Wednesday, September 2, 2015

RPGaDay 2015: Final Week+ Roundup

#22 Perfect Gaming Environment
I don't know about perfect, but here's my thirteen point plan:
  1. Plenty of light.
  2. Space on table for GM, preferably bounded. No GM screen.
  3. Enough space on table for players to set up and have a battle map.
  4. No table obstructions or raised areas to block players view of one another.
  5. Padded chairs of some kind
  6. Carpeting for comfort and sound control.
  7. Odor-free.
  8. Space for food and drinks to be set up off table.
  9. Miniatures, terrain, etc on their own off-table area. Visible but not too cluttered.
  10. Plenty of room to move around behind players and GM.
  11. Bookshelves with reference material, but far enough away players don’t start reading during play.
  12. Relatively stable climate and humidity.
  13. Not on fire.

#23 The Perfect Game for Me
I imagine this question will get many anti-answers. And I have to count myself in that camp. My perfect game shifts depending on mood. I mean I’m playing Fate and Rolemaster in the same week. Sometimes I like crunch…but crunch I have a handle on. I don’t think I’d want to pick up a new crunchy system, but I could handle those I already know. Sometimes I like a light touch with my games. I want the rules to get out of the way and assist me. They should be a road I ride on and not a speed bump I constantly have to brake for.

All that being said, I’m really happy with Action Cards because it does what I want when I run. Given that it is a homebrew and one we’ve been tooling with for a decade and a half, every change I’ve made has been to make it better for me (and for the groups I run for). I’m able to tweak on the fly and see how those changes pan out pretty quickly (given that I use it for three f2f campaigns). Since my f2f groups know the game and have played several iterations of it, they’re good about rolling with changes. They examine them and give feedback. If I were houseruling an established system, they might feel differently. I know I would.

I’ve made Action Cards into tool to do what I like when I run games. I like the card counting, the speedy resolution, the occasional move to narrative for success, the granularity of experience, the opportunity to mark up cards and make them your own, the simplicity of the character sheet. So it’s probably the game that’s going to fit as perfectly more me as any could more often than not. That’s a strength, but also a limitation. For the last couple of years, I’ve been making notes on making the system useful for other people. A good deal of that involves looking at it as a toolbox. That means looking at mechanics, offering several variants, and talking about the implications of those. For example, how damage is resolved (card based, margin based, or dice based).

And perhaps that’s what makes Action Cards a perfect game for me: I have ownership of it in my head and I can constantly tweak and play around with it.

#24 Favorite House Rule
Since we do a ton of homebrew, I could aruge that everything there’s a houserule. Where we have used rules that feel like they’re house’d, more option they’re options from supplements.

But I did make a couple of major additions when I ran Mutants & Masterminds 2e online. I limited access to a few powers and restricted the levels available to others. More importantly changed how movement and ranged operated. Classic M&M has severely escalating distance as you go up in movement power ranks. I knew I wanted to use tokens and maps, and have some details there for players to interact with (terrain, objects). But I didn’t want a grid or measured distance approach. The Masterminds Manual had rules for using miniatures at the table, and while they were OK, they made everything very granular.

Instead I opted to go with a Zone based movement system, ala Fate. I would break maps into irregular sections: sometimes based on what was in a zone, sometimes based on geographical features, and sometimes based on where I could make things non-obscuring in Photoshop. In player your ranks in a Movement power determined how many zones you could move and still attack and how many you could move as a full action.

RANK-->              MOVE ACTION-->            FULL ACTION
2-3-->                    Adjacent Zone-->            Two Zones
3-5-->                    Two Zones-->                    Three Zones
6+-->                     Anywhere you want 

Movement within a zone would be a simple action, more a declaration than anything. Players could state their adjacency within a zone and we’d group tokens up. We used a similar set of rules for considering AoE effects. Lower ranks could hit pairs, higher could target everyone in a zone. Mega-effects could target multiple zones.

It worked well overall and everyone grasped to know how far their characters could move or act. It also gave players some freedom to jump in front of other attacks and get into the tussle. On the one hand it meant that we didn’t have to worry about distance measure tools. On the other it didn’t handwave movement completely. It also gave me the flexibility to use very different maps at very different scales. So one week it might be a lab, another it might be a college campus, another it might be the docks, and another might be lower Manhattan. I could offer reduce players’ movements to simulate this (but usually I didn’t). Mostly I’d up the difficulties for range on the larger maps.

It also made making maps easy, because I could take overviews or abstractions (like a carnival’s guest maps) and simply break them up.

#25 Favorite Revolutionary Game Mechanic (for me, emphasis mine)
I love aspects. I didn’t get them at first. Reading through Diaspora I couldn’t quite put together why things had phrases and descriptors. Later, somewhere between Spirit of the Century and Strands of Fate, I got it. I realized I’d been doing something like it in Action Cards, but narrowly and with hesitation.

For me, aspects offer both a conceptual hook and a concrete mechanic. They give me a strong mental shorthand for what happens when players do actions- how they change the situation, affect the environment, set up the bad guy. It helps me think of specific keywords to hang my descriptions on. Imagine they’re the *boldface* in my text for the players. I’ve always done quick lists of phrases and words when sketching out in prep. Aspects make that feel even more useful. And because I know they might make contact with the table, it encourages me to come up with new ideas and terms. I want to avoid the FPS “another room with crates” result.

I dig the mechanical use. In many ways an Aspect’s simply another version of +1 Forward or Hold from PbtA games. But it has some extra dimensions, requiring a descriptor that makes it more real. For example when players scout a location in my games (something like an Examine action), I’ll give them information and/or answer questions based on their results. But I’ll often give them an aspect as well, +1 Forward with a name and history to it. I also like that aspects aren’t necessarily just a bump. They offer a quick but interesting choice (+ vs. redo). They can also be invoked to create a narrative effect.

Aspects support and make easy establishing trust in a game. I’ve played in a lot of games where doing non-com actions results in stops or ephemeral progress (possibly undercut by another player’s action). I can establish early that these actions can have a concrete value within the mechanics, not just in the fiction. Players can grab on to these things in a scene or frame their actions around them. I’ve seen it help players who might not otherwise engage with the details (“I swing”) grab ahold and play with the scene more.

And aspects float up and down. The Golden Rule of Fate parallels the key rule of PbtA: Describe what you want to do first, and then go to the mechanics. After declaration we might push the mechanical notion of aspects to the surface (“OK, it sounds like you’re trying to create an aspect like Gap in his Armor”). But often it doesn’t need to be made explicit- they take the action and I quickly scribble Gap in the Armor on a card and toss it on the table. Or I don’t and simply work that into the description for the next player.  It depends on the flow and the player engagement. Aspects have a light touch and we can shift in and out of them quickly.

When I’ve played and run, aspects become a tight resource- requiring hard decisions. Do I spend the time doing that versus a more direct action? Will the aspects fit or get undone. The GM’s applying the pressures of time, ego, and threat- is it worth my opportunity cost? I’ve always seen that pressure, so I’ve never seen them stack up. And I like that resource management choice, more than in other games with those kinds of spends. It feels simple in execution, but hard in deliberation.

I know Fate wasn’t the first game to use these, but it’s where they came to me. I like the vocabulary and “technique” this mechanic has added to my play. 

#26 Favorite Inspiration
A hard call, but let me tell you what my mind flashes back to everything I think about campaigns, stories, arcs, and fights.

You used to be able to find them on Netflix as disc rentals. I checked out perhaps a dozen of them, watching a few discs and trying to figure out what was going on. I only made it all the way through a couple of them…they’re super-long. Most are based on classic Wuxia novels, the majority have cool set ups that would look awesome with actual effects, and all of filled with over the top DRAMA.

I use the capitals there very deliberately.

There are tons of these. They have complicated stories, and the kind big scale action that translates well to grand gaming. Perhaps not as useful for more intimate themes or games, but they are fun. And when fun’s what I want to bring to the table, I start thinking about these again.

#27 Favorite Idea for Merging Two Games Into One
I got started on this a little later because of my work on the Post-Apocalyptic lists. That's given me a chance to see the varied responses and anti-responses. Perhaps the most interesting were those that literally joined together two concepts. I’ve thought a little bit about that before: on PLOT we came up with "Dragons in the Vineyard," where you play templars from Dragon Age and earlier in this series I talked about bringing the concepts of L5R together with Fading Suns to create "Legend of the Fading Suns". But I’m going to be more conventional, aiming for things I might actually do.

I’ve often fallen in love with settings and then run them with other systems (three different games for L5R, two different for Changeling the Lost, one for a Crimson Skies-like thing, and more). One setting I love but loathe the system for is Scion. I love the idea of a modern mythic game which remains concrete (as opposed to something like Nobilis). I dig the different pantheons the books present, and how they all feel interesting and distinct. And it’s among the most diverse games out there. It encourages players to connect with different cultures. I’ve run it a couple of times, once with the actual system and once with a poor Fate hack. The latter fell short because of my desire to emulate everything about the original game, rather than abstracting things.

So I’d like to see Scion done with a PbtA hack. I don’t know exactly how it would work (Pantheon playbooks? How do knacks work? What about realm powers?). Character actions are much larger in this setting than most PbtA games. But Worlds in Peril has shown me that much of that can be handled by the fiction. What’s needed is to consider the kinds of actions and play within the game. It might not work, but it appeals to me. It would get around some of the awkward mechanical bits of the social combat/interactions in the original, making them equally potent and connected. Also I think PbtA could model Fatebinding well. I’d want to see this mash-up; I don’t know if it’d work, but it would be cool to see. At least it could be a worthwhile experiment.


If we’re talking about combining two rpg things together, not just games or settings, then I have something I want to see even more. See I’ve really come to love the Fate Codex. I like Fate and that anthology/magazine makes me reexamine the system with each new release. It has a smart mix of articles and there’s always something I want to read in there. I get ideas not only for Fate-based games, but broader approaches to rpgs in general. The Fate Codex also looks great: clean layout, solid art, and consistent presentation. I find it kind of mind boggling that it comes out of a Patreon project.

I’d really like to see a version of the Fate Codex done for Powered by the Apocalypse games. I know a good deal of material’s getting pumped into Kickstarters and electronic sales, but I think there’s room for a broadly aimed anthology like this. I know there was (is?) a Dungeon World zine, and I think a PbtA Codex could include that kind of thing as well as closer (Monsterhearts?) and further versions (Blades in the Dark).

What could it include? New playbooks, designers talking about how they built playbooks, tools for generating quick material for various games, authors talking about best practices for their games, new frameworks, alternate versions of playbooks, new hacks for different settings, fiction, GMs talking about their experience running, showing a game to a newbie, suggestions for how to run PbtA games at conventions (or specific games), advice for setting up a one-shot, interviews, previews of upcoming Kickstarters, how to handle long term campaigns, breaking down particular moves for what they do at the table, debates over approaches, and I’m sure there’s more. That’s just a quick list.

It wouldn’t be for everyone, but I’d read it. I’d find the various, likely contradictory, voices interesting.

Someone needs to make that happen. 

#28 Favorite RPG You No Longer Play
I’ve written before about the big three games we used to play all the time: Champions, GURPS, and Rolemaster. I mean multiple campaigns, multiple GMs, years and years of play. In each case I started running them as soon as they came out and played through several editions and rewrites for each. The first two I have to leave in their grave, but I’m actually playing old school Rolemaster right now. It’s fun, swingy and weird. But it’d take a braver person than I to run that for new people.

So, instead I have to go with James Bond 007. I dug that game and when I went back to look at it, it surprised me with its design. It remains a solid and accessible system. I know there’s a retro-clone, Unclassified, and I bought a copy of it. But I think if I were going to go back and play it, I’d want to actually set it within its era. Or at the very least keep at of the 007 trappings. Steve and I have talked about doing a James Bond/NBA mash up where the vampires and Bond stylings fit with the eras they’re set in. I still might do that someday.

#29 Favorite Website/Blog
That’s going to be a tie I think.

I could say this blog, Age of Ravens, which is pretty cool and you should check out more pages because you're already here.

But instead I’m going to say RPGGeek and Gnome Stew.

The former has one of the best communities for discussing rpgs. The people there remain generally helpful and smart. If you’ve be scared off by BGG’s community, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the RPG Geek side of things. Their VirtuaCon is the most intense and fun online gaming experience I’ve had. They have decent reviews and interesting blogs. But it also has great tools for organizing and recording your collection. You can use Geeklists to build thematic arrays for example. Plus you can find tons of obscure and half-forgotten games there.

Gnome Stew? Well it’s just solidly and consistently good. It has a clean presentation, diverse articles, and smart writers. I’m rarely disappointed with their content.

Which is more than I can say for Age of Ravens. I mean how many post-apocalyptic games can there be?

#30 Favorite RPG Playing Celebrity
When I was at Origins, John Alexander recognized Jonna Hind from her appearance on various Indie+ YouTube RPG sessions. He called her a celebrity, which she went to great pains to deny. So Jonna Hind’s my favorite RPG playing celebrity. And by the transitive process anyone willing to record and broadcast their Hangout sessions.

#31: Favorite Non-RPG Thing to Come out of RPGing