Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Mean Streets: RPG Cities

I'm posting some of my favorite archive pieces for the next few weeks as I prep for Origins. I'll be running Games on Demand sessions at least Thursday and Saturday night, so please stop by to say hi if you're at the convention. I wrote this post on cities almost exactly four years ago. In the time since, I've written a few other pieces thinking about cities and rpgs.
Outside of that I'm leaving the post intact hoping it will spark some ideas.

I've finally finished my reviews of Flying Buffalo’s Citybook series (spoiler: Citybook VI: Up Town's my favorite.). Going through reminded me how much good play material I’d gotten from those books. In the end that's my scale for a product's success- how well it informs or assists actual play at the table. In the case of the Citybooks, the best led to great adventures. Those entries shared several characteristics: interesting NPCs; a small twist; a basic premise shifted in a novel way; and several suggestions for different directions to take the material. With that in mind I have a few more thoughts on the series as a whole and on urban sourcebooks.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with generic RPG sourcebooks, especially for fantasy games. In the early days companies put out waves of alternate, additional, or variant products. Most of these boiled down to house rules, homemade monsters, and overly complicated new systems for niche areas (i.e. The Compleat Alchemist). Even when they presented world and setting material, it lack flavor or filled out with random tables. I ended up burned by too many early Judges Guild products. As a result I ended up avoiding many good product lines, for example Mayfair’s Role Aids line.

Instead I bought materials from particular settings and worked to adapt those (the Gazetteers, Warhammer Fantasy, MERP, Shadow World, Hârn). And by adapt I mean steal and rework anything interesting. Those books had distinct character, but at the cost of requiring serious conversion. I suspect my continual move away from detailed system mechanics over the years has come at least in part from my not caring about the details in those books. They got in the way- I wanted the premises, cultures, plots, puzzles, and characters from them. Most of the time that didn’t require knowing the stat blocks; monsters I could make up. I didn’t need the crunch of their write ups.

I believe anything can be adapted- I based a fantasy campaign on Masks of Nyarlathotep and ran The Enemy Within using GURPS. Some materials, obviously, offer more hurdles than others. Different settings and systems have vastly different assumptions. Consider the ultra-low magic and brutality of combat in Hârn. I loved some that setting's details, especially the various fighting chapters of the war gods Agrik and Larani. I crammed that into a corner of my campaign world where I was already using ideas from the high mythic of Runequest and Glorantha. I’m still trying to patch and bandage that particular combination. Sometimes the assumptions arise from the presentation. Anything from ICE (for Rolemaster or MERP) tended to crazy overpower when you examined the stats. Magic items, high sorcery, and cosmic-level demons rules the supplements. For RM so much ended up represented abstractly, with numbers everywhere. There are no interesting traps or locks- they’re defined only in terms of numbers to disarm, difficulty to spot, and effects dealt. I love RM for the neat maps and cool treasure, but so much of it is useless, except for the rare setting that brings something new to the table (Gethæna: Underearth Emer).

Ironically the strength of these items lies in their specificity. Those constraints give rise to more interesting concepts IMHO than most totally generic supplements offer. That may be why I appreciate the Citybooks so much. They have limits in theme and scope which makes the entries interesting. They also give the ideas enough space to grow, making them more generally adaptable. That’s one of the huge flaws in Citybook VII- valuing quantity over quality and depth. I haven’t yet written up my reviews of the generic products Eureka and Masks, but they share some of those problems. Other generic books take a broader, almost meta-approach. I don’t need to know the population of a city broken down into hundreds of categories. I don’t need to know all of the shops. I do want a map of the city, but I don’t want/need to know what every business is. I want to be able to paint a rich picture of the place with the minimum of brushstrokes and effort.

I want to be the Bob Ross of gamemastering.

While I like Citybook I, I really love the later volumes with strong themes. Most of these strike the right balance between focusing the material and offering ideas open enough for most games. I think more Citybooks could be produced. Certainly we’ve seen many new urban sourcebooks over the years (for example products on this list Incomplete Cities: Sourcebooks for City Building). Maybe it could be done without the “Citybook” name- perhaps as web or Kickstarter project. I still think there’s a need for strong generic projects that don’t feel generic. I’ve gotten so much excellent use out of the CB materials, I’d love to see more.

My suggestions for additional volumes:

Citybook VIII: Hub of Industry: Sourcebook focusing on the manufacturing and industrial parts of the city, bordering on steampunk in its execution (workhouses, mudlarks, the Vats, the Plant, robotics factory). These kinds of themes have grown since the CB series came out. You could consider waste disposal systems, mad scientist supplies, social welfare in the city, perhaps the Calculational Engine underground.

Citybook IX: Ivory Towers: This would contain establishments dedicated to teaching and training of all kinds. You’d begin with entries dedicated to different kinds of classic academies (Universities, Schoolhouses, Magic Colleges, Religious Schools). Next you’d have narrower and more specialized kinds of training (Thiefly Schools, Duelist Training, Hidden necromancy, Underground Medical Training, etc.). Finally you’d cover all of the secondary establishments serving those schools (Professional Plagiarists, Magical Cram Tutors, Secret Libraries, Youth Hostels, and so on). These kinds of academies are a staple of fantasy fiction, from Harry Potter to The Name of the Wind to Rats and Gargoyles.

Citybook X: Distant Places: This would be a more broadly conceptual sourcebook. Each section of the book would focus on unique establishments for different regions (desert cities, arctic cities, mountain cities, jungle cities, flying cities, etc). You would pick a couple as the most common and then have a catch-all section. Perhaps the last grouping could include high magic cities, those filled with wonder. Or you could have one covering cities catering to adventurers, the "dungeon entrance" city. These lie outside of major ruins and serve those who plumb the depths (Pavis, Parlainth, Lesserton & Mor). These would have unique establishments to aid explorers (trap smiths, map makers, item diviners, artifact counterfeiters).

Citybook XI: Otherlands: Sourcebook split into sections, each covering establishments from the cities of different races: Orcs/Goblins, Elves, Dwarves, Haflings, misc. This might be too narrow an approach- or at least it wouldn’t be useful to all GMs. It would require the editor to be really careful. Entries would have to straddle the line between being specific to that culture and also adaptable elsewhere.

For the most part, the Citybook series works for me. I want ideas and plots I can easily use and reuse across a variety of games. On the other hand, I also understand gamers who need to have all of the details and mechanics laid out. The citybooks have maps for nearly every establishment, offering specifics of the layout. But honestly in the two decades+ I’ve been using these books I have never referred to or used the maps. Never.

One question has been nagging at me while I’ve done this review series: could you do Citybook-style material for another genre? On the one hand, it ought to be possible. You ought to be able to create the same kinds of businesses for a Supers, Horror, Modern, or Sci-Fi game. More easily you could do that for narrower genres like Wild West, Steampunk, or Cyberpunk. On the other hand, my gut tells me that wouldn’t work. You need hooks into the actual premises of the specific game. Delta Green is very different from Buffy the Vampire Slayer despite both being horror. Ashen Stars and Diaspora are vastly different sci-fi beasts. Urban entries for one probably wouldn’t work for the other. There’s also the question of how characters interact with the urban backdrop in the different settings.

I don’t know and I need to think about what other genre Citybooks would look like. The excellent Damnation City offers a possible approach. Though it is pretty deeply steeped in Vampire, it has useful material and entries not unlike those of the CB at the back. Creating Citybooks for a particular line or setting would be easier- for example, I’d love a CB-style urban sourcebook for Changeling the Lost

Citybook VII: King's River Bridge

Thursday, May 26, 2016

History of Universal RPGs (Part Two: 1994-1997)


Do I believe that’s true? Will a generic system always be weaker than a dedicated one? I hesitate because that slides into the battleground of “Does System Matter?”. That’s a conflict I’ve been in before. I think different games make it easier or harder to get what you want out of them. That can come from the system, writing, or even presentation. I think what you want at the table shapes this even more. 

For example, I have a couple of JRPGs I love despite how terrible they are: Cross Edge and Chaos Wars. They’re crossover videogames, blending characters from various publishers in one place. The more recent Project X Zone does the same thing, but combines characters across games and genres (Phoenix Wright, MegaMan, Tekken, and Sakura Wars). I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. I remember my excitement when DC & Marvel released X-Men vs. Teen Titans in the ‘80s and the Amalgam line in the ‘90’s. I bought these for nostalgia and What If-tude. I love mash ups and multi-dimensional hodge-podges. 

Or rather I love them in theory. In practice they’re not that good. They’re working for too many bosses and lack focus. They offer a weird compromise. But I think that’s not the point. There’s another goal here beyond excellence. I like just like the concept those characters together. Just like I approve of the idea that we could port rpg characters from one game to another. Or more importantly that we could seamlessly port rpg players from one game to another. We have other goals beyond excellence with Universal RPGs. I’ll come back to that next time

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I only include core books here. I’m also only listing books with a physical edition. I might include an electronic release if they’re notable and of significant size. At the end you’ll see some miscellaneous entries, covering borderline or similar cases. Some selections came down to a judgement call. I’m sure I missed some releases. This is a fertile time for Universal rpgs; the rate of publication drops off after this. If you spot something Universal which came out from 1994 to 1997, leave a note in the comments. 

1. Fudge (1994)
I am not a clever man. I only realized today that "Fudge" can mean to obscure or devise a substitute. That’s more likely the reference the title's going for than a confectionery-based one. Which is what I thought. For years.

Fudge first appeared in 1992, but didn't see a physical edition until '94 so I placed it here. That's a rule I'll break later in this list. Fudge offered a unique and light but robust system GMs could adapt to settings. It is the ancestor of Fate and the originator of the Fudge dice (with +, -, and blank sides). You can find much of Fate's DNA here: the trait levels, skill stacks, margins of success, and an overall simple approach. Some things differ, like Fate's use of aspects, elemental stunt system, handling of damage, and lack of attributes. Fudge originally stood for Freeform Universal Do-It-Yourself Gaming Experience. Like Fate's acronym that dropped away in time.

Fudge offers a toolkit, a simple resolution system GMs can adapt in many different ways. Rather than a core engine with small notes for options, Fudge embraces variant rules throughout. The first edition provided the basics necessary to play and create new modules. That was followed by short printed and electronic supplements adding new options. Probably the most notable use of Fudge has been as the basis for the The Deryni Adventure Game. The Fudge 10th Anniversary Edition offers the most definitive take on the system, including a simple out-of-the-box version ("Five Point Fudge"), Fantasy Fudge, magic mechanics, superhero rules, equipment systems, and martial arts options. It’s a solid book and worth picking up. Homebrew designers and Fate gamers might find useful material there as well.

2. Masterbook (1994)
West End Games always had a strange stable of games. Star Wars gave them mainstream access and cred, but they paired that with strange and wonderful games like TORG, Paranoia, and Shatterzone. Masterbook followed Alternity's path, a smallish core book followed by larger setting books. Rather than use the d6 mechanics from Star Wars (which they'd turn to eventually), Masterbook followed TORG’s mechanics: d10 resolution but with card-based modifications (called the MasterDeck here). The game seems caught between aiming for a lighter, more accessible approach and the desire for complete mechanics. That's a struggle we'll see throughout these generic systems. Masterbook tried to split the difference but didn't succeed.

I skipped Masterbook when arrived amidst a glut of sourcebooks. I'd looked at TORG, but its gonzo craziness felt like a weird stepchild of Rifts. As a result, I didn't even realize the game used cards until much later. Ironic given that we gravitated to a card-based system for our own homebrew. But it would be the licenses West End Games selected that really kept me from trying Masterbook.

It isn't that they didn't have some good ones. Or a good one: The World of Indiana Jones. The rest left me cold: The World of Necroscope (1995), The World of Aden (1996), The World of Species (1995), The World of Tales from the Crypt (1996), and The World of Tank Girl (1995). I'd heard of all of them save Aden. As for the rest, I can safely say they weren't things that made me say: “Wow, I need to play a game in this setting.” Not at all. Precis Intermedia currently has the rights to Masterbook and they've re-released that as well as Shatterzone.

3. Via Prudensiae (1994)
A Danish rpg. According to RPG Geek the designers aimed it for use with convention scenarios. The 126-page core book includes setting material for a fantasy and cyberpunk world as well as scenarios. It uses multiple dice combined with a point-buy system. Via Prudensiae also used a tick-based initiative system (like Exalted 2e or Feng Shui). The combat system takes up about a third of the book, suggesting serious crunch. If youread Danish you can check out the back cover which likely has more  info. On the other hand, if you know rpgs and Danish you probably know this game.

4. CORPS (1995)
BTRC has been one of the overlooked workhorse rpg publishers. It gets only passing mention in Designers & Dragons despite three decades+ of publications. Beginning with 1983's Timelords, the company has built a catalog of lines and developed several core systems. Greg Porter continually releases the games he wants to have out there. They usually haven't been on my wavelength or taken the world by storm, but they've included interesting products like Macho Women with Guns, WarpWorld, and Guns! Guns! Guns!. The latter's how I first found their products. In high school any weapon & equipment book seemed awesome with a capital AWE (The Palladium Book of Contemporary Weapons, The Armory Volume One, Q Manual). I came from a liberal, gunless family, but I thought all of that stuff was sweeeeet. That's not my headspace now. Anyway…

CORPS is actually the second edition of the game. Originally it had a world action and espionage setting. This volume took the core system and made it universal. The name stands for Complete Omniversal Role-Playing System. CORPS uses a point buy system, with separate points given for buying the six attributes and buying the many skills (and sub-skills). There's an interesting mechanic which translates attributes into a lower aptitude rating. You buy associated skills starting from the aptitude level as a base, effectively offering a discount. Tasks have a difficulty. You only roll if the difficulty is higher than your skill. In that case you roll a d10, trying roll below (11-(2*the difficulty difference).

Overall, CORPS feels mechanical and crunchy to me, even more than GURPS. I'm not sure why that is. More than anything else it reminds me of Aftermath. CORPS has a host of numbers and modifiers, appealing to those who want simulationist play. The core book has a ton of options in it, but it isn’t that long or dense. Yet a GM picking this up would need some heavy reference charts to keep things straight. In 2002, BTRC introduced another universal system EABA. At that point CORPS dropped out as the company shifted everything over to that.

5. Goblin World (1995)
It seems to me that maybe, just maybe if you create a universal rpg, you don’t give it a name (and a cover) that makes me assume it’s a weird fantasy indie game of goblinoid life. Because that’s not what this is. Instead Goblin World’s a set of universal LARP rules, which “spans across cultures and technology from Aztec to high-tech.” The book offers basic rules and information for handling different genres. Goblin World also has costuming and prop ideas and guidance. Beyond that, I have no clue. I know that it was spiral bound, always a mark of quality in rpgs.

6. MAGIUS (1995)
aka Multiple Assignable Game Interface for Universal System. MAGIUS is Japanese rpg, which I've seen described both as universal and aimed at fantasy. The system was used as the basis for various manga and anime adaptations (not unlike BESM). These include The Slayers, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Saber Marionette J, and Tenchi Miyo. On RPGGeek a user mentions that while MAGIUS looked like a lighter version of GURPS, "the different modules of MAGIUS weren't inter-compatible. What you used was just the MAGIUS start book and one module of your selection. So it wasn't a system that you could gradually expand with each module. In fact, it was the supplements that were the main book, the start book was just an extra. Once you knew the basic rules of the start book, you could actually do well with just a supplement." Here's the Japanese wikipedia page for more information.

7. Storyboard (1995)
I'm not sure which game first used descriptive phrases in place of stats and numbers. Some, like Fudge, hybridized that. Others like Storyboard shifted to diceless resolution and negotiation. It’s the only game from Magus Creative and a slim 32-page universal system. At first I assumed Storyboard had flared briefly and burned out, like other heartbreaker efforts. But Magus Creative still has a web presence. At their page you can order copies. They also offers services for role-play gamers: character consultation, world development, game systems/instructions, custom game accessories, and game running. I'm unsure if that's still operation; the last date on the site's 2007.

8. The D6 System (1996)
Here's West End Games yanking the steering wheel in the other direction. As Masterbook started landing in discount bins, WEG shifted back to the popular d6 system- still the basis of their most successful line, Star Wars. In fact the materials for Indiana Jones had stats for both systems. Newer licenses moved exclusively to d6: Men in Black, Hercules & Xena, the Metabarons, and DC Universe. Weirdly it would be several years before WEG truly embraced this as a generic system. In 2004 they finally produced genre books including d6 Space, d6 Fantasy, and d6 Adventure.

d6 is one of my gaming blindspots. I understood the basics, and appreciated how well it sold in the store. But I can definitively establish what kept me away from it: the fans. I still remember the screaming match in the back game room between two enormous Star Wars d6 enthusiasts. The topic?

Who would win in a fight: Boba Fett or Darth Vader.

Red-faced, yelling, close to tears.

In any case, d6 has stood the test of time. It has a dedicated fanbase, especially those players who came into gaming via Star Wars or one of its other iterations. It has an approachable simplicity. Assign 18 dice to attributes and seven dice to skills. Dice have a series of steps so you can have 1D, 1D+1, 1D+2, and then 2D. On paper it seems a little wonky to calculate on the fly, but I bet it becomes second nature. Players resolve tests by rolling those dice against a target number, with one of the dice potentially exploding (on a 6) or causing a fumble (on a 1). The d6 system presented in this corebook tacks on a few other universal elements: history, quirks, fate points, and advantages & disadvantages. Other systems like magic and psionics are lumped together as supernatural powers here and expanded in sourcebooks. The corebook's decent and complete, but held back by weird page frames and uneven art.

9. Fantasy Workshop (1996)
Another Danish rpg, though the RPG Geek entry suggests it came out in both Danish and English. It's an odd presentation, only 40 pages and square. It appears to be a freeform, diceless game and the only product from these designers. The generic name for this generic game works against me. I wasn't able to track down more info, but I'll keep hunting.

10. Infinite Domains (1996)
I'm sometimes struck  by the ambition of these early universal systems. Infinite Domains, a single corebook with vaporware expansions, clocks in at only 110 pages. It jumped into a crowded marketplace, with a generic cover reflecting the generic system. It went for random stat generation, as opposed to the general point-buy trend. Players chose careers which affected their skills which they then purchased with points. It used an action resolution chart and contained a decent magic system. Beyond that I've found little about this game. A positive review on the Noble Knight site shows that at least a few gamers dug it.

aka "The Rule of the Game." An Italian system for covering any setting, but through the lens of movies. Players define their characters via adjectives. Players and the GM define the limits of abilities at the start. That then becomes the framework everyone has to play within. The diceless resolution comes through conversation. A small game, 32-pages saddle-stapled. Here's an Italian review of the game

MAGIUS looks like the first universal "anime" rpg, but Big Eyes, Small Mouth's the first I encountered. I debated including these games. I've excluded a few rpgs offering universal mechanics combined with a setting or narrowed space for play. I don't think that's true for Big Eyes, Small Mouth. It has an anime & manga feel, and definitely tilts that direction. Instead of locking down the story, it simply expresses a style (unlike Everway or Lords of Creation).

BESM uses point-buy and three base stats, hence the name Tri-Stat system. Body, Mind, and Soul are rated from 1 to 12, everything else is covered by attributes which can be normal or special. Players buy levels in those. A skill system compliments this- with variable rank costs depending on the genre. Like Hero System BESM includes the ability to modify powers, shifting their costs or gaining back build points. By the time it reached a third edition this had become pretty elaborate. In the second edition, character creation and abilities take up almost the first two hundred pages of a 289 page book. The actual resolution mechanics are simple: 2d6 plus relevant values against a target number.

BESM did well, spawning supplements, many covering anime mainstays (like Big Robots, Cool Starships and Cold Hands, Dark Hearts). Guardians of Order also used BESM as the basis for several licensed games and sourcebooks. These first arrived as full games (The Sailor Moon Roleplaying Game and Dominion Tank Police). Later they shifted to "Ultimate Fan Guides" for things like Hellsing and The Slayers. GOO also bit hard at the d20 apple, producing d20 versions of BESM in several forms. The Third Edition of BESM arrived just before the company started heading down a sketchy road (problems with payment, potentially ripping off George R.R. Martin). That's too bad since it’s a solid game especially in that edition.

13. Fuzion (1997)
Fuzion began its life as a purely electronic product. When this came out I hadn’t heard of games being created and developed on the internet. We'd had fan material come out of forums and alt.rec groups, but it wasn’t a publisher tool. Fudge began online, but Fuzion embraced that approach. Of our group, Barry, who had run Interlock and Hero System, avidly followed the development. Fuzion supported an active webring, using that for design and playtesting. Eventually Barry convinced the group to try it out, since they’d played the two “parent” games. They hated it. While Fuzion might have been solid, it didn't satisfy players who’d enjoyed Cyberpunk and Champions.

I wasn't in that play group. When I tried to read the rules, the dense and weird layout put me off. Fuzion split strangely between player build and random generation. You worked through an elaborate die-roll generated lifepath for character creation. Then you had to buy characteristics. Ten of them, unless the referee tweaked the game and removed some. But some of those stats generated the five fixed and six optional derived characteristics. So if you made changes you had to consider the downstream effect.

The rules suggest GM’s will adjust and modify those tables. So the they're caught between an unsatisfying default and spending time reworking the mechanics. That's unsatisfying for a game that pushes fast turnaround and ease of getting to the table. Fuzion, like Fudge, is more toolkit than out of the box rpg. Fudge works because of its inherent simplicity. Fuzion isn't simple; it has a ton of working parts. Plus it doesn't have the transitive game logic of Fate Core or even Hero System.

But people dug Fuzion and it had legs. On the back of the 2002 softcover, R Talsorian cited Cyberpunk, Dragon Ball Z, Sengoku, Shards of the Storm, Lightspeed, and Heresy as games built on Fuzion. Plus there was the weird and poorly received Champions: New Millennium. Beyond that you could find a host of fan-made settings and genre sourcebooks online. Fuzion boomed in the late 90's but died down as R Talsorian went into stand by mode and Hero Games shifted back to Hero-only projects. Gold Rush Games and a few others would keep the system alive for a little while with Victoriana, Artesia, Guardian Universe, Cybergeneration, and a few other games.

14. Sherpa (1997)
Another universal game from the designer of Fudge, Steffan O'Sullivan. It's a slim volume with a diceless resolution system: a stopwatch. Sherpa’s designed to be played by groups on the go: hiking, riding on a plane, by the vacation pool. Character sheets fit on a business card. The back cover notes that "Sherpa is a freeform game for experienced RPG gamemasters only. (Novice players are fine.) The GM will need to make many judgement calls while playing- if you're not used to that, you may wish to read FUDGE...for hints on running such a game." Sherpa is universal by virtue of being so loose and has an interesting hook. I've seen situational and environment-based games in the Game Chef contests. I’m also reminded of Moe Tousignant’s fun 24-Hour RPG A Fantasy Trip, which uses a trip-based "I Spy" mechanic.

15. Soothsayer (1997)
Coming from Australia, Soothsayer only released a Player's Guide, one adventure, and a character sheet/reference pack. It has a striking cover featuring a dragon chasing a car with an urban cityscape behind it. Soothsayer uses multiple d10s, but sometimes d12s and d20s to mix things up. It calls itself a Narrative Adventure Gaming System, but I'm unsure if that's just a fancy way of saying rpg. You get options across the board, from fantasy to sci-fi gaming. The publisher blurb excitedly proclaims the game’s large numbers of skills (140) and psionic disciplines (120). Claims to awesome by volume always amuse me. The few forum comment reviews I've seen indicate Soothsayer has a decent general idea and excellent art, but the poor execution, bad writing, and general incompleteness killed it.

The back cover does have one of my favorite blurbs: "Soothsayer's explicit, fast paced combat system makes for plenty of danger and excitement. Whether it's unarmed, melee or ballistic combat, Soothsayer ensures you will get sweaty."


16. Tinker's Damn (1997)
Another anime-skinned universal rpg, complete with sexy cat-girl rules-clarifying mascots. What does the title, Tinker's Damn, have to do with the game? I have no clue. Perhaps it’s meant to reflect the oddness of manga titling? In any case it uses a stat plus skill approach, with points divided among those. Tinker’s skill list 32 options is odd, moving from highly general (Style and Knowledge) to weirdly specific (Cooking and Guerrilla Warfare). It offers many options, calling itself a "flexible" gaming system. Yet the mechanics seem to only support weirdly hodge-podge paratech settings. It covers Magic, Computer Hacking, and Cyborgs. But it doesn’t talk about how to adapt the game to various genres. Tinker’s Damn comes with three super-sketchy settings "Hod Rod Apocalypse," "Allied Patrol," and "Warbird Unlimited." These consist of a few pages of background followed by a larger number of highly detailed NPC sheets. The whole thing comes off as uneven and underdeveloped. The character sheet's done as a hand-written page torn from a three-ring binder, complete with coffee stain. Why? Once again, I have no clue. For an uncomplimentary video review, check out this.

17. Miscellaneous: Universal Adjacent RPGs
Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth (1994): Maybe not a universal rpg, so much as an rpg about building a universe. Players take the role of multiple characters tracing stories of a setting over generations and centuries. It’s an interesting concept which could make a fun indie game today; Microscope Explorer feels like the closest modern parallel. But Aria presents a dense, terminology-filled, slog. I had high hopes when I bought it years ago but it defeated me every time I read it. I don’t use the term pretentious for games often, but Aria borders on that.

Everway Visionary Roleplaying (1995): A diceless game with card-based resolution and artwork-inspired character creation. Everway feels like a labor of love, but didn’t get much traction. It came out from WotC at the height of collectible card game madness. Disappointed card-players thought they might be getting the Magic: the Gathering rpg. CCG-hating roleplayers steered clear. Everyway’s system is open enough to handle many settings and realities. But it isn’t universal- instead there a core conceit that the players running Spherewalkers travelling from world to world and a central “city” location (ala Planescape, Sig, or Cynosure).

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

RPG Bits: Origins, Campaign Shifts, and Beyond

I’ll be at Origins in a few weeks. If you see me please say hello. I'm usually terrible at introducing myself to people I know via G+ or elsewhere, but I'm going to try my best. Sherri will be with me so the con will, by definition, be awesome. I have a massive wishlist of things I want to play. I’m running at Games on Demand and I’m scheduled for at least the Thursday 8PM and Saturday 8PM slots. I’ve submitted two events:

Keep to the shadows! Your cyber-ninja clan has been betrayed, mind-controlled, and used to serve sinister ends. The Mega-Zaibatsus behind this have concealed their role…until now. Your cell, hidden even from fellow shinobi, stalk through Neo-Kyoto. You plan, plot, and carefully strike from the darkness.

But sometimes things go wrong. Like now.

If it is the will of The Illustrious Orbital Mikado, you will survive! Uses Action Cards, a card-based Fate hybrid.

In the sorcerous corporation, Magic, Inc, your department lies at the bottom of the labyrinthine Org Chart. You like it that way. Your team has just managed to hang on- avoiding responsibility and blame. But doing so is hard work; you desperate transmute budgets, curse rival divisions, and make your faked resumes vanish. Can you avoid The Annual Review while getting your time-card signed?

Uses Action Cards, a card-based Fate hybrid.

If you're at the con, consider playing in one of those. I put together new decks and received the last of those from DriveThru Cards this week. I’m super excited. I’m also taking Kingdom plus some pick-up board games.

Of course since that’s coming up, everything else has to get more complicated. We just began the Assassins of the Golden Age arc for Ocean City Interface. On Saturday characters hit the table, doing the legwork and plotting for their operation. They're ensuring their candidate gets elected to the High Council of Genoa. We’re also speeding towards the finale of Guards of Abashan. Last week they discovered alternate timelines had begun to bleed through into the city. The group made their made through various eras of occupation, heading for the showdown with the last of the Three “Evil” Sorcerers. I have to decide what games I'll put forward after that wraps. I have four or five ideas. 

We also did session eight of ten for Crowsmantle last night. That ended with the group attempting a rescue operation but being captured instead. Rich will run after we wrap that campaign. Finally we should be starting my Wednesday Mutants & Masterminds game soon, probably right after Origins. I’m going to begin with a Microscope session covering the span between the campaigns. We're moving to the Third Edition rules so I need to do another read-through of those to prepare. 

I’m seriously considering how to actually do the Monster of the Week/World Wide Wrestling mash-up. I need to figure out when I’d run it and how.

I hope to have a "Beta" document for Action Cards available soon on DriveThru. By Beta, I mean truly rough, but enough to a run a game from. I’m about halfway through the first editing pass, plus I have a couple of small sections to complete. I want to have it ready and posted before Origins. I’ll talk more about that if I actually get it done.

We’re recording new episodes of Play on Target this coming Friday. The first will cover Loot! in all of its forms. We’ll consider kinds of loot, treasure distribution, and what it all means from player & GM perspectives. Our second show will look at “Games Ahead Their Time.” We started with the idea of games containing new mechanics that only caught on much later. I suspect we’ll expand the topic when we get to the recording. Suggestions & Questions are welcome.

Finally, if I can push through, I hope to have the next installment of the History of Generic RPGs up by Thursday. It may be later, but I want to release that by the end of May. For the next couple of weeks I’ll be doing “Greatest Hits” posts on the blog. I'll take older pieces that I like or that others dug and add some new commentary. Ideally that will be easy, but I know how I operate and suspect I’ll overdo it.

IF YOU’RE AT ORIGINS STOP BY AND SAY HI! Hopefully my normal social anxiety will be minimal.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Experience: Keys, Aspects, Fate, and Otherwise

Note: all of this is very rough twiddling…moreso than usual.

In an earlier post I talked about advancement systems. There and in the related Play on Target episode, I mentioned my preference for point-buy development systems. They don’t have to be that complicated. The incremental advances from 13th Age feel like point-buy to me. Fairly regularly you get an incremental advance to spend and have choices about what to buy. When we played Rolemaster we switched to development points instead of experience. It’s been a regular part of my gaming from Champions to James Bond 007 to GURPS to Storyteller. Our homebrew, Action Cards, has always used points (XP or Eeps). Even when I adapted Fate elements over to it, I stuck with that rather than Milestones.

I’ve kept my approach static over multiple Action Cards campaigns. The advancement costs changed, but little else. That’s despite having played in another GM’s AC:Fallout game where he crafted an entirely new system. At the end of sessions he dealt out Experience Cards which we drafted. They included raises to spend, access to new perks, and one-shot power cards. I never followed up on that, boringly keeping the same mechanics with equal points doled out to each player.

I’ve tuned Action Cards so a typical session awards 3-5 points. We hit the low end if we didn’t accomplish that much or have interesting interactions. I gave out more if the plot advanced or we had some dynamite scenes everyone engaged in. I hand out equal amounts to everyone at the table. I don’t give bonus experience to particular players. But now I wonder if that’s the right way to go. It's fair, but is it encouraging fun play. I skip bonuses and player-by-player xp because I think it doesn’t encourage anything special and runs the risk of feeling unfair.

But what if the system actually did something? At first glance it looks like Fate Core’s milestones do that, but they actually don’t. They encourage moving the story forward, but it’s the whole story for everyone and everyone gets the same advance. You could make an interesting variation with individual character milestones set by the players. Combine these with incremental advances. Right now aspects pushing toward playing "in character." Could we have other means to support this?

I don't want to go too high-level, game-designer-y with my thinking here. I want a system, point-based, where I can dole out a few shared points. Then players can earn some more, ideally in ways they’ve chosen for their characters. Some PbtA games do this: trading X points for an advance. The table gets points based on what happens in the session (“1 point for making progress towards the Big Bad.”). But individual players can gain points in other ways, often taking one for any 6- fail. That’s cool, giving the feel of a learning experience. Can we tailor that for individual characters?

Keys offer one approach. I have to credit Rich Rogers for pointing me to this. They come originally out of The Shadow of Yesterday. They’ve been used more recently with Lady Blackbird. Each key offers a flaw, drive, or behavior tic for the character. They gain points for “hitting” those keys. In Lady Blackbird that creates an active economy. When you hit a key you get points which can be immediately turned into dice for tests or saved to gain new abilities. Lady Blackbird’s aimed at short-run, but the system’s robust enough for several sessions of play. When I went to put together a basic key list, I drew from both of those as well as various LB hacks I found.

I made keys a part of Crowsmantle. I use it directly as an xp system (without the immediate spend mechanic from LB). Players can gently hit a key for 1 point or slam down on it heavily for 3 points. They can also “buyoff” the key by changing their lives, thereby gaining 10 XP. I ended up adapting that to our new Middle Earth Action Cards campaign. It's worked well there- though a couple of players have chosen more difficult keys. I’ve given them the option of switching.

When I went to assemble my Magic, Inc one-shot I used keys. But my experience with ME:AC had shown me aspects and keys had some overlap. So I modified the mechanic. Players could only gain 1 point for hitting a key, but they’d get a fate point for it. If they saved up three points they could spend that on a new skill or stunt in play. Players still had aspects for definition and fate point spends. But they only began with a single refresh. It worked well for the one shot, giving players cool hooks and they actually used.

So I’m wondering if that could work in longer-term play. Could I use it with Action Cards or a point-buy system for Fate Core? Would I have to ditch the idea that key hits generate fate points? How would those interact with aspects? On the one hand they might complement them, but on the other they could overwhelm and change the economy. It might work better for Action Cards, since we’ve cut the number of non-trouble aspects down. Keys could be a set of quick hit things like the trouble aspect. I’m not sure. There’s the additional problem that as I’ve used it in Magic, Inc, this approach does something I usually don’t like: experience as in-game currency (ala HeroQuest, DramaSystem, and Numenera).

When I originally defined the keys, I wrote that players only get the points if their action complicates the situation. As I went along, I became less sure of that. Some of the keys merely express behaviors (like making other players laugh). If I locked it down so that you’d only get points if that made things worse, I’d undercut that incentive. Maybe characters should have three keys of specific flavors: behavior, drive, and flaw. The former would be for character expressive play while the latter two only give points when they cause problems. But once I do that, I’m not sure if I’m gaining anything vs. just using aspects. And it doesn’t answer the XP/currency problem. Should some keys generate fate points and others generate XP? Maybe players could pick what they get when they hit them? Have I made that super effing complicated then? Not sure.

Anyway, that’s my meandering for today. I want a point-based system for advancement for Action Cards (or Fate) that rewards character play, let players buy something each session, isn’t too hard to track, and still allows some character aspects.

In the list below, you’ll see the keys I’ve put together. I’ve tried to keep them tight. The ones I’ve italicized come from Magic, Inc and only have a 1 XP level.
  • Key of Bad Liar: You’re terrible at lying. Hit this key when you’re caught out telling a fib.
  • Key of Banter: You have a knack for snappy comments. Gain +1 XP when you say something that makes the other players laugh.
  • Key of Better Than This: Hit this key when you’re able to demonstrate how your background and upbringing make you overqualified for the pedestrian tasks assigned you.
  • Key of the Bruiser: Your enjoy overpowering others. Gain 1 XP every time you defeats someone solo in battle. Gain 3 XP for the solo defeat of someone more powerful than you. Buyoff: Suffer a defeat in combat.
  • Key of the Commander: You’re accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed. Gain 1 XP when you come up with a plan and give orders to make it happen. Gain 3 XP when you organize and lead a large force. Buyoff: Acknowledge someone else as the leader.
  • Key of the Competitor: You love contests and love to win. Gain 1 XP when you enter a competition. Gain 3 XP when you actually win such a contest. Buyoff: Gracefully concede to another.
  • Key of Conscience: You must protect the weak. Gain 1 XP every time you defend someone who is in danger and cannot save themselves. Gain 3 XP when you take someone in an unfortunate situation and change their life to where they can help themselves. Buyoff: Ignore a request for help.
  • Key of Conspiracy: It’s more involved than they think. Gain +1 XP when you spin an elaborate baseless scenario about your situation.
  • Key of Could-Have-Been Once: You once had ambition and drive. Gain +1 XP when you give up on a course of action because it seems unrealistic
  • Key of Curiosity: Hit your key whenever you your curiosity sidetracks you or gets you into trouble.
  • Key of the Daredevil: You thrive in dangerous situations. Gain 1 XP when you do something cool that is risky or reckless. Gain 3 XP when your recklessness protects your companions but causes you great harm or loss. Buyoff: Be very very careful.
  • Key of Faking It: You lied on your resume. Gain +1 XP when others expect you to be able to do something you actually can’t.
  • Key of Fear: Select what triggers your phobia—spiders, snakes, undead, being underground, etc. Gain 2 XP when you flee the source of your phobia instead of fighting it. Buyoff: Fight or face your phobia.
  • Key of Greed: You love wealth. Gain 1 XP every time you make a deal that favors you in wealth. Gain 3 XP every time you double your wealth. Buyoff: Give away everything you own except what you can carry lightly.
  • Key of the Guardian: You are a loyal defender of another PC. Gain 1 XP when you make a decision influenced by them or protect them from harm. Gain 3 XP when you follow their orders against your instincts. Buyoff: Sever your relationship with them.
  • Key of Honor: You follow a personal code of honor. Gain 1 XP whenever you keep your word, defend your reputation against insult, or protect those to whom you are obligated. Gain 3 XP when your code causes you major loss or harm. Buyoff: Commit a dishonorable act.
  • Key of the Impostor: You are in disguise or often maintain disguises. Gain 1 XP when you perform well enough to fool someone with your disguise. Gain 3 XP when you fool a group for an extended period. Buyoff: Reveal your true identity to someone you fooled.
  • Key of Knowledge: You love discovering secrets and weird restricted information. Gain 1 XP when you uncover a previously hidden or secret fact or long-lost piece of information. Gain 3 XP when you publish or reveal this knowledge that others want kept secret. Buyoff: Pass up an opportunity to learn something important.
  • Key of the Liar: Lie about something when you don’t have to.
  • Key of Liquid Lunch: It’s always time for a drink. Gain 1 XP when you sidetrack yourself in order to down a couple of drinks.
  • Key of Management: You rely on your team. Gain +1 XP when you steal credit for someone else’s success.
  • Key of Martyrdom: You thrive on personal pain and suffering. Gain 1 XP every time you take a Wound and 3 XP every time you become Injured. Buyoff: Flee a source of physical or psychic damage.
  • Key of the Matchmaker: You like seeing romantic pairings work, though perhaps not your own. Gain 1 XP when you try to set up a pairing. Gain 3 XP when you try to set up a pairing and it actually clicks. Buyoff: You turn your attention to your own romantic life.
  • Key of Memory: You’re terribly forgetful. Gain 1 XP when you forget a key fact from one scene to the next. Gain 3 XP when your forgetting gets you in trouble or puts you in danger. Buyoff: Remember a vital detail at exactly the right moment.
  • Key of the Mission: You have a personal mission, defined at the start (discuss with the GM). Gain 1 XP every time you take action to complete this mission. Gain 3 XP every time you take action that completes a major part of this mission. Buyoff: Abandon this mission.
  • Key of Naiveté: You’re a sucker for a sob story, scam, or pretty face. Gain 1 XP whenever you do what a stranger asks you to do. Gain 3 XP when your trust leads to a major betrayal. Buyoff: See through someone’s manipulation.
  • Key of the Nice Girl: Gain 1 XP when you do something nice because that’s what’s expected of you. Gain 3 XP when being nice costs you a significant opportunity. Buyoff: Loudly put your own interests ahead of someone else’s expectations.
  • Key of Obsession: You have favorite: sports team, TV show, food. Hit your key whenever you’re sidetracked by having to prove to people how awesome it is.
  • Key of the Odd One: Gain 1 XP when you do something small but weird to everyone around you. Gain 3 XP when you do something that causes you to be excluded from a group or event. Buyoff: Figure out what’s driving this behavior.
  • Key of Order (Procedures): Things have rules. People are supposed to stick to the rules. That’s how things should work. Gain 1 XP when you try to correct someone’s violation of a rule. Gain 3 XP when your complaints change the person’s action or decision. Buyoff: Let the breaking of rules go by unremarked.
  • Key of the Outcast: You have been exiled or banned from somewhere. Gain 1 XP when your status causes you trouble or is important in a scene. Gain 3 XP when you’re brought into direct contact with the source of your exile. Buyoff: Regain your former standing or join a new group.
  • Key of Panic: The pressure’s on. Gain 1 XP every time you take a condition card.
  • Key of the Paragon: You’re a noble, wealthy, or the scion of a famous family. Therefore you’re a cut above the common man. Gain 1 XP every time you demonstrate your superiority. Gain 3 XP when you make a significant positive impression on a peer or superior. Buyoff: Disown your heritage.
  • Key of Partyer: It’s always time to rock the house. Gain 1 XP when you drop a chunk of change on party times. Gain 3 XP when you spend all of your money on such entertainments. Buyoff: Hit rock bottom.
  • Key of the Procrastinator: Gain 1 XP when you’re able to successfully delay a due date for yourself. Gain 3 XP when you manage to finish something major after the last minute after putting it off. Buyoff: Get something done well in advance.
  • Key of the Prudent: You avoid combat like the plague. Gain 1 XP every time you avoids a potentially dangerous situation. Gain 3 XP every time you stops a combat using means besides violence. Buyoff: Leap into combat with no hesitation.
  • Key of Renown: You’ll make a name for yourself or die trying. Gain 1 XP when you brag or put yourself at risk to do something unnecessary or foolish that will add to your reputation. Gain 3 XP when you hear your rep mentioned by strangers. Buyoff: Give someone else credit.
  • Key of Rivalry: Choose a fellow PC as your rival. Gain 1 XP when you compete with them and boast about it. Gain 3 XP when you deal your rival a humiliating defeat. Buyoff: Cede a competition to your rival.
  • Key of Romance: You’re a hopeless romantic. Gain 1 XP when you fall in love with someone. As well gain 1 XP when your lover (or would-be lover, if your love is unrequited) is endangered and you act to rescue them. Gain 3 XP when your love leads to punishment or more than one of your lovers meet and come to a realization. Buyoff: Marry or break up with a long-time romantic partner.
  • Key of Sales: You like to make deals and trade favors. Gain 1 XP when you bargain, make a new contact, or exchange a favor. Gain 3 XP when you make a big score through your dealings. Buyoff: Cut yourself off from your network of contacts.
  • Key of the Skeptic: Gain 1 XP when you find an alternate explanation for a fantastical event. Gain 3 XP when your unwillingness to accept the strange keeps you from progress or success. Buyoff: Finally acknowledge the reality of the Realm.
  • Key of Soft Touch: You are, at heart, kind and gentle. Gain +1 XP when you show kindness or mercy.
  • Key of Spendthrift: If you have money, you’re supposed to spend it. Gain 1 XP when you drop a chunk of change non-essentials. Gain 3 XP when you spend all of your money on that way. Buyoff: Make a budget.
  • Key of Thievery (Klepto): Ooooh the shinies. Gain 1 XP when you steal something cool or score a big payoff. Gain 3 XP when you steal something legendary, named, or unique. Buyoff: Swear off stealing forever.
  • Key of the Thrifty: People toss away good stuff. Gain 1 XP when you rescue and hang on to something someone throws away. Gain 3 XP when a rescued object proves useful. Buyoff: Clean out your hoard.
  • Key of the Tinkerer: You just can’t leave it alone. Gain 1 XP when you modify, improve, repair, or patch some object or place. Gain 3 XP when you do this against the wishes or desires of the owner. Buyoff: Pass up the opportunity to mess around with technology.
  • Key of the Traveler: You love exploring places and meeting new people. Gain 1 XP when you share an interesting detail about a person, place, or thing or go somewhere exciting and new. Gain 3 XP when you go somewhere lost to the ages or normally forbidden to you. Buyoff: Pass up the opportunity to see something new.
  • Key of the Twice Shy: You’ve learned to avoid blame, but reflexively avoid credit as well. Gain 1 XP when you can pin your success on someone else. Gain 3 XP when they readily take full credit. Buyoff: Exclaim your own awesomeness.
  • Key of the Unrequited: You fall into love and infatuation easily and deeply. Gain 1 XP when you fixate on a new persons. Gain 3 XP when you do a risky or embarrassing thing in front of that person to gain their attention. Buyoff: Suffer a painful rejection.
  • Key of Vengeance: You have a hatred for a particular organization, person, or even species or culture. Gain 1 XP every time your character hurts a member of that group or a lackey of that person. Gain 3 XP every time you strike a major blow at that group or person. Buyoff: Let your enemy go.
  • Key of the Vow: You have a vow of personal behavior you have sworn not to break. This could be a dietary restriction, a requirement to pray at sunbreak every morning, or something else like that. Gain 1 XP for every session in which you don’t break this vow. Gain 3 XP every time you don’t break this vow even though it causes you great harm. Buyoff: Break this vow.
  • Key of the Watercooler: Hit this key when you hear someone repeat a rumor you spread.
  • Key of the Widow(er) (Bad Break Up): You lost your significant other truly and finally. Gain 1 XP when you make a connection between something in a scene and your lost love. Gain 3 XP when your pining interferes with new potential relationships and friendships. Buyoff: Lock away or dispose of the last of your mementos.