Archive for August, 2013


Towards a mainstream game

August 27, 2013

My friend Dave picked up the new Star Wars game.  We ended up talking a bit about licenses and the value of them.  He’s a big WOW player, and pointed out that the Star Wars MMO actually had enough crowd draw that WOW saw something like 11 million subscribers disappear when it opened.   …On basis of Star Wars name alone.

So, why hasn’t Star Wars really kicked open the tabletop rpg market?

Well, we looked at the new game, and while there’s a lot of neat stuff in it, the problem is that it’s a traditional rpg, rather than a mainstream one.

What do I mean?  Let’s say you’ve NEVER played a tabletop rpg before and these are the things you face:

1. $50+ price tag

2. 400 pages (including: 2-3 paragraphs describing what backpack is, or a club… you know, because you needed that described to you…)

3. Funky dice. (Yes, this new version uses specialized polys, but lets just remember outside of D6s everything is funky dice to non-roleplayers)

4. Special ability trees to navigate

5. Point buy system

These are all very traditional to roleplaying games.  Gamers expect this, this makes a classic sort of game.  This is also exactly what makes for hurdles and barriers to non-roleplayers.

Consider a different sort of game:

1. Pregens of all the major Star Wars characters

2. Rules are short.  Can be taught/learned in 5 minutes.

2. D6s or classic playing cards, elements most people are familiar with

3. Immediate prepackaged scenarios.  Play can happen with less than 10 minutes of GM prep, if that.

4. Rules are general, not specific to situations, so a GM might say, “That’s a Hard check, roll X” and not “Well, let’s look up the swimming rules and the encumbrance rules, and…”

The fact is, Star Wars fandom does tend towards willingness to put in some geek effort, it just says a lot that tabletop rpgs are still too demanding in terms of play requirements to even get them to fully buy in on it.

One could, for example, reskin Lady Blackbird rules along these lines and easily get this kind of set up.

I’m thinking more and more about the value of 1 hour games, of bringing in new roleplayers, and the hurdles we seem to embrace are around demanding so much work to play.

Anyway, will probably do some design around that when I finally finish chemo therapy and get my full brain power back.


How to make roleplaying culture hostile to people

August 10, 2013

So.  I had a few comments on a few days ago, mostly pointing out that people mix up folks saying “Let’s not have this media be offensive and insulting” for meaning you cannot have any content at all – the thing is, you can have media about racism, sexism, anything – and address it critically – whereas you can have media not about those things, yet completely promote those horrible values.  The insulting is not whether the topic is there, the insulting is how you treat it.

Now for an example of how not to do it critically:

The Misery Index: Games about Terrible Realities.

What gives things away?  Well, it’s by “Misery Tourism Games”.  Ha ha, it’s ironic right?  Just like when someone says, “You piece of shit! Hey, I was just joking!” you know they’re really a nice person and not being passive aggressive and abusive at all.

But we can take their own words for it:

We don’t design games to make a moral point or push an agenda. We don’t design games to offend you or your sociology professor or your congressman. We do it because we believe there is fun to be had in exploring tragedy and depravity with your friends in the safety of your kitchen, den or mother’s basement.

Here’s one game they offer:

Welfare Queens is a role-playing game about a not-so-distant future America where white collar professionals spend their nights in back alley arcades, living virtual lives of poverty and desperation. Bored and overwhelmed by their day jobs, the stock brokers, accountants, and mid level executives of the late 21st century find adventure and catharsis through their experiences as hookers, drug pushers, trailer trash, and panhandlers.

Yeah, ok.  So basically a bunch of games that make mainstream commentary “ironically” for profit with shock-value topics… at least the company name, Misery Tourism is honest about what’s going on here.


Encounter based gamism vs. Illusionism

August 6, 2013

I’m reading this pretty interesting article on the videogame “The Last of Us” and it makes a pretty interesting distinction of how stories and narrative gets used in action games – as an addition to gameplay without being actual gameplay.

When we’re talking about encounter-based gamism, the sort of roleplaying where the GM puts you on rails and the core point of gameplay is going from encounter to encounter and figuring out how to tactically best it, you have a similar situation.  The story is an addition to justify and color the fights, but the core of gameplay is the fights.  You may not get any meaningful input into the story or the fiction, but you will get to make choices in terms of tactics and strategies.

In contrast, with Illusionism you don’t even get that.  If a bad guy is supposed to have plot immunity, they will be fudged to be safe.  If the dice are coming up towards a Total Party Kill, the GM will either fudge dice or have an NPC arrive dramatically in time to save everyone.  The only choice you get in play is maybe how fast you go through the expected path (or branching path tree) the GM has laid out for you.


Sorcerer – Dialing into conflict

August 5, 2013

When setting up your situation for play, a key part of Sorcerer is finding something that makes for an emotional or visceral connection to the players.

This doesn’t mean melodrama and sobbing tears – it means something you relate to on a human level – something you can see/feel how a real person would react or be shaped by that situation.

The part that makes Sorcerer set up difficult is it basically has a ton of “dials” – several parts of it can be dialed up to be a central place of conflict and play, or dialed down to be fun description without any weight.   If these things don’t intersect, play will flounder.

Concept and initial situation

You can tie things to real human situations by restricting character concepts:

– “Every one of your characters has just had a bad breakup in the last 6 months.”

– “Your family is close, important to you, and under some kind of pressure – financial, medical, etc.”

– “You’ve all just killed someone for the first time within the last month…”

Notice that this doesn’t mean you’ve all had to experience these things, it means you have to be able to look at it from a real human perspective rather than distancing yourself into “it’s cool!” game fiction perspective.   This kind of stuff works well if you want to include it as Cover, Price, or in your Descriptors.

Demon Needs

Demon Needs can also be used to make a game connect emotionally.  Though the Sorcerer book gives rather blah examples (“needs blood”, “needs news”), you can make them plot or behavior based Needs which lead to trouble.

– “Burn $1000 in front of the demon”

– “Emotionally betray someone close to you”

– “Help a stranger in need”

– “Spend time with your kids”

What’s fun is that Demon Needs can cause problems regardless of whether they’re negative and reflecting addiction/abusive behaviors or what is seen as positive healthy behaviors.  The fact that it’s a compulsion and a road to power makes them naturally fraught with trouble.  The best loaded Needs impact how you interact with other people in your life, one way or another.

Remember, Demon Needs will have to be met once a week, and more often than that if your character uses it’s powers a lot – so think about what kind of character your Sorcerer has become having to make this a major part of her life.

Alternately, you can make the Needs trivial in which case they fall back into being cool color descriptions without being a major part of play.

Demon Attitudes

Next – Demon attitudes – HOW do they choose to invade your life?   The Demon is a full fledged character and it needs and wants what it Needs and Wants.  Examples of the most conflict prone attitudes:

– Attention

The Demon might be constantly trying to press it’s way into your life.  Discouraging you from spending time with anyone else.  This might be like a child throwing tantrums, it might be a smooth manipulator (“Your wife will be there tomorrow, you need some time away…”), it might be a sociopathic murderer (“He went swimming, last I saw.  I can’t believe he drowned!”)

– Overprotective

The Demon wants you to be safe, and happy.  And it will either push for you to never expose yourself to the bad world and the bad people, slowly cutting you off and probably cutting you off from making Humanity Gains along the way, or it will start forcefully scaring/removing people it doesn’t approve of – behind the scenes, so you don’t have to worry, of course.

– The Tactician

The Demon can tell you what is the best course of action, logically.  No need to worry about human relationships, holding a job, or any of that.  If you do this, this and this, and use the Demon’s powers in the way that it’s telling you, things will turn out right.  Who cares what your mother feels?  She’s irrelevant and useless.

– The Reviser

The Demon knows how to fix up your life.  Get you a better job, better connections, a better life.  The Demon is going to start “helping you” without telling you all the ways it’s helping you.  It’s not going to ask your opinion on what you think is best for you – it knows and it’s doing it right now because there’s no time to waste.  Don’t be ungrateful for all the work it’s doing…

– Mentor to Inhumanity

The Demon wants you to think like it thinks.  Maybe it lied about what it’s Need actually is, and has you doing all kinds of fucked up shit above and beyond the actual Need, just to get you down a dark path.  You’re not weak like the others.  You can make the hard decisions.  You can do what needs to be done.  This is what makes you strong.  You have to do this anyway, so you might as well have fun, too, right?  It’s almost like they asked for this to happen, so you might as well oblige, right?

– Instigator

The Demon loves to see you angry and taking vengeance.  It will point out every possible way you’ve been wronged.  It will go snooping around for gossip just to “help you”.  Maybe it lies or tells partial truth without context, knowing it can get you pissed off, or… maybe it only tells the truth just because then you can never doubt it.  In the end, though, the answer is always “You should make them pay”.

– The Djinni’s Wish

The Demon will follow your orders, and either add some extra actions because it was fun (“All you said was kill them, you didn’t say how…”), or else does the bare minimum you’ve ordered, to the literal instructions (“…but you didn’t say to also hide the bodies!”)

– Set Pattern

The Demon and you have an agreement and a routine.  You ask it to do only XYZ, and it always comes through.  If you start acting differently, or ask for a new type of activity, the Demon will start asking “Why?” and panicking.  Don’t change a thing.  This is working well.  If you start changing this, what else will you change, where will things stop?


While all of the above examples of demon attitudes are pretty dysfunctional, you can dial it up or down depending on how much you want the Demons themselves to be a source of conflict.   Demons going full bore with the above attitudes are basically horror movie monsters.  Demons who barely touch it, and only violate your boundaries rarely, are more like human characters except perhaps with poor understanding of human society and boundaries.   If the Demons aren’t a large generator of conflict – make sure conflict shows up elsewhere in the prep.


Where ever the conflict is mostly coming from, this is where you want to aim your Definition of Humanity.  The basic thing to understand is that whatever definition of Humanity you set up, that’s what the players will find themselves forced to pursue, at least some of the time.

Some ways to set up your Definition of Humanity:

– Emotional Positive (Love, compassion, mercy, etc.)

– Social Positive (Justice, social connections, etc.)

– Social Code (Confucian Class Values, Conservative Christian values, etc.)

– Genre Behaviors (Wuxia heroics, Movie mafia loyalty, etc.)

– Emotional Negative (Selfishness, revenge, etc.)

– Social Negative (domination, lawbreaking, etc.)

Notice that these all are VERY different and basically give you a completely different game experience based on where you go with it.

Humanity Positive

Humanity as a positive ideal or theme.  The Sorcerers will find themselves having to do good things along these lines just to keep their Humanity up against the pressure of losing it to Sorcery.  The characters who live according to the theme in Humanity will generally find themselves able to do sorcery more often.

Humanity Positive + Extra Pressure Against

As above, but with Demon Needs, attitudes, or other pressures making it very difficult to meet the Humanity theme.  Sorcerers will have to work extra hard to keep their Humanity up and/or be creative in how they fulfill it.

Humanity Negative

This shifts play to focusing on the sorcerers as either deeply flawed people or people really struggling with redemption.  Because a lot of the negatives are often well supported by Demon powers, the interesting parts become when and where you choose to NOT pursue it – “No, this is too far, I won’t do it.”

It also means a character who drives themselves to zero Humanity has taken themselves off this path, and possibly found redemption.

Humanity as Social Code or Genre Behavior

These tend to swing both ways.  Some things are what we’d call good and some are what we’d call bad.  You may need a short list of what fits with these, or at least a discussion so everyone is on the same page about it.  Depending on the specifics, players will find themselves alternately supporting or against what is offered there.    You may find play is a celebration of the definition or a critical look at it.

Now, this can be done in the opposite way, as well.  You could have a situation that has a social code (“Feudal Japanese Class Expectations”) and a Humanity definition that tends to break it pretty often (“Social equity and compassion for others”) in which case the social costs are played out primarily by the NPCs actions and reactions to the sorcerers’ breaking the social order.


Despite this being a rather huge post, the actual play set up is pretty easy, especially with the advice given in the new Annotated Sorcerer book – you come up with a few sentences giving the place and feel of things, you hone in on what is an emotional touchstone for this particular campaign, players set up characters and Kickers, then line up your Demons, Humanity, and Situation to produce good conflict.

The main thing I wanted to do was show was that because nearly any of these things can dial up to being the focus of the emotional charge of the game and/or conflicts OR dialed down to being fun description, you need to at least get SOME of them dialed up, otherwise you pretty much miss the point of play for this game.