Thoughts on A Game of Thrones

I watched some Game of Thrones.

I was … greatly discomforted though I do admire quite a lot about it. I was discomforted by the same thing that turned me off the books, but more so.

I’m routinely faced with bad things happening to people almost more to set the tone than anything else. And it’s almost always worse for women.

I’m not comforted by allusion to history or realism. Sometimes I want something to make the show a positive experience without having that thing crushed and brutalized, usually literally. It becomes it’s own self-contained cliche. Is the character flashy and witty and badass? They’re going to be crushed. Is the character feminine? They’re going to be broken. Is the character vulnerable in an interesting way? They will be exploited, hardened and then crushed for daring to harden.

But I knew what I was getting into there; as I said, it already turned me off form the books. It’s not my thing. No surprises.

But the extent to which the show uses rape as wallpaper to fill out blank spaces is just disgusting.

I appreciate … the result of it’s attitude toward nudity, to a point, I will say; it’s one of the few pieces of mainstream film-making that wasn’t absolutely terrified of showing penises, and the idea of nudity being acceptable in any scene where, in a book say, it would be mentioned is nice. But some of the ways in which the nudity is framed fit into the ways in which sex is framed, for obvious reasons, and unfortunately that gets bad quickly.

There is a fine and difficult line between presenting darkness and taboo and unreasonable exploitation of the audience, the characters, and the greater social systems. I feel like this show’s treatment of rape crosses that line several times over. I don’t know if it’s a thing that has gotten worse over time (I’m watching around the time of the wildling incursion and just watched The Mountain … ‘scuse me (vomits) be cartoonishly evil in a world that wants me to believe it’s gritty and historical and also be gross. Ahem. Sorry. Tyrion just had his second trial by combat. Maybe it wasn’t as bad earlier on but it has gotten bad at the point I’m watching and I’m not ok with it. I don’t expect to watch any more of it.

It’s interesting to me, because as a fan of Apocalypse World and related games, I’m quite used to the idea of success with consequence driving a fiction beautiful terrible places. Watching people’s lives fall apart and relishing it. But they get something. Little victories, at least. Success with consequence. The world does it’s dark terrible things and sometimes the characters help; but it is only dark and terrible in the ways you want to allow it to be. You don’t have to mercilously slaughter all of your darlings, only to bring the fiction as established to conclusions that make sense. You must follow through but there are always many ways to do that. At the end of it, you have both a distance and a control that bring meaning to even the most cruel twist of fate and you can always fall back on your friends to keep the experience positive—not necessarily happy and sunshine-and-roses-y, but in some way an overall positive. Here? We don’t have that control or that trust. We ride the roller-coaster and cannot converse with it’s creators directly across a span of only a few feet. We can’t express that we aren’t enjoying this anymore, and that while we like the whole loss-as-a-curated-experience thing sometimes right now, right here we just want this character to be alive and damn motives and excuses and logics for both outcomes. We can’t make Lines and Veils. We can only watch.
I don’t feel like Game of Thrones is interested in understanding the limits of that relationship. I think it’s just interested in being gruff, cruel and violent in as pretty and well-honed a way as possible. And it is very pretty and very well-honed and very gruff, cruel and violent. And I can’t for the life of me now, having attempted both to read and watch it, understand why that’s a good thing.

A Review of The Room

The Room is a secret-box game in the tradition of Room Escapes, Deconstruction games and so forth. It is available on Steam for 4.99 and was originally on iOS game for .99. It has sequels and a light horror fiction atop it’s gameplay.

The Room is beautiful, inventive, and dull as a door-knob. Which is to say not entirely dull, not without charm and interesting little bits and bobs inside that make it tick yet ultimately simple and unmysterious. This is not a puzzle game; not really. It doesn’t ask you to invent clever solutions or solve difficult mysteries. I began the game taking notes, hardened by years of advanture games, room escape games, and so forth. It turns out the game never asked me to do anything unexpected. There were a few genuinely clever puzzles but only a few in a game that is entirely built around this sort of thing. That’s a real shame—I find it’s a bit odd to approach difficulty in these sorts of games because what is obvious to one is not obvious to another; suffice to say what challenge this game does have is primarily observational–it rarely tests your memory or your problem solving or your abilitiy to make hypotheses or logical leaps. Merely your ability to notice. For my part I found it easy and a bit boring. I kept hoping it would surprise me and prove fiendish but the only difficulties I ran into were moments when I knew I just hadn’t clicked the right one of about ten things I knew I could click yet.

It’s a shame because games like this really shine when there are multi-lateral puzzles; multiple paths you can start moving down at once that feed back into each other, sure, and coallesce to a single point but that nonetheless allow you to move back and forth in a slightly less linear fashion, creating both a greater sense of journey and baking in the “let’s take a break and see this from another angle” phenomenon that is so key to solving a puzzle so the player feels invested in the puzzle the whole time rather than needing to yank themselves out of it to gain that perspective. The trouble of course is that one designers leap of logic is another player’s bloody-stupid-”who-the-heck-would-have-thought-of-that-nonsense?-that-doens’t-make-any-sense!”

That acknowledged, I think The Room should have pushed much further into that territory. It wasn’t a challenge and the puzzle was never interesting. The movements and animations certainly were … but there were so many points when it could have used expansiveness to make it’s simple solutions more challenging–but once you leave the large safe you leave it for good, progressing ever forward and never looking back to do intersting things with old, familiar objects. Failing that, I wish it had been a little more weird. A little more “clever” and illogical such that the puzzles felt more difficult to me more frequently. It’s effort to remain sensible and understandable, I feel, undermines it’s function. Forget for a moment the idea of being a puzzle and leave us with exploration–the exploration of the device was not quite alien enough or mysterious enough for the fictional premise. Our guide assured us our intelligence would see us through but all that saw us through was explicit codes written on the box in UV ink (close enough). No clues, no riddles no references as promised by the tutorial sequence. Even taking this game as a breezy secret-box sort of thing rather than a true puzzle, I feel it wasn’t inventive enough in the right way to meet it’s own mini-fiction square-on.

It’s a lovely object but not worth the asking price. For the .99 it costs on tablets and smart phones? Perhaps! It’s quite pretty and certainly outsrips a York Peppermint Patty for entertainment value for me. I’ve played games that walk the lines this game walks in more interesting ways, though, and some of them cost nothing. I cannot, then, recommend it in terms of relative value but in terms of absolute is-this-99-cents-worth-of-cool/fun/whatever I can certainly recommend it at it’s original price on mobile devices.

Mass Effect: The Apocalypse World Hack (or at least one of them)

The following is an over-long post as part of this discussion on Story Games specifically regarding this Apocalypse World hack.

Ok! I keep putting off digging into this in favor of other things, but I finally found a moment that felt like a good time to catch up. This is going to be a fair number of words, so I hope you don’t mind if I end up doing more than one post. I like where this is going! I’m saying that now, because I have a tendency to come on a bit strong when I critique, but I really do like what you’re doing and it has me quite excited and my brain’s a-buzzing with ideas.

I’ll start with Loyalty

Loyalty

Can you give orders to a PC with no Loyalty? It seems odd that your ability to deny a position of authority is a limited resource.

I think the move works even though it’s complicated. If Apocalypse World can have two moves that are essentially the same just to provide different questions for reading people and reading situations, ME: TAWH can have one move with variable stats. That said, my temptation is always to simplify where possible. I’m also not sold on Dig In. I like the idea, but given the specific way Dig In works, I’m not sold. Act Under Fire has a much more universal 7-9 than Dig In does. I really like Dig In’s 7-9, but I’m not sure it’s very satisfying to fail to dig in, or partially succeed to Dig In in this circumstance–and that’s an important part of the *World system. Success at cost and Failure is always just as interesting.

As for the new ideas in your second post: Not liking this much at all. Giving XP provides much better incentive than giving loyalty . Effectively, loyalty is a currency you can use to resist orders. Which you get by following orders. Well, if I want to disobey orders, I’m not really being incentivize to obey by being told I can more effectively disobey in the future, am I? Or for that matter by being told I can more capably give orders to you in the future (if I’ve got it backwards)? The flow goes like this:


Sorry about the poor quality. Point being, its a bit complicated either way, but that complication is hopefully masked by satisfying payoff and a satisfying connection to the rest of the game. With loyalty generated by the move itself, though, it feels too self-contained for how complicated it is. I might be misreading exactly who can spend the loyalty gained this way (as I’ve alluded to), but just in case I’ve thought about it both ways and I still don’t like it.

Support Your Team

I love the move, but the name doesn’t quite make sense. You’re biting the bullet, trading their danger for your own. It’s a great move, and it belongs here–but it’s not really “Support Your Team.” Maybe “Draw Fire” or “Take the Hit” or “Bite the Bullet” or … any number of more accurate names.

As to the +1 forward, I’m iffy just as you say you are in the post. It’s based on the team not being hassled actively–but what exactly does that mean would happen if they were neither supported nor hassled actively? How does the relative benefit of this move play into other moves and deciding when a thing is a move versus something that just happens? I think if nothing else, this move needs a different initiation than “when you dedicate your efforts to aiding your team.” You can do that without being anywhere near them! To work otherwise as written, I feel it needs to clearly relate to taking attention off of the rest of the team, and possibly even be more specific than “your team.” What if various players/characters are doing various things against various threats in various places? I love the core theme and mechanic of the move, but I don’t see the larger picture–and this is a basic move so the larger picture is really important. This move needs to be triggered better.

One final word on this move: you say the “implication” is that you’re not trying to decimate the enemy or keep yourself safe. The later is clear to me from the move as written. The former is not. Something to consider.

Bold Aggression

Bold Aggression leaves me a bit confused. A 7-9 seems better for the enemy than it is for you, and that isn’t often appropriate in a Basic Move. Escalate their threat above and beyond? That sounds like a hard move!

The 10+ is also a bit odd. I like the idea, but “put yourself in a spot in the process” is a bit … narratively awkward? If you completely put your foes in their place, what ways can you be put in a spot? I can think of quite a few, but it’s tricky to think of things that are a) directly relevant to the move being made and b) just as threatening while enemies are completely in their place and c) tweakable to different kinds of situations. There’s getting trapped … but that won’t always make sense without feeling a little too contrived.

Last, a question: if the assumption is that you’re plinking away at each other, that means the default shooting action is simply harm-for-harm as established, right? I’m trying to get a feel for the balance of power here. Clearly, you can make foes as tough or weak as you like so it’s quite adjustable. Conceptually, though, harm-for-harm is very lethal. In AW, you have a lot of ways to inflict harm that aren’t harm-for-harm, as well as to avoid harm.  Even “look through crosshairs” and harm-for-npcs guidelines aside, AW characters are tough as nails; add those two elements in and you’re all badass forces of nature. Harm-for-harm, alone, is quite lethal though. Is this move supposed to preserve that relative lethality, give players an equalizer to reduce that lethality, or what? As a player, I think I’d hesitate to take this over harm-for-harm or Support Your Team (letting the team attack while I lay down cover fire, for example). It sounds scary.

Dig In

I like Dig In and it partially answers my questions about Lethality. Combat IS lethal, but you can keep your head down very effectively meaning it’s only as lethal as you are impatient/inExperienced. I have a tactics question though: obviously poking your head up to take potshots at the enemy isn’t staying focused on your own safety. But assuming you aren’t under a veritable hail of gunfire it might be focusing on your own safety to take a shot at the guy coming around the corner you’re tucked behind or similar. How do you imagine that sort of thing working? What happens when an enemy advances without advantage on your entrenched position, and you’re focused on personal safety? I like Dig In just fine, and my questions about it come more from it’s surroundings in than from the move out.

Enact a Crazy Plan

I like the list idea less than the Savyhead-like “you’re there with what you need” thing. In some ways Q&A feels more like planning, but at the same time, being given information doesn’t feel as much like planning as just straight-up establishing. On the third hand, neither evokes the feeling of quad-to-the-wall bravery and hijinks the name implies. This is the problem I ran into while trying to write a similar move from my Sprawl hack I was working on until I found the lovely The Sprawl–it’s hard to capture the spirit of coming up with a Crazy Ivan in a move. It’s usually just better to let the players try to pull off a crazy plan more naturally. Here’s what the Sprawl does instead:

Basic Move:

Manoeuvre (Mind)
When you attempt to gain a tactical advantage over an opponent, through advanced planning, careful positioning, or clever manoeuvring, roll+Mind. On a 10+ hold 3. On a 7-9, hold 1. You may spend 1hold per roll for:
• Inflict +1 harm.
• Take -1 harm.
• Receive +1 forward.
• Receive +AP forward (see Weapon Tags in Chapter 7: Assets).

Having a plan gives you a bonus! Is it a crazy plan? Maybe! Does it work? Maybe not! But just by having an attempt to gain tactical advantage in a way the MC deems appropriately attempty, they get a bonus. This increases both the number of cool tactical things players do and stupid, nutty “so crazy it’s gotta work” things they do. Either way it’s a win for the table and the players.

Playbook moves for the Soldier:

Here’s the plan: When you plan a Mission, everyone to whom you assign a task takes +1 ongoing while they act on that task according to the plan. Anyone who rolls a miss or goes off the plan loses their bonus for that mission. If you get paid, mark experience.

I love it when a plan comes together: At the start of a mission, roll+Edge. 10+ hold 3, 7-9 hold 1. During the mission, spend hold 1 for 1 for the following effects:
• You have that piece of gear that you need, right now.
• You appear in a scene where you are needed, right now.

On a miss, hold 1 anyway, but your opponent has predicted your every move. The MC will hold this over your head until the worst possible moment.

I Love It When A Plan Comes Together is a lot like your sketch of Enact A Crazy Plan, but nicely limited. It doesn’t let you prepare too generically. It sets  guidelines. Whatever such guidelines make sense for your move, make sure to have them. This makes the move less paralyzing, makes it feel less overpowered, and makes players feel more “clever” when they use it. All of these are important.

“Here’s The Plan” is a rock solid leadership move that worked out beautifully in play. It created this lovely tension between getting a string of +1s by following the plan and doing what you really wanted to do given changing circumstances. It also had this lovely psychological effect whereby losing the +1 by failing a roll in the execution of the plan usually caused players to decide that the plan had gone to shit and it was time to just wing it and to crazy stuff or bail. Lys and her player would be annoyed, of course, but the easy response was “it’s not like I get +1 anymore.” Also that Xanatos Gambit on-a-miss clause? Sexy stuff. Love it.

 

Survey a New Planet

I like the Survey a New Planet move. Simple in play, but with a cool switcheroo on a miss. Giving players constrained control over the setting is always nice, because it’s not as intimidating as the MC’s job but it’s just as rewarding and produces nice results because players are often a lot better at this sort of thing than they realize.

Species

Not a lot to say, since these are very rough sketches, but I like them for what they are. An idea for Turians, though:

Turians are Disciplined, Hierarchical/United and Imposing.  Everyone knows what they’re capable of. They’re respected. They have one of the more powerful militaries in the galaxy, they’re physically imposing, and they tend to stick together–Turians are expected to fall in line but in turn, they protect their own. Especially since they’re also one of three/four council races, all of that means badassery of the individual aside you want to be extra careful when you fuck with a Turian.

Whew!  Hope that’s helpful. :)

Musings At the End of a Long Ride

Finished ME3.

So. I think I understand why people were upset about the ending. But benefiting from the extended cut and a general disinvestment with the Reaper side of the plot in general, I didn’t find it overly grating. After reading spoilers I’m confused as hell as to why Leviathan isn’t part of the main game, quality aside as I haven’t played it and don’t intend to.

I chose the left-hand path. It made the most sense. It felt like the choice I had the most right to make, and while it was a great personal sacrifice, it felt fulfilling. I can see why people would have been let down by the non-extended cut version where basically everything goes to shit in what is functionally the same way no matter what you choose. Being prepared for the final fight felt like it mattered, and after a perusal of the wiki to see how the other two endings would have panned out and how EMS factored into it … I think that feeling was accurate.

I think this Kotaku article put one thing I felt really well.

The larger problem for the ending, though, is that it leans on the series’ least interesting theme, and even then disregards everything that the games have conveyed on the subject.

I’m not sure I agree that the organic/synthetic thing is the least interesting theme in the series, but it’s not in my top two either. The article goes on to say:

After all, the genuine synthetic intelligences present throughout the series have generally not been inimical to organic life. The robotic Geth, although initially presented as aggressive foes, are later shown to have been the victims of preemptive attacks by the Quarians. Even the ones that joined the Reapers in the first game did so out of a desire for self-advancement, not out of intrinsic malice towards organics. The other true AI the series presents is EDI, whose voluntary aid repeatedly proves crucial in helping Shepard’s missions succeed, and who might even be in love with Joker. Though the game undercuts itself by almost always placing synthetic lifeforms on the business end of Shepard’s gun, in dialog and plot the synthetics are neutral, or even allies.

This expresses one of my major disconnects with the second game. After coming to an understanding of who and what they Geth were … they continued to show up as enemies even with Legion in tow, long after the Omega relay jump and the events on-board the Geth satellite thereafter. This sort of inconsistency could have been smoothed over with explanation, commentary, or some efforts to emotionally disinvest me from the Geth. As it was, I felt my new investment in them was being betrayed because the context of their presence had changed and I was expected to behave the same way as before. One thing I appreciated so much about the absolute insanity of The Citadel (DLC) is that it was unabashed. It had moments of poignancy and moments of joking. Some of both fell flat, but I don’t think it ever goofed becasue it took itself too seriously or misunderstood elements of pacing.  When things were inconsistent in the DLC, it was because the game very decisively set consistency aside.

While it relied on some tired “lampshade but keep on trucking” humor, it had many more isntances of genuine self-subversion and parody. Perhaps I’m reading it completely wrong, but the use of paragon/renegade interrupts for a menial slog of a task when hanging out with James Vega in the apartment was both both cute and elegant; you could stop just by taking too long and missing the prompt, and you still would have gotten the joke. But if you keep going to the end … the payoff isn’t some big hilarious joke. Just … the normal response you’d expect following the in-fiction activity. Which in turn both makes the scene feel more authentic and has a little layer of meta-commentary about the Paragon/Renegade system embedded in it. That kind of slick, dual-purpose design was found throughout. The Citadel DLC and it made me quite happy.

It was refreshing to know that the dev team understands why their games keep going haywire at the end, and that they can make fun of their mistakes without compromising their pride for their successes.. It’s disappointing that they weren’t able to commute that into tightening up the endings to Mass Effect 1 and 3, sorting out the thematic and tonal heart of Mass Effect 3, smoothing gaps between gameplay and fiction in Mass Effect 2, and avoiding their most grevious plot contrivances (really, not a shred of self-awareness about using the SAME space-thing as two different space mac-guffins in two different games in the trilogy?).

All in all, it’s been a good ride. The best. By rights I should have cried in a few places I didn’t … but there was just something missing. And that’s enough to make me disappointed even as I heartily commend the team for a damn spectacular trilogy, and keep Martin Shepard and company close to my heart.

I was going to end there, but I realized I have an excellent excuse now to shoehorn one of the best parts of The Citadel LDC meaningfully into the shoe I cobbled in the preceeding paragraphs:

i’m self destructing i admit
i make so many bad bad choices
here’s the thing that i admit
i always know they’re bad choices

I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire: Love in Mass Effect

MassEffect3 2013-08-19 02-31-40-76

Mass Effect 3 is a compelling ride so far. I haven’t finished it, but I love it. There are some things that just don’t quite come together, and while this is not surprising, it’s unusually disappointing to be hit with awkward dialog and non-sequitor character reactions when so much is so beautifully executed. I’m so invested in these characters, cliched and housed in Sci-fi channel level plot as they may be. As with almost all Bioware games I’ve played, the core of each character is superbly captured in the line-by-line writing and the relationships between characters (romantic ones with the PC aside) are also superbly realized and nuanced (and the plot is bonkers as shit). Characters in Mass Effect are visually compelling and voice acted superbly, too, which helps to no end. The zany, crappy plot I can forgive here more than elsewhere because I’m used to Sci-fi this unbelievable; the emotional ups and downs are delivered well once you allow for the rules of this haphazard fiction, because I care that the characters care–I don’t need any other excuse to care, really, unless something as fictionally awful as the final boss fight in ME2 happens. That about sums up where I’m approaching Mass Effect from overall and now onwards to the heart of the matter: love in mass effect and how it’s worked out so far.

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Falling with Style, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tomb Raider

TombRaider 2013-07-25 00-54-29-68

A Tomb Raider Review

Tomb Raider is an odd game for me. It very much comes out of the CoD generation of games with it’s efforts to ape films, the splashes of water and blood onto the third person camera lens from time to time, the regenerating health system, the familiar “rpg elements”: simple weapon upgrade system, XP and simple character upgrades. I’m by no means a proponent of the Old School or Bust crowd finding plenty of tediousness in a lot of older titles, but I’m not a particularly big fan of the generic, soupy, sloppy feel than most of these shiny, cinematic games have and I hate that they feel like they play themselves. I’m fond of linear games, adventure games, IF games and a host of other sub-genres that limit player agency but I simply don’t enjoy the way these “new school” games do it. I did, however, enjoy Tomb Raider. Let’s look at why.

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A Brief Note on Project: Awakened

By way of RPS, I’ve been introduced to a Project: Awakened, which on the surface looks like one of my top five futuristic dream games. It’s a super-powered affair in which you create a character with any sort of power combo you want from the palette of abilities the developers create. You then go through what sounds like a semi-open world single-player campaign as your custom-tailored, super-powered badass.

The catch being that I don’t think it can possibly work. A single-player campaign that accommodates arbitrary power combinations in a balanced way while still allowing each combination to feel unique? Challenges with multiple paths that feel adequate for the staggering tactical possibilities this game brings to bear? It’s possible … but not with $500,000 via Kickstarter.

Designs I’m following

Here’s some work-in-progress stuff I’ve got on my radar. Things I’m trying to playtest, things I’m taking inspiration from, things I’m providing feedback for, and so forth.

Star World. A young, active design. It’s a space setting (when I finally get around to reviewing my games collection, you’ll notice a theme), aiming to access a space between things like BSG, Star Trek and others where authority, loyalty and honor within a crew or other hierarchy comes up against the problems of not-dying in space as well as solving that and other problems efficiently.

Star Wars World — A really slick looking hack that’s fairly far along and reasonably active. It needs a new name, in my opinion, quite desperately. It also needs not to be the Star Wars of the films in my opinion, but the mechanics don’t enforce the film’s vision–just enough elements of the fiction to give you Mystical Space Fantasy and the basic character archetypes in Star Wars media–not the most specific archetypes in the world, but that’s fine, this hack gives them all a little something. The best part is Death Moves; when you die, you get a new character … but you fire a parting mechanical shot of some sort. Dead Jedi can visit other players as a Force Spirit (even though they have a new character, too) and screw with the game’s fiction.

The Sprawl — I’m actively testing this alpha-build hack out. It’s a Cyberpunk game by way of Gibson. It makes some slick changes to the AW rule-set … and leaves out some tools I’m going to miss like the Playbook specials and whatnot. I’m going to see how it plays, reserving judgment until a few sessions have passed. Then I’m going to go back over my own Cyberpunk hack and see how I feel about the two of them and whether or not their designs can learn from one-another. Sprawl has it’s heart in the right spot, and it is a thoroughly playable Hack with plenty of theme and twist on the AW formula.

There are more, but this is the AW stuff that jumps out at me. I’ll be putting up a page somewhere on here for design stuff once I figure out how I want to organize it. In the mean time, I’ll start throwing little posts like this on the walls when I see something that intrigues me or when I check up on a design I’d forgotten for a while.

Game Design Corner — Donning the GM Hat

I’ve slowly been crawling my way into roleplaying over the past few years or so. So far I’ve tried out White Wolf’s SCION, a homebrew crossover of Fate-system games Diaspora and Dresden Files, and a few small one-shot affairs in various systems. I absolutely loved the player end of things, but I found myself rather eager to try out the Game Master’s chair. You get to simultaneously play, referee and design a game–the latter most happening behind the scenes or on the fly as best suits your group of players. And it is the later most part I am primarily drawn to. I want to pull all of these games I’ve played (and some I haven’t) apart and see what I can do with the pieces. See what kind of story I can reconstruct for my players. Having acquired the Fate-based Dresden Files core-book over Christmas, I was initially setting out to run a game in that system. It was a fairly straightforward plan–set the game in the most basic version of the setting (here and now with the ongoing events of the Dresdenverse in effect) and have a lot of modular material prepared so that I wouldn’t have to keep my player’s too close to the tracks.  However, the more I prepared for the eventuality the more I realized I wasn’t quite ready to run a game for my regular crowd of gaming buddies. I’d need to start smaller, actually test some ideas in the field. So I recruited some of my non-gaming friends I see more frequently to help me muck about with the system and get a feel for the rhythm of things. I suppose it could have gone worse.

My mistake was allowing myself to test out Character and City creation first. City creation ran amazingly well. We developed a delightfully mad Dresden-ized version of Chicago in the year 1921. There were plenty of fascinating plot hooks to be had, and I could have easily jumped between and combined them in even a full-length campaign. Character creation also went relatively well. As was to be expected, it took a while and players had some difficulty with Aspects. But I feel like I did a really good job translating their character desires into something workable within the scope of the game system, and in particular, the setting of our little test-run. But now we hit the snag. I spent a lot of time getting players to fit their character concepts into the world and flesh them out to have lots of depth and hook to them individually, but utterly failed to get those characters strongly integrated either with our target city or (more importantly) each other. I was completely at a loss for how to pull the lot of them together in an adventure equally interesting to all. It would have certainly been doable, but I didn’t manage it. I had the foresight to call the session off before running my players through an utter nightmare of incomprehensible blabber and players seemed receptive to my general approach and what little play we did squeeze in before I realized what was about to happen–but I had vastly underestimated the level of detail I needed to adequately respond to brand new players and I now realize it probably would have been easier to improvise around shortcomings in my preparation with a more experienced group of players.

This brings us to plan B. Plan B is a solidly penned one-shot adventure set in my own little version of 1980s Canada with a guiding mythos somewhere in between Lovecraft, Hellboy and Dresden Files. From the little handbook I’ve been writing up:

You are a team of outcast RCMP officers transferred to the political (and geo-political) backwaters of The Force—specifically the Special Observations Corps operating primarily in rural Canada (you’ll be sent to northern Alberta). Your primary job is to investigate oddities from UFO sightings to Yeti attacks, as well as rescuing the occasional hikers from their own idiocy and writing up everything in excruciatingly detailed reports. You are The Force’s ear to the ground–a small, musty patch of ground no one else wants to worry about. Your commander, William Evaline Hekking, is rather laid back about the whole enterprise—resigned to his doomed career and exile from genuine police work and thus not particularly observant about goings on in the department. To make matters worse, you’re living through the 1980s. And of course the Werevolves.

I would be more comfortable running character creation on this one-shot, as I’d have some pre-made templates to speed things along if anyone seemed unable to come up with anything in my imagined time-frame and I’ve solved my biggest hurdle from last time before I’ve even started–there is an in-fiction system for aligning character actions into a single adventure while still allowing characters to exist at otherwise significant cross-purposes. Once I had this premise sorted out and a nice plot layout, I had to get down to picking a rules system. A brief spoiler: this, ultimately, did not end up being my first GM experience.  Back to Plan B.

The obvious choice was going with the now (relatively) familiar Dresden system. I was already borrowing from the mythos after-all. Fate also has a rich tradition of pulpy adventure material via Spirit of the Century. But the skill system wasn’t quite right. That wasn’t how I wanted to describe characters for my campaign setting, or for my players. Further more, the Fate economy that made so much sense to me as a player was an awkward concept for my target play group (and, I’ve heard, for some experienced gamers as well). It’s very much a hit-or-miss system and I wanted something more reliable–and if anything less crunchy. Which started me thinking along lines many rules-light designers have though: instead of developing a particular system of skills and/or attribute that fits my campaign setting, why not have characters described in a more intuitive way that has the bare-minimum attachment to mechanical effect? I recalled the somewhat obnoxiously written but nevertheless eminently useful rules for The Window:

  • First the narrator defines some attributes everyone should have, and players assign a competency rank to each (you might have Average Strength, Incredible Intelligence, and Awful Perception or something).
  • Next, players list some skills their character has or details about them that imply skills (You might be a Former Marine, and Expert Marine Biologist, and a Somewhat Capable Dance).
  • Each of the ranks is then compared to a Ladder much like the ladder in fate. Each rung is associated with a die from Poor (d30) up to Inhuman (d4). This associated die is recorded on the sheet. The end result is a minimalist sheet with a character background, list of five or so attributes, and list of eight or so important skills.
  • Rolls are made to be under a target of 6 for most tasks. Someone with d6 ability, listed as the edge of human capabilities such that you are at the cusp of your field, will always succeed at a basic task with no atypical impediments while someone with d30 ability, listed as markedly bad or at least completely without training, would succeed 20% of the time. One in five characters could manage not to fall over the first time they get on a pair of roller skates. This and other thought experiments I tried made the number system make a fair bit of sense … But someone with a d6 ability has an 8.3% chance to lose a chess match to someone with d30 ability. This is a 3.9% for someone with a d4 (inhuman, grandmaster, incredible, godlike) ability.

The quirks in this system can be avoided through properly deciding WHEN to roll (a chess match between Bobby Fisher and a man who has never played is not an appropriate time to roll in the first place). The fact that is uses quire a wide array of dice is more problematic–which of course doesn’t prevent the system from being converted at a glance to a percentile system or using multiple dice to simulate the results. I would have gone with this system. It is basically just a way of adding dice to storytelling–capable of both roll-intensive games that rely on the provided information and free-form experiences more like Fiasco and Microscope. It even makes cutting out the GM a relatively simple exercise for experiences role-players. But I have a mission here. I’m not just trying to role-play with some friends who normally wouldn’t think to try these things. I want to get a feel for running a game in a way applicable to as many systems as possible. I wanted something a little closer to Fate’s amount of crunchiness, something with a Fate-economy style quirk that puts some oomph into the mechanics themselves and creates a sort of meta-game that both supports and adds to the roleplaying. I’

After some digging, I discovered the Mistborn Adventure Game, by Crafty Games. The first thing I noticed was that it has a dice pool system, something I’ve been wary of approaching after my experience with Scion. Fortunately, any rolled pool is limited to ten dice (extras become “nudges” that can be spent to improve success or ameliorate failure). The second thing I noticed was that it had a weird dice pool system that checked for the highest-valued set of two or more dice (a pair of 4s and a triplet of 4s both give a result of 4). 6s don’t count–they are also used as the aforementioned “nudges,” and difficulties are set from 1 to 5 for a given task. It’s a good number, that allows you to gage a challenge as quickly as you might rate a song in your music collection–all the minor circumstances that aren’t important enough to bump the difficulty a whole rank (running on slippery ground) simply remove dice from the pool. After some number crunching I decided the system wasn’t awful–it wasn’t the lovely curves I’m used to from Fate and my on-paper ideas involving 3d20 or similar rolls. That’s when things started to get good.

The Mistborn Trilogy on which the game is based has some major obstacles for a table-top game–namely that the titular magic users are rare and far more powerful than your typical human (or even atypical Mistings with access to one of the 8 (spoilers: 16) superpowers possessed by Mistborn. It also has magical abilities that enhance broad categories of ability (such as “burning” pewter which enhances everything from balance to strength to pain tolerance to healing). MAGs solution to this is to go with a simple Attribute system. Characters assign either Strong, Average (for heroes) or Weak ability to their Powers (magical whizz-bang), Attributes (Physique, Charm, Wits), and Standing (Resources, Influence, Spirit). A character who decides to be a Mistborn (Strong powers) gets fewer points toward their political standing in the world and their raw efficacy outside of the supernatural.

This is an awfully scant approach for a system with a crunchy dice mechanic. Which is where Traits and the game’s setting come into their own. Traits are a lot like Fate’s aspects–they are words, phrases, physical features, or personal items that define the character in some way and/or offer mechanical benefit. For example, the trait Agile Tumbler would assist a player in performing acrobatic maneuvers. Unlike Fate, using these traits (or having them used against you by the GM) doesn’t require any fancy exchange of Fate Points. You add dice to your pool or lose them (or, your opponents lose dice and gain them respectively … whichever makes more sense for the circumstance).Those with weakers powers get more of the traits.

Ultimately, this was still a lot of work. I love the system and I have a still growing little handbook that will eventually give rise to a campaign, but as a new GM with no experience I was left fearing another experience like the one I had with Dresden. So this Plan B sits on the back-burner, an idea waiting for an opportunity. It’s not quite there, but I could get it into testable shape by dedicating a Saturday to the labor.

It’s at this point in my journey, on the verge of giving up on my newly-minted game as a viable option for my first run as a GM, that I encountered Apocalypse World. I had heard of the game before, but only in terms of the crazy stories it produced among some of my gaming friends. The system itself, other than the occasional answered question in the middle of a wacky story, was still fairly mysterious to me. On a whim, I bought the thing and fell in love with the system. Spoilers: Apocalypse World is also not the first game that I ultimately ran. But I still ought to write about the game now that I’ve played Apocalypse World, played the Teen Paranormal Drama hack of it called Monster-Hearts, and run a one-shot of a Star Wars hack of it that ought not be called Star Wars World. All three experiences have had a major impact on the way I think about game design and role playing games in particular.

But that deserves it’s own discussion. For my next post, I’ll skip my discovery of the more experimental side of tabletop RPGs and cut straight to Danger Patrol–the first game I ran as a formal, scheduled event.

Happy New Years, Also a Temporary Message for Google+

There’s been a substantial gap in my recent posts due to school, but I intend to post a few reviews here over the next couple of weeks. I’ll be learning how to play Dota 2, digesting six months of Roleplaying Games in blog form, and discussing game design.

That’s always the plan, though, isn’t it? We’ll see what happens.

In the meantime, Happy New Year. May 2013 bring you many games.

~Gwath

P.S. A temporary message to the folks at Google+. I would very much like to have my name (Gwathdring) accepted. I recently set up an account and supposedly proving ownership of accounts to which your name is attached is helpful in smoothing the name acceptance process. To that end, here is a link to my Google+ account.

I don’t know how much of your service is automated, but if you scroll down to the bottom of this page, you’ll find the name Gwathdring associated with this blog and it is in the signature of every post. I’ve also directed you to my profile on Rock Paper Shotgun.

You can only expect so much “established” identity from individuals who do not have large social networks in the first place. I do not have a very large social network and thus can only substantiate my identity so far. I’ve gone by Gwathdring for a number of years and I have done so in public spaces on the Internet. Gwathdring is not a made up character I pretend to be, but I name I go by in many communities across the web. I’m not using it to hide anything or make myself difficult to find. Quite simply, I’m most interested in being found by the people who know me as Gwathdring; I have other ways to communicate with people who know me by other names and there really isn’t much overlap in those communities. According to the literal wording of your policy, this should be perfectly sufficient. If your policy is mis-worded, and this isn’t good enough for you because it is not my full legal name and there is no documentation associated with it, than I’m simply not interested in your web service.

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