Friday, April 25, 2008

Not a Scrabble-based Magic System

I can work on RPG design for 6 hours straight with only 2 breaks to pee, but grading for only 30 minutes makes me want to tear my eyeballs from their sockets. Today was my stay-at-home day, and I have about a 4-week backlog of grading to do. Therefore, a nap, dinner, a run, and 12 hours later... and I'm still working on my Scrabble magic system. (I did some grading in there though! And some laundry.)

When we last left it, I had a separate skill and power mechanic going on. However, I was running into trouble on pricing things. For instance, moving (M) anything--even a bottle cap--would inherently cost at least 3 mana. Yet banishing (E) a demon or holding (N) a person immobile would only cost 1 mana (though such acts would require a high skill roll). In short, mind-blowing magic didn't cost any more than subtle magic in the same discipline; it was the disciplines themselves that cost more or less.

Of course, the GM could adjust this per spell, but it still seemed too ad hoc. Or I could combine power and skill into a single mechanic. But I didn't want that either. I wanted them to be separate so you need both enough skill and enough power, and that one doesn't substitute for the other. Sometimes high-powered magic should be possible with low skill... it's just always much more dangerous if you mess it up. That said, it still seems there should be a general initial correlation--if you're highly skilled, you should be able pull together more power.

My post-run insight (I love those--it makes it all worth it) was the tile-based power levels I was considering varied only from 1 to 4, since I was saving the higher scoring tiles (8 points: J, X; 10 points: Q, Z) for mythical magical forms. But my skill levels run from +0 to +3, so just making the base power cost the Difficulty Modifier + 1 suddenly seemed so clean and simple, and fixed most of the hiccups I was struggling with. Now the simple skill steps also give a sensible base power requirement, but the two are still separate, so the GM can modify power as needed for certain odd spells.

So this means I am no longer using the tile scores. And then I decided to go ahead and drop the last real Scrabble-based constraint: the tile frequencies. Rather than requiring a certain number of a particular letter tile, just knowing the letter is good enough. Power levels should be set based on the task, not on the magical school.

And so suddenly I was free of Scrabble, because the only thing I'm using now is the 26 letters. And I think I'd do better if I dropped that too and used some other form to keep track of what "schools" or "runes" of magic a character knows. (A list on a sheet of paper comes to mind...) That way, it's more flexible--they can vary as needed by character or story, some broader or more narrow than others.

Overall, I'm happy with the way my Fluffy urban fantasy magic system is shaping up. However, I think the Scrabble aspect is done for.

I was thinking more about why this should be, though. I think the basic difficulty of a Scrabble-based magic is the flavor/world reason for it: why would a mage (randomly) vary in what spells he knows at any given time? That's basically what's being represented by a rack of limited tiles drawn from a larger pool.

Also, there's a game flavor at work here: resource management. So I think this system would work better for gamist games, such as D&D or GURPS. Also, then you could more easily map the tiles to a specific spell list (whether as stunts or specific skills).

The alternative to representing knowledge is representing power. This might make more sense--that a mage has various levels or fragments of power available at a time. (But again, why?)

The other thing to keep in mind is that Scrabble isn't the only way to approach such a "resource drawing" magic system. Playing cards, tarot cards, or dominoes might work better, depending on what you need. I particularly like the idea of dominoes--they just feel like little runestones in your hand!

So, while perhaps not completely abandoning it, I think I'll be putting this whole Scrabble thing in cold-storage after all... at least until I run across some magic flavor that actually cries out for it as a mechanic.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Scrabble-based Magic System

A month or two ago, I was browsing around the various Fudge pages and ran across mention of a magic system that uses Scrabble tiles. I never found a fleshed-out version; just a few discussions of possibilities. But it got me thinking...

Most of the discussion focused on spelling out English words with a limited number of tiles (usually 7 or so) to cast spells. I thought this would be too limiting and time-consuming. But the idea of having 7 tiles prepared at a time, and drawing from a larger pool, was interesting.

In Scrabble, there are 26 unique letters and a blank. Each letter tile (but not the blank) has a score marked on it. Because the score is in the lower-right corner, even symmetrical letters (like O and I) have clear orientations. So, if each orientation of a letter had a different meaning, it would be possible to have up to 4 * 26 + 1 (the blank) = 105 unique representations. Some letters are much more common, and there is a rough correlation between score value and frequency. This suggested to me that it'd be nice to use the score somehow as a casting cost. Therefore, there'd be lots of have cheap, low-level spells, all readily accessible due to their frequency. Expensive, high-level spells would be vary rare (1 in a 100 tiles).

With over 100 representations to work with, I thought first of a full but simple language, complete with verbs, nouns, and prepositions. I looked through the first two or three hundred of the most common English words for ideas. Then I realized someone had probably already done this language-constructing work. As an example, I found, which is a constructed language with a little over 100 words. Examining this made me realize this was too intense--you'd have a to learn a whole new language just to play a spellcaster! That said, if you're embracing the idea that RPGs are a life-style game, and wanted to reveal the magic system slowly over months of play, this could still be a fun avenue to pursue.

Back to the drawing board, I decided to just focus on the 27 unique letters (including blank). This suggested some rune-like combo system of subjects and verbs. GURPS improv/rune magic has 25 runes. Fudge's Gramarye has 22 colleges and realms. And then there's Fudges 4x5, which as 9.

It turned out to be pretty easy to fill in 27 runes. Soon, I was creating 4 variants for each rune, each of increasing complexity. For example, the Earth rune might have 4 levels: 1) sand/clay 2) stone/solids 3) metals 4) crystals. Similarly, the Sense rune (separate from Knowledge) could involve: 1) heightened senses 2) see through material 3) true-seeing (see through magic) 4) scry (see through distance). Perhaps rotating each tile would add one to its basic mana requirement (which is initially its Scrabble score).

By this point I realized I was back to the original problem: 105 representations is too much! And that's before you even start combining them to make spells.

The other annoying thing I was running into was lack of orthogonality. That is, there was frequently more than one way to do something. For example, if Mind is a noun, then should controlling that mind require the Move or Transform rune? Or should there be a separate Control rune for mental actions? Is steam Air or Water? Do you need both Earth and Water runes to affect mud? Even if it's pretty thick mud? I decided that, if I was going to do this whole combo approach, I would just stick with the 4x5 system. (And, actually, I'd consider combining Mind and Spirit into one category, making it 4x4.)

At this point I was getting ready to give up the project as just too complex. But then I realized I didn't really have an idea of what I was trying to do here, other than use Scrabble tiles in some way. I had no overarching vision. So I went back to examine the real Magic System Basics in order to consider my options.

In the last couple months, S. and I have been watching and reading a lot of Dresden Files, which is basically an fun urban fantasy setting. It gels nicely with other similar material, such as from Neverwhere, American Gods, Nightwatch, etc. This gave me a flavor for my magic: I wanted some sort of subtle magic that could pass in an urban setting, but that is still capable of producing the world-shaking spells of myth and legend, and can include any kind of historical magic system.

We've also been playing a lot of Huffy/Fluffy lately, so I decided I wanted a simple magic system--which is almost in conflict with the complexity naturally suggested by a Scrabble system's potential.

I also realized I don't need to use the full Scrabble tile set. In fact, if I did, it'd mean every magic-using player would need their own full Scrabble game! So I cut the set in half. This means a few characters--such as K, the only 5-point letter--might get thrown out... but only if every caster needs the full half-set.

So, the past few days, I've been doodling ideas and finally inspiration hit last night that brought all my various notes together. I will use a single Magic skill to determine casting ability. Magic is an exertion of will on the world, and so it must overcome the inertial disbelief of those around you. (Though I've never played, or even read much of it, I guess this is basically the Mage: The Ascension idea here.) This makes it easy to adlib spell effects--it's basically dependent on how overt and unlikely the spell effect is. This is the core, simple thing used to adjudicate spell effects, and the system could probably just run on this alone.

The complexity--and flavor--is then in what kinds of magic a character knows, since not every character is good at every kind of magic. This is represented by the Scrabble tiles. I'd like to have these gained through gameplay, rather than simply bought with skill points. Each tile corresponds to a magical verb. There are no nouns; those are implicit/provided by the casting ritual of the spell. Each verb has a mana cost corresponding to the tile's Scrabble score. I'm not messing with different tile orientations, but multiple tiles of the same letter can provide more intricate effects (with appropriately higher mana costs). Most spells would involve a single letter, but some higher spells could involve more.

The challenge for characters in this system is to come up with enough mana at once to cast spells. A higher Magic skill gives a caster a couple more points, but the rest comes from special locations, rituals, items, etc. I'm using the magical laws of Similarity and Contact in all of this too.

Anyway, I think the basic ideas are together, but I still have to flesh out all the details. If it works out, this will likely become a possible Zludge/Fluffy magic system. Sadly, I'm no longer using the full information-encoding potential of the tiles, or the mechanic of tiles being drawn randomly from a pool, or 7 tiles being held in the mind at a time. But I think I made the right decision to start with the flavor of the magic and the nature of enclosing gaming system I wanted instead. I think the tiles will be a nice touch just as a physical representation of accumulated knowledge, as well as handy representations of spell costs.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Drudge: Ailithorn (vol 1)

Well, I just "played" a bit of Ailithorn: Demon Hunter (a Tellurian tale), which is finally posted. I say "played" since, for this line, my focus has been a bit more on the writing (at least at this point) than the gaming. Also, Drudge is still currently in pieces, so I can't even say this is alpha testing. My second character--Sophie--isn't even fully rolled up yet.

That said, of the handful of attack rolls I have made so far, I have the following to note:
1) My black Fudge dice seem to roll low more often than they roll high.
2) Burning an aspect for a repeat roll (getting the same result again) sucks.
3) I may need to go back to drawing board (again) on converting D&D HD to Drudge, or at least give it a bit more thought. In D&D, that mane should have taken (on average) 1.5 crossbow hits. In Drudge, it will consistently take 3 one-handed hits. (Actually, more, since I wasn't bothering with its natural armor. Oops, and I also see now I forgot its Acidic Cloud death-throes, though I happened to get the general dissolving spirit right.)
4) Related to 3, I do miss that thrill of getting in a good solid hit for more damage. Though there's less rolling without damage rolls, Drudge is currently a bit more slogging in nature.

Nothing I want to change yet; just things to keep in mind.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Notion: Magic System Basics

I've been thinking about magic systems this week. I've been pondering a while on a Scrabble-tile-based system for Zludge. But, as I often do, when I get stuck I explore the basics to try to figure out what the factors are.

First of all, there's a vast variety of magic systems. For examples, I've just been looking at D&D, GURPS, Fudge, and FATE--and that's been enough! There's also related and parallel magic-like systems, such as psi, ritual/incantations, and superpowers.

I think the great variation of magic is just because every fictional world tends to have its own magic/supernatural rules--what's possible and how hard it is to do. So one magic system is definitely not going fit all games, just in terms of flavor.

The other side of that flavor coin is the rule mechanics. I've identified three concerns here:

First, how detailed is the system? That is, is it based on just a handful of guiding principles, a few tables of modifiers, or a complete book laying out every spell in detail? Detail may be a boon or a curse, depending on your play style.

Secondly, how diverse is the magic that needs to be modeled? For instance, is magic in this world basically only telekinesis, where physical objects can be moved and that's it? Or are we modeling a long tradition of every diverse occult effect, from summoning demons to levitating to blasting fireballs, from combat casting to potions to hour-long rituals?

Finally, is the magic system balanced? This means between uses (so casting a certain spell has a consistent cost), within the magic system (so a mage specializing in divination gets just as much of the limelight and story power as one specializing in evocation), and with the rest of the game mechanic (so that non-mage characters aren't overshadowed by the mages).

With these concerns of detail, diversity, and game balance in mind, we can look at how various general mechanics satisfy these. First, there's the issue of how magic is purchased by a character. One option is as skills--where each use requires a check or roll, just as with any other non-magical ability. Another option is stunts--one-time uses that a player usually checks off when used (though not necessarily: a stunt may be more like a feat, usable at will). Additionally, there might be power levels, which usually determine the strength of effects. Power levels usually operate in conjunction with skills or stunts.

These purchasing modes--skills, stunts, and power levels--provide a means for game balance. However, magic could be something simply accumulated through play. D&D's wizard's spellbook and Unearthed Arcana's incantations work a bit like this.

So, aside from how the magic is purchased, what is the basic game mechanic? The first is the exhaustive, specific spell list. D&D uses this approach (where each spell uses a stunt-like spell slot), but so does GURPS (where each spell is a separate skill, with a diverse tree of spell-skill dependencies). This could also be used very nicely on a small scale, as with Fate's example of Pyromancy stunt magic. The advantages of the spell list is extensive detail and, assuming sufficient playtesting, good game-balance. But detail is its own curse--now every time a spell is cast, the books need to come out to check the rules. Also, one is not meant to adlib new spell effects when you have a spell list.

A second mechanic is the general skill. So, unlike GURPS one-skill-per-spell, what I mean here is that one or more skills determines success in a wide variety of endeavors. In short, details such as range, duration, and effect are not set by the spell itself, but adlibbed according to some guidelines. This is seen in simple Fudge-like magic systems, such as Fate's Improvisational Magic. In a very simple system, the GM specifies how hard a certain affect would be to achieve and the player justs roll against a single Magic skill to determine success.

Often the skill roll is combined with power-levels. GURPS psi works a lot like this. For example, the character's telekinesis skill determines the control the character has, but her telekinetic power determines how heavy an object she can affect. (GURPS psi skills are defined so narrowly to be practically a spell list, however.)

Stunts could be used generally too. For instance, a character could perhaps produce 3 Illusions a day, but determine at the time of casting the details of those illusions.

A third mechanic is the combo skill. This is essentially run as a per the general skill mechanics, but each spell success is determined by some combination of skills. This could be an averaging, one roll for each skill involved, or just rolling the lowest skill. Fudge's 4x5 and Gramarye systems and GURPS Magic's improvisational rules work like this (using a combination of college/verb and realm/object skills), as do D&D's incantations (using non-magical skills).

I don't know of any combo-stunt systems, but it seems such as system would certainly be possible.

Finally, magic might use some completely separate mechanic, such as using playing or tarot cards, marbles, or Scrabble tiles. But usually these can be boiled down, or at least compared to, stunts or skills.

So, from what I see here, a magic system is basically going to let a character roll some skill or invoke some stunt to produce an effect. This is because skills and stunts (and power levels) are the core RPGing mechanic and, to maintain game balance and functionality, any major/integral magic system should be in these terms.

So, the first question is to determine the flavor and diversity of the magic you want to model. Then, look to what detail you want to use to model this. With high diversity, high detail will be a major undertaking. Also, your game system will probably direct you on this--high detail systems (such as D&D and GURPS) favor detailed spell lists, while Fudge prefers general and combo skill rolls. The advantage of detail is all the consistency and game balance kinks can be worked out beforehand. The advantage of less detail is that you can make it up as you go, letting player and GM creativity shine.

D&D: Omri, Cheap Battlegirds, and Player Caution

S. and I played a bit of D&D this weekend. We overlaid some clear Omnigrid quilting rulers over the white board for a quick battle grid, and then used some old chess pieces for miniatures. Worked out quite nicely! Normally I just use the white board, but it always takes an extra minute drawing the grid before each combat, and then I have to erase each character's mark before moving them to another square. There's just something quick and satisfying about miniatures... but also something a bit pricey when doing it right! The chess pieces were a nice compromise.

I was also reminded what a cautious player S. is. While taking out a goblin army outpost that had her party pinned down with crossbow fire, her character, Omri, burst out of invisibility within the enemy dugout and immediately decapitated an orc and a goblin. Half the remaining seven goblins in the room were still flatfooted, and the rest of her party was about 3 rounds away. Omri had both Shield and Sheild Other in effect, and I was envisioning an awesome cinematic bloodbath as Omri tore through the remaining goblins while her friends dashed in, their own crossbows and spells blazing. But S. chose to retreat rather than press her advantage! So now the entire scattered goblin army--not just this one outpost--knows they're coming.

But upon reflection, I think this retreat is not so surprising. For one, Omri--who had never seen either orc or bugbear before and failed her Knowledge check to identify the orc before her--thought that she may have killed the commander bugbear they were coming for. (And S. did a great job of staying in character even after I accidentally let slip that it was an orc.) Secondly, I may not have been clear as GM that the army had little outposts scattered around these mountain valleys, watching all the passes, that this was just one such outpost that could alert the others given a bit of time.

But most importantly, it's just a (nice) surprise to have a player that isn't unconsciously meta-gaming the whole time, that doesn't have a good idea of the challenge rating of the current encounter, and who's worried more about avoiding unnecessary combat than just killing everything that moves and nicking all its stuff. And, I must say, if it were me in Omri's place, I don't know if I'd stand my ground in a cramped dugout when seven armed and outraged goblins turned to stare at me! Overall, it was still an impressive hit-and-fade attack... marred slightly only the by the 3 crossbow bolts the party took in the back as they fled into the surrounding hills.

Anyway, it was just another lesson in that constant GM balancing-act: providing enough challenge that players have to be cautious, but not so much that they're afraid to just rush in--swords swinging--when the situation calls for it. I guess that's the trick: successfully conveying whether or not the situation calls for it.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Making cheap dice

Don't Rest Your Head requires about 30d6 to play with only one player (and about 17d6 for each additional player, if everyone has their own dice), divided into four different colors. So I had to figure out how to make some cheap dice. When I made my first set of Fudge dice, I bought some blank black dice at 75¢ each--which wasn't going to cut to here. (Those didn't turn out all that well either. Sorry, I forgot to include them in the picture though.)

So a couple weekends ago S. and I went to the educational supply store that I knew had a mix of odd dice. I didn't find anything pre-made there that was affordable enough, but we did find a bag of wooden counting units. Remember those from elementary school--the 1s, the 10s, and the 100s? This bag of 100 little wooden cubes was normally $3.95, but it was 30% off, so I got out of there for less than $3 (meaning less than 3¢ per die)!

I didn't have any permanent markers, so I had to buy some of those too. (Doh! Another $5.) I bought the kind with fine tips on one end and ultra-fine on the other. I ended up using ultra-fine for the dice pictured here. (The lone black die in the foreground is an example of fine.)

Due to the wood, 4 of the 6 sides tend to cause the ink to weep a little along the grain. The other 2 sides really suck the ink in, making those numbers seem darker. I was consistent in how I arranged the numbers in relation to each other on the die, but I tried to vary the side and grain orientation I started with on each die. I'm not guaranteeing that these dice are completely random and unweighted, but I figured if I varied each one, the individual differences shouldn't matter much.

Although the different colored numbers are clear in daylight, it was hard to tell the blue and green (and black) apart in dim indoor lighting. To differentiate them, I tried outlining the edges of the green dice (which we use for DRYH's Discipline pool). This was still a little too subtle. S. suggested using a green highlighter, and that worked out quite nicely. I haven't noticed any staining on my hands using these dice.

The picture above shows the finished product, with a penny for scale. The dice are quite small, which is handy when you're trying to roll 10 or 15 at once. They're also very quiet on the table, which is a nice feature. The medicine bottle containing 3 Fudge dice is what we've been using for Huffy rolls. And, as you can see, I still have half a bag of blanks left!

Notion: Generating RPG Story Graphs

Please forgive me for the long way 'round. I tend to explore the problem a bit before proposing a solution. And, since I haven't touched my IN research in about 3 months now, I've been using the exploration of the past three posts as a bit of review and rejuvenation. But it's time to finally tackle the problem at hand: how, as human GMs, can we quickly generate a story graph to guide our game?

First, start with the gist. That is, what is the main conflict or central idea of the story? Keep this ever in mind, as it will tie everything else together. If some encounter doesn't further the gist, reconsider including it.

That said, there may be separate story threads that will eventually tie back into the gist. Also, certain character-building scenes might lay groundwork that will later be important to the gist. Often, the story might start with a lead-in thread--something that gets the PCs involved in the gist. Try to get them there quickly and into the main story.

The gist corresponds to an adventure. If you're running a longer campaign, you might start foreshadowing later adventure gists, and so one adventure serves as lead-in to another. But, like an episode in a TV series, each adventure should have its own gist and core structure.

Be aware of PC motivations. Before you even start, know why the PCs would be willing to involve themselves in the gist. You may have a lead-in with clear motivations, but will they then switch their interest over to the gist? This is less of a concern if the gist is forced upon the PCs--ie, the forces of darkness are coming after the PCs themselves for some reason, such that they can't run or hide (for long).

Next, work backwards. The gist should suggest some obvious conclusion that you'd like to strive for. Be aware this could change though, so perhaps think of a couple alternatives. For example, your gist might be an massive alien invasion. As GM, your intended conclusion is a dark one: the PCs manage only to rescue a few key people and flee the planet. But other places you could go is the PCs actually thwarting the invasion somehow, or perhaps even aiding the aliens. In short, you want to a desirable conclusion to shoot for, but also a couple fallback destinations if you want to give PCs enough freedom that you might miss your mark.

Now that you have a conclusion, what needs to happen immediately before that? Does the conclusion generally suggest some journey, needed information, or essential item? Try to work back one step at a time, but be aware that there may be a few threads that you can interweave as is convenient. For instance, in order to flee the planet ahead of the alien invasion, the PCs will need to know about the invasion, need to get the refugees together, and will need to get a ship. That's three threads. Start fleshing those out. How will they get the information? How will they learn that stopping the invasion would be impossible? What will their motivation be to gather refugees?

Essentially, you're working backwards filling in the preconditions (including justification and motivation) for each node. (Perez's MEXICA story gen system works this way.)

Work forwards. But, alternately, you want to work forwards as well. Your players have given you a starting point: their PCs, backstory, and motivations. From your gist and conclusion, you have a goal.

From here, you use the improv technique of tilting. In improv, you try to establish a scene or context and then tilt it by changing or breaking some expectation. This constant introduction of problems, even to some boring task, proves much more engaging than simply trying to do something interesting. For instance, brain surgery on an elephant might be interesting at first... but not if it goes smoothly. Washing dishes would be more exciting if the drain stopper suddenly stops working... now we have something to solve.

In this spirit, keep introducing some problem or obstruction between the PCs and their goal. Let them solve each one, always moving closer to the goal... but only to find another problem.

Work where you are. Whether working forwards or backwards, you still need to flesh out the details of the current encounter. In short, you need material. Much of the time, the story needs of the encounter will suggest things.

But if not, start with reincorporation (another improv trick). That is, how could you work some previous character or item or effect of a past event into the current action? This means you're building on the previous story, weaving things together, so it's all not just a string of unconnected events. (This approach of establishing the narrative necessity of earlier story events is actually the core mechanic of my current IN system, Marlinspike.) Theoretically, if you do this too much, you end up with a string of bizarre coincidences as old characters keep coming back in new roles. But if it worked so well for Charles Dickens and Edgar Rice Burroughs, why not for you?

If reincorporation isn't suggesting anything though, then it's handy to have a list of material on hand--one or two word NPC sketches, scene forms, etc. See if you can't work these in somehow to fill the needs of your current story--either throwing a temporary wrench in the PCs' current plans or else justifying/providing for later action you have planned.

So how does all this produce a quick game? First, establish a gist. (Again, Instant Game can do this for you.) This will give you the general setting and likely (or at least possible) conclusion. Let the PCs start creating characters in accordance with this. Don't be afraid of a little explicit player involvement--explain the gist and even discuss some possible conclusions with the players. This lets them create characters that will be motivated by the gist, and can give you more ideas.

Next, while the PCs are building their characters, generate some material appropriate to the setting--a handful of NPC hooks, and maybe a list of the kinds of scenes you'd like to see. Your story's Tone/genre can suggest a lot here. This material will serve as resource if you get stuck.

Now put the (likely) conclusion on the right side of a sheet of paper. Start working backwards, establishing the threads it'll take to get there. Then, within these threads, work forwards a little, thinking of ways to tilt or obstruct PCs progress. Once you have a rough idea of the major events in the story--the stuff that will generally need to be completed to get to the end--go to the far left side of your paper and work on the first couple encounters that will take the PCs from their starting conditions and tie them into the gist. Since you know where you're going now, you can start foreshadowing things.

Once you have the first couple encounters fleshed out, and a general outline for the rest, you're ready to start playing! You can work forward as you go, trying to reincorporate things the PCs did while tilting to produce problems for the PCs to solve. But don't bog down the action too much--keep things moving along your outline and remember the gist. If you're stuck, glance at your material list for things you haven't already worked in for ideas.

Now that I have a recipe for action, I'll have to try it next time I play and see if all this actually works in practice! It also suggests possibilities for collaborative GMing/GM-less gaming which bears thinking about...

Notion: Material and Form of RPG Story Graphs

So I've examined story graph structure in general. But what exactly contributes to this structure? It seems there's both the form/structure and the material/content.

The material is basically the world--characters and setting--and the game rules (verbs) for interaction. This is what makes up the substance of encounters. A campaign setting--whether adopted or constructed--provides much of the world: geography, history, culture, types of creatures and characters, major NPCs, etc. Even an Instant Game provides the basics for this with its Instant Setting rolls.

PCs also provide a lot of material if the GM is willing to incorporate it. PCs tend to have or suggest various dependent or patron NPCS or other backstory hooks that could be built upon.

If more material is needed, random tables work great for this. Just roll up your next NPC encounter, the next roaming monster, or the features of the next dungeon room. These random tables are usually campaign (or at least genre) specific, though there are a few table that give some general NPC trait or feature handy for quick caricature.

What random tables do not provide is the purpose or role the material will play in your story. Is this random, non-combative NPC meant to be a hindrance, a clue, or foreshadowing? You need to provide this structure.

However, sometimes structure will prompt material directly--if you need to hinder the PCs a bit at this point in the story, a certain apropos monster may spring to mind.

So these are some sources of raw material, but they must all serve the story structure in order to be relevant.

The core of a story is its central idea, also called the conflict, the opposition, or gist. A random table (or Instant Game) might provide this core story idea, but it then needs to be fleshed out.

One way to do this is follow some sort of story form. At its most basic, this is simply the rising-action/climax/falling-action of Freytag's triangle (the modern version, anyway). But there are more specific forms for each genre--such as Propp's Russian folktale morphology, Joseph Campbell's hero's journey, etc. Other forms have forms less codified but still recognizable--the sci-fi horror film, the romantic comedy, etc. Genre rules usually provide material as well, as with film noir's hardboiled detective, femme fatale, and dark gritty streets. Story forms are good for guidance, but can become a straitjacket if the PCs don't want to follow the traditional roles--such as being the moral heroes. (It took me a few months of research to realize this--see "The Limitations of a Propp-based Approach to Interactive Narrative" over at Argax for more.)

It's also possible to generate random scene forms (aka, encounter types) and try to append them to each other. For instance, a rescue, a car chase, or a dungeon battle. But what is the material of these scenes--who is rescuing whom? And what is their role in the story--is the rescue a climax of the story, or is it performed just to get another clue towards the final goal, or is it even the inciting incident for everything that follows?

We now have a good idea of everything that goes into one of these story graphs and were we might get some of it. So how do we put it all together?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Notion: Story Graphs in Theory and Practice

So, after a little contemplation it seems that a GM guides the story with a mental model of possibilities and potential stories. This model forms a directed graph of story nodes (that is, encounters). The game then traverses this graph of possibilities to produce a linear actual story. This linear story should then have certain characteristics of all good stories--coherence, rising and falling action (conflict), interesting characters and events, etc.

Here's a depiction of this: a graph of dark blue nodes with all possible connections (dashed arrows) and the path actually taken by the story (dark arrows). Some nodes have time requirements--they will happen at (or cannot happen until) a certain time. Similarly, some nodes might be dynamic, having contents that vary depending on which nodes were visited previously.

I must immediately note that most real GMs do not work this way! This is more of a brute force IN/computer game approach, where everything must be completely written before play even starts. As GMs, we don't plot out all possibilities in detail. For one, it's incredibly hard to think of all possible player actions that would necessitate a response. Secondly, it's a waste of time to do all this plotting for events that are unlikely to ever make it into the game.

Instead, I believe GMs work more like this:

That is, we have the main story line mostly planned, though there may still be a couple encounters (shown as outlined light blue nodes) we don't know all the details for yet. We may have a contingency plan for some of the obvious player choices that would take them off the main story line, and hopefully have a vague plan for how to work this back into the story. We might also have some world/content ideas with no idea of how these will affect the story (non-outlined light blue nodes). But these will be handy if we suddenly need to generate more of the graph to support a story that veers off of our planned outline.

In contrast, here's an approximation of the mental "graph" I was working from during our last Huffy session:

There's a clear starting point and a relatively good idea of where to end. There's a few ideas of the kind of action we might see--such as a rooftop chase or a rescue--but without any content--such as the characters or setting necessary for this action. These are shown as empty white nodes. And then there's a few other vague ideas that have no obvious story role yet, with a couple notions about how some of them might go together.

So, even if we do not need to generate a complete graph of all possible stories, how to we quickly generate a partial graph containing at least one complete possible storyline?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Notion: Story Management in RPGs and IN

In thinking about how we might make RPG story management more dynamic, it would probably help to review how it's done normally. The following view essentially comes from D&D's DMG, though it's been shaped a lot by my thinking on the problem of interactive narrative (IN).

An adventure is composed of encounters. Encounters are some short segment of interaction, usually phrased in if/then terms. For example, if the PCs enter this room, this monster will attack them. Or, if the PCs agree to lay down their weapons, the king will listen to their request; otherwise his guards will attack.

Encounters are really simply the story/world/GM response to player actions. So what determines possible player actions? The game rules and GM's description of the world provides affordances for PC action. That is, players know what sorts of actions they can perform based on their skills and powers, including the likelihood of success. The game rules and story context so far can provide constraints and guidance too--some actions are not possible in the world, would be out of character, or would be irrelevant/nonsensical to the story.

In terms of my IN poetics, the events internal to an encounter are world-level events. I call this set of possible world-level actions verbs. As already mentioned, the game rules provides the set of possible verbs. An encounter needs a setting (location, props, etc.) and characters (PCS and NPCs). Characters should include motivations to be believable.

So this brings us to what, in IN, I consider to be the story-level interpretation of world-level events. In other words, how do encounters combine to form adventures? That is, if we summarize each encounter as a sentence, how does that sentence further or change the story structure?

As a related parallel, I would say the main challenges of IN include:
1) defining the set of possible verbs widely enough that the player doesn't feel constrained yet so that the world can appropriately handle/respond to all (or at least all logical) combinations of verb and world object,
2) providing NPC motivations that lead to believable responses to both PC and other NPC actions, and
3) modeling the story so that the system can direct the story to some conclusion.

I believe point 1 can be overcome largely through brute force--coding up a complex rule-based interaction system. Similarly with point 2, though 2 is harder since NPCs have more complex internal states than objects and must also present their reactions in an audience-interpretable manner. But I find point 3 to be the most challenging. In particular, how can a computer understand what world-level actions mean at a story level, both when interpreting user actions and then when directing NPC/world responses? And, secondly, what model of story is the IN system trying to follow as it directs the action?

In terms of RPGs, human ability fills in a lot of these gaps for us. As mentioned, the rules tell us how to adjudicate the verbs (1). But where they do not, the GM can devise a substitute or house rule. NPC motivation (2) is provided by the GM as necessitated by the story. Story structure (3) is what I'm interested in here. I believe that, for a human GM given a story structure (providing constraints/direction) and a rule system and game world (providing affordances/material), the encounter details largely take care of themselves.

Okay, so in the interest of both IN and RPGs, how do RPG GMs model a story structure? D&Ds DMG suggest two basic approaches: site-based and event-based.

In a site-based adventure, encounters are laid out as a map. Site-based adventures are easy to run since both constraints and affordances are easy to communicate: certain spells aside, players have to move through the passageways, encountering each room in some sort of basic order. Locked doors and other obstacles can further direct them. It's easy to foreshadow what's coming up around the next bend. Choices are clear--do we go left or right at this branch? What do we do with the troll currently picking his nose in the next room?

The DMG points out that site-based adventures can be static or dynamic. Static dungeons don't change--there's a troll picking his nose in this room regardless of what the PCs did in the previous room. Dynamic dungeons change or respond to earlier PC actions. Perhaps the nose-picking troll is summoned from his room to sounds of battle, or perhaps he's warned by a fleeing guard that the PCs let get away. Or maybe the troll simply has a random chance of being asleep rather than nose-picking.

For event-based adventures, the DMG suggests starting with a goal for the PCS, and then consider their opposition. It's important to consider PC motivation and how to entice them into the adventure. Then the GM flowcharts the adventure--what events happen in what order. Again, encounters have an if/then structure, so remember preconditions and stress the consequences of PC actions.

As with site-based adventures, event-based adventures can be static--these things happen if the PCs do this. But they can also be dynamic (called timelines): this will happen at this time, regardless of what the PCs have done so far. Usually you end up with some combo--as in the advancing horde reaches the city on day 3 of the adventure, but the results of that battle will depend on what the PCs did before it got there.

What we can see here is that RPG story planning essentially means creating a directed graph. Each encounter is node. The story moves from one node/encounter to another based on what the PCs decide to do.

In a site-based adventure, the graph will have essentially the same shape as the dungeon--rooms connected by corridors. In event-based, we might end up with more various shapes, such as a linear graph when the GM has a single storyline that the PCs have no ability to change. (These can still be interesting games, as the players have to determine how to advance the story and overcome the obstacles before them. See these rough draft pages of my dissertation for more on potential story forms.)

Of course, there are a couple more concerns than simply the shape of the story graph. The DMG recommends that an adventure should offer a variety of different kinds of encounters (combat, puzzles, social intrigue, etc.) and should make good use of PC abilities. The encounters should be individually exciting, but, together, form the rising and falling action of a story. There should be at least some encounters that offer the players a chance to significantly affect the direction of the story.

So, in summary, we can say that an RPG GM works from a directed graph (often of the branching tree variety) representing all potential stories. Each node is an encounter, and the mechanics of those encounters are determined by the rules system and story world (setting, NPC motivations, etc.). But the actual story produced is a linear traversal of that graph as determined by player choices at each node. This completed linear story should then have appropriate story structure--coherence, rising and falling tension, etc.

So how can we speed the production of this guiding story graph?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Huffy: Testing notes

Huffy is a hiking version of Fluff(y), and served about as well. We only had a couple rolls for the combat scene.

The supplies needed include: a pen and scrap of paper (which got a little damp in a light shower), 3dF (small) in a transparent (medicine) bottle, 5 blue chips (plot points), 2 white chips (to mark light injury), and 3 red chips (for heavy injury). All this fits in a few pockets without much trouble.

Our hiking path didn't include too many road crossings, which is good. Your Huffy player party should include someone who can walk and chew gum at the same time to keep an eye on everyone, especially at intersections. S. does this well.

I found that combining hiking and gaming means the gaming goes a little slow as there are pauses to enjoy the scenery, and some of scenery is a bit of a blur because I was deep in thought on gaming. But I tend to think of gaming whenever I hike, so it wasn't that much different! By combining the two activities, you can focus more on one whenever the other hits a bit of a boring lull.

I felt that the biggest problem we encountered--which is larger than just some broken Huffy mechanic--is how to steer the story when we're making it up as we go. I'm still used to D&D, where time seems to divide roughly into 50% combat/strategy, 30% adventuring/dungeon crawling/narration, and 20% town/roleplay/interaction. (Well, that's recently in my Omri campaign. In Dragon Wars, it's probably closer to 65/20/15. In another campaign I play in, it's closer to 80/15/5.) In this context, the main challenge is to come up with dramatic battles and tricky dungeons puzzles (though, yes, it should all still be in the pursuit of some interesting goal).

But lately I'm trying to shift this time division to about 10% combat, 50% narration, and 40% interaction. But this means there needs to be a lot more story ready to go! Yet at the same time, I'm trying to play short, lite-weight campaigns that don't require more than 20 minutes advanced planning.

So what are some possible mechanisms to use here? I still think Instant Game does a great job of quickly giving you a campaign setting--the world and the basic conflict of the story. What I was missing yesterday was more of the story details that then flesh out that conflict.

I did include S. in more explicit story planning at the outset. This means we spent as much time planning as actually playing though. But S. seemed to enjoy being able to shape the world and the story as well as just her character. But once we were into the playing, I felt that the pressure is really on the GM to come up with the next encounter.

Another idea I had was to make a list of story elements before we started that we could then try to work in. Again, S. contributed to the list, which included things such as: feral hordes, a high speed chase, a fight on a narrow archway, a knife fight, spitting in someone's face in defiance, slippin' someone a micky, a foretelling. This did help a bit. I'm already foreshadowing the feral hordes. The knife fight didn't quite come through, but it did suggest the fight between the 3 men. We did a bit of foretelling too (though it's hard to prophesy when you have no clear plan beyond the next encounter!)

All of three of these--Instant Game's setting and opposition, player contribution to the world, and a list of potential story elements--helped. But all three of them require pre-game prep. Is there any generative thing we could do to foster play-time plot generation? And I'm not talking just rolling up another combat encounter here--though the idea of a random table could be used (which the story element list already hints at). In the spirit of Zludge, it'd be nice to stay away from reference tables during play-time.

Hmm... something to ponder more. It's also nice to see my RPG interests coming back around to my IN work!

Huffy: Liza Jaeger

Date: 11 Apr 2008
Player: S.

This was our first attempt at Huffy. We played for about an hour, I'd say, as we walked from Kahala Mall, along the coast at the foot of Diamond Head, to my house. We were playing an Instant Game with the following details:

Setting: Fallen Civilization
Tone: Action/Adventure
Thing: Neutral Ground
Thing: Epic Heroes
Tech: Lost Technology (Now: Wheel. Then: Automobiles)
Place: Camping Out
Population: >10 million

Opposition: (Cruel) Kingpin
Action-Thing: Rescue (Giant) Secret Society
Action-OtherThing: Survive (Strong) Soldier

The population of this corner of the world is spread out in little woodland villages, living a primitive but comfortable existence. S.'s character, Elizabeth "Liza" Jaeger is the greatest hunter in the region. But it seems her family is in debt to the local Godfather figure, who calls in the debt by giving Liza a choice: go on a little "errand" for him, or else he'll marry her young, innocent sister Amelia.

The errand is to travel east over the mountains to find more "sigiled meshal". The kingpin shows her the piece of meshal he already has--a hard, silvery sheet bearing a strange sigil: a circle surrounded by three triangles [a chunk of metal bearing the radioactive symbol, in other words]. The man who brought this to the kingpin suffered sores and internal bleeding. Before he died he explained that the sigil is significant as an indication of the meshal's power to cause disease. The meshal is now stored in the kingpin's shed, a fair distance from any living area.

Liza seeks prophesy before she leaves on such a long journey. The local wise woman reads her tea leaves and says to beware the mountains and the Green Bear.

A couple days journey later, Liza reaches the foothills of the mountains. Ancient myth tells that giants live on the far side, and heroes of old fended them off so that the Villages could live in peace here in the forest.

Liza hears a scuffle nearby and interrupts a fight between three men. One is a warrior dressed like her, but the other two are large, bald, blubbery, and dressed in loincloths and war paint. One of the savages--already wounded--roars and charges Liza when she calls out, and she sinks him with an arrow. The warrior slays the other savage with a well-placed blow of his macuahuitl; he then brutally dispatches the other fallen savage. Liza notices the savages bear weapons crudely fashioned from chunks of meshal, though they lack sigils.

Introductions are exchanged. The warrior is named Albert, and is a member of the Order of Holy Redoubt, a martial monastic order that serve as sentinels and guardians of the mountains. Though they have not seen any giants in known memory, lately small groups of these savages have been coming across the desert wastelands beyond the mountains. They do not seem to speak, but violently attack other humans and, occasionally, each other.

Albert offers that Liza come to the monastery for the night. It proves to be under-staffed with only a handful of warriors who come in from their diverse posts and watches for dinner. Albert explains that the Villages very rarely tithe their sons to the Redoubt as they once did, and the order itself has largely been forgotten here in the wilderness. Liza overhears a hushed discussion of "the rogue" further down the table...

[Liza's details: Fighting +1, Strength +0, Grace +1, Knowledge +1, Perception +1, Social -1, Survival +3. Quirks: Blunt/Tactless; Honorable.]

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Notion: Explicit Player Meta-plotting

Our recent DHYH session and some experiments with's Instant Game have prompted me to think a bit about direct player involvement in story planning.

DRYH explicitly involves the player by letting them lay out the first scene that starts the action, as well as specify a story goal for their character to achieve by the end of the story. During our session, I would occasionally ask S. directly for more info about her character's backstory--such as naming three anthropomorphic toys her character had as a child. Some DRYH GMs have gone so far as to allow players that win their contest to assume narrative control for the following scene.

I've also lately been exploring the mechanic of plot points, where the player can introduce some coincidence, minor story control, or introduce some world detail.

I guess perhaps its my IN research that prompts me to shy away from all this as something that will break player "immersion" or "narrative presence" in the story. Yet, in my own solitaire gaming, I've felt the difference between plotting and playing. Since I'm both player and GM, I know what's going to happen ahead of time in my storylines. The only variation from my plan is going to come from the dice--which can introduce interesting and significant variation at the micro-level, which may in turn prompt new ideas. And yet it's still a rewarding experience to play through and make all those general plot lines concrete. I guess it's like reading a plot summary or reading the original work--the details make a big difference!

So why shouldn't this experience also be rewarding for my players? Yes, there's a breaking of immersion, but at the gain of greater player control and involvement in the story.

So here's a few ideas on how I could try to add more player control:

"Yes, and..." World Building. One thing I noticed with a recent Instant Game exercise was that sometimes the GM and player might want to take the world-building in different directions. One possibility is to play the "Yes, and..." improv game here. The two take turns adding details to the world, but can't retract or change what the other has already added. (No "Yes, but..."s.) I suppose there could be some sort of "plot point" buy-out mechanism if the GM didn't want to go the full way here. Perhaps the GM has 3 chips which let him veto that many player-generated elements. Or perhaps both player and GM each get 3 chips and can veto each other. This would be better, since vetoing in general tends to kill the spirit; at least this way the two are on even footing.

As you can see, I'm hesitant to give equal power to the player. I noticed during the first part of our DRYH session that giving control to the player doesn't mean you're going to get a story out of it. (I was impressed with S.'s contributions and creativity though!) Someone--or at least some mechanism--needs to be in place to guide the story in some direction, or else things just stall. Unless there's something else at work, that guiding "mechanism" is usually the GM. And giving the player story control actually means more work (or at least flexibility) is required of the GM.

Co-GMing. It would be interesting to take turns narrating with the player, so each alternates the GM role. I know other systems (Dogs in the Vineyard, perhaps?) have a stakes-based conflict resolution system. Perhaps something like that could be used here to see who takes control of the story. Of course, some players will be passive and not want story control, while others will always want it. And this still doesn't resolve the problem of "who's driving this thing, anyway?"

Explicit Pre-game Plotting. But again I'm falling into the trap of thinking that all of this plotting needs to be subtle and in character, or emergent from the rules. I started this post with the realization that explicit plotting is not a bad thing! So perhaps following up on DRYH's notion of an explicitly-started story goal is a good one. All of this could be negotiated before the game starts--even including any major plot points that should be hit along the way. If everyone's agreed on the direction and the major waypoints at the outset, then it doesn't matter who's currently driving. Instant Game is close to this, as their instant story tables gives the main opposition and other actions that need to be worked in.

Evil Hat's Spirit of the Century/FATE 3.0's aspects are another possibility here. Aspects can be tied to the campaign/story itself, so anyone can invoke them. This serves to at least direct the story towards certain themes, if not in a particular plot direction.

Hmm... something to continue to ponder.

DRYH: Mood Lighting

A few links to DRHY-like images from here:

DRYH: Piper Fergesson

Date: 06 Apr 08
Player: S.

S's character was Piper Fergesson, a cop on leave after an "incident". She and her partner, Herb Banocheck, had a run-in with some nut with long grey hair. The nut ran at Piper and said, as if in recognition, "It's you!" He pushed her down and she bonked her head, losing consciousness. Witnesses report that the nut then shot Herb with a ball-and-blackpowder pistol, killing him. The nut apparently escaped in the ensuing commotion.

Piper is on leave now, but she can't seem to sleep. Recently, she seems to be noticing doors where she doesn't remember seeing any before. The action opens when she passes a woman in the lobby of her apartment building--a woman she recognizes as a former tenant that died!

[Character details: Exhaustion talent = Good reflexes/reaction time. Madness talent = Can summon/communicate with ghosts. Madness responses: All fight.]

Locked in her apartment, wondering if she's losing her mind, Piper hears a knock on the door. It's a Bobby policeman, asking her to accompany him down to "District 13" for questioning regarding the death of her partner, Banocheck. Curious, Piper follows him, even after she spots the large clockwork key protruding from his back. He takes her down the hallway a ways and through a janitor closet door to a busy city street. Looking back, they just came out the glass door of a candy store.

As they head down a busy and anachronistic street towards a metal archway bearing a large "13", someone in the crowd slips a bit of paper into Piper's hand. Reading it while the Bobby stops to talk to a Paper Boy, Piper sees "Don't go into District 13!". Taking this as her cue, she slips away from the Bobby and disappears into the crowd. She wanders through half-familiar streets and finds the Bizarre Bazaar.

[Here we paused for a nap and a break to get some storyline plotted, as I'd been just adlibbing this far--and most of that based on a vague memory of the example session in the first few pages of DRYH.]

A little someone catches up with her in the Bazaar. He looks like a blue stuffed dog in a trenchcoat with sort of tassel buttoned to the end of his snout. Introducing himself as Stitch the Snitch, he leads Piper to see "La Resistance!" Down into the sewers, through the borders of the Wax King's domain, and down to the upper edge of the Under-Where [hee hee]. La Resistance proves to be three individuals who bear a suspicious resemblance to some of Piper's childhood toys: a little "rag doll" girl, a "stuffed pig" named Anderleaf in a flowery waistcoat, and Barbie's friend Midge. They're currently having tea on a packing crate under a single naked lightbulb.

La Resistance explains to Piper that she can summon ghosts, as they themselves are not really here, but the ghosts of toys remembered. Something strange is going on regarding the death of Herb Banocheck, something that has Officer Tock and even the Tacksman interested. The description of the nut sounds like a Tweener they know named Mad Max. (Tweeners are neither Awake nor Sleeper, but trapped between the two worlds. You usually find Tweeners raving to themselves at bus stops in the City Slumbering.) With no further clues, they recommend Piper seek prophesy.

Stitch takes her to the surface again. He buys a paper from a Paper Boy and points out a small article regarding Piper's escape from the Bobby and that she is still wanted for questioning. He chuckles over how he "snitched" Piper away from the Bobby.

Stitch then leads her to Mama Fortuna. Piper's own mother made a living as a false medium and psychic, and so Piper recognizes a number of tricks of the trade. Mama gets nothing from the crystal ball, so she tries a Tarot reading. It's a strange deck, but she reveals the following: the King of Cups (the Wax King) is in opposition with the King of Blades (the Tacksman) over the City (Mad City and the City Slumbering, two sides of a coin). Beneath the City is the Page of Wands (Piper, newly Awake). Mirroring the Tacksman and Wax King's opposition, Piper is torn between the Horizon Walker (a major arcana card of a man with long grey hair and out-stretched arms; "He represents new awareness and knowledge," Mama says) on the one hand. On the other... Mama Fortuna draws the last card, but casts it and the deck aside, refusing to continue the reading.

Leaving Mama's, Piper finds that Stitch has disappeared. At a loss, she decides to try to find a way home. She heads to her neighborhood in this mirror city, looking for a door. Instead, she finds a couple Pin Head G-men waiting in her building lobby. She gives them the slip. In the fight, she finds her gun is gone... snitched by Stitch?

She tries to buy another paper, but the Paper Boys want Wax King coins, or else $20. One of the Boys, Johnny, recognizes her from the newsies, and so sells her a paper for an autographed $1. According to the paper, Piper is still wanted for questioning, though now they've called out the Needle Nose hounds.

Piper summons Anderleaf the pig, who daintily sniffs around her and announces that, yes, she's being tracked based on the scent of her gun, snitched by Stitch. So he recommends she buy a new one to replace it... then her old one won't be hers anymore.

Back at the Bizarre Bazaar she trades, in the shadows, a memory of freedom and rain in exchange for a gun... that proves to be a ball-and-blackpowder model. Johnny the Paper Boy runs up to her in the crowd, waving his autographed $1, gloating that it'll be worth even more now, look... a new article in the paper says that there is now a warrant out for Piper due to "possession of evidence".

A Needle Nose trots by then, on the trail of something... but passes her by.

Then a mob of Paper Boys hurry past, cursing the Horizon Walker for "taking a bum again." Dashing after the Boys, she sees that they are following some bum with long grey hair. His clothes are stuffed with old newspapers... slips of which are falling out behind him, leaving a trail of headlines from the future. Dashing in, pulling off the Boys before they can dismember him, Piper draws her new gun. As the bum turns, she grabs him and recognizes him as the nut that killed Herb. She cries out, "It's you!" and there is a sudden connection between them. She can see something reflected in his eyes... a Tarot card... the opposition that wouldn't be shown by Mama Fortuna... but as she struggles to dive further in, to make sense of the vision, she passes out.

She awakes in the Bazaar, surrounded by a crowd muttering "Horizon Walker". The bum and the Paper Boys are gone, but, in their place, is a crowd of Bobbies, Pin Heads, and Needle Noses, who quickly surround Piper and haul her into a paddywagon bound for District 13!

There, she is hustled to a courtroom for trial. The Tacksman and his Pin Heads are there as audience. So is Stitch the Snitch, who continues to sob, "I'm sorry! I couldn't help it--I'm a Snitch!" so loudly that he is eventually evicted from the room. The prosecution argues that Herb was killed by the Horizon Walker with a blackpowder gun. Piper is the Horizon Walker (huh?) and possessor of said gun. Chronology seems to hold no weight here. In her defense, Piper summons the spirit of Herb himself, who exonerates her by agreeing that it was the bum Mad Max who shot him.

The prosecution tries to shift tacks--while Piper may not have been directly responsible, she was indirectly to blame. In the moment when she faced her assailant, she was slow (when we know she can be so fast), she passively let her partner come to her rescue (when we know her to be so capable), she failed to see the supernatural at work (when she is (now?) so comfortable existence). With this speech, realization comes. It's true, there is/was opposition to the awareness that is the Horizon Walker... an image comes to mind of a little girl in the shadow of a woman in a shawl holding a crystal ball... the same woman that was on the card she saw in the eyes of the Horizon Walker... the Charlatan... her mother.

The tiny judge in the huge wig bangs his gavel and dismisses the case. Somewhere outside, the clocks are chiming Thirteen.

Conclusion. We played for about 2.5 hours, I'd guess, which is our longest gaming session to date in any system. It is also the first story we've every finished. (Yay!) There was certainly a strong story focus--we only rolled for "combat" and "summoning", and that only occurred about 6 or 7 times.

Some of the elements I was proud of: Tweeners, Stitch, the Under-Where, Anderleaf, the folding over of time with the HW encounter. Others were a little weak--particularly the whole Charlatan thing at the end. I was attempting to build on what S. had already established--Piper's mother--as a psychological topic for further investigation. In the City Slumbering, her mother's shadow still affects her--as the prosecution pointed out--leading to a level of cynicism and a tough cop exterior. Yet, in Mad City, she has in many ways achieved what her mother always pretended--she can actually channel the spirits of the dead. And the first unconscious use of that power was to summon the spirits of her childhood--symbols of girlhood and innocence. But all this probably makes way more sense here than it did during the session, where we were both getting tired and just trying to finish things up.

I wouldn't mind returning to this storyworld. I think of this session as the pilot episode for a TV show that may or may not get canceled...

DRYH: Don't Rest Your Head Review

A couple weeks ago I bought Don't Rest Your Head on a bit of a whim. I bought the PDF + book version. The PDF included a high-res version and a low-res, 2-pages-per-screen version for quick access. The book just came and I'm glad I bought it--something tangible and glossy-covered to flip through while I fall asleep at night.

The rules are a bit tricky at first glance, but they make sense by the second reading. In play, they go pretty smoothly. Basically, there are 4 dice pools: Discipline, Exhaustion, Madness, and Pain. Any time the player has a stressful encounter, the GM assigns a level of difficulty--the number of Pain dice he's going to roll. The player then rolls some combo of Discipline, Exhaustion, and Madness in response. First, you determine whether the GM or the player won--that is, whether the player succeeded or not. Then you determine which pool dominated, which may have certain game effects and always characterizes the resulting action. That's basically it for the game rules. This game definitely has a narrativist slant.

The setting is pretty cool too. The players are always insomniacs that begin to cross over to another world and gain odd abilities as they become more strained and exhausted. Think Dark City, Mirrormask, Neverwhere etc.

You can find out more about the game from Evil Hat's site (link above). Especially check out their Actual Play links--the world is really nicely fleshed out by other people's campaign notes.

It took me a while to come up with the couple dozen or so d6s required to play (but that is a story of its own), but last weekend, S. and I tried it out.

Fluff: Testing notes

Based on the Rye adventure, here were a few conclusions regarding Fluff:
  • For such a lite-weight system, skills should default to Okay. New characters should get maybe two +1s to spend, though they could still drop one skill to up another.
  • The death spiral is too deadly. That is, after a first hit, further hits become more likely. And because, without magical healing, it takes so long to heal from wounds, the game either stalls while the character lays up for a couple weeks, or else death becomes increasingly more likely. It'd be better to tone back the "realism" in the interest of keeping gameplay moving.
  • The 3dF (though we were faking it with 3d6) and skill granularity were fine.
  • The plot points were nice, and should be used more for player story control, especially for things like filling out character equipment/details on the fly.
  • The combat system needs to be clarified. I described the damage levels and the combat mechanic, but left it largely to GM fiat on how the two related. It'd ease gameplay if this was properly defined.
  • The player was skeptical about having her wounds "reopen" on a bad roll, especially when they didn't seem that bad the first time around.

I'm currently working these changes into the rules. The system has been renamed to Fluffy.

We're also thinking about a similar play-while-hiking version (Huffy), an RPG play context inspired partly by Sherpa. Huffy would probably have a scene-based form of combat, to focus even more on story over mechanics.

Fluff: Amaryllis, Post-apoc librarian

Date: 02 Mar 08
Player: S.

Together, S. & I came up with the basic world: post nuclear apocalypse in the Badlands of South Dakota. America is gone, though remnants of civilization are slowly regrouping in Sioux City IA, Albany NY, Sarasota FL, Seattle WA, Juneau AK, Cabo San Lucas MX, Rio BR. S.'s character, Amaryllis ("Rye"), is scouring the Badlands on her chopper, looking for books and remnants of civilization. Due to some strange effect of the fallout, gunpowder no longer works.

Rye needs gas. She encounters a blockade formed by a couple buses on the deserted highway, guarded by 3 men. Rather than give over her bike as "tax", she manages to power around the blockade. She takes a couple hits in the battle--one being a crossbow bolt in the leg as she flees. But she gave about as well as she got.

Pulling off the road to avoid pursuit, she meets a young boy named Sam who has been run off from the nearby town for being a "mutant" and a "devil-child". Apparently things seem to move around him. He explains the town is run by the Landlord, who lives up in the "Castle" overlooking the town. He's the only one would have gas.

The two lie low while the three guards from the road block return to town and gather a group of torch-bearers to scour the surrounding desert in the darkness. Rye hides her bike, and she and Sam approach the "Castle"--which proves to be a Quonset hut and another shed surrounded by a high fence.

After trying to figure out how to approach the building without alerting the kenneled guard dogs, Rye eventually attacks a lone guard. A second one comes running, but he is "magically" repelled by a cowering Sam. The original guard and Rye are both bloodied, though Rye puts a thrown dagger in the guard's back as he tries to run for reinforcements. Rye and Sam stumble towards the door of the Quonset hut while the formerly repelled guard begins to stir once more...

This was about 1.5 hours of play. We ended things here as we wanted to make it to a movie that day. S. thought things looked pretty bleak, and we haven't returned to this story since. Should we do so, here's the details:

Amaryllis: Good fighting, Bad strength, Okay grace, Okay know-how, Okay perception, Worse social, Okay survival.

Sam: Bad fighting, Bad strength, Okay grace, Bad know-how, Okay perception, Bad social, Okay survival, (Good psi).

Ideas: I'd thought of having an episodic campaign structure, where each session involves some need--gas, food, supplies, etc--that involves Rye in some local dispute or story. General prompters: muts and tards, a burnt cityscape with preserved convenience store, trail of previous survivors, a sheet trap, tard horde in the city, muts in the subway system.

Also, when we left things so bleak, I considered a world-jumping campaign idea. Perhaps when Sam and Rye pass through doorways together, they move to another world but with the same story--so a fantasy setting (Sam's a wizard), or Hyperborean (Rye is like Red Sonja), etc.


Date: 02 Mar 08

After working on Zludge for the past few months and generally browsing the indie RPG sites for ideas, I started thinking about a quick, lite-weight rule system for playing "short story" games. That is, it'd be nice to be able to just sit down and whip up a quick, unplanned game to play through and finish in a single session.'s Instant Game does this very well! But I wanted to use a Zludge-based rule system for gameplay, rather than Animalball's.

So, on a Sunday morning after a light run, S. and I were walking home after breakfast and I said, "We should just go home and play!. So we did. I spent about an hour writing the rule system out on 3/4 of a notebook page. About half that time and space went into converting a 3dF roll system to 3d6 though, since I didn't have my Fudge dice with me. I called the system Fluff, to highlight its light-weight, casual-play nature.

Here's the basic system design:

Roll 3dF, which gives +3 to -3. Adjectives: Best, Better, Good, Okay, Bad, Worse, Worst. (A bit cheesy perhaps, but clear and easy to remember.)

Skills default to Bad. There are no attributes or phases/levels. A new character gets five +1 ranks to spend on skills. A player can spend a rank to specialize (+2) in a subskill. She can also drop one skill by -1 to raise another by +1. (In an ongoing campaign, the GM can periodically give out one or two +1 ranks for players to improve their characters.)

Plot points. The player gets 5 plot points, which she can spend to reroll or tweak a roll, or introduce some coincidence, small world detail, or add some small gadget to their character on the fly. The player earns more plot points by good roleplaying or achieving certain story goals.

Combat is exchange-based. All characters announce what they're doing, and then all roll the appropriate (fighting) skill to do that. Attacked characters roll Defense in response, and the difference gives an idea of how much damage is inflicted. Damage levels include Clipped (-1 for next exchange), Hurt (-1 to rolls), Hurt Real Bad (-2), and Dying (-3/incapacitated).

A first aid check after battle lets a character drop the damage penalty by one. The wound is still there though, and a physical skill failure later might reopen the wound. Players heal about 1 damage level per week.

Equipment is pretty free-form: the player just jots down what their character has. Equipment doesn't usually offer a skill bonus or penalty; it just lets you do something or not.

The context for the first game was a post-apoc world, so we had the following skills (and subskills):
--Fighting (Melee, Ranged, Unarmed, Defense)
--Strength (Athletics, Endurance, Shoving/Lifting, Breaking shit)
--Grace (Speed, Reflexes, Acrobatics, Driving)
--Know-how (Book-learning, mechanics, etc.)
--Perception (Sight, Hearing, Other, Mental)
--Social (Diplomacy, Deception, Intimidate, Gather Info)
--Survival (Tracking, Foraging, First aid, Stealth)

Overall, it worked out pretty well.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Initial Description and Mission Statement

"A partial-suspension of fine and diverse RPG sediment"

  • mud, mire, ooze, slime, slush or similar mixture
  • fine, broken, half-formed sea ice
  • the semisolid material precipitated by sewage treatment
  • any thick, viscous matter
  • a naturally-occurring or excavated hollow, hole, well, or recess
  • a sunken enclosure for staging fights, especially between animals
  • the side of a racing track used for refueling and servicing cars
  • the stone at the center of a fruit

The Sludge Pit shall contain the following info:
  • Game play-session summaries/plots, especially for plot-lines that don't have a home of their own.
  • Reflection on Zludge design issues, including play-testing notes
  • Reviews of other RPGs, especially free and indie systems
  • Jotted notes for game mechanic ideas that don't have a home yet
  • Game-mastering lessons and reflections
  • Discussion of RPG theory (with an eye to perhaps making this an academic endeavor someday)