Archive for March, 2010

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The Same Page Tool

March 27, 2010

(Hi, if you’re first encounter my site through this page, which is my most linked post, welcome!  If you find The Same Page Tool is really helpful, or at least highlights some issues you’ve had in play, you may want to look under my “Broken RPG Culture” links on the right, several of those posts may help you get a better view on things.  If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon. I spent all of 2013 beating cancer and most of 2014 recovering.  A few bucks a month goes a long way!)

Functional play depends on everyone playing the same game. Sadly, many people don’t even know or negotiate what that means, and a lot of game texts leave crucial things out. Too often, people come with different ideas and don’t realize it, and it turns into a mess during play.

So, this tool is designed to clear that all up before you start playing.

Choose the Ideal Options for Play

Before you start a campaign, either the GM or the group as a whole should sit down and look at this list, and pick the ideal options for this game – for this specific rpg, this specific campaign you’ll be playing, and this particular group of people.

Talk about which choices fit and which ones do not and why. If you are playing a game that already sets these options, simply circle them accordingly.

Yes, some of you might say, “I can do 2 or 3 of those choices” – pick the one that best fits the game you’re trying to run.

There’s room for negotiation, but remember- the group needs to pick ONE of each category.

Coming together, not coming apart

DO NOT have people fill these out separately then compare. DO NOT use this as a survey to try to meet in the middle.

If you were picking a boardgame to play, you would just say, “Does everyone want to play (this game)?” you wouldn’t have everyone write down what they want to play on a secret ballot and then see if it matches after the fact.

The point is to create a clear picture of what this game is, NOT attempt to mash together different playstyles – this has not worked very well over 30 years of the hobby.

The reason you even list the multiple options is this: most gamers assume the one or two ways they’ve played is how you play ALL games. Seeing the assumed default next to many other ways serves to highlight that it is not the ONLY way to play, but one option of many, to help people re-orient themselves, especially if they’re going into new territory.

This tool does not help you find a common ground if you do not have it – it helps you clarify exactly what you will be playing.

Be aware that different games will have different answers. Different campaigns will have different answers. For example, I’ve personally played D&D with all but one of the answers below.

Same Page Tool – Checklist

Do you play to win?

a) Yes, you totally play to win! The win conditions are…
b) Good play isn’t a win/lose kind of thing

Player characters are:

a) expected to work together; conflicts between them are mostly for show
b) expected to work together; but major conflicts might erupt but you’ll patch them up given some time
c) expected to work together; major conflicts might erupt and never see reconciliation
d) pursuing their own agendas – they might work together, they might work against each other
e) expected to work against each other, alliances are temporary at best

The GM’s role is:

a) The GM preps a set of events – linear or branching; players run their characters through these events. The GM gives hints to provide direction.
b) The GM preps a map with NPCs and/or monsters. The players have their characters travel anywhere they can reach on the map, according to their own goals.
c) The GM has no plan – the GM simply plays the NPCs and has them act or react based on their motivations
d) There’s no GM. Everyone works together to make the story through freeform.
e) There’s no GM. The rules and the system coordinate it all.

The players’ roles are…

(ETA: Very much worth seeing this post by Vincent for a more in-depth set of possibilities)

a) …to follow the GM’s lead to fit the story
b) …to set goals for their characters, and pursue them proactively
c) …to fling their characters into tough situations and make hard, sometimes, unwise choices

Doing the smartest thing for your character’s survival…

a) …is what a good player does.
b) …sometimes isn’t as important as other choices
c) …isn’t even a concern or focus for this game.

The GM’s role to the rules is…

a) …follow them, come what may. (including following house rules)
b) …ignore them when they conflict with what would be good for the story
c) …ignore them when they conflict with what “should” happen, based either on realism, the setting, or the genre

After many sessions of play, during one session, a player decides to have her character side with an enemy. This is…

a) …something that shouldn’t even happen. This is someone being a jerk.
b) …where the character becomes an NPC, right away or fairly soon.
c) …something the player and the GM should have set up ahead of time.
d) …only going to last until the other player characters find out and do something about it.
e) …a meaningful moment, powerful and an example of excellent play.

A fistfight breaks out in a bar! The details of where everything is – tables, chairs, where everyone is standing is something that…

a) …is important and will be displayed on a map or grid, perhaps using miniature figures.
b) …is something the GM will describe and you should ask questions to get more information.
c) …you can decide on the spot using specific game rules (rolling dice, spending points, whatever)
d) …isn’t really that important other than it makes for an interesting scene- pretty much anyone can come up with details.

In order to really have fun with this game, the rulebook is something that…

a) …everyone playing needs to have read and understood before play, because the rules and setting are both very important.
b) …everyone should know the rules very well.
c) …everyone should know the setting very well.
d) …everyone at least should know the basics of the rules.
e) …everyone at least should know the genre the game pulls from
f) …Only one person needs to really know the rules and it can be explained in 10 minutes or less to everyone else.

SPECIAL
Instead of “choose one” think of this as a checklist – pick which options apply, leave the ones that don’t.

This game runs best when the players take time to create characters that are…

a) …built to face challenges using the mechanics and stats.
b) …written with extensive backstories or histories
c) …given strong motivations and an immediate problem or crisis
d) …tied into the other characters as (allies) (enemies) (as either)
e) …written with some knowledge, research or reading up on the game setting, real history or an actual culture

Fiction Hurdle Questions

Does everyone know the answers to these questions for this game?  Hopefully between the game text and making choices above, the group can also be on the same page for the following points.  If not, clarify!

What kind of conflicts make sense for this game?

What kind of protagonists make sense for this game?

What kind of outcomes make sense for this game?

Examples

A couple of examples of answers from the last 3 campaigns I’ve played

Influences

Between a really useful conversation I had with Avalon’s Willow, listening to an old interview of Vincent Baker, and reading the Darths & Droids, I figured it might make sense to put together a tool for talking about “how we play what we’re playing”.

A lot of this is put together from playing in a lot of different games and seeing stuff go wrong and places where one or more folks showed up with different expectations.

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

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Desktop Dungeon

March 20, 2010

Desktop Dungeon

Desktop Dungeon is a funky, puzzle rpg. It’s loosely based on Rogue-like dungeon crawl videogames, though each dungeon is about 10-20 minutes to play through.

The game is simple in concept: your goal is to beat the boss of the dungeon – and each dungeon is randomly generated and one screen in size.

I call it a puzzle rpg because the game moves so very far away from what you expect in rpgs, and especially Rogue-like games. There are no traps. The monsters do not move, do not chase you around, and do not initiate combat- you can think of them more like obstacles. You also can see their stats at anytime, and quickly do the math in your head if you can take them out or not – there’s no randomization in combat. There’s really no excuse to die in this game, it’s not about survival, it’s about winning.

The question changes from “Can I win this fight?” to “In what order should I do things, to conserve resources, level up, and take on the boss?”. There is no natural healing- you only regain HP or MP through potions OR finding unexplored parts of the dungeon. Since the map is only one screen large, you find yourself quickly having to decide between hunting for items or trying to find low level monsters to build up with, vs. conserving those unexplored areas for extra healing and magic.

Special abilities are found by “Skill Glyphs” – basically magic items you can pick up. Most characters can only hold 3, and they do a variety of useful things- give damage boosts, count your damage before the enemy’s in a fight, destroy walls in the dungeon, teleport an enemy to somewhere else, etc. You can also, instead, choose to convert skill glyphs into a bonus of some type- attack damage, extra MP, etc.

A major part of the game is figuring out which glyphs are going to be helpful for your character given their class, and the monsters you’re facing, and which ones you want to skim off into stat bumps. If you trade them in early, the stat bumps let you take on monsters earlier in the game, if you trade them in later, you get bigger stat bumps.

Like solitaire, you can find yourself in no-win situations. What carries over, character to character, is gold. So you can choose to just turn any particular round into a gold hunt and then click the “retire” button and try again.

Each time you beat a dungeon, you unlock new character classes, new monsters, and new items which will randomly drop/generate in the game. Desktop Dungeon is brilliantly designed for replay value in this way.

It’s a fun game that you’ll find yourself losing a lot of time to, as each round of play is short, and like potato chips, it’s hard to stop. It keeps the idea of a roguelike game that player skill is what drives play, while removing the random-death, learning through dying kind of play that makes things frustrating.

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Lackadaisy Cats in Print

March 18, 2010

Lackadaisy Cats

One of my favorite webcomics, Lackadaisy Cats, is in print. A speakeasy fallen on hard times, a widow trying to keep the operation running, a mix of savvy and crazy characters, and a lot of hijinks and fun action.

I’m impressed with how well Butler conveys characters and setting in just a few pages, and when you get the chance to read it all together, how each page flows from one to the other, very easy and very smooth.

It’s a fun comic, check it out, and if you dig it, go buy the print version!

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Avatar the Last Airbender via Sorcerer

March 16, 2010

I’ve been in an Avatar the Last Airbender mood lately – and I think I’d run it using Sorcerer. Why? Basically the kids are caught in a lot of Humanity-testing kind of situations, and Sorcerer does a good job of emulating the Bender powers and with the martial arts rules in Sex & Sorcery, the fighting as well.

Humanity

Humanity is dual defined as in Sorcerer’s Soul:
1. Empathy & Connection with others
2. Self acceptance of one’s feelings

Consider Iroh as being pretty good on both accounts, Zuko on neither, Aang being strong in the first and struggling with the second, and Azula being strong in the second and simply not giving a damn about the first.

Special Humanity Rules

Any character can sacrifice a point of Humanity to prevent another character from going into Humanity 0. (Iroh does this a lot. Katara does this a bit.)

Damage Rules

Avatar being a kids show, means normally deadly things like fire, swords, or arrows rarely make contact and actually cause harm. All damage is automatically assumed non-lethal unless specially noted (such as lightning). If you incapacitate someone, you can choose to inflict lasting damage.

Any attacks against helpless or incapacitated living beings incurs a humanity check.

Any scene in which you choose to attempt to inflict lethal damage incurs a Humanity check.

Bending

As mentioned, Bending isn’t Sorcery. All trained Benders have “Martial Arts” descriptor under Stamina. Use Benders’ Will for their Power.

All Trained Benders start with:
– Special Damage (non-lethal, element)
– Ranged
– Warp

Learning additional powers (techniques) requires time, and rolling Lore vs. 5 dice for each power. If you have a teacher, they can roll their Lore vs. 1 to give you Bonus Dice to your roll. If you fail, you have to wait until your Lore or Will rises before you can try to learn this again.

Available powers:
– Hold
– Armor
– Lethal Damage (lightning! see special damage rules above, though…)
– Protection (Iroh’s Lightning redirection)
– Transport
– Travel
– Vitality (healing)
– Command (Blood Bending, only in Full Moon, Humanity check)
– Boost Stamina (moving faster, lifting stuff, etc.)
– Cover (moving earth-trains, sandbending sand-skiffs, etc.)
– Perception (earth sense, ala Toph)

Special bonuses

Element is abundant +1
Moon/Sun is visible (water/fire bending accordingly) +1
Special event (Full moon, Solstice) +2
Eclipse? – cannot bend
Rare event (comet) +3

Descriptors

Stamina:
Martial arts (a must for all benders, but many others use it as well)
Good Living (“Have a cup of tea! Let’s play music”)
Hard Living (“Nothing but hard work and discipline. I don’t need luck.”)
Big (“The Boulder takes offense at that comment.”)
Just Healthy (Sokka)
Soldier (“They used to call you the Dragon of the West…”)
Arcane Regimen (“More banana garlic juice please”)

Will:
Zest for life (Aang, Tylee, Iroh, King Bumi)
Responsible (Katara)
Aristocrat (“You were never even a player.”, Azula)
Angry (Zuko)
Manipulator (Jet, Azula)
Leader (Jet)
Goofy Appeal (Sokka)

Lore:
Naive (Mostly everyone, 1-2 Lore)
Scholar (the scholar who found the Library…)
Cracked (King Bumi)
Secret Society (“The White Lotus Gambit?”)
Encounters with the Mystical (Learning Firebending from Dragons)
Studying from Nature (“I learned earthbending from badgermoles”)
Learning the Hard Way (“Fire. So easily threatens to go out of control.”)
Inhuman (Wan Shi Tong)

Lore, Sorcery, Demons

Sorcery includes the Spirit World, but also the wider ability of mucking around with the metaphysics of the world itself:

– Iroh’s mixing Water & Firebending to make the lightning defense
– Admiral Zhao’s attempt to kill the Water Spirit
– Pacts with Hei Bai, Wan Shi Tong, Ko the Face Stealer
etc.

Basically, most of the world lives with only Lore 1-2, with a lot of hard work towards learning new Bending techniques. Going beyond that requires very lateral thinking and even dealing with the dangers of the spirit world or seeking out lost societies.

Aang, Sorcerer

Classic Sorcerer-style Bindings are rare- people wisely fear the power of things beyond their ken. But here’s the most obvious example:

The Avatar State
Possessor
Need- extreme danger or emotional trauma to the host, or to those the host cares about.
Desire- Divine Retribution (Mayhem)
Stamina 9
Will 10
Lore 9
Power 10
Abilities: Special Damage (non-lethal, all 4 elements), ranged, Travel, Warp, Hold, Boost Stamina

The Avatar State typically uses all of it’s powers until it’s burnt out, forcing the host to be in danger before being able to activate it again…

The individual incarnations that Aang deals with, like Roku, also are considered Bound demons by the rules. Their needs are usually not as dire- “Be in the Spirit World, or the Fire Temple during the Solstice” but still are a bit of a hassle to meet.

Nearly all of them have big Power levels, which is why Aang has such a hard time commanding them (he’s got penalties on the Binding rolls, and also why he only can get cryptic and partial answers most of the time).

Later in the series, Guru Pathik leads Aang on a series of Humanity gaining meditations to finally undertake a ritual to basically trade Humanity for Lore and attempt to re-Bind the Avatar Spirit. Aang bails out on it and the Avatar Spirit rebels… refusing to offer it’s powers.

You could easily say that thematically, in Sorcerer terms, Avatar is about a 12 year old boy who is the world’s biggest sorcerer…

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Nontent

March 13, 2010

That’s the word of the day. Tycho of Penny Arcade talking about games minus cruft:

I’ve been playing Battlefield: Bad Company 2 lately, not every night, but most nights – and yeah. This is a roleplaying game. Specifically, an MMO. Except you go from instance to instance all night, and at no point does anyone craft a jerkin. The “middle place,” the nontent in which players are made to stew, doesn’t exist in games like Modern Warfare or Bad Company. It’s just the awesome Pirate Ship at the end of the Deadmines, again and again, every time you play

Although he’s talking about videogames, I think the design parallel to tabletop rpgs is pretty important- neither including aspects “just because that’s how it always has been done” nor including tons of rules trying to appeal to everyone – and in the end, losing the direction and focus of a game design.

In terms of actual play, it also holds value, especially with the classic “20 minutes of fun in 4 hours” issue being many times an issue of pacing and GMs trying to delay things or failing to simply cut to the chase.

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A design map

March 10, 2010

Reliably Fun Play

The point of game design is build games that reliably produce a given type of experience. For roleplaying games, it basically comes down to helping game groups consistently find a range within:

1. The imaginary content (“Color”)
2. The choices and input the group can make in play
3. The ways and responsibilities which the group creates the imaginary events
4. The outcomes and experience of the imaginary events (“The Fiction”, SIS, etc.)

That consistency is what allows a group who is into that type of fun, to reliably get that experience over and over, easily.

Defining Boundaries

Part of getting that to be reliable means that a group quickly has to coordinate and be on the same page on the following (Creative Agenda):

1. These things matter in the fiction; these other things do not.
2. These things matter mechanically; these other things do not.
3. “Good play” for this game consists of these particular activities
4. These are the things that fit with the imaginary events and fiction; these other things do not.

Notice that ALL of these can be answers when asked, “What’s your game about?” and, that all four of these have to be answered as part of your design in some fashion to completely answer that question.

As a designer, these things need to be communicated in how to play the game. Some aspects can be left emergent, but if groups aren’t regularly engaging in the basic aspect of play, there is poor odds they’ll get to the emergent point of play.

Consideration and Theory

Designing a way to help a play group get all of that together, coherently and consistently, to provide a certain experience of play, is designing system, is designing your game to reliably produce a Creative Agenda in play.

Specific procedures in play, how to coordinate between creative input by the group and utilizing stuff like points, tokens, minis, dice, and generally Cues, these all exist to establish boundaries about what is and isn’t important, what decisions can and can’t be made, and to set up economies of currency for players to strategize choices around –Fictional Positioning – ultimately working as signposts to the point of the game – The Fruitful Void.

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RPGirl Zine seeking submissions

March 5, 2010

RPGirl zine is setting up for their next issue, and they’re looking for submissions.

I snagged the first issue and was really impressed with how much info they had, and how real it was- it’s definitely for women by women without BS performative aspects (ala Marvel “Models” or “Part Time Sorceress” antics).

Provided this goes at least a few years, I imagine we could see another form of play network grow out of this zine – much as the Forge or Story Games has produced their networks and mini conventions, we could see a lot of interesting developments both in design and play.

Go support!