29 June, 2010

Back to Quincunx

I've just about finished my "Little Game Chef" entry, those who are familiar with my work will be able to pick it instantly.

Then it's a break from my own games.

Avalon seems to be fairly professional in their dealings with freelancers. I've submitted an outline for my booklet "How to make a GREAT dungeon", and they seem happy enough with it that they're already interested in offering me some more work.

But for my own stuff, it's back to my Quincunx graphic novel, the source of inspiration driving the RPG I've been working on for the past few years.

I've had the outline of my story for quite some time, there are notes going back to 2006, and a preliminary version dating back to meeting David Mack during his visit to Sydney Supanova in 2002 (Quincunx began as a homage to Kabuki, a story within that world focusing on one of the other operatives...but then I decided to take the story for my own and introduce some of the other elements I was working on). It's been an ongoing labour of love...with weeks of effort put in, followed by weeks of frustration, then months of being sidetracked before making a conscious effort to get things moving again. The story has evolved deeply within it's structure, and in recent revisions I'm starting to wonder if it has become too Byzantine and unapproachable.

The one thing I have decided is to make the main characters story a lot more reflective of what I know. I had imbued a lot of my though patterns into the main character, but if I add even more of myself into the protagonist it will be a much more personal story and hopefully will give the character a more rounded perspective.

I've knocked over a few dozen illustrations for the graphic novel in this round of work, and I can add that to the sixty or so images I've rendered in previous periods of work. Another post will reveal some of these.

So I'm warning everyone in advance, if I go quiet on the blog...that's what I'm doing. Neil Gaiman and Kevin Smith come to town in a couple of months and I really want to get something ready for when they arrive.

27 June, 2010

Unexploited Resource #3: Coming Soon

I've had a habit recently, a coming up with great idea then releasing it to the world through a contest entry.

That's the theory anyway.

Sometimes the ideas don't take (I like to think that the ideas are simply too revolutionary, and people aren't ready for them yet)...sometimes I probably just don't explain them well enough.

Little Game Chef is on now.

...and so, another of my ideas bordering genius and insanity is coming to fruition.

But the judges have asked that we work alone, not posting our ideas on the various forums where the contest was advertised.

This post is basically a reminder to myself, a chance to reveal the various ideas and research regarding the tool I'm using in my Little Game Chef entry.

Suffice to say, it should link into the contests theme of "comedy" pretty well. Especially in an immersionist way.

25 June, 2010

How to make a Great Dungeon

I'm about to embark on a new journey in the world of roleplaying...a freelance writing gig.

I've been in contact with Avalon Games, with regard to their upcoming series of booklets entitled "How to be a Great..."

The aim seems to be the production of a series of booklets focusing on different aspects of the roleplaying hobby...from GMing to Playing, Character Writing, Scenario Creation, etc.

It's a nice idea and while I put my hand up for "How to be a Great GM", this booklet was taken. So I've opted for "How to make a Great Dungeon".

If this works out, I'll be submitting a few more Great Booklets to them.

22 June, 2010

Shadow Island

Just finished generating some artwork for a movie pitch...

I thought I'd share.

An alternate way to look at skills

Traditionally, a character sheet has a range of skills on it. Each of those skills has a value to indicate how good a character is when undertaking a task with the marked skill.

It seems simple enough, but it often leads to complications.

Some games (like D&D 3rd Ed and RIFTS) create synergies between skills. If you possess skill "X", you gain a bonus to skill "Y" because there is an overlap in their spheres of use. You often need to cross reference a couple of books to get the full range of synergies and bonuses.

Some games (like White Wolf's Storyteller System) use general abilities/skills, then provide specialties, or secondary abilities that fill specific niches that the main skills don't cover. Again, those players with access to a wide range of splat-books have an advantage here...and if the GM says that only stuff in the main book is allowed, you end up with play situations where the GM has to make an ad hoc call, or simply say..."Sorry, you can't do that because it's not in the rules". This certainly runs contrary to the idea of say yes or roll the dice.

Some games reduce this concept through fields of knowledge. "I am a cop, so I can assume that I know how to do Cop related tasks", a general skill field value is assigned to show how much knowledge a character has within their specified field...if you want to do something on the edge of the field, you don't suffer a penalty to your skill field value, instead the difficulty of the task goes up (I know that semantically this is much the same, but there can be a mechanical difference).

Other games try to simplify things by not applying degrees of competency to skills. I pushed for a bit of this is in "The Eighth Sea", by providing only 2 skill levels for each (basic and expert). Others (like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying) push it even further by reducing a skill to "Yes, I have it" or "No, I don't".

But I'm looking at my rewrite of Quincunx, and none of this fits the way I'm hoping to go with the game. The last example comes close though.

I want a nuanced game; not a stereotypical "Yes/No". But on the other hand, I don't want pages and pages of numbers or cross references.

The game needs to be immediately accessible, and at this stage it needs to feed into an "Otherkind" system.

So here is my plan.

Any skill attempt is made up of numerous knowledge fields.

Picking a lock might require "manual dexterity", "mechanical aptitude" and an "eye for detail".
Seducing a courtier might require "courtly ritual", "deportment", "seduction" and "patience".

When engaging in a task, you look to your assortment of traits and risk anything that you can justify in the attempt. The more traits you can relate to the task, the more chance you have of succeeding. The traits aren't task specific, each of them is a "Yes, I have it/No, I don't", and it's through the combination of these binaries that an individual skill attempt is resolved.

Characters probably start off with a dozen of these traits, gradually accumulating more as they get more powerful.

To explain a bit more, I'll need to go into some round about depth...but hopefully it still makes sense.

The core of the game is still the character matrix, but now traits are scattered across the matrix (where each combination of aspect and element defines the likely position of the trait, and there may be three or four traits in each matrix location).

A player starts a scene by choosing a stance (a combination of an element and an aspect). When engaging in a task, they may use any of the traits associated with their element OR aspect. If they want to access a trait that isn't connected to their element or aspect, they'll need to spend some time changing their attitude (through a quick meditation, a spell, getting angry, etc.).

So, as long as the character has access to the trait (due to their stance) and can justify it's use in relation to a task, they gain a bonus die toward their action. The specific placement of traits stops people picking a trait of "I'm Awesome" and using it for every challenge. The maximum number of traits that may be risked in this manner is equal to the stance (or "matrix node" in the early versions of the Quincunx text).

Note especially that traits are also risked (not lost) every time they are used.

I'm trying to keep things simple, different from other systems out there and fairly intuitive for newcomers. So there's not a lot more to the system than that.

Some possible complications:
  • Characters may have the same trait more than once. But they may not risk the same trait twice on a single action. The benefit of having the trait more than once is the fact that if you lose the trait in a skill test, you've still got access to another copy of it.
  • One or more negative traits may be applied to a specific skill situation, in exactly the same way that positives are added, thus reducing a character's effectiveness.
  • Players are encouraged to be creative in the descriptions of their character's actions. This is a bit like gaining extra dice through "stunting", but there is a cap on what can be achieved and the types of advantages that can be pulled into a conflict are automatically constrained to the current stance of the character. The bonuses need to make sense in context (and the inherent mechanisms help to enforce this).
  • Merits and flaws can be easily incorporated into the general skill system, rather than looking like an ad-hoc extra, nailed onto the side. "Do you have an advantage? (Yes/No)", "Does it match the element or aspect of your stance? (Yes/No)", "Is it appropriate to the task at hand? (Yes/No)".
  • Magic can be incorporated in much the same way, at a deep connection to the rest of the game's mechanisms...I'm seducing the courtier, and since I can "Create Illusions", I use this in addition to my "Seduction" and "Courtly Ritual" to gain the upper hand. Perhaps magic traits are lost rather than risked, or they might be limited in some other way depending on the way the game system reflects the magical "realities" of the game world.

Just ideas at this point, but I thought I'd put them out there.

Little Game Chef

Do I put my hand up for this or not?

I've got the time...

I've got some ideas...

But the killer is the theme..."Comedy".

I went right off key when I submitted my last Little Game Chef entry, where the theme was "Immersion".

If I take too long thinking about it, the opportunity will pass. So I'll consider my options and decide on whether to enter tomorrow.

19 June, 2010


Thanks for the comments regarding my last post about Forums. I'd like to think that the responses back up my belief that it's good to have different forums catering to different types of designers...in much the same way that we now see a wide variety of games catering to very specific and different play styles. I didn't mention 1km1kt or RPGLaboratory, it wasn't a deliberate omission and I'm interested in some of the stuff happening over there...but like the posts from Forge newbies, a lot of what I see coming from that part of the independent games community seems to be recycled or thinly veiled copies of existing stuff. I haven't mentioned Old-school Renaissance forums (I'm pretty sure there are a few of them around), because that style of play may be valid and may have its fanatics, but it just doesn't interest me as much as pushing in new directions.

...but what about the numerous blogs I mentioned in passing as a final comment.

At the time of writing this post, my Blogroll doesn't have a whole lot of entries.

Who do I follow, and why? (In no particular order)

Tabletop Manifesto (Andrew Smith)
One of the driving forces in independent roleplaying in Australia, despite not having a fully realised game of his own (that I'm aware of). He's helped build the indie Games on Demand at Gencon Oz, the Stockade (an Aussie design collective) and Go Play Brisbane. The Blog may not be that prolific, but it's good to keep in contact with locals who are generally operating on the same wavelength.

Abby's Place (Zac D)
Again, not one of the most prolific blogs, but Zac seems to be struggling with getting together a good finalised game, in much the same way that I have been over the last couple of years. It's fun to watch an excited designer post his observations about the new games he encounters, such as the positive responses to Polaris and the negative responses to FreeMarket. It's always enlightening to get someone else's perspective.

The FreeRPG Blog (Rob Lang/1km1kt)
I'm pretty sure this is included in the 1km1kt family of websites. This blog seems to go through bursts of activity, with some great detailed posts about some awesome free games. Despite not having a huge number of posts, I like to have a look through the archives of this blog to find a free idea from the past, or link across to a random download to get my creative juices flowing again.

The Stockade (Andrew Smith and Nathan Russell)
Being the "Official" Blog for the Stockade, I naturally have a look at this whenever something new comes up. There are plenty of references to other blog articles on useful topics such as publishing, design ideas, or convention opportunities for local designers. I don;t look at the Stockade Blog as much as I probably should, because I see the hive of Stockade activity being the associated Google Group.

Fifth World Design Diary (Jason Godesky)
I love the concept that Jason is working on, and I've pointed this out to him. But I'm not sure where it's heading or whether it's stuck in a development hell like a lot of my own projects. It could almost be described as post apocalyptic "shaman-punk" (no, not really...but that was the first phrase that came to mind). Jason wants to play with the way games are used as storytelling mediums, following some very different paths to those that have been trodden before. It's a tough walk, but I hope he'll lead us to some new and fertile ground.

Blessing of the Dice Gods (Jeff Russell)
I look over there, he looks over here. Jeff's blog only started this year but he seems to be going pretty strong; with a diversity of topics within the gaming field, from miniatures to story-game hacks, to the development of his own system. I've checked here a few times, ad I probably should put a few more comments on his entries to show where I'd be interested in taking some of his ideas.

20 Sided Woman Project (Unknown)
I don't know who writes this, and it's been a while since there were regular updates. But it's interesting to get the perspective of a female surrounded by a hobby filled with males. It's mostly odd because at least half of the gamers I've regularly played with in the past have been female (especially in LARP circles), but the stereotypes are still present in the hobby. I'll have a look here whenever some new comes up, which isn't that often at the moment.

The Mighty Atom (John Harper)
I don't look over here all that often, John is one of those "influential" types on Story Games, so if you want to hear people harp on about his games (no pun intended) just flick through the first couple of threads of SG and you'll find someone saying something nice about his wares. Despite this negative sounding comment, he produces some great stuff and I'll admit that a lot of his stuff has been influential on some of my own designs. Since I hear enough about what John's doing through SG, I only check out his blog every month or two to see what I might have missed.

Fair Play (Jason Morningstar)
Another of those blogs I don't check too often, probably because I'm familiar with some of Jason's games and while I find them intriguing I've never found a group willing to play one of them. I sat on a design panel at Gencon Oz 08, with Robin Laws; and Robin indicated how good he thought Grey Ranks was as a game and a concept. Between this, Shab-Al-Hiri and his other works, Jason has some great ideas, and stuff we could all learn from.

The Alexandrian (Justin Alexander)
I was referred to this blog due to it's development of a roleplaying theory that looks superficially similar to Vector Theory, it even uses the term nodes to define decision points in the narrative. A lot of the posts aren't gaming related, so the blog isn't as focused as most people would like, but since being told about it, I've checked through its archives out a couple of times to see if there are any potential gems lurking under the rubble.

Stories you Play (Matt Snyder)
Another one I've looked at a couple of times. I'm particularly reading through a few posts about marketing and the recently started open game design project. They may not be important for everyone interested in game design, but as someone who is serious about getting his products known, I've really started to take an interest in this sort of stuff.

Dirty Princesses (David Pidgeon)
Another of those projects that I got excited about when I first heard the concepts involved...like a lot of the projects I've been watching, it seems to go through various incarnations and spurts of development before sinking into the quicksand of creative blocks. Hopefully we'll hear some more good stuff out of this project once David has been to Go Play Brisbane.

Livejournal of Robin D. Laws (Robin D. Laws)
I've been a huge fan of Robin's work since Feng Shui, I'm annoyed that I didn't exploit the opportunity to chat to him more at Gencon Oz 08. As someone who is producing dynamic and interesting gaming materials for some of the larger companies, it's interesting to see his perspective on the hobby. He's basically in the kind of position I'd like to work my way up to, freelancing for various companies on a "regular" basis, while producing a variety of additional materials on the side.

That's 13 Blogs. I know that there are a huge number of other blogs out there that I haven't mentioned, such as Raven Daegmorgan's "Autumn Wind" (which I look through occasionally, but since more of the posts seem to be non-gaming related, I felt it didn't really belong on this list), Nathan Russell's "Here Be Gamer's" Podcast, and blogs I've probably looked at once or twice but haven't felt an overwhelming desire to search through their archives.

I probably take a quick glance at what's happening in these blogs once a week (in total), and have a quick check through a variety of blog archives once every month or two to see if I can find a solution to a design problem I've been having...then there are the spontaneous mouse-clicks when a specific thread title catches my attention. So it's not a huge chunk out of my weekly schedule.

If anyone out there has some interesting game design blogs that they think I might be interested in, please comment. I'm always open to new ideas from new people.

18 June, 2010


Another forum...

Well, actually a sub-forum of Story Games.

I've been avoiding it for a while, but while The Forge was down and reorganising itself, I started to look for new avenues of game design inspiration. That's a part of the reason why there have been so many posts over the last couple of weeks.

I logged onto Praxis a few months ago, just to see if there was anything interesting happening. My first thoughts were that the forum simply seemed to be doubling up on a lot of what Story-Games was already offering, and the areas it didn't explore were stuff already covered by the Forge. But my recent forays into the deeper world of Praxis have revealed something a bit more.

A lot of the posters on the Forge are new arrivals to the indie scene. They've often got great ideas, but those ideas are either slight deviations of something I've already seen, or maybe they just don't realise that their idea has been done before. Then you get the new arrivals who don't understand Forge terminology, and who get bombarded with posts by people who only understand the terminology slightly better. There are the ones who take instant offence when you try to offer some constructive criticism or a new perspective. And then there are the minority who may not post often but who provide true pearls of wisdom.

It's an interesting mix of people, and even in the few years I've been on there I've started to see some cycles and patterns emerging.

Praxis is a little different, in much the same way that the Story-Games community is a bit different. A lot more of the people offering advice in there have actually produced games, and they seem to talk with a more seasoned wisdom about their craft. It might just be a phantom projection I'm putting onto the Praxis forum, but it seems a bit more open.

I've started throwing a few of my own ideas onto Praxis, just to see what the response might be, and I'm happy to say that I actually got constructive criticism from a few of the designers I've come to respect.

Then there's the other side of the coin...RPG.net

I've also toyed with a few posts over there. If Story-Games and Praxis are places where game designers hang out to discuss new projects once their already released something... rpg.net is the place where fanboys hurl crap at one another and secretly cover their ideas, only revealing enough to show that they've got another companies intellectual property thinly disguised with a couple of quirky mechanisms. I offered a thought out post about 24hr game design, and it looked like it blew people's minds. It was just common sense to me.

It might look like I'm saying that rpg.net is rubbish and Story-Games/Praxis is good, but that's not entirely true. There are a lot of people who don't want to design stuff from the ground up, and there are plenty of people who don't want to sell gaming products, they're just designing stuff for their friends, or tweaking a system that they enjoy playing. It's great to see that there are different forums for different degrees of design.

In much the same way that there are hundreds of blogs about the topic.

17 June, 2010

Middle Age

From Psalm 90...

The days of our years are threescore years and ten;
and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years,
yet is their strength labor and sorrow;
for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

Today I turn 35. Biblically, half my life has passed away.

I guess it's time to have a mid-life crisis.

Quincunx Otherkind

It's just an idea at this stage...

The Libary of Lost Ideas

I've always got a dozen ideas that I don't know what to do with. Sometimes these get incorporated into new game ideas, sometimes they evolve, sometimes they get forgotten, sometimes I mention one of them on a forum somewhere and the idea strikes someone else as sheer genius (or sheer stupidity).

By the time a month has past, half of the ideas might remain in their original format, the other half have evolved distinctly enough to be considered new ideas. These ideas have been filled into dozens of notebooks, hundreds of paper scraps and just as many fragmentary word processor files that have been collected over the years. Occasionally I'll be looking for some vital paperwork (an old bill, a birth certificate, novel notes, etc...) and I'll run across a cluster of pages detailing a game that never got anywhere, or a game world that I thought was amazing at the time. I'll ponder the piece of paper then decide whether to pull this old idea out of the past and incorporate it into a current project, or just leave it in the scrap paper archive (because I just don't have the time to do it justice at the moment).

In recent weeks I've found a few of these ideas, and I've wondered where they might lead. Fragments where I've combined some mechanisms from a few different games to get a specific play effect...other notes where I've pencilled out a new resolution system or structure. I probably don't have enough time in my life to fully flesh out the ideas I've already had, and I don't know if other people would be interested in them anyway.

So I've thought about compiling these ideas into a single database on my website. Searchable by a few key terms such as "Setting", "Mechanism", "Dice", "Cards", "Structure", "Story", "Powers", maybe a few more, but not too many. Also using the database to provide links between ideas that share a theme, or ideas that have evolved from each other.

With this structure, I'd type out the ideas and format them as single page PDFs that can be called up by the database. A single idea per page, it might only be a couple of sentences or it might cover the whole page. If an idea covers more than one page, it will be split down into multiple pages as linked idea fragments.

Doing this will have multiple benefits to me...it will clear away a lot of the scrap paperwork that my wife is always threatening to throw in the bin, it will probably be a good dose of catharsis to purge the ideas that really don't hold up any more, and it will give me a good starting place to look for old ideas when I need the inspiration.

I'd also like to think that a lot of my old ideas might help to provide inspiration to other game designers out there. So this database will be accessible to the public and all ideas will be released under a creative commons license.

Once I get enough of my own ideas into the database, I might open it up to submissions from the public...allowing other people to throw their idea pages into the mix.

16 June, 2010

24 Hour RPG guidelines

I seem to be getting good responses from my post over on the RPG.net forums abut how to develop a 24 hour RPG.

So I'll repost the outline here.

Set your 24 hour goal as mid-day to mid-day (you'd probably want a weekend for this).

12pm - 2pm: Get your ideas down on scrap paper. What's your game about? What mechanisms do you need to make sure you game is really about that topic? What is the setting? Is it different from other settings? How? Why are you writing this game? I like to divide my scraps into...
"Setting" - pretty self explanatory. It might only take a few lines, it might be a quick page, or it might be developed by the players as they play. Make sure you note this down.
"Character Generation" - What stats or traits do you need? Why do you need them? How will the be important to the game? How do you generate them? Do you have pre-made templates or classes?
"Session Start" - What starts the game happening? Do you start with a simply blurb read out to the player to set the scene, or do you let the players choices set their story's starting point?
"Game Play" - Consider the game mechanisms you need to tell the story you want. Do you need combat mechanisms? Do you want rules for social intrigue? Relationships between characters? Do the rules change under specific circumstances (stress, injury, loss of face)?
"Session End" - What are the character working toward? How do they know once they've reached it?
"Joining Stories together" - Are you interested in campaign play for this game? How do characters evolve?

2pm - 4pm: Go over your notes. Are any parts of the game obviously missing? If this is deliberate, make sure to add a new note to explain why you've specifically avoided certain aspects of the game design. If this isn't deliberate, make a conscious effort to fill in your gaps...use rules from existing games to fill in the pieces if the inspiration doesn't hit right away. While you're doing this, make sure that the various parts of your game make sense compared to one another...do you roll high in this section but roll low in that section...if so, why? Gradually start to pull your pieces together into a coherent document.

4pm - 6pm: Write up a draft set of rules; don't worry about formatting, just get the rules down. This isn't a time for writing up new rules, it's just the time when you get your game's framework in place.

6pm - 8pm: Eat. Take some time away from your project. Watch a TV show, surf some forums, take your mind off it a bit. Then read through your draft set of rules and compare them to your scrap-page ideas.

8pm - 10pm: Solo Playtest. Generate up a character using the rules you've written, do it on a scrap of paper. Did the character generation make sense? If not, get a red pen and make editing notes to your "Character Generation" page. Generate a completely different style of character, re-edit the generation system as necessary (24 hour games are quick and tend to be "rules-lite" it should only take a couple of minutes to create a character). Once you're happy, you'll have a bunch of characters ready for the next stage of the process. Run through a typical scene in the game. Pit two of your characters against one another in various situations using the die rolls (or other mechanisms) you've written on the "Game Play" scrap sheet. Do the rolls make sense? If not, make some changes.

10pm - 12pm: Perspective. Did you find when creating the characters that certain things took more time than others? Did you find that the areas focused on in character generation were also focused on during your play simulations? Were there certain traits that you really didn't use at all? If you see any problems here, now is the time to make some extra changes to the "Character Generation" and "Game Play" sheets. If you aren't using an attribute or trait, why do you have it? If it's just used to derive another stat, why not just work with the other stat?

Do you think combat happens too fast, or too slow? What about social interactions? Maybe this is the whole point of the game. Do you still think that quirky dice mechanism from the beginning is useful? What do you think this adds to the game now that you've played through a couple of sample scenes with it? Make some notes on your various sheets of scrap paper about this.

12pm - 6am: Sleep. Don't underestimate this one. You'll probably have some good ideas still running through your head, and you might not get a full night's sleep while the adrenaline is pumping and the ideas are firing away wildly. But make sure you get some good rest so you can come back to the project with a fresh perspective.

6am - 8am: Get some breakfast, then get to work. Using the framework document you wrote up the previous evening, rewrite anything according to the changes specified in your edited notes. If you've had some epiphanies during your night of sleep, add them into your updated file.

8am - 10am: Retest. With a new version of the rules written up, generate a new pair of characters. If the rules still work in the morning, then you've probably got a solid idea in place. Start to generate a proper character sheet by placing character traits in specific locations on the page. If you generate a couple of characters, make sure to lay them out in different ways. After you've come up with a few ideas for character sheet layout, one should strike you as better than the others (if not, just pick one that you like). With a new batch of characters play through a couple of scenes again, and even try stringing a few scenes together to see how they work as a part of a larger whole. If you've got access to a room-mate or partner, play a scene or two with them and get their feedback. If something is causing problems, consider adding a couple of "Play examples" to your text. Don't make major changes to your game at this point, but consider them for later and add them as new editing notes on your scrap pages.

10am - 12am: Formatting. Generate up a proper character sheet. Go over your game text for spelling errors and grammatical errors. Start at the beginning and work your way through. This isn't the time for making changes to your game mechanisms, it's just about getting your current ideas into a good readable format. Include section headings for "Setting", "Character Generation", "Rules" and anything else that strikes you as important for the game. Pick a font that suits the ideas in the game, especially for your section titles. If you've got some pre-made images that served as inspiration during the process, add them into your file at strategic points (a combat scene, place it near the combat rules...a cool character shot, place it in the character generation section). Give the text one last read through, save it or print it out as a pdf using CutePDF (or something similar).

That's it.

Your document could end up as a single sheet of paper or it might be up to a dozen pages long (2 pages per section), I certainly wouldn't recommend longer than this. The 24 hour RPG challenge is all about getting good ideas out of your head and placing them into a context where others can play with them.

Vector Theory #27: Further Paths and Webs

A very different way to design a story is to simply think of decision points that might make good threshold markers in the story.
As a GM, you might have a specific introduction scene in mind, but you allow the players to follow a variety of paths to get to the next checkpoint. You don't need to know what those potential choices are, you simply know that they will lead to a new decision that will either escalate the story or bring a new element into play.

I'm basically calling this method, the "Path of Clouds" or the "Path of Smoke". The nodes are amorphous blobs that become clarified as they are reached through the story. Each choice doesn't specifically lead to a new point; in fact, there are no specific choices. In each case the players could choose to do anything and it won't disrupt the overall plan, it simply leads to a new part of the story. It takes a decent amount of GM skill to play this sort of game, a lot of ad libbing and an aversion to writing things down in advance (a few pointer notes a usually good though, as is a solid setting understood by all participants). It's basically a way of ensuring a story flourishes in a sandbox environment.

This is basically the way I've been designing my roleplaying games over the past couple of years. Not just modules or scenarios, but the games themselves.

FUBAR works basically like this, on a subtle level. The players know that there will be a number of antagonists equal to the number of players plus two. There will be a number of locations, objectives and conspiracies equal to the number of players. No matter what the players do, the story will work it's way through the antagonists in an order that the GM/Oracle can't predict, it will take them to places, provide them with objectives and have them face off against shadowy conspiracies, all on the path to vengeance. They know that they'll reach the main antagonist eventually, no matter what their actual actions might consist of. At the same time, the GM/Oracle is working their way through a pile of secrets, throwing twists and difficulties at the players regardless of what they might be doing.

As the GM/Oracle's resources start to dwindle, the game naturally proceeds to its climax/end game.

The Eighth Sea works of the notion of a 5 act structure. It doesn't impose any specific story restraints on the characters, it lets them run wild; but the players are explicitly aware that as they accumulate successes, the story progresses. Once enough successes are accumulated, the story moves from introduction to impetus, to complication, and so on. When I'm running the game to a time limit such as a typical 3 hour convention session, I ensure that the first half hour explains the general rules, then each of the subsequent half hours plays out a segment of the story. If players proceed to quickly, I'll run the players through an extra complication cycle, or I'll ramp up with an extra degree of climax. But this actually leads to the next story structure...

Illusionism is a loaded term; it is with no irony that I refer to the above diagram as the "Path of Smoke and Mirrors". Illusionism can be a GMs best friend, or it can be a players worst enemy.

At the simplest level, the "Path of Smoke and Mirrors" could be substituted for the simple path. Each gives a starting point, then forces the players to a new part of the story regardless of the decisions made by the players or characters. But there is something more to it than that.

The path of Smoke and Mirrors ensures a story develops, and a canny GM could devise a series of generalised plot points along a story path (take for example the archetypal "Hero's Journey"). The exact places visited could be left open, but the moments of drama are known in advance. As long as the players continue moving forward, they'll reach the next part of the story...but if they deviate too far from the path, the GM nudges them back in the right direction.

Looking back on it, the GM isn't the only one that nudges the characters back onto the story path, game rules can do it as well. Humanity in White Wolf's "Vampire" or Adept Press' "Sorceror" can be used as a prompt to get the story back on track, MacGuffins could be inserted into the early stages of the game with narrative and/or mechanical effects. Rule mechanisms and macguffins don't have to be used all the time to keep the story moving, in fact they work best if used sparingly.

Going back to my Eighth Sea example, each round of turns taken by each of the players normally constitutes an act. A session can go slowly or quickly depending on the number of players, their willingness to ad-lib and their ability to follow their own agendas. The GM/Captain is constantly inserting mirrors to adjust the pacing of the game (through the use of a metagame currency called "Pieces of Eight"), but then again, the players also have the capacity to add mirrors of their own (because they too have a limited supply of "Pieces of Eight"). It becomes quite strategic as each of the players tries to direct the storyline toward an ending that will be most beneficial to their character, while the Captain is trying to reach the conclusion of the story that will best serve the ship as a whole. They all work against mechanisms that are continually twisting and turning the game as it weaves through time and space. Good sessions are all kinds of over-the-top gonzo awesome, bad sessions are abysmal. (My intended rewrite hopes to maximise the potential for good while minimising the potential for train wrecks).

I'm sure there are more types of story-game structures, including the truly freeform. But that's enough for the moment.

Vector Theory #26: More Paths and Webs

When looked at through the lens of Vector Theory; the simple, branched and interlinked paths are just some of the possible ways a game scenario can be designed. But in a traditional game design context, these are basically the only acknowledged forms of scenario design.

Even in current indie-design groups, it seems that a game is either structured according to one of these methodologies, or it is an amorphous entity that only resolves into some form of structure in retrospect.

I'm going to propose a couple of other options. Nothing radical, and once you see them diagrammed out (or explained), you'll probably see that a few of these game structures have already made a presence in games you've experienced.

The interlinked path with multiple endings is another fairly common design format. It's actually something that a lot of computer games do now; a few years ago it was considered revolutionary to have multiple endings based on game-play decisions in a computer game. Plenty of game modules and pre-written scenarios follow this type of set up, it's fairly common in roleplaying conventions as well. One ending might be victory (with a specific text-blurb to read out), another ending might be failure (with a separate text blurb).

Another common twist on this theme is to have a strict structure, but leave a spectrum of possible endings for the characters to encounter depending on the objectives they resolved during the course of the story. Nothing revolutionary here, so let's move along.
The difference between the fully and partially interlinked paths is subtle but important. In the example shown, the central path through the story is the most expected one, but deviating to the left or right are possible. The key is that once you have moved to the left at one level, the rightmost path with become unavailable in the next level.

Let's look at a specific example.

In the introduction, the characters meet an NPC, they can fight him (left path), use his information and move on (middle path), or they can befriend him (right path).

The impetus has the characters meeting the NPC's enemy. The leftmost path describes a scene where the enemy is friendly to them, the rightmost path describes a scene where the enemy is actively hostile to them, while the central path has the enemy simply sizing them up.

If the characters had befriended the first NPC, the second wouldn't befriend them. You simply can't go from the right side to the left without passing some kind of middle ground, the story wouldn't make sense. But there are still choices available, the enemy could be sizing them up (middle path) or he could be outright hostile(left path). The choices are reversed if the characters fought the first NPC.

If the characters followed the central path, the most options are available to them (but the story loses some of it's dramatic twists and turns).

This has still been pretty rudimentary stuff to anyone who has GM'd more than a couple of sessions. Now, let's pull in a few more Vector Theory specific concepts.

Mirrors were mentioned in some of the early Vector Theory posts (here and here). They could be deliberately included as a part of a scenario layout, or they could be added on-the-fly if a group of players starts to deviate too far from the story a GM is trying to narrate. The diagram provided above is fairly typical of many story situations; you might have a couple of choices to follow, but if you choose something that the GM hadn't planned for, then a gentle nudge will be required to put things back on track. Some of the better pre-written scenarios I've read have included contingency plans to get things back on track ("Have the players encounter an avalanche to prevent them heading out of town", "an oracle gives them a warning", "the character's conscience tells them not to follow this course of action", etc.).

Using Mirrors is always dangerous.

If they are used clumsily, a group will accurately perceive the event as a form of railroading. They will feel that their decisions don't matter, and they they had better simply follow the GMs story to avoid problems.

If they are used well, a group of players won't even realise that they've encountered a mirror, they'll simply think that they've chosen an unexpected path that has opened up a new opportunity for them. But they might expect that such lateral thinking will always provide them with new possibilities, and the GM who has used a mirror well once might be expected to use it just as expertly on future occasions.

On the other hand, not using mirrors can be just as dangerous. Simply telling a player "Sorry you can't do that", just because it deviates from your storyline is a really immature way to play (IMHO). Traditional players who like to be led through a story from start to finish won't look for lateral solutions to problems so they probably won't notice mirrors when they hit them, they might just think to themselves "Cool. I didn't see that coming", or they might just say "Yeah...but what dice do I roll now?". Indie players looking for the nodes and decision points in a story will probably think to themselves "I didn't think I'd pull that off" or "S%*t, I didn't manage to break the GMs game, I'll have to try harder"...

A few more Vector Theory specific ideas for module design are coming soon.

15 June, 2010


To quote William S. Burroughs, from the Naked Lunch...

"See, you can't rewrite, 'cause to rewrite is to deceive and lie, and you betray your own thoughts. To rethink the flow and the rhythm, the tumbling out of the words, is a betrayal, and it's a sin, Martin, it's a sin. "

Like a juggler, I've always got a dozens things up in the air, sometimes rising, sometimes falling...some of my projects require a bit more attention before they start getting dangerous, like chainsaws being juggled...others I can manipulate instinctively, like soft rubber balls.

My recent project, FUBAR, is a rubber ball. It seems to be doing pretty well, with over 200 downloads so far (in the 10 days since it's release). I'm getting some generally positive feedback about it, as well as some constructive criticism. It's a project I'm happy with. It combines a couple of ideas that I've had floating around my head for a while into a tight little package. A few more tweaks and I think it will be ready for release on one of the major pdf download sites (such as RPGNow)...given that it's a contest entry and the contest still has a fortnight or so before it's deadline, I really can't be happier. A few tweaks after contest feedback, and then I'll leave it alone.

But some of my older projects are getting a bit more troublesome.

I've looked again at "The Eighth Sea", a few people have commented that "there is a lot going on" in the system. It's busy, andf even though my early thoughts were to create a nice streamlined game that focused on story over mechanisms, I've learnt a lot in the two years since I wrote it. I don't play it according to the rules written in the book, there are parts that I neglect entirely, and rules additions that I've made on the fly (which have been absorbed into the standard repertoire). It has needed a solid update for a while, but I've been procrastinating by delving into other projects. It's still generating a slow trickle of sales, but I think that a revision might also make it ready for a more "mainstream" release.

"Rajah Spiny Rat" is another game where I thought I had something good happening, but now I think it's just too confusing and missing too many pieces to be a coherent game. But that one can sit on the back burner for a while. Its sister game "Guerrilla Television" works reasonably well because it's a stripped down version of the rules.

The twin banes of my existence this week are "Quincunx" and "Bunraku Nights". I had great ideas for both of them. Now I'm trying to decide whether to resolve them into the same game, or keep them distinct as entities.

"Quincunx" currently uses the same dice system as "Rajah Spiny Rat" and "Guerrilla Television", but again in its expanded format it just gets unwieldy. It isn't a system for telling stories because there is too much to keep track of, and it doesn't work well as a crunchy collective game mechanism because certain minutiae have been deliberately left out...adding them in later just makes it feel a bit wrong.

It bugs the hell out of me...I've been trying to get a nice system of mechanisms happening for "Quincunx", but every time I expand out the core mechanisms, they just go pear shaped.

So I'm thinking that it's time to just scrap the lot and rebuild it from the ground up.

The domino mechanism of "Bunraku Nights" is really strategic, and borrowed a few concepts from "Quincunx", so it could make a nice transition back to the original source. But I have the feeling that it might be too strategic for an action game about relationships and finding your place in the world.

I've also pondered the idea of switching Quincunx across to Otherkind dice, using "FUBAR" as a core mechanism. But while this series of mechanisms works well for action and taking the fight to your enemies, it doesn't seem to have a good structure for dealing with fame and the other issues that I think are important for Quincunx stories...so I'm running into blocks there as well.

...and that's nothing compared to my Gigabytes of data concerning "Baron Xavier's Legacy", "Games for Goblins" and the other projects I've started.

The only way I'll make progress here is one project at a time.

13 June, 2010

Go Play: Cockatoo Island

I've decided to run a mini convention.

The title isn't fixed, but it will probably be in the vein of the Go Play events around the world, or Camp Nerdly (the way it seems from the posts I've been reading and the videos by Jason Morningstar.

I'm intending to run the game event on an island in the middle of Sydney Harbour, on Cockatoo Island.

I'm giving myself 12 months to organise things, and I won't be too disappointed if only a dozen people show up. 30 to 50 would be a great turn out, I don't think I could handle much more than that.

Let's see how things pan out.

11 June, 2010

Vector Theory #25: The Path and the Web

Over at The Alexandrian, Jason Alexander is looking at some similar things to Vector Theory. I walked along a similar path for a while. My early game module designs were flowcharts with decision points indicating "combat here [if win, go to A; if lose, go to B]", and similar story elements. It was an interesting way to design a game because I thought I'd be able to come up with an answer to everything, how naive I was...

I'm prompted to write this because someone just made an insightful comment.

Interesting thought to keep in mind though... some players/player groups don't want a web, they actually want a line.

I've played with two groups before who, given choices (more than, say, two) of what type of adventure to pursue, even when it was connected to certain other elements of character or past adventure, etc. would actually feel like they didn't know what to do.

Eventually, they would follow a path just to follow it, but hated the idea that other paths existed.

Full comment and context here

I'm seeing the two ideas as different perspectives on the same picture.

Vector theory isn't saying that one method of design is "more right" than the other, I'm merely using it as an instrument to observe why games have been designed in that way...and what sorts of outcomes can be expected from such design decisions.

Let's look at the typical structure of a store bought module. This is also the traditional structure of most early games. Forget the mechanisms, die rolls and other details for the moment.

The GM defines a basic plot, then leads the players through the plot. Their decisions don't really matter, maybe a character dies along the way, but there will be time to add in a new one to ensure the GMs plot is fulfilled (or maybe the player simply sits out until this story reaches its conclusion, then joins in on the next story).

Each node along the path is not so much a narrative decision point, because the players can't alter the direction the story is going in. But each node could be an additive or subtractive filter (Additive: During the impetus, does the party collect the magic widget? Subtractive: During the complications, does the party suffer injuries?). There must be decision points in the lead-up to the climax, otherwise, this would not be a game, it wouldn't be interactive entertainment at all, it would just be a story leading to a conclusion.

It's a simple story, but it's the kind of story that a lot of people are comfortable with. Among others it's called railroading, because you can't deviate from a pre-ordained path.

Let's look at another option.
The branched path is traditionally considered the opposite of the simple path. But in effect it really isn't all that different. The Branched path offers meaningful story decisions for the players to engage in. They can choose to deviate their path to follow a new storyline, and their next set of choices will be based on the choices they have made so far. The example illustrated above may seem overly complicated, but it could be a lot worse. With three directional decisions from each node, there are potentially 3x3x3x3=81 possible endings.

...but the GM still writes them all up. The players still follow a story defined by someone else, even if theye are actually following one from a potential range of story outcomes.

This method of scenario design can be found in many store bought modules, but in these cases they often limit the choices to two possible options (to reduce a wasted page count filled with storyline that probably won't be followed). I've known GMs who've spent weeks writing up games in this way, only to be incredibly disappointed when their favourite path wasn't taken.

As "Morrisonmp" wrote in the comment quoted above, there are a lot of players who will be just as frustrated knowing that they haven't encountered certain experiences along the way.

Keep in mind that I'm not talking about dungeons or maps here. The story path is something very different. A dungeon or map allows a group of players to go back to a previous point and then explore new avenues if they didn't like the first one...a story path only moves in a single direction, from introduction through to climax and denouement.

So while the branched path may look like a good design strategy for offering player choice, I would certainly caution away from it.

What else is there?
This was my favourite method of scenario design for many years. You'll note that every node encountered still has the three possible outgoing paths, but now they link across one another. Instead of 81 possible endings, there are three different endings....far less work for the designer/GM, and far less missed opportunities for the players.

The catch with designing a scenario in this manner is making the choices meaningful, and making the choices accurately link up to the new nodes. By the time the complication stage of the story has been reached, each node has three possible entry points and a well designed game will ensure that each entry point makes sense given the choices that will be faced within the node.

I'd like to think this method of design combines the best elements of both the straight path and the branched path. The GM has a good idea of where the characters will be heading (specific character agendas might be pulling them to the left or right, specific die rolls might do the same thing), but players still have decisions to make.

The other advantage to designing games in this way is that specific nodes can be highlighted for their ability to change a narraton's wavelength structure.

For example: The leftmost node at the impetus level has a chance of providing a magic sword, the rightmost node in the complication level has a chance of providing a healing potion. As long as the characters follow the correct path through the story they'll pick up all the tools they need for their climax.

Another example: The leftmost node at the complication level provides a proton disruptor, while the rightmost node at the complication level provides a phase shield. Both of these will be useful at the climax, but the players will only ever get one OR the other.

Some would still call this a form of "railroading", because it forces the characters to a specific ending designed within the constraints of the scenario. But since there are valid choices to be made, this is where the "railroading" definition starts to become contested.

To be continued...

Vector Theory #24 (Addendum)

I noticed that there is a disconnect between the title of my last blog entry, and the subject matter of the blog.

The title was written when I started looking through the magic system in Sorcerer, there seemed to be something that didn't quite mesh in the game mechanisms.

As I started reading more heavily into the book I realised that each and every design choice in Sorcerer is very specific and very deliberate. Unlike a lot of products on the market, it's a tight game. There aren't superfluous rules or disconnected mechanisms for handling one off situations, everything carefully links into everything else.

I had initially thought that it seemed odd to have a game purely about magic users who couldn't use magic, and governed by magical game mechanisms that were crude compared to a lot of products on the market (the spells are as formulaic as "super powers" in most games)...that's where I was wondering if this design decision was deliberate or overlooked.

But Magic isn't the point of the game, so it seems pretty clear that Ron Edwards didn't want to distract players from the true psychology and decision making of demon magic. I guess that's the flaw in my beloved "Mage", so many magickal options that the actual belief behind the force starts to take a back seat; the gam becomes more about "look at the cool stuff I can do!!", and less about "why did I do it? what does it mean to me?".

When I look at my Eighth Sea Revision, I'll be keeping a careful eye on Sorcerer as a benchmark. Even though it's getting a bit old, it looks like one of those classic designs that will be used as a measuring stick for a long time yet...

09 June, 2010

Vector Theory #24: Overlooked or deliberate

I’ve been looking through Ron Edward’s game, Sorcerer, in an attempt to see where it fits into the structure I wrote up for magic systems. Looking over it, it doesn’t fit my notion of a magic system at all, but instead reflects an assortment of static powers. Like the powers wielded by most superheroes, the system is very static. If you want new powers you need to go and bind a new demon possessing those powers. If you bind too many demons, your story gets pulled in too many directions and things threaten to tear apart.

It’s an interesting question, as the Sorcerers don’t really have any ability to manipulate the world directly. Instead Sorcerers have abilities to manipulate demons (hopefully), then the demons simply manifest powers in the world. It’s almost like a Catholic praying to a patron saint, they desperately hope the prayer will be heard and answered, because an answered prayer will instantly manifest a change in the world. But that’s all colour text, and from the perspective of Vector Theory it’s all a part of the Narraton’s polarity.

The actual process of wielding magic in Sorceror is pretty sedate. Player declares their intention, but this intention is limited to the available powers their demon is able to manifest (effectively synonymous with a spell list in other magic systems), a player may have multiple bound demons and therefore a wider range of potential powers to manifest, but in each case the power has a specific outcome on the mechanisms of the game and the flow of the narrative. Interestingly (from a design perspective), virtually none of the potential powers have an effect on the direction of the story, they merely change an individuals wavelength within the narrative.

Story direction in Sorcerer is provided a few ways; first by the kicker (which sets things into motion), then by the needs and desires of the bound demons. Once things start moving, a player has the opportunity to follow their demons goals, or ignore them (both of which have consequences). But it’s interesting to note that the direction of the story and the powers of the game are fairly exclusive, they only share a solid link through the demons that form the heart and soul of the game.

Unlike Mage: the Acension, where everything is about the magic and a demon may simply be a step on the path toward true enlightenment…Sorcerer places magic as a tool to facilitate the relationships between the demons and their “masters”.

Yet Sorcerer is also different from D&D, where the spells are simply rotes memorised from a list. There is something dark in the magic, it is specifically linked to demonic entities with their own desires. In both systems, the casting of a spell is simply the meeting of a required circumstance and then the power simply happens, but in D&D, any magical story is generated through the acquisition of ingredients or the enactment of ritual.

On the other hand, if the demons weren’t such a focal point of the system, it would be easy to isolate the magic from the remainder of the game. And a specific group can define the “demons” in any way they want. A demon could be a vice for alcohol or bloodletting, purely ephemeral and within the sorcerer’s mind. A demon could be the traditional familiar, an animal spirit bound for the purposes of metaphysical hijinks. It could be the traditional bat-winged imp or a succubus. The GM (or the group), defines the nature of the demon.

I could almost see a valid Sorceror game run in the setting of the Matrix; in which the Demons would be programs downloadable into a person’s mind while they are in the Matrix. The demons provide subroutines that create “un-natural” effects, but they each have their own glitches as a result of their errant programming. These glitches would need to be accommodated (and thus work as desires within the system).

Another interesting aspect to note is that the Sorcerer’s magical ability doesn’t change, because they have no magical ability. They simply have better knowledge of the occult and therefore learn ways to successfully bind stronger demons. In this light, a player’s journey through a Sorceror story isn’t represented by a single narraton and its choices. The Sorceror and the Demons are unique narratons all bound by a common journey for a while, until the path diverges. The sorcerer and their demon superimpose their frequencies to create a stronger gestalt, but many demons will always be trying to break away, and there will be an internal story developing as the narratons pull on one another with their own gravity.

08 June, 2010

Design Road Map

I'm not sure how well this meshes with Vector Theory...

...a few quick glances indicate some ideas that seem at odds between the two methodologies, but I'll need to look further.

Game Design Road Map

Unexploited Resource #2: Tarot Cards

The vagaries of fortune, the hidden paths of fate.

Tarot cards are one of those tools that have a history stretching back into the depths of forgotten lore. They have been shunned by the mainstream as a form of "devil magic" or a simple folk-tool for focusing guesswork.

In general, they've copped a bad rap.

In roleplaying circles there are probably a few reasons for this. One of the biggest being the Judaeo-Christian "moral majority".

I've already posted about my upbringing in a Christian household and how a good friend of mine had his roleplaying library burnt because his parents believed that they were the first steps on a path to Satan. (You can find the post here.)

So I might partially be transferring my experiences onto other game designers, but not entirely. I remember designing a few game in the mid to late 1990s, thinking about Tarot Cards and bringing the idea up with friends from a few different circles (old roleplaying buddies from high school, GMs from the local convention circuit, workmates who were interested in gaming). In general, these different groups had the same response to Tarot Cards...

"Roleplaying has a bad enough stigma in the eyes of the media and the moral majority. Why make things worse by linking a game to a blatant symbol of the occult?"

Roleplaying was a low profile activity. Something that kids did in basements, in their back sheds or in the privacy of their bedrooms...parents didn't understand it, and they jumped to conclusions based on what they might see when a door was casually opened.

A board looks OK....some figures moving across it are fine as well...dice are alright because it's a game...right?

"Hey that' board's got a pentagram on it!!"
"Don't worry Dad, we're fighting against an evil monster. We're not being evil ourselves."
"But who let that monster into our house..."

And thus the confusion spreads, especially when some people take things literally, and other people believe in the spiritual significance of words. Once you bring Tarot Cards into the picture, certain religious fanatics will start to use this as "Proof" that roleplaying games were subversive forms of occultism from the start...then you can only imagine the problems.

And that's truly a shame, because the inherent symbolism on Tarot cards makes them a great resource for gaming.

Here's another 10 reasons why this resource might make a great basis for some gaming mechanisms:

  1. The Minor Arcana have suits and ranks like a regular deck of cards. Suits are great for linking type of actions into the narrative, each of the Tarot suits is linked to a specific concept so actions of that type could be easier with the draw of a suit matching the action's agenda. (I played with this a bit in my game "The Eighth Sea", linking suits to action types.)
  2. Tarot cards have distinct meanings, with threads of theme running through them. This is great in itself because a player can look up a listing of tarot cards on the internet to get the big interpretation, but a lot of cards have secondary meanings. When two or more cards are combined, then some of those lesser nuances come to the fore.
  3. Tarot Cards can be looked at in upright or reversed configurations to give two different perspectives of their meaning.
  4. Tarot Cards evoke an instant atmosphere of mystery. I know that this seems to go against everything I wrote in the introduction, but I've written both just to make you aware of the ramifications. If a game is deliberately being written about the occult world, sometimes it makes sense to use a game mechanism that links into that atmosphere, it's creates less of a disconnect between the fictional world and the players. Daniel Solis has coined the phrase "Mechaphor" to cover this sort of effect (a "Mechanical Metaphor").
  5. Tarot Cards can still be played using the mechanisms of regular cards, developing effects for pairs, triples, straights, flushes, etc.
  6. Tarot cards can be laid out in spreads; with the placement of a card impacting on its meaning. Simple spreads include three cards designated "Past, Present and Future", or "Health, Wealth and Wisdom", five card spreads might followed traditional elemental correspondences, more complicated spreads can really delve into the heart of a situation or person. Take a look at Perilous Realm for an example of this.
  7. A deck can be specifically divided into major and minor arcana. With one side handling the physical activities of the world, while the other handles the ephemeral/spiritual/conceptual aspects of the setting.
  8. There are many types of Tarot Deck, from the traditional forms to newer decks of oracle cards. If you choose to incorporate a Tarot mechanism into a game, you can recommend specific deck with symbolism to reflect the concepts within the game.
  9. If you really want to get esoteric, there are plenty of methods for linking Tarot Cards into other forms of mysticism (such as Kaballah).
  10. Since they are cards, they can be manipulated in these ways as well (see also this storygames thread).
There is so much potential in Tarot Cards, that discarding them due to people's ignorance is simply a waste.

07 June, 2010



Now in it's competition pre-release version.

There should be some updates made to it before the game is due for entry in the Cyberpunk Revival project at the end of the month.

04 June, 2010

FUBAR (An exercise in Vector Theory Game Design)

My Bunraku Nights project is giving me more loose ends than I can possibly tie up in time for the Cyberpunk Revival Project.

So I've just thrown something together some ideas with a distinct Vector Theory perspective in mind.

The idea is a story oriented game, based around the mechanisms of Otherkind Dice.

Players roll 3 basic dice for any action, allocating them between three factors.

Degree of Success - Measures the output of the action and rewards the character by either applying traits to a target, or taking away from the GM's resource pool.

Degree of Sacrifice - Measures how much the character loses while trying to accomplish the action.

Degree of Fallout - Measures how obvious the character is when performing their action, how much unwanted attention is drawn.

Characters get may roll extra dice and discard down to the three they want if they have beneficial traits suitable to the task at hand. If they have negative traits that can be brought to bear on the situation, they roll extra dice also, but must discard their better rolls (rather than discarding the poor rolls).

The GM may make things harder by throwing a limited pool of difficulties at the players.

It's been designed very clinically and I'm interested to see how the game will actually work.

The methodology behind the core mechanism is simple.

When throwing a value into the Degree of Success, a deliberate choice must be made by the player. Do they take a step closer to their goal (removing a token from the GM)? Or, do they use their success to boost up an aspect of their wavelength (by adding a new positive trait to their pool)?

When allocating values between the degrees of Sacrifice and Fallout, players also make a conscious decision. Do they place a lower value in their Sacrifice slot, therefore reducing an aspect of their wavelength (by adding a negative trait, or losing a positive trait)?

Or, do they place a lower value in their Fallout slot, therefore bringing the potential for changes in the story, and therefore changes to where things might have been heading in the game?

I'm wondering how much different the mechanical disadvantage of the Sacrifice will compare to the ephemeral disadvantage of the deviating story direction.

The final game should be posted up in a couple of hours.

03 June, 2010

Vector Theory #23: A comparison of some magic systems.

I've thought about vector theory in relation to simple skill tests, and methods of story resolution (whether conflict-based or task-based). I've posted on some of these musings as well. At the simplest level, resolving a task either has effects on the character's mechanical ability through the remainder of the story (for the positive or negative), while resolving a conflict tends to twist the story in a new direction. These two aren't mutually exclusive.

But, at the moment, I'm thinking about the more obscure systems in a game. The framework that drives a game and makes if different to the others on the market, framework that's often hidden in plain sight.

The sanity system described in the last post of the series, gives a good indication of the kind of thing I'm looking at. It's a core element of the game, and its presence drives a certain style of play. It may not allow for the simulation of certain character types, but it evokes a distinct atmosphere through the mechanisms.

What about systems where sanity isn't so important?...systems that don't care about degrees of humanity?

Hence, my thoughts lead to magic systems, and mechanisms that allow for the manifestation of supernatural powers. I'll analyse the supernatural powers in a later post and focus on the magic for now.

One of the deepest questions in most fantasy settings is "What is magic?"; this is true whether the setting is pseudo-mediaeval high fantasy, modern urban fantasy, or transhumanist sci-fi fantasy.

There are hundreds of magic systems out scattered through the games on the market, but I think I can boil them down to a few types with some simple designations.

A. Rigid - In which specific effects are learned. When they are manifest in the world they always have the same result.
B. Formulaic - In which specific effects are learned. They may be used on their own for certain results or may be combined with other effects to create new results.
C. Fluid - In which fields of effect types are learned. A magic user is expected to use their initiative to combine these effects in to create results appropriate to the situation.
D. Freeform - In which a general mastery of magic is developed. A magic user gradually expands their ability to perform small effects through to virtually anything.

1. Predictable - In which the outward manifestation of a spell always looks the same, and it's mechanical effects are also reliable.
2. Mechanical - In which the outward manifestation of a spell always looks the same, but some kind of game mechanism varies the outcomes effects on the story/situation.
3. Contextual - In which the outward manifestation of a spell varies according the the current story situation, but it's mechanical effects are consistent.
4. Unpredictable - In which a spells appearance and effect cannot be accurately predicted, due to changes in circumstances or game mechanisms.

a. Allocated - In which a wielder of mystic powers may only call on specific spells a specific number of times per fixed time period.
b. Fixed Expenditure - In which a wielder of mystic powers has a reserve of points from which they drawn energy to shape into their magical effects.
c. Variable Expenditure - In which a wielder of mystic powers has a reserve of points that might be tapped depending on the effectiveness of the spell, or other random factors.
d. Free - In which a wielder of mystic powers has open access to the energies of the supernatural world, and my use them freely to shape the mundane world around them.

(4x4x4 = 64 potential categories for systems of magic within roleplaying games...If you can think of other options I may not have considered, please let me know).

Option 1: Old school D&D. (TSR c1974 and onward) (A/1-2/a)
A magic user is old school D&D has access to a number of spells that they have specifically learned. There is no combining of spells to create new and interesting effects, either you have a spell or you don't...and if it's not in the book, you don't. Most of the spells have specific effects (eg. a magic missile always hits for X amount of damage, levitate can lift a certain amount of weight a specific distance, etc.). Some spells have random tables to roll on, so you can be fairly certain of the types of results, and they stay reasonable predictable within their own mechanical limitations (not changing based on situations). Spells are allocated, and under strict rules must be memorised at the start of each day.

You can tell that this system was based on a wargame. If has specific effects that can't be argued; you just look in the rulebook and read out the description. From a vector theory perspective, the magic user begins each day boosting up their wavelength with specific fragments of energy representing each spell, over the course of the day, they may choose to give up one of these energy fragments to release into the story a specific mechanical effect. They lose the ability to use this fragment again (until it is reabsorbed into their wavelength the next day). The energy released may augment someone else's spectrum in some way (giving someone a positive or negative modifier to a statistic, a combat score or health, etc.), or it may shift the narrative in some way (a clue is found, an obstacle is overcome, etc.).Each spell functions slightly differently, but each spell is fixed in its output. Scrolls and magic items are other specific energy fragments that may be released on command for a known outcome.

Variants presented in AD&D 2nd Edition, change the system into an A/1-2/b system. If you used the spell points option, a magic user begins with an open pool of magic points that may be channelled into any known spell.

3rd edition D&D with it's introduction of metamagic feats expanded the possibilities further (A-B/1-2/a). Through choosing whether to enhance an effect with a metamagic feat, the potential outcome of a spell gets some input from the player (Do I extend the duration? Enhance the damage? The area of effect? etc.) If so, I expend a bit more energy.

In the earliest versions of the game, there is some vague background information about magic being learned in rigid universities, where specific effects are researched for decades, then taught by rote to young students. So, in this light, the magic system reflects the game worlds interpretation of supernatural energies.

Option 2: Mage: the Ascension 2nd Edition (White Wolf 1994) (C/3-4/c-d)
My favourite magic system. It's not perfect but it reflects a certain paradigm of magic as well.

A mage has a general rating to describe their inherent mystic might..."Arete", They also have knowledge in a variety of fields..."spheres". They must filter their Arete through these Spheres to create magical effects. There are no specific spells (well actually there are hundreds of ideas scattered throughout the books), a mage must simple apply their knowledge of the mystic world to the situation around them. They must also explain what they are doing within the constraints of their world-view (because belief is a big part of this game). The effects are usually fairly predictable, with specific bonuses possible depending on the level of knowledge in different spheres, but their manifestation in the game world is often cloaked in "coincidences" specific to the situation at hand, or "blatant" outright displays of raw magical power. Mages may use their powers as often as they like, but there is always a chance of a backlash. Depending on the GM, this backlash may be severe (giving a rating of -/-/c) or it could be negligible (and therefore the system would get a -/-/d).

From a vector theory perspective, the magical wavelength doesn't quite begin as raw unbridled energy, it has an intensity equal to the Mage's Arete score, and it's wavelength is coloured by the degree of mastery in the assorted spheres. It can even be temporarily boosted by raw magical energy called Tass. When magic is used, the magical wavelength isn't diminished (but Tass boosts are expended), the capabilities of the magic's target will vary and the storyline will always shift in direction. The difference between coincidental and blatant magic in such a system is governed by the polarisation. If it fits the setting and situation, it easier to get a magical effect through (which means less chance of the story being deflected in a bad direction). If it's just outright obvious as a magical effect, or doesn't seem right for the situation, then the polarity of the magic doesn't mesh with the current circumstance, so there's a good chance it will be absorbed by the polarisation or deflect off to a world of hurt...

Players actually have some control over the narrative and the game world through their magic and I think this makes Mage: the Ascenesion the closest game to a true storytelling game out of the entire line. Due to it's incredibly varied nature, there are a lot of story elements added into Mage: the Ascension to sculpt the system to fit a specific user of supernatural energies (rather than sculpting the Mage to fit the magic). It is perhaps overly powerful in its versatility. and this has led a lot of inexperienced GMs to be incredibly fearful of the game.

Option 3: Chill (Mayfair Games 1991) (B/2-3/b-c)
Before Mage was released, I loved the magic system in Chill. It seemed so diverse and brilliant. A magic user would learn specific spells, they would research them carefully in the manner of D&D, but the actual spells weren't simply limited to the rule book. Instead the rule book gave you a bunch of input options for building up the magic energy necessary (including things like "ritual duration", "skill check difficulty", "damage done to yourself when casting" and "rare ingredients"), and a bunch of output options for determining the effects once the spell was cast (including fields like duration, range, and damage, but also things like "change shape", "prevent aging" and "summon"). Like Lego blocks, you'd plug together one or more input options, then one or more output options.

Magic works in a predetermined way in this setting, but it's modular. You learn the relevant components, you learn how those components fit together then you cast spells in the way that suits you best. Depending on your specific component choices, spells might be very rigid in their mechanical output effects, or they might be varied. The same applies to the fuel sources...a spell might have a rigid and specific component cost, or it might have a variable impact on a character's wounds or fatigue. It all depends on the risks you wanted to take when constructing the spell.

From a Vector Theory perspective, a character build up their wavelength as a part of the spellcasting process, then discharges it as the effects manifest in the world. Certain components specifically alter the direction of a storyline, while other components specifically manipulate a target's wavelength. The actual manifestation of the spell will be polarised by the type of story being told, this isn't really choosable by the player, but is a part of the GM's setting.

There are plenty of other magic systems out there, and I could probably incorporate other game systems for manifesting supernatural powers, but that's enough for now.