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.

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About Gwathdring

Lives for music. Longs for sturdy sails and a stiff sea-breeze. Devourers information. Loves curling up with a good book, a good video game, or photographs of Earth's fuzzier creatures. Is quickly becoming obsessed with board games. That'll do for now.

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