Archive for August, 2012

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Logistics & Politics – a way to prep scenarios

August 28, 2012

This tool is aimed primarily at games that have a party or player group working together towards a common goal – but you could probably use it for characters working at cross purposes, though the complexity would step up a good bit as you would start considering problems from multiple angles and goals.

Situation, broadly

Start with the general situation of the scenario/campaign. This should include a general problem that will affect the PCs, and, helpfully a direction or general goal to meet.

“You were ordered to take the city and wait for the main army, which would then proceed North to drive out the invaders. That was 3 days ago. You’ve just figured out they’ve abandoned you to be a diversion while they shore up the defenses down south. The city is in disrepair, full of refugees and your supplies are low. The enemy is not far away. Will you stay, will you run?”

A list of problems

Consider two or three likely directions of action the players might take. Think if you were planning out what to do, and then make a list of all the problems involved in any given path. Don’t try to plan for every possible solution- just pick the most obvious ones, because the point of this is generating the problems as below, not HOW they’ll get solved.

The problems will be if not immediately obvious to the characters, they’ll be clear with the most minimal of investigation/inspection. These aren’t “gotcha” problems, these are logistical and political problems that the players will have to figure out how they’re going to navigate.

The problems generally fall under these categories – it’s usually best if you include at lesat 1 of each category in the probable solutions.

Stuff and Resources

What resources are missing that you’ll need? Are the resources under someone else’s control, in a place of danger or risk, or will you have to sacrifice something else to get them? Hong long will it take to get the resources? How many people will you need to send to do this?

(Food, Medicine, Weapons, Troops, Money, Shelter, Building Materials, Magical Materials, Horses, Carts, Boats, Clothing, Firewood)

People and Politics

Who are the people in power? What individuals? What groups? What are their goals or motivations that have NOTHING to do with helping you? In a way, think if you were doing a big project and needed to figure out which people you’d need to either convince to help you or at least stay out of your way. You can always take crappy office politics as a good example.

(Nobles, Officials, Rivals in your organization/clan, Religious figures, Leaders, Zealots, Popular Locals, Ridiculous Orders from Higher Ups, Petty or Incompetent People working with/for you, Personal feuds, Other people’s grudges, Other people’s petty ambitions, People lying about you, People who never keep promises)

Time and Entropy
Everything is getting worse. How much time do you have, before it gets worse? What does getting worse look like?

(Enemies on the way, weather that will keep you trapped, illness/starvation/exposure, needing medicine, gear that is falling apart, being surrounded, a deadline imposed by your superiors, flagging morale and people leaving, weather that is getting too hot, rising waters, a boat you have to reach or be left behind for 6 months, doubtful allies who will abandon you if you look like you can’t keep up)

So, with the scenario described above you might have the following options:

1. Hold out in the city
– Diminishing food supplies
– City walls in disrepair- needs shoring up
– Sui Clan only is concerned with keeping their wealth
– Zhang Clan wants to see the Sui Clan fall

2. Make a run to the South, through the plains
– The invaders can move quickly, might surround you
– Food is low, will not be able to stop to resupply
– The main army may not welcome you with open arms – you might be punished for retreating

3. Retreat into the woods
– The invaders will be slowed, but so will you
– Foraging will be hard
– Your troops might get lost/split up
– Your troops are superstitious about the “Cursed Woods” (Note, there’s no gotcha about the woods actually being cursed. Your troops believing it is bad enough)

Lay out the problems, not the answers

So you’ve laid out these problems, more so that you have things to improvise with when the players act. What if they do something OTHER than the likely solutions you’ve laid out? No problem!

The point of doing this was to get the idea of what resources are lacking and who are the major players are and what their angles are. If the players decide to take different routes, you can probably figure out where problems overlap into what they’re doing, or, at least, what the NPCs are aiming for regardless of anything.

Don’t think of outcomes, don’t think of solutions, don’t think of what “X will do in case of Y” beyond knowing their motivations and personality – you’re creating a set of things from which you can improvise, not put together an elaborate “if-then” response chain.

Remember, throw all the potential problems at the players as part of play, before they decide which way they’re going to go. Your list is the “Known Problems” or “Trivially Easy to Find Out Problems” – play to find out what the unknown and surprise problems are.

Also, your problems should NEVER act as blocks. They’re all surmountable problems, just depending on what level of pain in the ass it’s going to be for the players. The players will need to think about what they want to tackle and which things to avoid to make smart choices about the problems. Maybe they try one way and find out it’s really hard or screw it up and hastily try another option.

Players pick their objectives, reward creative choices

Though you’ll throw the problems at the players, you won’t throw the solutions at them. Let the players figure out which way they want to go, and deal with the problems that apply as needed. If the players find a method that avoids some problems completely – let them! That’s good thinking. If the players come up with a creative solution that overcomes a problem or two- reward that.

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Mars Colony: A game of dirty politics

August 22, 2012

I just picked up Mars Colony today, which is a small, 2 player game. Earth sends Kelly Perkins, the best and brightest mind to try to set right the problems of the ailing Mars Colony before it completely destabilizes and fails altogether – one player plays Perkins, the other player plays The Governor and every other NPC.

You put together 2-4 fictional political parties, loosely based on historical, real world political parties you think would make for good story fodder. You name real world political problems and those become randomized scenario generation tools for play. And then, you get to work trying to fix the problems.

The mechanics are simple, and terrifying. Perkins develops plans to fix problems, rolls some dice in a classic sort of Blackjack/21 set up – you can keep adding rolls and getting better results to fix the problems, but if you roll badly, you lose all the points.

Which then sets up the core of the game: You can lose all the points, and lose Admiration of the people and gain Contempt (which eventually gets you ousted) or you can lie, and cover up the failure, keeping the points, and keeping your good name. Of course, there’s always a chance that the Lies will be revealed before you can fix the problems, then, the more lies you’ve told, the more things come crashing down.

I think this game does an amazing job of nailing so much of what goes on around politics. The fact that the problems took years or decades to create, and you’re expected to clean it up in a short amount of time. The ways in which people find themselves rationalizing to keep power, in the hopes of making things better overall.

The PDF is $6, I recommend it!

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MEOW in games

August 10, 2012

Time to break that down with some examples.

Dungeons & Dragons

D&D is somewhat a complicated beast – it has very different rules for combat vs. magic, vs anything else, and even from it’s inception had a vast split in “play styles” (aka, being completely different games, procedurally, depending on who was running it). I’ll just talk about combat, so this doesn’t spin out of control.

Methods

D&D typically finds itself split across two lines here.

“Referee” D&D styles has the players declare actions and the GM makes up rulings on the spot that determines success/failure/bonuses/penalties. This type is very particular about methods.

By the book D&D styles generally are looser – for example Basic D&D a melee round is 1 minute of you trying to bash someone’s head in using a given weapon, but there’s not a lot of choice or particulars about it. Later D&D gets more particular – 3E introduces grid combat and feats, 4E basically turns every option into the equivalent of a feat.

Events

Usually the specificity of the methods plays into the specificity of Events, but in all cases D&D has never gotten very strong into providing events as part of the mechanics.

In just about all D&D editions there’s been advice to describe these things in more detail, forcing the group to step up to put this stuff in. Whether that’s a minute long brawl or a 6 second duck-weave-strike, doesn’t particularly matter as far as the sort of low priority given this.

Outcomes and Waste

D&D has set the basic design for iterative Outcomes – you have a combat round, if both sides are still alive, they decide if they’re running or fighting more, and you keep repeating until someone’s dead, or they’ve decided they’ve had enough. Basically, you gamble taking on more Waste until you reach an Outcome.

Aside from being incapacitated/killed, or whatever resources are spent in the process, D&D also doesn’t say much about Outcomes, in fiction.

Much like Events, groups are forced to fill in the details about what losing 7 hitpoints looks like in the game. In most cases, it simply is glossed over and ignored.

Overall

You can see the strong results of what the difference is between referee called D&D and it’s absence – when you have the GM using Fictional Positioning & making up rulings on the spot you don’t need a lot of mechanics because the expectation is that the GM will do all that.

When you don’t have that, the group is looking to the mechanics, which for most editions provides very little support into specifics, only into general strategy and results. You can see a lot of gaps where translating fiction into mechanics and mechanics to fiction are left open and many groups generally end up defaulting to “I attack.” “I retreat” etc.

Primetime Adventures

Methods

PTA doesn’t do a lot of demands for Methods – usually you only need to know enough to know a conflict is beginning and which Traits apply. That said, there’s a simple pressure towards doing more detailed methods – Fan Mail. Bland descriptions don’t get you Fanmail, good descriptions will.

Events

The results of the conflict also don’t demand detailed events, but Fanmail nudges the narrating player towards doing so. In play, what happens is that groups focus on the things that are interesting depending on the people at the table, and drop the rest.

Outcomes

PTA is strictly negotiated group stakes. Beyond that, everything else falls into the narrating player’s hands.

Waste

The Narrating player sets these up and though the game doesn’t say anything about it, once you get a little proficiency in play, it becomes one of the best ways to set up future conflicts.

Overall

PTA does a lot of slick things that don’t become obvious until you play. The game simply marries a system of generating interesting conflicts, a strong sense of genre expectations among the group, and a flexible reward for creating good stories.

Because good descriptions of Method, Events, and Waste are naturally part of conflicts in stories, Fanmail pushes everyone towards producing those things without a lot of fuss about translating things back and forth from mechanics to fiction.

Heroquest

Methods

HQ generally does ask for a good number of methods because the GM sets pretty heavy modifiers based on whether the action described is appropriate or stretching.

Events

HQ plays loose with this, both in short and extended contests. The lack of support here actually makes this one of the places where groups have to step up to fill in the details.

In extended contests this becomes somewhat of a chore at times, because both Outcomes and Waste remain unknown until the end of the contest – describing someone attacking someone with a sword and being unsure of how bad the results are means you end up with a lot of vague descriptions.

Outcomes and Wastes

In practice HQ tends to jump between either negotiated stakes by the group or non-negotiated GM fiat, depending on the group and their normal play practices. The only specific outcomes are the result of the Waste rules which comes out the final results of it’s conflicts.

Although various editions of HQ have had rules for wounding, they’ve been pretty small stakes. What has been a heavy effect of Outcome or Waste has been the option to risk your allies or followers in a conflict. “Sacrificial friends” is a common heroic genre trope, but it’s kinda brutal as a game mechanic, and one that perfectly fits with HQ’s idea of heroes building networks of alliances and allies… and the costs of using them to your advantage.

Apocalypse World

Methods
AW is all about methods. Played to the book, the players actually should only be describing methods at all times, and it’s the GM’s job to really look at the Moves. AW throws out modifiers determined by method and simply sticks hard to “What method?” = “Use this Move”.

Events
AW is also about events. Because any given Move can be deeper zoomed in to a single moment, the results of Moves becomes Events, as well. It does a slick thing where Moves often provide lists of possible results, which produces Events and Outcomes in one go.

Outcomes
AW takes a relatively traditional view of Outcomes – effectively everything is an iterative action, and the Outcomes are when the fiction changes enough out of the Moves.

This is actually why a lot of folks read and play AW then walk away saying, “Wow, I can use this GMing advice for other games!” – the Principles and Hard Moves fill in a structural support for what has been left GM Fiat for most games.

Waste
The cost of conflicts comes out of either Moves directly (often with the player having to make hard choices out of a list) or failing a Move and taking a Hard Move. Funny enough, AW’s view of cost is less about making it an outcome of conflicts as much as a springboard to CREATE conflicts. Being successful in AW often means pissing someone off…

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MEOW: a way of looking at conflict resolution

August 10, 2012

First, to repeat: the easiest mechanic is “You say it and it happens” and every other mechanic has to provide something worthwhile to be better than that.

Ok, in the imaginary events in your rpg, four things will come out of any conflict: Methods, Events, Outcomes, Waste.

Methods

“How does a character try to do what they’re doing? Is there a specific skill or power for it? Does the player even have to describe it?”

This has historically been a big thing in rpg design because characters have different stats for different abilities, skill levels, and tons of modifiers that can happen depending on HOW you’re trying to do something.

Games that especially work close with methods often have lots of different specific skills, or lots of range for modifiers based on how things are being done. Burning Wheel uses lots of different skills, while Hero Quest applies big modifiers on the basis of methods.

Events

“What exactly happens during a conflict? Which specific actions succeed and fail before the whole conflict is won or lost? Are there small setbacks? Is there a breakthrough?”

This tends to be a big thing for a lot of games when it comes to combat – they’ll track each hit or miss, but when it comes to a skill roll, there’s no close-up on events.

Games that have mechanics that produce a lot of events tend to often take longer to resolve – they’re usually iterative and maybe very specific in methods – “What kind of attack, what angle, what order, etc.” Event-producing mechanics can help groups really get a feel for the imaginary situations in play, and feel out what kinds of things fit for the game’s genre expectations.

Outcomes

“Does your game mechanics specify specific results from your conflicts or is it mostly up to the group to decide? Is it negotiated and decided beforehand (Stakes)? Is it decided by the GM after the fact? Is it specific to the rules and situation (zero HP = dead)?”

Games tend to be across the board with this. Historically, we see this mostly nailed down when it comes to combat and life and death, and left to GM fiat in nearly everything else.

Specific outcomes gives significant weight to conflicts, and makes it clear what is on the line. Negotiated outcomes are flexible, but require good group communication and guidelines. Non-specific, non-negotiated outcomes basically forces the group to decide effective and appropriate results, sometimes with better or worse play results.

Waste

“How badly did it cost you? Did you get hurt? Did you lose status? Did someone else pay the cost for you? Did you break your tools?”

You might think this should be a subset of outcomes, but I think it deserves it’s own space, as many games split success/failure and little/great cost in the process. For example dungeon crawling D&D is often pointed to as a game about long term strategy- conserving resources (cost) over several battles.

Much like outcomes, this might be hardcoded into the game system, negotiated up front, or un-negotiated and decided by the GM, or some other method.

Why should we think about these at all?

First, it’s really useful because when you look at how games handle conflict mechanics across these four axises, you start to see where a game starts asking players to make choices, to put in work and to be creative.

Second, you can see where a game forces players to do work, and how. One game might require lots of dice and math and steps, but produces every sword swing and dodge along the way. Another game might have very little but the group has to be creatively up to describing all of those things in an interesting way.

Third, you also can start looking at what makes for the kinds of stories you want to see. Games that hardcode in certain things produce certain kinds of stories. For example, if you find yourself fudging dice results to avoid death in combat, the mechanics you are using are not producing the kinds of stories and gameplay you want to create – what does it do and what could you use differently? Maybe simply changing the outcome (“and now you’re knocked out”) is good enough?

If you’re designing a game, something this division really helps is this: what does protagonism look like for the characters, and how does your game support it? How can certain rules or lack of rules take it away? How does any of these contribute to the stories & gameplay you want to happen? How does any of these get in the way of the stories & gameplay?

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A Thousand and One Nights: new edition

August 8, 2012

1001 Nights cover- amazing new art

I’ve been totally out of it and didn’t even know 1001 Nights had a new edition coming out with an Indie Gogo campaign – you’ve got like 7 more hours to get in on this.

First off, this is a great RPG all around. It’s GM-less and the rules are very simple. Everyone is a servant in the Sultan’s Court, with your own ambitions, goals and jealousies.

Every scene the players take turns telling stories, where you recast the characters as folk tale characters to basically talk trash or try to say what you feel without openly saying what you feel. The other players affect the stories by asking questions which shapes the stories, and sets up a dice economy. At the end of the story, everyone has some amount of dice, which you use to try to either fulfill your ambitions, block other people’s ambitions, escape the Court altogether, and very importantly, avoid the Sultan’s wrath which results in your execution.

It’s really easy to learn, non-roleplayers pick it up quick and I’ve always had a great time with it.

Go get a copy!

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Magical Cause & Effect conflicts

August 4, 2012

One of my favorite types of situations are the conflicts which come about when you have conflicts that spiral out from the magical and the mundane tied together.

This tool is aimed around that, mostly from a fantasy/historical setting, but there’s no reason you can’t change some of the words and make it modern or futuristic. And while this posits a magical world and how it ties together, you could also use it to create what a cult might believe to be true, and how they’re rationalizing actions they take (“Abortion caused this earthquake, so we’re going to have to firebomb the clinic!”)

The Chain of Cause & Effect

There’s basically a circle of events that go like this:

– People Problems
Conflicts between individuals, groups, clans, families, political alliances, etc. cause violence, injustice, and actions that cause people to start…

– Breaking Magical Taboos
Accidentally or intentionally breaking magical laws, ignoring required duties or sacrifices, angering magical beings causes magical repercussions which range from creating curses, bringing divine wrath and retribution, to curses, which cause…

– Community Crisis
Natural disasters, threat or loss of food supplies, or other things needed to survive, which puts hardship or threat upon many, if not everybody, creating desperation which then creates… (go back to People Problems)

Note that you can start anywhere in the chain – you don’t have to start with People Problems.

List of People Problems

– Theft, Slander, Abuse, Violence, Rape, Murder, Broken Agreements, Betrayal, Exploitation, Slavery, Power vacuum, Blood feud, Abuse of laws/power, Framing, False Punishment, Imprisonment, Stolen Land, Inheritance struggle, Succession struggle, Raids for resources, Warfare, Hate crimes…

Broken Magical Taboos

– Entering forbidden areas, desecration, theft of holy items, deeds of evil, forbidden relationships, breaking traditions, forgotten sacrifices/incorrect sacrifices, apotasy, disrespect to magical beings, violence against magical beings, destruction of holy sites or relics, deliberately calling upon curses or evil spirits, spirits in need, spirits acting out of desperation, spirits which have been warped or twisted in behavior and nature

Community Crisis

Each category lists things to threaten, damage, or destroy and then ways in which these things can happen.

Food
– Crops, fields, herds, livestock, grazing land, fishing, hunting, foraging, water supply
– Disappeared, burned down, stolen, dying, drying up, not enough, disease, vermin, poisoned

Survival Resources
– Shelter, medicine, firewood, clothing, boats, roads, bridges, tunnels
– Falling apart/disappearing, not enough for current need, broken, collapsed, flooded

Disasters
– Sickness, mudslide, flood, earthquake, fire, drought, snowstorm, tornado, hurricane, heatwave

The Cause of The Conflict

You’ve set up your community, culture and setting where things are happening, and you’re setting up the problem in the Chain of Conflict and what started it, and what it has caused to happen as a result.

It’s important to realize that sometimes the whole problem can’t be fixed until the root cause is removed, and other times, removing the root cause still leaves you with all the other problems still.

1. Us/Neighbors/Strangers/Nature

Who caused the problem? If it’s “us” then it’s within the community and one of the members who lives there. If it’s neighbors, it’s a neighboring community with whom you are not enemies to. Strangers are either literal strangers, like a group your community has never, or rarely interacts with, or else folks your community considers enemies. If it’s “nature” then there is no specific cause and that only really makes sense when the problem starts with a natural disaster of some type.

2. Accidental/Negligence/Intention

Did the problem start from someone who didn’t even realize they started it? Did it start as a side effect from negligence or another action that kicked it off, but the parties involved decided not to fix? Or was it deliberate and intentional?

While it may end up being the same in results when someone accidentally spills wine on the altar vs. someone deliberately desecrating it, it’s really important to know what the motivations of the characters are and how things came about.

Motivations

Tied in the whole way with this is all the various NPCs motivations and goals. Easy motivations to consider:

– Protect myself & my loved ones more than anything else
– Protect myself & my loved ones at the cost of others
– Get revenge on the people I THINK are responsible
– Take advantage of the situation to get power
– Use the situation to bring down another group or person
– Use the situation to hide/cover up an unrelated crime/deed I have done/will do
– Hide my culpability as the cause of this situation
– Hide the culpability of another as the cause of this situation
– End the problem, but ignore the cause
– Attack the (perceived) cause but ignore what will solve the problem
– Support solving the problem, as long as it doesn’t cost me too much
– Support solving the problem, no matter the cost

You’ll see pretty easily how most of these easily create more People Problems or exacerbate existing ones. The Seven Types of Antagonists work really well for this kind of conflict.

With the immediate problems, you can see how it’s pretty easy to come up with everyone’s motivation or angle on things, and when you have that, it is also easy in turn to improvise NPC actions and choices – everyone wants something and because many are not willing to make a compromise or do what is right, the conflict will persist and probably escalate.

Games to look at

Dogs in the Vineyard’s Town Creation pretty much does everything here in a clean, focused step-by-step method which works great. Other games that fit well with this, but don’t have the clean process are Hero Wars/Heroquest, Exalted, World of Darkness, Unknown Armies.

This kind of thing also works well for most systems that have some kind of Flag mechanics- Burning Wheel, Riddle of Steel, Shadow of Yesterday, etc. at least in the sense that it’s easier to improvise when you have PCs and NPCs with clear motivations.