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Genre Scaffolding

June 18, 2016

I’m slowing forming a Mekton campaign in my head.  Between the busy season at work and less brainpower for thinking (age, post-chemo, whatever), I’m realizing how much harder it is to set up games with older, traditional games that are set up to do “broad genre” ideas instead of more specific ones.

For example, while Lord of the Rings, Journey to the West, The Mahabharata, and The 1001 Nights are all “fantasy” which you could theoretically play using D&D rules, capturing the correct feel and pacing depends on:

  • The GM knowing the genre and setting scenes & NPC actions around it
  • The Players knowing the genre and setting characters and action around it
  • Constant selective use/disuse of mechanics to appropriately model the specific feel
  • and/or house rules specifically set to bend the game towards that end

…compared to a focused, well designed game which sets everyone towards the same goal and understanding from the start, with rules to back it up – which is a lot less work to play and keep going.

For the Mekton game, I’m having to dissect the specific things I want from a mecha story to even get to framing the situation to sell to players.  While I could easily point-build a billion and one robots, or stat up characters upon characters, the part I’m not supported in, is navigating what conflicts, cast design, etc. tends to make the juicy parts of the specific things I’m looking for.

I have no Genre Scaffolding upon which to build, so I have to make my own.

Once I have that skeleton in place, then the ideas about what kinds of conflicts or characters make sense, and only then can I pitch it to players AND give them some guidelines of what kinds of characters to make.

I’m guessing once that’s nailed down, the rest is easy, but I’m also comparing this to other games where this isn’t a struggle – for example, Dogs in the Vineyard you already know what kinds of conflicts to expect and what kinds of characters fit the bill – the only point you have then is filling in the specifics.

(Mind you, this isn’t a dig at Mekton, the whole Interlock system really does represent some of the best of the 80’s RPG design – which we’d see again in D20 over a decade later, however, it does highlight a massive missing piece in most of the design at the time.)

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Too close to home, too far from safety

June 14, 2016

A few years ago, groups of people organized harassment campaigns aimed at trans game designers.

Long before bullets go flying like the horrific tragedy in Florida, the intent and dehumanization is built up over time by people “just saying words”, over and over.

You don’t have to step up and catch a bullet, but you can stand up and push out the hatemongers and bigotry and not let it flourish in your hobby.

Or, if you can’t do that, don’t be surprised that the seeds of hate eventually bear fruit, while you stand by and do nothing.

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Mekton Hack: Follow Your Heart

June 12, 2016

I found an old copy of Mekton Zeta.  Mekton remains one of the best games for mecha-anime action, provided you’re looking mostly for simulationist play.  But I remembered that most of these old school games aren’t too hard to revamp if you throw a new reward system on top of them…  so, I figured I’d come up with some house rules to make Mekton more anime-like in play.

These rules replace the Improvement Point system in Mekton.  These are pretty close in function to how Spiritual Attributes work in Riddle of Steel or Blade of the Iron Throne.

Drives

Player characters and major NPCs get 3 Drives.  A Drive is a motivation which they are willing to risk and push for – protecting planet Earth, someone they’re in love with, revenge, finding out the truth about the Secret Government, whatever.  You can change these over play, but ultimately they’re Flag Mechanics for everyone to know what to angle your scenes around and where the fun conflicts are for you.

It’s probably a good idea to channel these Drives into general categories for your setting for your particular campaign – “Make a Drive about the Aliens and how you feel about them”, “Have a Drive about one of your team mates”, “Give a Drive about what you wanted to do with your life that got interrupted by the war…” etc.

Drives have a score from 0 to 3.  They start at 0, and every time you take a risk or major action for a Drive, it goes up a point, up to a maximum of 3.

Drives affect dice

When you take actions that are in line with one of your Drives, you can roll a number of extra D10s equal to the current Drive score that applies, and keep the highest die.  So if you have a Drive 2, you get to roll an extra 2D10 for a total of 3D10 and take the best of the bunch.

As you can see, high Drive can make a big difference in your rolls.

Criticals

Criticals are no longer infinitely exploding dice – you can’t just keep rolling 10’s and get some outrageous score.  You can explode the dice only when your action applies to one of your Drives AND only as many times as your Drive score.

So, if you’re fighting to Save the Earth (score 2) and you roll a 10, you can explode the die and roll again, and if you get another 10, you can explode it just one more time.

Drives and improvement

You can improve your skills by spending down your Drives.  Between your 3 Drives, spend down a number of points equal to the current rating of the skill to raise it one rank.  For example, if you had Melee 5, you’d need to spend 5 points from your Drives and the skill would go up to 6.

For stats, you have to do this twice – the first time put a check or a star by the stat.  The second time you spend down, the stat raises by 1.

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Knowledge Rolls

May 3, 2016

“Make a skill check to see how much you know about X thing” has typically been a really crappy mechanic in most games.

There’s three typical pitfalls:

  • If you roll poorly, you might get no information at all, which often goes against the idea of a highly knowledgeable character
  • You might succeed but receive no useful information
  • You might fail and the GM gives incorrect information, but because you know the roll was bad, you don’t trust it, so it’s almost the same as getting no information at all.

Apocalypse World solves a lot of this by making their version of the knowledge roll being “Pick from this list of questions, the better you roll, the more questions you get to ask” and the list is broad but nearly always relevant questions.

I’m leaning towards this as a broad, portable set of rules that can go into most rpgs where you might want to make a knowledge roll:

Free Knowledge

First, your character gets a bit of general context about the situation, object, or topic at hand for free.  That may be just a sentence or two, but it does provide some knowledge about it.  “These swords are of Eastern make – the warriors all fought from horseback, so the blades are curved to allow slashing while riding by.”

3 Facts

You make a roll.  The GM gives you 3 facts about the thing you’re trying to understand/remember etc.  Failure means 1 of the 3 facts is accurate.  Success means 2 of the 3 facts are accurate.  Critical or whatever makes a really good success by this system’s mechanics means you get 3 facts correct.

If there’s some reason your character would have especially good knowledge about the thing in question (“I grew up in a port town, of course I know boats”), then one extra fact is correct – if you failed, you’d still get 2 of 3 correct facts.

So, short of a critical success, you have some space for doubt, but also you have some ideas of things to explore/research/or consider further.  This might involve finding experts to verify the truth of some things, compare the facts to evidence, or perhaps use magic or superpowers as a way to confirm things.

 

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Cautionary Tales continue…

May 1, 2016

This is a pretty interesting overview of Chaosium’s mismanagement of the Call of Cthulhu kickstarter.

The sad part is that it sounds like most of the terrible business decisions were things which people could have avoided up front… a lot of the same issues that drove many rpg publishers under during the 80s and the 90s.  Spending more than you’ve got, forgetting things like, you know, storage and shipping have costs, or that… you have to pay the people making the product, and so on.

The usual sort of failure you hear with Kickstarters these days, assuming the folks are capable of making a product in the first place, are actually the issues around things like finding out bonus prizes like t-shirts or other collectibles cost more than you thought, or that shipping suddenly rises in cost – not that, you didn’t do the initial calculations to begin with.

It’s also the reason that a lot of folks simply go with PDF only sales overseas or put their product up on a print-on-demand site to avoid the shipping costs.

I’m glad to hear the folks who took over are attempting to pay off all the freelancers who put in effort, though it’s sadly so common for freelancers to not be paid on time (as in years of wait) or at all, that the only difference in that would have happened compared to the normal process is the customers wouldn’t have gotten a book out of it either.

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Theory Context:”Say Yes or Roll the Dice”

April 12, 2016

Back in 2004, Vincent Baker released Dogs in the Vineyard.  It had quite a few good design things in it, but an idea which found it’s way into the general tabletop scene is “Say Yes or Roll the Dice”.

Like many of the things that spilled out from the Forge forum crowd, it would become a thing people say, shifting the idea and losing the original context.  Now you can find people arguing “But if a player wants to have their character punch the planet in half in my gritty realistic detective game, do I have to say yes or roll the dice?!? This is ridiculous!”…  So, context.

Structure

First, it’s important to know the basic structure of Dogs in the Vineyard – the player characters are special religious deputies, whose job is to go into towns and fix their conflicts and problems.

There’s basically two axis’ of conflict: whether the situations violate the social norms of their religious society, and whether the situations are morally bad as you personally judge them (as players, as characters, etc.).   The characters are basically put in a tight spot to make things better for the community, while much of the community actually resists or is in the midst of internal strife.

Ok? That’s the mission structure.  The actual dice rolling conflicts are pretty involved, often lasting 30 minutes or more.  Along the way, the characters make a lot of choices, mostly involving whether it’s time to use violence or time to use words, and how much consequences they’ll risk.

You are set up to run into conflict, and conflict is an involved affair.

Say Yes or Roll the Dice

Now, here’s the actual section on Say Yes or Roll the Dice:

Drive Play Toward Conflict

Every moment of play, roll dice or say yes.

If nothing’s at stake, say yes to the players, whatever they’re doing.  Just plain go along with them.  If they ask for information, give it to them.  If they have their characters go somewhere, they’re there.  If they want it, it’s theirs.

Sooner or later – sooner, because your town’s pregnant with crisis – they’ll have their characters do something that someone else won’t like.  Bang! Something’s at stake.  Launch the conflict and roll the dice.

Roll the dice or say yes.  Roll the dice or say yes.  Roll the dice or say yes.

So…that context…

Notice how the primary point here is that it’s about character agency and figuring out when and where to use conflicts.  If there is no conflict, if the characters are unopposed?  They succeed.  Period.  If they are opposed, then it’s time to set the stakes, and then push through the mechanics to see what comes out on the other side.

Also notice that this isn’t about avoiding the use of mechanics, rather, it’s about making sure you’re not blocking the players from getting to the meat of the situation – which, when you reach it, is exactly what the mechanics are for.

This doesn’t say anything about genre breaking things, or impossible by your judgement of reality… it’s with the assumed group understanding of what the genre and character capabilities are (the book has 2 chapters laying out tone, social structure, etc. on this), and here we’re just talking about pacing and pushing towards the point when the player characters and the NPCs come into conflict with each other, and choices have to be made about what you’ll do about it and prices you’re willing to pay.

Broad Application

If you want to export it, then there’s basically two ideas you’d be using:

  1. Characters succeed at things within their ability unless something is at stake that matters for the focus of your game.
  2. Drive play towards those conflicts about the things that are the focus of your game.

If your game is tightly designed, this is pretty easy because the mechanics and the advice in the game are already pushing you this way.

If your game is designed without a tight focus, or, worse, just badly designed, then you have to do a lot of work to figure out what the focus of the game you are going to run is going to be, and you’ll end up ignoring a lot of the skills/powers/mechanics, etc. that aren’t going to be used.  You’ll need to tell the players about this so they don’t waste time creating characters with abilities that won’t get used, or spending time learning rules that won’t matter.

 

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The continuing problem

April 3, 2016

This woman recounts several instances of violent sexual assault, harassment, and racism in tabletop gaming, both roleplaying and minis, etc.   Trigger warning.

Tabletop Gaming has a White Male Terrorism Problem

The common thread across all of this is: a) The act of violence, b) that there are witnesses or a community which dismisses the victim and protects the abuser, c) and whatever authority she turns to, also does the same.

It’s the commonality of B and C which makes this a community action, as opposed to “one rotten individual”.

Notice also that she doesn’t go into the details about the online harassment, but it’s there.  The desire to do emotional harm and physical harm both base in the desire to do harm.  That’s the problem right there.

Until you fix that, Hatebros will thrive, and the rest of us will continue to leave.

 

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