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Lancer: Comp/Con character builder

January 12, 2020

This.  This is what I’ve been wanting TTRPGs to start doing more often:

Lancer RPG Comp/Con Character Builder

Even if you’re not interested in playing or buying the Lancer game, you should check out the free program for this.  It’s a great example of what we should have for more games that have character builds to track.

  • Easy and clean interface.  Short comments let you know what skills/powers do.
  • Free. Available for Apple, Windows and Linux.
  • Local data.  You don’t need to be online for the app to function.  You don’t need to hope the company will be still running servers 2 years from now, or that someone isn’t funneling malware through it later on.

Now, I also understand that building software isn’t a snap, but for the publishers with more money and resources, this sort of thing is basically the future for mid-to-high build complexity games.

I know a couple of years back people were really excited about D&D’s character builder, but it premium locks most of the options until you pay for that specific book, and whatever point WOTC decides to move on and shut down the servers – you basically have nothing for it.

This is such a contrasting difference in approach to Lancer’s putting the player base first – the people who buy your game and want to play your game need good design tools – money locking it just makes it harder to play your game.

(It’s a far lesser scale, but does remind me of the problem with the D20 attempt at open source design – the way in which it was set up encouraged everyone to only put their LEAST interesting stuff as free, and everything else was held behind a premium barrier – so you got a glut of material, but nothing to encourage increasing quality of design.)

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Constructing Situation – process

January 10, 2020

I’ve been reading up on the Lancer mecha RPG beta, and got some ideas for a game I want to run later on.  The rules give you a broad setting, but you end up having to nail down much more specifics if you actually want to run a game.

The process of putting together notes ended up being a good chance to highlight some of the process and steps I use when constructing Situation for play.  (The broader process is the Flag Framing setup I’ve written about before.)  I’m skipping specific names of things or a lot of details, because they’re not as relevant as highlighting what this means structurally for running the game.

Setting vs. Situation

Setting is the broad background while situation is the specific scenario for the game/campaign you are going to play.   For many games, Situation is actually a key point in narrowing down what kind of characters fit for this particular run of the game you are going to do.

It’s not super important, but I do keep in the back of my head the fact there is “broad Situation” and “tight Situation” – the former is what I put together for this future game, while tight Situation would require actual player characters and their specific backgrounds, goals, relationships, etc.

So, you can have “The knights are defending a city under siege” as part of a broad Situation, but “Sir Morris’s cousin is a mercenary captain for the enemy troops” and “The Bishop is blackmailing Andrew to keep skimming supplies for himself despite the city in need.” etc.

However, you’ll see the steps I use for broad Situation basically tie into the tight Situation once you get to playing.

The Focus

Well, the Lancer RPG is primarily about mecha combat – so that’s obviously going to be a focal point for play.  I want to set up a “the crew is centered around a ship that travels” along the the lines of The Expanse, Firefly, Outlaw Star, Cowboy Bebop etc.

A star system being invaded, and, a military ship trying to take part in defending it.

What this does is facilitate certain things around the focus of play that I’m aiming for:

  • War obviously gets us lots of fighting mecha situations for the core focus of the game system.
  • Defenders vs. Invaders sets up clear broad sides to the conflict, and, defending your home is an easy moral high ground.  (Obviously, in actual play there will probably be a few grey areas that appear, but it’s not the same as “we’re the bastards, everyone’s bastards” kind of war story either).
  • A military unit has goals and objectives and it’s easy to keep the group momentum in a direction with in-fiction reasons.  (Also, while the player characters may not have the final say all the time, they certainly would have SOME input their commander has to take into account, so not a steamroll of their choices either.)

So this is how I tend to approach Setting and Situation- it either helps facilitate the focus for the game, or it can work against it.  Crafting carefully ahead of time lets you just get to the good stuff quicker and avoid misunderstandings.

The Groundwork

Now more specific ideas.  I was initially inspired reading the over the setting bit that the Lancer universe has FTL in the form of Blinkgates, but not every system has one – then it’s a journey of near-light, over several years, to get to the neighboring systems.

A question came to mind: “Huh, I wonder what kind of systems get accepted for new Blinkgates?”

The star system is rich in resources, but isolated by basically being sandwiched between an electromagnetically charged and dangerous nebula and a radiation jet firing off a quasar – they are stuck doing trade by having to go the long way around and sometimes lose ships from space hazards.

After several years of negotiation, they’ve gotten the Union to agree to build a Blinkgate there – the assessment delegation just left and it’ll probably be 7-8 years before the construction armada returns.

What this sets up:

  • The system is worth something, but is about to become worth a LOT more once the Blinkgate is installed.  A desperate warlord might hope to take over and basically retain control after.
  • It’s isolated, which means it’s not easy to call for reinforcements and the war is effectively a holding action until the Union construction fleet returns.
  • Being isolated in this way also makes larger scale piracy a rare issue for them, and in turn, the need for too much system defenses. (Pirates might want to try going for the goods on the other side of the Nebula rather than risk losing your ship inside).  The small military also means the PCs and their ship hold greater sway/value.

I’m also inspired by the Honor Harrington books, where a lot of their war issues involve considering that messages might take months to get back to central command, and this is effectively a similar problem.

The Night of War

So, if the star system is already outgunned by the invaders, what chance does the small ship have and why should it matter?

The ship is running through drills and exercise for anti-piracy operations – including laying low in the asteroid belt – which is when the attack comes.  The ship is off everyone’s radar, and by the time they receive the emergency messages – the attacks had already happened 40 minutes to an hour prior, due to time lag.

  • The ship has the one thing that has always served the outgunned – stealth.
  • The training exercises also make sense if the party is all going to be 0 level newbie characters – you take your new troops and run them through the paces and train, train, train.
  • The nature of being outgunned and possibly without back up for some time, means there’s room for discussion/argument about what to prioritize and where a small interceptor ship and it’s few Lancer mechs can make the biggest difference.
  • While everyone is talking strategy, it’s a good chance to give GM exposition about the star system and where everything is and why anything matters or what it’s history is.

Mind you, I have also written up a bit on the specific planets, major places in this system, culture, values, etc.  The players need stuff like this to make characters to begin with, but this opening situation allows me to either re-emphasize things as strategically valuable (“The research stations were used to figure out optimal Blink gate placement but also have a powerful sensor array – that could get intel on the invaders…”) or tie in the player character specifics (“Your mother and 2 brothers live on the orbital station above New Pacific.  They might be in danger… they might… you don’t want to think about it.”)

I generally try to find “opener scenes” like this that allow players a chance to ask questions, talk but also under urgency.   The first game I saw do this was Vincent Baker’s Poison’d, where the crew of pirates just found the cook poisoned the captain – and now they need to decide who the new captain is, before the British Navy catches up to them.

Thought Process

As you can see, what I’m trying to do when I set this up, is create a situation that funnels to the focus of play.  Once play begins, all the usual improv techniques apply, but the initial set up helps avoid problems and reduces the usual rough points early in a campaign.

Although we have a clear large scale conflict goal (“Repel the invaders”), I have no idea how the players will want to do that over the course of the campaign.  I figure I’d need to hash out some strategically valuable places, let the players basically argue for which they think is the highest priority and play it out as it goes.  Compelling and reasonable problems gets players thinking about solutions and directions, and allows you to also be surprised at the answers they come up with.

Unfortunately I don’t have a clear set of steps/process formula for this, but I felt talking about what I’m considering as I build Situation might help other people consider some things when they set up their games as well.

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.

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Signalboosting I Need Diverse Games

December 18, 2019

I Need Diverse Games is doing a fundraising push to stay afloat.

If you’ve followed my writings online (…since…what, 2002-3? and the relaunch from Blogspot to here…) it’s not hard to see my posting quantity has gone down drastically.

Some of that is lowered energy levels, post chemotherapy in 2012-2013.  Some of that is the fact that I generally try to post things that are lasting in value and cover the topic well, so I don’t have to repeat myself.

But, a fair portion is the way in which the TTRPG space wallowed in toxicity and allowed Hatebros to run through everything while telling everyone they targeted that we were “too sensitive”, only to… you know, declare later that the scene wasn’t “toxic like videogames” (infinite eyeroll).

Anyway, to the point – I Need Diverse Games and Tanya DePass has been DOING the work and outreach that is the only reason I have even kept a hand in the larger RPG space rather than just write it all off.

I understand I produce little enough here for most people to want to subscribe on Patreon, however what Tanya does supports a lot more people than just me, and if you have a few extra bucks you can send as a one time, or a dollar or two a month, it would go a long way.

Until gaming can be a place fun for everyone.

 

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RPG Podcast Industry survey

December 10, 2019

The linked post also has further links to the full report if you’d like to look closer.

The RPG Podcast Industry

I think this is pretty interesting to see both where it is better than my usual dismal expectations but still worse than where we should be as we come up on 2020.

One thing I think contributes a lot to the RPG representation in online media is the two hurdles of hypervisibility resulting in violent harassment and the other hurdle of time/money cost.

Obviously, suffering LESS harassment makes online media work (well, any work) drastically easier, as I’ve spoken about many times.

It also takes some amount of time and money to improve the presentation of your gaming content – audio, website, or for a videostream all the screen overlays, etc.  Fan support is always stronger for cishet white men, which then gives them more signal boosting and resources to make it sound/look even better so it becomes a vicious circle of an old boy’s network, effectively.

That aside, I also am guessing that games that run long form, such as D&D, probably do better for podcasting and video streaming, since for the listeners, if they are not gamers themselves, are probably more invested in the characters and plot – the fiction, than the actual game rules.  Short run games don’t allow people to tie into that, the same way they would for long run games.

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.

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Playing With Immeasurables

December 7, 2019

Today I’m thinking back again to the things that make tabletop RPGs unique compared to other games.  Boardgames, card games, and videogames all have very well developed design and theory, and yet none of these can be applied 1:1 to tabletop RPGs despite a great deal of overlap.

I’ve spoken before that my definition for RPGs is “Roleplaying games are games where imaginary fiction is the focus of play and influences choices and outcomes of play.” and I still think that holds very strong and works well in defining the difference, though I realized another nuance to it.

Can’t put a number on it

The nature of using fiction is that it creates qualities that are not measurable by clean numbers or ratings.  You can measure a character running out of hitpoints, you cannot measure for you, the player, the experience when your character’s sidekick, the NPC who has been with you through countless adventures – dies.  That’s an emotional experience or tie that isn’t a number.  That weight of story capital is something which RPGs operate heavily in, as a normal aspect of play.

This also means that the where, why, and how of fiction becoming important enough in play to define your choices, is always in part, something that goes into directive rules and not procedural rules.

I think some of the best design looks very hard at when/where the quality factor of the fiction matters, and deliberately provokes and plays with it.  For example, Polaris and Thou Art But A Warrior use clear procedural bargaining mechanics (“I do X” “But only if Y also happens”), but the key to that system is that eventually the “But only if” eventually crosses lines of things you don’t want to see happen in the fiction.

Putting Birds on a Railroad

This also ties back to a core issue for RPGs – if players have input into the fiction, in any sense, there will be input that is not so easily weighted by number, value or some kind of mechanical bit that can be reasonably measured.  Which means your whole system structure either has to allow for the game to adapt and deal with these things, or very high restrictions to minimize the fiction effect.

One of the early questions for games that utilized narration trading, where a player could make statements about outcomes or the world, in the same way a GM normally is granted power to do so – is “What’s to stop someone from saying ‘I punch the world in half!’?”.

Well, the answer is the Baker Care Principle:

The fictional events of play in a role playing game are dependent on the consensus of the players involved in order to be accepted as having occurred. All formal and informal rules, procedures, discussion, interactions and activities which form this consensus comprise the full system used in play. 

There’s always an informal veto power at hand, because all RPGs deal in both creating and manipulating imaginary fiction – much of which may be undefined and sees detail added through play (“I use the stick to wedge it open.” “Oh it’s not long enough” “I thought it was used to hold up a tent, doesn’t that have to be X long?” “Oh yeah, that makes sense, I guess it IS long enough. Cool, roll the dice.”).

So… it turns out the actual ability to adapt is right there – it’s the ability of the group to communicate and negotiate which in turn means good directives are absolutely key, because the ability to coordinate needs those directives as the starting point and guides for the outcomes.  I’m unable to recall if it was Ben Lehman or Vincent Baker who said “RPGs are structured conversations” but it applies completely here.

(I often point out that my Same Page Tool is born of the failure of games to do just that- it’s a menu list of directives to help people find common Creative Agenda and avoid mutually exclusive playstyles communicated as compatible.)

We take the fiction, we make the fiction

Modern RPG design takes this idea of how to build rules (both hard procedural and general directive) to get the group to know what fictional elements matter and why, and how to bring them into play and how to create fun imaginary events in response.  The rules are about directing the spotlight, loading up the stakes and consequences, pacing the action, and producing fun outcomes within that space as well.

And, those rules should cover the majority of the focus of the game, which means the parts which depend solely on group negotiation are small and easy to the point of feeling invisible to the group.

I’m seeing a strong split in game design at this point, between design which does this and design which doesn’t.  I suspect much of the problem play I grew up dealing with will continue as long as people continue designing while missing the fundamental element of tabletop RPGs that makes them different than any other form of game.

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.

 

 

 

 

 

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Mandy Morbid Legal fundraiser

November 29, 2019

Mandy is setting up a fundraiser to help with legal costs.

https://www.gofundme.com/f/gxywr5-legal-funds

Hi
This is Mandy Morbid, as many of you know my ex Zak Smith is suing me for defamation after I, and a number of other women, told our stories of mistreatment and abuse.

The lawsuit has progressed to a point where I need to ask for a bit of help with some upcoming costs.

Thanks for reading, sharing, and if you are able donating.

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Sci-fi and the right questions

November 19, 2019

I’ve got a few sci-fi things I’ve been tooling around with.  In terms of feedback, sometimes I encounter people who miss a key part of sci-fi – it’s rarely a hard look at “What would life definitely be like with x conditions and y technology?” and more about framing things as what sort of questions and stories do you want to create.

You gotta ask the right question.

For example, if you have AI, or brain uploading, or copying people, you have a whole host of ethical questions to address as part of your setting, and probably in play.

If I want something like a adventure/shooty sci-fi like Mass Effect, where the ethical questions are more “How do I treat people in a given situation and how much violence/lawbreaking am I ok with?” that’s a different set of questions and the former ideas can quickly overwhelm them.

(To be fair, really any genre could have this kind of  host of questions and focus, sci-fi just tends to bring it to the foreground quickly, and tends to be where I have to spend the most time making these curated choices.)

For this reason, I often choose to make/play sci-fi settings with a lot of things missing.  No AI.  Maybe very limited drones.  Etc.   These choices aren’t because I’m not familiar with ideas of the technology or the fact that society will be drastically different with those technologies being widespread, it’s often because that’s not the questions I want to do with this particular game/campaign.

Then the issue of onboarding.

There’s also the second issue, which is that tabletop RPGs are not a passive form of entertainment – it is critical to get people up to speed to be able to play the game.  I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of the 300 page setting required reading, but even short settings still require people to get on the same page for ideas.

With many sci-fi, the issue becomes a matter of which the society is so alien, and difficult, to grasp, that your group becomes lost or confused as to what’s going on.   This kind of story works well in books, because you can take time to re-read sections, and think about what is happening.   In a game, where everyone is collaboratively creating character dialogue, choices, and events, it can be a hurdle.

(This is also true of other genre types too, and the point after which the high concept/fictional culture is so weird to the players or has to fight it’s way through pre-conceived expectations it becomes a hurdle to play rather than a useful feature.)

The wrong answers.

There’s also the point where if you include things thoughtlessly, it naturally leads to setting up answers you probably didn’t intend.  “The good guys made a slave clone army to fight and die by the millions?  How are these good guys?”  Oops.

One of the differences in technology vs. magic in fiction, is that technology is generally understood to be reproducible, while in some cases, magic is not quite so reliable/predictable, and this means if you do something with technology, the question comes up why you wouldn’t do it again/elsewhere?  If you can cure cancer, why not cure more people?  If you can bring someone back from the dead, how long until this becomes a regular use technology?  And then… why AREN’T you doing this?

Obviously, there’s plenty of good stories to have around both technology that can’t feasibly be reproduced wide scale (“You can change one moment in history… but only one.”) or are being forcibly placed into artificial scarcity as a means of social control.  Again though, that’s being thoughtful about where and how you place it in your setting.