Friday, June 25, 2010

On Imaginary Books I Want (as a GM)

Couple of miscellaneous notes:

*Legends of the Guard #2 came out Wednesday with the story by Gene and I. There's an interview with Gene and I on David Peterson's blog as well. I haven't actually seen the comic as the shop was sold out-- I'm hoping they'll have copies back in next week. Anyway, buy a copy if you see it.

*Last weekend I had the opportunity to sit down and play Action Cards for the first time. I've been running it for about ten years, but hadn't yet played it. In the back of my mind I had still been thinking that my players were humoring me by claiming to like the system. But I can say that I really enjoyed it. Kenny's doing some great stuff with the tools and I'm more excited about the Halo Universe setting than I thought I would be.

On Imaginary Books I Want
I mentioned before that I read with an eye towards game applications. I have a number of pet topics in the back of my mind. Usually that relates to some concept I'm considering in a campaign or story. I'm always interested in history, but usually social, cultural or even economic-- material I think I can actually bring into play at the table. Or perhaps another way, material which I can use to color the atmosphere with passing references. Right now I have games that span several cultural and technological levels, so I look at things from the Ancient World up through Victoriana (for the Steampunk stuff). So a few things I'm hunting for right now.

In my last post I mentioned my dissatisfaction with Niall Ferguson's The Ascent of Money. I found another book that, at least early on, seems to be more suited to my desire to see a decent history of economics and trade in history-- William Bernstein's A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World. It is about 400 pages long, and we don't even get to the 20th Century until the last fifty page-- so yes, right on the money for what I want. I'm about a third of the way in at this point and I've learned quite a bit with some eye towards applications for world building.

I'd like to find another good book on how history (and even general social sciences) were done in the past. I've read Ernst Breisach's Historiography and a couple of others, but I'm wondering if there's another and better synthesis of these ideas. Most of the books I've looked at do a wide ranging survey, I guess I'd like to see something which examines a specific period, like the Ancient World, the Dark Ages or even the Early Modern World. How and why was history recorded in these periods, how was it viewed, what uses was it put to? Not to give too much away, but this relates to a concept I've been thinking about for a long time-- a fantastic setting with competing historians battling for control by retelling and revising the stories of the past. As an example, think of people telling different stories about the fall of Sauron in Middle Earth to gain both a political and magical advantage.

On a related note, I've been hunting for a number of years for a good resource for non-Western Historiography. Just about everything I have focuses on Europe and later America. But how was history treated in the Middle East? Byzantium? Japan? India? China? 18/19th century Latin America for that matter. I have a little sense of that in the case of China based on the great historical novels, Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but in some ways that feels like only knowing how history is treated by reading the Aeneid and the Iliad. I'd like a good overview of this field, perhaps with some sense of comparison with Western methods. And I'd prefer something that doesn't get into 20th Century developments as I don't really want to get into the complexities of post-Colonial social sciences.

I have a number of books on Ancient Rome, including some odd-ball academic texts. One of these is Robert Turcan's Cults of the Roman Empire. It actually deals more with the invasion and syncretism of outside cults into the Roman Empire in the later period. While that's interesting, it gives me a little less sense than I'd like as to how the classic gods we associate with Rome were actually worshiped. I'd like to find a book particularly on that topic. As much as anything, I'd like a sense of the rituals and the evolution of rituals. In that regard a book that had a kind of history of ritual and ritual development in the Ancient World as a whole would be really good. Some of this comes from my desire to run a Rome game. On the one hand I'd like to do something like Cthulhu Invictus and on the other hand, maybe a kind of Hellboy, Conspiracy X or LXG set there would also work. I also have a really good idea for how to do a more fantastic version, but I want to come back to that in a later post when I discuss some of John Wick's recent rpg material.

I really enjoyed Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror- though it has been a while since I read it. I heard it suggested that people perhaps invested a little too heavily in it as a source of parallels for present times. In any case, what I'd really like is a book which provides a good, on the ground look at life in the Renaissance, but for a variety of places not just Italy. Part of what I'm looking for is a good comparative look at the cultural and social history of the Early Modern world and a sense of the interactions between the various groups. I'll admit to being lost when it comes to the status and breakdowns of the German states of that period. I'm not as interested in military or religious history there as I am in intellectual and everyday living details.

I have a really interesting book by Jacques Barzun that I work through from time to time, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. It reminds me of my other favorite history book, The Birth of the Modern by Paul Johnson. I want some books like that but for other places and periods. Particularly I want a good cultural history of Latin America from the 17th to the 19th Century. I'd like something like that for China as well (or for Asia or another Asian region for that matter).

I'd like to find a good and comparative history of cities. I have a couple of those “Life in...” books, but I'd like to see something that provides a kind of cross section look at urban development. What systems arose in the earliest cities? How did those transform over time? How did different cultural, economic and environmental forces affect the development of urban centers in different places. I'm a big fan of urban settings in my rpgs and so I'd like something that has some color to it to perhaps provide some alternate models or cities or at least provide some supporting logic for world creation.

Anyway-- reading suggestions are welcome.

Next books I'm actually planning on picking up: Occult America; Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History; Ackroyd's The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling; and maybe The Warcraft Civilization: Social Science in a Virtual World.

Current favorite song as well: “Spaceman” by The Killers.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Selections from a GM's Recent Reading

Sidebar: A couple of quick points to follow up from my last post about Playing Chicken with the GM. To answer a comment Kenny made to me-- the post wasn't done in reaction to anything which just happened in the games. I've had that topic in the back of my mind and finally got around to sketching out some of the difficulties. The terminology we use potentially obscures the topic. For example, we could describe the act of “Playing Chicken” as the player 'challenging' the GM. However I think that gives the impression of a different kind of relationship at the table, with the GM as a controlling power-holder. I've been in those games, but in recent years those have become fewer. I guess there's something to be said for trying to evaluate and judge a legitimate versus and illegitimate challenge: in less technical terms, whether someone is being a d*ck or if they have a legitimate grievance.

I think the topic's a potentially useful one-- but also one fraught with some risks. Looking too hard at this can lead to over-analysis or invite recriminations. Most gamemastering guides have some discussion of the group and social dynamic-- with the common approach being to break players and gamemasters into types. But I wonder what a serious social analysis of the tabletop role-play dynamic would be if executed over time. How would you define that kind of study? Through thick description? Through language or expression analysis? Self-reporting? Would you compare rw interactions to those of the table-top? What comparisons between groups? In some ways I'm not sure if the analysis would be more psychological, anthropological, or sociological.

Me, I just want some tools to help me recognize and deal with problems at the table before they get out of hand.

I have to admit that even when I read for pleasure, I tend to be looking for elements or ideas which I can incorporate into games or other forms of storytelling. Imagine it as a kind of purpose-driven reading. With that in mind, here are some things I'm working through:

As I mentioned before (I think) I've started back into Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves. I've read it before and even on the second read through I find it manages to create a real sense of dread for me. He has a lot of tricks going on the book, mostly meta-textual, but the work holds together. One of the details that strikes me is that it is a 'horror' novel which works on several levels-- a work about a work about a work. Yet he keeps you twisted and lost about your emotional investment in the levels. I think there's perhaps some lesson to be drawn from that about maintaining atmosphere at the table: where we play in another story and try to elicit vicarious emotions through that. I don't know what the lesson is yet.

I also picked up and started reading a coy of Boy's Life by Robert McCammon (my sister left a copy here when she visited). There's a real King/Straub vibe in it, but a little more distance than in those authors. At first I was pretty sure it wold be a conventional aping of King's style, but then there's the moment when the neighborhood boys develop wings and fly around. I don't know what to make of it. On the one hand, I like a kind of magical realist approach to things. On the other hand, the story hasn't pulled me through enough-- it feels like a series of anecdotes. Also, as with King, Straub and some other authors, there's a nostalgia for a period of time growing up in America that I really can't connect with. I grew up in the 1970's and I'd rather see a fictional work which considers that experience. Or at least which has details I can bring to bear on a game.

Then again, I keep reading these Falco mysteries set in Ancient Rome. I've been working on a couple which I picked up but hadn't yet finished, The Accusers and Venus in Bronze. Next month the Falco Companion, an encyclopedia to the series, will be coming out. I'm pretty excited by that. I still want to do an ancient Rome game and I think I finally have a hook to hang that on-- but I'll come back to that. The thing I appreciate about the books is that they do have strong detail without being to melodramatic like some of the other historical mystery books. I know the details and plots from those I'll easily be able to lift and transform for games.

Related to that is A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome by Alberto Angela. I won't say it is the deepest historical analysis, but the author provides a real ground-level view of what living in ancient Rome would be like. I'd love to see more material like that (like perhaps some Renaissance period places). It has a kind of pop style to it, and he switches to anachronistic observations from time to time, but overall I'd say this is an excellent resource for anyone running a game set in this period (or in any like period). I need to find and consult with a historian about a couple of ideas this brought up.

I'm also just about done with Niall Ferguson's The Ascent of Money. Unfortunately I read this while grilling the other night and left it out in the rain. It remains readable, but I'll have to throw it away when I'm done. Not that I'm entirely adverse to that. I think I'd tried one of Ferguson's earlier books, but I can't recall anything about it. My hope, and certainly one reinforced by the back cover and a quick flip through, would be that this book would be a nice, comprehensive history of money, wealth and financial instruments. I'm always curious about those issues and how I can place them in the backgrounds of my games-- more as a passing detail than anything else. At the same time when I am doing world or nation building, I don't want to be too exact on details but I also want it to have some logical consistency. Unfortunately The Ascent of Money ends up being pretty cursory about the history-- passing anecdotes and quick overviews on the way to making assertions about the modern world. Feh. Not so useful to me.

I'm also disappointed with the Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies. Mind you that's one of those Barnes & Noble press bargain books. I'd hoped for more, but it does show the general banality of conspiracy and secret holdings in the real world. The Illuminatus it is not, nor even Foucault's Pendulum. I'm more hopeful about the Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs and Symbols-- though that may turn out to be banal as well. Still, it might prove useful for the Scion campaign or for the Changeling game. The latter is built on a set of ideas about symbolism and a relation to strangeness.

I've also started reading a John Bellairs anthology I found at Goodwill. I'd always seen The House with a Clock in its Walls in bookstores growing up, but I never read it (or either of the two succeeding young adult novels). I recall seeing a brief snippet adaptation of it on a CBS Saturday Morning reading show-- but that was a teaser to get you to read the book. In any case, I'm working on it now and enjoying it-- a nice set of details for modern games. Strangely I'd always had an imagined story in my head about the plot of the book-- which actually influenced some of the plots in the current Changeling game. I'd also never put together that Bellairs wrote this and one of my favorite fantasy novels The Face in the Frost. All of which are fertile and useful things for GMs who use magic in their games.

Lastly and full circle to my point at the start, I've been re-reading The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense. It was also at Goodwill for a buck and so I picked it up. Generally Haden-Elgin's work is OK-- providing verbal pattern illustrations-- but has a kind of narrow application. It also seems like the examples provided lack any real subtlety. I'm going to track down some of the supplemental volumes to see if they might give some further insight.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Playing Chicken

So just a couple of things as I transition into some other topics and away from more Star Wars stuff. Some rough thoughts.

So over the years in tabletop games I've seen players “Play Chicken” with the GM. By this I mean the player does something that dares the GM to bring down ultimate sanction: killing the PC, killing other PCs, or causing some other kind of shift which can't be recovered from. In some cases it comes from the GM pushing the player into a corner such that they have only one reasonable and/or survivable way out. And the player reacts in another way. In some cases it is more of a mental reaction by the player to the situation: they have options but something has made them only see bad ones. It can be a meta-issue where a player has decided to act out, wants to disrupt the game, or punish other players.

So the situation comes up and the player pushes forward, leaving the GM with few good options. Depending on the situation The GM can kill the player which can cause ill-will, especially if the player seems to have made the situation personal. It may be that the player is looking for an excuse to quit-- and wants to seem the winner. If the game's a long term or deep one, killing a PC may cause huge pain for the GM, forcing the GM to rework many threads. The player may be counting a little on that. Depending on the social dynamic of the table, killing the player in that situation may create resentment for the other players.

Sidebar: I've said this before, but generally my feeling about PC deaths is that I want them fall into one of two types. First, killing the PC at a dramatically appropriate moment. That means the climax of the story or when the character has is striving to settle a major character detail or making a sacrifice for something they've invested in. Second, if the player(s) have walked into a situation with eyes wide open. They've made their choices voluntarily to go to this place and do this thing. There should be no sense that I as a GM have railroaded them. I've they've freely and of their own will, without my pressure, decided to tangle with something, well then the gloves ought to be off.

I do think there are other reasonable options for the GM, but sometimes those can breed even more resentment, unless the player agrees with the logic of something. Crippling or loss of resources can upset a player just as badly as death, so a GM has to be careful. My druthers is for non-lethal consequences. (end Sidebar)

The whole playing chicken situation becomes more problematic if the player is actually risking consequences for the group as a whole. I've often found that bad players will make these kinds of calculated moves, figuring that the GM will give in to their decisions rather than penalizing the group as a whole. And I'll admit I'm fairly vulnerable to that kind of hostage taking. I've run and played in a fair number of games where the other players had to deal with the ramifications of one stupid, bad or deliberately unpleasant player's actions.

The flip side comes if the GM blinks and opts not to impose final consequences. The GM may give in and allow the player to do what they'd intended. Or, more often, the GM may impose softer consequences, knocking the player out or causing some temporary loss of autonomy. That can be an easy way out-- but can shift the dynamic of the table. If the problem's already a meta-issue, then this may deepen it-- requiring the GM to speak with the player about what's going on. Unfortunately such interventions can often result in player claims of “not knowing what the GM's talking about” or “I was just playing my character.” So the situation can end up where it began.

The other problem with the GM blinking comes from the reaction of other players. On the one hand, they may see such treatment as license for attempting the same tactic themselves-- back to the game encourages what it rewards principle. That may restrict the GM's later options. On the other hand, the other players at the table may resent the GM not imposing severe consequences on the player. It may be that they see that as a suspension of the reality of the situation. Or more likely they may want to see bad or stupid behavior punished, especially behavior which disrupts the play of the the game.

Another dimension to this arises from defining the situation: there may be cases where the player honestly does not believe or recognize that they are, in effect, playing chicken. Or a GM may perceive an action as challenging them-- causing them to react (or overreact) to the situation. Again, we're pointing at meta-structures of the table play here.

I think generally situations where players play chicken with the GM ought to be taken as a warning sign of something being wrong with the table-- something the GM needs to address.

I do have one additional thought on this I want to consider: I've talked here about the Player instigating the game of Chicken with the GM. Is it possible for the GM to start this kind of confrontation-- can the GM play chicken with the players? What does that look like?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Campaign Postmortem: Star Wars: The Darkening Rift (Part Three)

Continuing my analysis of a recent short-run Star Wars campaign using our homebrew system, Action Cards.

Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part One
Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part Two
Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part Three

Mechanically, the campaign lasted seven sessions. We had six players, with one session with only five players and one session with only four. The sessions lasted between three and four hours, leaning to the lower end of that (due to pizza waiting time). We had three big set-piece fights with figures and scenics I'd put together (Battle in the Sith Temple, Siege in the Cloning Facility, and the Final Bridge Confrontation). We also had a number of smaller, abstract conflicts, a couple of chase sequences, and a Starship Blockade run.

Before the first session I had sent out electronic files with the Picks, Force Powers, Rules Summary and a character sheet. So players came into the session with some idea of what was going to happen. They'd all had some chance to think about what kind of character they wanted. I was pretty sure by that point I would only have two Jedi characters, which I thought would give a decent balance. I let them go through and make their respective picks first-- so that they'd know what they needed when they went to the card drafting. I also used a classic GM device-- tell players you're going to only be giving them X points to start, and then give them a little more at the beginning to encourage goodwill (even though the latter number was your original intent).

The card drafting worked, but with the problem that one of the six players missed this creation session-- meaning they would end up with cards no one else had chosen. In any case I shuffled the 36 category-result cards, dealt them out as evenly as I could and then had the usual take one, pass to the left until everyone had six. For positive unique cards I split those into two large sets and divided the table in two-- allowing each player to take one from each set. Players who picked last in that got first pick for the single negative unique cards. I'd provided prepared card backers and protectors, so players only had to put into those drafted cards and we were almost ready to go. I left players with a blank unique card which I allowed them to design later. Everyone got three abilities and we got rolling. The whole process took about 45 minutes-- which I don't think is too bad for a first attempt. I'm sure I could reduce that time on another attempt. Something I didn't do: I'd planned to have players record their drafted card numbers on their sheets, but I never followed up on that.

In play, I also dropped a few things I'd developed for this version of Action Cards. I added the mechanic players could suffer two kinds of damage results: either an increase to their wound level and/or an ability being temporarily knocked out. I wanted to provide a little more detail to the damage system and allow the GM to apply damage without constantly gutting the players. To balance the new possible damage effects, I reduced the penalty for higher wound levels. I thought this would raise the stakes in combat without directly increasing lethality.

In practice I ended up ignoring this except for the first session. I think it is a sound mechanic, but two things fight against when I actually run. First, I'm so used to dealing solely in wound levels that when we get into the speed of a combat scene, I tend to forget this mechanic. I focus on maintaining the pace. I don't think I necessarily drop it because it slows things down, but more that fall into my comfortable and familiar approach. Second, the fights-- even the set piece ones-- generally go fast and most results for the players boil down to Defended (Yeah!) or took damage (A Significant Moment!). The later will only happen a handful of times in a combat scene. If we had more combat or if the system had players taking more hits (due to the balance of offense vs. defense) then we'd need more granularity. As it is I don't think I've really tested this mechanic.

The other mechanic I had fuzziness with revolves around defining Abilities in the game. I'd hoped to unify things by having abilities and meta-abilities. Abilities simply give a redraw for related actions. Meta-abilities allow a player to do something unique (like fly, resist damage or have a particular piece of equipment) and give a redraw. The latter costs twice what the former does. In the case of the Star Wars game, that meant two picks rather than one (with two picks being the standard experience given out at the end of the session). But as we played, I started fudging things a little. I suspect I'm going to go back to a two part split-- which I effectively have here with Skills (granting redraws and being able to be defined broadly) and Abilities (doing something out of the ordinary). To use the example given in HeroQuest 2e: a person with the Strong Skill would get a redraw with feats of strength, while a person with the Strong ability would be considered to have an abnormal range of strength-- but would still have to make a pull for those tests. Both things would cost the same.

As I mentioned in the objectives section, I wanted to provide more choices earlier on in the game. I think that worked pretty well-- at least from my perspective. At several junction points (after the raid on the Hutt Freighter, after the Sith Temple, after the running of the blockade) I think the players ended up with several equally valid choices of next step. I could have easily seen them going down another path and changing the game. I suspect the only really fixed idea I had in my head was an eventual confrontation with the Decimators and their travel to Secret Base connected to Ward's character, Rilos. As it was, the Decimator ended up getting held off-screen until the final scene, which was something I hadn't imagined at first. As well, fir a few sessions I figured the group wouldn't get to Rilos' base before the Big Finish of the campaign. I started to think about how that might serve as a crucial scene in the second "film" (ala Luke going to Dagobah). I will say that the set of choices did get slightly more limited after the fourth session, but until that point I think it still could have been a very different story.

As a note about how much things had the potential to shift, I should point out that the answer to Ward's background came to me pretty late. Ahead of the game I knew I wanted him to be a clone of Anakin Skywalker and I knew that we'd have a scene turning on his discovery of that, probably at the base where he was cloned, but other than that I hadn't figured everything out. It wasn't until a couple of sessions before they actually went there that I finally put the pieces together. I'd established a right hand man called Artificer Quartz for the Grand Mof of the Crimson Empire. I knew that person was the Decimator leader. But suddenly I realized that it could be a twin for Ward's character-- putting some skin in the game for him on that story line. I plotted out some of the details for how that could be and took a couple of "Lucas Jumps" in logic that people hopefully wouldn't look too hard at. Then I realized that it actually had to be a female since that's how Luke and Leia were-- since there was some prophecy about a set twins (boy and girl) setting the force to balance or something.

I'll try and be brief here since I've gone overly long already. I'd consider this a strong success- especially since I started it just as I'd quit smoking. That I was able to pull it off in the middle of that is a small miracle.

I enjoyed running it and it gave me some greater confidence about how Action cards can work with a variety of settings. I was a little nervous about the stripped down approach I was taking, both in terms of mechanics and story knowledge, but it worked. The drafting system I wanted to test worked fine and can be tuned even more tightly. The group was split evenly between veteran players and those who had not tried Action Cards or had seen a distinctly different version. Everyone seemed to take to it pretty well. I think a good sign is that we have a couple of other GMs in the group working on versions of the Action Cards. I can say pretty definitively that I will be running a sequel campaign to this one.

Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part One
Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part Two
Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part Three

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Campaign Postmortem: Star Wars: The Darkening Rift (Part Two)

Continuing my analysis of a recent short-run Star Wars campaign using our homebrew system, Action Cards.

Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part One
Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part Two
Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part Three

My planning broke into two big parts: story/narrative and system adaptation. I decided to focus on essential elements and sources-- but I didn't go back and watch any of the movies (which seems odd in retrospect). I did glance at a couple of Star Wars rpg pdfs I had-- mostly to see how they handled organizing Force abilities. I moved on quickly. I brainstormed what had to be in the game and what ideas I wanted in the game. I had three things in mind:

1. Obviously it would take place a couple of generations after Return of the Jedi. Chapters I-III had established that the nine movies would be chronologically connected. So I would need to have the possibility of middle trilogy characters appearing in this “movie.” That meant having a New Republic, but also allowed for some form of existing Imperial threat One of the things which had bothered me about the break between Episode III and Episode IV was that the Empire managed in what--less than twenty years?-- to completely subvert a galactic republic. But even in Star Wars, we have the Senate still acting-- so we're talking a Roman style model for the rise and fall? Bottom line-- things seemed to shift too fast, so I imagined a slower pace for the expansion and establishment of a New Republic.

2. I wanted a new kind of alien threat. I wanted something different but with a connection. Later I would find out about the Yuuzhan Vong but I didn't care for that. I wanted a force-based enemy which echoed the Sith but also had a cool visual weapon. In this case I liked the idea of the Sphere Triad, a set of devices which (in my head) looked a little like the floating training sphere from Star Wars. The bad guys would have these floating around them and could control them-- creating arcs of energy or force between. I also had another visual concept, for the raised metal markings or tattoos the alien enemy would have.

3. I also wanted to deal narrative logic with a problem I had came across. I'd read Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire series when came out. I couldn't recall the full plot of it, but I recalled that he'd at least partially answered the question of why they didn't clone Force users. Then as I was doing some reading I saw that some of the later expanded universe material turned on the Emperor coming back by having cloned himself. That bugged me-- so I wanted to deal with that point explicitly. Oddly enough that resulted in my using the cloned Force user concept.

Beyond story, I knew the most difficult part would be the balance of “cool” between Jedi and non-Jedi characters. I wanted to get the feel of Force powers right. On Wookipedia I found their their list of powers and then did a rewrite to group them together. I decided hunt for other useful sources, which led me to the Essential series for Star Wars. These are nice coffee table paperback books,and pretty reasonably priced. I made sure I didn't buy any unless I had a good Borders coupon or got them through Amazon. I ended up picking up three books: Jedi vs. Sith: the Guide to the Force; the New Essential Guide to Alien Species; and the Essential Star Wars Atlas. Later Gene bought me the New Essential Guide to Weapons and Technology.

The Atlas provided some nice perspective on the size of the galaxy and suggested some thematic places I could use (Hutt Space, the Deep Core). It also gave me a better sense of how hyperspace travel worked-- particularly the idea of their being route or areas of space either amicable to travel or at least free of interference such as gravity wells or debris. The idea that such routes had to be mapped and required beacons stuck with me. I also used the Atlas as a source for place names, but generally I skimmed rather than fully reading it. The Alien Species volume I jumped around in and read-- mostly to give me a sense of possibilities as well as race names and details I could throw in. It did point me at a consideration I hadn't had before: that the Empire tended to be Hume-centric. It made sense but I hadn't seen that explicated. The Technology book gave me a number of ideas, but more than anything cemented in my decision to keep equipment and weapons particularly abstract. The game would have no weapons or armor charts. In the SW universe, weapons end up relatively equal except for their “special effects.” In the movies the only more potent blaster we see are the two-man portable blasters of the Imperials. Otherwise everything shot flashes of light that hurt people when they hit.

While I only partially read those, I have to admit I devoured the Guide to the Force. The problem of Force cloning; the alien threats of the later expanded universe; details of the Sith; the awful Holocrons, and a number of other ideas grabbed me. It also mentioned the unfortunately-named precursor race of the Rakata (which I would use). I appreciated the sense it provided for how the Jedi Council had operated in the past-- and how that might change in a New Republic. I rarely read sourcebooks as fully as I did this one. It did reinforce my awareness of the need to balance Jedi and non-Jedi PC. The movies, especially the first trilogy, have the issues of the Force as central to the story. So how do we get the non-Force user characters the same kind of strength and role they have in Parts IV-VI?

I began with a design goal of equally interesting Jedi/Non-Jedi characters while at the same time allowing distinctiveness within those two groups. The YouTube review of The Phantom Menace influenced me here. His point that these more recent movies lack distinct protagonist(s) or memorable characters stuck with me. I knew I would be doing a draft for the cards within a player's deck, so I thought I could use another draft mechanic to give players sharply defined roles. Normal characters would get two picks from a list of “role abilities.” Some of these would be clearly based around a character archetype (Pilot, Medic, Engineer, Thief, etc), while others would be more about coloring the character in that role (Lucky, Charming, Gadgets, Connected). Taking a pick would give the player a really broad ability (like Piloting or Guns) allowing them a repull in any situation closely related to that. Other players wanting to later buy into that area would have to buy narrower skills with more limited applications. The trick would be that each of those role picks could only be taken once. Characters could worry less about others stepping on their toes. I wouldn't use this approach for a standard game, but for a limited number of sessions in a heavily genre-influenced game I think it works.

I took similar tact with Force user characters. I broke the powers into eight tracks (Mind Tricks, Lightsaber, Senses, Physical Enhancement, Telekinesis, Energy Manipulation, Force Defenses, Telepathy). Each of those would have five specific powers: one at the Padwan level, two at the Knight level and two at the Master level). Coming up with those, fitting them into their tracks and writing descriptions so that fairly vague things had specific applications took a couple of solid days of work. I moved things around multiple times before I settled on the final arrangement.

Like the non-Jedi, each Jedi player would get two picks from the eight tracks. Their first pick would put them at “Knight” level with that track-- giving them the Padwan power and their choice of one of the Knight powers. One a track had been chosen for a 'first' pick, other Jedi players could not pick that one. On the second pick, Jedi could pick a track taken as a first pick for another player (gaining only the Padwan power) but still could not duplicate another person's second pick. I hoped this would give the Jedi some fulfilling tricks, but also keep them from repeating.

Just a general note here: building abilities for a fairly open and abstract system actually ends up more difficult than for a specific and detailed system. You want abilities to be striking and distinct. But at the same time, you don't want to have the negate the choices of other players. A good deal of d20 suffers from this problem. The existence of a feat means that players can't use their skills creatively to create a like effect without either reducing the value of that feat or negating someone's build choices. My original sense of the Jedi abilities would be that players would have an ability and a power level existing independently. But was more than needed to be tracked. So the abilities have both a relative strength and what they can do. I tried to build them so that later buys in the same track would not mean that earlier purchases ended up useless.

I considered some mechanisms other rpgs had used for Jedi powers. I decided quickly against having a test to actually activate the power. Instead the test would be about the successful application of the power. I also decided against any kind of mana or endurance cost for powers. That would required another for players to track, didn't add to balance, and felt out of place in the genre. I did note in descriptions that continued use of some powers might be taxing (giving me a later, narrative out). Finally there remained the question of how to handle the Dark Side. I decided that Jedi users would have a certain level of moral expectation, one which would be even more stringent when using Force powers. If a player blatantly violated those codes they could gain a corruption card in their deck-- one which could snowball and create even more corruption cards. It was important to me to handle that problem within the player's deck itself.

A standard Action Cards deck has 24 cards. Of those, 14 give results in the four basic action areas (Physical, Social, Combat and Mental). Note that I used the category “Mental” here rather than Knowledge or Smarts as it better fits with the genre. Usually those fourteen category-result cards split into two types: non-fixed-- where players can assign and raise results during the campaign and fixed-- where the results begin at a certain level cannot be changed with experience. The system logic behind that works for an extended campaign: to make sure that players do have at least a few lower results for any given category. That encourages skills and investment in edges to affect those results. That consideration would be less of an issue for a shorter run campaign.

Each player would start with the same seven fixed category-result cards, but players would be able to increase those results later in play. Players would then draft another six category-result cards. These would have significantly higher results than with a normal campaign. That's the easiest way to simulate experienced characters. To do this I assigned each result value a number (from a 0 for Catastrophic to 5 for Masterful!). I then set out to make 36 cards with the results varied, but in a range of about 14-16 total points). After doing that, I numbered each card in the bottom corner. I planned to record and reconstruct decks if I needed to later using those codes.

Beyond those thirteen cards, a players deck would also have five special result cards: Deadlock, I'd Rather Be Lucky, Egregious Humiliation, Moment of Glory and Crawling from the Wreckage. For Crawling... I changed the text from the previous version. Previously the result stated that something just broke-- the player narrated what-- and then they drew another card for the results. That ended up unsatisfying and in play usually I handled it differently. The new version gave players success or failure based on the sacrifice they made in the broken thing: so their own weapon could break, but they'd get a big success or the enemy's weapon could break but they'd fail their action attempt. I dropped the Vagaries of Fate card from the standard deck for two reasons. First, it eliminated a card which required more deck management. Second, it represented having more veteran characters who would have bought that card out of their deck. Players would also have three unique cards they would draft: two positive and one negative. For the positive cards I created 18 possible cards, in some cases using phrases from Star Wars for card titles. This took some time, but I used the models for unique cards created in the other Action Cards campaign, coming up with a pretty decent spread of options. numbered each of those so I could track the decks. I made up 12 negative cards as well. I also figured players would eventually be able to make up a card (or two) for themselves during the course of play.

My last touches for prep involved writing up a rules summary as well as formatting the reference pdfs for picks and Jedi powers and sending those out. I also decided that since I knew Kenny would be taking the pilot role, I ought to have a system for managing and upgrading the ship. I came up with a set of “picks” and options for the ship which took about half a day to put together. Finally beyond sketching out some more plot notes, I wrote up the “Opening Crawl” for the campaign (having checked the format) and sent that out to players.

Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part One
Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part Two
Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part Three

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Campaign Postmortem: Star Wars: The Darkening Rift (Part One)

So I have a few things to get to rpg-wise, but I thought I'd begin with a post-mortem on the recent Star Wars campaign I ran (a campaign summary here). I should also note the really, really nice gesture one of the players, Ward, made. He built me a light-saber as thanks for running the game. A really, really nice replica light-saber. I mean, holy cow nice.

I'd been thinking about a couple of the limitations of the Action Cards system. AC has a major drawback in that while players can pick up the mechanics relatively easily, actually building a character requires a degree of investment in time and material resources. Putting together your character takes at least an hour, if not more, even for the easiest version of the rules. Players have to assign results, spend points on abilities and develop unique cards. And there's the physical investment of a play deck with protectors and so on. Players might be hesitant to do that for just a session or even a short series of sessions. In some ways the player ownership and investment that the game strives for comes back to bite me in the ass.

At some point it occurred to me that these problems might be solved with a card draft mechanic. In a standard deck, players share 13 of the 24 cards (seven fixed resolution cards and six special cards) meaning that only eleven cards would actually have to be drafted. I'll come back in a bit to how I actually handled and built that (The Planning Section). For the character sheet I wanted to keep things pretty simple. We'd have space for the two variable resources: wounds and drama points. In addition space for “Abilities” (repulls like skills in standard Action Cards) or “meta-abilities” (repulls with a talent) and then Picks, which I'll also come back to.

I decided I wanted to do this as a short-run experiment, a mini-series of about 6 or so sessions. That would be long enough to make the time investment worth it and give me room to tell a full-fledged story. But I would also need something which players could slide into easily.

For that I picked a Star Wars campaign. I had a couple of other reasons as well. First, I knew one of the players (Ward) loved Star Wars and had tried to get into a game with a new group. When he'd arrived it had turned out to be a cross-genre pastiche (i.e. “I want to be a Klingon Jedi”). One of players decided to run a Space Pornographer. In any case, he'd been hugely disappointed by that. I'd had the same experience a couple of times and so thought it would be good give him a positive experience.

But the other reason I wanted to do Star Wars was kind of a dare on my part. To begin with, I think some players react negatively to historical games because they assume they'll have to know the history or be at a disadvantage or just corrected in that 'Comic Book Guy' way. (That's not to discount a dislike of certain historical periods-- I wouldn't play a Civil War or a Vikings game, those don't appeal). The same may apply to some fictional settings with deep backgrounds. For example, I wouldn't run a Forgotten realms game, a published rpg setting with too much depth and breadth of material. I would also have a hard time with aspects a Star Trek, Dune, or Wheel of Time game. There's too much information--the universe has expanded so much that I'd be nervous. The same has always applied to my thinking about Star Wars. But I wondered if I couldn't get past that by simply stripping out all of the supplemental stuff and avoiding any published rpg materials. I'd just take the movies as canon and anything else I would deal with as the fancy suited me. In this case the basic stereotypes would apply but everything else would be up for grabs. Mind you I had a pretty good group I'd be running for-- not hung up on canon, despite a couple of them being pretty familiar with the material.

I may be jumping ahead here to the planning section, but I also decided that I wanted to try a slightly different approach with my episode plotting. Still smarting from a misplaced accusation of railroading, I wanted to make sure that I maintained options in this game. That's difficult because a limited series of games tends to natural imply a fairly linear narrative. For the six-episode Mutants & Masterminds game and the longer Scion game I ran I really began with a distinct opening and closing scene in my head. The question lay in how to move from point A to point B while providing options. I don't think either of those games felt pre-destined or without player control. But I wanted to make sure that players felt they had choices despite the game being short run.

To that end I worked out a couple of compromise solutions. On the one hand, I decided that each of the starting sessions would provide the players with several clear and apparently equally valid choices about where to move to next. Those choices would narrow the range of future options slightly, driving the game in a different direction or along a fairly distinct narrative path. As the game rolled along, the choice of direction would inevitably narrow. The tone and success of those choices would be affected by smaller play choices as well, leaving freedom. But there would come a point when the players would be on a particular track rolling ahead of its own momentum. Early on I had a couple of very different courses the players could have followed which would have resulted in a different “film” as I'd come to think of it. In the beginning they could have come into contact with the Decimators much earlier, setting that up as a very different kind of conflict. On the other hand, they could also have followed up on the Hutt angle, which would have led to a different set of results. I'll come back to the success of that objective when I talk about the execution of the game.

I knew I wanted to consider these six (or so) sessions as unified, but in a different way from my other games. Generally I think of most campaigns as having a TV show episodic structure (like Buffy) with one offs but a general thematic to the season; as having a novel-like chapter format (like Harry Potter) with more character interactions, background development and a slow constantly building meta-threat; or like a comic book series (like The Avengers) with discrete episodes, a few two-parters, then a big multi-parter event that closes out a volume of the book and changes the status quo. In this case I wanted to see the campaign as one long movie, with linked scenes and rising stakes. That would mean that even though players would have choice, each scene would definitely have importance later on-- meaning that player choices to do something ought to have a real and strong impact-- even if they're just doing some minor thing, it ought to come back (“If you introduce a gun...” etc.). I also decided that I wouldn't know what kind of Star Wars movie it would be: would it be heroic? would it be tragic? Would it be a darker post-modern take on the genre? Would it be satire or homage? I'd planned on letting the players choices as we went along shape that-- and I'd make that explicit to them.

Still to Come:

Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part One
Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part Two

Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part Three

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Links They Will Not Cease

Working on a Campaign Postmortem of the Star Wars game, a look at my objectives and how those played out. But for today I'd like to point out some interesting links (rpg and otherwise).

So, yes, linkdump.

*Halfjack over at Blue Collar Space always has interesting things to say. This post on the idea of game balance has a ton of ideas, especially about the system itself being tailored (via the resolution mechanic) to group actions.

*A post on Story Complications which I think has some application to gaming. I've certainly been guilty of laying things on too thick without resolving them. I'm trying to be better about that-- having in mind that the situations could be resolved now, not at some indeterminate future when I have all the plot ducks in a row.

*A look at Gigazine, a Japanese-language blog that seems to cover all manner of strangeness.

*Again from i09, a look at what anime can teach you about ending a story-- for better or worse. I think there's a lot to be taken from the strange narrative structures of anime which appear like standard western conventions, but shift on closer inspection. They're good models for the rising arcs in some campaigns.

*The obligatory Robin Laws citation, this time on the idea of conflicting sympathies for characters. I think worth thinking about further, having had players who clearly envisioned their characters as sympathetic, but that not be the reaction of other players or myself.

*An overly analytical approach to task and productivity management with game prep.

*52 Ways to Die in a Cave.

*Via Shari Unhappy Hipsters ("A Softer World for architecture buffs...")

*An interesting idea on how to fund creative projects.

*BoingBoing on Mad "Engineers". A good point for superhero games and stories.

*Based on this session report, Fiasco is a game I really want to pick up and get a group together for.

*The contract is sealed.

*An amazing high-schooler webcomics guy, Mocktopus. Currently raising funds for getting a new computer.

*Like colors? Sure we all do, but who really does anything about it?

*Could miniature gaming become respectable? (Answer: no)

*Alternate Jedi.

*Beck's Record Clubdoes INXS' Kick. Nuff said.