Thursday, February 15, 2018

Hearts of Wulin: Moves & Mechanics

We’ve had two sessions so far of Hearts of Wulin. When we’re done all four, I’ll put all these rules together in a manageable form. I’ll also be doing edits and changes. But today I wanted to show you what we’re playing from. This post just covers the non-playbook; next week I’ll post the playbooks. I’ve added comments in a couple of places to clarify choices. This is a PbtA hack, so it assumes knowledge of those mechanics.

My vision of wulin comes from a ton of stuff: RPGs to movies to TV shows. Of those, four stand out as my touchstones. For movies that’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Painted Skin. The latter has more supernatural than I’m working with, but has awesome personal entanglements. More important are two Chinese TV shows. The first is The Handsome Siblings (2005) aka The Proud Twins. Taken from a novel by the prolific Gu Long, that story’s been adapted multiple times for film and TV. The second and more important is Laughing in the Wind (2001), taken from the novel The Smiling, Proud Wanderer by Louis Cha. That’s had several adaptions, including Jet Li’s Swordsman II.

I also want to note that I wrote an earlier, terrible version of this. Renee Knipe generously looked at that and nicely didn’t point out how awful it was. She’s also working on a PbtA wuxia game and I suspect her version’s stronger than mine. As well I started listening to Jianghu Hustle just after I began this revision. That heavily influenced my thinking—especially the concept of Scale and having triangular entanglements. Go listen to that podcast. Lastly I probably wouldn’t have written this if the amazing Weapons of the Gods/Legends of Wulin didn’t have the most convoluted and opaque mechanics I’ve ever seen.

Characters have five stats, also called Chi. Each has a loose thematic; typical areas it covers. Think of Fate Accelerated’s approaches or The Veil’s emotions rather than concrete abilities. Players have a choice of three arrays for distributing stats:
Array 1: +2, +1, +1, 0, -1
Array 2: +2, +2, 0, 0, -1
Array 3: +1, +1, +1, 0, 0

Stability, Focus, Presence:::Obsessive, Condescending, Uncaring
Creativity, Speed, Passion:::Reckless, Alienating, Unfocused
Control, Solidity, Reflection:::Unsatisfied, Inflexible, Scared
Awareness, Wisdom, Flexibility:::Uncertain, Isolated, Depressed
Might, Endurance, Growth:::Overconfident, Angered, Licentious

When players mark a condition, they mark one of their Chi. Until they clear that condition, they may not roll with that stat. If a condition directly results from their roll, they always mark the Chi they rolled with. Players can describe the condition as they want, usually based on what’s happening in the story. Chi conditions can be a lack or excess of that element within them. The right-hand elements under each present options, but players choose their own name for what’s happened.

Players also have a sixth condition, Wounded. This doesn’t close out a stat but does take them out of a conflict. It also requires time and medical attention to heal.

Everyone chooses a style the Chi associated with it. You roll that stat for martial combat. Your style element should reflect your style’s appearance and flavor. You’ll also name your style. I have some example names below, but please feel free to make up your own.

Ways of the Waters, The Hidden Path, Unfallen Dragon, Seeking Pilgrim’s Style, Storming Master’s Form, Shadow Brother’s Style, Shooting-Stars Hands, Way of the Graceful Warrior, Black Crane, Secrets of the Stone, Heavenly Gifted Form, Eight Diagram Sabre, Path of the Blossoming Tear, Vengeful Beast Mastery, One Soul Legion, Sun and Moon Serpent Sword, Golden Hawk Form, Sunburst Method, Fist of Precise Thought, Forge-Hammer Heart, Quiet Sage’s Steps, Taunt of the Monkey, Thousand Spear Palm, Grasshopper’s Wisdom.

By default, you can use your style unarmed, but most styles have a weapon associated with them. This is for color and fiction. You can actually fight with anything. Typical categories are:
  • Flexible (Chains, ropes, whips, cloth)
  • Improvised
  • Massive (axe, hammer, greatsword)
  • Paired (knives, wind & fire wheels, sticks)
  • Sabre & Sword
  • Staff
  • Spear
  • Thrown
  • Unusual
A character’s style should be important color for them, but not something we spend mechanics on. If players focus on their style, they can create custom moves for it as an Advance. I lifted the weapon groups from Legends of Wulin, but I may rethink their presentation.

You can spend bonds as a resource in play to get a +1 on a roll (after you roll). By default you start with 1 Bond each with your Clan/Faction/Family, the player to your left, the player to your right. You can use a simple descriptor for those (friend, brother, rival, lover, suspicious). Note: to keep things simple, I had them just start with one for their clan and one for their most connected PC.

You’ll gain more bonds via moves. You may have a max +3 bond with someone or something. If it would go higher, you reset it to 0, mark XP, and reveal something about them (subject to PC approval). Burning a bond can represent you alienating that group, calling on their aid, or using up the boost their friendship gives you.

This is the bread & butter of the relationships in the game. Each entanglement represents a fraught relationship with a person, group, or institution. But each one is a triangle as well, with a third party who creates problems. Since these include PCs, hold off on detailing all of them until everyone’s introduced their characters.

You begin with three entanglements, one of those must be romantic. (In the spreadsheet) I have some example entanglements; feel free to make up your own. I’ve written them for persons but you can easily sub in groups or factions in some places.

I posted my list of entanglements here. Originally I’d steered away from too much guidance—I only required at least one romantic entanglement. When I’d had specific restrictions for relationships in my Changeling the Lost PbtA hack they’d been a stumbling block in character creation. But a couple of players suggested we needed more rules: one entanglement with two NPCs to give you something exclusively your own, at least one with a PC involved, and at least one romantic.

I also didn’t realize how quickly players would engage with their entanglements and change them. I need to think about guidance for making those changes: what can they shift, when can they do that, and how does that affect things?

When you fight against a worthy foe, roll +Style Element.

If your foe is lesser scale than you, on a hit you win the conflict. On a 10+ you may mark XP if you permit them to escape or show them mercy. On a 7-9 you may let them go or finish them with a cost (now or in the future). On a failure, you win but they inflict a condition and escape. Depending on the fiction they may return at a higher scale.

If your foe is your scale, on a 10+ you win the conflict and may mark XP if you show mercy. Additionally if appropriate you may declare a change in the fiction (a change of heart, impressing someone, shifting an entanglement). On a 7-9 choose one:
  • You win at a cost (condition, injury, escape, reputation, roll Take a Powerful Blow).
  • You narrate how you lost (mark XP). You gain +1 Forward the next time you face them.
  • You deadlock with your opponent. You may reveal or learn something about them.
If your foe is above your scale, you lose the conflict. On a hit, you may declare how you lose. On a 7-9 roll Take a Powerful Blow.

Once you have faced or studied a foe above your scale, you may do something to even the score: study a secret technique, acquire a weapon, conduct a stratagem, weaken them, cheat, fight alongside someone that you have an adversarial entanglement with, team up with a group who shares mutual bonds, or the like. Some potent named foes may require several steps to equal in scale.

When you challenge another PC make an offer of what you’ll give them if they accept your victory. You may offer your unspent XP, character actions, burning bonds, changing entanglements, or similar things the GM approves. You put a single offer on the table. If the other player accepts, they lose the duel and mark XP. You must follow through on your offer. If the other player rejects the offer, you both mark a condition.

When you fight a group of foes who collectively are below your scale, roll. On a hit, you defeat them. Describe how you do so. On a 10+ you do so easily. On a miss, choose: their numbers overwhelm and you must retreat (mark XP) or you win at a cost. If multiple characters fight mooks, then if one retreats the others must as well (and mark XP).

When you pressure someone susceptible to your words, say what you’re trying to get them to do and roll. For NPCs: on a 10+, they bow to your words and do what you want. On a 7-9, they can instead choose one.
  • They reveal themselves: you may ask two questions of them.
  • They overreact: you gain bond with them. 
  • They hesitate: you gain +1 ongoing on them. This lasts until there is a major change with them in the fiction.
  • They alienate: they create animosity between themselves and someone of your choosing.
For PCs: On a hit if they do it, they mark XP. If they don’t, they mark a condition. They may burn a bond to avoid this. On a 7-9 you mark a condition as well.

We had some questions with this move. You can see various versions in other PbtA games, but I think I had “Provoke Someone” from Masks as the model. One players questioned the “reveal themselves” aspect here. I think it works because it’s a choice the NPC makes to avoid doing something. In Session Two I mistakenly read an action as triggering rather than Study. It really should have been that since players wanted the NPC to tell them something.

When you act to impress others or succeed at a competition, roll. Describe your performance. On a hit you impress and convince. Pick two. • Create a bond • Gain a favor • Clear a condition. On a 7-9 the GM will offer you a hard bargain. If in direct competition, the bargain will usually relate to them. This move is useful for public gatherings or explicit or implicit competition, (artistic performance, kata demonstration, tournaments). For working with someone specific, see Hearts & Minds.

When you study something in order to change the game state, roll. On a hit you always gain basic information. On a 10+ gain two hold. On a 7-9 gain one. Spend this hold 1 for 1 on the options below,
  • Ask a question about a situation or place (escape routes, hidden details, biggest threat, dangers)
  • Ask a question about a person (motivation, desires, intentions, means of manipulation)
  • Learn a person’s scale
  • Reveal a detail—declare something which changes or adds to the established fiction significantly.
I talked about my feelings about PbtA informational moves in my Mystery Academy post. This is my solution—bundling together spout lore, read a sitch, pierce the mask, etc. One of the end of session comments suggested having set questions like other PbtA games. I don’t know if I want to run it that way, but I might create an optional version for GMs who dig that. At the very least I’ll include sample questions.

When you comfort or support someone, roll. If you’re outside a charged situation, on a hit they hear you: they clear a condition. On a 10+, you can clear a condition yourself, ask them a question they must answer, or gain a bond with them. If you’re in a charged situation, on a hit you may give them +1 on their roll (before or after rolling). On a 7-9 you share in any consequences from their action. Need to better point to the split within this move.

When you deal with forceful emotional turmoil and pressure from one of your entanglements, roll anything but your style element. On a 10+ you manage to keep yourself together. On a 7-9 you must either flee the scene or mark a condition until you make a change in the entanglement.

Given how much we interacted with entanglements, this became a go-to move. Monsterhearts influences this.

Someone’s assault gets past your defenses, roll + conditions marked. This can be physical, social, or emotional. On a 10+, choose one.
  • you must remove yourself from the situation: flee, pass out, etc.
  • you give your adversary everything they want
  • two options from the 7-9 list
On a 7-9, choose one.
  • you embarrass yourself and lose face. Burn two bonds.
  • you give ground; your opposition gains something they want
  • you struggle past the pain; mark two conditions
On a miss, you stand strong.

This move is really reserved for a climactic scene where characters face someone significant. It’s a response to a GMs Hard Move. I expect, given the outlets elsewhere, we’ll rarely come to this. Is it necessary? Not sure.

When you do something under pressure, roll. On a 10+, you do it. On a 7–9, you flinch, hesitate, or stall: the MC can offer you a worse outcome, a hard bargain, or an ugly choice. On a miss, be prepared for the worst.

So here’s our “Act Under Pressure” move. Do we need it? I think we do; it generates interesting results and responses. I want to use it sparingly though. We assume competency for our wulin heroes, so we can handwave a ton of stuff. But, for example, when one of the players had to flee a scene with a corpse in tow and the guards pounding on the door, we had them roll this. The 7-9 result got them away, but not before being spotted.

When the PCs go into conflict as a group, nominate one PC as the lead. Two rules apply here. One, you cannot be the lead character again until everyone has had equal turns at it. Two, if the conflict's directly related to your entanglements, you have priority. This does not trump the first rule. The lead character has first choice to take on any worthy foe(s) in the scene.

If there is more than one worthy foe, they may face both (putting themselves down a scale) or ask other PC(s) to handle the other foe(s). Non-lead character can perform other actions: set up opportunities, comfort & support, and most importantly deal with the Mooks.

This tries to formalize PC spotlighting in what might otherwise be a chaotic scene. Some of the other moves refer back to it.

When you go off to develop a new technique to face a foe of higher scale, describe your montage and roll +(the number of times you have faced that foe). On a hit, you gain scale on your foe. On a 7-9 there’s a significant cost to learning the move.

Once per session when you meet a new wuxia character, nominate a PC present. They get into a conflict with them—describe the nature of the misunderstanding. Roll +Style Element. On a 10+, the PC may choose to win or choose to leave it undecided. If the latter, they may mark experience and gain a bond with the encountered character. On a 7-9 the result is undecided before the fighting’s finished. On a miss, the result is undecided but the encountered character will bear a grudge.

This needs revision The idea’s good, but the phrasings unclear on two points. First “a new wuxia character” ought to be “a wuxia stranger.” I want to emphasize that they don’t know each other. Second, I use the term ”undecided” in slightly different ways in the paragraph. To make it clear, the 7-9 should say something like “it’s unclear who would have won the fight.” And perhaps the player should get a question? On a fail, it should be, “though no one wins the fight, the encountered character will bear a grudge.”

When you walk alone into a dangerous situation you’re aware of, but your character isn’t roll and mark XP. On a 10+ you’re altered by something before your adversaries can take advantage. On a 7-9, you’re taken somewhat unawares—the enemy can do something before you act (even the scale, seize something, change the locale, reveal a trap, close off escape, frame you for something).

This one needs work. I added it for Session Two. In the debrief we talked about its intent and how it gets played out. In the wulin genre we often have heroes walking into situations that we as the audience (and the players) know are dangerous, a trap, etc. I want to simulate and incentivize this. The move itself has two problems.

First, I wrote “alone,” because that’s how I pictured it: a PC heads off by themselves to put their life in danger. But that’s a needlessly restrictive detail. It could be the group as a whole. Second, there’s the difficulty of emulating heroic naiveté. It’s hard to divide a player’s smart sense of danger from what their character might expect. I think, if I want to do this, I need to phrase it as an offer from the GM. It’s a different kind of fictional trigger, more like a compel. I’m still thinking about this.

I wonder if I couldn’t merge Misunderstanding and Heedless somehow.

Bonds represent friendship and influence. If you have a bond, you can burn it to gain a +1 on a roll. This can represent you alienating that group, calling on their aid, or using up the boost their friendship gives you.

I mentioned how those worked above, but here’s some of the additional text:
You may clear chi conditions via the Support or Comfort move. Alternately, between scenes you may narrate how your character deals with the problems of the condition. This should cost something (time, resources, making an entanglement more messy). You can then clear the condition. The Wounded condition’s more involved and requires time and medicine to heal. At the end of a story arc, all characters may clear a condition.

You mark XP in several ways. When you take a loss in a conflict, when you agree to pressure from another PC, and when certain moves offer it. Each session you highlight one of your entanglements. If you interact with that entanglement in a significant way during the session, you may mark 3 XP. If you interact with your other two entanglements, you may mark 1 XP each.

When you gain 8XP, you may take an advance. This is a shortened version, so we’re not worrying about higher level advances. With an advance you may:
  • Add +1 to one of your Chi (Stats). You may take this option five times; once for each Chi.
  • Add a new move from your playbook. You may take this 3 times.
  • Add a new move from another playbook. You may take this twice.
  • Add a custom move for your martial style. You may take this twice.
I have some other ideas about advancement, but I kept it simple for this version. I probably need to specify a Start of Session move where players highlight one of their Entanglements.

Next Post: The Playbooks

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Mystery Academy: Structure, Story, and Revisions

In my last post I went over my system adaptations for Mystery Academy, a weird school PbtA hack of Masks. It didn’t require a ton of work: a couple new moves and some tweaks to get it running. It’s a different question if it ran well. This post looks at structure, story, and things I need to fix before I run this again.

Masks: The New Generation is properly referred to as Masks: A New Generation, or MANG. I grew up with Star Trek: The Next Generation. I cannot help but refer to and abbreviate it Masks as Masks: TNG. The correct version flies out of my head every time I realize I’ve written it wrong. So for the rest of this I’ll simply call it Masks. I also call the MC the GM because I’m old.

If you’re curious you can see the session videos here (Session 1Session 2Session 3Session 4).

I love the way Masks builds backstory for your group of teen heroes. Each playbook has questions about “When Your Team First Met.” They’re tuned to the specific archetype. It’s a clever technique and one worth stealing for other games—allowing you to do an origin story without having to play it out. I can imagine doing a version for Changeling the Lost along the lines of “When all of you first emerged from the Hedge…” Originally I thought of doing something like that and my first post has some sample questions.

I ditched those when I got to the table. Instead during character creation I used leading questions to explore individual backstories. I wanted to start the actual game with uncertain characters arriving together. Being dropped into a strange place with no guidance is a great set up which lets the player develop relationships on the fly. It also let players color and add to the description of the actual school. Some of the bits, especially the idea of a Tower in the main house, gave me material I fashioned into something cool by the end.

Throughout I gave the players the opportunity to describe something they notice and add to the scene. That’s how we ended up with a second tower on the grounds and weirdly unmatched intercoms spread all over the place. The Seek move supports this, but you can also just do a montage or ask what they find that’s unusual.

I’ve written about School games before and what they offer. My Mystery Academy approach removes some potential features: sports, dances, holiday recess, etc. You could easily add that to your version of the school. My set up still allowed the most important scene in school games: the foreshadowing lesson. You’ll see that in Session Two when Dr. Friday talks about experimentation and observer bias. It’s a great technique, but requires a little prep from the GM’s. I think about the story themes so far and imagine some possible key scenes. Then I figure out what subject might fit. At the table I give a little lecture based on that topic. Those ideas then color the rest of my set up and GM moves for the session or arc. It doesn’t require much prep and doesn’t put the game on rails, and the payoff’s solid.

Here are elements of the setting and story to consider. You can tweak these, but this is what I worked from. In my notes I refer to a Class, that’s the generic name for the PC group (and other parallel NPC groups).

We have a large and sprawling estate. There should be older building, suggesting it was once a larger facility like a sanitarium or college. This gives plenty of outdoor room for the PCs to explore: woods, greenhouses, abandoned buildings with secrets to reveal. It also gives more space for players to come up with what’s actually there.

In a related geography, the Class has their lessons in one of these compound buildings. In my game they had to clean and straighten it up. It provides a space they can describe and also suggests the other Classes have their own buildings.

There are two other Classes. I kept them off-stage at the beginning except to confirm they existed. I moved one of the PC’s sister over to that group to create a connection. In my game one Class appeared adversarial. They’re our Slytherin. I didn’t have the chance to bring the other Class on stage, but I intended for them to be potential allies, perhaps under the thumb of the Sinister Class.

The main estate house is untenably massive. Think the Winchester House presented clearly as a maze. Eventually the characters discover it doesn’t adhere to normal conventions of space. Within the house, the PC have a wing. There’s a common room, boys’ room, girls’ room, and shower facilities down the hall.

Each Class’s “wing” has a designated color scheme. That helps the players grok what’s where. An early rule given is to not enter the other Classes’ wings. I had someone show up and go through their stuff early to show that rule isn’t well-enforced. The staff and teachers’ wing, which they’re not supposed to enter either, also has a color. Mostly important and teasingly, they’re not to enter rooms marked with red scarves or flags.

The staff and the teachers have a special naming convention. That’s a sign for the strangeness, but also helps the players keep track of who is who. In my case we had seven teachers, each named for a day of the week. We had twelve staff, each named for a month. I didn’t put all of them on the table in the four sessions.

There’s no wi-fi or internet. But the school has a large DVD collection as small consolation. This will obviously be a point of contention. In my version the school is atop a cliff and there’s a small, isolated New England town down below. They never went there so I never had to figure out what might be available to them there (or not). The players also asked about mail, which would of course be scanned by the staff.

To emphasize their isolation they have to take care of their own cooking for two meals a day and cleaning their areas. They’re given their own kitchen and dining area.

On the second day, a teacher finally explains the rules to them: they’re to attend classes six days a week, prepare their own lunch & dinner, avoid the other Class or Staff wings, cannot leave campus, must not discuss their schoolwork with the other classes, and aren’t to kill the other students.

There’s more but I wanted to get down some of the essentials of how I set things up. You can change that structure to make it more intimate, less sinister, and/or more clear. These all offer structural elements for the players to move within. But the Gm also has to think about some higher level details.

During the character creation section we discussed tone. The players asked for middle path—not too light, but also not truly dark. They wanted an uncertain and mysterious situation. That fit with my conception, but I can imagine something different. For example, perhaps the staff wouldn’t be ambiguously antagonistic. Maybe they could be helpful like something out of Harry Potter. In that case, the threats would be external—perhaps an invasion of the school. Challenges could also come from rivals or turncoat staff members.

If you want to run this, you have to consider how you want to frame the “weirdness.” What do the character think their powers are? Are there super-beings in this world? Because I hacked Masks, the players may have come with a sense that they possessed classic super-powers. But the strangeness they encountered suggested something beyond that. It wasn’t Xavier’s Academy but something weirder.

But it could have been something like the Massachusetts or Hellfire Academy, a school intended to corrupt their students. In that case the arc would probably have the teachers testing the students dangerously, with the eventual discovery of plans for villainy. At that point they might escape to something like the X-Men or even go on the road like Runaways or the doomed characters from Legion. In my case I had another idea.

Besides the level of strangeness, you’ll have to answer one basic question: what do the staff want from the students? It’s pretty obvious that the kids will push back against the rules and rebel. The teachers have to know that, so why not put them under tighter leash? Let me give my answer and then I’ll come to other options.

My school had once been in the hands of someone else. The current staff and teachers had fought the original owners to gain the location’s power. When they took over, they found those powers had been sealed. The invaders’ nature prevented access. But others, those not involved in the war and innocent about the nature of things, might be able to. By letting the students explore, the staff hopes those kids will unwittingly unlock something. They don’t really care what happens to the Class, though those who survive will make useful recruits.The staff’s powerful and arrogant, so the underestimate what powers these youths could wield.

And in my vision this connects to Mage the Ascension. I think a couple players picked up on that. The school is a former chantry, one of the most potent, connected to places beyond. The staff come from the Technocracy, hence some of the technology I hunted at. So that was my take, but I can imagine handling it in many other ways (parallel universe invaders, time travelers, fictonaut conspiracists ala “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”).

So why are the PCs at an advantage? In my game I suggested the Class before them, those occupying their rooms, had gone. They escaped, got lost, died, whatever. That forced the staff to quickly pull up new students without proper vetting. They ordinarily wouldn’t have chosen children with their confidence or heroism. The other Classes have limitations preventing them from being as brave or united as the PCs. One is made up of bullies and the other contains easily cowed students.

  • There’s a power struggle among various staff and teachers. They’re so focused on their own plans, they pay less attention to potentially wayward students.
  • The end goal is a sacrifice, so they don’t care so much if some of them get harmed or lost. As long as they have a chosen few victims they can properly indoctrinate, they’re good.
  • One of the students may be a “chosen one” and the staff wants to find out who it is. That will grant them some kind of power or control. But they don’t want to alert them.
  • The staff may run the school day to day, but there’s a secret force or figure behind the scenes giving orders. These contradictory and strange instructions give the students room to operate.
  • A defense system exists but the students discover a way around it early on. If they can keep this a secret, they can explore without interference.
  • The school itself is evil and controlling the staff for some nefarious purpose.

You should also consider the agenda and allegiances of the various adults. Not all the staff should be on the same page. We have some neutral, some hostile, some sympathetic, and some faking their kindness. In the “War Chantry” frame I used, a few NPCs hadn’t originally been part of the Technocracy. Some had betrayed their fellows, but others had remained strong. These survivors had been bound by Technocratic magics to serve them, but could push against that programming. At least one surviving member of the old chantry had managed to pass as a Technocrat but remained unbound and hidden among the staff.

Much of the system worked. I can’t claim any real credit for that. Masks offers a solid PbtA structure and I had great players. Of the changes I made, in particular players dug the Seek action I mentioned last time. PbtA always has collaboration, but having a move reinforcing that helped. It’s especially good because of Sherri’s suggestion to allow the player to change the world or ask the GM to do it for them. That gave room for input or seeing what I had in my head.

You can hear a lot of this system discussion in the Roses & Thorns section of the final session. If you’re interested in the nuts & bolts I recommend checking that out.

The Directly Engage a Threat move never came into play. Brendan Conway, designer of Masks, caught this right away, commenting on my last post. It took me four sessions of running to realize it didn’t work for our scale. Players never actually fought anything and even if they did, the move doesn’t feel quite right. We have several  thematically related moves: Directly Engage, Defend, Take a Powerful Blow, and Act Under Pressure. I need to figure out how to bundle these together into one or two moves that fit with the genre.

Throughout the game I forgot about the Team/Trust pool and how it serves as our Aid action. The players remembered in the last couple of sessions and used it. I like how the mechanic reflects the group coming together. But I don’t know if it feels redundant with the spendable Influence mechanics. Maybe I need to tweak that to make those more like Bonds from Worlds in Peril? Would that cost us some of the flavor?

We also had some questions about moves dealing with Adults. Some of that came from my own framing. In particular when the PCs deal with Adults they know are adversarial, should they react in the same way? We had a moment of uncertainty about that in Session 3 when Rosa faced Ms. August. In those situations are the characters Rejecting Influence or are they resisting a hit to get what they want? I’m not sure yet.

I need to rewrite the Read the Scene and Pierce the Mask example questions to add genre feel. That’s an editing pass approach I need to do to everything: how can I tweak the wording to make this feel like the genre I’m aiming for? It’s still a fan hack and not something for publication, but I want it to be better.

A final issue arose from the End of Session move:
At the end of every session, choose one:...Grow closer to your class. Explain who made you feel welcome; give an Influence to that character and clear a condition or mark potential....Grow into your own image of yourself. Explain how you see yourself and why; shift one Label up and another down....Grow away from the class. Explain why you feel detached. Take an Influence over you away from another character.
Across the board, players went with Grow Closer. It makes sense in the context of this game and how I ran it. Masks’ structure plays to the drama of the team interaction. Our game had dramatic scenes and arguments, but we never pushed to the breaking points Masks rightly encourages. As written this would work for a GM who leans into causing separation and tension between characters. Maybe in a game where there’s only one Class and we have NPCs to bounce off of. But If I run this again, I’ll revise that to incentivize all the choices or go for a more basic checklist. I also need to get more Potential doled out to the characters…


Thursday, February 8, 2018

Mystery Academy: Masks TNG Mechanics

In January I ran four sessions of “Mystery Academy,” a game set in an enigmatic school. Sherri spoke about it in this week’s Gauntlet Roundup podcast episode. A few things influenced how I imagined the setting: Morning Glories, Gunnerkrieg Court, Harry Potter, Strange Days at Blake Holsey High. John Bellairs, and Locke & Key among others. Some players suggested other models—Lumberjanes, Greenhouse Academy, and New Mutants for example. A couple of months back I posted sketches of my initial thinking.

I used Masks: A New Generation as the game’s basis. It’s an excellent rpg of teen superhero drama, open enough to adapt to other settings and purposes. For example last year I ran a post-Zombie Apocalypse game with it. That had potential, but needs more work. I like how Masks handles powers, social dynamics, and influence. As opposed to Monsterhearts, it focuses on a team of characters and establishes tension within that group. MH has more individual teen drama; it’s also darker than Masks and what I aimed for.

For this hack I mostly used Masks as-is. I made a few changes to basic moves, added two new moves, and stripped away the playbooks. Each character began with five stats, a minor & major weird power, and a single move reflecting their background. In today’s post I focus on the mechanical side of the game. Next time I’ll talk about concepts, story, framing, and what changes I’d made to the mechanics.

If you’re curious you can see the session videos here (Session 1, Session 2, Session 3, Session 4).

I stuck close to the Masks: TNG rules, but changed some wording changed to reflect the setting. For example, for the move Unleash, I refer to characters using “their weirdness.” I wanted to reinforce the uncertainty of their powers. In a couple of cases I broadened moves, like the two informational moves-- Read the Scene and Pierce the Mask.

When you study a place, thing, or situation with an eye to action, roll + Superior. On a 10+, ask two questions. On a 7-9, ask one. Take +1 while acting on the answers. Questions are open, but here are some examples (followed by the standard questions).

When you pierce someone’s mask to see the person beneath, roll + Mundane. On a 10+, ask two questions. On a 7-9, ask one. Note: certain adult staff members require additional set up in the fiction to allow this move on them. Questions are open, but here are some examples (followed by the standard questions).

I’ve been thinking about “question” moves a lot. They’re interesting in many PbtA games and when well done, they support the fiction. But they can also limit players, especially if they have a strong sense of what they want to know. In that case they have to bend the given questions out of shape. That’s especially true for games focused on investigation. As you saw above, I kept the example questions as is, but if I do another iteration I’ll add setting specific ones.

Informational moves overall can challenge a GM. I’ve been trying to articulate my approach. It isn’t novel; I’m guessing most handle it this way. When players ask a question, I give them generally accessible info—assuming competency and appropriate positioning. In that sense we’re taking a Gumshoe approach. You don’t have to roll for the basics, or even follow ups easily gleaned. We go to a roll when pursuing further presents a potential cost: time, resources, attention. For PbtA I go to the roll when the information sought could change the game state—opening avenues, establishing important facts, creating opportunities.

For Mystery Academy I wrote a move that actively encourages player additions to the setting. While we already do that through leading questions, I also wanted something that says: when you go looking for something, you can declare what it is. Or you can hand it over to the GM if you’re more interested in reacting. The move also encourages players working together.

When you explore, research, or draw on your memories to seek answers, say generally what you might find and roll. If someone aids you, you may roll with an appropriate stat. On a 10+ you may declare what you've found out or ask the GM to answer in a positive way. On a 7-9 you may declare or ask, but the GM may add a cost, make it adversarial, or have it be ambiguous. On a 6-, the GM may make the declaration entirely.

Because we’d be acting on a smaller scale than Masks, I wanted a move for “doing things.”

When you do something under pressure, roll +Savior. On a 10+, you do it. On a 7–9, you flinch, hesitate, or stall: the MC can offer you a worse outcome, a hard bargain, or an ugly choice. On a miss, be prepared for the worst.

All of these changes and additions meant I had to modify the conditions characters could take. In Masks each condition gives a -2 to some actions.
  • Angry: -2 Engage, Seek 
  • Afraid: -2 Comfort; Pierce Mask
  • Guilty: -2 Provoke; Read              
  • Hopeless: -2 Defend; Reject
  • Insecure: -2 Unleash, Act Under Pressure

We used the spendable Influence option from the back of the Masks core book. Players gain points of influence to spend later on effects. I also changed the Team Pool to a Trust Pool and limited that a little:

When you enter a charged situation together as a Class, add one to the Trust pool. Determine who is leader.
  • If the leader has an Influence on each classmate, add another Trust.
  • If everyone has the same purpose in the scene, add another Trust.
  • If anyone mistrusts the leader or wants to be leader, remove a Trust.
  • If your class is ill-prepared or off-balance, remove a Trust.

The leader can mark a condition to avoid removing a Trust.
Anyone working with the class can spend Trust one for one to help a classmate; give them +1 to their roll.

Classmates can also burn Trust to act selfishly. When you act selfishly, say how your actions ignore or insult your classmates, remove one Trust from the pool, and shift one Label up and one Label down. You can use this after rolling to alter the Label you’re rolling with.

Whenever time passes, the GM empties the Trust pool.

At the end of every session, choose one:
  • Grow closer to your class. Explain who made you feel welcome; give an Influence to that character and clear a condition or mark potential.
  • Grow into your own image of yourself. Explain how you see yourself and why; shift one Label up and another down.
  • Grow away from the class. Explain why you feel detached. Take an Influence over you away from another character.

For Advances players could increase a label or add a custom move. I suggested looking at the Background moves (see below) for ideas.

Each character began with a little power and a big one, their “weirdness.” The little one gave a modest effect without a roll or acted as supporting fiction for a roll. The modest powers were: appearance changing, being slightly unseen, doors unlocking, moving small objects at a distance, talking with animals, and impressions from the past on an object. They more impactful than I’d originally imagined, but that was better.

Any bigger power required the Unleash move. Some of those included whirlwind of force, reshaping metal into a defense, manipulating emotions, and guidance towards the future.

Players didn’t have playbooks, but I still wanted to give them something beyond their weirdness to differentiate them. Each character chose one background taken from the various Masks Playbooks.
  • ANGRY: Things never go your way, the world's out to get you. You knew that they'd somehow try to throw you away, but you don't care. (“I don’t care what you think” from The Delinquent).
  • BORN TO STRANGENESS: Perhaps your parents were part of a strange conspiracy that led to you coming here. Maybe you grew up in a cult. Possibly you were found in the woods. You always roll Seek with +1.
  • BRAINY: Your intelligence completely defines you. You understand its greatness and wish others would either leave you alone or simply acknowledge your superiority. (“Dangerous web” from The Janus, but substitute the phrase “using your intelligence” for “using your powers”)
  • COMPETENT: You've always been self-assured and able to handle yourself. You learned early on to look out for number one. Whatever you've tried to do sports, school, drama you've excelled. Now you have to rely on others. (“It feels kinda personal” from The Soldier)
  • DELINQUENT: Maybe you grew up in a criminal family, maybe you just picked things up on your own. (“Troublemaker” from The Delinquent)
  • FAMOUS: Always the whispers: "Wait, isn't that...what are they doing here?" (“Are you watching closely? From The Delinquent but substitute in “When you use your fame to mislead, distract, or trick someone susceptible,”)
  • FOREIGNER: You come from someplace exotic and strange. It might not be a distant land. You might have grown up the anointed heir. Or perhaps you're the pampered child of a CEO who has known only luxury. (“not so different after all” from The Outsider)
  • INNOCENT: You've never been any place like this. Maybe you grew up homeschooled, in a closed off environment, or just away from people. You might simply be a rube... (“What’s this thing?” from The Innocent but substitute in “ask for someone else’s guidance on the school”)
  • LAB SUBJECT: You been subject to some kind of testing, isolation, or treatment because of your weirdness. (“Thick and thin skinned” from The Bull)
  • ORPHANED: Something happened to your parents, a terrible tragedy that has stuck with you. You won't let that happen again. (“Game face” from The Janus)
  • PROTECTOR: You have always looked out for others or perhaps just someone in particular like a little brother or abused friend. (“There when it matters” from The Bull)
  • ROYALTY: You come from the elite. You know better and these rubes are simply wasting your time. (“Cold and cruel” from The Star)
  • SCARED: For some it is shyness, for others it is a very real terror of something. This place frightens you and you have to constantly be on guard. “When you assess a charged situation, you may ask one additional question, even on a miss.” (Reworded from The Protégé)
  • SCATTERED: You wear your strangeness on your sleeve. Your dress, manner, speech, or attitude reveal that you're not entirely on the same page. (“Not from around here” from The Newborn).
  • WELL-ADJUSTED: You grew up in a normal, happy family. You don't get all the weirdness, conspiracy, and danger that seems to surround you. You have an additional condition you may mark, Disillusioned. Choose one action it gives a penalty when taken.

Next time: story, structure, and revisions

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Neo Shinobi Vendetta: Fate Pre-Gens

I ran two sessions of my anime-ninja-sci fi mash up Neo Shinobi Vendetta online last month. That’s the game I talk about on this week’s Gauntlet Roundup podcast episode. We had a great conversation and I recommend listening to it. I discuss the purpose of the setting, shifting tone in play, and the challenges of action in a story environment. Plus sweet ninjas chopping off heads.

I’ve posted NSV material before. I have entries covering the overall setting as well as a shorter version. I also wrote up the game’s shinobi powers. Originally I wrote NSV for Action Cards, our Fate-influenced homebrew. I’ve run it that way f2f and a half dozen times at Origins and Gen Con. Because I hadn’t yet worked out cards in Roll20, I went with Fate Core for our Gauntlet sessions. If you compare the AC and Fate versions, you’ll see how easy conversion is. You can find the AP videos here and here

Our characters have sixteen skills, some powers, and a few stunts. It’s a larger pool of options than standard Fate, so it’s probably closer to Atomic Robo in power level. Each character has a "corruption"-- some of these trigger if they roll ++++ or ----. Others give a cost. I decoupled the stunt/refresh connection in making these characters; they’re crafted particularly for one-shots+. I also opted to go with a stress pool rather than check boxes. That’s purely about keeping things simple and easy to teach online.

CONCEPT Master of Guile 
TROUBLE Don't Stop Deceiving 
REFRESH 1                        STRESS 13
AIM +3                                 PHYSIQUE ---
ATHLETICS +2                    SCIENCE ---
DECEPTION +4                   SOCIETY +3
DEXTERITY +5                    STEALTH +2
FIGHT +3                             TECHNOLOGY +1
INVESTIGATE +2                UNDERWORLD +4
KNOWLEDGE +1                WILL +1

  • Compensation (Memetic Base): You may use Deception for Fight tests.  
  • Hijack (Ghost Set): You can see through the vision of others. Distance and barriers determine the difficulty of the test required.  
  • Mirrors (Wizard Set): You can generate a host of duplicates by spending 2 stress. These can distract, help evasion, or other effects. They wear out quickly.  
  • Spider (Wizard Set): You can cling to walls and other surfaces with perfect control as if walking normally on the ground. This includes ceilings, sides of moving cars, and even sword blades. This does not give perfect balance and you can be knocked down or off.  
  • Always a Way Out: +2 on checks made to create an advantage whenever you’re trying to escape from a location.  
  • Clever Disguise: You may assume disguises as an action. Your skill and technology allow you to resist scrutiny where it might otherwise fail.  
  • Memetic Overlay Corruption: atavistic reactions, possession, reversion of other states, or disorientation.
CONCEPT Voice of the Nano-Kami 
TROUBLE Echoes in My Head 
REFRESH 2                        STRESS 12
AIM +4                                 PHYSIQUE ---
ATHLETICS +1                    SCIENCE +3
DECEPTION +3                   SOCIETY +1
DEXTERITY +2                    STEALTH +2
FIGHT +2                             TECHNOLOGY +4
INVESTIGATE +3                 UNDERWORLD +1
KNOWLEDGE +5                 WILL ---

  • Disintegration (Nanoswarm Base): You can deal stress to hardened structures: walls, structural supports, vehicles. This can be used for an attack or to set up other effects.  
  • Flight (Nanoswarm Base): Spend 2 stress to become capable of flight for a scene. Pick two when you fly: Agile, Fast, Carry Others, Hi-Attitude, Long Distance, or Super Silent.  
  • Rebuilder (Nanoswarm Base): You can reshape existing material into new forms, duplicate objects, or even create a new item. States and types of matter can be changed.  
  • Subdual (Invoker Set): You can declare any attack nonlethal. Additionally as an action you can put to sleep any grouped noncombatants or bystanders.  
  • Data Surveyor: You have an acute eye for accounts. You can easily pick out patterns and problems in a fraction of the normal time. You're also an expert at using bits and pieces to track people. You can test to locate someone at a particular time or guess behavior based on the past and get quick results.  
  • Fast Friend: On entering a new social situation (party, meeting) you may spend a fate point to rapidly make a good friend or contact.  
  • Nanoswarm Corruption: collateral stress, brief independence, misread commands, or even visible scarring and marks.  
CONCEPT Lumbering Mountain of Poison 
TROUBLE Painless
REFRESH 2                        STRESS 12
AIM ---                                 PHYSIQUE +4
ATHLETICS +2                   SCIENCE +5
DECEPTION +2                  SOCIETY +1
DEXTERITY ---                   STEALTH +2
FIGHT +3                            TECHNOLOGY +3
INVESTIGATE +4               UNDERWORLD +1
KNOWLEDGE +3               WILL +1

  • Armor of God (Demon Set): You add +2 physical stress for each condition taken.  
  • Body Shaping (Genocolony Base): You can reshape your body. Extend limbs, grow bigger, shrink to half size, perform contortions, or slip into tight gaps or containers  
  • Reweaver (Genocolony Base): You may also take an additional 4 point condition.  
  • Bend Bars/Lift Gates: You may spend a fate point to perform an absurd lift, pull, or other feat of strength.  
  • Mad Science: You may use Science tests to do a major attack or effect if you have access to materials. You mix chemicals, rewire systems, etc. quickly. Limit 1 crazy plan per scene.  
  • Retag: When being individually hunted or pursued, you can spend a fate point to re-center the hunt on another target you come into contact with. This creates an additional obstacle for your pursuers.  
  • Genocolony Corruption: DNA absorption, rampant consumption, bizarre growths, and uncontrolled tentacles and the like.  
CONCEPT Whispers of the Coiled Serpent 
TROUBLE Some Call it Cowardice 
REFRESH 2                        STRESS 13
AIM +5                                 PHYSIQUE ---
ATHLETICS +1                    SCIENCE +1
DECEPTION +3                  SOCIETY +2
DEXTERITY +1                   STEALTH +4
FIGHT +3                             TECHNOLOGY ---
INVESTIGATE +2                UNDERWORLD +2
KNOWLEDGE +3                WILL +4

  • Deathcloud (Sorcerer Set): You may perform an electrical attack hitting a tight group. This targets everyone close by. Add +1 stress per target and divided it evenly among the targets.  
  • Id Insinuation (Psychic Base): You may slightly cloud the minds of targets in an area within sight for effect. You can also spend a fate point to edit short term memories on a target.  
  • Savior (Saint Set): You may heal an ally in combat as an action. Roll against a difficulty of 0. By spending a fate point you may affect two targets.  
  • Alarmist: You have an instinct for avoiding traps, sensors, and alarms. You gain +2 to checks to spot and circumvent them.  
  • Precise: You can hit absurdly small and precise targets with ranged attack. If you need to roll, reduce the difficulties for size and environment,
  • Wicked Edge: You do +2 stress using Fight.    
  • Psychic Drawback: You do not suffer corruption, but using talents takes a toll on your body. Each use costs stress to activate. Pay for ongoing talents when first turning them on. This stress cannot be healed via other effect in combat, but does heal naturally with rest.  
CONCEPT Meticulous Planner
TROUBLE Mercy for the Innocent
REFRESH 2                        STRESS 12
AIM +2                                 PHYSIQUE +1
ATHLETICS +4                    SCIENCE ---
DECEPTION ---                   SOCIETY +2
DEXTERITY +4                    STEALTH +5
FIGHT +3                             TECHNOLOGY +3
INVESTIGATE +3                UNDERWORLD +2
KNOWLEDGE ---                WILL +1

  • Hurdle (Dragon Set): Shinobi can ordinarily make high jumps and leaps, at least twice normal distance. When you use this power, you may make insane leaps and jumps.  
  • Lull (Chimera Set): By concentrating you can create an area nearby that, when scanned, causes most devices to read most common & expected results.  
  • Soul Sense (Chi Field Base): You sense lifeforms in a short radius, even through barriers. You may tag targets (up to 3). You know direction of tagged targets and do +2 stress to them.  
  • Cleaner: You’re an expert at removing evidence from a scene. You gain a +2 to all tests for this. You can also clean a scene after the fact.  
  • From the Darkness: You do +2 stress when attacking a surprised opponent.  
  • Scoundrel’s Reflexes: You may make a stealth check to hide yourself even when surprised, without penalty.  
  • Chi Field Drawback: You do not suffer corruption, but using talents takes a toll on your body. Each use costs stress to activate. Pay for ongoing talents when first turning them on. This stress cannot be healed via other effect in combat, but does heal naturally with rest.   
CONCEPT Body of Metal 
TROUBLE More Machine than Human 
REFRESH 2                        STRESS 12
AIM +1                                 PHYSIQUE +1
ATHLETICS +3                    SCIENCE +4
DECEPTION +3                  SOCIETY ---
DEXTERITY +2                   STEALTH +3
FIGHT +4                             TECHNOLOGY +5
INVESTIGATE +2                UNDERWORLD ---
KNOWLEDGE +2                WILL +1

  • Instinct (Serpent Set): When struck in melee, you do 1 stress back to your attacker.  
  • Sensory Array (Cybernetics base): You can see in absolute darkness, aware 360 degrees, perceive microscopically & telescopically, and are protected from blinding/deafening.  
  • SubDermal Plating (Cybernetics Base): Reduce any physical stress done to you by 2.  
  • Sinuous (Serpent Base): You do +2 stress in grapples. If you've grappled a target, they take the first 2  stress done to you outside of the grapple. 
  • Grappler: +2 to tests made to create advantages on an enemy by wrestling or grappling with them.  
  • Mastercrafted: Twice per session you can reroll a result if you explain how your personalized advanced equipment helped you out.  
  • Cybernetics Drawback: The most obvious source of powers; can only be concealed with difficulty. While you do not suffer corruption, your implants render you vulnerable to humanity-based effects. Take +2 stress from mental or psychological attacks. 
If you have any questions, hit me up.