Archive for September, 2011


Stars Without Number

September 10, 2011

Stars Without Number is a tabletop rpg where you travel around the galaxy to different planets and get into adventure and intrigue. (The link goes to the free PDF ebook version). It uses an old-school-ish system with some really smart updates, and great rules for generating different worlds and conflicts.

It’s not Hitler’s Future

So, you know at this point our expectations for rpgs and representation is pretty much bottomed out. SWN does the following things right:

1) Images of POC are in the book!
2) No default assumption about the cultures that you’ll encounter
3) …backed up by the name list in the back! There’s several name lists, divided by culture, with a few paragraphs about clothing or food, and the acknowledgement that odds are good that what was traditional for us in the 21st century would be a massive throwback by the 31st century. The full cultures listed include: Arabic, Chinese, Nigerian, Indian, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, English. Obviously not entirely comprehensive, but the fact that it’s not euro-centric is awesome.

Travel Space, Go Anywhere

SWN is designed for “sandbox play” which means the sort of RPG where you get a bunch of planets, put them on the map, and the players are free to go where ever they can get to, and side with whomever they want, etc. SWN gives some great advice on prepping for this kind of play, and running it, with a strong focus on exactly what you SHOULD focus on, so you can not waste time with things that will be useless in play.

The biggest highlight for me is the World Tags system- you roll twice on the chart and get two major features of the planet that are sources of conflict and drama. For example, if you know a planet has runaway AI and primarily works with heavy industry… well, you can already imagine the sort of drama that would fit there. SWN gives each Tag extra description- some possible problems, some allies, or further complications, so you have support in setting up your notes.

There’s also interesting rules for dealing with factions, factional warfare – through economics, espionage, politics, and classic military force. Factions can also grow by capturing assets of other factions or gaining experience by fulfilling goals.

The only major issue I’ve got is the assumption that you’ll want/need to build a whole sector of planets before playing – it makes more sense to make a few planets and then as the players travel, expanding the map accordingly.

Updated Old School System

SWN strips away most of the cruft and bullshit rules from Basic D&D, and adds some clean, quick features that just work better.

You still have stuff like 6 attributes, and randomly roll stats… except stats are very heavily weighted towards the center and modifiers are really small. It’s pretty hard to roll a really crappy character. When you pick your class (Warrior, Psychic, Expert), you also can bump up one of you attributes to 14, so there’s another layer of protection from rolling the completely wack character.

You choose two sets of skill packages- one representing your upbringing, another representing your training from your class – there’s no point juggling or choices over skills- you pick the package and you get it – the end.

The major old-school-ism that sticks with SWN is Armor Class, hit points, and lethal combat. The GM’s advice talks about the importance of letting players make and enact smart plans to get the drop on foes, or figure out what fights are too difficult, and, that players will probably want to avoid a lot of fights early on. I’m not sure how well this actually runs in play, until I play it, but that’s the only thing flagging for me as a concern.


Threatening Relationships

September 8, 2011

Over on the Burning Wheel forums, someone was asking about how to threaten things in conflicts and it came to the question of relationships. I wrote this stuff as part of a reply, but it’s good all-around relationship issues to bring into your game.

Note that actually all of these questions can go to any category- it’s just that usually for stories, you see that type of relationship focus on those questions.


How do we feel about each other? Do we have faith in each other? How much attention/affection do we need from each other? What responsibilities do we have to share, and are we each keeping up our end? How do we deal with stress?


How well do we take care of each other? What needs do we have? What expectations do we have of each other, and are they reasonable or not? What do we do to force or manipulate each other into doing things? How do our issues affect each other?


How much do we trust each other, and are we worthy of that trust? At what level do we value something other than our friendship (job, family, love, etc)? What do we view as betrayals, real or perceived? How much does status and social circles matter to our friendship? In what ways to we enable each other or lean on each other, and are they good or bad codependencies?


The negative consequences that come out of these things usually appear along these lines:

– They need more attention/help from you
– They are getting resentful of your galavanting around/irresponsibility
– They might discover something about you that is negative (alternatively, they might see something that would appear so, out of context)
– They might hear lies about you and start believing them
– They might reduce how much support they give you
– They might start giving some help/support to someone you don’t like
– They might be in danger of being shamed or lose a job/position

You’ll also notice that this isn’t roleplaying specific, or even fiction specific- these are just the sorts of real world issues people navigate with relationships, that happens to be really interesting when you put it in stories.


Lessons as I go: Sorcerer Exalted

September 6, 2011

I’ve begun playing a game on Google Plus using my Sorcerer Exalted rules. I’m playing with two friends who I haven’t been able to game with for a couple of years, as we’ve all moved to different locations.

We’ve set up to do short, hour and a half weeknight sessions, which I think is actually ideal. It’s long enough significant events can happen, but it’s short enough there’s not a lot of room for going off track- the time limit means you focus and play hard and get some great play in.

Play has been neat slowly sharpening up to good.

Let Sorcerer guide prep

There’s a lot of tricks that work for other games that don’t work so well in Sorcerer. I had prepped by setting up a situation much like I would for Heroquest or Burning Wheel- a small conflict web of folks, and a few interlocked problems.

Thing is, those other games don’t have the laser focus Sorcerer does- BW for example has a few different reward systems which players can play with between engaging with Beliefs- Sorcerer is all Humanity, all the time.

I didn’t get strong enough Kickers from players, and the conflict web got mostly cut down to characters who were the closest approximates to fulfilling the blood & sex connections of a classic Relationship map.

Lesson: do exactly what Sorcerer says with regards to prep.

Crosses for the win

Since I’ve got two players, it’s an intimate game. Their characters aren’t connected, other than being two Solar Exalted in the same city, living undercover. So, I decided to try to take the NPCs each one is connected to and start forcing them to cross over to the other player.

For example, one PC is Kwan, who once was an Exalted who used his magic to create sentient life – without much thought given to it. So now he has wayward and lost paper-golem people still seeking Daddy, a millenia later. One of them, disguised as a human, mistakenly believes it is the other PC, Hui Jin, who is the reincarnation of her creator.

I simply look at each of the NPCs and point them at the other player’s character and fun drama comes forth.

Lesson: Prepping NPCs with crosses ahead makes it easier to set crosses and weaves in play.

Scene Focus

Both of my players have had mostly a background in traditional play with just a little bit of indie game play. I have to keep a focus to remember to keep the action moving scene to scene and not fall into “And then I…and then I…” stuff that happens. I have to sometimes give reminder interruptions: “Ok, we’re going to skip all the details of this – you sneak in, there’s no problem in that.”

This is very different than playing with my usual local group where we had no problem going into PTA because we’re rolling without the gamer baggage.

I’ve found the main thing that’s helped me is remembering to cut the scene often and ruthlessly. If someone says something heavy, or drops the significant piece of dialogue- that’s exactly the time to cut the scene.

Likewise, once a decision is made, I cut the scene, because the players tend to get caught in focusing on the specific hows and whys, which you normally skip over in TV or movies – “We’re sneaking in the building” is followed by actually sneaking in the building, usually not 15 minutes of “Well, but if we go this way, and this happens, we should do that.” etc.

Lesson: Focus on cutting Scene framing and the scene setting will do itself.

Anyway, we’re mostly working out the online medium and new group dynamics. I’m sure more lessons will come soon.