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Double Cross without Illusionism

April 10, 2014

So, now I’m looking through the DX book more deeply at the adventures set up.  Over the years, there’s been a few different scales of illusionist adventures, usually along one of these lines:

Checkpoint Illusionism (All Roads Lead to Rome)

Where the adventure consists of a few checkpoints which are flexible in how you get to them or get out of them.  This is the most flexible of the bunch but still problematic because often the checkpoints expect a very rpg-trope level of outcomes.  Feng Shui and HeroQuest pushed this sort of play.

Branching Path Illusionism

A set of events leads to a potential number outcomes from any scene, leading to a limited number of other scenes.  This is the most common  type seen in a lot of games, with White Wolf games being the most well known.

Step by Step Illusionism

A specific linear set of events to happen in a set fashion, scene to scene.  These are pretty rare, but Double Cross has this pretty much in spades.  There’s a minor point of branching in the adventures, but it is pretty locked in.

Where it doesn’t fit

Anyone who’s played a lot of D&D or White Wolf games can recognize the issue of trying to run an investigation game, a social game, or a “how do I get past this obstacle” game when you give people certain power options.  Once a few powers or spells fit together, a lot of problems just evaporate and you find what maybe a good portion of the adventure was built on, disappears in 10 minutes of play.

This is very true of Double Cross.   There’s a lot of “Simple Powers” that cost nothing or next to nothing and create plot-changing actions easily.  For example, just the electricity power set you can get a power to simply “read” anyone’s data being wirelessly transmitted.  Another power lets you record any data to a USB, disk drive, etc, just by touching it.   Given that the setting involves a secret war between a government organization and superpowered terrorists, you’re basically snatching cell and email data and potentially solving a lot of mysteries much easier.

So you end up with two options: a) ditch the adventure you’ve prepped, b) stop the players’ powers from actually working or mattering.  You either spent a lot of time putting together adventure material that is now useless, or you crap on the players’ choices and stomp on whatever they thought was cool about those powers.

This is a big reason of why Illusionism is shitty.

Making it work for Double Cross

Well, it’s actually not that hard.  There’s two easy levers by which you can improvise action.  (Go read GM Improvisation 101 and it’s links for basic applications – these two are the DX ways of applying that.)

Mission and Politics

With this giant secret war going on, you have your side, a bunch of other sides, and everyone wants something.  Action is basically “someone wants to get/do something” (your side to theirs, their side to yours), “Someone wants to convince someone of something”, “Someone wants to find something out/hide something”.

Set up some general motivations, set up a few Macguffins, and this is easy enough.  You can simply give players missions from their higher ups and that works well enough.

What you’ll have to adjust for is the fact that the general powers in Double Cross can make some things trivially easy to do – many of the powers give the players unparalleled ability to sneak in, get things, get info, or get out without even having to fight at all.

This means that instead of thinking of play in a single “Do X thing” as the whole adventure, you look at the consequences that comes out of the actions they take.  Did the players get ahold of a bunch of communications?  Maybe they find out someone they trust seems potentially a spy or a mole.  Did they sneak in and get the MacGuffin easily?  What if different parts of their organization are trying to get them to give it to them, but not the others?

Doing the missions isn’t the hard part, it’s what happens because of it that the real conflict comes forward.

Personal Drama

LOISes and TITANs, make the game go around.  Early in a session should be about players making LOIS connections and all you have to do is look at the positive/negative emotions and press one or other and have it show up in play.  These are effectively the Flags the players are giving you to work with.

The one problem for Double Cross is the ever growing Encroachment rate means you can only take so many scenes to deal with personal issues vs. deal with other problems.  As a group, you’ll need to figure out if this choice is simply a matter of where we focus the spotlight of action (“We spend 5 scenes dealing with emotional fallout, but it’s not like our characters missed any missions”) or if it’s an actual logistics choice (“You can go save your sister, or you can make sure the whole city is safe.  Make your choice.”).

Scene Count

A specific issue for Double Cross is that each scene adds 1D10 to a players’ Encroachment rate.

The average number of scenes a single character goes through in the 3 adventures is about 7-8 scenes.   When you look at most players having a starting Base Encroachment of near 30%, plus an average of 7D10 to 8D10 (35%-40%) over the number of scenes – you’ve got about 65-70% before you even start talking about using powers or an Impulse check.

So, keeping that in mind, you probably want to keep in mind the overall Scene count before closing up a situation or giving players a chance to Backtrack.

Combat/Non-Combat

Looking at the core adventures, a lot of the scenes with combat don’t have any good advice about what happens if you decide to just run, or lose a fight.  Given how much of the combat powers pump up the Encroachment rate, it seems like it’s a critical skill to adapt or deal with the players potentially winning combats through non-direct tactics, convincing the opposition to give up, or avoiding a fight altogether.

If you have simple motivations applied to the NPCs, you should have no problem coming up with their responses on the fly.

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Roleplaying the Struggle

March 27, 2014

A different kind of escapism

My game group has decided to try to do a steampunk game, with a critical eye about colonialism.   This comes just as wundergeek is having a conversation with Ron Edwards about the issue of rape in his new game (and in fantasy-geek shit overall).

This goes in line with some of the conversations I’ve had about Dog Eat Dog or Steal Away Jordan – that there’s a good number of games or campaign ideas I could see as being fun to play, but only with a group who can come to it with a critical eye.

To be sure, most of what I want gaming for is pure escapism (And, a lot of what I write about here is frustration that I cannot get EVEN that in the general gaming scene…) but there’s also a place for games that deal with fucked up stuff but provides you a space to punch back and win.  Or at least come out a little bit ahead.   It’s the reason most feel-good stories are about hard work and justice winning out in the end… compared to real life where that doesn’t happen all that often.

Critical vs. Non-Critical

But you’ll notice that the two points on which this hangs are:

a) is the problematic shit acknowledged as being shitty?*  (or is it being celebrated?**  Or is it being used as voyeuristic “Oh, that’s terrible… let me see more!”*** kind of bullshit? Is it paired with a jumped up strawman projection?****)

b) To what level is there protagonism and affirmation of the protagonists in the face of this?  (Notice this doesn’t even mean “victory” or full on “escape”, just protagonism.)

RPGs are conversations… not static media

If you watch a TV show, or read a book and something incredibly fucked up, racist, sexist, homophobic, or whatever happens, you can simply turn it off, put down the book, walk away.

When something fucked up happens in a game group, everyone is there and SOMEONE (singular, or collective) made that happen.  There is social expectation, relationships to navigate, social credit, plus… however much time is invested on everyone’s parts in this.

It’s different when someone you don’t know insults you with their bullshit story or views (still hurtful) but even MORE when someone you know does it straight to your face, intentionally or not.

So, tabletop rpgs have the additional burden that if you’re going to make a game or run a campaign that is going to bring up this stuff – do you have any idea or advice on how to communicate with each other about it?

Hard Fun

There’s a value in being able to critically deal with messed up shit in your games – a chance to say something meaningful or to poke/punch at it.  But… as far as gaming goes, 99% of the time it’s just thrown in either as an ugly, weak, disguise for celebrating it**, or else in a way to be “edgy” as a decoration, which inevitably ends up replicating the oppressive nature by trivializing it for suffering porn.

Mostly, though, this ends up coming back to a very simple question “How does this make this fun?” … which, folks seem to forget, has to be for more people at the table than just you.  

* This would be my primary objection to how D&D typically uses language around the “savage races”.  It’s not “OMG, you’re being racist against green people who don’t exist!”, it’s… “Wow, you’re really set on being able to use the language of genocide that was used to kill NDNs and indigenous people and this is something you claim is a core point to the fun you’re having here…”

**See – most Steampunk and colonialism.  See especially Wolsung.  This also applies to the “rawrr! Misogyny is historically accurate!” arguments and the “20′s were really racist times so let’s be really racist” Call of Cthulhu gaming.

*** I think of a forum thread about Steal Away Jordan where people were asking for more horrific historically accurate types of torture used upon slaves.  You know, because what is needed to make the game more fun is to go further into detail about torture, because, torture is exciting!

**** Lamentations of the Flame Princess’ “Better than Any Man” campaign set, for example, has the evil magical feminists who want to kill all teh menz and have demon sex slaves instead.

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March 25, 2014

I remember making this point at a few of the rpg forums I used to frequent:

Cardboard-Crack.com

A comic about games and social issues

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The Shadow of the Jedi

March 24, 2014

The Shadow of the Jedi - a Star Wars hack for Clinton R. Nixon’s The Shadow of Yesterday.

So, I’ve been sucking down a bunch of media as I’ve been recovering from chemo and such the last few months, and got into the Clone Wars cartoons.

The quality of the show is pretty swing-y but it did get me thinking down an interesting line of thought: in this cartoon, we see the Jedi doing a bunch of morally sketchy things – almost destroying someone’s mind to rip forth information, sacrifice thousands of sentient beings created as slave soldiers… you know, problematic stuff.  Yet they’re not assumed to be Dark Side despite all of this.

It got me to wondering if the whole Light/Dark divide was mostly an artificial creation on their part – that the Force is just neutral and the constant freaking out about going to the Dark side is because even the masters aren’t sure where that dividing line actually is – so they overcompensate.   It makes all the ridiculous inconsistencies about their philosophy of detachment make more sense – if it’s just made up, with no basis in fact, it can be inconsistent.

Of the Star Wars RPGs I’ve seen, they all try to have a mechanical dividing line between Light/Dark Side and it usually turns out… flat in play.  So I started thinking of TSOY’s Keys as a useful idea – they pull you in a direction but don’t lock you in, which works a lot better in terms of the characters trying to make decisions and moral struggles in the SW universe make more sense.

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Differentiation: Mechanical vs. Fictional

March 17, 2014

There’s an idea I think about a lot when it comes to RPGs – “How does THIS particular game teach you to take the in-game events and turn them into mechanics?  How does it teach you to take the mechanics and make events in play?” (see also: Vincent’s “How RPG Rules Work” or  Quinn Murphy’s “Thingification” idea)

When a game makes this easy to understand and smooth for the group playing, it’s really easy to take anything that happens in play, and figure out how it fits with the mechanics, or to take anything the mechanics kick out and make it an event in the imaginary events.   (As I tend to say, the easiest rule is “I say this happens, and then it does”).  When this is complex, challenging, or just poorly explained, you end up having lots of problems for groups – you can see a lot of this around D&D 4E’s mechanics and the complaints with it.

Anyway, that translation process either differentiates the “things” in the game by fiction, or by mechanics and it’s important because these are two very different ways to do a game.

Differentiation by Fiction

So, let’s say we’ve got a game, and it’s got dragons: ice dragons and fire dragons.

Here’s one example:

Fire Dragons: 20 hitpoints, 1d6 fire damage per round

Ice Dragons: 20 hitpoints, 1d6 ice damage per round

So, in this example, the dragons are basically the same, and the only difference is we’ve swapped one word for another.  The only thing that makes them different is fiction based – we can describe that ice attacks work different than fire attacks, but there’s nothing mechanically that necessarily makes them that much different.

This is differentiation by fiction.

You can see some games are built entirely on this idea – Primetime Adventures, Inspectres, HeroQuest, FATE games, Universalis, etc.  The mechanics are universally identical, you just swap descriptor words to change one to another.

It’s really useful if you want a game where the mechanics are less deep in specifics, easier to get system fluency to make good choices in play, and it’s very easy to improvise or adapt – just swap some labels for another and there you go.

Differentiation by Mechanics

Now let’s try a different version:

Fire Dragons: 25 hitpoints, 1D6 fire damage a round, and target takes 2 more fire damage until doused

Ice Dragons: 20 hitpoints, 1D6 ice damage a round, and target is frozen in place for 2 rounds.

You can see here, that the dragon types work a little different and probably will require different ways to deal with in play.  Specific mechanics result in specific differences, result in specific tactics.

This is differentiation by mechanics.

Most traditional rpgs use this – specific class/race powers, feats, a power tree, spells – things that give you access to mechanics or methods of play that you can’t get using the other options.

It’s really useful if you want a game where having deeper system familiarity is more important, where tactics or strategy might be useful, or if you want to push play choices in differing directions (“Doing X feels completely different than doing Y”).

What it means for play

The reason to look at this is that these are two very different ways to come at a game, and usually gets subsumed into some vague talk about “crunch”* (which has about 3-4 other factors piled into it as well).

With Differentiation by Fiction, you don’t have to think about mechanics much, but then the only thing you have to really push play, to make one thing behave functionally different than another is judgment calls at the table and agreement of the group (“Well, I’ve got Big Sword 4, but since we’re fighting underwater, it should have a penalty or not be useable at all.”).

With Differentiation by Mechanics, different choices matter much more, but it also means players need to develop some familiarity and fluency with the system to make that happen.  It means a longer time spent learning the options, and trying to piece together why things work and what strategies work best.  It also becomes a lot harder to improvise things if you find yourself having to suddenly come up with new rules or slam together systemic differences on short notice.

The way these two design philosophies operate is so different that players who prefer one type will not find systems that do the other worth touching at all.    So this becomes important to know if you like only one type, if your group is a mix, or if you are designing a game.

(*One might think that fiction-differentiation automatically means “low crunch” but that’s not necessarily the case.  Universalis, for example, has a good amount of procedural steps, and the latest version of HeroQuest also has quite a bit of crunch options that go along with it as well.  Contrary, there’s also a few mechanical differentiation games that have relatively low crunch, such as basic D&D and many of it’s clone rpgs .)

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Scarlet Heroes

February 24, 2014

Every time a POC focal rpg comes out… I WANT to like it.  I want it to not be fucked up.  Seriously.

Sadly, Scarlet Heroes takes pretty smart modern game design to “old school gaming” then pours heaps of problematic representation on top of it.

SH aims to be an asian themed pulp sword and sorcery kind of game.  There’s two ways one could go about this – take the many, many asian folklore tales and modern tales and pull from the very close parallels to modern pulp (wuxia, evil decadent governments, magic, secret societies, etc.) or…

…one could take the really problematic projections of “oriental” that came from the western pulp era.

Of the human societies presented:

- The fake Japanese (with a Chinese title) are literal demon worshippers who push their citizens to do evil to commit their souls to demons at death

- The fake Chinese run by a “Mandarinate” (um…an ethnicity might run a government but isn’t a government structure…so…) have an Emperor who is SO HOMOSEXUAL (Super caps to let you know to fear teh gheyz) he refuses to even to try to father an heir, leading to political instability…

- An evil fake Chinese country of evil wizards who engage in every vice and the picture shows the classic Yellow Peril dude sitting on a throne while attended to by many half naked women (many white women) …

- There’s two white societies – the fake Vikings and the fake Germans, because in a game about POC, you gotta have white people

- A group that sounds a goddamn lot like fake Jews

- And the rest of the human lands, we are told, is like South East Asia, but aside from pulling from some of the SEA monsters, nothing else is really explained

Then there’s a bunch of other minor by comparison but still notable red flags – there’s a woman in samurai armor but dressed up courtly hair (aka, “This is all we’ve seen of Japanese women hair” stereotype) which seems really weird.   There’s a Black woman who shows up in a couple of the pictures, but no real mention where she was supposed to come from or if she’s supposed to be one of the missing SEA groups in this setting.  All the spells have really long ornate names which is the key sign something is “oriental”.

This is the thing: when people’s idea of POC as heroes is “Wouldn’t it be awesome to play as the horrific stereotypes we threw on you as part of colonialism and war propaganda?” I’m having a real hard time seeing the fun escapism in this.

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Double Cross RPG

February 12, 2014

Ended up picking the Double Cross RPG - this is a Japanese rpg that hits that Shonen Manga trope of the “people get superpowers and are caught between secret organizations” genre.  My anime references are older -mostly stuff like Guyver and Baoh, but newer stuff like Towanoquan or Darker than Black would also apply.

The game has a lot of neat design tricks, but it suffers from the White Wolf problem – the game advises Illusionist/Railroading play, while much of the actual game mechanics work against it.

Encroachment

The protagonists all get their superpowers from “The Renegade Virus”, which, can take over one’s mind, reducing one to a mindless monster bent on destruction.

The score players will track is their “Encroachment Rate” which goes up and up – 1D10 per scene you show up in, a certain amount everytime you use powers, 2D10 if you encounter immense stress.  At the end of the game you get a chance to reduce it – if it’s over 100% at the end, your character is lost to the virus.

Reducing the virus requires holding onto important relationships – reasons to STAY human.  Also, you get more XP the closer you were to losing your character at the end of the game – you’re rewarded for risking yourself.

Lois / Titus Characters

Each PC will have a number of relationships – Lois and Titus characters.

Lois characters are reasons to stay human – friends, family, lovers, rivals.  Each Lois you have at the end of a session allows you to reduce your Encroachment by 1D10.   You can have a maximum of 7 Lois relationships, but you can only carry 3 between sessions -so that means you’ll be wanting to play up the drama and connect with other characters to get those additional Lois relationships.

The randomization also means you can’t exactly game the system – you’re risking your character between the randomized gain (1D10 per scene) and randomized recovery (1D10 per Lois).

If your Lois character dies, or your PC is distraught over them (betrayed, etc.) you can change them into a Titus character.  Titus relationships give you a one time bonus from a short list – but the options are really powerful – stuff like a 10 die bonus (when you’re usually rolling 3-5 dice), the ability to instantly recover from being brought to zero hitpoints, etc.

The funny thing is that this totally means characters who have a mess or shamble of life connections – tragic loss, or perhaps a frenzy of self destructiveness, will end up able to overpower a lot of things… in the short run.  There’s no limit to the number of Titus relationships you can carry over session to session, so having a protagonist who leaves a trail of tragedy behind them is genre appropriate AND supported by mechanics.

You can see pretty easily how this makes for amazing relationship situations in play, but also is terrible for Illusionism.

Positive/Negative Feelings Chart

For any Lois/Titus character, you list a positive AND negative feeling about them.  And you pick one that your character is actually conscious of.  You might be jealous of your best friend but also admire his determination.

What’s interesting about choosing one to be conscious is that either you end up forced to face the things you don’t like about the people you care about, or find redeeming qualities in the people you hate.

Again – amazing space for things like Narrativist play, also shitty for Illusionism.  What happens when you decide to acknowledge Sympathy for the villain and don’t capture/kill them?  What happens when you decide your mentor has actually been just using you and you quit the secret organization?

Powers

The power design is pretty smart.  All of the powers are generally designed to easily combine with other powers.  There’s no “skill tree” set up – a power either directly does something, or it stacks onto another power.

While each power might have multiple levels – it only increases it’s effectiveness or number of times it can be used – it’s not like some games where a new level in the same power unlocks extra abilities.  This means you don’t have to do deep planning ahead on your character builds.

Whereas a lot of game design, such as D&D 3.5 fails with their power set up – where you pick an optimal power/feat set and just do the same thing turn after turn, Double Cross has the Encroachment cost.  I may have an uber-combo of 5 powers I can use together to be awesome, but maybe that pumps up my Encroachment 14 points, and I’m not sure if this encounter is worth it.  So there’s an incentive to consider using less of your powers just for your own character’s sake.

There’s also the “Simple Powers” which are the non-combat powers.  These are supposed to be less powerful, but… consider the basic power every PC gets: “Warding” – you can release a virus cloud that knocks out all the non-powered humans in the area.  This drastically changes how you deal with investigations (“Oh, knock em out, let’s just get the keys and go through the files ourselves”) or fights (“Crap, the subway is full of helpless, unconscious bystanders… how are we going to get them out of here?”).  Again, stuff that can break Illusionist plans greatly.

There’s 12 “strains” of the virus, and each PC can either have 1, 2, or 3.  Each strain actually has a wide enough power set that you don’t feel cheated if you go with just one, at the same time the advantages to specializing are well balanced out with going with variety.

Other bits

Outside of the Illusionism, there’s actually functional advice also in the game – stuff on how to communicate with each other and developing listening skills, the fact that “I’m not being a jerk, My Guy (TM) is being a jerk” is shitty and actually just you being a jerk, etc.  It helps to remember this advice is from 2001 as well, and it’s been good progress in the last 10-12 years of overcoming dysfunctional behavior.

The game has a pretty light/sparse description for most powers, and the setting is also relatively light.  If you’re already familiar with a lot of “modern powers” manga/anime, this is all going to fit perfectly for you, especially the love/hate complexity of all the characters.

The layout is… not that great.  It’s not too hard to find things, but there are some rules which require bookmarking or remembering it’s mentioned in one section but not another.  The worst part is the character sheets – I hope some fans put together something cleaner and easier to read.

I’m definitely looking forward to playing this, but I’m going to have to excise all the Illusionist bits.

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