31 December, 2015

He Never Died


Just finished the movie "He Never Died" starring Henry Rollins.

If you haven't watched it, it's classified as "horror" but is really more of a violent psychological drama, with a bit of investigation thrown in, and definite supernatural themes. The figure in the movie who might best be described as the iconic horror role, is actually the figure you get to know best in the film. If that's triggered your interest, go find it. If that's set off alarm bells and trigger warnings, just leave it alone.

I just want to run a story with an immortal at the centre, but not have the immortal in the story. Like the eye of the storm, this immortal wanders through time, chaos surrounds them and constantly threatens to engulf them but generally they try to avoid conflict, avoid rippling the fabric of society and history. This story would be about the children of the immortal, each abandoned as an orphan while the immortal moves off to wander other parts of the world or avoid the conflicts that inevitably arose when they are bound to society by a mortal child. Maybe the immortal has lived with children in the long past, maybe they are unable to watch their children grow old and die any more.

Such a story could be continued generationally. One generation of the immortal's children deal with situations echoing the immortals actions in the world (with some successes and failures), then in the next game a new generation of the immortal's children deal with new situations echoing new actions of the immortal, and dealing with the fallout of the actions from the previous generation. At first the stories might be quite simple, but with continuing games the dynamic builds. After three or four iterations, you end up with a really complex world where stories have been built up over generations, where some actions are reactions to others, and where characters end up related to each other through complex bonds and a tension of positive and negative effects.

This is where my recent thoughts on time travel games might make a more interesting dynamic.

Maybe we could have the characters immediately thrown into a chaotic environment. They only begin to understand the complexity of the situation by researching the past, the motivations of allies and adversaries might link back to a previous generation. As they discover that they are all orphans, and actually share a common parent in the immortal, they might also come to understand that the events of the past link back to the immortal also, or might link back further to another generation. The origins of the struggle might nev be made clear, the further the characters go back the harder it is to research things and continue the search. The only constant is the immortal. 

Maybe the story starts in one time...lets say Victorian England. The characters are chasing down their origins, trying to find the immortal, and dealing with the ramifications of their walking across the Earth. They might read diaries of the past, which might open up a new session where the players portray a previous generation. Then once the diary "reading" has resolved, the current events might make more sense and might be completed (for the good or bad). Their story might be over and the next generations story unfolds during World War 1, new diaries might be read (or played through) showing parallel events that occured while their previous characters were active, some diaries might fill in the gaps between the Victorian era and the WW1 era, other diaries might go back further in time revealing events in the early colonial era.

Instead of starting at a point and moving linearly forward, the story begins at a point in the timeline, then spreads backwards and forwards, and the scope of the game becomes grander as more of the world gets engulfed by the narrative. It always focuses on the immortal, and the characters could easily get caught up in the maelstrom if they try to get to this character... On the other hand then game could get more and more epic, and it might be hard to stop the snowball once it starts building momentum.

That's where you'd need a critical end point. 

I'd suggest that is when the immortal enters the game.

30 December, 2015

Updated Werewolf

Werewolf was always one of my favourite games. It made efforts to be global when nothing else seemed to be, it may have been problematic in retrospect but at least it was taking those first steps.

When +Levi Kornelsen wrote up his take on a new paradigm for the system, it really got me thinking. I wanted to write a whole heap about this interpretation of the setting, I wanted to run a game with this set up (just like I wanted to run the infamous Kult/World-of-Darkness crossover back in the 90s... I must find that again).  . 

So I don't lose this interpretation of the setting again, I'm just going to post his words directly here on the blog. I might write something more specific in regard to this shortly. For the moment though, I'm seeing some interesting riffs on these ideas for Mage or Vampire to make them more truly global rather than just stereotypical collections of cliches.

Werewolf: The Apocalypse, and making it less ugh for a new edition.
(Because enough people seemed interested in hearing)

So, Werewolf: The Apocalypse is...   Kinda messed up, even before you hit the rules.  One of the breed names is identical to a real-world racial group in a not-at-all-good way. The tribes are composed largely of racial stereotypes (one, the Black Furies, is also an overdone gender-politics stereotype), even where the side books occasionally put some serious effort into redeeming or justifying them. The fetish setup can easily lead to "white folks in native headresses".  There are cheap cultural knockoff gimmick spirits peppered throughout.

In addition to this, being pretty keen on eco-terrorism is baked right in; it's a central feature of the game.  That one, though, I'm not gonna touch.  Fundamentally, I'm okay with Werewolves as psychotic furry eco-terrorists.

Let's hit the others.

For "Metis", just straight substitute "Malsang"; bad-blooded.  Or some other word that's otherwise well-suited.  There's no amount of clever justifying that will fix that particular issue.

For fetishes, a note on spirits being real damn touchy about who can "properly" use what is not only an easy fix, it drops into the setting without a single ripple.  A spirit of honour sees you wearing a heraldic or otherwise familial crest (or tartan) that you're not entitled to?  That spirit is not bloody okay with that.  Nevermind the fetish itself, which might very well know where it belongs and with whom.  And, yeah, this means that that attempts at dungeon-crawl-style grabs at magic gear stops functioning in the game, but that potential is replaced with restoring the lost treasures and inheritances of others when you find some lost thing, and being recognized and sung of for the deed...   And that, man, that's some solid werewolf action.

Gimmicky spirits are tricky.  I've written a lot of spirits in my day, and some of the most ridiculous to others sounded just plain great to me at the time I wrote them.  Sooooo....   This basically means passing spirits by a lot of eyes, and ones that are sensitized to weird shit like this, and getting their input.

Okay.  The tribes.  Hoo boy, the tribes.  

My suggestion here is pretty severe; it keeps most of the actual stuff intact, but wildly shifts the perspective:  Reverse the presentation of each tribe, and dump the idea of Ronin completely.  Right now, tribes are presented primarily as being about origins and ethnicity, secondarily about spiritual content and gifts, and stuff on playing a member of a tribe is all based on that.

Imagine if you saw a write-up that went, paragraph by paragraph:



1. What the chosen children of stag tend to be like, even if they're totally lost cubs that never know their family or come into contact with their patron totem.  No mention of where they "come from", none of that.

2. What stag is like, what this totem likes and doesn't like, how it appears to and guides its children.  Again, no dependency on any specific culture.

3. Spirits that serve stag, what they do, what they're like, how they react to a child of stag.  A touch of cultural stuff here, maybe.

4. The nature of gifts, fetishes, and other magical power you might get from Stag.

5. The human kin of the lineage, where to find them in groups and not in groups, and how they live.

6. The wolf-kin of the lineage, where to find them in groups and not in groups, and how they live.

7. The Tribe - the largest coherent body of werewolves in the lineage (the Fianna), and where their core caerns are found.

8. Camps - smaller bodies of werewolves in the lineage, and where they're based.


In that sort of setup, a bunch of things can change radically.  It becomes easy to imagine someone born under the patronage of stag that develops a relationship with the spirits of the totem long before they even meet their first Fianna, and never really meshes entirely with the tribe.  It doesn't make them part of a special Ronin group, just a little disconnected.

The tribes remain, however, as political powers, as extended family you may well have reason to connect with, and on and on.  That's all there, but it doesn't have to be you.

Equally, because the identity is broken up a little, it's possible to make historical relationships with the "homeland" more complex. The children of Wendigo might be utter monsters to the bands that their kinfolk have traditionally lived among, and those kinfolk historically the low-status keepers of a terrible secret. Meanwhile, the kinfolk of the Uktena might be typically shamans among their bands, and Werewolves historically might have been seen as half-spirit children; not really band members, but sacred people even so.  (Those may be bad examples; real research into what would fit where would be needed, but the point is that more complex relationships between Werewolves, their kin, and the nations that have hosted them in numbers could be made sensical.)  This, in turn, helps forward the idea that your character is not a clear representative of whatever culture; making them a stereotype of that culture becomes one step more bizarre. 

This also creates a potential rift among the "Lineage of Pegasus", which could be leveraged on the weirdness of the Black Furies, and even applied to Red Talons.  Does Pegasus not want male children, or is that specifically the tribe?  Are there camps born to Pegasus outside the tribe that think differently, and how are the politics there?  Ditto Red Talons, Gryffon, and Homids.  Having a weird political body out there in the setting that players can have complex relationships with is a fair bit different than fronting it as an absolute character option.


Anyway, that's my thinking.

Indigenous Gaming

It's nice to be considered the "go to guy" for gaming support with regard to the Australian Indigenous community. If I had strung together my discussions with community members, my study at university, and my general work with local elders it would be a few solid weeks of immersion over the course of the last year. I don't think I'm an expert on the subject matter, I barely think I'm scratching the surface, I'd love to see an actual member of the Indigenous community writing games, but it seems that I'm the "go to guy" for the moment.

That means I've basically got an obligation to make sure Walkabout is finalised in the next couple of months... and to make sure the product released is as good as I can make it in order to start a dialogue with potential Indigenous game designers who are looking to tell their own stories.

One of the big problems I'm seeing with the Indigenous groups across Australia is the nature of "secret business", and the need to have some respect for the culture before you can be accepted into it. This acceptance is important because only those who are accepted are granted deeper knowledge about the ways of the people, and many members of the current adult generation have lost the knowledge of their ancestors and are trying to piece together the past from the fragments they have left. Many members of the upcoming adult generation don't understand the need for the respect and are risking a complete break in the continuity of 40,000+ years of oral history and lore. Even the fragments aren't being passed down.

The spirituality has basically been lost, due to the "success" of the Christian missions. I'll be participating in a ritual that hasn't been fully enacted in over a century in the next couple of weeks, most of the ritual is being pieced together from anthropological texts and word of mouth from half a dozen different elders in different parts of the state, each of whom have a different form of the ritual according to the ways of their various people.

That's what Walkabout was all about. The loss of the spirituality and the return of the spirits to a world that no longer respects them. The earliest thoughts of the game had the characters learn their knowledge about spirits from third hand word-of-mouth, passed down from one of the last shamans to remember the secrets. But I think it's actually more poignant to have no-one with the full answers,especially since the answers will change from location to location because every spirit was revered by a different group of people and every group of people will have shown that respect in different ways. Walkabout was always intended to be a game about loss, and trying to gather the pieces of the past to make sense of a world in chaos, but now there needs to be something deeper in it.

This game won't be a parody, nor a cultural appropriation. It will be more of an opening point to a culturally sensitive dialogue. It will not be "politically correct" in the way I see that term. Political correctness is about stopping short and censorship to prevent offence, instead through cultural sensitivity it will be about stirring those emotions of offense, understanding why they offend, and how things can be better handled in the future. This could be a game covered in trigger warnings, confronting the spirit is confronting the self, understanding what is necessary to proceed may lead to uncomfortable decisions. The spirit of a situation will rarely be an easy confrontation, and more often than not, the first confrontation in any situation will fail because the complete facts are yet to be revealed.

I've been on the right track to make this a game about relationships more than anything else. Relationships to people, relationships to place, relationships to objects. The community spirit of the various Australian Indigenous people links everyone to each other, and everyone is known by their relationship to someone else, the more links you can verify the more easily understood you are as a person. I was going to write that the more connected you are, the more accepted you are; but that's not really right, instead the more connected you are, the more known you are (you are less of an untrusted variable).    

Currently Walkabout sits in a dozen unfinished files on my computer, it has informed so many of my other works at the moment that it feels like it should be ready to go. Once I've knocked over the FUBAR rewrite, I need to get onto it. It's starting to feel like I'm holding something back by letting it sit idle.

28 December, 2015

A Reflection on the Year

I set out this year with the intention of completing a number of unfinished game projects... I think that I've successfully completed none of them. On the other hand, I've completed a university degree, created a quite a few entries for various game design competitions, seen a huge increase of traffic to this blog, I've helped drive a LARP group in a new and interesting direction, and completed a few commissions with my cartography services. I can't say that this year has been a failure, it's just not seen the successes that I had initially aimed toward.

I deliberately put Walkabout on hold this year while I engaged in some studies into Australian Indigenous Culture at university, I had no idea that I'd end up in regular contact with a group of local Aboriginal elders who have been teaching me far more than any textbook. I've also visited the largest Australian Indigenous library in Canberra (with them) and have been given all the research materials I could ever need to ensure that Walkabout is completed in a culturally sensitive way, with the blessing of the very elders I had feared possibly offending.

I did get quite a bit further with finalizing a new edition of FUBAR, and that should be ready in the next couple of weeks (as long I don't get too many more distractions).

We'll see what next year holds.

27 December, 2015

Mapping Procedure (Part 2)

This mapping commission consists of three maps. One for the base camp, one for the overland trek, and one for a mountain to climb and explore at the end.

I've already shown the map for the overland trek.

The details of the base camp were based as a loose interpretation of this map.

The tricky bit has been the mountain. The general idea is that the characters will explore an ancient legendary mountain that has settled around the remains of a petrified dragon. I thought it might be interesting to depict the mountain as a cross section, depicting the dragon writhing in the centre of the mountain. Other ideas just didn't look suitably mountainous, or suitably draconic.

Pencil sketches were sumbitted to the client.

On being given the go ahead, inking was started...

...followed by shading of the rock inside the mountain. Here I deliberately used multiple thicknesses of pen to emphasise the shapes of the petrified dragon, as compred to the other stone comprising the terrain. 

A bit more shading, and with approval from the client I'll add this mountain into the map for the overland trek. Then scanning and maybe colouring.

Everyone's a Mystic...

...some are just a bit more obvious about it than others.

I've been watching the development of some new (and not so new) roleplaying ideas by several people.

There seems to be a common thread in many people's designs where the heroes develop by gaining new abilities and improving those abilities, actually this has been a common thing in pretty much evey roleplaying game except for those designed as one-shots or those that are going out of their way to push the envelope in some way.

What's been more interesting recently is the idea of abilities as a way to manipulate the story's narrative, rather than abilities as a way to manipulate the game world. As a character improves, they gain new ways to manipulate the narrative, or ways to manipulate the narrative in a more significant manner. Maybe this has been a part of the rpg scene since the beginning, maybe there's been a drift away from it, maybe not... Curiously, the "storyteller" system drifts away from the idea and toward a set of mechanisms where the characters manipulate the world through their abilities rather than the players manipulating the narrative through their characters. Mage came the closest to the purity of my thoughts, because the game world is utterly fluid... belief controls everything, and belief requires conscious thought on the part of the characters, and through them the players are capable of derailing any story and therefore must be the centre of the narrative.

The spheres in Mage are simply flavours of how the narrative can be manipulated and to what extent this occurs in the world. If everything else were stripped away about the game... attributes, skills, merits, flaws... everything... it would still work. Most of the other games in the series wouldn't, they need the grounding in the world and their character abilities are all about navigating that world.

That kind of brings me back to some other ideas, ideas that needed a bit of context before they made a lot of sense. It's a bit of a paradigm shift, and it might be a bit radical for some readers, while some people might have been thinking this way for a while.

Let's look at the traditional D&D classes as all being different types of mystic. Mage the Ascension basically does this with different types of characters using magic to achieve superhuman feats of different types, but at the basic level that's what D&D does too. It tracks the ascension of characters from the every day levels of their origins to the potential levels of demigods and immortals. A warrior gains the ability to deal damage far beyond the mortals around them, they basically become avatars of war and death. A rogue gains an affinity with the shadows, the ability to move anywhere and everywhere, and becomes ever closer to the primordial trickster. A mage is the most blatant mystic, exploiting loopholes in reality to create effects that mundane mortals simply cannot understand. A cleric follows those who have walked the path of ascension previously, or those primorial entities who need disciples in the mundane world to become anchored against oblivion. Every class focuses on it's own way to manipulate the world and manipulate the narrative, the warrior excels when the narrative shifts to combat, the rogue excels when the narrative requires deception, the mage excels when the narrative shifts to the arcane, and the cleric excels when the narrative deals with outside forces from beyond reality.

The same idea can basically be applied to any set of game mechanisms. What do you want the stories told through this game to be about? What sorts of things do you want experienced veterans to find easier? What sorts of things should remain a challenge? Do you want the characters/avatars in the game world to expand their options for interacting with the story (in old school games we might call is multi-classing, in more moden games we might call it a skill-based rather than class-based system)? 

Even the "Powered by the Apocalypse" games, this idea seems to hold true, different types of character have different narrative-manipulations that they are attuned to. As you improve a character you can buy new methods of narrative manipulation, or you can boost your attributes which give you a better chance of manipulating certain types of narrative conditions.

I'm sure that there is more to discuss in this field, but that's where I'll stop for the moment.

26 December, 2015

How to (and not to) run a time travel game?

After watching this year's Doctor Who Christmas Special, I'm reminded of one of the things that Doctor Who can do really well... Especially compared to a lot of other TV shows and narrative forms where time travel is an element.

Don't get me wrong, Doctor Who has just as many failures when it comes to temporal narrative, but it's been going for so long that there have been some great examples of how storylines and timelines can combine, compliment and even contradict. 

It basically reflects the way I run long term narrative in a campaign. 

Each episode has a few hooks, some of which get resolved, usually enough to get a feel of closure when the episode concludes, but sometimes not enough and people complain about plot holes. Usually there are one or two plot points that just don't get resolved, but in a show like Doctor Who they can be resolved in a later episode or even a later season. 

The "River Song" story thread that stretches across numerous Doctors has been a brilliant example of how two time traveller's might interact with one another. At various points, one character has had information in their past which still belongs in the other character's future, and this has made sorting out their stories a fascinating exercise in temporal topology. This episode saw some of the loose story elements tied back into the narrative, it wasn't a perfect episode but it linked years of meandering story  back together with new elements of it's own. 

I'd actually like to see more of this. We saw it when Clara stepped into the Doctor's timeline a couple of season's ago, but only as a one off. The episode "Blink" is considered one of the best episodes of the modern era, and it does similar manipulation of temporal narrative. There is so much potential for other episodes to go back, fill in plot holes, or create situations that might have been previously solved by the doctor in some way that we didn't understand at the time. 

There's basically 50 years of story that could be linked in this way, but the modern era of Doctor Who seems to ignore a lot of the old stuff except to dredge up some monster from the past when current ideas have been exhausted.

That's enough of my rant for the moment, I might come back to it in the future.

25 December, 2015

Mapping Procedure

As a Christmas present to everyone, here's a general step by step procedural on my mapping technique when working with a client.

Here's where the pencil sketch begins

After confirming with the client that this is what he is after, I start detailing in ink. The first details to be inked are the parts of the map that mesh with another part of the series. In this case it's the exploration base camp at the bottom of the map.

Then I outline the significant structures... which in this case means the central glacier. There are paths to the left and right of this glacier leading toward a mysterious mountain at the far end. Underneath you can see some embellishments that might get added into the map when I've scanned it and am digitally mucking around with it.

Here's a closer look at those embellishments. They were inspired by details in Tibetan patterns, which often appear in Tibetan buddhist maps and scrolls.

Next I add in the rocky mountainous terrain around the glacier.

This is followed by another post to the client to ensure the map is heading in the right direction.

More to come shortly.

23 December, 2015

Magic thoughts

This rejuvenation of the World of Darkness in recent weeks has seen a lot of people taking a new interest in the setting. That means once again that my earlier work this year was ahead of the zeitgeist, and once again was allowed to slide before the interest became widespread. 

I've also been seeing quite a few great magic systems in development over the past few months. There was even a great discussion regarding the spirit sphere in Mage, and how the new game rules basically rendered it irrelevant except as a type of paradigm or focus to drive other effects in play (sorry, I can't remember who wrote this).

So, I'm thinking of returning to my "Storifying Mage" concepts, but now I'm considering a different angle. 

My new thoughts are an assortment of keywords that get combined to produce mystical effects. 9 spheres, 9 lists of keywords in 5 levels. That's a minimum of 45 keywords, but we're probably looking at more like 90 (2 per level). Each keyword will have specific mechanical benefits and effects, magical power will determine the maximum number of words that may be combined for memorised effects (half this number, rounding up, to determine the words that might be combined on the fly for spontaneous magic effects).

I need to remember this stuff for once the FUBAR rewrite is complete, that'll be the next project.

22 December, 2015

Mapping in Progress

I think it's probably to show this small part of the new map commission. When it gets closer, I'll start telling people where they need to look for the finished product. 

21 December, 2015

A good start

Thankyou to everyone who read, shared and responded to yesterday's post.

Throngh direct comments on the post, G+ responses, and private messages/emails, I've managed to accumulate over 100 articles on the topics of gaming and roleplaying. Now it's a case of distilling my vague direction of inquiry into a series of specific questions to investigate, each of which might contribute toward a larger pattern of understanding. That's generally how research in academia works... If you pick a topic too vast, the scholars say that you are speaking in generalities and vagueness. If you pick a single topic to small, a different group of scholars claim that you are cherry picking your dataset and narrowing everything down to a focus that happens to match your preconceived agenda. So you work piece by piece, feeding off the work of others, and allowing them to feed off yours (the more referenced your work is by others, the more respected it becomes).

Once I've knocked over a couple of maps for the current commission I'm working on, and then taken a few other personal projects to the next stage, I should have time to get those thoughts in order. Then the research begins.

20 December, 2015

Academic Research into Roleplaying

I recently finished my university degree, a Bachelor of Arts focusing on Social Analysis and Sociolinguistics. The final stage of that included research into play, particularly focusing on the cosplay community, but touching on elements of LARP. One of the things I found was that there really isn't a lot of research work being done into the field of adult play. There is a bit coming from the Nordic scene, but most play research is focused on the elements of children's play and the realm of computer gaming.

But there is a lot of adult play going on.

I'm writing this post as a call out to anyone who reads the blog, and who might know of some academic papers, journal articles, or other sources, that discuss adult play. I've been thinking of doing some serious research work in this field for a few weeks, and there seems to be a drive in the local community (at least partially driven by +Keiran Sparksman) to get some more formal work done in this sphere.

I know a few people have posted links to the Nordic stuff, but I'm hoping the comments to this post will consolidate a lot of those sources as a point from which my research can start.

19 December, 2015

New Map Commission

I have been commissioned to illustrate a series of maps for a new Torchbearer product. Given that Torchbearer is one of those indie games that seems to be getting a bit of traction lately, it's great to be considered for this opportunity.

I'm guessing +Dyson Logos was busy.

17 December, 2015

Episode 7: A Review with Minimal Spoilers

If you've watched any of the trailers, nothing I say here will spoil things.

I took +Leah Wenman to see "The Force Awakens" and we both really enjoyed it.

It felt like a familiar return to something. A comfortable fit in a number of ways, with enough interest to show that the story might beheading in a new direction.

My biggest issue is not with the movie, but with the events around the movie. Even just by watching the trailers you'll know that one of the major characters in the movie is a young woman. I hadn't seen many toys of this character, and this bugged me because my wife is a huge Star Wars fan and this might be another character for young girls to look up to. After seeing the movie, a lack of toys for that character seems even more ridiculous. I'm also expecting some of the existing prominent toys to disappear now that the gender of those characters has been confirmed.

But those are concerns that have little to do with the actual constructed narrative of the film, which is familiar in a number of regards, and very true to the oeuvre.

Not a perfect film, but a very good one. If you're a fan, you'll have certain expectations, and they will generally be met.

Rewards in Game

I'm working on rebuilding the Elgardt LARP system, incrementally. The problem is that there are other parties who are also integrating changes into the game.

One of my aims when designing a freeform LARP is to give everybody too many things to do during the course of play. I like to set up webs of intrigue between players, and give them jobs to do that force them into interaction with other players, while the other parties interested in developing the game further have pushed toward micromanaged quests with small groups led by GMs through railroaded scenarios. The problem I see with that second option is that when you only have one or two GMs for twenty or more players, you can micro-manage four or five (maybe even six or seven) each but everyone else is stuck waiting for their turn to go on a quest later, or maybe they get relegated into the role of NPCs.

This is great if everyone is on the same page regarding the game structure, but if everyone is hoping to play their own characters in an immersive world (the way Elgardt was originally intended), then this just isn't going to work. We've also seen a few spin off games that seek to emulate the LARPs seen in Melbourne, where they have big events with 300+ players. These large games have a critical mass of players, have been running for years, and probably have a background logistics team who make the whole thing seem effortless. They also seem to only run events every now and then if their website is anything to go by...but I'm assured by players who've been down to Melbourne that they have regularly weekly training events with 100+ players.

So, I'm trying to develop a self regulating system, or at least a system that requires a little facilitation to help it run smoothly rather than direct control by a specific GM team. To achieve that, I'm looking at applying in game rewards based on character archetypes. A bit like the XP system in "The Solar System". Every character will choose two paths of experience, and each path will say something about the character while pushing them into contact with other characters for specific reasons.

The Path of the Merchant prompts players to trade goods with other characters, the Path of the Thug prompts player to take down other players without using any of their special combat abilities, the Path of the Healer prompts them (naturally enough) to heal injured characters, the Path of the Deceiver prompts them to send other players on red herring missions. In each case, the character gains 25XP for engaging in the path's action once, 50XP if they do it twice, and 100XP if they manage it three times.

I'm aiming for a dozen or more of these paths, so that every player has a decent choice of tasks that fit their character concept, and in each case a player will have to get another player to sign off their checklist to confirm that they've interacted with someone else and that they have actually done the thing that their path requires. This becomes tricky in the case of the Path of the Deciever, because we don't want other players knowing that they've been lied to, so instead the GMs will carry a notpad and every time someone asks them about a plotline that hasn't been predetermined, they will note who is following the plot, and at the end of game determine who started the rumour. Other paths that vary from the norm might include the Path of the Pacifist, where a character earns experience for avoiding conflict with others, and could theoretically score points for hiding throughout the entire game (not really something we want).

Each of these paths needs to contribute something to the game's ecosystem. That might be heightening conflict, promoting trade, increasing magic, or anything else, and I'm sure that getting the balance right between these paths will be a delicate art. The paths will remain a constant part of the game, but in addition there will always be one or two significant events happening in the game. One driven by the GMs and/or one driven driven by the actions of the players in previous events. Then there will be a range of lesser events happening in the game, generally working on the assumption of one minor event per ten players (round up). This means that every player will have their two paths, at least one major event, and at least two minor events to connect with during the course of the story. A path might take 10 minutes per experience generating action (but such action opportunities might only manifest once every hour or so). A major event might unfold over three or four scenes (each taking half an hour or more) and a minor event might unfold over two or three scenes (each taking fifteen to twenty minutes). That gives us a minimum of a hour scattered across the day for path activities, roughly two hours for one of the major events, and half and hour to and hour for minor plots... three-and-a-half to four hours of activity for players to latch into, before they even start connecting into the plot lines developed by other players as they manipulate the world around them, or before they start to manipulate the world for themselves.

Most of our games run for around 5 hours, so that gives an hour or time for self entertainment and engagement with the world. But in most cases, that hour could easily be used up in walking around the parkland.

Paths so far...
(In most cases 1 action = 25xp, 2 actions = 50xp, 3 actions = 100xp, unless otherwise mentioned)
Academic - Use a skill or knowledge to further a quest
Assassin - Backstab a character with a bounty on them
Crafter - Create items to trade with others or use in game
Deceiver - Send other characters on erroneous missions
Guildmember - Further the aims of the guild or complete guild missions
Guildmaster - Recruit new guild members or assign missions to guild members
Healer - Heal other characters
Herbalist - Trade a found herb into the market
Hunter - Trade a found animal into the market
Merchant - Trade with other characters
Messenger - Travel with a message between two characters
Pacifist - Avoid Conflict (1 life lost = 25xp, no lives lost = 50xp, never engaged in conflict = 100xp)
Ritualist - Conduct magic ritual with other characters
Sentinel - Remain in one area (1hr = 25xp, 2hrs = 50xp, 3hrs = 100xp)
Standard Bearer - Provide a morale bonus in battle
Thug - Take down other characters without using special abilities
Wanderer - Visit locations around the game (3 places = 25xp, 4 places = 50xp, 5 places = 100xp)

I know there are still a few more paths I'd like to add, but I need to consider what other sorts of things I want to reward in the game.

14 December, 2015

Fast Combat

The final battle in yesterday's LARP was a bit anti climactic. I was in it (to the right), and had been told that we'd be filmed. Yes, I should have tried to make it a bit more dramatic... but even so, it was over quickly, and would have been over quickly even with a few flourishes.

That's how quickly I think combat should go in a tabletop game.

11 December, 2015

Getting closer with the blueprints

I went looking for folded paper textures to apply to the blueprint maps, to give them an aged look. None have been particularly good so far, and I might just have to fold some of my own cardboard, scan it in then apply it to the image.

...but it's still getting closer as one of the final image to appear in the new FUBAR rulebook that's gradually coming together.

A few more days without distraction and I should have a version of the rules ready for people to have a look at before I launch a crowdfunding project to get hard copies of the book printed.  

Balance in Can of Beans

Game balance is one of those bugbears that some designers obsess over, while other designers blatantly disregard it. Then there are those who claim that there is no such thing as true balance and for a game to "simulate realism" it should actually be unbalanced.

Clans of Elgardt (and many other games I've encountered) uses a variable cost on different abilities, where those abilities that are more powerful are more costly, but the actual usefulness of various abilities and the associated costs are always debated (this is too expensive for what it does...while this is too powerful for it's price). Things get shuffled, characters get rewritten when a new set if rules is released, sometimes characters are retired purely because they are no longer competitive, or no longer fit the player's conception of what the character should have been when reflected in the new rule set.

Some rule sets make different abilities exclusive to certain occupational paths, if you're a warrior you get access to martial abilities, but not mystic abilities (with the reverse if you're a wizard). Among these, you get the games which predetermine a character along a single path, and those games that might allow multiclassing. CoE sort of does this, but only with the paths of light and darkness (where if you possess one, it automatically precludes you from taking any abilities in the other), it's a half-arsed attempt to add flavour into the mechanisms of play, and kind of works but falls short [the whole concept has recently been removed from the game].

A common thing among many of the more "advanced" rule sets for Boffer LARP is the idea of variable cost skills, where a skillmight have a base cost which is then multiplied by some factor determined by the character's race, then another factor determined by their current occupation, and possibly a synergy with existing abilities they might possess. This really does nothing for balance when one character might be gaining the ability to disarm an opponent for 500xp while another might be forced to spend 1500xp on exactly the same thing. It's the same ability, it should have the same cost in my mind.

The development system I'm proposing in Can of Beans offers rapid growth for new characters, that steadily decreases as the character matures... this is offset by the way that characters have more risk of permanent death as they get more established in the game (especially if their path to power has been through numerous fight scenes). I'm thinking a bit like Mordheim here...eventually it becomes more of a risk to keep going with a character, when the returns are diminishing, so it's better to either retire the character and start with something fresh, or go down dramatically (and take out as many opponents as possible in the process).

The paths I'm proposing in Can of Beans are like jobs, not full-on careers that define a life, but more a series of skills and abilities that contribute to an overall character. A starting character has a path based on who their people are, a path based on how they were raised, and a path indicating the job they are doing when they enter play. Over the course of play they'll gain new paths, and advance their existing paths.

Basic occupational paths might include:

Advanced paths would require certain expertise traits and edges before they could be taken, they might include:
Mutant Warrior
Bounty Hunter
Standard Bearer
Law Keeper
...and maybe a few more that will become available during the course of play depending on how the story goes.

I'm currently trying to allocate 6 edges to each of these occupational paths (2 basic, 2 intermediate and 2 advanced), and six areas of expertise. The benchmark for each edge is intending to balance against the following ideas:

  Fighting: You may use simple weapons from a specific class, Simple weapons have no special bonuses.
  Crafting: You may fix basic things if you have appropriate parts.
  Healing: You may restore a limited number of hit points (you have tokens for this), or mend damaged limbs (separate skills).
  Defence: You gain an extra Morale Token or Hit Point, or may gain benefit from using light armour (separate skills, and the armour has other costs associated with it)
  Mystic: You gain a power point that might be used to empower devices, or invoke mystical effects from other sources.
  Trade: You begin each session with a few basic trade commodities and parts. 

Intermediate (typically require a specific expertise trait):
  Fighting: You may use all weapons from a specific class, including complex weapons (which have special abilities such as extra damage, disarm, shield-break, armour piercing, etc.). You must use the one weapon all conflict.
  Crafting: You may create simple things or fix complex things (separate skills) if you have appropriate parts (making this requires a set instructions [book or memorised]).
  Healing: You may fully restore hit points, or you may "carry" a character back to civilisation safely (separate skills).
  Defence: You may ignore a weapon's special ability, or may gain benefit from using heavy armour (separate skills, and the armour has other costs associated with it)
  Mystic: You have your own mystical effects that may be charged by your power points to enhance your mundane abilities (these require a set instructions [book or memorised]).
  Trade: You begin each session with a few advanced trade commodities, parts and/or useful items.

Advanced (typically require two specific expertise traits):
  Fighting: You may use all weapons from a specific class, including complex weapons (which have special abilities such as extra damage, disarm, shield-break, armour piercing, etc.). If you have multiple weapons, you may change to a weapon from this class during a conflict.
  Crafting: You may create complex things (making this requires a set instructions [book or memorised]).
  Healing: You may help characters who are Knocked-Out return to consciousness, or you may remedy the ill effects on a character's battle scar (separate skills).
  Defence: Weapons that deal multiple damage with each strike deal 1 less damage (to a minimum of 1), or increased chance of returning to play without issues after a K/O (separate skills).
  Mystic: You can create mystical effects that are blatantly supernatural (these require a set instructions [book or memorised]). 
  Trade: You have the contacts to acquire trade commodities, parts and/or useful items during the course of play.

Note that few different paths might offer bonus hit points, morale tokens or mystic energy to characters, and different paths might allow access to the same types of edges.

These are generally the benchmarks that I'm trying to gauge new abilities against. I know that it's going to be virtually impossible to get a completely accurate balance of these things because every player will handle each ability differently, in specific scenarios there will be more value in specific skills, and these will change from session to session.

Character Abilities in Can of Beans

I've been digging through the archives of the unnamed "pirate/steampunk" boffer LARP system I developed last year, and with over a year of regular experience playing this style of game through Clans of Elgardt (CoE), most of my thoughts real haven't changed much. There are a few things that I'd change slightly based on my "experience in the field", and far more things that I'd change about CoE to get a happy medium. There's a certain naivety about the game, but that's to be expected since the original designers had never written a game like this before and generally worked from second hand accounts about what games like this could be. I'd love the rewrite that game from the ground up, because it has some interesting concepts in it, but now has too much baggage and too many other people trying to rewrite things about it (even to the point that one of our local spin-offs is basically a CoE heartbreaker).

A lot of CoE is about player ability, there are members of the group who practice swordcraft two or three times a week, and who vocally rebel against any attempt to make combat less of a game focus, because they rely on player ability more than character embodiment. CoE basically allows anyone to wield any weapons, as long as they've bought them. It takes as much character skill to use a shortsword as it does to use a pole-arm... the only difference is the out of game logistical concern of weapon expense. Which leads us to the whole idea that the winner is whoever has the most real world money, or the most real world time to focus on combat training. I don't think that's why we roleplay, I always thought roleplaying was about escapism and getting away from all that crap.

The magic system in CoE is pretty crude, but generally does the job of filling in gaps for a system where combat is almost everything, and the rest is left for the fruitful void. There are defined spells for use in combat situations (damage, freeze, fear, healing, insta-death), and everything else is left under a nebulous "ritual magic"skill that literally anyone could pick up.

Magic items...hell, even mundane items... are a vague concept in most cases unless they can be specifically applied to combat, and they have been in a state of flux since the game began. Something I've been trying to pin down, only to be sabotaged time and again by the other developers...but that's another story.

Abilities in CoE are divided into paths: Light [healing], Darkness [necromancy], Steel [combat], Magic [not light or dark spells], and Shadow [a catch all for thievery, archery and assassin stuff]. Using weapons is separate from these abilities, and covered in their own "Weapon Proficiencies" category, including special abilities that you might gain through expert training in specific weapon types. And then there are a mix of skills that are available for flavour purposes only, and skills that actually have mechanical advantages in game. The whole thing is a hodge-podge of the type I've shown disdain for (if not outright hatred) over the years at many times here on the blog and on various online forums. It is very easy to game the system to produce an adequate character, very hard to produce a good character regardless of what you do, and in the end it all comes down to howgood you are as a "player" when it comes to fighting, because if those combat types decide that you're gaining an unfair advantage over them using the rules...they just change the rules. (This has happened at least 3 times in the last 12 months when I exploited certain rule loop holes to promote story elements that didn't involve combat).

Generally everything in CoE comes down to gold expenditure, you pay money in game to train your stats, which opens new slots allowing more money to be spent on gaining special abilities. For the majority of the game so far, groups could pool their resources so that more powerful abilities could be gained. The problem here was analogous to the 1% in our world, where the leaders of various factions spent the lion's share of the money boosting their own characters to levels others could not attain, while everyone else in their faction picked over the scraps. The leaders didn't see a problem with this because they were only ever comparing themselves to the leaders of other factions who were doing exactly the same thing. 90% of the players ended up being support cast to these leaders, and left the game with steady turn-over. This was reinforced by the fact that no-one ever died.

There have been some changes to the way CoE does things, but it's feeling too little, too late.

I like coherent simple systems that regulate more than they restrict. I very rarely get them, even when I design them myself, but it's my aim.

For "Can of Beans", I'm not going for attributes as the defining element of characters, I'm simply using "expertise" and "edge" traits. "Expertise" traits will be skills, talents, personal quirks and roleplaying elements that anyone can acquire (but are more common among certain types of characters), while "Edge" traits will be specific mechanical advantages (that might require possession of specific expertise traits before they become available). Characters will start with less than half a dozen expertise traits, and maybe three edge traits.

Here's my work-in-progress text...

Starting Characters

Characters have a number of paths, the first path is their culture of origin, the second path is their childhood, and the third path is their starting occupation. Start by choosing culture, as this defines which childhood options are available. Then choose childhood, and finally the starting occupation. Any time a character encounters a path choice marked by an asterisk, they must spend two of their accumulated focus points to choose it. All characters start with a single filled-in box for each of their chosen paths, and they may fill in five additional boxes across their Authority or Focus paths.

Authority Path

Focus Path – Culture of Origin

Focus Path – Childhood

Focus Path – Starting Occupation

If a player is making a new primary character, they may spend any number of their focus points to fill in additional boxes. Each box filled in in this fashion costs a single focus point.  

Developing Characters

During the course of play, every time a character earns an experience point they mark off a box on one of their paths. A character automatically gains an experience point for every session they attend, and an additional XP for engaging in a storyline (at the discretion of the GM running that particular storyline). They may also gain a bonus experience point allocated toward a specific path if they fulfill a goal associated with that path. (For example: A character on the path of the healer gains a bonus experience point toward this path if they heal 3 people during the course of the session, while a character on the path of the crafter gains a bonus point if they repair or craft a total of three things during the session). Regardless of how many paths a character might have, they may gain a maximum of two bonus experience points each game session. Typically, a character will gain 2 to 3 experience points per session, they may never earn more than 4.

If a box marked on the Authority path is bold, the character may instantly choose a new focus path. This might be a new occupation they are interested in pursuing, or it might be a path of inner resolve, or mystical insight. Some paths have expertise requirements before they may be selected, and some may need to be found during the course of play. The first box is instantly marked on a new focus path when it is acquired.

When boxes are marked on the focus paths, if the box is bold they gain a benefit for their character. If the bold box is square (¨) they may choose a new expertise from those available to the path, if the box is circular (¡) they gain a new edge. Edges typically have expertise requirements before they may be selected. Edges are also defined by levels, basic, intermediate and advanced. Across all their paths, a character must always have more basic edges than intermediate, and more intermediate edges than advanced.

It might not make a whole lot of sense, because there are other parts of the documentation that I haven't revealed yet. For example, "Focus Points" are a resource earned by players (not characters), when they engage NPC roles for a session, or for other services to the game. These are a finite resource used to get something unusual in the game (with special approval). The actual edges aren't described here yet, but that will be covered in the next post.

10 December, 2015

Can of Beans - Reflection on the Past

The last time I developed a Boffer LARP system, I began with a set of Positives and Negatives... or, more accurately a continuum of Positive non-negotiables, positive negotiables, negate negotiables, and negative non-negotiables... basically the continuum goes from the ramge pf thins to definitely be a part of the game, through those I'm less opinionated about, and on to those I definitely don't want in the game.

You can find that list here.

I think the main difference in this new system is that magic moves from a non-negotiable positive to a negotiable. Post apocalypse isn't really known for magic, but occasionally psychic powers or mutations appear in the fiction.

I'll probably be looking at the last series of LARP design posts pretty closely as I develop "Can of Beans", reflecting on those ideas in light of the play experiences I've had in the last 15 months since I wrote those posts.

The second post from that series still holds fairly true to my design considerations for this game.

We want ample opportunity for fighting, because that's why we're doing a boffer LARP rather than a parlour LARP. We want influence and status games as the falling society of the past conflicts with the developing societies of the wasteland. We want new players to feel that they aren't completely overshadowed by the veterans, but we do want the veterans to feel like their investment into the game has been worthwhile. Non-human races aren't really a part of most post apocalyptic stories, but if this game is going to be based on the Walkabout setting, then there will definitely be mutants and "spirits who walk in bodies of flesh"... these exotic types will be unusual and it will take some hoops jumped through before a player can access them (they will a be reward and privilege rather than a right), but they will be there. I still don't want "single-strike kills", and I still do want players to gain an advantage from portraying NPC(s) for a session.

The third post still generally holds true with my current thoughts as well. A few hit points per character, where a struck torso counts as 2 hits, and a struck limb counts as either 1 hit or incapacitates the limb for the remainder of the conflict. Armour adds ablative hit points to each location where it is worn. Helmets add an extra hit point to the torso, and may improve the chances of recovery when a character is K/O'd (Thanks to +Klaus Teufel for pointing out that we really want to encourage protective headwear on that original post).

Getting to the fourth post is where a few more subtle changes drift my thoughts for this game away from my thoughts for the game I was developing then. I have some ideas that remain similar, where more advanced weaponry might have some kind of offset in the way of fragility, required skill-set to use or sheer cost.