05 December, 2017

Idea Necromancy

A while ago, I was working on an idea to run a computer driven game where characters were defined by a string of alphanumeric characters. It got a bit of interest, but I never really took it anywhere. 

Post 1
Post 2
Post 3
Post 4
Post 5

Actually, digging back through those posts, it's actually where I was thinking of heading.

I've been having a bit of trouble maintaining the motivation to regularly upkeep the LARP in recent months, so it might make things easier to automate the whole thing. To generate characters via a basic website, to track factions based on which characters belong to them, and to map the influence of those factions across the map of the LARP world.

04 December, 2017

Career Paths (Part 2)

It's been a couple of days since the last post.

I've been discussing a few ideas with various communities, including game design groups, the LARP community I'll be running with, a few wider LARP groups, and a local NERF group. It looks like a NERF driven LARP is enough of a novelty tnat people are intrigued. That means brand new players.

I also showed some of my existing players some minimalist rule sets, such as this one, and they were shocked at how such things could be called a formal set of rules.

So, once again we're aiming for a sweet spot of "not too heavy, not too light". Lots of people seem interested in the idea of a formal game economy, and a decent system of development for both characters and equipment. It feels like I'm on the right track.

Three is the magic number.

I'm looking at three general categories that define a character (race, culture, and occupation/career), and three levels of progression before mastering something.

The progression is always consistent. First an attribute (which opens access to specific career paths), then a skill (which allows usage of equipment, and also functions as a prerequisite for certain career paths), finally a special advantage that functions during games. Once a character has purchased all three, they might gain  automatic access to a more advanced or spdcialised path, where the progression cycle starts anew (attribute, skill, advantage).

Race is something characters start with, it can only be bought during character generation, and may not be improved later. Characters don't need to buy levels in 'Race', but if they don't, they're generally considered to be generic mixed breeds with no special powers. If they buy up to three levels, they manifest more of the appearance and traits associated with the race. Buying 4-6 levels of 'race' takes the genetic traits into specialised areas.

For example... the first 3 levels of the mutant race might start with a physical boost, then a choice from a Scavenger, Strength, or Psychic skill, then finally an advantage in the form of an extra Hit Point. This would open up access to specific paths of 'Animal Mutant', 'Degenerate Mutant', or 'Psionic Mutant', each with their own progression paths. 

Culture is similar, it can be bought at character generation fairly easily, but the basic levels can still be bought later. It's harder to pick up the nuances of a subculture, I haven't fully decided whether to ban players from picking up new culture levels after character generation, make it more expensive, or limit it in some other way.

After character generation, the most common thing players will improve in their characters is their occupation/career. Characters will be able to move from three levels of basic through three levels of a veteran career, and on to three levels of an expert career. Characters following this progression may simply work through it from start to finish...but characters may also jump into a career progression at veteran or expert level if they meet the relevant prerequisites (attributes, skills, possessed equipment, and/or fulfilled quests).

The three levels always applies, but a character may always go back once they've mastered a career to pick up the extra skills that could have been acquired while they were in the role.

This basically means we need a substantial number of skills. 

29 November, 2017

Real or Fake?

Career Paths

I've seen two common ideas for character progression in LARPs. The first is the point buy system, where players accumulate experience points (or whatever other name the system uses) over the course of play, then spend those points to improve their character, often finding that more potent upgrades have a higher cost. The second is the levelling system, where players gain a level in a profession for each game they attend, or maybe earn experience points toward levels in a manner similar to a D&D game. There are variants on these two options, where some levelling games allow multiclassing, and others don't... or where some point buy systems vary the costs for different things depending on the nominal "class/profession" or "race" of the character (eg. Dwarves are known for using axes, so they get 20% off their Axe skills, Elves aren't known for using axes and might have even made an ancient pact with tree spirits to avoid using them, so they pay 20% more.) A lot of those games that claim to be "more realistic" are just games that make things more complicated or add to the bookkeeping. It's basically the same things seen in the tabletop world, with the same types of people who have only ever played one game and who are rabidly fanatical that this particular game is the best without a good point of reference or comparison.

The local Boffer scene is a bit like this. One game was developed from first principles, with minimal referencing to other systems around the world that had been operating for years/decades. Other games spinning off from this were basically devised as heartbreakers...fixing one particular element of that original game, then claiming to be "new and revolutionary". Some local games use "point buy", some use "levelling", the first game actually used a quirky blend of both...perhaps a bit like Warrior, Rogue & Mage, where "body" score improvements automatically gave hit points and weapon proficiencies (thus reflecting the Warrior side), "mind" score improvements allowed more quirky abilities (reflecting the Rogue side), and "spirit" improvements gave more spells and access to more mystical effects when purchasing those quirky abilities associated with the mind score (reflecting the Mage side). It's not a perfect analogy, but it vaguely works. It's what most of the local players think of when they think "LARP". But there are some really annoying elements to it, mostly because a bunch of things are bundled together, so a single increase can be expensive, and some of the cascading benefits have been left hanging (eg. One player buys an extra point of Body, but doesn't want the extra weapon proficiency because a different weapon doesn't match their character concept... another player spends just as much on a Mind upgrade, but this only opens a slot for a new ability, they don't actually get anything mechanically advantageous. The same points spent and one players gets more than they want, while another gets less than they want). Similarly, after a couple of upgrades we've been seeing the issue that players need a few games to get any further improvement, which can feel slow and tedious. I've tried to push things in directions, to improve what I saw as issues in balance, because other people were also seeing those balance issues and certain optimal builds became common.

Basically it's time to start from scratch, because the tweaking and modifications are starting to show strain and cracks in the system.

For one, I want the improvements in characters to be more incremental. By that, I mean smaller improvements, more often. Early in a characters life there would be two or even three upgrades per game, gradually this would drop to one upgrade per game. I similarly want upgrades linked to storyline effects, and trying to do this under the existing system has proven problematic. Finally, I've been trying to get the career path system from Warhammer Fantasy RPG into a LARP for years, so this feels like it might be a good opportunity.

Warhammer Fantasy is a dark gritty system, and since this new game is a fantasy post-apocalypse, it kind of works.

I'm aiming for characters who will start a couple of steps above the bottom of the heap, but with a long way to climb before they reach the top. A bit like the way characters in Dark Sun start at level 3, because anything less powerful doesn't stand much chance of survival in the wild. Since we're talking fantasy post-apocalypse, this is another synergy that I'm happy with.

So, we'll start with characters who were "ratcatchers", "thugs", "street urchins", "scavengers", and "apprentices", but who have either expanded their skill sets by pursuing a couple of paths, or have started the process of mastery in a single field.

Warhammer Fantasy RPG gives careers a range of possible attribute upgrades, and some associated skills. While a character is pursuing the path they get a special power; but unless they master the path by buying everything associated with it, the power is lost when a new career is pursued. So, I'm thinking of something similar, but streamlining it a bit.

More to come...


27 November, 2017

New Basic LARP Mechanism

In the LARP I've been running for the past two years, I introduced an economy that I called Soul Notes. The idea behind felt pretty simple to me.

Originally the game that we based our LARP on used a series of skills that automatically worked, but could only be used once per game. If you wanted to use "diplomacy", you had to have an appropriate skill card with your name on it. You flashed the card in the middle of a deal-making session, and either the opponent agreed with you or they lost a life. It all felt a bit heavy handed and trite to me; so when we broke away, I shook things up a bit.

My variant developed an "economy of fate" which gave everyone 5 "soul notes". These notes reflected agency in the world, and were used with a range of skills, including Diplomacy, Picking Locks, Escape, and other things like activating magic items. A player could indicate how much they of this fate energy they want to infuse their action with, while their target may choose to accept the incoming action (and claim the staked "soul notes"), or could deny the action by offering a matching number of "soul notes" back to the active character. If a player found that their character was targeted by multiple incoming actions, they might accept their fate, gradually building up fate energy as other people use up theirs...or they might use up their fate energy by blocking everything until they run out of notes. More often than not, they'd spend notes to avoid the worst, accept their fate if things don't impact too much on their story, or spend a few to activate their own powers.

Adult players, and mature players, understood it intuitively. A lot of our younger players, and those who just came along for boffer action, never quite got it.

I've now had the chance to rebuild something new, I'm thinking of a technique that I saw a LARP using many years ago. The basic idea would be to give every character a playing card. The  when they tried to act against each other, they'd just reveal their cards...high card would win...then cards would be swapped. Characters would not be able to confront the same opponent before they had confronted someone else (this heightens the flow of cards through the game and stops a continuous back-and-forward between the same two characters for the duration of the game.

Another way to make things a bit more dynamic might be to give every character a pair of playing cards. Then they can choose to play their higher card for a better chance of getting their way in a conflict, or play the lower card to save their high card for later.

Similarly, I've been thinking of adding nuance to the system by allowing characters who have "mastered" their skills to gain +2 to the face vale of the card when comparing it (but the swap still occurs after the action), and possibly some kind of effect that gives a magnified result if one character's card is more than twice as high as their opponent.

24 November, 2017

Evocative Names

I think a setting lures people in when it has evocative names associated with it. These names might be places, occupations, people in the setting, specific powers. I remember that the first thing that intrigued me about Rifts (back before it had even hit the shelves), were the names of some of the classes... "Juicer", "Glitterboy", "Psi-Stalker". The orders of Space Marines in Warhammer 40k, and even the creatures they commonly fight against, all have names with an emotional intensity to them. The quirky OSR products that are all trying to outflavour one another with their outlandishness, each naming their locations in ways that highlight the esoterica, the psychadelia, or the grimness of their setting. Hell, even Apocalypse World did it with the short punchy names given to the various playbooks.

So, I'm thinking about the twisted new setting for our LARP. It's a fantasy post-apocalypse setting. A savage wasteland of super-tech and magic, where anything is possible if the right price is met, and as long as you can keep it hidden from the celestial bureacracy that has sworn to keep the world from becoming unbalanced. Since this is LARP, think NERF and foam weapons (yes, I know, we've been down this path before...), but from an in-game perspective think of a pan-dimensional empire, with races from numerous worlds trying to pick up the pieces as the militant order that united it has vanished without a trace. Stargate after a vanishing of the Goa'uld, the Races of Flash Gordon fighting for supremacy after the assassination of Ming the Merciless and his Imperial guards, Game of Thrones, but with guns, lightsabers, angels and demons.

To get the feel for what I'm aiming at, the evocative names will come.

22 November, 2017

Dark Crystal Creature #3

Swarms of Scuttlesnipes are said to have first appeared in the ancient woodland just after Olus the Fleshtinkerer blew up her tower and disappeared from the world. For centuries they have worked their way into the ecosystem, successfully becoming scavengers who inject enzymes into dying and dead animals, liquifying their innards to be drained when they return hours later. The toxins riddling the bodies of the Scuttlesnipes mean they are rarely preyed upon for food, but provide a valuable source of ingredients for hunters and alchemists.

This will probably be the last of the Dark Crystal critters, since the competition closes tonight.

21 November, 2017

Alternate Dark Crystal Usage

I've been drawing a few critters for the contest aimed toward the Dark Crystal setting. But if they don't manage to go very far in that contest, I might just end up using them as the starting point for a bestiary of exotic beasts in a new setting. I've already started thinking of other predators, carnivores, herbivores, and a food web that might exist within a fantasy woodland.

But, we'll see how things go. 

Dark Crystal Creature #2

A second critter for the contest

The tongue of a Snootwomble is a curious thing. Covered in sticky slime, it typically protrudes from the creature's multi-hinged jaw. The maned Snootwomble digs holes in the soft forest floor, inflating it's tongue above ground in such a way that it appears like one of the smaller forest plants. When small herbivores and insects attempt to graze on the plant, the sticky tongue is retracted, entrapping the unwary prey, and the Snootwomble leaps forward with the rest of it's body to consume it's meal.  

20 November, 2017

Dark Crystal Creature

A few days ago, I indicated my intention to create a creature for a contest relating to the new Dark Crystal TV series.

I've finally managed to get an image together.

The Northern Tree Squiggon is one of the few arboreal Squiggons, and one of a small number of subspecies who live the majority of their lives out of water. It spends the majority of it's time dangling from branches, often growing lichen and moss over it's body, blending into the trees of the woodland. With spring-like musculature in it's neck, it shoots it's head at unsuspecting prey in the undergrowth, snapping with it's beak and lifting prey back up to the branches, where a tentacle or two are used to strangle the victim, while the beaks rips the flesh. Like most squiggons, this subspecies is a predator of opportunity, and generally ignores or hides from larger forest  creatures. 

19 November, 2017

Thor Ragnarok and Justice League

I went to the movies yesterday to see two superhero movies.

They say that if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.

Thor Ragnarok was awesome. A few little quibbles here and there, a couple of parts where it felt like there should be more, but were obviously cut out for time, or other reasons, a few easter eggs I was aware of but when I sat there and looked for them, I missed them... definitely one to add to the DVD collection. 

17 November, 2017

Sneak Preview of Dispatch Guide

For those who are interested in the progress of the next book to be released for The Law, here's a sneak preview of the current status.

It probably doesn't make a whole lot of sense without a copy of The Law, so here's a link to that.

Sourcebooks, Splatbooks, and Expansions

I'm working away on the formatting for my "The Law - Dispatch Guide", which is basically the GM's guide to the game. It includes ideas for how to run a coherent investigation, how to keep things interesting, how to use equipment (and create new pieces of equipment), and a final section on relationship mapping.

The book I'll work on after this is an "Agent's Guide", which is basically the player's guide with a description of the Department of Law hierarchy, a few option character variants within that hierarchy (such as SWAT, Internal Affairs, Undercover Agents, PSI-Squad, etc.), maybe a lifepath system to flesh out a character as they are being built, and a few ideas for how games by be run outside the regular shift structure to reflect an Agent's life when they aren't on patrol.

Beyond this, I'm thinking of a series of Splatbooks to flesh out the setting, or more accurately provide tools that a group can use to flesh out the setting as appropriate to their game.

For example, the "Management Guide" would provide a variant lifepath system for Management characters, a system to quickly generate management oriented NPCs, a few pre-generated NPCs to drop straight into a scene or investigation, a guide to creating corporations (altruistic or sinister), and a few notable corporations that might exist in the setting already.

Something similar would be done as a "Street Guide" but using gangs instead of corporations, a "Cult Guide" would use zany religious groups, etc.

In addition to these, I'm tninking of a "Quartermaster's Inventory" book that follows the cyberpunk game tradition of a book filled with equipment. It'll probably be presented in the form of a catalogue, or Department evidence log.

(Equipment Guide Inspiration)

At the speed I develop projects, this range of books should keep me going for a decade or so... I'll probably get bored and move on to something else before it's all done.

16 November, 2017


I may not like something, but I can still appreciate the technical expertise behind it. In this way, I could be referring to a piece of music that doesn't stir any passions in me, but I can understand why other people like it... on the other hand there could be a formulaic piece of drivel with auto-tuned lyrics in the top 40 and I might be more inclined to wonder who slept with whom, or how many dollars changed hands to get such a high public presence for the song.

It works for music, for visual arts, for game design... for just about anything where people put their passion into something. I know what I like, I know that other people like other things, but I feel there is something beneath the surface facade that has the potential to turn something into a classic.

Then something comes along and helps to explain those instinctive thoughts about quality and goodness. It doesn't give all the answers, but it does give a fresh perspective.

I've been thinking more about that lightbulb analogy, and I think it might actually answer some of the issues that I have with hodge-podge, ad-hoc systems in gaming. I think it has something to do with how good the inner filament (ie. the core mechanic) is.

Paul Stefko's Core Mechanic series in this analogy is basically a craftsman critiquing the various filaments at the centre of different gaming light bulbs... he ignores the glass, the table  and everything else, and just focuses on that central element. Through this kind of analysis we can see what the game does at it's most fundamental levels, then we can later see how the glass of the globe manipulates the light to produce the atmosphere and complete game experience.

My problem with ad hoc games is that there is no single central filament. Old-School D&D has one filament handling combat, another filament handling skills (if you decide to turn that part of the light on, or maybe you just leave it for rogues), another filament for magic...some like the combat filament are dangerously convoluted, others are simple straight bits of wire, but every one functions and impacts the wider game environment in a different way. There is no consistency, there's interference patterns built up at the innermost layers of the light, the layers of glass and other elements of the gaming environment all react in erratic ways meaning every game needs to pick and choose which elements to remove or keep, which bits are neglected or forgotten because they just get too complicated, or which bits become focal as the distinct flavouring elements of the session. Plenty of OSR enthusiasts will be tuning out at this point, because it's not something they want to hear. Some may claim that their preferred flavour of OSR doesn't do this...but they're all based on this retro-nostaglic base that really doesn't do a good all-round job. Others may claim that all OSR is basically a smorgasbord toolkit, where you can pick what you want from the wide array of options available... but sometimes people just want to sit down and have some fu  without being interrupted by hours of referencing and page turning. Sure there are some stripped back versions and retro-clones, but even these tend to have multiple systems handling individual things rather than a good solid core mechanic.

I do appreciate Apocalypse World for having that sturdy filament. Just the same as I appreciate Nathan Russell's FU, or S John Ross's Risus... or FATE... or the Roll-&-Keep system from L5R/7thSea. It's often outside the strong central system in these games where I have issues.

Actually, in the case of FU and Risus, if I want a simple collaborative storytelling tool, I don't have any issues at all with these systems. But if I want a system where, I can "play with the glass" and add mechanisms of my own, then they don't give much to work with.

[EDIT - I don't know what happened at the end of this post,but it ate up a whole heap of text I'd written... I'll see if I can remember enough of it to rewrite it]

Apocalypse World has a nice filament (2d6, where less than 6 = bad result, 7-9 = mixed result but generally good, and 10 or more = Good result). My issue here is not with the filament, and upon rereading the model, it's not necessarily with the bulb itself. It's with the table... actually, no it probably exists in both the table and the glass bulb. My problem with games Powered by the Apocalypse is the discrepancy regarding how and when moves are activated, where a few recent posts have indicated that there isn't a good indication of how and when this occurs (different tables play it different ways). But similarly, I don't like the way some moves modify rolls, others exists as rolls of their own subsystems inspired by the core mechanism, then there are those which simply activate, and others which seem to interact with elements of the game completely separate from the core mechanism. It seems so close to a nicely integrated system, but doesn't quite hit the mark...

...I want to do an Obi-Wan Kenobi scream... "You were meant to be the chosen one".

Look, I get it that some people love different games for different reasons, and that there are different products for different goals. But when something is supposed to be elegantly designed and adored by a large chunk of the gaming population,. I can appreciate it for what it got right, then kill the sacred cows in an attempt to see what can be done better.     

15 November, 2017

The Lightbulb

I could make links to numerous reviews like this one, saying that this particular game powered by the apocalypse, or that particular game powered by the apocalypse are terrible. But that would just be cherry picking the various sites, blog posts, forum comments, and other elements of the internet that fit my views while ignoring the numerous other opinions which state that these games are wonderful and innovative.

I really wish I could find the post where Vincent Baker claimed that he wanted a game where only the rules as written were the game, anything else should be expressly forbidden from being added to it...for pure genre emulation you shouldn't need anything else. But after a couple of hours searching, I can't find it at all.

Instead I have found something of his that I like, and particularly a comment by Ron Edwards below it.

The basic gist is that a game is like a lightbulb above a table. The whole scene is  uolt up in layers. The filament of the lightbulb is the essence of the game, the fundamental core mechanisms of play, tightly wound, burning bright, creating the deepest experience. The glass of the lighbulb is both illuminated by the filament, and allowing light to pass through it. It acts as a lens in certain ways, or there might be patterns painted on the glass of the bulb...either way it takes the core mechanisms light and modifies it for use in a variety of situations. The combined filament and glass are basically what you buy when you purchase a game from the designer.

The illuminated table is the play experience provided by the game. It's everything you bring to the session (physically and metaphorically), which isn't a part of the ga e rules. Maybe you shine the light in different ways to tell different types of stories... perhaps if the glass around the filament is tinted red, it might not pick up on nuances between greens and blues on the table, the game just isn't designed to do those things. Maybe the glass is painted in elaborate and organic swirls, and when it casts it's light on your gridded tabletop you just end up with a psychedelic mind-fuck. It's not really right for the story you want but it'll give you a hell of an adventure anyway.

The rest of the room is the entirety of experience and world that could potentially come into the game, but hasn't yet manifested in play.

The inner layers affect the outer layers, but the outer layers don't necessarily affect the inner layers. The filament produces the specific intensity and temperature of light regardless of what is around it. Changing the filament changes the whole experience, everything is lit in a different way, and even if everything else is the same it might look generally similar but there will be something subconsciously, fundamentally different about it. Changing the glass affects everything outside the bulb, using the same filament in a new glass shell is reskinning or hacking a game. It's not particularly hard to paint your own patterns on the glass, but making a filament is trickier...making them work together is trickier still. Making changes to the table is what everyone does during play...every table and every group is different, they may shine the light in different ways to get their stpries happening, they may argue about the best way to shine the light, but as long as they're all using the same type of bulb from the same design team, they're all playing the same game.

It's an interesting analogy, and I could probably push it even further. But that will do for the moment.

But what's the game about?

I've noticed a few conversations again,where one group of people say that they love the way social gaming occurs within traditional D&D...then a second group of people say, that this comment doesn't make sense because traditional D&D didn't really have any rules for social interaction... then the first group says that they love it because social play develops in spite of the rules, not because of them.

Yes, I know, there is a Charisma stat in traditional D&D, there are rules for gathering retainers and henchmen, there are even rules for npc reactions based on random rolls and modifiers if you start digging into things. That's not really the point of the discussion. The point is probably the fact that rules are there, they are promptly ignored by the players, and a simplified modelling of social interaction occurs at the table. It's a bit like the old notion of the "fruitful void" that was big in Indie design circles a few years ago, except that a void is made by ripping out the heart of a section that isn't liked and then the broken ribcage is used as a playground.

Some designers get around this by saying, use the rules as they are written, if it isn't in the rules then that's not what the game is about...if your game does end up about that thing, you must be playing it wrong. I've heard that said about Apocalypse World, there are certain moves in the rules, and if a move doesn't cover what you want to do (or isn't in your playbook), you just can't do it...you need to maneuver the story into a different angle of approach until you do have a way to address the issue. That just feels wrong to me, and is one of the laundry list of reasons why I don't like that system. A few of the games that spawned from it went with the idea of a generic roll, or rolls that can be generated on the fly in response to events as they unfold in the narrative. Which then makes me wonder why bother having a distinct playbook at all, why not go back to a generic system with a standard die mechanism, and attributes or skills that modify it according to the situation in which the roll is being made?

There seems to be a fine line between making a game too generic, and too specialised. I would have thought the grey area between the extremes was bigger, but most games seem to linger on one side of the grey area or the other. A lot of games try to bridge the gap into the generic space with rule systems that are either overly complex,or not fitting with the tone of the other rules in the game...thus the rules are ignored and house rules are modified on the fly...which then leads to players engaging in an experience quite different to the one possibly intended by the designer. I could probably run a game of almost anything, using a specific rule set with minimal modifications (beyond flavour text, fluff, and setting elements) to portray almost any genre. Does that prove anything??...no, not really. I'm sure there are plenty of other experienced GMs/DMs/MCs who could do likewise. It just means that rules should be easy enough to be remembered with minimal referencing (otherwise they get forgotten) and should integrate with the setting (otherwise they get ignored out of spite).

In The Law, I deliberately made a generic system where actions often have costs associated with them, whether they succeed or not. Then I made a range of skills thematically appropriate to the setting. A player can use their character to do anything they want within the setting (or at least attempt to), but unless they've got a good attribute or a moderate attribute and an associated skill, it's going to probably make things complicated, or fail miserably.

In Walkabout, I'm basically aiming in the same direction, but as a game focused on community, and the power of stories and relationships, I'll be using more of these elements to enhance the narrative, the setting and the way characters interact with them.

12 November, 2017

Holistically Intertwined Stories

One of the members of the board of directors for the Aboriginal Education Consultancy Group recently told me...(and I'm paraphrasing here).

It really doesn't matter whether we wanted our stories connected to those of the white mob who came here. Now those stories are tangled in ways that can never be untangled. The Dreaming still goes on, it always has, it always will. Like it or not, animals introduced to our lands like dogs, cats,rabbits, foxes, they're all a part of the Australian Dreaming now. Like it or not, if you set foot in our land, you become a part of our dreaming too.

Whether you consider them symbolic of mystic insight, or whether you think the dreaming is simply the interconnectedness of personal stories and the relationships between them, those were powerful words.

It's not like when you meet a Christian for the first time, and they say "You aren't a Christian, therefore you're going to hell... Here let me help you see the light". The Australian Aboriginal mythlore is probably more akin to Taoist thinking, where everything has its place, where no-one truly knows the true essence of everything, except possibly as a combination of metaphor, analogy and practical knowledge. In this belief pattern, you don't put something down because you don't understand it, instead you accept that it is what it is, consider that there must be some reason for this, and think about it with respect to it's relationships to the things around it.

It's a harder way to look at the world, to not look at the surface,but to build your own surface based on a deeper understanding on connections and relationships. In pre-colonial times, there were few wars over land between Australian Aboriginal groups because one of the strongest relationships someone could have was to the land of their family. There was no point invading someone else's land, because you had connections here, and they had connections there. You might trade with them or intermarry with them, so that your children then had a connection to both lands... but you didn't fight them for control of something they knew better than you ever could.

The idea of white conquest made no sense. Even now, the dispossession of Aboriginal people from their land has lead to ongoing natural problems. With no respect for the cycles of birth and rebirth through fire, woodland builds fuel and erupts into flame once a critical point is reached (this has started to be better understood in the last decade or two), with no respect for water flow, vast regions of arable farmland gradually become desolate as dams restrict the water upstream. Springs delivering both hot and cold water from deep beneath the surface are drying up as mining efforts shatter the underground water tables, all for a few extra dollars in the pockets of shareholders, and often secured in tax free offshore havens where they no longer benefit the community.

When certain links in a relationship web are weakened, and others are strengthened beyond their natural levels, imbalance occurs. When the links are completely broken in a relationship web, things risk falling out of place altogether, adrift they often form new relationship anchors and connections to things that simply should not be. When colonial settlers arrived, many relationships were weakened, some individuals took advantage of the flux to strengthen relationships and gain new power, many found that elements of their relationship webs were completely destroyed. They forged new links in new places, and told new stories to solidify them.

In a similar vein, consider the Barossa Valley in South Australia.

One of Australia's premier winemaking regions.

Relationships existed between plants-and-soil, plants-and-animals, plants-and-people, animals-and-people, families-and-land for as long as there have been people in the region.There are countless other relationships that might be observed, and that might make fodder for a game session or narrative, but the ones described are probably the easiest. Indigenous communities would have had stories explaining some of these relationships, including allegories for how they formed, why they were important to maintain, what might occur if they go out of balance.

Then came the German settlers with their own relationships to new farm animals, new plants, stories from their old world, and then new stories that formed as new relationships to the existing people of the land were forged.  The Dreaming of the region incorporated Shiraz and other grape varietals to the flora stories...sheep, foxes, and rabbits to the fauna stories... tales of the Black Forest and other German folklore into the native narratives. This whole setting is one where words have power, spirits feed on the belief and faith of the mortal world, where relationships have tangible consequences in the Dreaming just as much as they might have social consequences in the mundane world. So stories in this part of the country might have hybrid stories deriving elements from Indigenous and German folklore... in much the same way that stories told in the ruined post-apocalyptic wastelands that were once Western Sydney might be filled with a dangerous mix of stories from all parts of the world, some of which are highly incompatible with one another.

It's the interaction of the echoes of these stories that brings the tension in the setting.

11 November, 2017

No Dot Art!!!

None of this!

This may be an international stereotype of the artwork produced by Indigenous artists in Australia, but it's actually only the tradition of a very specific tribe in Central Australia who were generally targeted by a white art teacher who went out to their community in the early 1970s and wanted to keep their traditions alive by transferring their artwork from fragile and degradable ochre-on-bark to a more resilient acrylic-on-canvas material. Other communities across the country have their own distinctive styles that haven't been as widely recognised, and many of those communities are still having their artistic styles suppressed because Westerners expect all Australian Aboriginal art to be dots.

The elders of the community I've been working with over the past four years have their own symbols and techniques, but much of that has been pieced together from what they can find in archival sources, and a lot more of it is obscured in artwork, only to be explained to people who are willing to look beyond the obvious. Many of the elders produce two types of artwork... dots for the ignorant,who just want a bit of "real Aboriginal culture", and their own personal techniques that tell a deeper story of a living culture.

I know one particular elder who makes a decent amount of money supplementing his income with dot paintings, but they mean nothing to him except as commodities to be traded away. His personal work, and the work he gives as gifts to significant people in his life, is a fusion of the traditions from his family's home region, and the region he now calls home. To most people it's distinctly "tribal", it has elements that may have been seen in other pieces of Australian Aboriginal art, perhaps a theme of animals, or a certain array of organic and geometric forms, but unless you know what you're looking for, the nuance in the work will often be missed. It's the colours, the way the shapes are arrayed (more than the shapes themselves), it's the interplay of positive and negative space, and it's an instinctive placement that feels right at the time when the artwork is made. All of Australian Aboriginal culture is about relationships, so the art reflects that. It's not just a surface appearance of stuff that "looks" Aboriginal, and that's something a lot of outsiders just don't get.

The Aboriginal communities of Australia have survived despite the work of the Government, the missions, the settlers and the squatters. Even though these grous wouldhave you believe that they have systematically worked to "civilise"and "improve the lives" of the Indigenous communities. There are numerous tales of Aboriginal families slaughtered because a single member of their group hunted a sheep, after their traditional food sources were driven from the land. There are tales of Aboriginal communities forced into slavery to tend the lands that had already been theirs for millennia. There are no active speakers of the language once spoken where my home is, many of the people were killed off, driven to other parts of the country, interbred with colonials until they were no longer black of skin, and re-educated until they had lost their culture. These are parts of the definition of genocide.

Acts that could be obvious “elements” of the crime of genocide as defined in Article 6 of the Rome Statute, such as killings, abduction and disappearances, torture, rape and sexual violence; ‘ethnic cleansing’ or pogroms;
• Less obvious methods of destruction, such as the deliberate deprivation of resources needed for the group’s physical survival and which are available to the rest of the population, such as clean water, food and medical services;
• Creation of circumstances that could lead to a slow death, such as lack of proper housing, clothing and hygiene or excessive work or physical exertion;
• Programs intended to prevent procreation, including involuntary sterilization, forced abortion, prohibition of marriage and long-term separation of men and women;
• Forcible transfer of children, imposed by direct force or through fear of violence, duress, detention, psychological oppression or other methods of coercion;
• Death threats or ill treatment that causes disfigurement or injury; forced or coerced use of drugs or other treatment that damages health.

It all happened, a lot of it still happens today (often under Government "protection" and "cultural enrichment" policies).

Aboriginal life in Australia is post-apocalyptic. The world they knew was destroyed, they had to desperately cling to whatever they could to maintain a sense of identity and cultural awareness, those who were less afflicted by the incoming Invaders were able to maintain a semblance of their original culture for a longer time, but even this was eroded by loss of memory and deliberate attempts to erase both their culture, and erase (or "redefine") the very acts that had destroyed their culture. It was a cultural war that was effectively lost except for pockets of guerrilla resistance.

There are a series of tropes called "The Magical Negro", "The Magical Native American", and "The Ethnic Magician". Despite these tropes all having a degree of "Positive Discrimination", Walkabout is not about these concepts. Walkabout is not Rifts Australia (even though that book was written by an Aussie game designer and is far better than it could have been). It is not a setting where the white man has faced apocalypse and now needs the formerly oppressed black man to step in with their mysterious knowledge of the spirits and save the day. It certainly isn't a setting where the heroes of the Australian Aboriginal communities are known for their abilities to magically manifest boomerangs and spears of pure spirit energy to combat the monstrous creatures of the unknown.

I actually see this game deriving more from Mage: the Ascension, where belief is power and a systematic persecution of native groups around the world has been conducted by Europeans and Christians in the attempt to make their god and their paradigm the most significant in the world. Little did they know that other belief systems hold nasty things in check, and were actually developed since the dawn of consciousness as a reflection of those dark forces. Maybe a bit of a counter-Cthulhu mythos, where the natives aren't misguided fools who worship the evil in the shadows, but it's the colonials and "enlightened" investigators who are opening the cracks in time and space by disrupting the rituals that have kept the seals from breaking. The idea of the Aboriginal Dreamtime was a misunderstanding (deliberate or otherwise in the real world, but under the perspectives of the game world it's definitely deliberate), the belief systems of the European world all imply a time in the past when legends were real and a rise to rationality (or monotheism) as enlightenment was attained. But actually, the proper term for the dogma of the Australian Aboriginals is "The Dreaming"... it's not a time in the past that needs to be moved on from, it's a living set of ideas embedded into stories for those who are willing to listen to them on a deeper level. Words have power, stories have power; so adding the suffix "-time" to the mythlore, was just another way of getting the Aboriginal communities to abandon that power and the spirits who live in symbiosis with it.

Some might even claim that this is all the plan of a gluttonous, proud and vengeful spirit who first manifest in a burning bush, a few short millennia ago on the outskirts of an Egyptian village. A plan by that petty spirit to consume the world in flame.

The game was always intended to begin decades after an apocalypse where something awakened due to the lack of power being focused toward it's slumber. There are a number of traditional sites considered corrupt and dark places, where those who linger in them too long become sick, or perhaps where the spirit lands of the Dreaming are closest to the mortal realms of the waking world. Coincidentally, these are places where Uranium mines have desecrated the landscape in recent decades. It might be said that the residual radiation of these lands brought cancer to the people who sent to long in them...a side effect of the radiation, but Walkabout proposes that the radiation might be a side-effect of spiritual activity, and this might similarly be the case in other parts of the world. High radiation makes spiritual activity between the Dreaming and the waking world easier, and as a positive feedback loop, more spiritual activity produces a stronger radiation signature. The land becomes poisoned unless the spirits can be lulled back to sleep, but it takes specific stories to do this.

There are no "Magical Australian Aboriginals" to clean up the white man's mess, because in most cases the forces of the modern world systematically wiped out the culture that knew those stories. It's also important to note that Australian Aboriginals are not a monoculture, they don't all use dot painting, they don't all paint their bodies in the same patterns of ochres and dance around campfires like emus and kangaroos. The modern Australian Aboriginal communities are evolving cultural hybrids, beginning the knowledge of their local past, filling in the gaps with the ways of the people around them, and adapting the whole thing to the mainstream community that dominates Australian society. There are fragments of the old ways in the mix, but these change from place to place, from family to family, from person to person. Everyone has their role, everyone has their stories. The overlooked person might be key to the whole thing, they might have pieced together the knowledge necessary to solve the situation.

This kind of brings me back to the diagram I showed earlier.

Another way I could use this diagram is as a guide to completing an individual story. Characters might have the opportunity to learn things about the situation from each of the 8 perspectives. Once they have 4 adjacent symbols activated, they might have understood enough of the symptoms to reveal elements of the cause underlying them all. If they have addressed all 8 successfully, then it might be far easier to resolve the underlying imbalance in the scenario. None of the symbols involves combat, but that doesn't mean conflict can't exist in the story. There will always be an imbalance that the forces of the setting have drawn the characters to resolve, and there is obviously something preventing the locals from resolving the situation on their own. The imbalance doesn't come from the spirits traditionally revered by the Aboriginal people, but the imbalance may cause them to mutate and take on nightmarish forms that need to be dealt with in some way, but every spirit is different, every situation is different. Similarly, the feedback loop between people and the environment should be apparent in the narrative. The more imbalanced a place is spiritually, the more this will be reflected in the attitudes and emotions of the people, perhaps even manifesting as physical signs (stigmata, mutations, disease, etc.) in the most heinously imbalanced settings.

Places exhibiting the pristine glass and concrete of the pre-apocalypse world...
...look just as unnatural as the horrific boneyards that could have been painted by HR Giger...
...the melting forms reminiscent of Salvador Dali's work...
...or the fractal recursions found in one of the more psychedelic Marvel superhero movies...

...of course most parts of the world where spiritual energies are leaking into the mundane waking world are nowhere near as blatant.

Addressing local issues with generalisations has a tendency to cause more problems than they solve (as has been seen with decades of Government policy in Australia). This isn't intended to be a political game, but I'm not afraid to say that it reflects my political leanings and perspective of the world. I want this to be a game about stories, and about relationships. The relationships will be between people, between people and the land they live on, and between people and the stories that generate meaning in their lives.

So, no-one has all the answers in this setting, everyone is just making do with what they've got, combining fragments of knowledge into something that will hopefully let them get by. Everyone finds that they need the people around them to survive, and they need to work with the people around them if they want to thrive. Conflict generates imbalance which forms a feedback loop to generate more conflict, but sometimes you need to face the cycle before you can address it. Narratives and stories play out across the world, but there is always something underlying those narratives that needs to be understood and addressed. Things are rarely what they seem to be on first appearances, but it takes an effort, either physical, mental, social, or spiritual, to pierce the surface. The only advantages that Aboriginal people have in this setting is the fact that they've lived an unsettled life for generations longer than the new arrivals to their lands, they might also have a memory of inherited tale fragments that have survived being passed down through generations, but their strongest advantage is the fact that as a people they have always tended to value a community spirit of goodwill over the greed and dominance of individuals.

...but how do I codify that into game rules?

10 November, 2017

Design a Creature

I hope one of the wonderfully creative people I know wins this contest.

Actually, I want to win this contest, but if I can't win it, then I want someone I know to win it.

I'm going to be thinking about this tonight, and might post a couple of the design sketches I come up with over the next couple of days. 

09 November, 2017

The Stockade

There's a link over on the side of the blog, it says that I'm a proud member of "The Stockade". The link goes to a dead Wordpress blog, with a last post dated 2011, it indicates that The Stockade has moved to a new site when you open it...but even that "new site" seems to be old and forgotten... there's just a DNS error message on my screen when I try to open it.

Maybe it's time to get rid of that link on the side menu... new collectives of Aussie game designers have arisen, so maybe I might replace that link with a couple of connections to those groups.

Reflecting Culture in Gaming

I've been looking over the 7th Sea: Khitai Kickstarter, and it got me thinking. Instead of the standard attributes, it uses a range of character virtues, and assuming it works like the old 7th Sea rules (derived from the original L5R RPG), I'm guessing it's a "roll and keep" system where in this case you'd add together the virtue and a skill to determine a dice pool, and then keep the best number of dice equal to the virtue used.

Back in L5R it sort of went halfway with this idea, by basing the attributes on the elemental forces of the setting. It's a way of getting a cultural feel into the way the game plays. I think Smallville and the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying System (both Cortex oriented games) did similar things by pulling attributes away from the traditional "strength/constitution/dexterity/intelligence/...etc." model and making the rolls of dice more related to the types of stories being told. This way you can have Superman or the Hulk roll dice along with everyone else at a meaningful level rather than simply having them completely overpower the situation every single time with their godlike abilities.

There are a few other games which take this route too, but recent years have seen the OSR backlash against story-games, and a return to that traditionalist attribute set.

Let's consider these to be games where the character output is filtered through a cultural (or genre-oriented) paradigm.

I was really thinking of doing something similar with the way Walkabout was headed, perhaps by linking attributes to cultural elements significant in different Australian Aboriginal groups. The biggest problem here was trying to find specific cultural virtues and aspirations that felt appropriate (rather than just feeling like generic tribal patterns, which would have the "cultural appropriation" brigade screaming at me). I'm already thinking of adding Totems into the game, because animal affinity is a strong part of Aboriginal Identity in many arts of the country (and has strong links to the systems of moiety that have been in place for millenia), and even though the word "moiety" derives from Latin, and the word "Totem" derives from the First Nations of North America (specifically the Ojibwa if I remember correctly), trying to find the right word in an Aboriginal Australian tongue is tricky because there are so many of them, and in most cases the English words have been adopted by the community because they are more universally understood.

In old versions of the game, I followed the FUBAR system of giving characters a culture they came from, a skill set for which they were known, a set of advantages that marked them as different from the world around them, and a dance which would be used to communicate with the spirits and engage with the community during a Corroboree or ritual during which XP was converted from personal memories to community stories. It kind of felt right, but not quite.

I've recently learnt about the Aboriginal 8 Ways of Learning, and I feel like this might be a good place to integrate some Indigenous culture into the mechanisms of play.

But how do I use it?

I started with the easy route of allocating certain skills to certain Ways of the system. "Bush Medicine" derives herbal remedies from the land, so it could easily be placed there... but there are a few other laces where it might fit too. Where would you put "Stealth", or combat skills... assuming you'd even have them.

A variant on the 8 Ways seemed to offer help...

...with the 8 outer symbols coalescing into 4 aspects at the centre of the diagram... maybe they could be attributes. Maybe I'm just thinking about the whole thing in the wrong way. It all seems cerebral, and while there are aspect where social elements can be brought into play (on the outer ring through "story sharing" and "community links", or on the inner aspects through "protocols"), the nature of physical actions in this system is an awkward fit at best.

That's when I realised I was doing it all wrong. This is a system for learning. This an Australian Aboriginal interpretation of how a person develops as they gain experience and internalise what they have encountered through their life's journey. This isn't about using abilities at all, it's about what you gain when the outcomes of those abilities are considered. It could still be possible to attach skills to the outer symbols or the inner aspects, but I feel that is too limiting. It probably works better as a meta-system.

Each of the symbols indicates a way that experience can be internalised, where different contexts apply better to different types of task.

Following the outdated (and pedagogically controversial) theory of multiple intelligence, these could be considered different intelligence areas activated by different types of scene in a character's narrative. If you learn something through a fight or an athletic challenge, you might gain a point in "Non-Verbal". If you decode a riddle, you might gain a point in "Deconstruct/Reconstruct". If you share a story with someone, "Story Sharing" is the obvious category. If you think outside the box, "Non-Linear" applies. These aren't character output filtered through a cultural paradigm, but instead character input.

It's using a recognised learning model relating to Aboriginal educational theory in a "practical" way. Which is really good since members of the Aboriginal Education Consultancy Group have been asking me to continue work on the project, and they are one of the main groups pushing the 8 Ways. 

But all the symbols are interconnected, and the idea of a holistic interconnected-ness is a deep part of Aboriginal spirituality and belief (it's always been a part of the way I've run Walkabout games, but not so much formalised within the rules). 

I'm thinking of making each of the 8 Ways a method for gaining experience, and once a character earns a combination of points from different areas they may increase their abilities in some way. For example (working from the images above), if they gain a point each in "Story Sharing", "Community Links", "Deconstruct/Reconstruct", and "Non-Linear", this would activate a "Values" increase.

One of the more controversial elements in "Multiple Intelligence Theory" is the belief that specific types of output can be measured, and different people will have varying measurements in these outputs depending on a number of factors. One of the less controversial elements of the theory is that different people have a preference for learning in different ways. Some people are more capable of learning from visual stimuli than those around them, some are more capable of gleaning information from texts.

This could be simulated by allowing characters to automatically gain points in areas where they show an affinity. But this feels a bit counterproductive, we don't want to prevent characters from doing what they are supposed to be good at... in fact we probably want the reverse, we want to highlight where characters have strengths. Perhaps instead of giving them an automatic point in a specific area, we allow them to gain extra points in that area. "Jack has a natural affinity with Symbols and Images so he gains more from encounters where these are a part of the narrative."

This is feeling good, but I know there's more work to do.

08 November, 2017

NaGaDeMon 2017 (Part 2) #1 - Where next?

I had three projects I wanted to complete during this month's NaGaDeMon.

NOIR is done, but what were the other two...???

Option 1.

Cleaning up the print versions of The Law (both Lulu and DrivethruRPG/RPGNow versions).

That should really be my priority...

Option 2.

Revisiting Voidstone Chronicles.

That one is far messier, but I've got an idea. A fragment of sheer awesomeness that could be plugged into the existing systems to produce something that's pretty close to one of my eternal white whales. Of course here's where a nagging thought wanders through the back of my mind...

...when you get really enthusiastic about a system design that you've come up with, it can be really tempting to put it everywhere. When I first developed the engine that runs FUBAR, I really wanted the to be the core system that all my games would run from. But before long I noticed the bits where it needs to stretch, and the areas where it started cracking because it really wasn't designed to handle certain things. I'm getting the same kinds of pre-emptive feelings with regards to the engine running The Law. I really want to plug it into Voidstone Chronicles, but the latter game is so completely different in it's intentions that the engine feels wrong...but I want to put it in...but it's an engine designed to simulate gritty dark justice in a world surrounded by villainous scum and strangeness... it really isn't appropriate for 8-bit heroics at all.

So that's led me to this new idea, which is closer to using an amped up version of the system I was playing with in Ghost City Raiders. This is going to take a bit more explanation, but basically to reflect the 8-bit vibe it's more turn based. Consider that you as a console player are pressing the right combo of keys  to represent enact a specific move through your character. Now consider a more analogue version of that... you play a card to represent that move (or stance). Another player similarly plays a card out of their hand simultaneously. You compare card stances, each player rolls a die (or draws a card from a deck, or some other randomiser), they then get to negotiate the effects based on the successes they obtain from their action...then the turn moves to the next active character (this may be a retaliation, or it might be something completely different). Characters get cards to play based on their skills, their equipment and other factors that impact on play. Certain conditions may limit the cards they have access to, or even force them to play random cards from their hands. The aim is quickness... and it's also drifting toward one of my other white whales, the "Bring-Your-Own-Mini" system.

Which in turn leads me back to that Darkhive setting I was playing with a few years ago. "Bring-Your-Own-Mini" was always intended to be a skirmish game with 3 to 6 models on each side, typically a hero, an offsider, and a bunch of grunts. So it basically works for the premise.

NaGaDeMon 2017 #10 - Noir Live

Between assignments and other work, I've been putting together the complete card set for NOIR. Hopefully in the next 24 hours. the game will be available as a pay-what-you-want product on DrivethruRPG/RPGNow, and I'll also have a minimal overhead version available on those sites as a print-on-demand set of cards.

Time for the next project.

05 November, 2017

NaGaDeMon 2017 #9 - The Characters

Here's where we currently stand. Going with a neo-noir theme, I've generally drawn the images from the 1940s, with a few from the 30s, and 50s, and a couple of later images that were taken with that era as their inspiration. The thing about the era is that most of the people in Film Noir are white, with the males being slit into debonair types or hard boiled detectives, while the females are attractive dames and femme fatales. I've deliberately made sure to counterbalance this with a range of images of non-white characters in the mix.

Now I just need to make duplicates of these images depicting the characters in prison.