Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Fae Shadows: Changeling the Lost Hack Thoughts

Hedges & Back Alleys
As happens yearly I’m thinking about how to run Changeling the Lost, my favorite published setting. I love the way it deals with ‘survival’ in a supernatural world. While GMs can tweak it more WoD-y, at base it’s about people trying to get along despite their strangeness. There’s more than a little Monsterhearts in there.

I’ve run Changeling with three different systems: World of Darkness, Fate, and Action Cards. The original system burned me. I don’t dig that level of mechanics today. The system has highly specific rules for each power you have to go back to the book for. There’s also a discontinuity between the game’s stated ideas and the rules carrying them out. WoD proved too much, even with the God-Machine revision. On the other hand, Fate’s a decent choice. If I had to do a pick-up game of CtL, I’d use FAE. However many of my players dislike pure Fate, so it isn’t a great choice. On the other hand, Action Cards borrows from Fate, but works with my style and group. When I ran before, I did a far too literal translation. Now I’d toss all that out. But AC’s also something of a non-starter. Until I figure out how to handle AC’s card mechanics online (unique player decks, discard face up, text display, redraws, no hand management) I’ll have to wait.

Deep End or Shallows?
My last two Changeling campaigns began with the PCs emerging from the Hedge. As new arrivals, they had to figure out the rules of the world, find safety, discover fellow changelings, and resolve their past. These games revolved around secrets and self-discovery. I thought my approach was the default, but talking to other CtL GMs in our GM Jam surprised me. Everyone else ran with the PCs embedded and part of the freehold’s fabric. I want to broaden my horizons, so I’d like to make any new campaign start with more experienced, less neophyte characters.

Thorny Shadows
So I’m considering if Urban Shadows could work for Changeling. Sherri and I had a chance to play US at Origins, me once and her twice. We’d talked about a CtL/US conversion on the way up because a Gauntlet vidcast’s mention of it. Sherri came away her session much more enthusiastic about the conversion idea. I suspect we’ll need to play several sessions of a standard Urban Shadows campaign before we can do anything more serious than my twiddling here.

Urban Shadows uses PbtA, so if that isn’t your bag this might be annoying. But for this post I want to lay out some assumptions I have about CtL and talk about how I’d begin such a conversion. I’m trying to plan out hacking & reskinning projects. I’ve usually just jumped in and started kludging things together. That’s resulted in some messes as I got too close to see the big picture (i.e. my earlier CtL hack, Action Cards L5R, Scions of Fate).

Your Changeling the Lost May Vary
Some of my assumptions about the setting fit with the book, some contradict, and others add definition. They’re important considerations to me when I run CtL
  • The seasonal Courts have a vital role. They help protect and preserve local Changelings from the predations of their Keepers, old foes huntiing them. The Courts and their bargains make it harder for the Keepers to enter freeholds and locate lost charges. A good deal of that power’s tied up in the concept of cycles. Power passes from Court to Court. Breaking that rhythm causes problems. Courts may be reduced in power, but destroying them’s never a sane option. That’s mutually assured destruction.
  • Fetches can be bad, can be good. They may or may not know they’re mimics left in the stead of stolen persons. Killing your fetch can have long term psychological consequences. Doing that’s a risky and personal choice. Courts within a city monitor fetches they know about, but don’t do anything for two reasons: it might attract Keepers’ attention and it falls to the copied Changeling to make that decision. There are no magical rituals for killing your fetch to give you new powers. Those are awful stories told by awful people.
  • Changelings are broken, brittle people. You may not immediately recognize their problems. But their durance, their time in the Hedge, changed and shattered them. They’ve reassembled themselves mentally and physically. Durances are bad. Changelings weave positive visions and memories of that experience from self-delusion, rationalization, and unwillingness to accept responsibility for awful things they did or had done to them. I know the new version of CtL allows for upbeat durances, but that doesn’t fit with how we’ve seen them.
  • Changelings have a hard time getting along. They usually don’t talk about secrets or durances with other fae. But ironically only a fellow changeling can understand the depth of their experience. That’s a double-edged sword. Interactions with mundanes can be great, but there’s often an element of feeding off their emotional energy. Changelings may become acutely aware of “playing a role” in those relationships. Interactions with a Changeling offer risks for these humans. Their fate and destiny can get tangled together.
  • Changeling Kiths have themes and roles. We’ve always gravitated to some key ideas about them. Beasts represent a kind of base seduction. They had to give in, become something else. They thought joining would protect them. Darklings come from isolation and loneliness. Some mechanism in their durance kept them separated mentally or physically. Elementals had a different kind of giving in from Beasts, they surrendered more absolutely. They offered submission with the hope of annihilation. Fairest believed promises. They were co-opted in one form or another. Ogres are about rage, directed about others, themselves, the world. They know they’ve been used, but could do nothing to stop that. They deny that helplessness. Wizened are created from roles and rules perfection. They have a profession and that’s their obsessional identity. Wizened have to follow procedures and that’s how they destroyed one another in their durance. .
  • Clarity loss does several things to changelings. It makes it harder to take in and understand the real world. They begin to misread simple things, perhaps coming across as paranoid, schizophrenic, or autistic. Reduced clarity can make them retreat into elements of their kith. Finally it can make them forget and long to return to the Hedge and their durance.
  • Changelings have swiss-cheese memories, both of their past lives and time in Arcadia. Their trip in and out of the Hedge caught those experiences on the thorns and tore them away. Memories and truth are vital: bargaining with them is a risky and dangerous thing.
  • Changelings rarely travel between cities. When they leave a freehold, they leave the protection of the Courts. Some rare, rare few manage to travel through special devices and forms (like a Changeling Carnival). Communication outside a Freehold is also suspect: Keepers can intercept these things. Letters, emails, online interactions, G+ hangouts: these are all vulnerable. The Old Ones can and will catfish for their lost charges. Freeholds are isolated, constantly isolated.
  • That means the Entitlements from Changeling the Lost don’t exist. There are no orders spanning across freeholds. If you wanted anything like that, you could have it represent assuming an archetype, perhaps bargaining with the world to support an image and role.
  • Hobs can exist in the real world. They hide in the margins. They don’t have a proper “Mask” instead they’re hard to see head on. Hobs have a hard time directly interacting with people, so they’re mostly about theft and scavenging. They serve Keepers when they come calling as they can’t really resist. Hobs resent changelings for being something else, having a spiritual essence, and being favored above them.

Bringing the Shadows
Let me pivot and consider Urban Shadows’ structure. 
  • First, as you may already know, it isn’t “PbtA does World of Darkness.” Instead it’s much more about power & influence conflicts within a Dresden Files-like setting. There are four factions (Mortality, Night, Power, and Wild). Each faction has several archetypes, each with a playbook. For example Power includes Oracles & Wizards; Night includes Vampires, Spectres, and Wolves. Your relation with each faction has a rating, used in several moves. You advance by interacting with all four factions.The game also includes a significant debt system and PvP elements.
  • The factions represent an umbrella, but the archetypes within those have individual agendas and sub-groups. Each faction also has a set of distinct moves.
  • Modelling CtL directly doesn’t work. We have to make splits and create some potentially artificial distinctions. Each PC begins with a Kith and gets a playbook based on that. Kiths aren’t exclusive, so you may have more than one Ogre or Fairest in a player group. A character’s Seeming, narrowing their role within a Kith, acts more as color and narrative fluff. I have an impulse to create Moves representing each Seeming but I need to toss that away. That’s more work and goes against Urban Shadows’ approach. Instead each Kith needs to have a fun variety of moves.
  • Obviously the Seasonal Courts map to the four factions. And that’s cool: each Court should have a few unique moves. But I think we need to define it further. In Changeling the Lost, each Court has several aspects under its auspices. These can contradict, creating tensions. For my version, each Court has two cabals vying for influence. These might represent light & dark sides, two different foci, or waxing & waning influence. I’m not sure. I’ll have to go back and tease that out.
  • In any case, players pick a Kith, Court, and Cabal. The first and last give most of their initial move picks. The final two offer general moves members can use. So someone might be a Wizened of Autumn Ascending. Particular Cabals would be exclusive, with only one PC per.
  • Corruption would be Clarity Loss. Kiths (and maybe Courts or Cabals) would have Corruption Moves.
  • Other supernatural groups (Vampires, Prometheans, etc) only serve as NPCs if the players and MC want them in the story. That should be negotiated. I’m not sure if you need non-Court Changelings as a playbook choice. I don’t think so. They simply exist as an NPC pool. 
  • Can players change Courts or Cabals? What would be involved with that? I need to consider if that works. I should re-examine the Courts and figure out what I want from the Cabals. Related: are the Group Advancements from Urban Shadows necessary?
  • To get started on this I’ll probably begin by making a master move list. I’d like to figure out how to map those to the different CtL groups. I’ll also want to look at other PbtA games (Monsterhearts, MotW, Masks) to see if there’s anything to borrow from there. I’d prefer to not re-invent the wheel. I’d like to put an old wheel on and service it later. The pool of moves should be relatively close to base Urban Shadows, i.e. PCs have access to the same # of moves from various sources.
  • Debts are important within Urban Shadows. In many cases, they should be like pacts in Changeling. Should there be a distinction between empowered and non-empowered deals? I don’t want to complicate things. Do I need another mechanic or can I make a simple but evocative one for this?

OK- that’s all I’ve got off the top of my head. I wanted to get that down so I can see if that’s too big a task or workable. I’m leaning towards the latter, but we’ll see. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Recent Games: Garage Bands, Hengeyokai, and Werewolf Receptionists

Just  a single post this week; next week I’ll have the next in my History of RPG Genres. In the last month or so I’ve played a mess of games, with many more one-shots than usual. Here are my impressions, including some notes on my Origins events. 

I’ve played several sessions of Rich Rogers’ "Gauntlet City Limits," a series of small press rpg sessions linked by a shared setting. Those included InSpectres, Ninja Burger, High Strung, and 1%er - The Outlaw Biker Game. I enjoyed the first two. They have absurdity without full gonzo; you maintain a role even as things get goofy. High Strung’s more serious, an rpg of local bands trying to make it big. I liked the premise, but we got tangled in the rules. When it clicked, I had a great time. I think High Strung’s a dynamite game. The mechanics aren’t exactly my bag, but it won’t be hard to adapt. It’s unique and deeper than you might imagine. If you’re at all interested in the idea of a band-based rpg, consider picking it up.

Tuesday night we did the second session of 1%er - The Outlaw Biker Game. I’m not a Sons of Anarchy fan and I wasn’t sure what it would be like. The mechanics are expletive driven. It’s a rude rule book. But unlike Human Occupied Landfill or similar games, that actually serves a purpose. Somehow it avoids being juvenile and doesn’t outstay its welcome. I enjoyed 1%er more than I would have expected. It does go brutal and nasty. I wouldn’t want to play it too often and I’d be super careful who I played with.

I also played Dungeon World and Ghost Lines, both of which I’d tried before and enjoyed. We’re getting to the end of Crowsmantle, but I don’t want to write about that until we finish it up.

I played in three sessions via Games on Demand
Urban Shadows: I backed the Kickstarter for this, but avoided reading it until the hard copy arrived. I loved what I saw and dug Mark Diaz Truman’s discussion of it on the +1 Forward podcast. Still I couldn’t quite grasp the game’s shape. Mark made a compelling case for the PvP aspects of it. But that’s pretty antithetical to my usual games. Playing in a one-shot gave me perspective. I saw how those tensions could work. We didn’t manage to fully engage with some of the mechanics, like Debts, but it worked. I can see how it would evolve and emerge over time.

Later Sherri and I talked more seriously about how we’d use Urban Shadows to do a Changeling the Lost campaign. We still love that setting. US isn’t really a World of Darkness-esque game. WoD tends to be internally driven, looking at the tensions within a particular community (even when you’re running cross-monster games). Urban Shadows has multiple factions working and vying for power, more like Dresden Files. I think it could work for CtL but would require some rethinking about how you define Seemings, Kiths, and Courts.

World Wide Wrestling: I’ve mentioned before my reversal on wrestling as a concept. I’m deep into Lucha Underground now. I enjoyed reading the WWW rules and had committed to running a session for friends. But I wasn’t entirely sure what play looked like. How much did the Creative work within matches? How did the control switch feel? What did commentary look like? Beyond being tremendous fun, this session answered all those questions. We had six players at the table and we probably could have handled a couple more. My character got eliminated from the tournament in the first round, but I didn’t care. I had a great time. You have play opportunities via off-screen moments, run-ins, and color commentary. Much fun. Playing this with a sharp GM allowed me to run a great session of WWW last night.

Side note: Both of these GMs, Marissa Kelly and Nathan Paoletta respectively, put out playbooks, had us do character creation, and then spun stories from that. I’m cool with improv and zero prep at home, but I’m not brave enough yet to approach a convention game cold. My fret-itude means I need a scenario ready. They did an awesome job.

Golden Sky Stories: Sunday morning we played this light, Miyazaki-esque game. You play Hengeyokai, animal people, living in a pastoral Japanese town. It avoids mechanics for violence, instead you focus on friendship and relations to give you the power to succeed. I had a great time and I think I want to run this locally now. We had a fifteen year old GM. I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but it bears repeating: I wish I’d been as good as GM as her when I was 15. She had things together, brought energy to the table, did her table prep, and seemed completely at ease running for a group of adults. Kind of amazing.

Magic Inc: I did two sessions of this. Despite the same scenario they ended up radically different. When I run at cons, my first session’s often the weakest. My nervousness and uncertainty get the best of me. I felt that way about this, despite having two players I’d played with before. I’ll put part of the blame on me and part on a weirdness at the table itself. For Games on Demand you list down two games on your menu. The first player to choose your table sets which of the two you’ll play. The hosts then put a large red X over the other. We had our fourth player arrive a little after we’d started, clearly distracted. We got twenty+ minutes into character creation for this game about low-level wage slaves in a supernatural corporation. At that point the fourth player looked up and said, “I thought this was a game about ninjas.” We had to explain we’d chosen the other game.

We rolled on, but it put me a little off balance. Magic, Inc’s a comedy game. Three of the players bought into and listened to the others. I try to run comedic games as straight as I can- putting absurdity out there with a straight face. And, I don’t know exactly how to put this, our fourth player was a little tone deaf. He’d drop a joke and then when he got no reaction from it, he repeated it again and again to salvage it. We got through the session, but I pedaled furiously to make it go faster. I cut corners in my nervousness and I could have done a much better job.

For my second session on Saturday evening I determined to facilitate better. We had a great table of four players, one of whom had been among my local group years before. That session was awesome. I can usually keep a straight face when I run, but here I absolutely lost it. It has no real meaning out of context, but when I turned back to the department’s salesperson and said, “OK so you have twelve Mars Bars painted yellow,” it blew up. The table literally laughed hard enough we brought the neighboring games to a halt. The receptionist player had to get up and walk away from the table to recover. It took me several minutes before I caught my breath. A good session and one of my favorites of the convention.

Side Note: I need to clip down some of the character creation options. Each character deck has some strengths & weaknesses, but those aren’t immediately obvious. I should have done basic skill picks, with a couple of extra ranks for players to distribute. That would cut the time. Alternately or additionally I need to provide a ranking for each deck. If it’s a strong physical deck I should mention that and how the other three areas rate. I could also cut some choices, just by one or two for the “Stunts” and “Keys”. That would slightly reduce time and put more weight on their picks. This is mostly an issue for Magic Inc, as I’ve made the NSV choices pretty tight.

Neo Shinobi Vendetta: I dug this session immensely. John Alexander had play
ed in my NSV scenario last year and given me great feedback. Most of the changes I’d made came from that (moving to action faster, card-based damage). I also got to run for Yoshi Creel, a great gamer I played with in the WWW and Urban Shadows sessions. An awesome trio from Canada rounded things out. Everyone got into their role, they came up with sharp plans, and they played up their awesomeness. They gave me the high-octane cyber-ninja session I’d hoped for and everyone had at least one signature moment that stuck with me.

Overall I really enjoyed Origins, much more so because Sherri went with me this time. We had a great line up of GMs and I had the opportunity to talk with some people I only knew through G+. I also have to give a major shout-out to Evan Torner who oversaw the Games on Demand scheduling. After my Thursday session he came over and asked how things went. He talked me down and made me feel better about it. I then monopolized his time further, making him tell me about some of the awesome academic work he’s doing. He filled me in on many aspects of European Westerns, especially a connection German connections I had no idea about. It was great learning things in addition to playing games. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Targets & Gauntlets: Non-Blog RPG Stuff

Here’s a quick rundown of non-blog RPG stuff I’ve done you might find interesting.

For our most recent Play on Target episode we talk about Villains. Rich Rogers joins us for this one. Good, solid villains present one of the toughest balancing acts at the table. Many games I’ve played had villains I hated: not because they did anything dangerous, not because they raised the stakes, but because the GM played them smug and omnipotent. That would be cool as a GM "choice," but it clearly wasn’t. Instead they knew the villain was cooler, smarter, and more awesome than the podunk PCs. That may be a worse Gary Sue-ism than the hyper-competent NPC. We had a Hunter the Reckoning game where the GM turned that smarmy character into an ally we couldn’t bring to task. And then a romantic interest for one of the PCs. Ugh…

For the record: there’s a place for the smug- when the players have an opportunity or chance to wipe that off their face.

I’m also thinking about a JRPG I hate-played recently: Rune Factory: Tides of Destiny. It has just a handful of dungeons. When you get to the end of them, there’s a masked figure who has gotten there ahead of you. Every time he breaks the sacred relic before you can stop him (in a cut-scene of course). This happens four times. His only dialogue consists of “You’re too late.” In the final fight, you face him again. This time he explains his plan: he’s going to destroy the world and he doesn’t have time to tell you why. You beat him; world saved.

You never get a name. You never get a motivation. You never get a backstory. You never get any kind of explanation whatsoever.

I played the game through thinking: "there’s got to be some kind of payoff..." Nope, only a minor cosmetic revelation you could see a mile away. But other than that, he was just a bad dude or creature or magical force (I don't know).


I had the chance to appear on The Gauntlet podcast. We talked about several topics, including GM-less play Monsterhearts. I covered both the challenges of running a Middle Earth campaign and my thinking when I put together Crowsmantle. There’s some great stuff on Battlestar World, which is the PbtA hack you’d imagine from that title. I’ll be curious to see how hidden role mechanics eventually come into it. Also, I talk briefly about my new love for Lucha Underground.

The Gauntlet also started a new video series, Super Friends. This episode talks about gaming things we’re looking forward to.

Finally, if you like PbtA games (and if you don’t, that’s cool) then you really ought to check out +1 Forward, Rich Rogers' new podcast for The Gauntlet. It’s a focused show, talking with a PbtA designer about their choices and how they run. So far he's spoken with Meguey Baker about Apocalypse World (2nd Edition), Mark Diaz Truman about Urban Shadows, and Stephanie Bryant about Threadbare. It literally is what I hoped for from a game-focused podcast. Amazing and great. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Action Cards: What the What?

I'm finishing up prep and printing for my two Origins Games on Demand options. Both use Action Cards, the game I'm most comfortable with. I've talked about that homebrew before; it's what I've used for most long-term campaigns in the last decade and a half. You can see a brief overview of it here, though some details have changed. I've been working on a full, complete version of the rules and I'm about 95% done with the rough text. I drew this post from that to act as a companion piece to the overview. I discuss the basics, how Fate fits with AC, and where it came from.

Action Cards is an rpg using individual character decks as a randomizer. Each deck is tailored to a particular character and contains with several unique cards. When you test for an action, you draw a card and check the results. Most cards have results across four categories, while others have special effects, offer choices, or allow you to narrate the results. Your decks can be marked up, modified, or gain new cards over the course of a campaign. It acts as unique dice for your character. It evolves and changes with play.

You have a character sheet to record skills, damage, aspects, and special abilities. Depending on how the GM sets things, this sheet can be minimal. You’ll also have tokens for fate points to spend and possibly dice for damage (depending on the options).
Action cards has two ways to create characters: standard and draft.

In basic character creation you get a deck twenty-four card deck. Six have results pre-written in in the four areas, common to all decks: Social, Physical, Combat, and Mental. Eight have blank results. You distribute ratings among these: Catastrophic, Bad, Just Missed, OK, Great, and Amazing. How many depends on the campaign. Next you have six special cards all decks share. Finally each deck has four blank cards. You’ll create unique cards for your character- one all-around positive, two mixed, and one bad. After assigning results to your deck, you’ll pick skills and stunts based on the setting.

For one shots or short campaigns, you can draft your decks. Everyone begins with a set of common result and special cards. You then draft additional result cards. In this process, you try to grab the best results for your character’s focus. You also draft two good and one bad unique cards to fill out you deck. Draft decks will usually be tailored to the genre and setting, with different effects and card titles. As above you finish out character creation by picking skills and stunts.

When making a test, the GM tells you the result needed to succeed and what kind of draw to make (i.e. a Great Physical pull). You draw and check if you’re happy with the result. If not you have the option to repull by using a relevant skill or invoking an aspect with a fate point. Alternately you can invoke that aspect to raise the result by one degree. You can use various means to redraw up to twice, but have to go with your final draw.

You usually reshuffle your deck after every couple of scenes and after every three rounds in combat. GMs can also call for a reshuffle if decks are getting low. You can spend a fate point to reshuffle at any time. The GM reshuffles their deck more frequently.

Many cards have catches or dramatic options on them. Unique cards may require you figure out how your action fits with the fiction. You always have the opportunity to control this narration, but the GM can also take it over if you get stuck.

When running an active opposition- mooks, bad guys, monsters, etc- the GM uses their own 32-card deck. It contains several unique cards, but mostly result cards broken into four categories representing quality: Average, Trained, Skilled, and Elite. NPCs fit overall in one of these categories. They’re further tuned with Skills (redraws), Qualities (+1 to the result for something specific), Aspects, and Stunts.

Action Cards works as toolkit. In a few places the GM or group decide how you’re going to handle things at the table (skills, damage). There’s a strong core, but plenty of ways to tweak what’s here. We’ve used variations for different kinds of campaigns. Small tweaks- like increasing to decreasing the time between reshuffles- can dramatically impact the tension.

We’ve used Action Cards for many different long running campaigns: a fantasy riff on Battlestar Galactica (The Last Fleet); multi-dimensional problem-solving (Ocean City Interface); steampunk fantasy school (Libri Vidicos); Cyber-Ninjas (Neo Shinobi Vendetta); dogfighting pilots (Sky Racers Unlimited); and standard fantasy (Sellsword Company, Masks of the Empire, Guards of Abashan, Relic Hunters) among others. We’ve adapted it other settings including Fallout, Glorantha, Legend of the Five Rings, Changeling the Lost, HALO, My Little Pony, and Star Wars. It’s also worked for one-shots from capers to superheroes sessions

Reading-- but not getting to play-- two games influenced me to put together Action Cards: Lace & Steel and Castle Falkenstein. The former has a card-driven dueling & repartee system. The latter uses playing cards for resolution. I’d also tried an early attempt at a CCG rpg, DragonStorm but the group didn’t like it. In the background I had my dissatisfaction with Rolemaster, Champions, GURPS, and my various homebrews, all of which I was still running. When I finally sat down to write up the game, I knew I wanted a few things:
  • Players would have their own decks. They’d be mostly the same, but have unique elements. We wouldn’t work from a shared deck.
  • They would be able to mark up, draw on, and change their cards. It would be yours and reflect both you and your character.
  • We’d keep the resolution simple, with basic success levels.
  • It would move fast and part of the fun would be in making choices based on card-counting.
Those elements have remained true throughout the various versions. We’ve bolted a ton of extra modules to Action Cards: action points & countdown initiative, combat styles, traits with global bumps, hit locations, weird deck manipulation, additional factors like mana on cards, wound levels, and more. And we’ve jettisoned those over time. Usually the changes have been to simplify elements. Some have added granularity (like our Damage options).

We started playing Action Cards in 1999, beginning with a swashbuckler mini-campaign done for a friend’s group, and then two modern urban fantasy campaigns. From there I kept refining, tuning, and changing the game to fit many different campaigns. In 2011-2012 I tried to play around with Strands of Fate. I’d read Spirit of the Century & Diaspora but I couldn’t figure them out. I missed something. But Strands, a game I ultimately didn’t like, finally gave me insight into Aspects. That idea fit with many things I’d been trying to do with Action Cards and took over for a whole range of messy mechanics. Eventually I brought over other elements: action types to establish a clear language, stress & consequences, a set skill list, and stunts as an organization system for feat-like things.

Why play Action Cards?
…if you like the idea of a card-based rpg.
…if you dig the concept of marking up cards Legacy-style.
…if you like Fate but hate the dice.
…if you’re intrigued by the thought of card-counting and push-your-luck in an rpg.
…if you want toolkit relatively easy to tweak to various genres.
…if you like goofing with new systems.

The beta version I'm finishing up is intended to get the basics down in one place for Action Cards after years of play and multiple iterations. I've added options throughout the book. It is a toolkit. All of that with terrible layout and minimal art! So far I’ve only included a few of the campaign frames, enough to give you a feel for how they operate. They’re also the ones I have draft deck versions available for. A full version will have more. Even more importantly the next version will include a discussion of how to adapt the idea of Action Cards to a more conventional Fate game. I hope that will serve the additional audiences of GMs who like reading new setting material and people who really dig Fate but want to tweak it.

  • Aspects: We embrace this idea. Characters have aspects and the players can use these to define actions, environments, and many other elements. You can invoke aspects for a bonus to a test or to add and element or effect to the fiction.
  • Fate Points: In game also gives PCs fate points which they can use invoke aspects, power certain stunts, and a few other tricks. The GM have a pool to use for adversaries within a scene. A character’s fate points reset to their “refresh” at the beginning of most sessions. In play, characters can gain fate points by accepting complications and compels, often based on their trouble aspect.
  • Skills: As in Fate, skills define a character’s expertise. Different Action Cards frames will have different skill lists, but generally aim for about 20-24 skills to cover the genre.
  • Stunts: We call special powers and abilities stunts and generally follow Fate’s pattern for these. They’re listed under affiliated skills.
  • Action Types: We use Fate’s four basic actions (Create Advantage, Overcome, Attack, and Defend). We add a fifth, Discover, which can be seen as a tweak of Create Advantage.
  • Success Ladder: Like Fate, we use descriptor words for success and failure levels. Action Cards actually invests more heavily in that, skipping most numbers in favor of descriptors.
  • General Approach: Action Cards shares Fate’s general approach: collaborative creation, success with costs, looser conflict resolution.
You’ll see other bits and pieces as well. We draw from the Fate SRD so several major concepts.

  • Cards: That’s pretty obvious. There’s the Deck of Fate, but Action Cards operates differently with each player using a unique and tuned deck. The cards act as an individual randomizer. It also varies from many other card-driven games in that there’s no hand-management.
  • Card Counting: You don’t reshuffle after every draw. Let’s say there’s a “Moment of Glory” card still in the deck. You got a decent result, but could do better. Do you use a skill to keep drawing? This might seem like a meta-distraction but it adds tension and choice in play.
  • General Attributes: While it doesn’t exactly function the same way, the results for the four areas (Combat, Social, Physical, Mental) can be imagined as conventional “stats” from other games. That’s complicated by the presence of other cards in the deck, but you can picture it that way.
  • Skills: Fate Core focuses on skills. They shape and define a character’s abilities. All tasks fall back to these. In Action Cards skills become more a bump or add-on. Skills allow redraws from the raw results of the cards.
  • Loose Skills: In Fate a skill has a solid definition of what you use it for. For example, you buy a stunt to use a skill in a new context. Action Cards operates more loosely: if you can justify it, you can use it. We do have parallel stunts which allow you to draw another category for an action type, i.e. Mental for Defenses.
  • Decoupling Refresh and Stunts: Fate points aren’t connected to stunt limits. We use other mechanics to control these. Generally it means characters will have more stunts and can even choose to focus on that over skills or developing their deck.
  • Granular Advancement: The system doesn’t use milestones. Instead players spend experience to buy things. WAIT! DON’T RUN AWAY. It has worked for us. Players buy up results on their cards, write in “edges,” purchase skills, acquire new stunts & powers, add new cards to their deck. That supports one of the most important parts of this game…
  • Ownership: Players mark up and own their deck. They cross out, erase, and scribble on these cards. It might sound odd, but our players have dug this- even more than doodling on their character sheet. Edges, result buy-ups, and unique cards all make a deck feel like your character. You learn and appreciate other player’s decks over time. You can add different color inks, stickers, and card sleeves to this. If you’re doing a Print-and-Play version, you can tailor the cards even further.
  • Stress & Condition Cards: Action Cards uses a granular stress system. Boxes on a stress track are one-for-one. Rather than consequences, players can reduce damage taken via condition cards. These go into your deck and clog it up.
  • Damage: Rather than margin of success for damage, Action Cards offers two options. The first uses the cards themselves and the second requires dice. Both offer more granularity. Using dice for damage seems weird, and my only justification for offering this is that players like rolling damage.
So that's the basics. I hope to have a "beta" document (plus deck files) up on DriveThru in the next couple of months (before Gen Con I hope). I'm not under any illusions this is the greatest rpg out there. But it is the system I've tuned to my GMing style. At the same time, I've seen other GMs successfully tweak it to their approach. I want to put together a version for interested gamers which they can run or borrow ideas from for their own games.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Home Is Where The Sword Is: Factions & Communities in RPGs

Another archive post? Shocking! Why would I do such a thing? Because of my prep for Origins where I’ll be running Neo-Shinobi Vendetta and/or Magic,Inc. With that plug out of the way, let me explain why I picked this post.

...Because I’ve got a campaign or maybe just a game in my head. I’m not sure how you'd do it or its full shape. Some of this comes from a post I read on superhero domains, some from the Green Law of Varkith, and some from flipping through James Iles’ Legacy: Life Among the Ruins. For this I imagine a huge fantasy city, something like Abashan, Nochet, or Waterdeep. The players each run a faction within it. Those factions have a character sheet (or playbook) as well as a “face” acting as the player’s avatar. If we went with the classics you could run a merchant faction, an element of the nobility, thieves guild, military power, independent bureaucracy, city watch, sorcerer cabal, or other interest-unified gathering (ethnicity, profession, other).

So that's pretty close to Varkith, which has a Planescape-like faction system, but there the players have a shared faction (which makes sense). I’d like something that encourages individual interests and agendas: closer to Urban Shadows. The player factions compete against each other and NPC factions for influence, power, and their particular desires. But there’s an additional semi-cooperative element to this. They also have to deal with threats to the city as a whole from conspiracies, ancient evils, and potentially occupying forces.

I’m pretty sure I’m reinventing the wheel here. I haven’t looked around to see what new tools and games are available to handle this. Kingdom comes to mind, one of my favorite games. But that has almost too much abstraction. I want the factions as an element players can advance and develop. Legacy has a lot of this but doesn’t quite click for me; I’m not sure why. I need to play it to grok what's going on there. (It also occurs to me this whole thing- or rather some stripped down version- could be a fun way to do a game about the different Houses from Ars Magica. So another tangent...)

Anyway, that’s why I dug up this old piece. It is out of date. As before I’m leaving this 2010 post unedited and painfully overwritten.

I like building games-- that is, I like games where the PCs build a place for themselves. That might be literal in the case of establishing a fortress outpost, or abstract in the sense of creating a fellowship. My campaigns repeat some themes and structures; building alliances and communities comes up often. At the climax, the players can win by bring together their allies. The PCs remain central, but their earlier choices and effort allows them to exert the influence over a wide range. They go from simply winning to winning big.

Accordingly I have a fondness for games which provide mechanics for actions and ideas at that larger scale. Even though I'm a mechanics-lite person, I love rules and systems. I scour games for how they handle these ideas. Usually games which have these rules follow at least one of three structures: 
  • Rules for building communities which serve as a background element-- but have a mechanical effect.
  • Rules for players controlling groups as leaders (nations, armies, bands, companies, cults, organizations, etc)
  • Rules for playing those organizations as a form of “player-character” 
Below I present a few games that have such mechanics. I've only mentioned one military campaign specific book below. Usually I find that while those supplements have battle and resolution mechanics, they leave off interesting stuff about recruitment, day-to-day life, logistics and such.

Any input or suggestions for things I've missed is appreciated.

I'm sure a number of d20 supplements provide rules for handling the creation and maintenance of a military or mercenary company, but I'll point to just this one as an example. The game assumes that the players will take the role of officers and members of a company. That's more a factor inherent in the setting and campaign ideas than in the mechanics presented. The system does provide some rules for recruitment, supply, company structure and the hazards of war (like disease running amok in the camp). That actually takes up a rather slight section of the book. Instead it focuses more on handling warfare at several scales and providing the color and grit a GM needs to convey the idea of a military unit-based game. This served as the inspiration for my own Planescape game. In that case they had two characters each and we spent some time during sessions thinking about recruitment, divisions and organization.

John Wick returns to the samurai genre (having written Legend of the Five Rings) with this adaptation of his Houses of the Blooded system. Groups begin first by creating a clan for themselves, a collaborative process. They define the daimyo, holdings, aspects and so on of their clan. This in turn shapes bonuses and options for the PCs. It is a pretty simple and abstract system, but I can imagine porting to other games and developing it further. One of the key features for the game is that the players make up important people in the clan-- not the typical ho-hum samurai assigned to guarding a grain transport. PCs might be military advisors to the clan, oversee the secret informers, or manage the estates and holdings. From the beginning, the players invest in the community of their clan through ownership and participation.

The game functions in stories told per season. Each season the daimyo decides on season actions which can have effects on the clan as a whole-- increasing resources, involvement in political intrigue, preparation for war, and so on. Officers of the clan also gain season actions. As the clan expands they gain more possible actions. This system has a number of abstract sub-systems, including the role of warfare. I like that the players have a say in moving the course of their community. The system and mechanics presented here are abstract-- more of a framework. Groups desiring more crunch or detail could easily add to this. I think its a strong starting point for GMs thinking of how to handle these issues.

In Ars Magica, the players serve as members of Covenants, essentially magical households. The rules provide mechanics for how the household is set up, what kinds of resources it provides, the character and tenor of activity and so on. The center of most campaigns will be on the lives of these communities-- carving them out, developing them, setting an agenda and so on. Each Covenant is in a “season,” describing how vital they are. A “Spring” covenant has life, youth and idealism, while an “Autumn” covenant has begun to decay and becomes set in its ways. The game provide for interactions between various covenants at regional gatherings and Tribunals, but the play focuses on the building game magical life.

An ambitious failure as an rpg, in Aria the players played nations, cultures and communities over time. Or at least they could-- that was supposed to the the intent of game. But reading through you might find that hard to discover. Aria came in two books Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth and Aria: Worlds. The main book supplies a dense and over-written basic fantasy rpg, with some suggestions on how you might run characters across several generations. These ideas seem sketchy at best. When I say over-written, I mean it. Every single game term and idea which could be given an obscure and pretentious name, has been. The basic book is huge (500+ pages) for the little you actually get.

The second book of the pair, Aria Worlds has mechanics for how to create a culture. Even with that as the focus of the whole book, the options feel pretty minimal. As a resources book for world-building, it might be useful. As a game to actually play out the interactions and history of those nations in a campaign...I'm sorry “Canticle”...it doesn't hold together well.

I'm still working through Reign but at heart it seems to do everything I'm interested in for handling groups and communities in games. The system works with the generic idea of “companies” across levels. To handle those it presents a set of rules which can be adapted to many games. Companies-- from religious cults to cities to business franchises to mercenary groups-- have stats and options. Player-level characters can interact and affect these companies. Companies can even battle one another in an abstract fashion. The focus of the game can easily shift— depending on whether the players are interested in their own actions within the company or more the meta-level groups interacting. I'm going to steer away from saying too much about this as I haven't had a chance to really wrestle with the mechanics. Those who have used it seemed really pleased, so I suspect it has systems which can be ported.

One of the lost settings of TSR, this one never caught on little the others did. I suspect because the game itself was most concept than actual setting. Few but the most die-hard could actually describe the details of the world of Aebrynis. I will admit I have some fondness for one area, described in Cities of the Sun, Khinasi a North African analogue.

The key concept behind the Birthright lay in players becoming regents of areas-- with each area having a powerful bloodline magic which could be captured and used. Those powers ran from the personal to the regional level. This power, called Regency, separated the PCs and potent NPCs from the population. The game included a system for expanding control, for actions on a multi-month scale which mirrored the standard combat actions, for grand scale warfare and for rulership. The emphasis lay on military considerations, but various expansions and optional modules added more to statecraft and commanding a community. Later supplements expanded the kinds of societies and ruler roles used. The setting has some great ideas, but with real military bent (supplements included army cards, battlefield templates and the like). It felt a little like someone had crossed Divine Right with AD&D. The setting also never really managed to sell to players exactly how a group would operate-- would they all be kings? What would the modules be like? A rich and interesting failure.

This Ghostbusters-inspired rpg handles the idea of community very loosely, In this case, it is the franchise which the players manage and run. But that company earns its keep by fighting against the supernatural. Mechanically each franchise has three aspects (Gym, Library and Credit Cards). Dice get divided among these and they can be called on during the game as a resource. The tension arises from the players trying to build up those dice and fighting against their depletion. If the players run out of dice, they're forced to take a bank loan of more dice. You end up with a light framing system for a fairly abstract game.

The second edition of HeroQuest converted the game to a generic version. However some of the roots of its Gloranthan past can be seen (beyond the bit of setting material in the back of the book). Glorantha as a setting focuses on groups and communities-- they essentially define the characters and often provide the frame for campaigns (especially for Orlanthi or Sartar games). Even characters outside of conventional kinship or other groups have themselves defined by that break. The Humakti Deathlord is a dangerous outsider not only because of his god, but because he has split from the ties and support that help explain a person.

HeroQuest abstracts many aspects. The system for community construction has some nice details which make it portable over to other games. Each community is defined by a set of abilities (Wealth, Military, Artistic Merit, etc). The players or group may set these aspects at the beginning of the campaign and assign them values. The abilities then provide a resource the players may draw upon to aid them in the course of their adventures. They have to be careful not to deplete or squander them, as there are consequences. The rules have guidelines for crisis tests, bolstering community resources and other factors. All in all it presents a decent (and simple) set of rules for GMs who want communities (of many types) as a presence in their games but don't want a lot of book-keeping.

Weapons of the Gods has two approaches linking players to communities. On the one hand, WotG “monetizes the setting” to use Ken Hite's description for it. During character creation (and later) players can buy themselves destiny connections with various groups, ideals, organizations, cults, and so on. At the lowest level you're a member or have friends in something-- or even perhaps a rival or enemy. At higher levels your destiny is tied in with the story of that group. In a sense you can buy into the plots, stories and backgrounds of the setting. In many cases this provides a measure of community connection and support. As executed it is both a fascinating mechanism and obscurely presented mechanic. I had to have Hite give me perspective on how it worked to get what was happening in the rules.

On the other hand, WoTG provides a system for grand-scale actions and play called The Great Game. This shows up in the Weapons ofthe Gods Companion. The system can be used to work out wars, but includes a component for shaping the destinies of regions, groups and kingdoms. Players can increase resources, set agendas, and play out diplomatic conflict-- though abstractly. The system assumes player management of a group or order-- such as a bandit rebellion ala The Water Margin. But it could also be played out as a tool for figuring out large-scale events in the game world.

This is an interesting supplement for Runequest II, Mongoose Publishing's revision of the RQ system. The new version of the Empires supplement seems to roll together information and ideas from the earlier Empires and Guilds, Factions &Cults supplements. I've looked at the previews and some reviews for this, and it is on my list of things to pick up in the future. Empires strives to provide rules for handling three levels. First, the rules can be used so that abstractly players play nations or groups as characters. That's a pretty ambitious project as we saw before with Aria. The rules suggest this might be done as a backdrop or meta-game for a campaign. That's an intriguing idea. I can imagine almost having a Play-By-Email or Forum game going on while the standard fantasy campaign would be happening. Events from that might trickle down to the players-- it might be a nice thing to combine with a mercenary company campaign frame...hmm...

The second level provides rules for characters who manage organizations and estates. They're given a framework and system for resolving affairs, dealing with conflicts and managing events. So I'd assume this would be more for later settled characters-- though again I can imagine an interesting campaign frame coming from this. Perhaps a Gormenghastian household of dueling administrators, seneshals, and butlers. The characters could band together to chart the course of the castle's affairs against rivals. The third level gives rules for building groups and organizations-- which seems to be what it takes from the earlier Guids, Factions, and Cults. I like the idea of players being given access to these kinds of tools and letting them chart the course. This uses Basic Role-Playing but I'm assuming could be easily and generally adapted elsewhere.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Maps of the Games: Conceptual Differences in Play

Once again I rifle through the tombs to resurrect an old post. Why? Because I'm going to Origins next week which apparently I can't stop mentioning. Today I picked an old meta-rambling essay on the split between GM Vision and Player Experience. I ran last night and did a weaker job of offering the players signposts. I rushed things along, didn't pause to refresh & set the scene, and gave give them too little info and space to figure out the stakes and goals. It ended up with a session that had some good moments but overall wasn't as strong as it could be. Most of that's me pushing, but some of that's my continuing learning process with PbtA GM Moves as well as the challenges of running online vs. my usual f2f. I'm still working on figuring that out- especially for action & conflict sequences as we had last night. 

As before I'm leaving this "reprint" post from 2009 intact and relatively unedited. I haven't put in headings to alleviate the 'wall of text.' I need to go back and revise it in light of the last several years, but that’ll wait for another day. 

Maps, Maps, Maps
I love maps, as I may have mentioned before. I still have the world atlas I received in grade school. We got National Geographic for many years-- but I hardly read the articles. Instead I'd look at the maps. If they had a nice big pull out map I'd be happy. I'd check fantasy novels to see if they had maps-- part of what drove me to read the John Carter novels even though they were pretty bad. I recall fondly the Hyborean maps of Conan, the strange metaphorical roadmap of The Phantom Tollbooth, and even a strange sketch map of Yoknapatawpha County from Faulkner. My mom loved Faulkner and we had a prized set of paperbacks of his books in the front room as long as I could remember.

I had an Atlas of Fantasy for as long as I could remember-- I bought it I think two or three different times. My sister got a map of Middle Earth in a frame as a gift from a friend-- that person had hand drawn it from references. I remember a child's version of A Pilgrim's Progress, which I didn't understand, but loved for the bizarre map. Of course various games had great maps-- I hated TSR's method of hex mapping which made everything ugly and cluttered. I think if I'd had some mind to it, I might have done geography or cartography as a pursuit-- but I've never been able to draw very well and I didn't understand the field of geography could have larger social implications until much later.

I'm not one for meditation or formal exercises, but I will admits I have one trick I fall back on when I'm trying to relax, fall asleep, or pass time. I usually do a visualization exercise for some place I've been. I had a paper route for several years and I used to be able to chart in my mind not just that route, but also the layout of all of the houses on those blocks. Generally, I'll try to imagine myself walking in a particular building, home or area-- trying to get the general spatial relations in my head. The details aren't as important as the larger context of the space itself. I think that's part of why I have some affection for Las Vegas-- all of the buildings there have a strange enormous configuration. They baffled me even as I went around them and they form a labyrinth in my mind-- I can't quite fit all of the connections together.

Anyway, this relates to some things I've been thinking about in terms of rpgs. Kaiju picked me up a book from my wishlist called Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. He hits on a number of topics-- structure, intention, visualization, interaction for example-- and their relation to a narrative. I think the most obvious and interesting point of his discussion is that we each draw vastly different maps of experiences. I can't lay claim to any real grasp of Literary Criticism theory, but I am familiar with the basic idea of one approach called Reader Response. Stanley Fish wrote the the seminal book in this theory Is There a Text in this Class? He suggests that each reader interprets the experience of a text (in the broadest sense) differently, and that those readings derive from membership in “interpretive communities.” I don't know about the later, but the idea of the former and focusing some analysis on those varying readings strikes me as worth following up on.

The bottom line here being: each player in an rpg ends up with a very personal sense and reading of the course and form of a game. Yet at the same time, they're directly interacting with both the authority and creator of that text, in the form of the gamemaster, and with competing interpretive communities, in the form of other players. In this case I'm not talking about the discussion and back and forth between players about what to do next, the solution to a problem, or combat tactics. Rather the meta and often unstated sense of how a game text appears in one's mind, especially in retrospect-- who is the main character, what are the themes, what is the dramatic pattern...the bigger questions.

In some ways, the most interesting things arise from misreadings-- in the sense that the GM provides an incomplete text. It has to be incomplete by virtue of the player character's having their own volition. The GM cannot know with certainty how the players will react. Misreadings, contradictions, the unexpected, changes, all of these are juncture points between the texts, or maps, in the GM's mind and the player's. In some ways it would be interesting to have players write some kind of game summary mid-stream-- but I'm not sure that would really delve into things. We're too aware of the conventions of the back of a book cover-- unless perhaps you had them write that up with the idea that the book would actually be centered around their character. That might be a useful exercise.

But to circle around to my main point-- differing perceptions and expectations. I think the imaginings and visualizations of a game text vary strongly between players-- even in terms of what the map depicts. You could chart of map of the journey of the game chronologically, from beginning to end. Or you might focus on the geography of a place. Or on the interactions of plots. Or on the relations of people. Of course, I don't think players see things in these literal forms, but I do think they have a kind of perception that shapes their behavior, reactions and even how they look back on things which have happened before in the game.

And I think some player displeasure arises when the map they have in their head doesn't match up with the incidents at the table. Again we hit on expectations. There's the unusual stage here in that the GM is describing a world the players have no real experience with-- their interactions are colored heavily by the GM's words and their own expectations. There are exceptions-- obviously if you're running in an established setting (a historical period, a set and known fantasy universe, a real world place) then the player draws on some of that knowledge and the GM can make some assumptions about what the player knows. But that can also be a bad thing, especially if the GM's making changes-- at what point does the player's knowledge break down?

There also the case of players having played within a particular campaign world before-- since I've run quite a bit in the same setting, I've seen this. How do you balance the knowledge and mental maps of previous players with those of new players? Or even more to the point-- I'm sure players come into my games generally with a picture of the play and structure of my game. I know when I play with a new GM OOH, I'm trying to get a sense of his play style-- what are the limits? What's the theme? Is there a theme? Should I pencil in this place, this point or event on my mental map-- is it a signpost or is it just a throwaway thing? I'm trying to assay the geography of the game...to survey the realm of play.

Now, I want to tie that into something the rpg writer Robin Laws said on his LJ yesterday. He was talking about Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane character, and his divided self. And I apologize for the extensive quotation, but I think it is worth it:
Kane is an interesting iconic hero in that Howard repeatedly describes him as having a dual nature. The exact meaning of this split drifts a little from story to story. To the extent that he examines his actions at all, he believes himself to be a simple man obedient to Puritan virtues. His true nature, explains the omniscient narrator, is a reckless, obsessive pursuer of adventure. This notion of the divided self is a surprisingly sophisticated one for a blood and thunder pulp hero.
On first thought, this seemed to me to be something we don’t often see in roleplaying. People create simple characters and attempt to stick to a clear conception of what they will and won’t do. But in fact we see it all the time—though rarely intentionally. Players often describe their PCs as having one set of motivations, and perceive them according to the assertions they make about them. Yet to the GM and everyone else at the table, who see only the character’s actions, the PC appears to be quite a different person. Most often, the self-conception is nobler than the actuality.

You could look at this as a bug: the player isn’t living up to the markers he set down when creating the character. In practice, though, it adds layers, and thus reality, to the character. He becomes as complicated and self-contradictory as a real person.

This dynamic, in which an unconscious tension between the author’s intention and result adds interest to the story, may be unique to roleplaying. Kane’s divided self because Howard meant to make him that way. In fiction an author’s lack of insight into his characters never ends well.

I think one thing to consider then, is the road map we as players give to the other players and to the GM. The difference between how we picture the character in our mind versus how they actually appear to other players. I had a problem with this in one of Derek's games, where I had a conception in my head, but my play and communication with the others didn't match this. I recall Barry's character Basho, and that of a few others in the past, where their characters did things, adopted attitudes, and spoke in ways that I could only read as being deliberately obnoxious, stupidly over angsty, petulant and so on. However, in talking with the players, it became clear that they didn't self-describe themselves as this. But more importantly, they didn't read that behavior as coming off like that. I think that's a difficult and important job for the GM-- trying to get a sense of how a character pictures themselves and then reconciling that with how they actually play at the table.