måndag 25 november 2019

A Conspiracy of Jesters




Privately, have been accussed of being too bleak - that's fine I guess, even though I see my stuff as an exercize in dark pulp comedy. The entire wholesome hopepunk movement strikes me as cynical corporate fanservice confused for pseudo-political empowerment, but to each their own.

I do however love a good Jest. A goof. A playful little trickster. A tricky little goofster. A jolly old knee-slapper. Did you hate reading that as much as I hated writing it? Well folks, I am but a slave to my impulses.

Here's a game about being a rebellious Jester, fighting the power with subversion and trickery. You are recently unemployed and since the monarchy is the only one interested in your distinguished and highly specialized talent, you are also unemployable. Your other Jester pals were also let go, and you've formed a Conspiracy. Go forth and cause chaos!

Important disclaimer - I purposely avoided seeing the Joker movie, or reading anything about it. Any and all similarities are a product of the All-Consuming Void and should be immediately sealed into a vault and dropped to the bottom of the sea.

It's a hack of what I remember In The Light Of A Ghost Star to be (don't have a pdf handy at the moment, take that, Rules As Written).

Start with 3hp, 10 inventory slots and 20 shillings.
Assign a d4, d6, d8 among the following stats:

Performer: When you make use of the physical space around you, use a prop, set-piece or weapon. Also used for prancing, dancing and skipping. (STAND-IN FOR DEX, STR AND CON)
Trickster: When you use your unmatched mastery over the social sphere to manipulate, disguise and subvert. Also used for jokes, riddles and limericks. (STAND-IN FOR WIS, INT, CHA)
Svejk*: When you project so much sheer naive dumbassery that you that the world can't help but conform to the you chaotic energy vortex. You pratfall out of danger, confuse opponents into inaction, frustrate authorities into submission (STAND-IN FOR CHA, PROBABLY, BUT LIKE REVERSE)

When you don't know if what you're doing is successful, or whenever failure is meaningful, roll the appropriate dice, and try to get a 4 or higher. As play goes on, your character might do one more specific thing consistently well. If all at the table agree that you do it well, write it down, then you can roll the dice twice and pick the one that's nice-uh, the one with the better result. Rumours say that this is what we call "rolling with advantage."

__________________________________________________

If, for some strange reason, someone were to attack you, whoever attacks you rolls their weapons damage, and you narrate how you're trying to avoid it. You can use whatever stat matches your action, roll it, and subtract that from the damage dealt.

Your main enemies are Guards and Militias. They have spears that do 1d6 Damage, bows and arrows that do 2d4 damage, or truncheons that do 1d4 damage.

To regain health, you must tell your friends jokes during downtime. One joke is 1hp. They don't have to be good, in fact, I recommend using https://short-funny.com/ or some equivalent trash site so that you don't expend undue mental energy.

__________________________________________________

The game is played in REALTIME and DOWNTIME.

REALTIME is when you narrate the specific details of an events that you and your jester friends perform together. You play in turns. Each player gets to move 20 meters and perform 2 actions that don't last more than 20 seconds combined. If appropriate, dice are rolled, resources are spent, money is spent, and the consequences are decided.

DOWNTIME is where you do stuff that takes longer, and is more abstract, such as travel, resting, planning a larger project, managing health and networking, or dealing with whatever fallout happened in realtime. Dice and resources are still spent here, but they are more of an abstract measure of how well things generally go rather than a concrete narration of what happened. If needed, go back into REALTIME if acting things out is more fun.

__________________________________________________

Advancement is gained when you have obtained enough FOOD to last you a month (4 weeks).  You start at level one. (If you don't get any food for 4 weeks you die.)

Roll 1d4 when you level to see how much your health goes up.

Also when leveling, choose one stat to increase the size of according to the following progression: d4-d6-d8-d10-d12

__________________________________________________

Here's some stuff you might have, if you want. Only scum will sell to you. Everything is for free if you can steal it. 


  • JESTER'S STAFF, 5 shillings, 2 slots, one-handed, deals -1d4 hp damage
  • BAG OF MARBLES, 3 shillings, 1 slot, causes pratfalling
  • MAGICIANS TOOLKIT, 4 shilling, does no actual magic, but contains 1d4+1 common stage magician props
  • DANCING MONKEY, 10 shilling, no slot, 2 hp, a friend indeed 
  • MUSIC BOX, 2 shilling, 1 slot, loud and annoying, plays for 1d6 turns
  • SLEDGE-HAMMER, 7 shillings, 3 slots, two-handed, deals 1d8 hp damage
  • ROTTEN FRUIT, free, 1 slot per fruit, missile (range 10 meters), deals -1d4 hp damage
  • PLAGUE MASK, 3 shillings, 2 slots, in poor taste, probably illegal
  • DECLARATION OF ROYAL IMMUNITY,  8 shillings, 1 slot, forged document that will get royal guards and militias to stop harassing you - roll Trickery with Advantage.
  • FALSE TEETH, 1 shilling, 1 slot, useful for replacing real teeth. Can also do -1hp for free if employed as a sneak attack
  • A REAL NEAT STICK, 1 shilling, 3 slots, about a meter long,  just really neat 
  • HANGMAN'S ROPE, 4 shillings, 4 slots, 20 meters long. Only incidentally used for hanging - its just rope 
  • BUNDLE OF DARTS, 2 shilling, 1 slot, missile (range 30 meters), deals 1d6 damage. You have 1d6+2 darts to start with 
  • TICKLIN FEATHER, 1 shilling, 1 slot, can cause fits of laughter
  • FOOD, 100 shillings, 5 slots. Enough to last a week. Strangely more expensive than all this other bullshit, but you need it to live.... Guess you'll have to do something about it, then!

________________________________________________________

You have to eat. You have to take revenge. You have to jest. So whatever shall you do?



  1. Kidnap the Scrub - When the Jester's Guild was striking, this two-faced faux-Jester was brought in to replace you, untrained and handsomely paid, to profit of your misery. Kidnap him and earn your wages back. 
  2. Paint the Wagon - the Wagons that supply the market with supple fruits and filling potatoes (2 weeks worth each) are in desperate need of a change in management - to you
  3. Pro Jestring Guerilla - in defiance of the treacherous Monarchy, you have decided that Jesting is for the people. Let the people experience your masterful craft - and hopefully pay you for it. Beware, as the militia HATES street performers!
  4. Comedic Con - impersonate the powerful, whom you know so well, and use your talents to re-enter your former domain- The Royal Court. If you succeed, all wealth- and revenge, will be yours.
But you should probably figure out what is to be done yourself.

Anything bad about the game you just read was a goof. And aren't you a sucker for falling for it!
______________________________________________________________

*Svejk is the literary hero of Jaroslav Hašek. He is an enthusiastic soldier who manages to subvert authority by submitting so deeply to it, and taking it so literally, that authority becomes functionally useless. Play accordingly. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Good_Soldier_%C5%A0vejk





tisdag 19 november 2019

Addendum to "Table-Centric Design" - On Mattering

I am extremely pleased and humbled with how many people responded so charitably and kindly to the recent Table-Centric Design, were I outlined some recent ways I've been thinking about design. I did however, make a tactically beneficial mistake of referencing the recently dug-up corpse known as  "system matters." Tactically beneficial, because a lot of people responded to it, gave good feedback and better criticism, but a mistake since it might leave people with a distorted impression.

This could have made the impression like I don't believe system matters, which is not true. It could also make the impression that I believe the tangential opinion - that system doesn't matter as much as people think it does. I also don't believe this. I am not trying to be obtuse, I swear.

System does matter. If you've played games published by other people a lot, you just know it. The pain of a clunky rule that constantly needs to be looked up everytime it is triggered. Character advancement systems that lock us into a style of play. The unwieldy subsystem and the arbitrary micromanagement. The resolution mechanic that should've been there, but wasn't added.

We also know the positives of system. The rule that simplified and made clear what other games were trying to achieve. The clever solution to a common hang-up. The two-sentence principle that got your science-fiction game to be more Flash Gordon, less Star Trek.

There are systems that are better suited for playing a certain type of game, or catering to a certain play-style. There are poorly-designed games, and well-designed games.

These are undeniably things that make a difference at the Table.

What I am suggesting is that the Designer is the most easily dismissed person at the Table. They exist in a book that can be closed. They are always in subservience to whoever plays their game, and no amount of harsh words about cheating and intended experience can change that.

We can be upset about that, or we can design around that. This isn't a statement of "players don't care, do whatever", it is a statement of self-recognition - this is how I, as a table-top game designer, exist at the table. I will make that matter, instead getting bogged down with things that either won't matter or matter too much for me to get involved.

So, system does matter, as do the people who design them, but they are as determinant to how RPG's are played as the ancient Hebrew Texts are to contemporary mainstream Christianity. That is, not very determinant at all, but we do not decide for that reason, that the texts don't matter. Anyone who wants to make a new Bible, or game, might want to keep that in mind.

söndag 17 november 2019

Table-Centric Design

Recently, I've been questioning the primacy of "Design" within RPG products. There's a kind of determinism that is generally accepted among RPG folks that Design determines what Play looks like. Listening to some versions of what Game Design is, you'd get the sense that the job of a designer is to manipulate and mind-control the people who play it, and perhaps to teach lessons about some things. If they are correct, and game design truly is a form of Vault-Tec style behavioral control, we might have to ask ourselves if this is even desirable?

I don't doubt that design to a certain extent shapes the behavioral patterns and the choices role-players make, but I find that designers more often than not overrate their own presence at the table in a rather self-aggrandizing way. There is a famous, perhaps dubious sentiment surrounding Vampire The Masquerade - that the games mechanics seemed so contrary to the intended playstyle of the game that it is a wonder anyone played it at all. You'd wonder if that would make these creators question the primacy of game design, or find a separate explanation for why thousands of people still play that game to this day? Instead, they conclude that it is the players who are wrong, and are merely ignorant of the fun they could be having.

When the theory of something and its practice differ, then we first question theory. Our first job as "theorists" is to interpret, and the Design-Centric view has failed to account for how RPGs are actually played at actual tables.

The truth is that our preconceived notions about what a specific RPG is will do more to form the actual play of the game than the rules. The entirety of DND5E is designed around this fact - entire swathes of what defines a DND adventure is left out or assumed to be understood. That has been rather successful for 5E, since it could use it to accommodate those who only know DND from pop culture, or who learned what DND is from different editions. 

Other games work like this too, except perhaps not intentionally. The reason why people play and played Vampire the Masquerade in-spite of its allegedly broken system is that its premise inspired play, its aesthetic sparked creativity and its rules could be easily ignored, and even more easily forgotten if you so wished. This is of course sacrilege to certain designers, but it is not really a problem. If playing at the aesthetics and framing of a game is not the real playing of the game, then I am here to inform you that the vast majority of people who say they have played DND, VtM or even Apocalypse World are liars!

And that's obviously not a workable position. So what is?

Centering the Table 


What if we designed with the knowledge that the table is in control? I know it hurts to think about, but what if our jobs aren't to treat players as lab mice, and instead as the primary creative force in games as a medium? What if we designed games with the premise that diverse people all around the world are going to make it their own inspite of our design?

It is clear to me that we've merely replaced "The Dungeon Master Is God" with "The Designer Is God". I propose a theological paradigm shift - the "Table Is God". I want to create design with the assumption that it is incomplete without the people actually making use of the design. This doesn't mean system-neutrality, or that the text and presentation lack a genre or reference to external media. It means that whatever happens after I've given (sold, most likely) my design to you, is out of my hands.

Such a design would : 
  • Leave spaces, not fill them in 
  • Enable fiction, not dictate it
  • Enable homebrew rulings, avoid standard actions
  • Multi-task, not uni-task
  • Be the spice, not the protein
  • Be the border of the game, not its end-goal
  • Create tools, not rules
I'll probably dedicate full blog posts for these, but to clarify:

Leaving spaces


If your system or setting is a complete ecosystem that needs no intrusion from players and GMs alike, there is no need for anyone to play it. Leave space for the table to play in, don't overdefine or map it all out.

Enabling fiction


A role-playing game has the ability to inspire and spark creativity, imagine different outcomes and undermine existing cliches. A role-playing game should help this by providing fictional material - game text, character/NPC creation procedures, cool and dynamic equipments or ways of navigating space, and tools for creating scenarios and adventures. It should not be canonical or rely on specific narrative structures to work. 

Enable homebrew rulings


Most games have standard actions. Your lock-picking, your have-sex moves, your hack-into-computer-whilst-in-a-moving-vehicle. Get rid of em, and just have intuitive descriptors (DnD Attributes, Blades Action ratings, "Skill" in Troika) and a way to develop whatever expertise characters have during play. This isn't to suggest that the skill-lists common in Percentile-based systems and post-AD&D fantasy gaming are mechanically useless, but rather that we don't know what the characters might attempt and what worlds the GM (if they exist) creates yet. There might not exist a lock to pick, nor might the players want to if they could. It is perfectly allowed to use a mechanical shorthand if certain skills and targets become generalized and repetitive during play, or to represent certain advances the character has made, but don't start there. Empower the players to interpret the world through a set of simple mechanisms, instead of providing that interpretation beforehand. This prevents us from presenting the world as a set of mechanical tasks and instead as a real, dynamic place.

Multi-task


Table-Centric Designs have no core-loop or universal mechanic. They are not what Alton Brown would call a "uni-tasker" - they should provide tools, rules and language that can be approached from several angles. Consider the ole DnD "6 attributes between 1-20 and derived modifiers from -3 to +3" - you can use those as follows:

  1. Roll 1d20 and add the modifier to beat a target number 
  2. Roll  1d20 at or below the target attribute (alternatively, roll above)
  3. Roll a number of d6 at or below the target attribute (alternatively, above)
  4. Use the modifier to add or subtract another roll - e.g adding the Charisma modifier on a reaction table 
These different ways of mechanically engaging with the same information also enables the table to make their own decisions about how to create fiction. A Table-Centric design doesn't tell you exactly when and how to use them, but provides them as suggestions, and a way to navigate the space. 

Be the Spice 


With such a hands-off approach to gaming, it can become rather boring for the designer. After all, if the role of design is minimized, then what is the fun in it? Well, even in minimalist design, the text and the presentation is incredibly important for the table. Remember what we said about aesthetics and framing being a determining factor to play? Do that. That's the spice. 

Be the Border 


The end-goal of a Table-Centric RPG isn't to randomly generate a piece of fiction, nor is it to engage with a core mechanic. You haven't failed to play the game if you never triggered any dice-rolls, you've just played in the spaces between. Now, rolling the dice (or whatever) is fun, and more often than not you will do that, but the mechanic is there to simulate uncertainty, represent complexity or impose difficulty, and none of those are necessarily a given part of every game-session. This is not a failure to play the game - players and GMs are aware of the rules, but because of the Tables decisions, they have chosen to stay within its borders. These borders define play just as much when they are not crossed as when they are. 

Creating Tools


As a Table-Centric Designer, you do not know what your players will do with your work, and you are discouraged from telling them what to do. This shouldn't meant that you under-define what can be done. Create a diverse set of tools or templates that help the table make sense of and resolve things. Make random-table style prompts and imply world-building. An NPC reaction table is not a rule, it doesn't need to be used if other things make more sense, and nothing breaks if you don't use it - but it can add something if it is applied. These are tools for generating fictional materials, not laws of physics or statements of legality, and they help the table rather than constrain it.

Possible Shortcomings

First, lets imagine a possible, surface level objection to this:

Isn't this just a restatement of the same old OSR-philosophy? Do we really need another word?


Not really, since I think it has applications beyond it. I think a "story"-game like Fiasco falls under these definitions. I've talked to several people who've successfully played the game Fiasco, while having no idea what the rules actually intended. There are passages in the original edition that are quite muddled. And I shared that assessment - we all, however, played Fiasco, based on our assumptions of what a game of Fiasco would be. It gave us fictional material and a way of framing play (being the border!) that we were able to navigate in a fairly simple way. Sure, it is sold as a game that emulates a specific narrative - the Coenesque dark comedy, but the stories of the Coens are in themselves multilayered and ambiguous. The meta-narrative of Fiasco isn't singular and intrusive, but multifaceted and dependent on who plays it. There are a thousand ways to make things go to hell.

It doesn't really matter if your game tools imply High Romance or Grognardy Meat Grinders, what matters is how the game presents itself to its players, and how much it forces players to align to a singular meta-narrative structure, or how much it ties actions to an unavoidable monolithic "core loop".

So, on to some actual problems, as we are in the business of honesty.

Lack of Depth

The strength of rules-heavy, core-loopy games that center around advancement, character builds and tactical actions is that they are rewarding in the same way most computer and board games are. The designers can put more time into a specific, long-term play experience and predict some sort of outcome. You invest into a strategy and you are able to see it pan out. This is part of why those games are so popular. When it comes to the Table-Centric vision, where rules are assumed to emerge out of the basic framework of play, some players might find this aspect lacking. When the table are already the "Masters" of their play, the act of "mastering" something external to them becomes less exciting. If you want the feeling of being the person who knows what all the Spells in DnD does, this is not for you.

Lack of Incentive

Authority and responsibility is a daunting thing. When there's nothing to tell you exactly what to do and how to make people do it, there is a risk that they won't do anything at all. But we shouldn't let the lack of an intended playstyle and meta-narrative be confused with a laziness regarding presentation and set-up. You should still tell players about the Magic Spire of Immortality hidden in the Volcano Of Sorrow, but what the players do with that information is up to them. You have to be more of a Poet than a Warrior, is what I guess I am saying.

Lack of Objectivity

For some players, the existence of a canonical rule-book external to the GM or other players is a necessity. There is sometimes a legitimate worry that loose structures and vague frameworks can be abused and unbalanced. Having a tome of rules can be a huge comfort. While this is sometimes a more personal or inter-personal issue, I think it is at least useful to consider adding tools for the social aspects of play, the generation of a social contract and the establishment of who has the authority to do what and when. 

___________________________________

Epilogue

I had started writing this before the entire twitter discourse around just this topic broke out. A lot of things have been said that summarize my position, and a lot of valid criticism of the position has come up as well. 

The most common objection is that the intrusion of Design is necessary to keep players from merely replaying the same story, and challenging them to imagine something different. There is a simple distrust of player intuition on display here, or perhaps, a distrust of ones own intuition. I could add that anecdotally, some of these attempts to "force players out of a narrative" have made the entire experience stale and frustrating, playing me more than I played it. But I see the concern.  

Let me provide a solution: add a rule that the GM, or whoever has narrative control at the moment, has to test every 30 minutes of play. Roll any even-sided die. On uneven numbers, a Monkey God emerges from a dimensional portal, begging to have his belly scratched. Upon belly-scratch, banana-peels begin randomly appearing on surface of the earth, making any number of people trip on it like a skit in an old silent film. You try telling inherited, rehashed, cliched narratives with that possibility constantly looming over your tables fictional world.

If only I was joking. 

To the objection that people do feel like changing system has changed their play-style and outcome, more power to you. I don't deny that different design-choices can have different outcomes, or I wouldn't have written an entirely list about how to approach design. 

What I am advocating for is a broader understanding of why tables don't behave in ways that designers intend them to, why that's probably fine, and a generous, comradely attitude toward the people we are designing for.

If I'm successful, I will create or inspire systems that can be engaged with in many different ways, by many different people, for many different reasons. 

And above all else: Role-playing game design, as discussed on the internet, has no semblance of actual academic work or epistemological attempts at reaching a truth. Let us be clear that we are all making assertions, based heavily on personal experience, biased toward the things we already like, and the people we surround ourselves with. Be excellent to each-other.  

fredag 15 november 2019

The Generic Science Fantasy Character Personality and Presentation Generator (GeSciFaChaPerPreGen)

Take the following statement as true:

"Level 1 Characters should not have a backstory. The game is their backstory."

If this is true, what do we then do to generate interest and investment in the character? I recently made this personality generator for a campaign of ASE that you can use to flesh out exactly how to roleplay them and instruct GMs in how the world might react to them. 

Roll 1d6 per table, and intepret as you wish. 

MY GENERAL ATTITUDE IS...


  1. Cocky
  2. Unpleasant
  3. Charming
  4. Hyper
  5. Cowardly
  6. Morose

WHEN I EAT I...


  1. ... slide the whole meal right down my throat
  2. ... take tiny little bird bites
  3. ... separate all the different food stuffs into different piles
  4. ... I mix it all together into a single sludge
  5. ... I chew loudly with an open mouth
  6. ... I hide my mouth with my hand

MY WALK-STYLE IS...

  1. Forward-tilting
  2. Crooked
  3. Straight-shouldered
  4. Stiff-necked
  5. Hunched
  6. Backward-tilting

FAMOUS EXPRESSIONS

  1. Ugh!
  2. Waaaait a minute....
  3. Feck off!!
  4. Toodeloo!
  5. Me first!
  6. Well now the gronk is truly flonked....

I CANNOT RESIST...

  1. Beautiful clothing...
  2. A good fight...
  3. An enticing mystery...
  4. Shiny things...
  5. Cute animals...
  6. Strange artefacts...

I AM AFRAID OF...

  1. Darkness...
  2. Large monsters...
  3. Machinery or robots...
  4. Failure...
  5. Heights...
  6. Cramped spaces...

onsdag 13 november 2019

Eye of Poseidon+In Heaven Release - and some reflections on growth, and suggestion for Finish The Dang Game Jam

The game that started it all for me Eye of Poseidon, is finally out!...



https://wolf-eel-games.itch.io/eye-of-poseidon-quick-start-rules

(... Somehwhat. This game roughly what it was a year ago, with a few last-minute editions to make it actually-complete, but it is still just a Quick-Start based on the long-abandoned Forged in the Dark system and heavily based on a Moves structure that I've grown out of... more later)

Want to enact the court dramas of Star Trek? In a submarine? In the apocalypse? With strange underwater flora and fauna, deteriorating underwater settlements and just a hint of cynical

I've also released IN HEAVEN!! 




https://wolf-eel-games.itch.io/in-heaven


This is a tool for generating exiting and strange afterlives for your PCs once you've ruthlessly killed all of them. It has 5 random tables, most of which contain some kind of mention of Monkeys.

Buy both of these things. They are great



___________________________________________


So I started working on Eye of Poseidon in 2017, and have been working on it on-and-off, but mostly off this year. It is strange. When I started, I was all hyped up on the Forged in the Dark train, in fact, so hyped up that I forgot that I didn't like playing it very much. When I realized I didn't, it was pretty much too late - I had playtested a version, and I had playtested it well, but I realized that half of the fun was the framing, rather than the game.

This is not to say the game isn't fun - I played some excellent games with the system, but that I am very different now. The entire OSR happened to me, the un-happened when it unravelled (G+ closing,  the exposing of abusers in the movement), and now I don't know where I sit. You can't unlearn the lessons you've taught yourself, you can merely move on to whatever you like now. So it just so happened that I have the bones of a playable game, that I've spent MONTHS of my life on, but have no motivation to go back to in its present form. What do?

I very much want to finish Eye of Poseidon. The most common advice designers get is to not get distracted and have a strong vision, but sometimes change is good. Sometimes what you were doing isn't what you think you were doing. Sometimes its something else. Is it better? How the fuck will I know!

But how? And when will I have the time?

Well. That's a thing I've been thinking about. Introducing...

_______________________________________________


FINISH THE DANG GAME JAM


Arriving on Itch shortly, I will be hosting a jam dedicated to finishing our dang games. Games that are left in your Google Drives, your InDesign projects, games that you've practically made and forgot. I want you to finish it.

The rules -

1. You have to have some sort of physical proof of the game you started with, a photo of the paper you scribbled down the idea on, a txt/doc file, a full-on PDF.

2. Finish the dang game in three months. Want art and good editing? Want long essays about the philosophy of being a game master? Well those aren't the game. Finish the dang game so I can dang well play it. If you can get art and good editing in 3 months, that's fine. Just finish the gosh dang game. I don't care. Jesus.

3. Upload what you started with and what you ended up with to the Itch and add it to the game jam. It's not a competition, and you should charge whatever money you think is appropriate for it.

Like this idea? @ me on this tweet and tell me so https://twitter.com/YakovPettersson/status/1194635070033678338

Or comment on this blogpost I guess

Announcement will probably be on twitter or this blog

lördag 19 oktober 2019

Rotten Carrot on a Stick: Why XP is not what you think





It is a well understood, but little expressed fact that the "theory" behind roleplaying games has very little to do with academic inquiry and the establishing of truths. Instead, most of our theorizing rely on pure guesswork, marketing gimmicks and internalized industry standards. Even if someone approaches a theoretical truth about what Games are (or should be), there is no established and accessible way for the rest of us to know whether what they are talking about makes sense, except an abstract, formal logic. As a result of this vague framework, game developers usually get up hung up on this or that specific, usually highly personal thing. It's their own Theory Heartbreaker, coincidentally related to the new game they are selling.

The most common among these Theory Heartbreakers are XP. There's a popular school of thought that posits that RPG mechanics are a form of mind control, and believe this is a good thing. Most commonly, they refer to XP as a key proof of this. The idea is that if game designers reward the right thing with XP, they will engender a specific type of play at the table. Makes sense right? Carrot, stick. If I give my child a piece of candy as a reward, they WILL clean their room.

There are immediate problems, but let me first do a disclaimer: I cannot possibly know what kind of solutions your table or game has, so let the critique be about what I'm actually critiquing. Also, my "evidence" is obviously anecdotal to what I've played and watched, which is a lot, but that's all anyone has to go on. Refer to the first paragraph: we don't really have an academic way of establishing these things as true, and there can always be some other, equally anecdotal piece of evidence contradicting me.

So, our premise is the following: XP is a tool for players. It is a way to reward certain behavior, and rewarding certain behavior will lead to a specific style of play. Want a game about fighting large foes? Reward fighting large foes with XP! Want a game about bonding emotionally with others? Reward emotional bondning with XP! Want a game about eating the rich? Well they'll get a big, juicy XP once they gobble down that Warren Buffet smoothie!

Now just like anyone else, I'd be ready to accept most of that premise. I worked on those assumptions myself while designing. But the problem is that this is rarely how it pans out at the table. Sure, there is sometimes one or more people who are completely obsessed with doing whatever gets them XP, but most of the time, the majority of the table do not think like that. They think about their character, the world, the dice they'll have to roll and the challenges they are facing. They think about what is immediate to them. Occasionally there are cheers, laughs and even applause, but it is rarely because they get XP, and mostly because of something rewarding that happened during play. Now, if XP is supposed to be this central aspect to play, why isn't it?

The obvious answer is that regardless of what you decide to reward, the vast majority of XP systems are not only part of the games dreaded Meta-level, they are furthermore a summary that happens after play.1 That's two levels of removal from what is considered the essential part of RPG play - the interaction with a fictional reality by fictional means. While this level of reflection is certainly necessary for a lot of games, it's also alienating us from actual play.

My thesis is that XP is mostly an inconsistent tool for encouraging a specific type of play, and games that lean heavily on players getting XP by acting in a certain way usually ruin the activity they are trying to promote, or limit the games potential.

For posterity, lets look at some systems and their text to see what their actual intention is.

Dungeons and Dragons 5E



The obvious first choice is to look at the punching bag of OSR and Storygamers alike: the 5E experience system. Interestingly, the Players Handbook doesn't even really tell the players what precise actions gets them XP:

"As your character goes on adventures and overcomes challenges, he or she gains experience, represented by experience points. A character who reaches a specified experience point total advances in capability. This advancement is called gaining a level." Players Handbook, p. 15 

This might as well say "you gain XP for playing the game." Perhaps the player can GUESS what this means, because they have a preconceived idea of what a DND adventure is, but it doesn't tell us that the player SHOULD do anything except go on adventures.

Now, anyone who's had a discussion about Dungeons and Dragons knows that "DND gives XP for killing stuff". This is usually said in a condescending or concerned tone, and implies that it rewards murderhoboism and other asocial activites. But the fact is that the players, if we assume they don't read the DMG or ask the GM outright, would not have any idea that this is the case from reading the rules. While I'd wager that most players who have played more than once would be privy to it, it doesn't change the fact that the Player's Handbook didn't seem to tell the players to do anything but adventure and roll dice. Add to this the fact that most by-the-books 5E players don't seem to have this problem of murderhoboism after extended play, and already our thesis is falling apart.

So what about the DMG - how does it phrase XP?

"Experience points (XP) fuel level advancement for player characters and are most often the reward for completing combat encounters. Each monster has an XP value based on its challenge rating. When adventurers defeat one or more monsters-typically by killing, routing, or capturing them-they divide the total XP value of the monsters evenly among themselves. If the party received substantial assistance from one or more NPCs, count those NPCs as party members when dividing up the XP. (Because the NPCs made the fight easier, individual characters receive fewer XP.)" Dungeon Masters Guide, page 260
So there we have it, mean old WOTC, telling us to kill. Except, even then, it refers to a page in the DMG that tells you how the GM should give it, which means the player-side ability to act on and maximize their XP-output is even more obscure. For you as a player to know whether killing something is worth it, you have to have meta-knowledge of:

  1. The challenge rating of the foe you're facing, which in cases where the DM or adventure has its own CR, could be impossible
  2. Know the XP treshold of your party, which entails having knowledge about your fellow players character sheet.
  3. Know the "Encounter Difficulty", which is based on the total enemy XP for the encounter compared to a level-based table that exists only in the DMG. 
  4. Know how much XP per character you'd receive, which is the total XP divided by all the characters and all NPCs.
This doesn't look like something that is designed to incentivize a style of play. This isn't an algorithm that a player can be expected to act according to. Now of course, you could just kill everything and get XP that way, but since it is level based, you'd more likely be wasting your time killing whatever low-XP peasant you came upon, and the DMG doesn't seem to encourage that kind of encounter design. 

My main point: XP, in DND5E, isn't for players. It is for the Dungeon Master so that they can plan out level appropriate encounters. You get XP for doing what the Dungeon Master has planned. More than anything, this encourages the Dungeon Master to run railroaded battles completely bound by the current skill of the party, instead of encouraging the players to kill more.

Dungeon World 


I ran a Dungeon World game for about a year, and while it was excellent for improvising an adventure on the spot, it was also immensely frustrating to run a long term campaign in. Dungeon World seems, based on what how I've seen the designers talk about it, to be a game designed with the premise that specific types of XP reward specific types of play. In fact, if XP tells us what the game rewards, then Dungeon World rewards like 3 games at once. Some of the XP is based on personal goals that characters set up for themselves, some are goals set up for other players, and some are contingent on the game master giving the players the right hard moves or getting to a space in the narrative. You can also get XP for failing a roll (which is strangely not outlined in the End of Session Move), which is not a goal that a player can actively work toward. except by attempting to roll lots of dice, I guess, but that didn't really happen for us. Here's the move:
"When you reach the end of a session, choose one of your bonds that you feel is resolved When you reach the end of a session, choose one of your bonds that you feel is resolved (completely explored, no longer relevant, or otherwise). Ask the player of the character you have the bond with if they agree. If they do, mark XP and write a new bond with whomever you wish. 
Once bonds have been updated look at your alignment. If you fulfilled that alignment at least once this session, mark XP. 
Then answer these three questions as a group: 
Did we learn something new and important about the world? 
Did we overcome a notable monster or enemy? 
Did we loot a memorable treasure? For each “yes” answer everyone marks XP." Dungeon World, p. 76

Now, did the XP set-up engender a certain play? Sure it did, but only for one of these. The Bond system, which entails writing a short sentence about another party members character that states their relation to each-other. Once that bond has served its purpose, they abandon them. The player decides how to describe their relation to the other character, but only with the other players approval can the bond be resolved.

On face value, a bond is a good idea if you want your players to explore their fictional relationships to the other characters. But what happened was that they forgot about all the other stuff. I had prepared all the stuff about new important things about the world, monsters, treasure, I even tried to challenge their convictions.

But since the players got to set up Bonds as their own mini-quest, what happened was they'd struggle for about 4 minutes to figure out what their Bond should be, spend the entire session trying to resolve them, then spend the majority of the End of Session time arguing for whether or not their bond was resolved. In the unlikely case that the bond was actually resolved, they'd have to take more time writing a new one, and there are only limited example bonds in the book.

Since Bond-resolving wasn't a guaranteed XP, many sessions were almost completely XP-less. The time we took to ask ourselves if we had fulfilled any of the other stuff felt more like the game designers humiliating us for not having done what they wanted. The alignment stuff was the worst, since it told the players they weren't fulfilling an expectation of a character before that character had even been played, and were thus punished for deviating from that mold. You can change alignment, but then you've just created another expectation.

But is there a lesson here, more than that this particular XP-system was a bit unfocused and confused. The way XP was introduced as a desirable purpose of play, rather than the natural outcome of play, led to frustration, distraction and resentment.  The thing it wanted to include in the game either wasn't included, or felt like a chore.

I intended to discuss a bunch more, but woo boy did this drag on. On to the next point:

XP for "Roleplay" makes roleplaying worse


Here's a thing that people are worried about: "if you don't have a rule that says your players should do actual roleplaying, they won't". Now, even if there is a chance that a certain player is particularly uninterested in doing anything but tagging along and experiencing the unfolding narrative, that is fine. Games have the ability to offer multiple levels of engagement, and the premise that people who don't engage on the high-dramatic level are doing it wrong is like the roleplaying version of hating games that have Easy Mode.

But I understand the impulse. If your game has a thesis or invokes genres best suited for intense roleplay, there's a risk it might fall flat unless all engage on the same level, which is fine if you can find the group. I don't have the great solutions for you, but I will warn you that XP might just make it worse.

Lets establish what kind of thing I'm talking about:

"If you expressed your characters beliefs/ideology/core trait etc, gain an XP"


"Priests can get one XP per session if they pray"
Seems simple, right? Since by this logic, XP is an incentive for Doing Stuff. While this might work for some players, the fact is that roleplaying becomes very difficult when it is held up against the authority of a character sheet or rulebook instead of being a product of play.

Roleplaying - as in portraying a fictional character with a history that precedes the actual play of the game and has independent motivations from its author, is an incredibly powerful thing. But the exciting thing about roleplay is how a character interacts with the fictional world around them, something a character sheet (or your games equivalent) cannot do.

The roleplay might be rewarding, dramatic, profoundly transformative for your character, in ways that a character sheet or general XP-system cannot predict or engender. To end such a session with a book-keeping ritual wherein you realize that this play was subpar compared to your character sheet, and then being denied the essential currency of your game for it, just sucks.

In a roleplaying game, you are in charge and you are acting in a way that you think makes sense. YOU have agency, and we want to see that agency reflected in both game and mechanic. What's exciting is that you can subvert whatever expectation you want, on your terms. When games reward you for fulfilling an archetype there are two outcomes: either you play a character so archetypal it becomes an uninteresting cliché, or it becomes a constant end-of-game disappointment to find out why your character doesn't match what someone not present at the table expected of you. Either no agency or agency punished.

We once again hit upon the problem of XP being divorced and alienated from actual play. It doesn't tell us what was produced by the playing of the game, it tells us to compare that play based on agame designers expectations. We then get to ask ourselves the most awful kind of question:"Did you have the wrong kind of fun?"

So what then, is XP for?


Hopefully, I've made myself clear. XP does not function has a consistent way to communicate to players how a game should be played. In 5E, it isn't even communicated. When XP is rewarded for a narrowly defined play-style, or for the adherence to the things written on a character sheet, they can become actively intrusive and ruin the fun of play.

What XP seems to be good at doing is communicating to Game Masters (in games where those exist) how the game excepts you to set up encounters and settings. XP for Gold? Then my system most have Gold, and a place to find it. XP for killing monsters? Then my game must have monsters. XP for discovering new places or truths about the universe? Have that in your game.

In 5E, as much as I wish it would have been something else, it does literally address experience points directly to the person who is in charge of running the adventure as a form of structuring play, instead of telling players that they should strive toward X or Y. Sure, that structure is implied to be "a slow crawl toward the next thing to fight", but that is infinitely more useful for the table. You don't have to do any guesswork, you are provided a framework and the players are free to do whatever they want. It's just that whatever they want is probably going to result in some form of combat.


If we inverse XP, and look at it as a GM checklist, it becomes a quite useful tool. Granted, it can be abused, and the excessive focus on balance and controlled adventures in DND is proof of that.

I think, if we really want to incentivize a specific style of play, we make the immediate mechanical impact of it rewarding. The central reason that people turn to combat in DND is that combat FEELS incredibly good in that system. Not only does rolling a Nat20 feel good, it is also the feeling of using all your special items, weapons and spells. You don't go into combat because you want XP, you go into combat because you're looking to try out that new Horn of Blasting you got from killing a Wizard, or something.

Similarly, we can dissuade certain player actions by setting up a mechanical disadvantage to them. Don't want your players to fight all the monsters, like you do in 5E? Communicate to them that engaging in all combat is instant death, because of high mortality and the like. Don't want your high-level art thief PCs to pick-pocket every grandma they see? Send the guards after them!

I find that kind of immediate design, that addressed and privileges the act of play itself, to be preferable over meta-game incentives. Besides, XP-incentivization talk sounds a lot like how neoliberals talk about the unemployed, but that is another discussion for another blog.

After all that, we still reward XP, but we think about it differently.

Obvious exceptions, like CoC advancement and XP based on good/bad rolls are not included. 

onsdag 16 oktober 2019

(SKØVD RELEASE+IN THE WORKS) back at it again at the krispy kreme

SO I ONCE AGAIN DID A THING

SKØVD - A GOTHIC AND GLOOMY GUIDE



"SKØVD is a Weird Gothic fantasy mini-setting for Black Hack 2nd Ed. and similar pen-and-paper systems. Exiled from the Empire of Flenn, your adventurers have been stranded in the city of Skøvd (pronounced however you wish), a vile place full of crime, injustice and supernatural occurrence. It is a single A4 Pamphlet, ready to Print and Play! It is not fully fleshed out - on purpose. Take the ideas, tables and plot hooks and flesh them out yourself, or place them in an entirely new context. The narrator is unreliable - you decide the canon of the setting."

AVAILABLE AT ITCH FOR $2.50
https://wolf-eel-games.itch.io/skvd
______________________________________________________________________


It's been out for a while and has recieved some great feedback.

The central concept of it is to provide GMs with a world that is distinct enough to inspire play, but ambigious enough to make your own. All Points of Interest are presented as biased rumours and carry the possibility of Table Subversion (the thing where the players don't have to wonder if "this is what Yakov Intended" at all times and do their own thing)

______________________________________________________________________

UPCOMING PROJECTS

IN HEAVEN ZINI - 


















A system neutral zini (Bifold Zine) for when there's TPK and you want to keep playing. Generate a strange new afterlife for your players!

NIGHT CRAWL - 





















Another pamphlet type thing set in the Skøvd setting (or whatever), that is supposed to provide a procedure for randomly generating train carts for a Ghost Train. I've put it a bit on hold because it was, literally but also spiritually, too railroady. Nevertheless, once I solve this, the most ironic problem in adventure design yet, it'll be released.

THE HOWLING CHILDREN - 















A Skøvdian adventure where you plunder an abandoned graveyard filled with repulsive wolf children and possibly the cursed head of a fallen king. It's got uh, body horror. Lets just say that. I ran this at a playtest for my own micro-RPG system, and while the system was lacking, I found the adventure to be very fun. I'd hoped to release it in pamphlet form, but it might require some more space....

SKØVDMANCER - 
















The aforementioned lacking system, its a pamphlet based character creation generator that has it's root in the ole Yak-Hack - but the changes I made to it weren't that good. My idea was that you could run it all with a pair of d6, but I despise the d6, and I didn't like the math of it. Anyways, here's the flawed version, for free . I'm definitely keeping the Pamphlet format, and I love some aspects of it, but I'm thinking of going back to the tried and true d20. Thoughts?

söndag 21 april 2019

Announcement: Wolf-Eel Games, Patreon and #PamphletJam

Hello all,

Exciting times! I'm actually finishing up on a lot of projects and I am making great progress in general. I've decided to make a big move:

ANNOUNCING: WOLF-EEL GAMES


Wolf-Eel Games is going to be my own self-publishing vehicle. It's going to have a bunch of stuff that I've discussed here and on Twitter.

You can find us at https://wolf-eel-games.itch.io and Patreon.

ANNOUNCING: THE DINING DEN OF THE FUZZ-MONSTER




The Dining Den of the Fuzz Monster is a submission to the great itch.io "Pamphlet Jam" created by Nate Treme. It is a grotesque adventure inspired by the dark humor of Mervin Peake's "Gormenghast" and the terror of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre", with a fun and scary monster at it's core. It is based on The Black Hack (duh) and can be used as a pick-up-and-play, dropped in an already existing setting, or as a part of the setting of Skøvd.....

https://wolf-eel-games.itch.io/the-dining-den-of-the-fuzz-monster

ANNOUCING: PATREON

I've long had a Patreon - and it's starting back up again! All pamphlets and similar endevours will be available there for $1 a month! I'm currently working on more expansions on the pamphlet format. Find them there before it's released anywhere else!

VISIT - https://www.patreon.com/wolfeelgames

torsdag 18 april 2019

Fever Swamp x Black Hack - An Actual Play Report, Chapter 2.

OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE UR-CORPSE


GAME: The Black Hack 2nd Ed. by David Black

SETTING: Fever Swamp by Luke Gearing

LANGUAGE: Swedish

PLAYERS: 

Disa as the Fighter "Pravoslav "Pravvo" Storáková"

Elliot as the Wizard "Eberhardt "Nubbe" Brúntz"

Jonas as the Cleric "Bohumil Storáková"





SPOILER ALERT 

I trust that if you are going to play this module, you won't read further. If you like knowing all the secrets and pointing out a bunch of meta-stuff at the table is fine with your group, alright. Personally, I think Deadpooling it isn't all that rewarding.

Part 1: The Actual Play


Upon arrival in the Village of Clink, the players had already heard of the bounty regarding Gert Von Hammer and his research. I also introduced them to the creepy Jasmine - the cult-leader for the water-dead god. I loved the cult, even if I didn't get to play with it (or the Village of Clink in general) during play. It follows my general rule that if there is a cult, they ought to be wrong about what they are doing, not just their methods. Too often, the abusive propaganda of cults are treated like secret knowledge - in Fever Swamp:
"The God is real, but lies far below the ocean, not in this stinking swamp."

To the end, the players believed that the Water-Dead God was in the Ur-Corpse temple, or somewhere else in the swamp.

So they ventured out, dealing with various happenings and encounters. It all ran pretty smooth - awarding XP for Exploration was a good incentive to keep going. It did, however, powerlevel the fuck out of them! Which was good for them, but I had to reroute it to the XP-per-POI after they hit level 4, as it was going way too fast.

I had hidden some of the tribal encounters around the map, which were all memorable, and an oppurtunity for me to give out Cleric spells. During play, they got an odd Shaman Apprentice named Siiri by their side, which I gather was a party favorite, as she was easily the most useful NPC for them.

Some highlights:

  • Hunger the Crocodile was sleeping. I cannot for the life of me remember if I rolled something or if someone cast a spell, or if I was just too worried it was going to kill them (bad move!) but there it was, the giant thing sleeping. I rolled on the BH treasure drop table for the various belongings they could find on the nearby corpses. 
  • The Oracular Succubus scared Bohumil half to death as soon as he layed down and heard her voice. Ran away immediately, still got charmed though! 
  • The flammable fungus at the Ruined Monastery nearly exploded Nubbe to death. Thank god for stale water. 
  • One of the Tribes attacked and killed one of the NPCs - a randomly rolled naked Witch they had just recently encountered. It was one of the more genuinely horrifying encounters. They were going to sacrifice her to the trees. What's more, the Tribes village had just then been decimated by the Corpse Pile, so the tree sacrifices would've been reanimated and all jittery. They didn't pass across that hex, but I still got to spook em with signs of the Corpse Pile. 
  • NPC Drama - Our armourer Katerina had a bad time after some corpse fell on her during an encounter and nearly flipped completely as Siiri suggested an amputations of her infected, swollen arm. Some deeply intense shit unfolded as she nearly ran away and demanded that they focus on the mission. 
But the best part was most definitely the Ur-Corpse Ruins. They ventured in, were careful, all of that - except for when they got to the searing light. Bohumil got separated from the others and had taken a lot of damage. Standing alone infront of the Ur-Corpse, he did the only thing he knew to do - steal the god damn Corpse Fragment. Of course the checks to do it carefully failed, and so Bohumil became responsible for the apocalypse. Oh, and all his bones broke.

When the Ur-Corpse horrifying visage raised all dead around it to consume the living, the party was surrounded by the evil undead, and the world was doomed. It was then Bohumil was rocked out of his unconsciousness with the help of a nice slap on the face. He then realized the fragment he stole could be used to grant life to one dead thing. An ironic end to the campaign. 

Part 2: A Review and some Lessons

Review 

This module rules. It appeals to me specifically, and itches literally every aesthetic itch I have. There are some things which carry the potential for problematic play, as discussed in the first blog-post, but I think that is firmly up to the GM and the Table to manage. There is so much of this book that is unique and worthwhile. The art is so great and evocative - it is beautiful but ugly at the same time.

Running it was very easy, and my players felt motivated to push forward - there was always something happening and always something pushing the players forward. It had a brilliant "just another hex before we stop" feeling. 

What I love particularly is how it leaves so much unexplained - what the fuck are the Stilt-Walkers about, why do they hang around these cursed places? What is the monolith? Some might find that frustrating, but I find it brilliant. Most of these truths aren't available for the players, so why should it be for the GM. There is a an immense sense of implied world-building where your brain starts filling in blanks.

Above all it is the mood of the module that stands out. You fill kind of slimy and afraid even GM:ing it. I love stories and games where the characters go through a kind of nihlistic, negative character development, where they face off with things so life-alteringly grim and shocking that they are irreversibly changed. Annihilation, Aguirre and The VVitch all come to mind. Even as my players won all battles, they didn't become glorious heroes known throughout the lands, but scared and broken travelers. That's not a happy place, but it is a good place. What I guess I'm saying is - play this module if you like scary, gross, sorta funny and character-life-altering stuff.

My only real criticisms: Stilt-Walkers are great, weird and sort of scary characters. They were fun to play around with, but there are way too many of them. They're in most significant hexes, are in the random encounter table, and the fact that 18 of them can appear at once makes it feel sorta samey after a while. Initially, I enjoyed the frantic and overwhelming nature of my players squaring off against such a weird opponent, but after a while, it felt like both me and the players just wanted to avoid them. I get that it is probably there because those hexes have a mysterious nature to them, but I'd scale down the number of Stilt-Walkers appearing, and maybe replace them or create variations of them somehow in many of the hexes.

It is also quite difficult to envision the physical space in hexes that weren't keyed or described. I had to do a lot of breaks for quick map-making in order for me to make a gameable fictional space for the players. That is probably not something I can fault the design for, though, as it would be kind of difficult to include that stuff everywhere.

With regards to The Black Hack, it worked beautifully (there's a reason everything I write is written with Black Hack in mind), but the lack of comprehensive NPC rules (to the extent that I felt they were needed) meant I had to improvise and houserule. I have some problems with the GM just making up NPC actions/reactions by fiat, especially when it comes to combat, but I still wanted their companions to feel fairly exposed. Flipping a coin for that stuff is fun, but limiting. Some GM's might find the lack of rules for that stuff fun, though.


Lessons

This module taught me quite a bit about both design and GMing. Here's some of them: 

  1. The Cult is Wrong: Abusive religious groups are often portrayed in fictions as bearers of secret knowledge and truths accessible only to them. Even if they are still presented as evil, they are narratively justified when their sacred beliefs turn out to be true, and their methods turn out to be justified. The Cult of the Drowned is fundamentally misguided and their methods are wrong. As someone who left an apocalyptic cult, I find that to be a breath of fresh air. It inspired me to do a write-up on cults in movies - coming soon. 
  2. Only My Players Can Start The Apocalypse: You ever watch a superhero blockbuster action movie the last 10 years? If so, you've probably seen a movie where the world is ending and only a group of very special and definitely not fascist übermensh can do anything about it. That's fine, they need to make like 50 more of these, so it makes sense. But games are built on player-agency. The sense that you can impact your environment. choose your own path, poke the dragon and face the consequences is what makes gaming so special. When you start the game of threatening to destroy the game world, you're effectively railroading the characters. Sure, it is not railroading in the sense that you are stopping players from going anywhere or just ignoring it, but more likely, they'll try to stop it and do nothing else. This is a caveat I'd put on my piece about Inherent Tension - just because the characters in your world are motivated to act, it does not mean that you should coerce them to act in a certain way. 
  3. Make Lore You Can Use Without Losing Your Mind: For the longest time, I resisted Lore like death. Mostly it's because I'm Swedish, and every Swedish rulebook is ten pages of unusable block-text that is virtually ungameable (looking at you, Oktoberlandet), and the same goes for tons of WotC and WoD stuff, too. Mostly it is because I feel like it encroaches on my domain as the GM, and becomes another avenue of responsibility that I don't particularly feel like having. Fever Swamp is gracious toward the GM in that the lore is presented in a short and concise manner. It has the place, some things about the place and what might happen there, as well as stats for creatures that might be there and what they might do. What motivates these characters, and why are these places like this? That is up to me. I don't have to adhere to the designers own intentions, but I can use the same tools. It is not the job of a designer to motivate the moving pieces in the game world. 

Part 3: IN CONCLUSION

Luke Gearing has made a setting that is so tailored to my specific interests that it is almost frightening. Did you make this for me, Luke? 

This was one of my favorite gaming experiences in long, long while. I'm probably going to run it again, some day.
You can buy it here. Please do. 

lördag 16 mars 2019

The 4 False Principles of Shitty RPG Debate (Plus a Bonemancer)

The Ideal Games Debater
Hey, you there! Are you into debating, reviewing or designing games? Do you find yourself alienating everyone you talk to or engage with? Are the people who agree with you all gigantic assholes? I get it, taking a stance and defending it is fun, exhilarating even, especially in those moments where you've really humiliated and "destroyed" another person because of how "good" you are at debating. Maybe it reflects badly on you as a person in some circles, but why should you care? You won, you were correct, and at the end of the day, the truth is what matters.

Except, of course, that we aren't really talking about truth at all, but a set of assumptions that bad-faith debaters are making about what roleplaying games are, how they exist in the real world and how to evaluate them. Those assumptions can be challenged, and circumvent a lot of toxic, divisive debate. Challenging those assumption might be hard, because you've built your entire persona on them, or the people you oppose are so allegedly awful that making any sort of concession to the stuff they are doing is an approval of their awful behavior.

The following is a handy guide for people who want to spot bad-faith debate. Lo and behold:

FOUR FALSE PRINCIPLES OF SHITTY RPG DEBATE, OR THE ROLEPLAYER'S SLIPPERY SLOPE


FIRST PRINCIPLE - The Universality of Gaming 


The first principle you're going to assume is that all roleplaying games are one thing, and that all roleplaying games have the same goals. To hell with "RPG" being a complex, arbitrary label for a hobby that was widely diverse in content, intent and tone from the very beginning, everyone who sits down at the table is there for one reason and to experience one thing. Didn't you know? RPG's are not a human invention, but a law of nature, to be discovered by humans using science. 


What follows from this principle is....


SECOND PRINCIPLE - The Universality of Approach


If all RPG's have the same goals, and all roleplayers want the same thing, then there is an optimal way to reach that goal. Just like we can measure the exact temperature at which a liquid will boil, we can figure out the optimal way to reach whatever we've decided the objective goal of all roleplaying games are. Mechanics or systems that don't serve the ultimate goal of roleplaying games are thus to be denigrated and ignored, to be discarded completely in service of better mechanics. Nevermind the silly idea that a game with a different goal might use a different mechanic to serve a different purpose - we cannot judge a game based on it's own merits, but MY MERITS, damnit! 

As we can see from the first two principles, they make the assumption that people can only have fun with their friends in one specific way. This leads into the final two... 

THIRD PRINCIPLE - The Deceitfulness of Detractors


People who claim to have fun using other systems for other reasons than I do are either lying to me, or deluding themselves. They might think they are having fun, but are really ignorant of the fun that they could be having, were they only to come to same realizations that I have. Not only are they wrong, they are doing the world a disservice by spreading their unholy gospel to others. They must be punished for their ignorance! 

Of course, all of this sounds rather selfish, and like all selfishness, it leads to sadness. Let us plunge into the darkness with the last principle...

FOURTH PRINCIPLE - The Loneliness of the Roleplayer


For all the above listed reasons, the Roleplayer will have concluded the following: my idea of fun is the only type of fun I can enjoy. I am incurious, dismissive and will not engage. If I am invited to connect and play with people who do not sign up for my own personal, narrow, arbitrary view of fun, I will decline. Even if I am curious about the people who disagree with me, or think a game looks interesting, I will deny myself a new experience if it doesn't align with my previous experiences. If I do play other games with other people, and if I do find myself having had fun, then I have betrayed myself and my own principles. Maybe I'm bitter, lonely and toxic, but at least I am correct....

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Now does anybody hold these actual opinions outright? Obviously not. But they are the underlying assumptions of most toxic online arguments, even in things that aren't roleplaying games. People don't consciously choose to make these assumptions and follow these principles, but they tend to do so because these principles give their arguments value that they wouldn't have had otherwise. 

This doesn't mean that critiques of mechanics and conceptions cannot exist. There are obviously shitty roleplaying games with bad mechanics and problematic themes. But roleplaying games don't exist in books or in calculators, but at the table, and every table is unique, and every table hacks and homebrews, even if not explicitly. It's value is determined at the table, not against some abstract virtue. I am calling for open-mindedness, not uncritical acceptance of every RPG product out there.

I try and judge games based on the implied or explicit purpose of the game, on it's own merit. If I don't get the appeal of a game, I try to find people who do, and ask them what that appeal is. I don't have to find that personally appealing, but at least I understand something new about other people, which has value unto itself. 

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Joesky Tax - The Bonemancer

Honoring the social contract toward Joesky, I hereby present THE BONEMANCER! CW for body horror for those who don't want that sort of stuff!



BONEMANCER - THE CALCIUM FIEND (Black Hack)



















The Bonemancer is a HD 2-5 creature capable of manipulating bone and fossil. They can make the bones of any creature, living or dead, move independently. It looks undead, but is actually a living elemental force that uses bones to form itself into constructs. It is therefore immune to Turn Undead. Many Bonemancers look like human or animal skeletons, but others are random collections of bone without rhyme or reason. 

The HD of the Bonemancer is determined by the amount of bones it is able to bind to its spirit. Roll 1d8 (adjust HD updward if you wish to challenge players more):

  • 1-2 - around 100 bones, HD 2.
  • 3-4 - around 200 bones, HD 3
  • 5-6 - around 350 bones, HD 4
  • 7-8 - around 500 bones, HD 5
(For reference, there are 206 bones in the human body)

Attacks: 


Throw Bones: The Bonemancer can use any loose bone or dead limb in its surrounding as a ranged attack against any player. DEX to avoid.
Bone Smash: One of the bones of the bonemancer is used as a blunt weapon. STR to avoid. 
Bone Theft: (This is the body horror one) If  HD 4 or over, Bonemancer can attempt to rip one of the PC's bones out of their body to add to their own collection. They can attempt to resist this with CON or CHA, or take other actions to prevent skin piercing and the bone joining the Bonemancers collection. 

Ecology


The Bonemancer has one goal - find more bones and add them to its collection. That is why it is often found at graveyards, tombs or the feeding grounds of predators. They will only actively attempt to steal the bones of the living if deprived of other sources or to take revenge against others. If PC's offer them bones, they can often pass without harm. Many cultures see the Bonemancer as a parasite, others welcome the Bonemancer as a way to dispose of excess skeletons.

JOESKY TAX PAYED

måndag 4 mars 2019

Fever Swamp x Black Hack - An Actual Play Report, Chapter 1.

OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE UR-CORPSE


GAME: The Black Hack 2nd Ed. by David Black

SETTING: Fever Swamp by Luke Gearing

LANGUAGE: Swedish

PLAYERS: 

Disa as the Fighter "Pravoslav "Pravvo" Storáková"

Elliot as the Wizard "Eberhardt "Nubbe" Brúntz"

Jonas as the Cleric "Bohumil Storáková"

PREFACE:


I had not intended to write a play-report when I started this adventure, so the details are muddy. This won't be a session-by-session retelling, and I might be missing something or misrepresenting stuff. If you are looking for a review: it is very good. This is going to be part a record of a fun mini-campaign and part musings on how stuff could've been done different. Mostly by me, but also stuff about the module and the system. I've decided to split it up into 2 (or more) chapters to keep each post from being overlong.

Part 1. Preparations and Translations



Fever Swamp, in Theory, doesn't require a lot of prep-work at all. It has a fairly clear presentation and hook. As is common with stuff that needs to convey a lot of information as efficiently as possible, everything is not completely obvious, but I'll give it an A+ on presentation. However, there was a bunch of stuff I wanted to communicate to the players before-hand, as well as some stuff to prep for my own piece of mind. 

Playing games in a second language is hard. Even with popular games like DnD 5E, you're basically speaking in two different languages at once, which can be a very difficult thing to navigate. You'll go from speaking Swedish to using some English term for a rule or item etc. It is not a huge problem, but it is awkward and I wanted to be as prepared as I could be. Any English-speaking party will have to do significantly less work than I did. It was actually kind of fun for me, though, as I had get my imagination going to come up with what a "Dredger" could possible be called in Swedish (I wound up using "Muddra").

I created a Google Doc for Environments and Monsters with convenient translations (I'm now realizing it is incomplete.) If you are Swedish and want to play Fever Swamp - here you go

Furthermore, only one of the players had previously played an OSR-style game (Elliot had played in a Rad-Hack game I GM'd). I made some general guidelines as to how Black Hack in particular worked, and how the playstyle in general is supposed to work. Along with this, I wrote a general introduction to the setting and some character creation tips. You can find it here (Swedish, obviously). 

As recommended, I rolled up 6 Tribes. The Tribe stuff was personally for me a pretty difficult thing to navigate, as I didn't want to include any obvious anti-Native stereotype or fall into colonial-type narratives about the characters I was portraying. I mostly did that by thinking about the type of rural community that exists in Finland historically and drawing from my own experiences, re-thinking what a "Tribe" was, etc. I mostly thought of them as survivors in a terrible place, with some mythic qualities to them. I don't have any specific advice if you feel a bit uncomfortable with how to present that kind of stuff except to trust your instinct, ask those who know better and to listen to your table.

I also rolled up the stats for all points of interest-monsters. This turned out to be useful - I can't imagine having to pause like that everytime they hit a POI. Since this was a Roll20 game, I made sure to upload the Random Encounters from the setting, the Black Hack reaction table, HD reference etc as GM-handouts. I used the hexmap (with POI marked out), the Ur-Corpse Ruin, and the Battlemap from Black Hack. 

Then I did some preliminary research - listened to Fear of a Black Dragon, watched Questing Beast and read Eric Vulgaris. It helps that I was already a "Swamp Aficionado" of sorts, deeply in love with all things moist and green. I read my Swamp Thing (check out the Bayou Entity if you want proof of my rather manic obsession with Mr Holland), watched Annihilation and did some google-researching about swamps in general. A main source of inspiration was the Werner Herzog movie "Aguirre - The Wrath of God", an (in my view) anti-colonial movie where a scary Klaus Kinsky-Conquistador goes mad trying to find a land of treasure while traveling on a boat through the Amazon.

Part 2. Swampcrawl House-Rules


I had a couple of house-rules for character creation, experience, resources and travel. They are as follows:

Character creation: 


Stats are rolled as standard, but if more than half the stats are under 6 they can be re-rolled (none of them needed to do this).

Since Character Races aren't a part of Black Hack, nor seem to be a part of the setting in Fever Swamp, I decided to remove decision-paralysis and make character race a rollable option. They rolled 1d8, result 1-6 means they were human, 7 that they were dwarves, 8 that they were elves. (All of them turned out to be human).

The characters were either of Germanic of Czech naming conventions. 

Backgrounds - I wanted to do my own kind of silly/quirky background stuff as opposed to the Black Hack backgrounds. They probably make even less sense in English, because several of them are references to Swedish media or alliteration (or nonsense). Roll 1d6:

  1. Born on a mountain, raised in a cave
  2. Street rat who loves carrots (Bohumil/Pravoslav)
  3. Rich kid on class journey - down the economic ladder
  4. Bakers child who only wants to eat cinnamon buns
  5. Sausage-maker who hates guards
  6. My parents are frogs, but I'm not. What the fuck?

Experience: 


For milestone XP, I decided to make one Hex one XP. This led to a pretty fast leveling that I thought I desired but needed to moderate after a bit. Going forward, I'd use only POI as XP past level 4. I'd be interested to roll this purely on gold-as-XP, because players had more treasure than they knew what to do with at the end of it all, making exploration less of an option.

Resources, hirelings, loot and survival:


All resources and loot are held in common (except if specifically requested to be held as a personal item.) I definitely intended an upper limit for the common loot, but I don't seem to have that written down and my players didn't seem to keep track of it. Oh well!

They started with 1d4 hirelings following the rules of Black Hack. I let them start out at HD1 for the beginning. I quickly realized that the rules for NPCs/Monsters in Black Hack were a bit too loose, making NPC vs NPC/NPC vs Monster interaction kind of arbitrary GM fiat. I didn't want to be able to arbitrarily get my players hirelings killed, nor did I want them to have plot armor. I took to making rulings by "flipping a coin" or 1d2 to see if NPCs succeeded in attacking, defending or other stuff. The only addition to that rule is that the player could roll charisma once per round to make one hireling do their bidding during combat.

I LOVE doing binary results whenever player skills aren't involved. The effects are immediately understandable and the tension is high. However, I'd check with your table if they'd like to have hirelings more statted out.

I used the treasure table/what's on the corpse table from Black Hack for whenever loot wasn't specified in the module.

Each Hex, the players rolled their Water/Food Usage Die to see how they are managing their food, and 1d10 to see if they contracted a disease. If they rolled a 1 on the disease-roll they'd roll constitution (as an alternative to save vs disease) and then I'd roll a d10 to see what they contracted.

Using up all Water/Food meant taking extra time to preform quickly narrated scouting mission to hunt, purify water or find a way to filter the water. (More on this later.)

For ships, they started with two canoes.

Spells and prayers:



The Wizard and Cleric have to seek out new spells in Black Hack. I decided to attach certain randomly generated spells in certain POI or taught by random Magic-Users and Shamans. I decided which level they could roll for and they rolled a d4 on that levels spell-list to see which. 

Corpse Pile:


I rolled 1d8 every other day to see where the Corpse Pile (the horrific travelling hex of undead that moves around the map) would go. On a 1-6, the pile would move toward one of the sides, on a 7-8 the pile would stay put. (They never directly interacted with the Corpse Pile, but they saw it's effects.)

Part 3. The Characters and their Beginnings.


The party consisted of two brothers, Pravoslav and Bohumil, two older street rats, and Nubbe, the aggressively Germanic Wizard with a penchant for pastries. Pravoslav was in the national guard, Bohumil was in a sect of the official religion, with Nubbe being the youngling of the group, fresh out of Wizard school. 

They had with them 4 hirelings (though more where to come..), Albert Kratochvil the Torchbearer, Blazena Straková, the Tradeswoman, Katerina Hamplová the Armourer, and the late Johana Majerová, the Sailor. 

They arrived at the settlement of Clink with the promise of gold and glory from the official Nilfenberg government. They were approached by Jasmine about going to find out about the Water-Dead God in the Ur-Corpse Ruin. With very little promting, they set out on their journey. 

But that's a story for next time.... 

Continued in Chapter 2!