21 November, 2016

A Comprehensive Look at The Tower

Over the last week or so, I've been drawing a series of maps depicting an arcology city in the vein of "Peachtrees" from Dredd.

It started as an idea for the Mage stuff I've been working on, a self contained setting for a more cyberpunk take on the genre, but over the last week it took on a life of it's own.

The project began with a series of floor plans for various layers.

There were no specific plans for what might exist where in the complex. Instead they were just interesting shapes with elevator shafts designed to line up, and where the various layers started larger on the lower floors and gradually became smaller as the altitude rose. Of course, this means my building has a fundamentally different shape to Peach Trees, where mine is more pyramid and Peachtrees is more like a prism.

I ran some numbers through my building, where the lower layers would have an average of 6 people in each walled off apartment area, while the apartments at the higher levels followed a general trend of getting slightly larger, while inhabiting less citizens. In my early calculations I was looking at about 10,000 people inhabiting the tower. But that didn't feel dense enough.

With a few more layer styles added, and a few more levels of each layer style, things started getting more interesting.

Even though the shape of the tower wasn't a match for Peach Trees, I liked the idea of a central atrium running up the entire length of the tower. This concept remained intact, and one of the fundamental parts of the tower's design.

Next step, putting all those layers into context with a full tower cross section.

This really started to give the tower some better shape, and I also decided while I was doing this that I'd start adding some more embellishments to the outside of the structure. Such things might include pipes for air conditioning and water supply, as well as a few enclosed areas on the outside of the structure, perhaps functioning as parks or recreational areas.

Given the inspiration, and the fact that I'm using a regular isometric grid for the project, I decided to run with a consistent 5 metres for each floor of the complex.

The five metres seems to vaguely match this image from the film, and makes numbers easy to work with. In total, including the glasshouse enclosure on the roof and the communication towers, the entire structure stands 580 metres tall. Given that a skydiver reaches terminal velocity in 573 metres, that seems an interesting coincidence in nearby values. Base jumping from this building would certainly be feasible, especially given that it only take about 30 metres for a parachute to open. Upon requests during the week, I did some further research and noted that a 10-D military parachute opens to a diameter of 35 feet (11 metres) and the atrium at it's narrowest point is 20 metres across...so it is agreed that extreme risk takers might take the plunge by base-jumping down the central shaft of the building.

The next stage of the illustration process lies in detailing a few of the specific apartment cells that might be scattered around the complex. Housing, utilities, shops... I'm certainly not going to detail them all, but instead provide some basic ideas of how people might live in such a gargantuan structure.

Starting at the least comfortable end of the spectrum, we have the capsule hotels. With a series of pods, each 2.5m long, 1.5m wide, and 1.0m tall, there could be up to 40 of these in one of the smaller cell sections, still leaving enough room for a larger room housing the facility's caretaker, a few showers, and a couple of vending machines.

Then we move to something a bit more comfortable, where six to seven people could live in private rooms connecting to a central common area, sharing a kitchenette and bathing facilities. I've lived in share accommodation like this, so it's certainly feasible.

Next, I started looking at the current mini-houses trend, and the floorplans for self standing granny flats. Some of these have footprints as small as 3m x 10m, so a few of those could easily fit into a one of the smallest 10 x 10m apartment cells. But, I've decided to add a bit more interest to these, perhaps setting them up as pocket ghettoes for specific ethnic cultures, or extended families. If we can fit one or two adults in a single self-contained mini-house, or an adult and up to two kids, then these areas could house 6-12 adults, and probably a few kids...extended families certainly make sense.

There are still a few more accommodation areas I'd like to explore, especially among the more opulent upper layers of the tower, but for the moment, it's on to other areas like shops and communal spaces.

I'm still working out the specifics here, but there will probably be a few shops on each level, each catering to some type of specific need, while a lot of the food and general supplies will be provided by vending machines scattered around the complex.

I've been told it might be a good idea to include some kind of church or place of worship for the denizens of this tower, if only as a means to maintain morale. To keep with the cyberpunk vibe of the tower, this space is rented out to different denominations on a per-hour basis, with a caretaker who adds a scattering of appropriate religious props around the room before each allocated timeslot, while digital projectors render the space appropriate with symbolism, images of stained-glass, or other elements to make the worshippers feel that the space is more sacred to their ideology. During periods when the space is reserved for worship, it might double as a movie theatre.

What I'm specifically working on now is a combined medical centre and mini hospital, with a few scanners/MRI/Xray-machines, a surgery, a few patient beds and some general practice consultation rooms.

Other modules to be added into the complex will include legitimate businesses such as various retail facilities, pubs/bars, workshops, hydroponic farms, offices, and security posts. In addition to thee there will be less legitimate locations such as drug labs, brothels, gambling dens, and moonshine stills.

It's all designed to be a self-sustaining hive of scum and villainy...but with connections to the outside world if necessary.

12 November, 2016

To mash or not to mash

There's a common practice in design circles where designers (and I hesitate to use the term "designer" in some cases, because this practice sometimes feels lazy and derivative) get two existing games, picking and choosing elements from each to create an unholy hybrid.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

So many of those hybrids recently have been PbtA products (which seem to be the current face of Story Games), or D&D products (which are basically the face of the OSR). I've seen the abysmal horror of a Storyteller system/PbtA hybrid, and don't want to walk any variant of that path. I similarly don't think that a "Mage:the Ascension / Dungeon and Dragons" hybrid will work.

Still, there is the adage that sometimes you don't need to reinvent the wheel. It's just a case of picking the right games to mash together, and maintain the elements from each that give the right direction to the final project.

I discussed this in a previous post, where I said that no two games will fit together perfectly, and sometimes you need to grind certain elements away, and fill in the remaining gaps with putty to make a solid and coherent piece that can be polished smooth with editing and playtesting.

So forget the last bit of my final post... I'm not going to create a brand new system for this game. Instead, I've previously thought about a magic system for my game FUBAR...So I might just use this project for that.

The next post will explore that.

10 November, 2016

Collaboration in Definition

In response to my "Say No and Roll the Damn Dice" post, +Tony Demetriou posed an idea by which players might define elements of the story's antagonists. The idea was specifically posed in the context of D&D monsters, but there's no reason why it couldn't be used in a Mage context, especially if that context was a more stripped back version of the game. Before we can follow that path, it might be necessary to work out how the game is being stripped back.

In an earlier incarnation of the project, I was looking at the idea of maintaining the existing character sheets and stats inherent in Mage and trying to work a simpler system through them. This could be feasible, but I haven't worked out a clean way to do it.

I'm thinking it might be easier to strip things back to an approximation of the Minds Eye Theater rules. Instead of nine attributes in three categories (Physical = Strength, Dexterity, Stamina, Social = Charisma, Manipulation, Appearance, Mental = Perception, Intelligence, Wits), we just use the three categories (Physical, Social, Mental). Instead of adding attribute+ability for a dice pool to determine degree of success, you simply test with the attribute and the possession of an appropriate ability allows a retest.

The attribute categories start at 7 (for the best attributes), 5 (for average attributes) and 3 (for the characters worst attribute category). An attribute category total of 10 is the highest a non-supernatural human can go. Willpower still starts as 5, and functions as a generic pool of retests that can be applied to anything, Arete starts at 1.

For simplicity, I'm thinking of just adding a randomly drawn card's rank to the attribute, then comparing it to a static difficulty added to a random card.

Botch if Difficulty + Card is more than five points above the Character's Attribute + Card  
Fail if Difficulty + Card is below Character's Attribute + Card
Success if Character's Attribute + Card is equal to or greater than Difficulty + Card
Bonus Success if Character's Attribute + Card is five or more points greater than Difficulty + Card

Since we're using a tarot deck for this, and there are four suits in the Mage Tarot deck that match the four essences of Mages, a character might earn an additional degree of success if they are attempting an action in line with their essence and draw a card of a suit matching the essence. This means the character won't also get the additional degree of success, but it does give them a motivation to act according to their essence for the potential bonus it might deliver.

I'm similarly thinking of using the tarot deck to drive a scene generation system akin to the Hold 'Em Scene Generator I came up with a few years ago. This scene generator will create a type of conflict inherent in the scene, a twist applied to it, and a general difficulty in order to succeed in the scene. But that's where we come back to Tony's idea. One of the options that the generator produces is an NPC antagonist, and through the course of the story, we can add information to the NPCs produced in this manner. This might be done through successful (or maybe unsuccessful) actions. Here, I'm considering the idea that a success might allow a player to reveal through their character a bonus that is applied to an ally, or a weakness applied to an antagonist...conversely, a failure might allow one of the GM (or one of the other players) to define a weakness to an ally, or an advantage to an antagonist.
Every time a new advantage or weakness is defined, any attempts to further defined them are at a higher difficulty.

There's a lot more thought to go into this.

09 November, 2016

They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!

<SPOILER ALERT...there are things in this post relating to the movie Dr. Strange. If you've read the comic or know about the character, these won't be much of a surprise... In fact, if you've noticed the pattern of superhero movies in the last 20 years, they probably won't come as much of a surprise either. I'm just letting you know...>

In Mage: the Ascension, there are a four wider factional groupings. These groups sits at the corners and at the centre of a triangle.

On one point of the triangle you have the agents of stasis, the "Technocracy", who basically want order in the world and want magic destroyed (they don't believe what they do is magic, even though other groups do see it that way). On another points of the triangle you have the agents of chaos, the "Marauders", who are basically insane with incredible willpower and a faith in their delusions so strong that those delusions leak over in our reality with their insanity. The third point is made up of the "Nephandi" who are in league with demonic entities that want neither the vibrant growth of chaos, nor the strength of order, they just want to watch the world burn, perhaps replacing it with something else entirely. Finally you have the "tradition mages" and "crafts" who basically sit at the centre of the triangle, with different sub-groups tending toward different points of the triangle based on their ideologies and practices.

After watching Dr. Strange, I saw the core group of mages as an amalgam of the Tradition mages known as the Akashic Brotherhood and the Cult of Ecstasy, perhaps the K'an Lu Taoist mages (a subsect of the Cult of Ecstasy). This is especially reinforced by the theory that the Eye of Agamotto is the Infinity stone of Time (where Time is the speciality sphere for the Cult of Ecstasy). If the final scenes didn't reinforce the potential of time magic...nothing would.

Kaecilius is clearly a member of the order who has turned rogue, and with his dedicated disciples has become Nephandi. Mordo could be someone who defects to the more disciplined orders of the Akashic Brotherhood, because he ends up as someone who hunts down other mages, but certainly not in a Technocracy sense. It appears more that he'll use magic to track down and eliminate magic.

Back to the title of the post... I'm starting to think about playing with the expanded consciousness inherent in games of Mage. Where does sanity end? where do magic and insanity begin? Is there a difference between the altered consciousness of insanity and the expanded consciousness of magic? How is that best reflected? Where do the extremist mages (Technocracy, Marauders and Nephandi) fit into all of this? It's the kind of stuff that's left the most vague in the original source game, but the two books by Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Lila) which are incredibly influential on the system are both full of concepts like these. I can see a lot of story potential here, I've spent time in psych wards (both myself and with family members), so the concepts of altered perceptions of the world and neuro-atypical thoughts have a practical as well as theoretical grounding for me. It's a hard road to walk delicately, especially while trying to get messages across, it's probably even harder to codify these experiences to make them sympathetic for someone who hasn't encountered such issues personally. I can see why Mage didn't really take that path, it's safer to be vanilla (and they'd already done the "insanity" thing with the Malkavian vampires), but the edge between sanity and insanity, functional and non-functional, is where Mages reside in my mind. It needs more exploration, it's just a case of whether I can do it justice.

08 November, 2016

Say No, and Roll the Damn Dice

In a private post on G+, +Jesse Burneko made a point that relates tangentially to something that has been festering in my head for a few days. In my recent post entitled "Another Perspective", I indicated that I thought something was really missing from the perspective provided in the accompanying video, and I feel that Jesse's words provide another part to the puzzle.

The idea is that there was a seizmic shift in independent gaming, where a lot of designers deliberately added improvisational stuff into their games through the mantra of "Say Yes, or roll the dice". This deviated into the concepts of "Yes, and... / Yes, but..." where anything that is said in a game basically becomes an irrefutable fact, but it can be augmented or diminished through further explanation that comes later. The whole idea here is to produce an environment where everyone feels they are contributing to the unfolding narrative in a meaningful way, rather than simply having the GM describe things and the dice modify how the outcome of those things unfolds. The point goes on to say that this isn't always the best solution...sometimes, to avoid things completely derailing, someone needs to work with the premise of "Say No, and Roll the Damn Dice". It's a very different style of play, and probably better suited to investigations and pre-defined stories. Even in the cases where a pre-defined story is only loosely defined, there can be a benefit to preventing the characters from wandering too far off course, it can help to focus the players on the core intentions of the story.

It basically plays into what I've been thinking with this Mage story game concept, especially if we're going to be delving into non-linear narrative structures.

I'll also point out here that I don't consider "Say No, and Roll the Damn Dice" to be an opposite to the notion of "Say Yes, or Roll the Dice", instead I consider it a complement to the rule. I like players to have a bit of leeway in their actions, providing them with personal choices that might gradually move them to a satisfying story conclusion, but conversely if those actions are running directly counter to the story or deliberately away from a narrative that other players on the table are enjoying, sometimes you just have to say no. Saying "Yes" allows the vector of the story to continue unimpeded, saying "No" means that a node is presented, the story will not continue in an unimpeded path but depending on the roll, it may get completely deviated in another direction (possibly nudged back toward the GM's prepared plot, possibly another direction altogether, possibly halted temporarily as the players have to reassess their situation).

When working with a non-linear story framework, it will sometimes be necessary to say "No" if a player decides they want their character, a certain member of the supporting cast, or a macguffin to end up in a different location to where the previously established scenes have indicated. That which has been defined through the course of play becomes set in stone, and attempts to disrupt such "fixed points in time" result in paradox. This becomes even more important in a GM-less game where there might not be a central authority to rein in the storyline, which happens to be a direction I was considering for this game.

07 November, 2016

The Story Inherent in the Story Game

When I think of a story game, I tend to think of a game that produces a specific type of story. It may be a war story, from the perspective of children forced to confront horrors that they reall shouldn’t be emotionally able to handle (Grey Ranks), it could be a ritualised fantasy (Polaris), a tale of confronting one’s identity as a servant to a monster (literally or figuratively) (My Life with Master), a teen metaphysical angst drama thinly veiled by supernatural stereotypes (Monsterhearts). Each type of story game weaves a specific type of narrative consistently. Usually I prefer to mix things up in my campaign games, so I’ve found most games of this nature don’t hold my attention for long… “we’ve already told variations of that story a half dozen times, can’t we do something else now?”

The kinds of stories I’d be interested in revisiting time and again don’t necessarily work well with this type of game…actually, in all honesty, there might be some awesome games out there that fit my criteria, and I’m just not aware of them… I’m looking at heist games. I’m aware of the “Leverage” RPG, but haven’t played it. Unlike that game, I’m actually think more along the lines of replicating an early Tarantino or Guy Ritchie movie (Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, or Snatch). The use of twisting temporal narrative means elements of the magic system in Mage, such as the spheres Entropy and Time, become far more interesting and fun to play with.

I’m thinking of setting up a basic timeline where a week worth of scenes are played out in a non-linear order…but an order that builds up conflict and craziness as the session unfolds, before a final round of scenes either collapses everything into a coherent narrative or wipes everything out in a tidal wave of paradox.

Instead of a single mark that needs to be taken down, the game would revolve around a number of macguffins highly desired by various factions within the setting, where the characters may work with one another to keep them out of the hand of one group or another, but more likely the characters will be in a state of flux with regard to their allegiances to one another and to the outside forces in the setting. It’s the way most of my games tend to turn out anyway.

I’d foresee a game campaign beginning with every character choosing a faction to whom they vaguely ally themselves, and another faction with whom they do not get along. In addition to these, every mage would be assumed to ally with the tradition/convention/craft from whom their mystic knowledge is studied. The two factions might be written down secretly, as the GM writes two more factions of their own. The GM would quickly look at all of the notes written, and any appearing more than once would be definite fodder for the game.  Perhaps a setting might be collaboratively developed first, ending up with a number of prominent factions (natural and supernatural), this might then produce a checklist that players can choose their ally and enemy from. For these groups I’d look to inspiration from noteworthy gangs, clique-driven subcultures, religious groups, subtypes of supernatural creatures (specific vampire clans, werewolf tribes, etc.), or politically minded business affiliated groups. It all depends on the specific tale being told, and as certain groups are eliminated during a session, l others might rise up to take their place in future sessions while the majority of groups remain unchanged. The beginning power of a group might be directly linked to how many players have indicated an alliance or enmity towards it.

During the game, players take turns where their character is the dominant one in a scene (while other characters may be supporting roles for that scene). The objective of the scene will be one of the macguffins, either being stolen from one group, traded to another group, or somehow being manipulated. Gradually over the course of the game, the events of the week are revealed. One group might prove to have “macguffin B” on the Thursday, but it might be revealed during a later scene that their “macguffin B” was actually a fake because it had been switched out for a counterfeit on the Tuesday. If it is revealed during the course of play that a certain group had “macguffin D” on Wednesday, and another group had “macguffin D” on Friday, then the group might need to play a Thursday scene to show how the macguffin changed hands, how a counterfeit was made, or how it was revealed that “macguffin D” was actually “macguffin B” in disguise all the way along.

The catch here is to make a coherent timeline, tracking what we as the audience “know” about the Macguffins, and things like injuries that might linger from one day to the next. Perhaps players might earn some kind of narrative bonus points if they begin a scene with some kind of penalty which can be explained in a later scene (which occurred chronologically earlier), like a limp, a concussion, a vehicle that should be a part of their equipment damaged or stolen, it could be anything…conversely, they could spend narrative points to begin scenes with some kind of advantage that will need to be explained in a later scene.

I’m not sure of the best way to handle this. I know in my head how I’d like it to play out, but trying to get a formula for play down on paper is tricky.

I guess one of the good things about Mage is the fact that anything that doesn’t work out can always be explained away through paradox, but that just feels like a cop out. Magic can also be used to overcome non-aggravated injuries pretty easily, so it could be feasible for a character to start a scene uninjured, only to play the immediately preceding scene later and reveal they should have been injured in that later scene (perhaps they’ll need to call in outside favours to be repaid at a later date if this ever occurs).

If this is confusing now, don’t worry. I’m expecting the middle of these games to get as confusing as hell, but hoping that the latter half of the games will pull things back into line as the full timeline is populated with events. Similarly, I’m hoping that my next few posts will help clarify things.

Half a million views

wow...just looked at the numbers, and at the current rate, some time in the next day or so I'll have reached half a million page views for this blog.

06 November, 2016

Deciding on a system

One of the things that bugs me about the storyteller system is one of the same things that bugs me in a lot of games. This bugbear is an inconsistency in the systems of play. Arguably it’s one of the core things that puts me off Apocalypse World games. I don’t like the idea that every subtle variation of an action has a subtle variation of a rule that goes with it. Custom moves are designs by exception, in a lot of cases they are specifically designed no to cover a range of narrative options, but to serve a single narrow purpose. If I wanted that, I’d play Pathfinder with its hundreds of pages of optional rules and errata.

Sorry not my type of story game.

Coming back to Mage, I’ve been having issue with the idea of 2 subtly different rolling systems in the game. One rolling system combines two statistics with a value from 1-5 or 0-5, while the other uses a statistic scale from 1-10. The first of these systems is commonly “Attribute+Ability” used in most task actions, the second system is used when Willpower is used to resist actions or when Arete is used to invoke mystical effects. Then there are the variant forms when:

    …a character rolls against a difficulty score
    …a character rolls against another character, using their attribute+ability (or willpower) as the difficulty
    …a pair of characters roll against difficulty scores and compare successes

Once again systems and fiddly subsystems.

The attribute system in Storyteller games basically has the following scale…
  • 1 – Poor / Below Average
  • 2 – Average
  • 3 – Good / Above Average
  • 4 – The best you’d expect from the average person on the street
  • 5 – The pinnacle of human potential
  • 6+ – Superhuman potential (possessed by supernatural beings or magically enhanced individuals)

The ability system has this scale…
  • 0 – No ability in this field
  • 1 – A bit of basic ability
  • 2 – You could probably make a living from it, but not too well
  • 3 – You’re better than most people in this area
  • 4 – You’re the best around for miles, maybe the best in your town or suburb
  • 5 – You’re one of the best in the world with regard to this
  • 6+ – You have abilities in this field beyond any mortal

In almost any action, you’re rolling 2-3 dice (if you’d be rolling less, you not very good and it’s probably better to get one of the other characters to attempt the action). Since players like to showcase their characters and consistently perform actions that they know they’ll be good at, it’s quite possible that a player will be rolling 4-6 dice for a substantial number of their actions during a game. A character has to be significantly above average in both attribute and ability (an average of more than 3 points each) to get 7 or more dice to roll on an action. Here’s one of the many places where things get messy in the system, because an “average” difficulty is considered a 6. So if you are rolling against an “average” person and using their combined attribute and ability as a difficulty score you’d more likely have a difficulty of 3-4, not 6. Numerous people have commented on this as one of the odd inconsistencies in the system over the years, I think it might have even been one of the contributing reasons for shifting the system in the “Storytelling” system which came later.

One of my ways to address the game in a varied format was to play with the dice used in the game. Maybe shifting it to FATE style rules, or straight d6s. The main thing here was to avoid using specialty dice that would make the game less accessible to new players.

I also considered the idea of using different dice for each part of the attribute and ability
  • 1 = d4
  • 2= d6
  • 3 = d8
  • 4 = d10
  • 5 = d12

This almost changed the game to a variation of the Cortex system.

But how would I handle the higher levels of those statistics measured on a scale of 1-10?

Instead I’m thinking of playing with a card based system, because all through Mage there is Tarot symbolism. The iconic front cover illustration is a tarot card, and the title page (or somewhere near it) in each book depicts a tarot spread. The basic system would see variable difficulty challenges, where a player draws minor arcana cards in an attempt to beat the difficulty, then possibly favours the result with a major arcana card.

In a case of attribute+ability, a hand equal to the total value would be drawn, then the size of the hand would be discarded down to the flat attribute value. In a case of Willpower or Arete, the hand is drawn and all the cards are kept.

Difficulties remain on a scale of 1-10, so this means something interesting needs to happen with faced minor arcana cards (Page, Knight, Queen, King). I’m thinking that this might be a good point to bring backgrounds into play, using the idea that if a single face card is a part of the final hand, the player may spend points from their background to earn automatic successes on a challenge (as long as that background can be worked into the narrative), but a favour will need to be repaid soon or the background point is lost. If two face cards are a part of the final hand, then points from two different backgrounds could be expended for successes or points from a single background could be expended without the need to quickly repay the favour. This has the choice element that I like to see in my stories, it makes backgrounds function differently to attributes and abilities, and it creates new opportunities for storytelling.

Another perspective

So, I bookmarked this video to watch, and just sat through it.

I'm not going to say that I disagree completely, because I can see some of the points that he is trying to get at...but it's like listening to a fish tell me how to climb trees.

Twenty years ago I might have considered a lot of these points revolutionary (and the fact that the games used as examples are all more than twenty years old reflectsthis to some degree), but so much theory has been generated and so many new systems have developed since the mid-90s that a lot of these points seem obsolete. Changing die rolling mechanisms or existing on a spectrum between simplistic and byzantine are just methods of manipulating a single part of the game. If I was to go back to my own Vector Theory thoughts, these changes manipulate the way nodes are addressed in the story, but there is far more to gaming than those mechanisms. The example of shifting a flat progression to a bell curve really does nothing but manipulate the degree to which a node will stop the story or allow progress...it's still a binary "yes/no" outcome, there's just a change in the numbers that determine how the outcome is achieved. Nothing here changes the way the story is addressed, it's still all task resolution within a game that's under the narrative control of a GM.

So many games in recent years have extended far beyond that scope. There's not even a discussion of how games can use randomising systems other than dice, or even of they need to use randomisers at all. It's like looking at a monochrome painting after being exposed to a world of colour...then having the artist tell you how dynamic their image is because they've used black and white to create nuanced shades of grey. Don't get me wrong, there's some wonderful pieces of monochrome artwork, and there are some wonderful examples of dice rolling mechanisms that have been designed to capture a specific mood, but this is such a limited way of addresing changes in atmosphere.

Maybe I was expecting something more here. I was just generally depressed with how pedestrian the advice was. It didn't do much at all as a source of inspiration for my current project.

On the other hand, we had a guy in Sydney who ran Clay-o-rama, or his own modified interpretation of it, at conventions for a few years. I've got fond recollections of that, so it was nice to see that game get a shout out.

05 November, 2016


One of the things I really like about the Storyteller system is the way a character's backgrounds integrate them into the setting. It doesn't matter what the background is, it serves a mechanical advantage and it can be used as a narrative hook for ongoing story.

One of the things I don't like about the backgrounds in the Storyteller system is the way there is no real consistency in the way they manipulate the mechanisms of play. Some backgrounds reduce difficulties, other backgrounds provide additional dice, some reduce experience costs over the course of play, and then there are those which provide more powerful abilities to completely circumvent certain types of situation.

To streamline and simplify Mage, I think backgrounds are one of the key elements to play with. Perhaps by developing of single background system with a consistent mechanism, but where each background is limited in it's sphere of influence, and each use of a background is a tug on a string which is capable of tugging back on the character.

Here's one of the places where story is generated for me. It's all about character choices and sacrifices.

Do you call on your allies, contacts, or retainers now, only to know that they will call on a return favour at a later date, or maybe have them permanently lost or killed?

Do you use your hideout or sanctum, only to potentially expose it's location to your enemies, or possibly destroy it with your metaphysickal experimentation?

Do you draw on the power of your avatar or totem, knowing they might take control of your sanity or soul as a price?

Every background can help in a different range of actions, and every background has it's own potential price; but the specific way the background affects the mechanisms of play is consistent.

Now it's just a case of working out the specific core mechanism that the background traits will manipulate, and how they will manipulate it.

04 November, 2016

How Mage went halfway, but didn't quite finish.

At the time of it's release, the Storyteller system had some great ideas. Some really pushed the potential of roleplaying, some were just codified instructions for what a lot of us did around the table anyway, and some opened the door for later innovations.

The idea of multiple degrees of success was always an interesting one; coupled with the concept of the "botch", it gave a fun progression of linear outcomes to a task resolution. When I was developing my Vector Theory of roleplaying back in 2010, I said that the story parts of an RPG session were generally straight lines (vectors), while the game elements were "node" points where the narrative might change speed or direction. In a traditional railroaded game, these nodes might act as traffic lights, stopping and starting the flow of the narrative depending on whether the characters failed or succeeded. In some of the more interesting traditional games, there might be switch points along the railroad, where players t get the opportunity to take different paths to the same end goal. Games like D&D, Pathfinder, or pretty much anything OSR generally work in this way. A scenario has a bunch of gates, and characters are stopped by those gates if they fail a skill test, if they work out a way to come at the gate from a different angle with new skills or new information, then they might be able to challenge the gate again, but it is distinctly possible to completely fail the sceneario because every gate has been "sealed shut" by poor rolls.

The Storyteller system doesn't just have a binary pass/fail outcome in it's rolls. Instead it may deflect the characters in an unexpected direction (with a botch), it may impede them in a traditional sense (as described above), it may allow them to proceed with a low velocity (with a low level success), or it may shoot them forward with high velocity (through multiple degrees of success). The system really doesn't address the direction of the story with it's mechanisms, this is all handled through the metagame of description and roleplay.

Mage goes a little further down the narrative path compared to other Storyteller games, and certain more than most other mainstream RPGs of its era. The nature of coincidental magick invites players to engage in the description of the world, creating elements of the narrative that can be manipulated, either by their coincidental presence, or a manipulation of magick to invoke them into existence. But the task based nature of the system and the wider metagame context of the game still meant that such manipulations of the narrative were arbitrarily determined by the GM/Storyteller for their effectiveness. Similarly, the nature of a story's redirection due to a botch is also determined by the GM/Storyteller, sotoo the manifestations of paradox in the game. Deliberately or otherwise, the "person in charge" is designated the Storyteller, and everyone else are merely players portraying characters in that person's "Story".

It's almost there, but not quite.

I think that one of the more interesting developments of the Story Games movement has been the idea of allowing the player to determine how something succeeds. In one version of this, an action might have a few possible outcomes and the player gets to choose which of these outcomes are prioritised; in another version, a player with a near success might choose to accept a minor sacrifice that could deviate the story or have future ramifications in exchange for the success now. Putting more choice back into the hands of the players has a tendency to increase their investment in the story. That's the one thing I'd really want added into the core system of Mage to bring it up to date with modern gaming. Rather than simply making the node points where stories change speed and direction purely determined by a combination or rules, randomness and Storyteller, it would give the players more of an option to determine where they want to go.

03 November, 2016

What is a story game?

That’s a massive question, and in recent years there have been several responses to it.

Among others, here’s a few that I’ve seen regularly pop up.

  • A story game is a communal activity, where a number of players contribute to a single narrative that has not been defined at the start of play.
  • A story game is a narrow set of rules designed to consistently facilitate the telling specific types of stories.
  • The genre of story games encompasses all roleplaying games, parlour games, and any pastime where a narrative is constructed.
  • It's a bunch of people writing sad things on index cards
  • A story game is a set of rules designed for optimal protagonism among its active characters.
  • A story game is specifically designed as a three way dialogue (should that be trialogue) between the GM, the players and the rules. It must be open enough for all members to understand how play is unfolding (as opposed to “traditional” gaming where the GM is expected to conceal things behind a screen (or in their head).
  • A story game is the polar opposite to the OSR (whatever that means).
  • A story game is a minimalist game where a majority of the rules of play are actually defined by unwritten social contracts between the players, rather than text on a page.

I guess this means that numerous people have their own interpretations of the term, and if I say that I’m going to make a “Story Game” interpretation of Mage: the Ascension, then I just have to define my own interpretation of the terminology first.

Like a shotgun firing buckshot, each definition of story games ends up in a general vicinity that is similar, but each instance is slightly different to the others. It could be feasible to pick a single definition, it could be possible to average out all of the answers to develop an idea that they might all be aspiring toward, or you could take the whole range of results and try to please everyone. I have a vague idea of what I think a “story game” is, and it fits somewhere in amongst these responses. If I provide this as a specific intention then it shows where I’m aiming with the project. I’ll use some of those other definitions to triangulate the trajectory and make sure I’m generally on the same page as other people when they refer to “story games”.

I believe a few people started developing the concept of “story games” as a backlash against the railroaded games common in traditional tabletop roleplaying. They wanted games where the players had stronger agency, and where the story would unfold through deliberate decisions from everyone participating. As Ian Borchardt responded to an earlier post, a lot of these early attempts at story games did this by hamstringing the GM…it’s still a common tactic in those games that are “powered by the Apocalypse”. I think there’s something a bit counter-intuitive here, I’m not sure if you can open potential by adding restrictions. I’ve heard this idea of restriction used as a tool in creative writing exercises, to focus thoughts that might be prone to wandering…but a lot of the supposed aim of story games is to allow the wandering, to see where the journey might lead.

I like the idea of sandbox play. No specific stories, just a reactive world to be explored. Such a world has things happening, with fragmentary ideas that aren’t fleshed out but instead gain coherence as player characters interact with them. Sandbox play means that a developed world is provided in wide brushstrokes rather than fine details, if a specific element of the world doesn’t become a source of story interaction then the GM hasn’t wasted time detailing it. Parts of the world (locations, NPCs, mysterious events) only gain focus and clarity as long as the story lingers there.

I also like the idea of quickly developing characters as intersections of stereotypes. This is what FUBAR is all about. Pick four stereotypes, one for the character’s occupation, one for their cultural upbringing and connections, one for their reputation, and one for a quirky edge. The starting character exists somewhere near the point where these stereotypes converge, then through the course of play we learn more about the character, gradually pinpointing them somewhere along the course of their journey through the story, developing backstory as it becomes necessary. This is pretty similar to the sandbox theory, but it focuses on the individual rather than the world. It means a player can get into the action through their character fairly quickly without needing to spend an hour or more working out every last point to spend and how various elements of the character might share positive synergies or negative feedback loops. If it’s not important to the character, it doesn’t become a focus…simple as that.

As it stands, the magic system in Mage: the Ascension is one of the most dynamic I’ve seen in any game, while providing a level of structure the bounds the scope of what can actually be accomplished. Instead of specific discrete spells, it provides sweeping realms (spheres) of magic, allows them to overlap and allows a mage to identify specific effects within the context of the story which might be useful at a given time (and might be useful enough to repeat as rotes, or might never be used again). It fits my idea of a story game as one where the bits that don’t need focus are left vague, but when they do get some attention there is enough structure in the rules to handle it.

That basically leads me back to the things I’d change about Mage (and the whole Storyteller System) to make it a better vehicle for this style of play.
  • We need a rapid way to set up an environment for play that facilitates exploration and a variety of story types that might develop over the course of a campaign (action, combat, investigation, intrigue, politics, metaphysical horror)
  • We need a rapid way to set up characters that fit with the existing power levels and types seen through the Mage sourcebooks (or other games if this works).

(Where these two are developed with the intention of starting play as soon as possible)

  • We need a modified play system that puts more choices in the hands of the players, and removes a chunk of the arbitrary randomness. I was starting to work my way through that when I first attempted this project. I’m aiming for a system where a character can be heroic, succeeding in common tasks more often than not, but such success might come with unexpected collateral damage or new complications. It doesn’t need gritty realism, and should be easily interpreted back into any unfolding story.   
  • We don’t really need a brand new setting. The World of Darkness is basically our own world with a supernatural element lingering in the shadows. The setting is one of the things I enjoy about the game as well, it helps new players quickly get into the action because they can fall back on their real world knowledge, or popular culture references, to fill in the gaps. The various magic using factions (traditions, conventions, and crafts) will need to be presented, but the question here is whether to create analogues with the serial numbers filed off, or just flat out admit that this is a fan work designed to provide a new play experience.
  • Then we need to consider where the game was originally heading, like I mentioned in my previous posts, to ensure we're heading the same way.  

More work to come...

02 November, 2016

Pocketmod Mage

I wonder if I could condense a storified version of Mage: the Ascension into a few pocketmod booklets. One each for...

  • Character Generation
  • Core Rules
  • Magick
  • Combat

Then I could basically swap out the Character Generation and Magick rules, to make rule sets for the other World of Darkness lines. Maybe generate an equivalent of a play book, to cover different types of mystical practice, or different traditions, to speed up the generation process with a bunch of data prewritten for a player about to start their mystical journey.

That might make an interesting NaGa DeMon project.

01 November, 2016

NaGaDeMon 2016

Is it that time of year already?