enough to failure that the game is interesting. In particular, when players make a big “crunch” call about risking their character, the risk of failure should be real. If you know the Dragon cannot really hurt you when you sprint across the bridge to grab the macguffin, you simply do not get the same emotional reward from success.

What do you look back and tell stories about? Using a luck point to avoid damage, or the time your character took the arrow in the back, but managed to roll a critical on the endurance check? If you want better roleplaying game stories, you need failure in your game.

Framing Failure

Two bits of gaming advice I have come across in several places recently. First, only roll dice if the failure is likely to be significant, interesting, or meaningful. Its okay to say “you succeed, now what?” to a player. Do not roll the dice, just to gain some time while you think of an answer for the players about what happens next. Second, is the “let it ride” principle. Roll the dice once, and abide by the result. Do not make a player roll three times to open a lock, make one roll, and maybe make it a little harder if that was you actual intent.

I also think its important to think about how the situation is framed on a timescale/significance spectrum:

  • Individual action – if an action represents individual attacks in a five second period, you need failure to preserve verisimilitude, if your action represents a flurry of activity over a minute, its okay for combat to be of the “up, down, or off the board” variety
  • Individual scene – at this level I think you can tie failure to a single die roll, but it should be a player choice to commit to the action where the die roll is occurring
  • Individual episode – I think you need to tie failure at this level to player choices not die rolls, but some failure should be okay
  • Complete story/season arc – I think some degree of success at this level is important for the players to feel they are making progress and having an impact on the game world around their characters
  • Finished campaign/completed series – what are the players going to be talking about in years to come? The easy successes, or the epic comeback?

Encouraging Failure

Players like to win. All the time. A single escaping mook is a significant defeat. An escaping bad guy is a catastrophic defeat. Conversely, players are not fond of losing. Players like to display bravery by over committing, and rushing in where angels fear to tread. Players are really not good at executing retreats from superior enemy forces.

Literature and visual media do not work like this. The heroes nearly always suffer frequent failures, hard won escapes, and pyrrhic victories before their final triumph. I want to run games that feel a bit like that.

Give Experience Points for Failure, not Success

So here is a thought for gaming. If players succeed in a scene, their characters get the material rewards that were at stake, whether it was a clue to the next scene, a bag of gold, or a kiss from the handsome prince. The characters only get experience for progressing/developing their character’s traits and abilities when they fail a scene.

Tangential Thoughts on Dice Mechanics

Not so much related to the failure topic, but a few other recent game mechanic ideas.

1. Damage Dice Pools

Riffing on Cortex Plus, take a handful of dice, roll them and keep the best two. Use one die for a one handed weapon, two for a two handed weapon, then add dice based on factors like level of skill or degree of success on the task roll. The reason to do this is to keep damage reduction armour in a bounded range (say 1-5 points), so that the damage difference between a dagger and a greatsword is not too different (both should be able to situationally pierce plate armour, but in practice most games give the dagger too low a damage rating for it to be a valid weapon in its historical context). Also because it would amuse me to run a game where the baseline HP number was 13, so a damage system bounded to a maximum of 12 points makes you always vulnerable, but not in one shot territory if fully healed up.

2. Standard Card Deck Combat Consequences

My RQ6 players can spend a long time choosing what each critical effect they have obtained will be. It could be easier to draw one card from a standard card deck:

  • With a Rag card, the 1-10 number is the minimum damage the blow scores, use the dice if they are greater
  • Face cards give you the interesting results (disarms, falls, etc)
  • Joker gives you some kind of interesting choice

3. Some thoughts on d100 die rolls.

The 1-100 die roll range is very fine scaled. A die roll bonus of +/-10% can feel pretty weak, while adding a lot of modifiers together, or taking the RQ6 approach of changing the skill level can involve a bit of maths. Sure its not  a lot of maths, but over a five hour game it chews up the brain. We also pause to calculate critical hits (yes, divide by ten is relatively easy), which sometimes makes me want to follow Eclipse Phase (doubles are criticals/fumbles).

I looked at the maths for Call of Cthulhu’s bonus/penalty die approach and compared it to reversing the pips (e.g. turning 92% into 29%) and found them pretty close in probabilities.  Both approaches increase the chance of success more when skill levels are low to medium, there are diminishing returns.

So I thought for my Cabal game idea there are a couple of things I could do. First, one way to tempt players, is to make them always roll a Bonus Cabal die. So when they fail, the Cabal die will sometimes be sitting there, tempting them with success.  All they have to do is to be willing to make the husk of a fallen God a little stronger.

The second one was that I want fumbles to occur in combat, because its interesting and means failure can arise from emergent play, rather than from me stacking the odds against the players to burn the meta-currency out of them. So I might make luck points only useful for bonus actions when taking risks (and taking a bonus action to stab someone who is defenceless would not be risky, so you can’t do that), or for mitigating wounds, and not for rerolling failures/fumbles.

A third idea was to compare two failed combat rolls, and give a bonus die to the highest failure (and maybe even make it two bonus dice on a double). With this approach, you could eliminate fumbles altogether. Rather than the character inflicting damage on themselves, it is their opponents chances on their next swing being improved, which is something the player can anticipate and react to with their next action.

Finally, I was thinking of an edge mechanic to adjust die rolls after they occur (e.g. spend four points of Arete to shift a roll of 92% to 52% or 88%), but it might be simpler to front load everything, and spend ten points of Arete to purchase a bonus die roll when making a skill check.

Linear Warrior, Quadratic Sorcerer: the Action Point economy in Runequest 6

July 11, 2015
Fighter_Mage_Silhouette by qhudspeth

Fighter Mage Silhouette by qhudspeth (Deviantart)

One of my insights from running a Runequest game for a year, is just how important the Action Point economy is in the game. I’ll also add a bit at the end about counterspells.

The Basics

Runequest VI has as a basic premise, combat is a dangerous activity that is usually resolved in a few Combat Rounds. A one on one fight should take about three Combat Rounds to resolve.  A Combat Round is assumed to be roughly five seconds in time.  Within the Combat Round there is a sequence of Turns. Each Turn in Strike Rank order, each character with Action Points remaining can do one Proactive Action. Strike Rank is determined once at the start of the combat.

The menu of available Actions is pretty comprehensive. Proactive Actions usually involve the character initiating movement or an attack, but also includes delaying an action. Reactive Actions are usually defensive (Counter Spell, Evade, Parry) but also include Interrupts if you took a Delay Action in your turn.

There are also a number of Free Actions (making a Perception check if unengaged, dropping a weapon, signaling, a short phrase of speech, using a luck point) the most tactical of which is Ward Location. Ward Location allows you to change the location(s) being passively protected by a weapon or shield (shields cover 2-4 locations depending on size, with a human body having seven locations). Warding has to be done before attack rolls are made. Because passive blocks are always successful, warding is a useful way to protect a wounded location, or for low skill characters to improve their chances of defending themselves.

Runequest 6 employs differential successes in combat, which grant Special Effects (rather than the old school critical/impales). There is a large menu of Special Effects, depending on whether the skill roll was offensive, defensive, what the type of weapon used was, and whether or not the success was a critical, or if the opponent rolled a fumble. Crucially, if you make an attack on someone, and land a blow when they do not react to the attack with a defensive skill check, they automatically fail, granting you one bonus Special Effect.

Because you can get Special Effects when defending, it is usually worthwhile to Parry an attack, hoping to both mitigate potential wounds, and to use Special Effects to impair the future combat performance of your opponent. In Runequest VI RAW, an Evade defensive action leaves you prone on the ground. As it costs an Action Point to rise to your feet, and because being prone reduces your skills by half, parrying is preferred to evading. For my own campaign, as it features musketeers with firearms and almost no shields, I allow characters to remain standing after Evading with an appropriate Combat Style trait or if they have used the Acrobatics skill in place of the Evade skill.

So a common pattern is:

  1. Character A attacks Character B
  2. Character B parries the attack (both characters have now spent one Action Point)
  3. Character B attacks Character A
  4. Character A parries the attack (both characters have now spent two Action Points)

Old School

When I played Runequest II or III campaigns, characters generally got one attack per Combat Round, and could react defensively up to three times (one parry with a weapon, one block with a shield, and one dodge out of the way). Multiple attacks or defensive action required a skill greater than 100%. So if you ran into more than three opponents you were in a bit of trouble. In Runequest VI block is no longer a reaction against a specific attack, it has become a passive action against all incoming attacks.

How Many Action Points Do You Get?

Action Points are calculated during character generation, based on the combined score of the Dexterity and Intelligence attributes:

  • less than 13 = one Action Point
  • 13-24 = two Action Points
  • 25+ = three Action Points

If creating characters with a point buy system, most players will choose to make their characters competent by ensuring their Dexterity and Intelligence scores are average 13+.  If for some reason you choose a lower combined score your character will be substantially less effective in combat. If you only have two Action Points you will act one third as often as the other players, and your character is much more likely to be overpowered and injured.

There are a few other ways of adjusting how many Action Points a character gets to use:

  • Personal and Party Luck Points can be used as Action Points. Luck Points are a one use resource (in my campaign I allow Luck Points to refresh after the party spends time carousing)
  • The Swiftness Gift in the Cults & Brotherhoods chapter grants an increase of plus one Action Points (and should usually come with a commensurate taboo or geaes to influence the character’s actions. In my campaign I have only allowed the player who has eschewed the use of all magic to take this Gift)
  • the Formation Fighting combat trait, in situations where 3+ people are coordinating their efforts, reduces all of their opponents Action Points by one. My players hate this. They do not fight in formations or have this trait, so when they run into a formed unit, they suffer accordingly
  • Characters with the Mystic talent to enhance Action Points. This costs 3 Magic Points per +1 Action Point. This can be stacked up to Mysticism skill/10 (the number of available Magic Points is more likely to cap this than the skill is at high levels of skill). These bonus Action Points can only be used for defensive actions in combat (Parry or Evade). Note that while Mystic talents cannot be countered by magic, anything that disrupts concentration, such as a wound in combat, requires a Willpower check to maintain concentration on each Mystic Talent
  • Campaign House Rule, a Vordar (Dark Elf) gains one Action Point when they land a blow that kills an opponent (but may have to make a Willpower check to avoid a berserk rage).

I scanned the other magic chapters in the rulebook, but from what I can see no other spell grants bonus Action Points.

Situational Influences on the Action Point Economy

Charging into combat is a bit weird, because rather than taking one Action, it takes an entire Combat Round. So a character with more Action Points spends longer getting into action than the character with less Action points.

If you are surprised, you cannot defend until your turn, and cannot perform any offensive actions for the remainder of the combat round. Ouch, I only just noticed the round duration, I had previously thought that the prohibition against offensive actions only lasted for one action.

If you suffer a Serious Wound (reduced to zero hit points or below in a hit location) you cannot attack or cast spells for 1-3 actions.

The Outmanoeuver Action allows you to make an opposed Evade skill check with all of your opponents. So you spend one Action Point, and all of your opponents must also spend an Action Point. Any opponent who fails to beat the manoeuvering character’s roll cannot attack them for the remainder of the Combat Round (i.e. none of their Action Points can be spent to attack you). While its not a sure thing, this is an obvious action for a heavily outnumbered character to take. Further, if you beat all of your opponents rolls, you can choose to engage one foe for the remainder of the Combat Round, or Withdraw from the fight completely.

A number of Special Effects take the form of requiring the affected character to spend Action Points to recover combat effectiveness:

  • Disarm forces an opponent to either spend one Action Point to Ready another weapon, or one Action Point to pick up the dropped weapon, and a second Action Point to Ready the recovered weapon (the musketeers in my campaign will often have a secondary weapon like a dagger already in hand, and may choose to just continue fighting with that)
  • Stun Location, if a bludgeoning weapon hits the head, the character is insensible for a number of actions equal to the damage inflicted, while a hit to the torso staggers the character so they can only defend for a number of actions equal to the damage inflicted
  • Pin Weapon, requires an Action Point to attempt to free the weapon or shield that is pinned (with an opposed roll of Brawn or Unarmed Combat).

Linear Warrior, Quadratic Sorcerer

First, please take a quick look at this article which shows you where I got the Linear Fighter, Quadratic Sorcerer line from. This is something that goes all the way back to D&D.

In Runequest VI, sorcerer’s can shape spells by:

  • combining two or more spells together
  • extending duration
  • increasing range
  • boosting magnitude (which makes the spell harder to counter)
  • or increasing the number of targets

For every ten points of Shaping Skill you can do one of these effects.  So a Sorcerer with 90% shaping skill could cast the Wrack spell, use one point of Shaping to boost the range to 1m x Power attribute, and then use eight points of shaping to affect 9 targets. There are a few other sorcery spells in Runequest VI with one-off attack effects, that can usually be resisted. Wrack, however, is a lot like Emperor Palpatine’s purple lightning in Star Wars.

As a Combat Action the Sorcerer can attack the targets, using their Invocation skill for the spell as an attack roll. So if the Sorcerer above has a 90% invocation skill, they will hit more often than not. The only resist option is Evade, which requires expending a Combat Action, and may not succeed. The amount of damage done depends on the caster’s skill, at 40% its just 1d4 of damage that worn armour does not protect against, but at 90% skill its 1d10 damage (and enough to seriously wound most characters). At least the hit location is random every time!

As you can see, the Wrack spell breaks the Action Point economy of Runequest VI. For an upfront cost of around three action points to cast the spell, the Sorcerer can keep in every future Combat Action wrack all of their targets (if some of their targets die, they cannot switch to new targets with Wrack).

A warrior with a sword can stab one person at a time for each Action Point they spend, regardless of skill. Unless you get a critical hit (one tenth of skill on a d100 skill check roll) and take the Bypass Armour special effect worn armour reduces the damage done. If the lone target defends, they use one Action Point.

The sorcerer with can wrack multiple targets at a time for each Action Point they spend. Thinking of the example above, the Sorcerer will probably hit eight of their targets each turn. If the targets all have high Evade skills, e.g. 80%, then the Sorcerer will only harm one to two of the targets. But by spending one Action Point, the sorcerer has forced their opponents to spend eight Action Points, or collectively suffer roughly 44-45 damage. There is nothing else in the game that is as effective in combat as the wrack spell, short of perhaps the Theistic Earthquake spell, or a horde of Animist fetch spirits (see below). Some of the single target theistic spells are powerful, such as Sunspear which can nuke a single target for ((Skill/20)d6) damage in all seven hit locations, but they only get to do that once for the Magic Point/Casting time cost.

You can see why the reaction of the players in my campaign is to immediately attack any sorcerer they encounter, and to kill them dead, dead, DEAD as fast as possible. Any time a sorcerer is casting a spell, the presumption is that it is Wrack and it must be stopped at all costs. Doing anything else risks Total Party Kill.

If I were to reboot my campaign, I think I would prohibit or change the Wrack spell to be less horrific in potential effect on the action point economy.

…and the Animist’s Horde of Fetch Spirits

A skilled animist can have quite a few Fetches with bound spirits on them. These can be broken to release the spirits to attack the animists foes. Each spirit then has its own actions to attack a target. If you are not an animist, and if you do not have one of the small number of spells that defend against spirits, you defend with half Willpower. Its pretty trivial for a spirit to devour a low willpower character’s soul. A powerful Animist could release a dozen spirits in one battle, which is a huge boost in the number of effective attacks they are launching.

As you can understand, my player characters hate animists with a a passion. I have one as a recurring villain in my campaign.

A sorcerer can do something similar by Evoking an other planar entity, or by a Draw (creatures) spell.

For player characters, each fetch costs one XP to create per point of spirit intensity. So burning up your fetch spirits in combat is going to be a significant decision. I’m not aware of any other mechanic in Runequest VI where XP can be spent for a one use resource.


Runequest VI no longer uses a Resistance table for determining if something like one spell overcomes another spell. Instead the magnitude of spells is compared, with magnitude usually being based on one tenth of the casters skill. The spell then either completely succeeds or utterly fails.

The folk magic spell Avert can always be used to counter another folk magic spell, but has no effect on non-folk magic spells.

Sorcery has the Neutralise Magic spell, which negates a single spell or theistic miracle with an equal or less magnitude for the duration of the spell, or can counter an incoming hostile spell. Sorcery spells, however, can be quite weak, as the points of shaping that could be used on magnitude, are more often placed into shaping duration, range, and the number of targets.

Theistic casters may have Dismiss Magic, which eliminates a combined magnitude of spells equal to its own magnitude. Miracles will usually have substantial magnitude, as its equal to caster skill/10.  Can also counter an incoming spell.

So a magic user with 80% skill is not just relatively stronger than a magic user with 70% skill, they are absolutely stronger. The magnitude eight spell will always counter the magnitude seven spell. The magnitude seven spell can never counter the magnitude eight spell.

This makes my players terrified that their spells will be countered, and so anxious that their own counter spells will fail, that they prefer not to counter enemy casting at all due to the assumption that an enemy caster has a higher skill than they do, and so a much greater chance of having a greater magnitude for their spells.

Perhaps I should throw a small horde of low skilled magic using opponents at them next time. A GM should never be too predictable.

Runequest 6 Session Notes

July 5, 2015
I have been running my Runequest campaign for a bit over a year now, and it occurs to me I could take the session notes I have been posting over at the Design Mechanism forums and repost them here.
The overarching theme I had in planning these sessions was to focus on the social side of the story, drawing in as many of the NPCs that the players had established connections with as possible.  I also wanted to spend spotlight time on various background elements for each PC, as I have been finding it easier to spark ideas for some of the PCs and not others (especially for the quieter players).  So its a week in the harvest ball season, with the party assigned to protect the Empress Alexandra, younger sister of the reigning Emperor Julian.
Session 1 Five go slumming with an Empress
Started by spending some time discussing Hill folk, Apocalypse World and Luther Arkwright.  I have been reading a lot of different sets of RPG rules recently. Possibly too much, as I started dreaming in GURPS mechanics.
The first day the party spent as bodyguards for Empress Alexandra was spent on a mix of civic religious functions, and formal receptions for VIPs wanting to hobnob with the Empress. This was an opportunity for me to introduce many members of the Imperial court in passing.
Talia’s background of a dispute with her father over an arranged marriage came into play, when he turned up with news that her brother, a POW in Covenant hands (another background point), had converted to the enemy. So her father asked for a reconciliation, as otherwise the family estate would be going to her dissolute younger brother. Talia did some hard bargaining (roll of 52 with an Influence skill of 52, versus a failed Willpower check by her father) and agreed.
The second day is one of more public functions and duties.
The morning starts badly, with an inspection of the naval shipyards leading to an stand up shouting argument with bonus insults between Empress Alexandra and the commander of the Navy (both rolled 57 on an opposed Willpower check to see who would give way first). The party spends a couple of luck points extricating the Empress form the scene, and calming her down.
The party attends the opening of some new public gardens, and a private visit to the Imperial vault without incident. After lunch the visit several orphanages and veterans homes. Its like being bodyguards for Princess Diana. Eventually they end up at an art gallery, where they met some of the Covenant embassy staff. The Empress is impressed by a painting of the climax of the battle at runescar, and rewards the artist Miranda Larson with patronage. Pyrias makes a good impression with Miranda.
The party then prepared to go out partying with the Empress. As its ball season, everyone is wearing masks. I awarded a bonus luck point to anyone who managed to guess which mask the Empress was going to choose. Everyone then changes into mufti, and Cain issues the PCs with a concealable muff pistol. Then the party heads off slumming, with everyone told to refer to the Empress as “Servalan”.
Servalan takes them to the “Witch and Axe” tavern on the underside of the city. A lot of carousing takes place, and then several of the PCs volunteer to take part in the pit fights. This was an opportunity for me to play around with the combat challenges, without it being a matter of life or death for the PCs. Everyone taking part had to choose a “pit fighter” name.
Secundus, as the “Masked Mantis” faced off against another Vordar, the “Black Needle”.  I gave the Black Needle a combat style of 89%, which was much higher than what Secundus had (low 70% range). It started badly for Secundus, with the Black Needle getting a 09% critical hit and immediately disarming Secundus. Then she tripped him on her next attack. Secundus managed to get up while the Black Needle was hamming it up with the crowd, but even with some luck point use the Black Needle proceeded to outfight Secundus and quickly inflict three light wounds on him.
A few of the PCs lost some coin in the side betting.
Crozane then fought the novelty act, two goblins connected by a length of chain. Crozane plays up the role of being a foreign sun-worshiping heel for the crowd, almost to the point where people want to throw objects at him. Early on in the fight against the goblins he impales one with a dagger, and then exploits its reduced skill using Brawn augmented with Acrobatics to tumble the goblins into the pit (which has a safety net below it rather than a mile drop to the ground, not that I told the players that before the fights started).
Session 2 Rapiers at dawn
Continuing with the third and final PC pit fight, Pyrias “the sleeping lion” faced off against the reigning champion, a Minotaur who was also an Imperial official. The opponents are connected by a length of chain manacled to their arms, the floor is greased, apart from log stumps that can be stood on.
We started with a long discussion about what can be accomplished with a Charge action, and if a skill check is needed for the crossing the greasy floor. Eventually I allowed the combination of acrobatics and a combat style trait that helped movement to more or less ignore the slippery floor.
Even after a year of play I still find the terminology of Combat Actions, Combat Rounds, Turn and Charge to be not as intuitive as I would like. For example, players keep expecting to execute a charge in a single combat action, but the rules specify one full combat round of movement.  I have been letting them execute the charge in a single action, not the 3-4 actions the RAW imply.
I am still constantly pausing to double check that we have the correct number of special effects from combat rolls, and that we are applying the effect of a Parry successfully.
Trying to find how much damage an unarmed attack was something else I failed to quickly figure out after checking several sections of the rulebook. I ruled it was 1d3 damage and we played on.
But back to the fight … Pyrias charged, the Minotaur counterattacked, hit for 8 points, reduced by luck point. Pyrias used his special effect to entangle the chain around the Minotaur’s neck (improvising on the fly, no damage, makes next attack Easy). The next few actions are a struggle between the Minotaur trying to get the chain off, and Pyrias to do some damage. In the fourth action, because Pyrias has 4 AP and the Minotuar only has 3 AP, Pyrias hits and gets a bonus special effect, hitting te Minotaur for nine damage in the right leg, and the Minotaur rolls 100% for the Endurance check and falls into the safety net (which remains intact).
The bookies had offered 7:1 odds on Pyrias, and Talia had bet 1,000 silver, so now she has 7,000 coins to go shopping with. Pyrias also gained a lot of social status, and was surrounded by adoring fans.  The party spends some more time socialising, the Black Needle turns out to be Stitch, an NPC from a previous session, who gets friendly with Secundus. This allows me to introduce an aside about the Emperor recruiting heavily from the orphanages, a factor of his paranoia. Talia flirts with Karen Ivanovich, who is in town for business, and comes to the Axe because she used to work here and still gets a staff discount. Vitus the fire mage plays with flammable cocktails.
The next scene is in a luxurious Salon hidden in the back of the Witch and Axe.  A couple of Cain’s assistants deposit an Imperial officer by the name of Titus Crow for questioning by the Empress Alexandra. Turns out Alexandra had paid Titus a lot of money to try and expedite warship construction for escorts for her Battleship, which has not happened (hence the argument in the naval yard). Plus he used to be her lover, and uses very familiar language. She has just started asking him about smuggling spirit jars into the city, when the party is warned that the Imperial Guard are raiding the establishment.
I let the PCs advise the Empress about what she should do, mostly they keep quiet. So I stick with plan A, and the angry/upset Empress throws Titus off the Salon balcony (he is tied to a chair, its a mile down) rather than get into trouble with Julian.  A runner is then sent upstairs to invite more people to the “party” in the Salon. By the time the guard finally reach the Salon its a very drunken scene that greets them.  Stitch gets into trouble with the guard, even though its her night off.  Karen offers her services as a magistrate, she scans “Servalan’s” surface thoughts, blanches, and proceeds to make a successful deceit check and the guard is successfully persuaded to go elsewhere.
Nothing else too interesting happens at the party. Later that night Talia gets to perform “holding the hair out of the vomit” duties for a tearful Empress.
The next day is filled with dull military parades. The evening’s main event is presentations of tribute tokens (and reports of the actual taxes to be paid) from the various governors within the Empire. This is to be followed by heavy drinking among the governors and their retainers.
Governor Tenny from Runescar is here, and after delivering her tribute she bumps into Crozane, a 01 success is rolled and they vanish for the rest of the night.
Karen Ivanovich presents for Governor Kev of the Lars, who is confirmed as Governor of the Island of Monsters, and the Emperor does a short speech about how the gold hoard (found by the PCs but credit now claimed by Kev) is sufficient to fund the entire Imperial budget next year, plus a military expansion programme. Emperor Julian then announces that the position of Grand Domestic (the vacant five star general slot) will be filled by Ventarch – an elderly general of good reputation, who also happened to turn up with Sabrina Gilligan on his arm (she was the sea witch from Whitemouth in an earlier session).
The evening is somewhat strained by insults from the Imperial guard (they call the PCs “wrigglers”, a distortion of the “Vigla” name of their regiment), and Pyrias gets into a duel with Kevin Larson (son of Governor Kev and husband of Miranda Larson, the artist who was quite taken with Pyrias the hero of Runescar earlier on). Of course, everyone knows this part of the argument Julian and Alexandra have been having, extended to proxies.
Pyrais does have a short conversation with Ventarch, where the General points out that his lack of magical talent means he will not be considered for further promotion at the capital, but a transfer can be arranged to a border garrison on the Enmity front, where promotion is assured (this is about the equivalent of being sent to Afghanistan in the days of the Raj).
For the duel I let Pyrais augment his combat style wit the Customs skill, fighting in the traditional old school formal approach. Both combatants had high combat skills, around 85%, so much of the combat consisted of successful parries. Pyrias had an edge with 4 AP to Kevin’s 3 AP, although it did not help in the first round (a 99 rerolled with a luck point to 97).
Over the course of the fight, Pyrias managed to stab Kevin about five times for light wounds, using special actions to avoid any potentially mortal wounds. The player kept asking for a surrender, but Kevin kept fighting until the player actually chose to use a special effect on a Compel Surrender check.
…and there we ended the session, with one Empress happy with her champion, and one Emperor unhappy with his champion.

Session 3 Summary – Bazaar and Ball

This session had three minor encounters while shopping with Empress Alexandra in the Grand Bazaar, a brief interlude, then a couple of scenes at the Ball, concluding with a showdown with some assassins, traitors and enemy agents. After all, the party would have had every right to be grumpy with me if I had them as bodyguards for three game sessions without at least one serious assassination attempt.
During this session, I tried a group skill check mechanic for party perception over long periods of time. This is where the party as a whole requires four successes to pass the check (critical success counts double, fumble is minus one success). This seemed to work well, and makes everyone’s perception skill important, rather than relying on Crozane’s high perception (>100% if mystic talents are active).
A young urchin filched Vitus’ pouch, was just spotted, and then Secundus gave chase. Again I tried this as an extended Athletics skill check, first side to four successes won. Despite having a lower Athletics skill than the Urchin, Secundus easily caught up to the nipper (who had a fumble mid-escape). The urchin threw the pouch away and Secundus retrieved it rather than give chase any further.
Later, as the Empress is trying on shoes, Crozane makes a critical success on his perception to spot that the slimy sales rep is none other than his hated enemy, Sillicus Ruval, a Covenant agent. Crozane immediately kicks Sillicus in the head (a 04% critical hit), draws his weapons, and Sillicus barely has time to stammer “diplomatic immunity” before something unfortunate occurs.  Crozane manages to not give in to his passion to kill Sillicus, and Sillicus delivers his diplomatic note to the Empress.
Later, as the Empress is going to look at hats, the party spots a woman they know, Margarette, being dragged off by two thugs. When the party goes to intervene, the thugs display the spider emblem of Valens, the retired Emperor. SO while Margarette begs for mercy, the players let Valens’ men drag her away for questioning.
As an aside, usually PCs get placed in an investigative role when it comes to plots. But the party is tied to the Empress as bodyguards, so they cannot go chasing off after clues relating to Titus and smuggling. This does show other Imperial agents are working on the case.
Shopping finished, the party mostly rests before the evening ball, with a couple of characters having disturbing dreams about ravens and assassins.
The first half of the ball is mainly talking and dancing. Emperor Julian does announce the adoption of Bernadette Gilligan (the young girl the party retrieved from Whitemouth a few adventures back) into the Taran family. There is a lot of maneuvering to see who gets to dance with whom.
I split the party up, by having Emperor Julian send Crozane and Pyrias elsewhere. The party have a mindspeech spell up to try and aid communication, but the ballroom and surrounding rooms are big enough for this to not work all the time.
Out on patrol Crozane and Pyrias hear suspicious noises and burst into a room, finding Emperor Julian in flagrante with a lady, and two of his guards.  Pyrias makes a successful Customs check, apologising and closing the door.
The players move to get in comms range of the ballroom and try and put two and two together, and suspect a double. But which one is the real Julian? Crozane had noticed that the guards had matchlock pistols, not the modern wheelocks used in the guards regiments.
Crozane and Pyrias head back to the room where they saw “Julian”. Crozane activates a silence spell (a gift from his devotion for a forbidden god) and they burst into the room. The Silence means they cannot hear the tied up young lady mouthing the word “bomb” or hear the hissing of the spluttering grenade.
One of the characters in the Ballroom makes a critical success on perception and spots Misha, an old adversary, in position in a high up balcony box. As the Empress is out on the dancefloor, Talia moves to make her safe. At which point the ballroom erupts into panic and chaos as first all light vanishes, and then several explosions happen.
The Ballroom attack is resolved with the party escaping into one of the secret passages reserved for the Imperial family. They also drag Bernadette Taran with them, as the old seer Maria Taran and the Grand Domestic Ventarch were both shot by Misha (bullets with a nasty spirit bound to the bullet, released on impact to devour the mind of the victim, in part because I’m using the Apocalypse World principle of putting people the NPCs care about in cross hairs).
Meanwhile Crozane and Pyrias have managed to spot the bomb and throw it away before it explodes, and then set off in pursuit (going the right way as they did first aid on the lady and got a clue from her). So they emerge into the side end of the ambush that is really intended to kill Empress Alexandra, with six false guardsmen with matchlock pistols, the false Julian, and a traitor from the Palace staff. Outnumbered 4:1, they immediately charge.
Crozane and Pyrias survive the first round, killing one guardsman and wounding another.  Cane appears, fires a pistol, wounding another guardsman. The remaining guards then shoot Cane (and miss the PCs). The combat then becomes more of a general melee with Rapiers.
The party is then reunited at this suitably dramatic point, with the other PCs and NPCs entering the room. Having heard the noise of the encounter, the mages have spells ready to cast, one of which is immediately neutralized by the False Julian. The palace traitor then starts wracking Cane, Pyrias and Crozane for 1d8 damage a round.
There is a long fight, and nearly every luck point the PCs and party have is burned to ensure that wounds do not knock people out or kill them. The players defeat most of the false guards, but are still having trouble with the mages when I ruled that Alexandra turned the traitor’s wrack against himself (she is of the Imperial blood, inside her family palace, and carries half a dozen or so major artifacts, so this was a handwave rather than a specific spell). At which point the false Julian flees, just as Uncle Valens’ giant spiders turn up.
Cane did not survive (several rapier strikes, and a couple of wrack strikes to the head). The False Julian escaped to live another day. Some NPC exposition takes place, revealing that some of the children of the Black Emperor’s bloodline still survive, which is how the assassins got itno the Palace so easily. The players manage not to offend Senior Emperor Valens, and because they have learned too much to keep running around in the “Wrigglers” he has a job offer for them. Meanwhile Uncle Valens tells Alexandra to go and make up with Emperor Julian, because if she runs for her Battleship, that will likely trigger Julian’s paranoia and a civil war…
Our observation on the impact of Magic in combat is that it feels very paper-scissors-nuke. Wrack is a decisive spell, if cast, and the caster is not neutralised, its pretty much impossible for the opponents to win. 1d8 penetrating damage to multiple targets every action round is hideous. The two PCs only survived upright because I rolled a large number of 1s on the d8 damage die.  On the other side of things, the six points of damage protection the False Julian had was almost enough to deflect any incoming damage from melee attacks.
At some point in the session we had a discussion about the Size and Distance Difficulty Adjustment Table for ranged weapons, and the players all agreed with me that it was a silly table and we wouldn’t be using it at our gaming table. The Ranged Combat Situational Modifiers list was more than sufficient.
We ran a bit overtime for this session, but that felt like the right call. People had a lot of fun.
End of Act I
XP will wait until next session, but I signaled that the focus of the game will change. The party can choose between an assignment in the border marches (with likely promotion), assignment to Empress Alexandra’s regiment (with many social opportunities), or assignment to Emperor Valen’s couriers (with a lot of opportunity for accessing forbidden lore).
Then I plan to scroll the game forward two years, which will allow for a fair bit of training, and lets Secundus the young cadet grow up into somewhat less of an awkward teenager.

Grim and Gritty, or Glam and Sticky?

June 16, 2015

JoyceMaureira_SORCSPLASH (2)

In which I will eventually consider my own play preferences, but first…

I have been doing a lot of reading on roleplaying game design over the last few weeks.  So much so that I suddenly started dreaming in GURPS mechanics last week. Which is odd, as I have never owned a copy of the GURPS rules, just a few of the setting supplements.

My reading started with me thinking about cooperative magic mechanics, magic mechanics in roleplaying games in general, tropes entries on magic, and some Wikipedia research on shadows and weaving.  I also listened to some podcasts at Narrative Control. Chatting with friends, I got feedback that my pitch was more of a Gotterdamerung/final days pitch than a real post-apocalyptic pitch, which I thought was valid.  This led to me thinking a bit about noir settings – and the very next day Bundle of Holding decided to have a noir themed release.  I am still working through that pile of information (and the rulebook for Ars Magicka 5th Edition from another Bundle of Holding offer a few weeks back), but I think a noir influenced setting might require multiple flying cities (so you can have a Casablanca in the middle of it all).

I can go back and forth on the setting. While its important, trying to build it without a better grasp on system is likely to be a waste of time. Figuring out the best system for the setting depends on figuring out exactly what I want the characters to be doing in the game system and what I want the players to be doing around the game table.  So I need to do some research to try and figure out if an existing game system already does what I want, or if I need to build my own system.

Cooperative Mechanics

Many game systems are silent on the issue of character cooperation to resolve contests in the game. Some games allow one character to assist another, but few of the mechanics I looked at are built explicitly around a group of players all making decisions about the contest outcome. Here are three that I found:

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition: everyone makes a roll, if half the characters succeed, the group succeeds. Dull.

Runequest 6th Edition: the extended skill check system can be used for group tasks. The GM sets a difficulty (suggested base is 100), and the characters do skill checks, +25 for a success, +50 for a critical success and -25 for a fumble. Not quite as dull as D&D, but close.

Blades in the Dark: Characters take turns at being “on point” for an operation (which is based on teamwork). One of their options is to lead a group action: all players roll six sided dice, the best roll is used, but the leader takes one “stress” for each roll of 1-3. Players in “backup” roles can also influence this, e.g. by taking stress to roll a bonus die. Extended tasks are handled with progress clocks, which reminded me of the damage clocks in Apocalypse World. Overall I found this system was exciting my imagination, and I plan to run a Blades in the Dark game at Kapcon in 2016.

Magic Mechanics

Starting with Runequest, the sorcery system is close to what I want, but many of the spells are either lacking in obvious utility for player characters, or are too powerful for player characters. In play, I am not sure there is enough width to the spell list to make a combination of magic form 5-6 characters worthwhile.  The current edition also makes magic very all-or-nothing, either a spell overcomes the defences, or it completely fails, and this is a paper-scissors-rock subgame game.

I am not done reading Ars Magicka yet, but its rich and detailed magic system is primarily focused on the individual mage. While the troupe/covenant playstyle is interesting, its not what I am looking for.

D&D/F20 suffers from my dislike of Vancian magic. Too weak at low levels, a campaign killer at high levels.  If I have to rebuild the entire magic system, I might as well look elsewhere.

Note: there are a lot of roleplaying game systems out there that I have not played, or are unfamiliar with. I would be happy to hear suggestions of game systems I should take a closer look at. Information in forum posts makes me think I should take a look at FATE, and in particular The Dresden Files.  I only know the Mage: the whatever games in brief summary.  Heroquest and Riddle of Steel fall in the :too damn complicated” box for me.

Not satisfied with my search for illumination, I have been thinking about my literary influences, and also doing some research on roleplaying game design.

Roleplaying Game Design

Time to post a few links:

The Power 19 are like an extension of the Big 3, and most of the 19 feed off/interact with them, so I will just repeat the Big 3 here:

  1. What is the game about?
  2. What do the characters do?
  3. What do the players do?

Hard questions that are worth answering. I don’t think I have solid answers yet but some initial bullet points are:

  1. The game is about the transition to a post-peak magic society, and shaping the age that is to come (its about surviving the apocalypse long enough to make a difference).
  2. The characters are a cabal of mages, who share a fragment of a broken God, and the sum of the whole is greater than the parts when they weave their magic together.
  3. The players have to decide between escalating or escaping from contests, how much personal gain they want to try and twist out of the cabal, andwhat they want to do with their broken God.

Another part of my research was trying to figure out how dice pool mechanics work. I was sleeping under rock when these came on the scene, and I was intimidated by the wall of d6s required to fire an AK-47 in Shadowrun.  I think I get the concept now, and while an “exploding die” can be fun for criticals/fumbles, I still think my gut feeling is right that throwing large numbers of dice to determine contest outcomes has a big downside in terms of the mental energy required to keep processing the maths.  Star Wars: Edge of Empire has a dice system I would like to know more about, but the game is petrified in dead tree format, so it is going to be a while yet before I get to read it.

RPG Design Patterns was a good read. I think the best insight it gave me was on “Conflicted Gauges”, where is where a mechanic in the game is situationally good or bad.  For example, in Call of Cthulhu a high Mythos Lore skill is handy when trying to remember facts about eldritch monsters, but a disadvantage when trying to make Sanity checks.  There was a lot more in there, but this is going to be a long post already.

The RPG Design Handbook gave me some other questions to think about:

  1. How does the game make players care?
  2. What behaviours are rewarded, and how are they rewarded?
  3. Will the system let the players play the game the way I intended it to be played?
  4. Authority in the game – who gets to decide when the conversation moves forward and the decisions are locked in place?
  5. Credibility in the game – who has the right to challenge the shared fiction, and who gets to win that contest?

Literary Influences (Appendix N)

I think its worth listing some of my literary influences at this point:

  • Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files
  • Steven Erikson’s Malazan Tales of the Fallen (a spinoff from an AD&D campaign converted to GURPS, rpg.net has a good thread discussing Warrens)
  • Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence (I have only read the first two books, but I like what I have read)
  • Mark Smylie’s Artesia comics and first novel The Barrow (one of the best literary interpretations of a dungeon crawl ever).

I have not been influenced by Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, even though I worked back to it when searching for “magic + weaving” on Google.

Play Preferences

My tabletop roleplaying gaming started in the 1980s and was firmly rooted in the first generation of games: Dungeons & Dragons, Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, and Traveller. Most of the campaigns I have played in or game mastered, have been in those systems, or a D20 version (like Fading Suns).  Kapcon has been good for being exposed to indie games, but prior to the Bundle of Holding, it was rare for me to look at other game systems on a regular basis.

Its interesting to reflect on my play preferences and how they differ when I am a player or a game master.

As a player I like:

  • rolling dice and sometimes getting lucky
  • being effective in combat
  • having a solid background hook for the character
  • a clear niche for my character
  • progression over time (and don’t make me lose the game in character generation by failing to understand what my character build should be)
  • some kind of direction about what we are doing in the game.

As a game master I like:

  • contest outcomes that give me some direction about what to narrate next – this is the main weakness of the d100 game engines, what does 57 mean?
  • faction ambiguity – players will always attempt to immediately kill anything within line of sight that is flagged “obvious villain”, and will feel like utter failures if you refuse to let them roll for initiative before you finish the opening monologue. So I like shades of grey and intrigue as a GM.
  • a system I am comfortable tinkering with for the house campaign (i.e. I understand everything inside the black box and feel comfortable about pulling level A to get result B)
  • running long, multi-year campaigns (most narrative games cannot do this to my satisfaction)
  • building a detailed setting for the house game and doing prep before each session (when I stop enjoying prep its time to think about wrapping the campaign up)
  • subverting cliches
  • the lightbulb moment when one of the players figures out the big secret!

While there are a lot of grim and gritty roleplaying games out there, there are not a lot of glam and sticky games. These reflects the wargaming roots and the mania for combat simulation. Still, maybe someone will make a game some day about playing 1970s rock stars and their groupies.

What might an ideal cooperative mechanic look like?

I do not have a solid idea yet on how to articulate these ideas as a mechanical expression.  Rolling some dice probably, but if I want something closer to the stories of literature/cinema, then I need a way of divorcing myself from the simulationist mania.  I would like the game mechanics to incorporate these ideas:

  1. The Cabal of Broken Gods: as a resource shared between the players – encourage the players to work together by making it advantageous to do so. Maybe the cabal lets you cast spells known by the other PCs but not by your PC? Maybe the cabal has a bonus pool of magic points? The cabal obviously needs its own character sheet (a character sheet is a promise).
  2. Magic Weaving: the players need each other’s help to cast effective spells, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Other PCs can give a die roll bonus, share the cost, benefit from the cast, etc.
  3. The Tapestry of Shadows: the potential threat of losing control over your character, or otherwise increasing a potential threat.
  4. Betrayal: the potential to twist a cabal weaving to your own benefit.
  5. Escalation: as the contest progresses, the player has to make the decision to escape or escalate. Think of the classic mage duels, no one dies in the first fireball, its a sequence of move and counter-move (and after scribbling this idea down I read about escalation mechanics in Dogs in the Vineyard for the first time)
  6. Going “all out”: a choice by the player to commit everything to the contest, with dire consequences for failure, the last option on the escalation ladder
  7. Escape: so common in literature, so rare in tabletop gaming. I want to make escape a valid choice for players, by having some kind of reward for bailing out of a fight they might lose (e.g. +1 Luck Point), and by making it easy (e.g. mages can teleport).

I am doodling some diagrams, trying to see if I can build some conflicted gauges around 3-5 magic resources.  For example, having a strong talent in Wild Magic could help you create new magic, but might make all your spells harder to control.  Other potential axis are destructive/creative, permanent/non-permanent, clarity/confusion. One thing I want to avoid, is writing up 666 different spells. Much easier to have just a small number of useful spells. Some important considerations for magic in the setting itself:

  • is magic an individual gift, or can anyone do it?
  • is magic powered from within the self, or by tapping into a universal magic force field?
  • is magic a fixed list of specified power, or can the players be creative/improvise on the go
  • is there are hard limit to the magical energy a character can tap – I think this is important because in much the same way players dislike going to zero Hit Points, they also dislike using their last Magic Point/spell, but it did occur to me that I could build into the reward system an explicit bonus for spending that last magic point
  • how quickly does magical energy refresh?


I did some quick market research this week. Tabletop roleplaying games make up $15m of the $750m hobby gaming market. Boardgames have a greater share of the market at $75m. Most of the market is taken up by miniatures ($125m) and card games ($500m+).

The bulk of the tabletop game market is dominated by the Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder systems.  Outside of the F20 market are a handful of universal game systems, such as GURPS, or more focused systems, such as World of Darkness that have large followings.

I think if you want to make some money in publishing a new game setting, you have to think really hard about not using some flavour of F20.  If you want to publish a new game system, I think you need to be focused in your efforts. Write two pages, not twenty pages, write twenty pages, not 200 pages.  Having looked through a number of the universal setting free game engines, I would be unconvinced that the world needs another way to roll dice on the table.

Military Muddling

Finally, a shout out for my friends at the Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group in London, who have migrated their old club newsletter into the blogging age. Military Muddling may be of interest to people who are keen on historical game design and megagames.

The artwork in this post was taken from the art pack for The Silent Legion.

Kickstarter – how I choose what to back

June 3, 2015

After some initial hesitation, I have become keen on Kickstarter, and I often take 5-10 minutes each day to scan the latest listings on the /games section.  So far I have pledged for 26 games and 2 comic books, but only two of the games have been delivered so far.  Most of the games I have backed, have been backed in the last six months, so I am not too worried about that lack of fulfillment so far.  It is a bit worrying, however, to get an update on Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition, which was originally scheduled to ship in November 2013, that Chaosium have a new President and unspecified company problems.  A firm reminder that everything on Kickstarter is vaporware until its in your hands.

Over the last few weeks I have passed on a lot of tempting Kickstarter offers, as I need to save some coins for an upcoming trip to the USA/Canada.  So I started thinking on why exactly I was passing on some Kickstarter projects and not others.  I have looked at a few other crowdsourcing websites, but Kickstarter seems to be where all the action is.

Instant turn-offs:

  1. Pretty much every pitch for an MMORPG, RTS, phone app, or top-down isometric computer game.
  2. People asking for charity, or to support events/organisations in places I don’t live.
  3. Bad thumbnail art.
  4. Failure in first sentence/opening paragraph text to convey what the main hook of the concept is.

Instant excitement:

  1. Beautiful artwork.
  2. Established IP that I love, or…
  3. … something that sounds innovative on a topic I am interested in.
  4. A designer whose prior work I like.

So I look through the rest of the pitch carefully, star it if I don’t see any further turn-offs (gender exclusive language annoys me) and come back to it 2-4 weeks later.  I do not usually look at the video pitch until the final 48 hours, at which point I will also scan through the updates and comments looking for danger signals.

The danger signals are:

  1. Pledge levels that are confusing.
  2. Updates or comments from the developer that indicate problems with the project, or where I can’t actually understand what it means (sometimes this is an English as a second language problem).
  3. Massive mid-campaign changes to the product or pledge levels.
  4. People posting that its a rip-off.

So if I still like the general idea, and I have some degree of confidence I might get the product someday, how do I choose to part with my money or not?

  1. Would I buy it off the shelf at that price if it was in front of me right now?
    1. Bread, taxes, bills, etc, all come before entertainment spending
    2. Opportunity cost – what else could I be doing with this money?
    3. What is the shipping cost?  Living in New Zealand, shipping costs can exceed the item cost.
  2. Do I intend to use it in actual play, or do I just want it for the ideas?
    1. If I just want to loot the ideas, PDF is fine, and can I find something similar already on Drivethrurpg.com?
    2. If I want to use it at the gaming table, hard copy is better.
    3. Will I use it more than once?
    4. If I want to hack it, will I get the files to do this easily?
  3. What am I rewarding in the pitch?
    1. Innovation in setting or design principles (or an iterative progression on existing ideas).
    2. Nostalgia for the games of my youth (I backed Paranoia but not OGRE).
    3. Is it just a fun looking Fantasy Heartbreaker?
    4. Am I just being a fanboy for this particular designer?
  4. How close is it to completion?
    1. A boardgame should already be fully playtested and draft rules available.
    2. A roleplaying game should have a playtest draft ready for backers to access.
    3. Computer games … should at least have concept art ready.
    4. Is it bleeding edge research that could fail? (I did not back Clang!)
  5. Do I already own this product?
    1. You can get diminishing returns from anything. For gaming, dice are pretty, but few systems really require me to get yet another set of the classic polyhedral dice.
    2. Do I really need the new edition?
  6. Does it look beautiful?
    1. Art is subjective, but if the art looks ugly to me, I am unlikely to spend money on it.
  7. Are those add-ons, peripherals, etc really needed?
    1. I have eight plastic tubs full of t-shirts, I really don’t need more of them.

There is a very old adage – if the deal looks too good to be true, then its probably not a good deal.

Part of the reason I am paying attention to Kickstarter, is to learn what not to do for the day when I try running one.  A lot of the problems I have seen come done to poor communication, or insufficient preparation before the campaign begins.  I would not start a boardgame project unless I was 99% sure I could get the components manufactured, and I would not start roleplaying game project unless I already had the first draft of the manuscript ready for playtesting.  I can see that communication also needs a lot of prep for the crucial early launch phase.

Anyhoo, time to listen to some game design podcasts and scribble ideas on paper.

Post-apocalyptic Coperative Magic

May 31, 2015

I am exploring two ideas at the moment. One is a world setting built for the players to use cooperative magic.  The other is thinking about how to best express a post-apocalyptic setting in the capricious d100 game engine called Runequest.

The story of the shaping of a second age 

After thinking about the pitch feedback, I decided that the two strongest ideas were “shadow magic” and to frame the setting with post-apocalyptic themes.  So the flying city is the last flying city, and the key role player characters do is scavenging items from the ruins below.  In the fallen age, magic is less powerful, and only by burning old magic items can the flying city sustain itself in the air.  This could lead to some interesting decisions for the players, e.g. if they have a bad run below, which of their existing artifacts do they turn over as tribute?

The need to burn old magic as fuel is a driving conflict within the setting, but its possibly not the most important conflict. That could be more around influencing what the world will look like once the last of the old magic is gone, and the last city has fallen from the skies.

Shadow Magic

I have a Manichean inspired conception for the world, in that the world was created by the simultaneous acts of both a powerful source of “light” and a powerful source of “darkness”.  The resulting world of shadows is an imperfect and flawed creation, but with strong links to both the Heavens and Hells.  I did a quick set of Fractal Terrain maps, and found one that was both a Pangaea style super-continent and looked a little like a tree, with one long spine of mountains and several branching sub-continental regions. So I decided that the world tree is physically present in the world – you can see both the divine and infernal planes from the surface of the world, and you can climb the world tree in either direction to reach them.

The overview for the world history, is that one tribe of pastoral nomads conquered most of the world, and then proceeded to conquer both Hell and Heaven (for which flying fortress cities were useful). Unity in the empire was encouraged through promises  of a second age in which the imperfections of the world (such as disease, death etc) would be eliminated.  The infernal and divine magic resources were then used to usher in a golden age. I am imagining a medieval society that gets a Moore’s Law of magic, with the benefits of magic doubling every few years, until the apocalyptic crash occurs.

Varmic Familiars

One way I want to link the shadow magic to player characters, is by turning their shadows into magic familiars. The idea here is that characters are special due to fragments of spirits attaching themselves to their souls as babies, whispering secrets to them in their crib, and teaching them magic as they grow up. Which works fine until puberty, when the fragment tries to free itself by possessing the character’s body.  At this point the character either destroys the mirror soul, binds it as a servant, or turns into a monster.

I derived the word Varmic from the word Varmint. I imagine the shadow familiars as small creatures, intangible, but with a shadowy shape based on that of a small creature. Personality wise they are like troublesome, mischievous children.

I want to borrow the lackey rules from the musketeer game All for One, and allow the other players in the group to play the Varmic familiar. This would be encouraged with XP, e.g. successfully exploit your master’s passions to get them into trouble.  This also allows the group to split up to fulfill a mission, but to all still be present and taking part in the flow of action.  In the Runequest (RQ) rules, Varmic familiars could be handled in a way similar to the Fetch spirits of the Animism school of magic.  I would allow them to become tangible for short periods of time, so they could push a lever, shift an object, or similar minor deeds in an emergency.

How to make cooperative magic work?

I want to combine express cooperative magic by using the themes of shadows and of weaving, so when people are spell casting they are visibly weaving together threads of light, darkness, and shadow. There are quite a few interesting myths relating to weaving, which can be easily adapted to help make the setting interesting. Part of my campaign research has been to look up translations for words relating to weaving, carpets, fabrics and tapestries.

In the RQ game system, Sorcery magic is the system that is easiest to adapt to cooperative magic. I think the simplest way to do it would be to:

  • change Combine shaping by limiting each player to combining one spell, i.e. to combine two or more spells together you need more than one caster
  • allowing multiple players to contribute Action Points (AP) towards the time cost of casting the spell – this would allow sorcery spells to potentially be completed much faster than in the RQ rules-as-written (RAW), giving players a major reason to cooperate (and would also mitigate situations where the party is ambushed without prepared magic defences)
  • allowing each player to contribute to the magic point (MP) cost of the spell (potentially important in a setting with low MP regeneration)
  • allowing each additional caster to augment the chance of the spell casting succeeding (an augment bonus is 1/5 of the skill%).

Usually in RQ RAW you only get one augment, allowing multiple augments to stack definitely makes a cabal of mages more powerful. You would also quickly reach a point where the chance of spell failure dropped to the minimum (5%) and the chance of a critical success would go up a lot (which mainly effects the MP cost of the spell by reducing it).

Another way to potentially handle this within the RQ rules is as a Task.  Usually a Task requires four successful skill checks (with a critical success being worth double, and a fumble reducing the score by one). So as each player spends an AP, they make their skill check and move the spell closer to completion.

This is still a complex way of resolving things, and I think keeping some index cards/notepaper around to write the spell shaping down onto would be a good idea to help track everything.

As players master each circle of magic (reach 95% skill, a long-term campaign goal) they could gain the ability to manipulate more than one thread of magic at a time.  So they can start combining their own spells, but it should still be useful to work with the other players for faster/cheaper casting.

What makes a world feel post-apocalyptic?

I have been thinking about how to influence the feel of a post-apocalyptic setting through the game mechanics. Web searches for ideas mostly directed me towards articles for writing novels rather than designing games.  They key insights I got from these were that you should establish:

  • what the apocalyptic event was
  • how much time has passed since the event (if its not actually over then its still the apocalypse, not the post-apocalypse)
  • what the world looks like now
  • what the threats to survival are
  • what are the strong characters trying to do, is there a purpose beyond survival?

Useful, but not quite what I was looking for.  It does suggest that there is some dramatic tension in having a flying city surviving, when the background suggests it should fall.  So it could be a meta-plot for the campaign, that the city will ultimately fall, and all its treasures be lost, but exactly how this happens is something for the campaign to determine in play.  This might also work with my thought to adapt the 13th Age Icon system to have major NPCs with two dramatic poles, and the option mid-campaign to for the NPC to make a choice between one of the two poles.  For example a Paladin in rusted armour might have “do the right thing” and “defend the city” as dramatic choices (for player characters, they key would be to have two or more Passions that are in contradiction to each other).

I had some hazy memories of Gamma World (too gonzo) and Twilight 2000 (too bleak), but its hard to ignore Apocalypse World (AW), which I grabbed a copy of through Bundle of Holding a while back.  AW is a narrative style game that downplays setting, and focuses on characters, with the GM strictly instructed to not have a pre-planned story.  For me, that relegates AW to convention play. While I like sandbox settings, I just prefer game systems that are closer to the old school simulation approach.

Looking through the AW character playbooks I pick out the following themes:

  • the world is violent and full of dangerous people, you must fight to survive
  • gasoline, bullets, vehicles, and bases are important resources
  • government has collapsed, its an age of petty warlords
  • things break, even though fragments of beauty remain
  • barter economy.

Now looking at the advice for the GM I pick out the following themes:

  • barf forth apocalyptica – nothing is too over the top
  • look through crosshairs – everything is a target, anything can be destroyed, there is no status quo
  • fuckery and intermittent rewards – the apocalypse twists things to bad outcomes, so the player characters do not always get a good reward for their efforts.

There are other themes and principles, but they are more specific to the style of game AW is built for.

Putting the post-apocalyptic theme into RQ mechanics

RQ is a system in which characters are always vulnerable, so little needs to change for a violence filled world. If you wanted to be harsh, you could eliminate Luck Points, or make Luck Points one use resources.

Resource scarcity for RQ characters tends to be expressed through wealth, equipment and MP. Focusing on MP, I think a post-apocalyptic setting should be one with slow recovery of MP.  Borrowing from the health recovery rules I am thinking of:

  • first regenerate 1-3 MP at the end of the next day
  • then regenerate 1-3 MP at the end of the next week
  • then regenerate 1-3 MP at the end of each following month, until full MP is restored.

This system means that using a few MP is something that is easy to recover from, but if you have to go deep into your reserves, then it could take months to fully recover. A downside is that its a bit more paperwork to administer. On the plus side, it would reward sharing the MP cost of spells through cooperation. The group as a whole is stronger if everyone contributes 1 MP, than if one character spent 5 MP.

In reconciling government collapse, with the continuing civilisation in the flying city, I think this can be handled through Passions.  Start by prohibiting Passions that focus on organisations, and require characters to focus their Passions on individuals. No one is loyal to the memory of the Old Empire, they are loyal to the Immortal Empress or the Unborn Emperor.  No one believes in the Old Church, they believe in the promises of a new prophet.  On the ground, use a “points of light” framework for outposts of order, and surround them with wastelands.

Things break. When players fumble, break things. This means actually using the rules for weapon damage. Further to this, allow all weapons to apply the Sunder special effect to armour.  The purpose of armour is to get you through the next battle.  If you want shining armour, you have to work hard for it.  Special items should have limited charges. Emphasise fragility by making resupply uncertain, if they don’t buy that item of wonder when they have the chance, then make sure they never see it again.

Barter economy. The Old Empire debased the currency so much that a hoard of 1,000 silver coins is worth 10-25 silver in terms of current units of account.  So worthless no one will want to carry the stuff out of the dungeons. Better yet, avoid giving the characters coins. Just give them stuff, which they then have to trade for other stuff.  Old items are valuable because they cannot be made any more, and because they can be turned into Rune Dust.  Rune Dust is the commodity sought by the flying city, to keep the bound demons and angels alive so the city does not fall.  It is also required if the characters want to enchant objects, or to make one use items with Alchemy.  So its the gasoline/bullets of the setting.

Post-apocalyptic cultures

RQ started the tradition of splatbooks with the complex cultures developed for the races in Glorantha, and this attention to cultures and plausible villains has remained a hallmark of the RQ game.  So a post-apocalyptic setting is not necessarily something that plays well to this strength, as the apocalypse by definition is a civilisation ending event.  What can be emphasised is cultural change.

The world keeps changing, even if the last flying city is a little bubble of preserved stasis.  There will have been invasions and migrations.  If a world spanning empire has been destroyed, then in the vacuum that follows new powers will rise.  If the old Gods were burned to fuel the Old Empire’s magical economy, then there are new Gods trying to fill the void.  It will still be worthwhile developing the pre-apocalyptic cultures, as a touchstone for reference. “Like the old Jennati merchant princes, but with cannibalism!”

I think that is enough for this post.  Did I miss anything that you feel should be included in a post-apocalyptic setting?

Pitching game ideas: My first rejection e-mail!

May 19, 2015

A week ago I wrote to a games company to try and pitch a couple of setting ideas. They were willing to consider them, so I then spent the rest of the week drafting two 500 word synopses. That was a challenging exercise, trying to boil 30+ pages of notes and ideas down to 1-2 sides of A4. I appreciate the feedback I got from friends on the drafts.  I submitted the synopses on time and got my rejection email a few hours later.

The rejection was polite, and contained a lot of useful feedback for me. I am not feeling in the slightest bit dejected. One of my ideas is just too much like another product just launched to the market. My other idea was a little more intriguing, but I had failed to really demonstrate how it would be a great product for the company to try and publish. So before I start rewriting my ideas, I think I will just summarise the lessons learned.

Lesson #1: work on one pitch at a time.

Trying to write two pitches in one week spread my effort too thin, and proof reading and editing drafts always takes longer than you first anticipate.

Lesson #2 pitch your strongest idea first.

I knew by the end of week of drafting, that my “flying city” pitch was stronger than my “beacon stars” pitch. That was my gut feeling, and the opinion of about 80% of the people who read my drafts. It would have been better if I had spent all week working on just that pitch.

Lesson #3 it must be good on its own merits.

Try to avoid mentioning other published games and game mechanics.

Lesson #4 explain how it is unique.

While I thought I had managed to nail this, with two concepts that I do not think have been adequately presented or explored in roleplaying games, part of the feedback was that I needed to bring out the uniqueness more. No publisher wants to waste time on a generic F20 home brew setting with a Clichea map.

Also, I am pretty sure the world is done with zombies for a generation.

Lesson #5 focus, focus, focus!

I think a lot of self-published games fail to articulate exactly what the players do that is different from any other game out there. So for both of my pitches I had a lot of options for what the characters could be doing. For my next pitch I am going to focus on the strongest option for interesting play in the setting.

Lesson#6 explain how it will fit into their catalogue of supplements.

Not something that had occurred to me when I was drafting, and it was not in the advice guides I read. Obviously you should not try and pitch a D100 game idea to someone like Wizards of the Coast, but for a small publisher with limited resources it could be good to point out how your pitch will fill a gap or enhance an existing product range.

Lesson #7 articulate the setting strengths, cultures and magic.

This was specific feedback to my “flying city” idea, and essentially I failed to communicate how these would look in the game, even though I had some cool ideas in my own head. This links back to focus, the less you write about, the more you can write about it. So I am going back to the drawing board with a lot of ideas and I will spend a few weeks hammering away at them to try and refine the ideas.


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