18 March, 2018

Tweaking the fiddly bits

I've got a couple of hundred regular readers here, based on my daily viewer stats, even if I assume a percentage of them are just bots that trawl through pages and hit the pageview counter. The vast majority of you are silent, but a few of you provide 'likes' and '+1s', and some offer me interesting ideas or queries in comments and reshares. To those people, I'm grateful.

Today though, a bit more about my generic version of The Law (the project with the working title of SNAFU). There are quite a few ideas that didn't make it into the core rules for The Law, and a few design decisions under the surface which led to after effects and surface elements tbat might require a bit of unpacking.

Benj Davis has brought up the concept of converting the Rank die to a generic format. Because I've been working with the background concepts so deeply over recent years, I didn't realise how strongly it appeared intertwined with the heirarchical structure of the Department of Law. The essence of the Rank die was drawn from the Name die in John Harper's Agon RPG, where the original idea reflected a blend of fame, arete, and heroic closeness to divinity. I retained the idea that this was the core die used in pretty much every die roll, but it made sense in my game to link it across to a character's rank as an agent.

This will never function as a "generic" system. I admit that there are types of games where the mechanisms of play will be a bit too much of a stretch from the intended conventions of a specified genre. But renaming this specific die to something more appropriate to the intended genre would be hard. A steampunk criminal interpretation might see the 'ranks' increase through levels of 'urchin'/'light-finger'/'schemer'/'racketeer'/'mastermind'... a magical interpretation might see 'ranks' of 'novice'/'disciple'/'adept'/'master'/'oracle'... these are just spur of the moment ideas, and I'd probably give a lot more thought to logical progressions in a final product.

One of the rules that got cut from the base book for The Law, was the idea of different departments within the agency. There were either going to be four or six departments during iterations of the idea. Four would directly correspond to the attributes (physical = SWAT team, social = Undercover, mental = Investigation, paranormal = PSI division), six would have combined a pair of attributes to get it's divisions (phy+soc, phy+men, phy+para, soc+men, soc+para, men+para). When characters were doing something specifically relating to the purview of a given department, they'd roll their department die instead of their general rank die. The idea was ultimately abandoned, because choice of abilities helped define characters in this way, and it felt like it was overcomplicating an otherwise elegant system. It will probably come back in a players guide as an optional rule, where department rank counts as an advantage die that is only added under specific circumstances. These departments could easily be substituted for generic occupations in other settings (swap out 'SWAT team' for 'warrior', or 'PSI division' for 'wizard', etc.) Specific dice like this would be raised independently of the rank die, and while the rank die has the overall rule that it may never be the highest (or equal highest) die until a attribute reaches d12, these division advantage dice would be linked to a specific attribute, and never be able to exceed it's die level.

I've been toying with similar ideas for schools of magic and elemental affinities in the Familiar branch of the game.

Long story short... consider what the game is about, what kind of organisation or community the characters work within. The game isn't really designed for loners. The Rank die reflects the overall power, notoriety, and accomplishments of the individual within that community. But always remember that a Rank die is limited by the attribute dice, and a higher rank die brings bigger threats to the table. It was deliberately designed as a two-edged sword to prevent it becoming too overpowered in the game.

Another thing to consider when adapting the rule system would be the choice of abilities available to the characters. A 'drive' skill wouldn't be important to a medieval game, a 'wilderness survival' skill wouldn't see a lot of use in urban fantasy.

I like the idea of at least five skills or abilities per category, and preferably a number around ten. That's probably a throwback to Cyberpunk2020 and the Storyteller System, but it feels nice. I've also tried to make sure a couple of skills in each category are a bit more exclusive by limiting their choice to characters who meet certain attribute minimums (typically d8 in an attribute opens these up)... while also providing a couple of skills that have the potential to be upgraded to an advanced form. The whole point is to maintain a general consistency, while adding a bit of diversity where I felt the core concepts were lacking. Although it doesn't appear in The Law, a 'music' skill developed for a specific genre of game might break down into specialised forms for a variety of instruments, musical styles, or composition.

16 March, 2018

Boiling down the Essence

I'm working on the essence of The Law, because a few people have said that they like the system and would be interested in seeing it adapted to urban fantasy, standard fantsy, or even sword-&-sorcery. It's a sturdy enough core, not particularly wedded to the setting except through a couple of character abilities, and the investigation mechanisms (which could fairly easily be adapted to quest mechanisms).

So the aim would be to produce a little 8 page booklet, or maybe a couple of pocketmods that boil down the essence of the rules. I previously described it as the SRD of The Law, but now I'm just calling it SNAFU which basically links it back to its roots in my game FUBAR.   

15 March, 2018

Mortals and Immortals

Another interesting post amongst the mini zeitgeist I'm currently working in can be found at the Pits Perilous blog by Olde House Rules (find the post here). It delves into the idea of long lived characters such as elves, and to a lesser extent dwarves, compared to traditionally shorter lived races such as humans.

The article can instantly be seen as analogous to my dilemma of using player character spirits and familiars who run the gamut from a infant spritelings couple of months old through to immortal forces of nature for whom the entirety of recorded history has been the blink of an eye.

It proposes an elegant solution, where all races reach maturity at much the same pace, then diverge once adulthood is attained. I've proposed similar ideas in the past, where human genetics sees cell degradation gradually accelerate (thus causing aging), while the cell degradation of other races occurs at differing rates (thus accounting for their varied lifespans while seeing basic maturity manifest at roughly the same age). But for spirit beings, who have chronologically been "alive" for exponentially different timeframes, this doesn't really cut it.

I guess it goes back to the concept of what experience is. I've already decided that experience does not equate to age, but rather is proportional to the activity of the individual, and the risks they have taken. Existing in the real world is a risky activity, but it provides knowledge and power about maintaining an ongoing existence. Observing the world from up close may also provide knowledge, but it's less visceral, so the accumulation of data is a slower process. Observing from afar is safer still, but only really grants macroscopic data of the widest trends. It then seems easy for us to tie a rate of spiritual aging, to the closeness of that spirit to reality. Those who manifest in "meat-space" age and develop at the rate of the mortals. Those who linger in the penumbral periphery might age at a fraction of that rate (for argument, lets say a tenth)... here they exist on the edge of a mortal's vision, they can observe but not interact. Those who exist in deeper planes may be able to observe the penumbra, but they cannot see anything of the material-plane/"meatspace" beyond its ripples through the spirit realms (to continue the analogy, such beings might age at a hundredth of the mortal rate). Beings further detached from reality start to lose their point of reference to mortals, they need to fracture their essence to create avatars capable of drawing closer to the mortal realm, or spawn angels, demigods and other lesser spirits to act as intermediaries (such beings would age at a thousandth of the mortal rate, or slower still if they existed even further from the physical).

If an average mortal lifespan is 70-100 years, we suddenly have commonly encountered spirits capable of living several centuries to a millenium... distant spirits capable of living several millennia... and alien beings observing on the edge of reality who could easily watch ice ages come and go. But the longer the lifespan, the more alien and exotic they are, and the less they are able to meaningfully interact with the mortal world. There's the balance.

Similarly, we get periods of activity or periods of slumber/torpor/inactivity. I'm seeing a lot of spirits functioning in the Dark Places as drones. As such, they perform a simple duty in the spirit realm that supports the structure of the mortal realm, but it is when they break from this drone activity that things get interesting. These are the stories we tell. Most characters will have a few years of meaningful experiences to draw on, the youngest ones might be in contact with an Akashic record, or retain  fragmentary knowledge from the greater spirit who spawned them.

I like where this is heading, but there's more work to do.

13 March, 2018

Balance and Imbalance.

Yesterday's post got a bit of feedback, and that's great. It's also interesting to see parallel discussions emerging on various Facebook groups today. I don't know whether it's my superpower of "Tapping the Zeitgeist" at work again, or if those people starting the discussions were prompted by reading my blog. Either way, there's some good thoughts out there and I'd love to engage the area more deeply.

One of the great points raised, came from Joseph Teller...

"The questions in design you need to ask yourself is, does Age=Experience or does Activity=Experience?"

It's an awesome question that isn't really addressed in a lot of games.

I'll address it with some instances I've seen over the years. It was probably about four years ago when I joined up with the fledgling Clans of Elgardt LARP. During tbe first couple of months there were teething problems, including a "gold = XP" system akin to the early days of D&D. A policy was established where teams could pool their gold tnen withdraw it for upgrades. I saw a number of teams at this time, who had numerous characters contributing, with the same one or two "leaders" getting first serve of the gold after every session. This led to charismatic or intimidating players getting the best characters in the game. This was exacerbated by the way these large teams would get most of the game's rewards due to sheer weight of numbers. When called out on this, these privileged players claimed that since they had the best characters, they contributed more, and it was only fair that they got more rewards...a self fulfilling prophecy which rapidly led to more extreme imbalance as the games went by.

This is clearly something I want to avoid.

Let's go back further, 15-20 years ago, to the turn of the millennium. I was playing and running the various Minds Eye Theatre (MET) LARPs, under the umbrella of the global Camarilla organisation. Based on the Storyteller System from White Wolf, the MET games streamlined things and made politics and social intrigue the driving factors in the narrative. This came at the expense of other parts of the game (such as the combat system which was notoriously terrible), but produced a distinct style of play. The Camarilla organisation applied it's own meta-rule framework around the MET core, giving richer background interaction for players to drive storyline, and allowing players who had done service for the game in the real world to gain advantages within the fictional world. For example, a player who ran games for a year or two might be rewarded with characters who started play with higher rank or more XP. A player who sacrificed their character for the good of a wider story involving other characters might be offered an exclusive character type to play next. Chatacters would gain XP for turning up, filing a report for the organisers, and maybe for making a bit of extra effort like wearing a costume or engaging other players in their stories...that's about it. One character might have been created two years ago, but if they weren't regularly attending games, a new character might match them in XP after a few sessions. Similarly, a boosted character started by a prestigious player might have the edge initially, but they'd have to regularly play to maintain that edge. Yes, there were people who abused the system, and yes, it wasn't perfect...but it was aiming at turning the hobby into something more commumal.

This is closer to what I'm after.

Neither of these really specifically addresses my concerns. But they hold clues to what I do and don't want. So, I'll look at some of those Facebook posts.
This screen-capture from gets really close to what I'm aiming for when it comes to asymmetrical play.

So does this one. 

I want characters of different power levels, but I want everyone to be able to contribute relatively equally to the game narrative. I want ancient characters, who have shaped empires and history, to stumble when they encounter a smart phone while the young cyberpunk street urchin has no trouble at all with the phone but gets utter.y lost in the catacombs under the city because they have no idea what happened more than 20 years ago (except the revisionist history they've seen in movies... "but in the movie, there was a secret passage here").

So a lot of it boils down to what power actually is in the game.

It reminds me of Cyberpunk 2020... why would you play a Solo or a Media, when you could play a Corporate who could relatively easily hire either of these types when the need arises, letting them take the risk so you don't have to??... because those who take the risks are the ones involved in more interesting stories, and taking risks brings experience.

I know this isn't for everyone, but I like games where there is enough risk that the end of a character's story is alway a few steps and a couple of die rolls away. The d20/OSR level zero and level one characters who could die at a moments notice against a giant rat don't have enough agency for me. The characters beyond level 10 wno are basically gods among the mortal world bore me, especially when combat ends up with six whiffs for every strike, and each strike literally tzkes away no more than 5% of an opponent's hit points... I came here for story, not for rolling dice and looking up tables for two hours. Levels four to seven are the sweet spot for me in that style of play, a few good hits are dangerous, characters start picking up some of the fun quirky abilities, and the world opens up. No character is more than twice as powerful as any other, and a decent DM/GM/Referee can create a range of situations where the less powerful characters still have a chance to shine. Beyond that, I'm happy to retire a character and work my way through that sweet spot again and again.

12 March, 2018

Unbalanced Asymmetry

The grizzled veteran partnered with the new recruit...the master and their apprentice...the immortal wizard, the elf who has lived for centuries, the dwarf only slightly younger, and the hobbits barely out of their adolescence.

We've all encountered the stories where characters are not equals, yet it remains the default state of the table that everyone is "equal". I've certainly encountered long term games where characters are killed off, and then any new characters are introduced at base level. I'm similarly aware of campaign play in Ars Magica or Pendragon, where a single story can continue over the turning of decades and  generations. But the default is still the "equal" party across most gaming. Personally, I think the potential dynamics of young and old characters offers an added level to a story.

I'm thinking of a system where characters start the game at various levels. Those who are young are still filled with dynamism and wonder, they may not have much experience, but they can quickly adapt and learn new things...those who are old have become set in their ways, alien in their thinking, and laden with ennui, they struggle to asassimilate new knowledge and techniques. In The Law we might be looking at the difference between a fresh academy graduate, and a veteran "with three days to retirement". In Familiar (or "the unnamed denizens of the Dark Places" project, which may or may not end up different), this might be the difference between a freshly spawned digital sprite and an ancient primordial entity who has maintained an aspect of fundamental reality since the dawn of time. Vampire: the Masquerade tried to do something like this in a few of the sourcebooks designed to address the "elders" of the setting. But the Vampire way of addressing the concept was messy and inelegant. One of the much discussed issues in Vampire (and all games in the Storyteller System) is the way element costs at character generation vary compared to the systems used in play to increase those elements, and then you've got freebie points that work in a different way again. This basically means you can create a character designed to be a "builder", who might seem sub-optimal at the start of play, but once experience points (XP) are added after a few games such a character can shoot ahead of everyone else in raw ability despite earning the same XP. The "Elder" addendum to which I'm referring just makes this more unbalanced by further  modifying the XP expenditure and tacking on extra freebie points. But it kind of goes in the direction I need; I can see that it was aiming the right way, but didn't quite hit the mark for me.

I guess my biggest gripe with the system presented is the fact there are already two subsystems at play with a disconnect between them, and this tacks on a third subsystem without addressing the discrepancy between the first two.

The experience system in The Law is basically derived from Mordheim. It has a track of checkboxes, and some of those checkboxes are bold. Every time a bold checkbox is reached, a character gains an upgrade; but as the boxes are marked, tbose bold boxes get gradually further apart. Mordheim addresses the issue of asymmetrical power levels by simply giving the team leader higher stats, but automatically checking off 20 boxes... therefore instantly making future upgrades for tbe leader harder to achieve regularly. Team lieutenants have slightly upgraded stats, but check off 8 boxes. Another factor comes into play with various costs to recruit team members, but that makes sense for a skirmish miniatures game. The balance in Mordheim isn't perfect, but it's also aiming in the right direction for me. It also has the implicit idea that not all characters are expected to survive the session. 

So I'm up in the air again.

I'm really tempted to use a semi-random allocation system again. Such a system might use d4, d6, and d8, with allocation categories including the number of XP checkboxes already marked off (and associated advantages gained), the number of special contacts and other advantages gained (which are usually acquired through roleplaying and narrative rather than mechanistic XP), and the final category would be the number of penalties a character has picked up over the years (which would be like the sacrifices in the regular game, where better rolls equal less problems). Such a system deliberately promotes differences in characters, while adding depth to tnose characters who do have a few stories in their background.

Still thinking though.

11 March, 2018


I've got this nasty habit of overanalysing things.

I come up with a concept, then I tinker with it... I add bits to it... I work out how those new bits have modified the core... then modify them or add new bits until the whole thing is a Frakenstein mess that ends up getting stripped back to a raw foundation again. Sometimes the new iteration is back at the starting point, and sometimes it's a very different beast... at which point I analyse the differences to see what fulfils my goals better. It's an ongoing cycle.

I shared my intention for a Dark Places character generation system, with 3 fragments determined by rolling a bunch of dice then allocating the results between different columns of a table. I've been working on this concept within the context of generating characters who would use the same system and be vaguely comparable in power to the Agents in The Law. This basically means attributes with an average starting score of d6, four defenses, four to seven abilities (where every ability less than seven contributes an extra defense), and four advantages (where The Law sees these starting advantages manifest as bonus equipment requisitioned from the department, while these new characters would gain spiritual/magical powers).

The Law uses a vague lifepath system, building characters through their childhood, adolescence, then time in the Law academy; each step adding elements to the character. But my thoughts about how to modify Steve Dee's Relics have influenced my character creation ideas for this new system. The Dark Places are filled with spirits manifested through various means, some might be lingering souls or echoes of a mortal's influence in the world, others might be primordial entities manifested from the very soulstuff of the cosmos. These aren't the narrowly defined agents who've been through a specific process of education and indoctrination, they are outsiders in every sense of the word. It almost feels easier to define what they are not, rather than trying to define what they are (and in certain iterations of the design process, this definition by exception is exactly what I tried to do), but I've previously expressed my disdain for the "design by exception" school of thought through the idea that it's always cleaner to define basic rulings that cover everything that can be, rather than continually developing rules for specifics that might be.

That basically means I'm trying to develop a system that can basically handle a huge variety of concepts, while honing outcomes toward certain more likely results. Maybe a fool's errand...? At this stage the only thing going through my head is that there needs to be a focal point, a funnel that channels the various character concepts to a singularity of purpose before allowing them to go their separate ways again.

In a tribal society, this might be a rite of passage. A variety of people are valued in the tribe, diversity of skills and abilities is important for communal survival, but to be considered an adult, a specific set of tasks needs to be accomplished.

In The Law, this function is served by the academy.  Maybe the denizens of the Dark Places have become self aware through a distinct awakening process, this also helps with the idea that some denizen spirits might only be a few months old, while others have lived millennia. Before the awakening, they were simply cogs in a grand cosmic machine, after the awakening the adventures begin.

One of my versions of this character generation system saw the equivalent of race providing base attributes (and an ability/skill), the equivalent of occupation provided more skills (and an advantage), and the characters age provided a range of advantages (along with some abilities/skills)... then a few bonus points could be applied anywhere to round out the character. It felt close, but not quite there. Adding this awakening catalyst might help.

...anyway, back to the overanalysing.     

10 March, 2018

What's happening to Walkabout?

So much happening in the background...so many moving parts in my life at the moment. Walkabout hasn't been forgotten, it's just fermenting a little more.

For the moment, here's an important project which will certainly help to feed into the game's narrative.

09 March, 2018

Dwellers in the Dark

Unlike this article by Zak S., I'm not going to claim that I'm a genius inventor of something. More often than not, I say that I'm riding a cultural zeitgeist, sometimes putting together the fragments out there in the ether before someone with a bigger profile puts together similar components and gets the kudos for "an innovative and original idea". (If you don't include the degree of arrogance and ignorance, it's actually a decent article, with some useful stuff in the one place that would normally be spread across multiple sources).

Many of the ideas in The Law are indirectly taken from the work of John Harper (where the rank die is akin to the "Hero Die" in Agon, and the connection to Ghost/Echo througn my own game FUBAR), and the work of D. Vincent Baker (most notably his abandoned Otherkind Dice, which many people believe were morphed into the Apocalypse engine).

One of the things I did first in FUBAR was more closely linked to Otherkind Dice  rolling a group of d6s, then allocating die results between options (in this case success, sacrifice, and story). I always had trouble with the idea of varying difficulties and character proficiency levels in the original set-up, but vaguely wandering through other system designs led to the current solution... a solution that seems elegant and has been working really well. So now we roll different types of dice, modify them and then allocate them.

As a game system it's been really easy for new players to pick up, but I feel like it can do more...

...which leads to the topic of the post.

In the random tower creation system I've been developing for The Law, there are a few tables with 3 columns and 10 rows. When determining results from the tables, you roll a d6, a d8, and a d10. This has the combined effect of making the first six rows on the table more likely as results, while also ensuring there may only ever be a maximum of one result of 9 or 10 (which would need to be allocated, if it came up), a maximum of two results of 7 or 8, or three potential results of 6 or less.

This means the random creation of settings plays out in a similar way to the mechanisms that drive play. It keeps the whole system coherent. I also like the idea that a character creation system should introduce players to the mechanisms of play that they'll be using to tell their stories.

Why not use something similar to generate our Dwellers in the Dark? A semi-random generation system with allocated results from 3 columns with 10 rows each. The first 6 rows on each column would be fairly common archetypal fragments, the seventh and eighth less common, while the ninth and tenth would be exclusive options. A base character would be made by combining the three chosen archetypal fragments to make a whole.

That gives our three columns, three distinct fragment types...like the old "tribe"/"auspice"/"breed" setup in Werewolf: the Apocalypse, or like the similar setups I've used in many of my other games over the years. In this situation, I might use "manifestation", "role", and "origin".

Manifestation - the character's essence, the catalyst that brought them into being.

  1. Ghost - your soul lingered in the dark places after your body perished 
  2. Figment - you were given life by the imagination of a mortal 
  3. Avatar - you were spawned from the fractured essence of a more powerful being
  4. Echo - your birth was the unexpected side effect of a spell/paranormal effect.
  5. Gaunt - you spontaneously manifested from the ectoplasm of the dark places
  6. Phantasm - you manifested in a dream or nightmare
  7. Mirrorkin - you began as the reflection of something in the physical realm
  8. Changeling - you were abducted from the physical realm and have become something else.
  9. Incarnate - you are a conscious manifestation of your first role with the potential to become a god
  10. Enigma - there is no rhyme nor reason to your existence

Role - the first role that the character had in the spiritual dark places.

  1. Sentinel - you protected something/someone/somewhere
  2. Patron - people revered you for your connection to a specific concept or ideal
  3. Muse - you inspired people to do a specific type of thing
  4. Valkyrie - you led the souls of the departed through the dark places to their final rest
  5. Companion - you were someone's imaginary friend
  6. Hero - you were called to perform tasks in the penumbra for immortal beings
  7. Angel - you were responsible for maintaining one of the universe's fundamental constants 
  8. Totem - you provided a service to a shaman in the dark places
  9. Familiar - you worked with a reality shaper in the physical realm
  10. Independent - you had no specific duties in the dark places

Origin - when and where the character first appeared in the dark places.
  1. Months ago, in the penumbra close to the mundane physical realm
  2. Years ago, in the penumbra close to the mundane physical realm
  3. Years ago, in (or near) one of the stable orbiting subrealms
  4. Decades ago, in the penumbra close to the mundane physical realm
  5. Decades ago, in (or near) one of the stable orbiting subrealms
  6. Centuries ago, but it's been so long that you can't remember where
  7. Centuries ago, in one of the lost subrealms of myth/legend
  8. Millennia ago, in a realm that has been lost to the mists and darkness of time 
  9. Millennia ago, but it's been so long that you can't remember where
  10. Before recorded history, perhaps beyond time and space entirely
Like everything, these ideas are very subject to change.


In The Law, I've got a quirky little table used to describe the reason an Agent joined the academy. It has two parts to the table...one derived from a character's highest attribute, and one from their lowest attribute. Each attribute is cross referenced to a random result to create the start or end of a sentence, these are combined to give a deep character motivation.

I think a part of the inspiration for this was stuff I was reading at the time about the starting equipment packages in Into the Odd, with my own spin applied. The whole idea was to get a wide variety of motivations, where different motivations basically made sense in the context of the character's stats.

This comes back to mind, because someone I follow on Instagram shared the following image...

...I'm reading it as an interesting cross-referencing of two elements that might define a character, and then an idea for the most appropriate character class to fulfil these elements. That's basically circled me back around to the idea of tables that draw on two different elements of a character, or a single element and a randomiser. I like this idea over the standard tables you find in most games where a single randomiser unrelated to anything else suddenly applies something to a character. Don't get me wrong, sometimes a random element provides a juxtaposition that can be explored through play, but sometimes it's just annoying.

I'm thinking of furthering this whole idea as a series of questions that a player needs to answer for their character through the course of play. In The Law, there are rank dice which are more powerful that others and could be vaguely equated to a character's "level", so a character might generate 6 questions based on cross-referenced character elements, or character elements and randomisers. A player increses their character's rank die a maximum of 4 times (d4 to d6, d6 to d8, d8 to d10, d10 to d12... but they might die before they reach the top), so they'd have to choose one of these questions to reveal a definitive answer to each time.

Some questions might revolve around the agent's family, their contacts across the city, or other elements that tell us specific things that add depth to the character? These aren't elements automatically applied, but instead act as prompts that players might not have considered for their characters.

This idea will probably change half a dozen times before I finally apply it to something.

07 March, 2018

The Dark Places

Oubliette. Umbra. Shadowlands. Dreamscape.
I've been working on some ideas again which I revisit every couple of years. I call it "The Dark Places", I don't know if I've mentioned it here on the blog. I have mentioned a few projects relating to them. It's basically a spirit realm, or network of interconnected realms orbiting around a planet like electron clouds orbiting an atomic nucleus. It's basically the way I ran most of White Wolf's spirit realms from the various World of Darkness games, and now it seems to be working as the wider cosmology for the familiars that I've been toying with (and the spiritual realm that exists around the setting of The Law). A lot of it goes back to a character I called Chimera, a daughter of the god Morpheus, cast out of reality to inhabit the realms of spirits and dreams, only living vicariously in the mortal plane by entering the dreams of mortals, and seeing a twisted interpretation of the world through the lens of phantasm.

That character was one I never got around to introducing in a game, but she was always intended to be one of those mysterious quest giving figures, unable to manipulate the real world and needing agents to fulfil her agenda. There might be others working against her too.

The spheres work as shells of stability, an innermost shell is the mundane world. A second shell is populated by the people and things you see out of the corner of your eye, daydreams, things that can be pulled into reality with a bit of effort but aren't quite there yet. A third shell is less tangible still; echoes of echoes, realms of myth and legend that remain in orbit around the collective subconscious, cryptozoological creatures, and things unprovable by science. A fourth shell is stranger still.

In Cyberpunk 2020, a hacker could traverse an abstract digital cyberspace, or could enter a virtual reality. This concept is similar, with an astral traveller or spirit traversing a dark ectoplasmic realm shaped by consensual belief and moulded from the stuff of souls, but at certain points there is enough regular belief or dreaming consensus that a stable pocket realm forms... maybe a goblin market, a mountain fortress of the gods, an eldritch city of non-eucledean geometry, a lost city of gold. It's all there if you know how to look for it.

Familiars would be denizens from those stable realms, somehow caught in the mundane, but holding onto a fragment of the arcane and serving as a catalyst for those with the potential to shape reality (whether mutants, mystics, or agents of the Law). 

04 March, 2018

Nucleotide Bases

There are basically four nucleotide bases, which make up the DNA. Adenine (A),Guanine (G), Thymine (T) and Cytosine(C). A DNA sequence looks some thing like this "ATTGCTGAAGGTGCGG". DNA is measured according to the number of base pairs it consists of, usually in kBp or mBp(Kilo/Mega base pairs).
I knew that yesterday's post was problematic. It was like giving someone the recipe to C4. Even of you know it can be used for good purposes, throwing it out there for anyone to use is asking for trouble. It might be time to pull in anothet idea I had z few yeats ago.

Instead of rolling a d8 for each of the eighths, maybe roll a string of d4s, marking the results in order. Now the die results represent something a bit more abstract, the nucleotide bases of a DNA string. With 23 base pairs, we could maybe use a d10 for the Genetic ID die. If the random results were evenly distributed, tnere would be 5 or 6 of each protein type, thus giving an even chance of a bonus or penalty with the items. If a charactet is skewed toward one protein type, they'd be less receptive to the others.

This might be a better path to pursue.

03 March, 2018

The Cult of the Genetic Locus

I've had idea... it's for my game "The Law", if you haven't looked at it, go and do so immediately (it's on the GM's Day Sale)...

The setting is Judge Dredd with the serial numbers filed off. There are mutants, cultists, rogue AIs, and corrupt agents to investigate. I've had what I think is a fun antagonist for a future sourcebook  but I think it might be a bit delicate and potentially troublesome. It's a fanatical religious pseudo-mystical cult who believe in eugenics, genetic purity, and a concept of 7 progenitors who founded the races of humanity. The aim would be to draw on the writings of the 19th century Theosophical Society (yes, those same writings that basically ended up contributing to the worldview of the Nazis), then to apply a pseudo-mystic technology to the concept.

My seven progenitors will be semi-mythical beings, from millennia ago. Basically one from each continent; negroid, mongol, caucasoid, australoid, polynesian, [middle eastern] and [amerind].

I'm not going to say one race is better than another, nor am I going to automatically apply traits or attribute bonuses to characters based on their racial heritage. Instead it's the purity that this cult seeks. For generations the cult have engaged in eugenics and selective breeding, to spawn the "perfect caucasian/polynesian/[insert race here]". Meanwhile the population explosion and intermingling of cultures has lead to the average citizen on the street becoming more mixed and less pure as time has progressed.

From a game mechanism perspective, all characters are divided into eighths. If tne cult is being used in the campaign, a player may choose up to 4 of those eighths as heritage to a particular genetic blueprint, they roll a d8 for each eighth not specifically chosen (where 1-7 represent one the genetic heritages, while an 8 is a genetic code so mixed that it doesn't register as any). NPCs in the cult may have more of their eighths specifically chosen...where status in tne cult is measured by how pure your lineage is.

Rico Honda has 3 Caucasian, 2 Amerind, 2 Mongol, 1 Polynesian.
Chandra Kwan has 4 [middle eastern], 3 Mongol, 1 Negroid.
Takehashi Ashikaga, the cultist has 7 Mongol, 1 generic.

The cult's technology is attuned to the specific genetic codes of the progenitors, this is true of weapons, med-kits, psi-shields, etc. You always set the device to a specific code then roll an additional Genetic ID d8 when using it. Compare the d8 to the number of eighths possessed by the target for the specified code. If the Genetic ID die is equal to of less than the target's specified genes, a success level is added, if the genetic die is greater, a success level is taken away.

A cult "Gene-Lock Taser" is set to "Mongol"... if the cult shooter's Genetic ID die is 3 or less when shooting Chandra, she cops a bigger hit. It would require a 2 or less on Rico. If it were fired at Takehashi on that setting it would almost always do extra damage (only a roll of 8 would avoid cause problems). If the taser were set to "Caucasian", there would be a chance of a bigger hit to Rico, but both Chandra and Takehashi would never see extra successes when shot on that setting.

Conversely, a cult "Gene-Lock Medi-Nano" would heal more damage if the setting matched and Genetic ID die was low enough. Such a device set to "[middle eastern]", has a 50/50 chance of repairing more damage to Chandra, but would always suffer penalties when used on Rico or Takehashi in this manner.

Thus genetic heritage becomes a two edged sword, you want your allies knowing it to maximise their ability to give you bonuses...you don't want your enemies knowing it and maximising their damage against you.

Any thoughts?

02 March, 2018


If you aren't challenging yourself in some way, you aren't going to develop.

I always trying to push myself artistically, or in some other way to develop a new skill or refine a skill I've got.

I'm also a strong believer that if you're going to call someone out, you need to back up your words.

So, when I called out James Shields for his half-inch square map, I had to do something adequately interesting to compete with it. So, why not a new thumbnail map, but this time continuing across all my nails.

28 February, 2018

Relics: What would I do differently?

+Steve Dee's game Relics is a curious beast. It straddles the line between a traditional game and a story game.

On the traditional side, there is a GM, an agenda for the characters for pursue, a skill system where a randomiser determines the outcome in a fairly traditional "Fail/Success-at-a-price/Success" pattern, then improves chances of success if an appropriate skill can be applied to the task at hand, and then it applies a system where characters improve over the course of playing ongoing sessions.

On the story game side, the skills used are generally freeform, the world develops organically through the interaction of the player group, and the characters are defined as much by their relationships with one another as they are by anything else.

There's a few games trying to unite this divide between traditional and story games, but so far I haven't seen many that do it well without a dedicated set of driving rules that hone in on a specific niche or genre. A game like Blades in the Dark come to mind, where the specific elements connect the fields of games only at the point of the heist genre. Relics could be about heists, but there's nothing specific in the rules that dedicate the game to that genre. It could just as easily be about political intrigue, adventuring archaeologists, occult conspiracies, or investigation. The openness of the game is both a blessing and a curse, it's like giving someone a blank sheet and telling the to draw a picture... some people will revel in the freedom, while others will suffer from option paralysis. It's one of those games where there needs to be a discussion up front to provide a couple of guard-rails to stop having four players all tugging at the potential narrative in four different directions.

The closest game I can think of as a comparison is Paul Tevis's A Penny for My Thoughts, which has a similar system of awakening a character through memories provided by other players, and a system of ensuring everyone gets a chance to awaken through limiting how far ahead certain players can get with their accumulation of memories. In that game, there are a variety of facts and reassurances, and a series of different questionnaires that guide the story in some way. If we go back to the blank page analogy, each of these play aids provides some lines on the page that can't be erased or manipulated, they prompt a specific genre of memory unfolding, where examples might include "Jason Bourne"-styled spy hinjix, Cthulhu mythos investigations, or simply limiting things to the mundane world. The same game is instantly flavoured according to that idea that restriction breeds creativity.

Since the inherent mechanisms of the game work with a Tarot deck, there is a lot of potential I can see in the game that hasn't so far been exploited. So one of the only other things I'd seriously consider with the game is modifying the use of the Major Arcana cards. At the moment, a Major Arcana requires a redraw, unless you have a skill, in which case it counts as a success. Personally, I'd go with the idea that every major arcana brings with it a redraw, where the next card determines success or failure (and if a following major arcana is drawn, it is ignored and drawn again). The Major Arcana flavours the outcome of the skill attempt in some way related to the card, upright for a success, reversed for a failure. Of course, this throws out the statistics when assessing rate of success and the difference made when a skill is possessed, so maybe I'd run with the idea that not possessing a skill offers a play a single card draw, while possessing a relevant skill offers two cards drawn (where the player can choose the better result, but any Arcana drawn as a part of the attempt still count toward flavouring the outcome).

As it stands, the game is fairly sturdy, and certainly more serviceable than a lot of games that have received praise an adoration from various circles in recent years. It really feels like it's almost there, and with the right group it could be great, but with a group that isn't quite right, it could do with a couple of extra guides and prompts to help them along, and make it more user friendly.

25 February, 2018

EttinCon Summer 2018

Another EttinCon has come and gone.

Every time it is run, it keeps getting bigger, but the rate of expansion seems to be slowing down a bit. I suspect it has now hit its peak size, it might grow or shrink a little next time.

Unlike previous occasions, this event was not held in Katoomba, it was instead held further up the Blue Mountains in Blackheath.

A bigger more open venue in the Community Centre up there, but whether this was a good thing, I'm undecided. It still felt like the organisers were trying to cram too much in with tightly packed tables, and the noisy echoes of the hall didn't make table-talk easy, especially when I'd normally walk around the table to more easily address players who were focal points of the game at any particular time.

Three sessions across one day, I ran in the morning, with a scheduled game of Steve Dee's Relics in the evening, and a free afternoon where I hoped I could slot into an empty spot of whatever caught my eye.

My session of The Law ran as well as I expected. Neither mutants nor psychic powers throw out the balance of the game. I didn't have any "named" antagonists during the setting, which basically meant that I didn't roll a die at any stage during the three-hour session. All pacing came through the manipulation of tokens in the investigation pool and the sector status pool. This included a couple of failed rolls that led to the pools increasing, despite a general trend of working through the pools over the game.

It was an interesting mix of players, including an old acquaintance from con days long past (Benj Davis), a couple of players who've participated in recent EttinCon games that I've run, and initially two new players, but one guy was watching, thpught it looked like fun and asked if he could come in partway through the game as the team's "backup".

I'll give a full critique of this session in my next post. Generally it went smoothly, except for the earlier mentioned noise in the hall and inability to walk around the table.

Next, food break before trying to pick up a spare game.

Looking at the schedule, there was a Fiasco game called "Holy Uncontrollable Chaos, Batman!" which had no players. I asked around to see if it would be running, because a Batman Fiasco game would have been right up my alley. I found a con organiser, he didn't know, but rang the GM on his mobile. The GM was at his table waiting for players, in full Joker make-up. I spent half an hour waiting with him and trying to round up some players. Eventually we decided to call it off, and I started looking for something else to do...

...ten minutes later I see that the GM has picked up a bunch of players amd has started without me. That was disappointing. Especially since most other game sessions had begun more than half an hour earlier.

Instead I did a round of speed painting. A basic range of paints, a Reaper Bones figure, an hour to do what you can...

...here's my result.

I'm happy with her.

There was still more time before the night session, so I painted a second figure.

Then dinner.

The night session of Relics was something I'd been looking forward to. I've been following the project for a year or so, and have spoken with Steve about the game's art. Naturally I wanted to see how the game actually ran. I knew all of the other players on the table, one I had good experiences with (David Jacobs), one was my wife Leah, and the other two were a couple I had known from conventions many years ago (but whose names I've forgotten). This latter pair were remembered because she is the only person I have ever had walk out on a convention game I've run. She was one of those players who couldn't handle being out of the spotlight for very long, unless the current spotlight player was setting something up for her. I knew this wouldn't be a fair appraisal of Steve's game, and Leah and I nearly walked away there and then. But I really wanted to see how it went.

Character veneration during a session is always a risk. Sometimes it pays off, when you've got someone on the table who needs to be the centre of attention it's much harder to see that pay off. I can understand why we wemt through the process, it's a part of the collaborative world-building of the game, but it all felt a bit long as a percentage of the session length. At the end of the character creation I had a vague idea of my character, but still not really a good idea of what they could do, or where to take them. It all felt a bit like a slightly more structured version of "A Penny for my Thoughts" with characters created by each other as much as they're defined by the player, then the story tales this further. Flashbacks and memories provided by other playerx build the characters as the narrative unfolds.

I like the idea in Relics that all characters need to be within two flashback scenes of each other, but with each character only beginning with two flashback/skills, a few of us felt a bit adrift...trying to either find a purpose or work out a way to gain agency for ourselves within the story. For a demo game, I'd have produced characters at least partly built, and offer a range of memory prompts with linked skills that will be useful in the scenario. These can still be applied by the players to each other's characters, but it might give a bit more drive to the characters in the right direction. It felt like it was almost there, and it might have just been a loaded situation with the other players, but it wasn't quite right yet.

After the con, a few of us walked to the pub to do "post con drinks". The aim here was to get the people who design games together to discuss how we can help each other, provide feedback, or generally offer support. We need more of these.   

23 February, 2018

On the Publishing of Rules

You walk into your friendly local gaming store (FLGS) and look at the new expansion book(s) for your game of choice... or maybe you're a story gamer and you heard great things about this new game, that does "this awesome thing"... or maybe you're an OSR type and you decide to look at a product that does one thong a bit differently to everything else, or introduces a new character type...

...but then you look at your book of choice, and the bit that interests you is a single page, maybe two or three...half a dozen if you're lucky. In standard publishing, the book has a page count with a multiple of 16 pages, so your typical story-game or OSR supplement might be 32, 64, or 96 pages, and your typical mainstream supplement might be 160 or 240 pages. In some instances there might be an additional rule idea hidden in the pages that proves valuable, and maybe a decent chunk of the book is dedicated to a scenario that you might play once, only to find that your players go off the rails, and suddenly half of the scenario is useless. Perhaps you'll cannibalize elements of the scenario, feeding it into sessions over the next six months. Maybe there's evocative artwork scattered through it (or maybe the artwork is rubbish, and if you dare to post that in forums you get an "Emperor's New Clothes" effect where people just tell you that you're not edgy enough to get it). Either way, you have to consider whether you'll buy the whole book for the fraction you'll end up using, read the bit you need and try to remember it for later (then put the book back on the shelf), find a pdf torrent of the book, or just ignore it completely.

While I don't have a computer remotely adequate for page layout work, I've been thinking about the structure for any rule supplements for The Law. The original book was meant to be published like a comic book, with stapled pages, but at 32 pages most POD companies produce perfect bound booklets. So, my 32 page plans have dropped to 24. I've been thinking over the last few weeks that this is problematic because I've been writing chunks of rules that will be laid out with images into 14-18 pages (some of the smaller ones were 8-12 pages). The intention was to add two big ideas or three small ideas relating to a specific theme, then pad out any difference with new NPCs or story hooks that used these concepts.

..Pretty standard fare for an RPG supplement.

Then, this morning, I started thinking about my original idea for supplements for The Eighth Sea, over a decade ago. A single new rule, a single new environment where that rule is embedded, a couple of NPCs, and a story hook. The Law could easily follow a similar structure. Instead of 2 or 3 new rules, these supplements are deliberately focused on one...maybe for those 8-10 page elements we can squeeze in two, if they are specifically interconnected.

The whole idea is that someone only buys the rules they want and need. A bit like buying single songs rather than a whole album. I'm sure other people have had this idea in the past, but it just felt like a good way to move forward with this project.

22 February, 2018

Mutants and Mayhem

Playtesting elements of a game system at a convention can be a risk.

If you run a game with the regular crowd, they know what to expect, they play the way you expect them to play, you facilitate the play experience the way you'd normally facilitate the play experience... it a low risk environment, ot's almost a control group wnere you know how most of the variables will play out before the session has even started. 

Running a game at a convention has the added wildcard of random players (or at least players who you don't meet up with very often). Often if there are players you know, there might be a couple of subgroups, and there will be an added dynamic temsion between them. This ramps up the chaos, it's probably not as good for testing the fundamental concepts of a game because if things go wrong, you'll never know if it was the underlying system at fault, explanations of the system, uncooperative players, or simply a nexus of negatives. On the other hand, if it works in that kind of situation, then it's so much more satisfying to know that the game can handle these variables.

Years ago, when testing games, I'd love to run them at one of the mid-sized conventions with a couple of hundred players, where I'd often be able to run the same game half a dozen times or more with different ranges of players. That way I could test the same systems under a variety of conditions, and could then account for "player variation" as I analyse the outcome.

Alas, at EttinCon I only run a single session each time, and that's been my main source of external playtesting in recent years. So I need to make sure that single session counts.

6 months ago, when I launched the game, I had two players... so I know it works in that minimalist format, which is great. This time around, we'll have a few more players. But I haven't really tested some of the newer ideas for situation and equipment dice, so those will get a thorough critique over the weekend, along with some of the more esoteric and mystical ideas in the game that will lead back into game designs like Familiar and Walkabout (both of which I'm hoping to get some progress on this year).

Today's work was rebuilding the centrepiece for The Law which seemed to generate a lot of interest for the game last time around.


The Alpha Test works


Still a lot more work to do on the Can of Beans website, but it's first encounters with people other than myself have generally proven successful.

Give me a few more days (maybe a week or two while my attention is currently focused on EttinCon), and I'll be ready for a beta release of the site via this blog.

19 February, 2018

Equipment Packages

I'm pretty sure I discussed this earlier, but the new LARP uses bullets as the dominant currency (along with unopened cans which could contain any foodstuff and have a random chance of being off, and rolls of toilet paper). Everyone starts with 60 bullets worth of equipment, 30 bullets worth are defined by a range of starting equipment packs, and 30 bullets worth are freely chosen.

There's a massive range of NERF guns, foam/latex "LARP-safe" weaponry available, so we could specifically give prices for everything, and generate a huge list of costs that will need to be constantly updated when new ranges are released, but this feels like a sisyphean task. Instead, I'm running with something procedural.

The cost of a gun comes out of a characters bullet reserve, so the better guns have a higher cost. But what factors should be considered when determining such a system.

  • Having more bullets ready to fire (without needing to reload) is certainly an advantage.
  • Having a higher rate of fire is advantageous
  • Some weapons need two hands to operate
  • Some fire multiple bullets at once, or differemt types of ammo
  • Ranges vary too

These are the sorts of things I was testing on the weekend. I understand that any "point system" will have flaws, but it can generally be good enough.

Generally I'm looking at 5 bullets as a standard NERF weapon cost, plus 1 per bullet (or clip) it can take. Those weapons using clips need to have them purchased separately.

We paced out a sampling of three bullets fired from each gun to get an average range. Most weapons fired 8-10 paces, so that becomes the benchmark. Where those weapons firing less than 8 paces have low range, and are discounted by one bullet, while those firing 11 or more paces have a one bullet premium added to their price. Originally, I had rifles with a base cost of 7 and pistols 5, assuming rifles would fire further, but thankfully with testing it was discovered that this assumption was erroneous.

Similarly, different LARP-safe weapons have different lengths, and a longer weapon certainly has an advantage when there isn't much weight difference between them.

Armour in the game is bought piecemeal, with arms, legs, torso and head bought separately, and all elements adding resilience points to the wearer (along woth any natural resilience they might have). Once certain resilience thresholds are passed, a character gains extra hit points.

So starting equipment packages will have a range of standard armour pieces and other equipment in them, but since weapons will be costed on a case by case basis, they'll be purchased from the remaining 30 bullets.

Apparently, this whole concept is getting a bit of interest from local NERF enthusiasts, who have generally been finding that the player with the most money tends to win the most games. The idea of balancing the games is apparently quite novel.

17 February, 2018

LARP Game Balance

LARP groups are tricky, moderating LARPs is trickier. Especially boffer LARPs, or those where real-world physical representation of character statistics exists.

In a tabletop situation, there's an automatic degree of separation. One character might be more brawny than another, ons character might have more knowledge of certain obscure subject areas...and this can all be governed (to varying degrees of success) by rules and dice rolls. It gets murkier when statistics governing charisma or social interaction are considered, when one introverted gamer is trying to portray an outgping character with massive charisma, but even then the player can take on an authorial stance (describing what the character does), rather than an actor stance (and actually role-playing the sitiation by saying the lines and fully engaging the dialogue).

It gets harder to do this in boffer-style LARP, not only because it is expected for players to embody their characters from a social standpoint, but because a part of the whole experience involves players doing the fighting for their characters, as well as the solving of puzzles and engagement of other elements of play.

For a character to be an expert fighter, you've got two options, and both have their detractors. First, you can train the players to be better fighters. I know a number of LARPs that run weekly, or even twice weekly swordplay sessions and martial arts classes to increase the fitness, strategy, and combat prowess of their members. This is great for immersion, players know how to hit safely, effectively, cinematically. It's not so good for players with busy lives who should be progressing their characters at the same rate as those other characters with players who do have time to attend those regular training sessions. In some cases it's all or nothing, either you attend the regular training sessions or your character (and every other character you'll ever play) falls behind those who dedicate their time/lives/money to the game.

Second, we can't grant super powers, but we can introduce rules to the game that hamper one group of players to effectively give advantages to others. This might include allowing a player to make a call like "disarm", "shield-break", or "sniper", which then has to be acted out by the target of the call. It stretches immersion a bit, and even breaks it for those who have trouble with imagination in games (such as those who call it re-enactment rather than LARP). Here's where rule systems come in, giving different characters different ways to manipulate one another according to the elements of the in-game narrative. Even something as simple as "hit points" can be looked at in this way, one player gets to keep swinging while another has to mimic being knocked out or killed.

There's a middle road, but that requires balancing lots of different factors. Many LARPs might have statistically identical characters, but if one player has a sword that's 15cm longer, that could lead to a reach advantage that unfairly gives one player's character the edge. 

That leads me to what I was doing today, trying to find a middle road when incorporating NERF equipment into a post apocalyptic LARP with foam weapons and LARP archery gear.

Different guns have different rates of fire, ranges, accuracy, and ammo capacity. Many LARPs would reduce them to two or three categories and assign a common price to each, some might even ignore costs or categories and simply call them "firearms" which anyone can own or fire if they possess the right proficiency, but today's testing showed some massive differences between weapons which I might have otherwise considered similar in effectiveness before that testing occurred.

There's still a lot to think about on this, but important steps were taken today and it feels like they were in the right direction.

05 February, 2018

A Game in a Dream

Many years ago I had a dream where I was playing a clever little game where you explored a setting created on-the-fly by laying out cards. Each game there would be a general scenario where different cards would mean different things. I wrote down as much of that dream as I could remember the next day, and over the course of a few weeks, Ghost City Raiders took form.

I've had another of those dreams, this time it could easily be linked to the Goblin Labyrinth setting that I developed a few years ago, but might go an entirely different direction... either the dream was a bit vague on the specifics, or I've just forgotten those bits already.

Play involves a deck of specific cards, a pair of dice, and some tokens.

The game is fairly simple...it plays out like a street fight between two gangs. Each player has a small deck of cards representing their gang, there might be a dozen cards in this deck. Six of their cards are laid out in two rows of three cards each. The row of cards closest to the opponent are the first rank of fighters, the next row of cards are their support, and the rest of the deck are reinforcements.

Decks are shuffled before placement, players draw their first six cards and may look at them as they place the two rows, but they are placed face down so the opponent can't see which cards are where. (This is the general rule, exceptions may occur).

Play commences with each side rolling the pair of dice (actually, there must have been a pair of dice for each player). One die was allocated to speed, the other die to strategy. Each player gained a number of tokens equal to the strategy die result, and the player with the higher speed result went first.

Each player flipped over their starting rank of fighters, these were laid out in such a way that the first rank of one side matched up against the first rank of the other. The player going first would activate one of these pairings of fighters, the attack of each side was compared to the defence of their opponent to determine tbe outcome of the melee. Before the resolution is determined, the faster player may spend a strategy token to increase attack or defense by a single point, or may spend one (or more) strategy tokens to activate a special power on the fighter card. The slower player may then do likewise. Players alternate like this until no-one wants to spend further strategy tokens. If the final modified attack score is greater than or equal to the opponent's final modified defence score, the opponent is removed from the fight. If not, they remain... one fighter card could be eliminated this way, or both...or neither.

It could theoretically be possible to line up three fights where neither side is eliminated, thus leading to a stale-mate... my dream never saw this happen, so I'll have to consider a contingency plan for that.

When a fighter from the front rank is eliminated, a support fighter from the second rank steps forward to fill their place, and is turned face up. From the three cards immediately behind, a card could be shifted straight forward to fill the gap, or could be moved diagonally forward. This leaves a gap in the support rank, and that gap is filled by the next random card in the deck. This seemed to reflect the idea that battles can often start with elaborate and carefully planned strategies, but things get more chaotic as time goes by.

Many fighter cards had one or two traits on them, some cards gained automatic bonuses or penalties (to attack or defense) when confronting opposing figjters with specified traits. Some strategy effects were modified in the presence of traits too... that's where the clever deckbuilding elements came in. 

An exception to the "face down" rule was the hero card. Heroes have power and notoriety, so even when in the support rank, heroes were placed face up.

A game ended once one player had lost all of their hero cards, or half of their total fighters (whichever came first).

I think there's some potential here, it probably needs a bit of work to get it running smoothly, but I just thought I'd get it out there while the dream ideas were still fresh in my mind.

18 January, 2018

Risks and Rewards

Not risks versus rewards, because the two are not polar opposites locked in a tug-of-war. They exist semi-independently, hopelessly entangled but able to be measured independently.

Reading through this post on risks gave me mixed feelings. I was happy that other people are doing similar things to what I laid out in The Law... I was once again upset that numerous people showered the author with adoration and praise for revolutkonary thinking, when I've been stomping around in this territory for the better part of a decade.

Different actions are flavoured by varying outcomes and varying risks. This is an inherent part of "The Law". The actual rolling of dice remains consistent, but it's the potential positives and potential negatives that lock the die roll into the unfolding narrative.

A good action result might give a benefit without a penalty, a step in the right direction where the risk has not manifested. A lesser result could go one of two ways... it might allow success at a price, or if might indicate failure it that price is not met. An even worse result might require the price to be paid as the risk manifests itself, but the action still sees no benefit to the characters.

The Apocalypse World engine kind of does this, in a crude way,  ut keeps everything on a linear track.

10+ = Success/no-Fallout ➡️ 7-9 = Success/Fallout or no-Success/no-Fallout ➡️ 6 or less = no-success/Fallout

It feels like Vincent Baker took his "Otherkind Dice" system and decided it was too innovative for the masses, so he'd dumb it down a bit. The only similar analog I can think of are the dark years of D&D 4th edition, when the dual axis system of alignment was reduced to a linear scale. Instead of offering law versus chaos searate to good versus evil, it simply followed a track of "Lawful-Good➡️Good➡️Neutral➡️Evil➡️Chaotic-Evil"... it left out the fun diversity of Lawful-Evil characters and those who were Chaotic-Good...as well as those who were straight Lawful or Chaotic. A chunk of the potential richness gone.

If we tie those concepts back to action results, perhaps saying that the "Good/Evil" axis is analogous to success/failure, while the "Law/Chaos" axis is analogous to "Fallout/No-Fallout", we can start to see one of the issues I have with the AW engine.

10+: you're Lawful-Good ➡️ 7-9: you're either Lawful-Evil or Chaotic-Good (you decide) ➡️ 6 or less: you're Chaotic-Evil.

It still leaves out all those interesting Neutral cases, but if I were going to try and add them back in, I can only think of needlessly complicated ways to do it. The system just isn't built for that level of nuance. Yes, I can hear the voices of a thousand Apocalypse-Afficionados and Bakerites  all screaming "But, mah system! He's picking on it... PbtA can do anything". No, no it can't. I appreciate black-and-white photography, but don't expect it to capture the vibrant colours of a flower. Different game engines do different things well. 

In the post I referred to above, Rob still takes this mixed binaries approach. He divides the potential risks into a few areas, and makes them mix and match to adapt to a variety of situations (which I think is good), but he still links a pair of binary yes/no results into a linear progression.

As a tool for flavouring actions, it's great. I also understand that his examples are for injecting into an existing game, in this case FAE, rather than generating a new game from scratch; so the application of these risks has to be applied in a way that won't disrupt the existing systems too much.

The whole thing maps fairly similarly to the way I run my sessions of "The Law", but by breaking the success result and the risk/sacrifice result, I was able to be more nuanced by showing varying degrees of success balancing off against varying degrees of sacrifice... rather than just binaries on a simple linear path. I went with the idea that a player chooses the obvious risk associated with an action, and then that risk might manifest into a sacrifice with a moderately bad die roll on ond of the dice, or might have additional fallout chosen by the GM if the roll is abysmal. All of these elements of fallout are derived from the story and feed back into the story, separate from the successes. I'd considered this like driving a car, where the rate of success is like the car's speed, while the sacrifices and risks determine it's direction. This works well for a non-railroaded game because it allows a full range of movement throughout the game environment. Everyone wants to get somewhere, and regardless of how fast you go, you might not get there because something might divert you the wrong way. (Meanwhile someone sacrificing speed for precision might achieve the end goal sooner, just because they were careful).

14 January, 2018

Coding and Recoding

To ensure something runs according to plan,  you need to establish a distinct set of procedures that cannot be varied from. In web design this means creating pages that display consistently, regardless oc the user's browser or device set-up. In boardgame design (or most other game design), it means writing a coherent and logical rule set that functions effectively with a range of different players and play styles. I'm probably over simplifying things here, but it's what I aim towards in my designs.

At the moment, I haven't been updating the blog much...maybe getting two posts in each week, rather than a post every day or two. That's because I've been focusing on my map tutorials, and getting the website stuff done for the new LARP. I want to tell people what I'm doing, but it's more important at the moment to just do it.

It doesn't help when I'm trying to do both the web design and game design work on a computer over a decade old and a tablet that really wasn't designed to do such things.

Anyway, back to work, because otherwise those projects will never be completed.

13 January, 2018

Meta - Game - Design

There's an adage in writing that you should write what you know. Some take this literally, saying that no--one should be writing fantasy, because no-one lives fantasy...but that's a bit silly. If you read a lot of fantasy, and know the tropes, how they work, know how to modify or subvert them for your own work, then you know your stuff.

If you know art theory, then you could easily add elements of this into your work, alluding to colour, shape, and tne psychological way these impact on characters or readers. If you don't know these things, tnen trying to add them in will ring false. I guess it's a bit like that old "cultural appropriation" bugbear, if you add stuff in from  another culture just because "it's cool" then it won't seem authentic... if you add stuff in and really connect it to the other things you've got going on then it will add depth to the final product.

That brings me to some discussions I've been having with other designers recently. I've been at this for a while, whether I'm any good at it is a matter of debate, but people read my blog and buy my stuff, so I can't be too bad. I bring decades of art practice to my work, along with studies in sociology and teaching methodology/pedagogy. I don't have to turn every game into a sociological study, or a carefully tailored learning experience, but the tools to attempt this are in my repertoire. It's what I know, and I'd like to think my studies in linguistics help me adequately describe these elements when I do decide to incorporate them.

But what does a designer do, when the knowledge they bring to the table seems not to mesh with the process of game development?

That's what I've been thinking about lately. Especially in the Game Design Masterclass, and at today's Unpub playtesting session. In both cases I talked extensively to designers with backgrounds in music, both wondering how that musical instinct could be applied to the process.

Personally, I think anything can inform the design process. It's just a case of taking a step back and looking at the similarities between the activities at a meta level... perhaps using each as a metaphor for one another, or comparing both to a third activity.

Music often has a beat, a rhythm, a tempo, maybe a melody, vocals, key changes, motifs... all of those could have analogues in game design. There are probably other elements where comparisons could be drawn, but I don't claim to have expert knowledge in music, so I'll just focus on those...

Beat - What is the turn sequence that provides the foundation for the play experience? Does this change over the course of play? If so, why? Is it a syncopated rhythm that feels a bit off kilter to give an edge to the experience? Is it a common plain rhythm that lays solid groundwork for other game elements to add their flavours?

Tempo - Does it change during the game? Does tension build? Does tension ease off at any point? How should this make players feel?

Melody - Is there something on the surface to draw participants into the experience? How does this interact with the deeper levels of the play mechanisms? Does an understanding of those deeper levels change the way the surface melody/mechanisms are percieved?

Vocals - What is the obvious message in the game? Is it spoken? Screamed? Are there harmonics when two people are singing, or conveying their experience within the game?

Key Changes - In music these can set dramatic changes in mood, but what could be done in a game to get this effect? Adding new rules, pulling rules out when threshold events occur, completely shifting the dynamic in some way?

Motifs - what elements can be added into a game as regular signifiers of future events, character archetypes, or tropes?

How are these concepts used in interesting ways in music? How can those ideas find analogues in game design?

I could probably do something similar using analogues to baking a cake, but I haven't been talking to any pastry chefs who dabble in game design lately.

10 January, 2018

Signature Pieces

I've now drawn up about 30 pages of tutorials, so to break things up I'm now drawing up a few complete maps that incorporate elements reflected in the instructions.

More details coming soon.