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?

Publishing

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.


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?