31 March, 2018

April's Questions

I've barely skimmed the questions, but I like a good 30 questions in 30 days listing. And I'm going to need something to break up my concentration between the work on the Cookbook.

So, I'll be doing this list from Kira Magrann over the course of April.

30 March, 2018

SNAFU Cookbook (Part 1) Ingredients (b)

The remainder of the ingredients for the cookbook.

What kind of story is going to be told? You might say that you want a tale of social struggle, but that's where narrative crosses into demographics. Maybe you're thinking of a noir tale of intrigue, but that's crossing into mood. Instead, what is being discussed is the absolute basics. Is it an investigation or problem with a specific resolution or end goal? Is it a meandering and reactionary tale more like a soap opera that builds organically from the actions of the characters? Is it a journey with a specific beginning, a specific ending, and one or more paths between them? Is it one of the many stories that can be shoehorned into the structure of 'The Hero's Journey'?

Basically, this is asking what the characters do, not necessarily how they feel when they do it, or whether they do it with a certain style. Are there any specific actions that might determine success or failure in the narrative? The characters might have lost their memories, or their sanity, and it might only be when their reach a stable mental state that the story is resolved.

At the simplest level, work out the typical starting point(s), and work out the typical ending point(s) (or even if there are any).

The mood of the game is generally synonymous with the intended tone and feeling. Is the game intended to be high fantasy, low fantasy, or no fantasy? Is it gritty, where anything that goes wrong might have the potential to be lethal, or is it more lighthearted, where multiple things could go wrong but in the form of a survivable comedy of errors? The characters might be low ranked in the setting, perhaps in beyond their depth, and this will have a very different feeling to games where characters might be empowered heroes with advantages and edges that put them above the citizens around them.

A few key words can be used to provide an instant idea of where the mood for the game is focused. One word is probably too monotonous, but too many words just muddies the clarity of the intended mood. Two or three is probably good.


This listing is just a range of sample ideas. You could easily come up with dozens of other mood words, just try to keep those words understandable and palatable to everyone on the table... if we're continuing the cookbook analogy these might be akin to the spices being added to the recipe. Too many, and the flavours end up competing  with one another and leaving wierd aftertastes, too few and the output ends up a bit bland. 

Core Rules
You could use any set of core rules, which would be equivalent to looking at someone else's recipe and taking the most fundamental elements, then reverse engineer the basic die rolls to do what you need them to. It's a delicate artform, but it's the kind of thing that most gamers do instinctively. Every time a GM creates a random table, every time a player asks if they can make a die roll or apply a peripherally related skill to get a bonus on the main action underway, every time someone decides whether or not to open the rule book, or whether to make an ad-hoc ruling that will keep the action flowing while maintaining the feeling established so far in the game. Some games make it easy to manipulate the rules, with a simple coherent mechanism that is highly adaptable. Some have numerous systems and subsystems each handling a different element of narrative or game world simulation. Others have tightly wound systems that link so delicately and carefully into a specific ecosystem of play that trying to unravel them is such a feat that you might as well just create a new system from scratch.

But this guide is about adapting the SNAFU system, which is an evolution of FUBAR and the "System 4" project I've been developing over the last few years. For a while the system was a generic set of rules designed to handle stories where things have consequences and rarely go smoothly. The outcomes of die rolls are read on two independent axes, one determining how well the outcome was achieved, the other determining what was given up in the attempt. This dual-axis system is deliberately different to other games on the market which follow a linear "success/success-with-complications/failure" structure, it offers the chance of varying degrees of success or failure, and varying degrees of complications (or no complications at all).

There will be more in the series about how to connect the underlying SNAFU system into the other ingredients described.

27 March, 2018

SNAFU Cookbook (Part 1) Ingredients (a)

I'm going to work through the elements of the SNAFU Cookbook publicly, because I don't think I have all the answers, and I'd be interested to see other people's input on the project. Once the series of posts has reached it's conclusion, I'll revise my ideas in light of those suggestions, and compile the final cookbook from those revisions. If there's enough interest, I might even throw a few commissions out to people willing to write short pieces (200-500 words) that can be added to the book so that there are more voices than just my own within it.

First a look at the ingredients. Note that these ingredients aren't discrete and separate things, they overlap, they exist in relation to one another. There are probably other ingredients to consider as well, and I'm certainly open to hearing ideas about additional concepts that contribute to a game.

An oeuvre is a body of work, it typically has themes running through it or elements where one piece in the wider collection connects to other pieces creating a continuous whole that transcends the sum of the individual pieces.

Orchestrally, we might look to the works of a single composer, where similar musical motifs are embedded into different compositions, or where the composer explores particular themes from different perspectives, or even a propensity for using a specific type of instrument.

Cinematically, the term oeuvre is most commonly associated with directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Kevin Smith, or Quentin Tarantino. Hitchcock's oeuvre is linked by thematic elements, methods of lighting, camera angles. Smith's oeuvre is linked by locations (New Jersey playing a prominent role), characters (notably Jay and Silent Bob in his early works), and again by exploration of themes. Tarantino's oeuvre involves hyper violence, pushing the boundaries of language, evocative soundtracks, and a stable of regular character actors. The individual works within a director's oeuvre will be different, but by virtue of a singular artistic vision there will be something that links them. You generally know what you're going to get when you go to a movie theatre to watch a film by one of the three directors mentioned. It can be enough to get a certain crowd to buy tickets, and can similarly drive off other segments of the population who have shown a dislike for films from that film-maker.

I'm certainly thinking of the term oeuvre cinematically here. The players are the regular stable of actors; where some may be character actors who exhibit the same range of traits regardless of who they portray, others may be method actors who really immerse themselves in a role. Themes are common elements and types of scene encountered by the characters; there might be regular violence in the game and the game might say something about this (or might actively remain silent...both are just as important as artistic choices), perhaps the game plays with the concept of relationships,  or transhumanism, or struggles of race or class. Another element of the oeuvre might be the simple way responsibilities in the narrative are assigned; does everything come down to a GM's adjudication of the dice, do different players on the table take responsibility for different elements of the world, is there a GM at all?

Every session is like a new movie, or a new episode of a TV series. The tighter the oeuvre, the more similarities there will be between one session and the next, the more elements will be common across the collective works. The looser the oeuvre, the more free-ranging the individual sessions are, there might be vague linking concepts like a recurring NPC, a monstrous entity or hideous situation that appears in a few sessions, a focus on groups and politics rather than individuals... a few things might define the oeuvre, but this doesn't mean that every session requores mandatory appearance of every element.

Often an oeuvre is not predefined. Like an artistic movement, it's only in retrospect that the common themes and elements start to become apparent. That can make it difficult as a tool to guide future elements of gameplay when a campaign is first begun, but after a few sessions the ideas that work can be retained, while the ideas that don't can be discarded as a part of the play environment.

A traditional fantasy game is divided into races and classes. Races are things like "humans", "elves", "dwarves", "halflings", and "gnomes" on the side of good, while "goblins", "orcs", and "trolls" are on the side of evil. Classes are things like "warrior", "wizard", "thief", "cleric", and "everyday peasant who isn't important". But why is this the case?

A science fiction game might simiarly divide it's population into races and classes (but might instead call them occupations). The races of such a setting would still tend to include "humans", but might add a range of "aliens" with unique powers and weaknesses, "mutants" who have deviated from their parent race in some way, or "AIs" created for some purpose but now transcending it. The classes/occupations might be more refined in such a setting, with "marines", "mercenaries", "bounty hunters", "pilots", "smugglers", "psychics", "scientists", "engineers", "technicians", and others.

Wider demographic categories tend to be fewer in number but allow for a variety of options within them, while narrower categories tend to be more plentiful but very specific. Sometimes there is an option between two defined demographics, "half-elves" are a common racial example of this in a fantasy setting, while a "marine/pilot" might be a science fiction example of a multi-classed person who can fight reasonably well, and pilot long haul ships reasonably well, but when it comes to flying a starfighter they are truly accomplished.

Consider the types of stories you want to tell, consider the types of characters who would take on major roles in those stories, make them options for player characters. Then consider those who would play supporting parts (or potential antagonists), make them into a list of retainers, allies, and contacts; possibly allow them as player characters but make the players aware of what they are getting in for. In a story about samurai, the main characters would probably want a swordsmith around, but unless the swordsmith has other abilities, it could be a very deadly or very boring story for them. Finally, make a list of things you definitely don't want in the story. The elements which aren't present in an environment can be just as defining as the elements which are. A fantasy setting might be expected to have elves in it, but if your story doesn't revolve around elements where they are a natural fit, why have them? If they might add something unusual to the setting, include them but change them from the stereotype in some way. Science fiction can still be science fiction without aliens present... stories can also work without humans.

When defining the races, classes, and other groupings in the setting, consider what you want to be commonly available to everyone, what might be generally available, what might be restricted, and what might be exclusive to one particular group. If you expect lots of physical violence, then make combat abilities available in different ways to different groups, if ypu want a grittier world where violence will get you quickly injured or killed, then maybe restrict who gains access to these abilities. The same applies to magic, technological know-how, political intrigue, or anything else the story might be intended to revolve around (or have the potential to revolve around).

Different groups (regardless of race, class, or other method to define them) should have different agendas and motivations, different tools and techniques are their disposal to achieve those ends, and different obstacles that are preventing them from achieving them. It's often at the intersection of these that stories come alive. Consider who needs what, why they need it, who could help them and what might be necessary to get that help. The characters will be at the centre of all this. Who are the "bad guys" unable to be portrayed by the characters, and what is their motivation? Remember also that the demographic divisions don't need to be defined by race and class/occupation, they could just as easily be divisions between noble houses or guilds, geographical distinctions, socio-economic, religious, anything that you think might make a good story.

26 March, 2018

SNAFU Cookbook

Cortex had its "Hacker's Guide", D&D had its System Reference Document (and a few other games have followed suit). As I put together the bits and pieces that make "The Law" what it is, and allow for those components to be rearranged into something new, I'm thinking of things more from the perspective of a cookbook. 

The ingredients are the fundamental components of the game, in this case I'm looking at...
  • What makes an oeuvre? 
  • What are the demographics of the setting?
  • How is narrative resolved?
  • What is the mood?
  • What are the core rules? 

The recipe is how those ingredients interact with one another...
  • How do the demographics of the setting reflect the oeuvre?
  • How do the core rules support the narrative?
  • (every pair of the base ingredients can be combined in some way that provides some insight into the game we are planning to run)

Finally, the presentation...
  • What leads up to a game?
  • What should a game in progress look like? 
  • What can a game look like beyond the preconceived notions that might be implied?
  • What about after the game? 
  • What else is there that could impact on the whole experience?

I still haven't worked out the whole thing, but it makes sense to me as a way to explain how I write a game, how I run a game, and why I do those things.

This idea came to me after my initial attempt to generate a similar style of book vanished into the ether as my computer crashed last night.

23 March, 2018


Yesterday's anecdotal post was intended to be more than just a trip down memory lane. There's actually quite a bit to unpack in it. A lot of good game theorising occurred in the early 2000s to give names and context to what we were doing, but at the time we were just following trial and error.

The main reason I'm thinking about this is one of those many projects I've got that feeds on previous ideas and occasionally rears it's head demanding attention. I'll probably meander back and forth between a few developments where these ideas have manifested through my work over the years, but to keep things a bit more organised, I'll add a few discreet heading categories.

Flat Comparisons vs Randomisers
This is where I was heading with yesterday's post, before I cut things off. Standard Magic: the Gathering uses flat comparisons to determine conflicts. If a creature's power is at least equal to their opponent's toughness, they kill them. If it's less, the opponent resets for the next round. Sure there are quirky effects that modify this, but the base comparison is the benchmark. Instead of die rolls, cards are played to modify the outcome in various ways, the same sort of thing happens in the card game Munchkin (which has it's own issues that I'll address later). We didn't think of it at the time, but it's basically playing in the same conceptual ballpark as Fortune and Karma (these terms came later as a method of addressing the ideas. Yes, these ideas echo back to Everway in 1995, but we didn't really know about this game at the time, except as that quirky game with freeform narrative based on artwork cards... we didn't know anyone who played it.)

Conflicts in most RPGs are basically resolved through a combination of Karma and Fortune. Karma throws weight to the side with the higher skill and the better advantages in the situation, fortune is arbitrary (adding the results of dice or some other randomiser). If your system uses a die roll plus modifier verses a difficulty, the die roll is the fortune element, while the modifier and difficulty are karma elements. Some games place a stronger weighting on karma toward the outcome of conflicts, some place a higher weighting on fortune...and some games add 'drama' to the mix, where the potential impact on the narrative plays a factor in the conflict's outcome.

We were basically adding fortune into M:tG's karma mechanisms.

I don't know exact statistics for creatures in M:tG, and a quick search hasn't revealed anyone who has run the math, but it always felt like creatures with averaged power and toughness around 1 made up about a third of the total, once we combine creatures withe an average score up to 2, that gives us more than half of the total creatures out there... then we get creatures with power and toughness reaching up to 10+, but there get less and less common as the numbers ascend. In most cases, rather than increasing the power and toughness, more exotic creatures are given some kind of quirky ability that manipulates other creatures, or some other element of gameplay.

When we added a die roll to our conflicts, we experimented with using a d6 at first. But we found that the randomness of the die roll overpowered the strategic elements of the card play. Too much fortune, not enough karma. The one point advantage that a creature might have over another one is diminished somewhat when a due is added to the mix, but the bigger the die, the more pronounced the effect.

We play Munchkin in a similar way, but for slightly different reasons. In a two player game, once one player gets ahead it can be really hard for their opponent to catch up, in a game with four or more players the end game can really drag on when three players prevent one from winning, then gang up on someone else the next turn. In this case, the randomiser works to inject a bit more chaos into the mix, but in Munchkin the numbers are more spread out compared to the concentration of 1s and 2s in Magic, so the use of a d6 added to the character and the opponent makes more sense. An increased degree of fortune in Munchkin also fits the freewheeling comedic nature of the game.

A few years ago, I specifically used this "Munchkin + randomiser" concept as the basis for my game Town Guard (which was a finalist in a contest by The Game Crafter), so I know it works in a variety of contexts.

Bell Curves
I didn't necessarily tie the idea of bell curves to gaming until I saw it mentioned in various forums in the early 2000s. Despite this, it's exactly what we were playing with.

The chances of the attacker rolling a natural 4, while the defender rolled a 1, were 1 in 16... and the same for the opposite scenario. There was more chance (1 in 4) that equal numbers would be rolled, with other decreasing probabilities of results as they became more extreme. The outliers were spectacular because they came up less often.

Multiple Dice
If I was doing it again, I'd consider allowing players to roll two dice for their creatures, one added to power, and one added to toughness. Roll the dice, then allocate them...first the attacker, then the defender. It might slow things down a bit, but the added level of strategic thinking would add some interest. Another option might be to roll three dice, discard the highest result, then allocate the others... this would keep the low rolling numbers more prominent, but still allow the occasional heroic die roll to slip through for epic storytelling later.
Moving Forward
All these thoughts have come to mind because I've been considering the street gang game that has occasionally demanded a bit of thought. The premise is a pair of decks for each player, one with gang recruits, and one with strategic elements (such as equipment, situational advantages for yourself, situational disadvantages for your opponents, etc.) The first time I remember it appearing as a coherent concept used Goblin mobs in the goblin labyrinth. A player draws the top six gang recruits from their gang deck, then sorts them into two rows of three. The front row of three are face-up and fight against the opponent's front face-up rank. The second rank are face-down, they step forward (and flip to face up status) once a member of the front rank is eliminated.

When members of respective front ranks come into contact with each other, a flurry of cards from the strategic deck affects the outcome. At the end of the conflict both gang members may survive, one may die, or fluke incidents both may die. A survivor might retreat back to the second rank to tend their wounds, or they may return to the deck. A gang member who dies is placed in a discard pile.

One version of the game saw characters roll a die and add the value to the power and toughness analogues in the game. A later iteration saw separate dice added to powet, and to toughness. The current iteration of the game allows a series of dice to be rolled actoss the team, then allocated to specific members as hero points. These points are used to activate powers written on the card and pay for strategy cards in the player's hand.

Now it's just a case of balancing those costs and effects, and trying to work out where a good balance between karma and fortune applies for this project.

22 March, 2018


Back in the mid 1990s, we played a variant on Magic: the Gathering for a while. We didn't pay it for long because it wasn't 'proper' Magic, and most of the other people we tried to get involved in the games just couldn't handle it.

The variant was simple. Every time a creature attacked or defended you rolled a d4, the power and toughness of the creature were boosted by the result. If a 1/1 creature rolled a 4, it might take down a 4/4 creature that rolled a 1... it might walk away unscathed from a conflict with a 3/3 creature who rolled a 1. There would only be a 1 in 16 chance of it occurring, but there was still the outside chance of a upset. Similarly, once a creature managed to score a hit on a player the player rolled a d4 to reflect a potential mystical barrier that might absorb some or all of the hit. The dice were only rolled at the end of the conflict, when everything is being resolved.

The simple concept made certain abilities more powerful, others less powerful, and changed a number of fundamental dynamics in the game. Zero cost ornithopters became potential nightmares bringing lethal strikes from above.

To counterbalance a bit of the added danger, we specified that a creatures cost an extra colorless mana... and while this generally worked, it was a case that for every rule we added in to balance things out, another aspect of the game would become unbalanced.

It was a fun idea, but needed to be integrated into the game from the beginning, because when we were adding it in, the game was already a fine tuned engine. The variant was fun for a while, and it added a degree of novelty, but after a while it became very easy to abuse.


19 March, 2018

Neither here, nor there

Edges are mystically powerful. The transition between open plains and dense forest, the coastline between land and sea, the wizard's tower between the earth and the sky. The places unable to be clearly defined as neither one thing or another make a natural home for energies in flux, for the transformation of things.

The realms of the Dark Places have laws of their own... these may follow the laws of the physical realm, an internally consistent dream rules, a paradigm matching an ancient set of mythical lore, or something else entirely. Magic can often be woven in these realms, but only if it follows the laws of the realm. The most powerful mystics learn to bridge realms with stable wormholes... much like a wizards tower connecting the earth and the sky. Within such wormholes, the wizard's belief sets the reality; these places exist outside time and space, they are sanctum sanctorum. Within a wormhole, a wizard may create subrealms according to their whim. Such realms might be connected like the rooms in a house, with doors and corridors joining them (often for the comfort of outsider visitors more than any requirement for the creating wizard), other wizards may allow the subconscious chaos of dream logic to connect a surreal landscape of subrealms.

There are very few wizards powerful enough to make them, and even then wormholes need a pair of stable realms to connect to. If either collapses, the wormhole, and any subrealms within it are also collapsed.

18 March, 2018

Tweaking the fiddly bits

I've got a couple of hundred regular readers here, based on my daily viewer stats, even if I assume a percentage of them are just bots that trawl through pages and hit the pageview counter. The vast majority of you are silent, but a few of you provide 'likes' and '+1s', and some offer me interesting ideas or queries in comments and reshares. To those people, I'm grateful.

Today though, a bit more about my generic version of The Law (the project with the working title of SNAFU). There are quite a few ideas that didn't make it into the core rules for The Law, and a few design decisions under the surface which led to after effects and surface elements tbat might require a bit of unpacking.

Benj Davis has brought up the concept of converting the Rank die to a generic format. Because I've been working with the background concepts so deeply over recent years, I didn't realise how strongly it appeared intertwined with the heirarchical structure of the Department of Law. The essence of the Rank die was drawn from the Name die in John Harper's Agon RPG, where the original idea reflected a blend of fame, arete, and heroic closeness to divinity. I retained the idea that this was the core die used in pretty much every die roll, but it made sense in my game to link it across to a character's rank as an agent.

This will never function as a "generic" system. I admit that there are types of games where the mechanisms of play will be a bit too much of a stretch from the intended conventions of a specified genre. But renaming this specific die to something more appropriate to the intended genre would be hard. A steampunk criminal interpretation might see the 'ranks' increase through levels of 'urchin'/'light-finger'/'schemer'/'racketeer'/'mastermind'... a magical interpretation might see 'ranks' of 'novice'/'disciple'/'adept'/'master'/'oracle'... these are just spur of the moment ideas, and I'd probably give a lot more thought to logical progressions in a final product.

One of the rules that got cut from the base book for The Law, was the idea of different departments within the agency. There were either going to be four or six departments during iterations of the idea. Four would directly correspond to the attributes (physical = SWAT team, social = Undercover, mental = Investigation, paranormal = PSI division), six would have combined a pair of attributes to get it's divisions (phy+soc, phy+men, phy+para, soc+men, soc+para, men+para). When characters were doing something specifically relating to the purview of a given department, they'd roll their department die instead of their general rank die. The idea was ultimately abandoned, because choice of abilities helped define characters in this way, and it felt like it was overcomplicating an otherwise elegant system. It will probably come back in a players guide as an optional rule, where department rank counts as an advantage die that is only added under specific circumstances. These departments could easily be substituted for generic occupations in other settings (swap out 'SWAT team' for 'warrior', or 'PSI division' for 'wizard', etc.) Specific dice like this would be raised independently of the rank die, and while the rank die has the overall rule that it may never be the highest (or equal highest) die until a attribute reaches d12, these division advantage dice would be linked to a specific attribute, and never be able to exceed it's die level.

I've been toying with similar ideas for schools of magic and elemental affinities in the Familiar branch of the game.

Long story short... consider what the game is about, what kind of organisation or community the characters work within. The game isn't really designed for loners. The Rank die reflects the overall power, notoriety, and accomplishments of the individual within that community. But always remember that a Rank die is limited by the attribute dice, and a higher rank die brings bigger threats to the table. It was deliberately designed as a two-edged sword to prevent it becoming too overpowered in the game.

Another thing to consider when adapting the rule system would be the choice of abilities available to the characters. A 'drive' skill wouldn't be important to a medieval game, a 'wilderness survival' skill wouldn't see a lot of use in urban fantasy.

I like the idea of at least five skills or abilities per category, and preferably a number around ten. That's probably a throwback to Cyberpunk2020 and the Storyteller System, but it feels nice. I've also tried to make sure a couple of skills in each category are a bit more exclusive by limiting their choice to characters who meet certain attribute minimums (typically d8 in an attribute opens these up)... while also providing a couple of skills that have the potential to be upgraded to an advanced form. The whole point is to maintain a general consistency, while adding a bit of diversity where I felt the core concepts were lacking. Although it doesn't appear in The Law, a 'music' skill developed for a specific genre of game might break down into specialised forms for a variety of instruments, musical styles, or composition.

16 March, 2018

Boiling down the Essence

I'm working on the essence of The Law, because a few people have said that they like the system and would be interested in seeing it adapted to urban fantasy, standard fantsy, or even sword-&-sorcery. It's a sturdy enough core, not particularly wedded to the setting except through a couple of character abilities, and the investigation mechanisms (which could fairly easily be adapted to quest mechanisms).

So the aim would be to produce a little 8 page booklet, or maybe a couple of pocketmods that boil down the essence of the rules. I previously described it as the SRD of The Law, but now I'm just calling it SNAFU which basically links it back to its roots in my game FUBAR.   

15 March, 2018

Mortals and Immortals

Another interesting post amongst the mini zeitgeist I'm currently working in can be found at the Pits Perilous blog by Olde House Rules (find the post here). It delves into the idea of long lived characters such as elves, and to a lesser extent dwarves, compared to traditionally shorter lived races such as humans.

The article can instantly be seen as analogous to my dilemma of using player character spirits and familiars who run the gamut from a infant spritelings couple of months old through to immortal forces of nature for whom the entirety of recorded history has been the blink of an eye.

It proposes an elegant solution, where all races reach maturity at much the same pace, then diverge once adulthood is attained. I've proposed similar ideas in the past, where human genetics sees cell degradation gradually accelerate (thus causing aging), while the cell degradation of other races occurs at differing rates (thus accounting for their varied lifespans while seeing basic maturity manifest at roughly the same age). But for spirit beings, who have chronologically been "alive" for exponentially different timeframes, this doesn't really cut it.

I guess it goes back to the concept of what experience is. I've already decided that experience does not equate to age, but rather is proportional to the activity of the individual, and the risks they have taken. Existing in the real world is a risky activity, but it provides knowledge and power about maintaining an ongoing existence. Observing the world from up close may also provide knowledge, but it's less visceral, so the accumulation of data is a slower process. Observing from afar is safer still, but only really grants macroscopic data of the widest trends. It then seems easy for us to tie a rate of spiritual aging, to the closeness of that spirit to reality. Those who manifest in "meat-space" age and develop at the rate of the mortals. Those who linger in the penumbral periphery might age at a fraction of that rate (for argument, lets say a tenth)... here they exist on the edge of a mortal's vision, they can observe but not interact. Those who exist in deeper planes may be able to observe the penumbra, but they cannot see anything of the material-plane/"meatspace" beyond its ripples through the spirit realms (to continue the analogy, such beings might age at a hundredth of the mortal rate). Beings further detached from reality start to lose their point of reference to mortals, they need to fracture their essence to create avatars capable of drawing closer to the mortal realm, or spawn angels, demigods and other lesser spirits to act as intermediaries (such beings would age at a thousandth of the mortal rate, or slower still if they existed even further from the physical).

If an average mortal lifespan is 70-100 years, we suddenly have commonly encountered spirits capable of living several centuries to a millenium... distant spirits capable of living several millennia... and alien beings observing on the edge of reality who could easily watch ice ages come and go. But the longer the lifespan, the more alien and exotic they are, and the less they are able to meaningfully interact with the mortal world. There's the balance.

Similarly, we get periods of activity or periods of slumber/torpor/inactivity. I'm seeing a lot of spirits functioning in the Dark Places as drones. As such, they perform a simple duty in the spirit realm that supports the structure of the mortal realm, but it is when they break from this drone activity that things get interesting. These are the stories we tell. Most characters will have a few years of meaningful experiences to draw on, the youngest ones might be in contact with an Akashic record, or retain  fragmentary knowledge from the greater spirit who spawned them.

I like where this is heading, but there's more work to do.

13 March, 2018

Balance and Imbalance.

Yesterday's post got a bit of feedback, and that's great. It's also interesting to see parallel discussions emerging on various Facebook groups today. I don't know whether it's my superpower of "Tapping the Zeitgeist" at work again, or if those people starting the discussions were prompted by reading my blog. Either way, there's some good thoughts out there and I'd love to engage the area more deeply.

One of the great points raised, came from Joseph Teller...

"The questions in design you need to ask yourself is, does Age=Experience or does Activity=Experience?"

It's an awesome question that isn't really addressed in a lot of games.

I'll address it with some instances I've seen over the years. It was probably about four years ago when I joined up with the fledgling Clans of Elgardt LARP. During tbe first couple of months there were teething problems, including a "gold = XP" system akin to the early days of D&D. A policy was established where teams could pool their gold tnen withdraw it for upgrades. I saw a number of teams at this time, who had numerous characters contributing, with the same one or two "leaders" getting first serve of the gold after every session. This led to charismatic or intimidating players getting the best characters in the game. This was exacerbated by the way these large teams would get most of the game's rewards due to sheer weight of numbers. When called out on this, these privileged players claimed that since they had the best characters, they contributed more, and it was only fair that they got more rewards...a self fulfilling prophecy which rapidly led to more extreme imbalance as the games went by.

This is clearly something I want to avoid.

Let's go back further, 15-20 years ago, to the turn of the millennium. I was playing and running the various Minds Eye Theatre (MET) LARPs, under the umbrella of the global Camarilla organisation. Based on the Storyteller System from White Wolf, the MET games streamlined things and made politics and social intrigue the driving factors in the narrative. This came at the expense of other parts of the game (such as the combat system which was notoriously terrible), but produced a distinct style of play. The Camarilla organisation applied it's own meta-rule framework around the MET core, giving richer background interaction for players to drive storyline, and allowing players who had done service for the game in the real world to gain advantages within the fictional world. For example, a player who ran games for a year or two might be rewarded with characters who started play with higher rank or more XP. A player who sacrificed their character for the good of a wider story involving other characters might be offered an exclusive character type to play next. Chatacters would gain XP for turning up, filing a report for the organisers, and maybe for making a bit of extra effort like wearing a costume or engaging other players in their stories...that's about it. One character might have been created two years ago, but if they weren't regularly attending games, a new character might match them in XP after a few sessions. Similarly, a boosted character started by a prestigious player might have the edge initially, but they'd have to regularly play to maintain that edge. Yes, there were people who abused the system, and yes, it wasn't perfect...but it was aiming at turning the hobby into something more commumal.

This is closer to what I'm after.

Neither of these really specifically addresses my concerns. But they hold clues to what I do and don't want. So, I'll look at some of those Facebook posts.
This screen-capture from gets really close to what I'm aiming for when it comes to asymmetrical play.

So does this one. 

I want characters of different power levels, but I want everyone to be able to contribute relatively equally to the game narrative. I want ancient characters, who have shaped empires and history, to stumble when they encounter a smart phone while the young cyberpunk street urchin has no trouble at all with the phone but gets utter.y lost in the catacombs under the city because they have no idea what happened more than 20 years ago (except the revisionist history they've seen in movies... "but in the movie, there was a secret passage here").

So a lot of it boils down to what power actually is in the game.

It reminds me of Cyberpunk 2020... why would you play a Solo or a Media, when you could play a Corporate who could relatively easily hire either of these types when the need arises, letting them take the risk so you don't have to??... because those who take the risks are the ones involved in more interesting stories, and taking risks brings experience.

I know this isn't for everyone, but I like games where there is enough risk that the end of a character's story is alway a few steps and a couple of die rolls away. The d20/OSR level zero and level one characters who could die at a moments notice against a giant rat don't have enough agency for me. The characters beyond level 10 wno are basically gods among the mortal world bore me, especially when combat ends up with six whiffs for every strike, and each strike literally tzkes away no more than 5% of an opponent's hit points... I came here for story, not for rolling dice and looking up tables for two hours. Levels four to seven are the sweet spot for me in that style of play, a few good hits are dangerous, characters start picking up some of the fun quirky abilities, and the world opens up. No character is more than twice as powerful as any other, and a decent DM/GM/Referee can create a range of situations where the less powerful characters still have a chance to shine. Beyond that, I'm happy to retire a character and work my way through that sweet spot again and again.

12 March, 2018

Unbalanced Asymmetry

The grizzled veteran partnered with the new recruit...the master and their apprentice...the immortal wizard, the elf who has lived for centuries, the dwarf only slightly younger, and the hobbits barely out of their adolescence.

We've all encountered the stories where characters are not equals, yet it remains the default state of the table that everyone is "equal". I've certainly encountered long term games where characters are killed off, and then any new characters are introduced at base level. I'm similarly aware of campaign play in Ars Magica or Pendragon, where a single story can continue over the turning of decades and  generations. But the default is still the "equal" party across most gaming. Personally, I think the potential dynamics of young and old characters offers an added level to a story.

I'm thinking of a system where characters start the game at various levels. Those who are young are still filled with dynamism and wonder, they may not have much experience, but they can quickly adapt and learn new things...those who are old have become set in their ways, alien in their thinking, and laden with ennui, they struggle to asassimilate new knowledge and techniques. In The Law we might be looking at the difference between a fresh academy graduate, and a veteran "with three days to retirement". In Familiar (or "the unnamed denizens of the Dark Places" project, which may or may not end up different), this might be the difference between a freshly spawned digital sprite and an ancient primordial entity who has maintained an aspect of fundamental reality since the dawn of time. Vampire: the Masquerade tried to do something like this in a few of the sourcebooks designed to address the "elders" of the setting. But the Vampire way of addressing the concept was messy and inelegant. One of the much discussed issues in Vampire (and all games in the Storyteller System) is the way element costs at character generation vary compared to the systems used in play to increase those elements, and then you've got freebie points that work in a different way again. This basically means you can create a character designed to be a "builder", who might seem sub-optimal at the start of play, but once experience points (XP) are added after a few games such a character can shoot ahead of everyone else in raw ability despite earning the same XP. The "Elder" addendum to which I'm referring just makes this more unbalanced by further  modifying the XP expenditure and tacking on extra freebie points. But it kind of goes in the direction I need; I can see that it was aiming the right way, but didn't quite hit the mark for me.

I guess my biggest gripe with the system presented is the fact there are already two subsystems at play with a disconnect between them, and this tacks on a third subsystem without addressing the discrepancy between the first two.

The experience system in The Law is basically derived from Mordheim. It has a track of checkboxes, and some of those checkboxes are bold. Every time a bold checkbox is reached, a character gains an upgrade; but as the boxes are marked, tbose bold boxes get gradually further apart. Mordheim addresses the issue of asymmetrical power levels by simply giving the team leader higher stats, but automatically checking off 20 boxes... therefore instantly making future upgrades for tbe leader harder to achieve regularly. Team lieutenants have slightly upgraded stats, but check off 8 boxes. Another factor comes into play with various costs to recruit team members, but that makes sense for a skirmish miniatures game. The balance in Mordheim isn't perfect, but it's also aiming in the right direction for me. It also has the implicit idea that not all characters are expected to survive the session. 

So I'm up in the air again.

I'm really tempted to use a semi-random allocation system again. Such a system might use d4, d6, and d8, with allocation categories including the number of XP checkboxes already marked off (and associated advantages gained), the number of special contacts and other advantages gained (which are usually acquired through roleplaying and narrative rather than mechanistic XP), and the final category would be the number of penalties a character has picked up over the years (which would be like the sacrifices in the regular game, where better rolls equal less problems). Such a system deliberately promotes differences in characters, while adding depth to tnose characters who do have a few stories in their background.

Still thinking though.

11 March, 2018


I've got this nasty habit of overanalysing things.

I come up with a concept, then I tinker with it... I add bits to it... I work out how those new bits have modified the core... then modify them or add new bits until the whole thing is a Frakenstein mess that ends up getting stripped back to a raw foundation again. Sometimes the new iteration is back at the starting point, and sometimes it's a very different beast... at which point I analyse the differences to see what fulfils my goals better. It's an ongoing cycle.

I shared my intention for a Dark Places character generation system, with 3 fragments determined by rolling a bunch of dice then allocating the results between different columns of a table. I've been working on this concept within the context of generating characters who would use the same system and be vaguely comparable in power to the Agents in The Law. This basically means attributes with an average starting score of d6, four defenses, four to seven abilities (where every ability less than seven contributes an extra defense), and four advantages (where The Law sees these starting advantages manifest as bonus equipment requisitioned from the department, while these new characters would gain spiritual/magical powers).

The Law uses a vague lifepath system, building characters through their childhood, adolescence, then time in the Law academy; each step adding elements to the character. But my thoughts about how to modify Steve Dee's Relics have influenced my character creation ideas for this new system. The Dark Places are filled with spirits manifested through various means, some might be lingering souls or echoes of a mortal's influence in the world, others might be primordial entities manifested from the very soulstuff of the cosmos. These aren't the narrowly defined agents who've been through a specific process of education and indoctrination, they are outsiders in every sense of the word. It almost feels easier to define what they are not, rather than trying to define what they are (and in certain iterations of the design process, this definition by exception is exactly what I tried to do), but I've previously expressed my disdain for the "design by exception" school of thought through the idea that it's always cleaner to define basic rulings that cover everything that can be, rather than continually developing rules for specifics that might be.

That basically means I'm trying to develop a system that can basically handle a huge variety of concepts, while honing outcomes toward certain more likely results. Maybe a fool's errand...? At this stage the only thing going through my head is that there needs to be a focal point, a funnel that channels the various character concepts to a singularity of purpose before allowing them to go their separate ways again.

In a tribal society, this might be a rite of passage. A variety of people are valued in the tribe, diversity of skills and abilities is important for communal survival, but to be considered an adult, a specific set of tasks needs to be accomplished.

In The Law, this function is served by the academy.  Maybe the denizens of the Dark Places have become self aware through a distinct awakening process, this also helps with the idea that some denizen spirits might only be a few months old, while others have lived millennia. Before the awakening, they were simply cogs in a grand cosmic machine, after the awakening the adventures begin.

One of my versions of this character generation system saw the equivalent of race providing base attributes (and an ability/skill), the equivalent of occupation provided more skills (and an advantage), and the characters age provided a range of advantages (along with some abilities/skills)... then a few bonus points could be applied anywhere to round out the character. It felt close, but not quite there. Adding this awakening catalyst might help.

...anyway, back to the overanalysing.     

10 March, 2018

What's happening to Walkabout?

So much happening in the background...so many moving parts in my life at the moment. Walkabout hasn't been forgotten, it's just fermenting a little more.

For the moment, here's an important project which will certainly help to feed into the game's narrative.

09 March, 2018

Dwellers in the Dark

Unlike this article by Zak S., I'm not going to claim that I'm a genius inventor of something. More often than not, I say that I'm riding a cultural zeitgeist, sometimes putting together the fragments out there in the ether before someone with a bigger profile puts together similar components and gets the kudos for "an innovative and original idea". (If you don't include the degree of arrogance and ignorance, it's actually a decent article, with some useful stuff in the one place that would normally be spread across multiple sources).

Many of the ideas in The Law are indirectly taken from the work of John Harper (where the rank die is akin to the "Hero Die" in Agon, and the connection to Ghost/Echo througn my own game FUBAR), and the work of D. Vincent Baker (most notably his abandoned Otherkind Dice, which many people believe were morphed into the Apocalypse engine).

One of the things I did first in FUBAR was more closely linked to Otherkind Dice  rolling a group of d6s, then allocating die results between options (in this case success, sacrifice, and story). I always had trouble with the idea of varying difficulties and character proficiency levels in the original set-up, but vaguely wandering through other system designs led to the current solution... a solution that seems elegant and has been working really well. So now we roll different types of dice, modify them and then allocate them.

As a game system it's been really easy for new players to pick up, but I feel like it can do more...

...which leads to the topic of the post.

In the random tower creation system I've been developing for The Law, there are a few tables with 3 columns and 10 rows. When determining results from the tables, you roll a d6, a d8, and a d10. This has the combined effect of making the first six rows on the table more likely as results, while also ensuring there may only ever be a maximum of one result of 9 or 10 (which would need to be allocated, if it came up), a maximum of two results of 7 or 8, or three potential results of 6 or less.

This means the random creation of settings plays out in a similar way to the mechanisms that drive play. It keeps the whole system coherent. I also like the idea that a character creation system should introduce players to the mechanisms of play that they'll be using to tell their stories.

Why not use something similar to generate our Dwellers in the Dark? A semi-random generation system with allocated results from 3 columns with 10 rows each. The first 6 rows on each column would be fairly common archetypal fragments, the seventh and eighth less common, while the ninth and tenth would be exclusive options. A base character would be made by combining the three chosen archetypal fragments to make a whole.

That gives our three columns, three distinct fragment types...like the old "tribe"/"auspice"/"breed" setup in Werewolf: the Apocalypse, or like the similar setups I've used in many of my other games over the years. In this situation, I might use "manifestation", "role", and "origin".

Manifestation - the character's essence, the catalyst that brought them into being.

  1. Ghost - your soul lingered in the dark places after your body perished 
  2. Figment - you were given life by the imagination of a mortal 
  3. Avatar - you were spawned from the fractured essence of a more powerful being
  4. Echo - your birth was the unexpected side effect of a spell/paranormal effect.
  5. Gaunt - you spontaneously manifested from the ectoplasm of the dark places
  6. Phantasm - you manifested in a dream or nightmare
  7. Mirrorkin - you began as the reflection of something in the physical realm
  8. Changeling - you were abducted from the physical realm and have become something else.
  9. Incarnate - you are a conscious manifestation of your first role with the potential to become a god
  10. Enigma - there is no rhyme nor reason to your existence

Role - the first role that the character had in the spiritual dark places.

  1. Sentinel - you protected something/someone/somewhere
  2. Patron - people revered you for your connection to a specific concept or ideal
  3. Muse - you inspired people to do a specific type of thing
  4. Valkyrie - you led the souls of the departed through the dark places to their final rest
  5. Companion - you were someone's imaginary friend
  6. Hero - you were called to perform tasks in the penumbra for immortal beings
  7. Angel - you were responsible for maintaining one of the universe's fundamental constants 
  8. Totem - you provided a service to a shaman in the dark places
  9. Familiar - you worked with a reality shaper in the physical realm
  10. Independent - you had no specific duties in the dark places

Origin - when and where the character first appeared in the dark places.
  1. Months ago, in the penumbra close to the mundane physical realm
  2. Years ago, in the penumbra close to the mundane physical realm
  3. Years ago, in (or near) one of the stable orbiting subrealms
  4. Decades ago, in the penumbra close to the mundane physical realm
  5. Decades ago, in (or near) one of the stable orbiting subrealms
  6. Centuries ago, but it's been so long that you can't remember where
  7. Centuries ago, in one of the lost subrealms of myth/legend
  8. Millennia ago, in a realm that has been lost to the mists and darkness of time 
  9. Millennia ago, but it's been so long that you can't remember where
  10. Before recorded history, perhaps beyond time and space entirely
Like everything, these ideas are very subject to change.


In The Law, I've got a quirky little table used to describe the reason an Agent joined the academy. It has two parts to the table...one derived from a character's highest attribute, and one from their lowest attribute. Each attribute is cross referenced to a random result to create the start or end of a sentence, these are combined to give a deep character motivation.

I think a part of the inspiration for this was stuff I was reading at the time about the starting equipment packages in Into the Odd, with my own spin applied. The whole idea was to get a wide variety of motivations, where different motivations basically made sense in the context of the character's stats.

This comes back to mind, because someone I follow on Instagram shared the following image...

...I'm reading it as an interesting cross-referencing of two elements that might define a character, and then an idea for the most appropriate character class to fulfil these elements. That's basically circled me back around to the idea of tables that draw on two different elements of a character, or a single element and a randomiser. I like this idea over the standard tables you find in most games where a single randomiser unrelated to anything else suddenly applies something to a character. Don't get me wrong, sometimes a random element provides a juxtaposition that can be explored through play, but sometimes it's just annoying.

I'm thinking of furthering this whole idea as a series of questions that a player needs to answer for their character through the course of play. In The Law, there are rank dice which are more powerful that others and could be vaguely equated to a character's "level", so a character might generate 6 questions based on cross-referenced character elements, or character elements and randomisers. A player increses their character's rank die a maximum of 4 times (d4 to d6, d6 to d8, d8 to d10, d10 to d12... but they might die before they reach the top), so they'd have to choose one of these questions to reveal a definitive answer to each time.

Some questions might revolve around the agent's family, their contacts across the city, or other elements that tell us specific things that add depth to the character? These aren't elements automatically applied, but instead act as prompts that players might not have considered for their characters.

This idea will probably change half a dozen times before I finally apply it to something.

07 March, 2018

The Dark Places

Oubliette. Umbra. Shadowlands. Dreamscape.
I've been working on some ideas again which I revisit every couple of years. I call it "The Dark Places", I don't know if I've mentioned it here on the blog. I have mentioned a few projects relating to them. It's basically a spirit realm, or network of interconnected realms orbiting around a planet like electron clouds orbiting an atomic nucleus. It's basically the way I ran most of White Wolf's spirit realms from the various World of Darkness games, and now it seems to be working as the wider cosmology for the familiars that I've been toying with (and the spiritual realm that exists around the setting of The Law). A lot of it goes back to a character I called Chimera, a daughter of the god Morpheus, cast out of reality to inhabit the realms of spirits and dreams, only living vicariously in the mortal plane by entering the dreams of mortals, and seeing a twisted interpretation of the world through the lens of phantasm.

That character was one I never got around to introducing in a game, but she was always intended to be one of those mysterious quest giving figures, unable to manipulate the real world and needing agents to fulfil her agenda. There might be others working against her too.

The spheres work as shells of stability, an innermost shell is the mundane world. A second shell is populated by the people and things you see out of the corner of your eye, daydreams, things that can be pulled into reality with a bit of effort but aren't quite there yet. A third shell is less tangible still; echoes of echoes, realms of myth and legend that remain in orbit around the collective subconscious, cryptozoological creatures, and things unprovable by science. A fourth shell is stranger still.

In Cyberpunk 2020, a hacker could traverse an abstract digital cyberspace, or could enter a virtual reality. This concept is similar, with an astral traveller or spirit traversing a dark ectoplasmic realm shaped by consensual belief and moulded from the stuff of souls, but at certain points there is enough regular belief or dreaming consensus that a stable pocket realm forms... maybe a goblin market, a mountain fortress of the gods, an eldritch city of non-eucledean geometry, a lost city of gold. It's all there if you know how to look for it.

Familiars would be denizens from those stable realms, somehow caught in the mundane, but holding onto a fragment of the arcane and serving as a catalyst for those with the potential to shape reality (whether mutants, mystics, or agents of the Law). 

04 March, 2018

Nucleotide Bases

There are basically four nucleotide bases, which make up the DNA. Adenine (A),Guanine (G), Thymine (T) and Cytosine(C). A DNA sequence looks some thing like this "ATTGCTGAAGGTGCGG". DNA is measured according to the number of base pairs it consists of, usually in kBp or mBp(Kilo/Mega base pairs).
I knew that yesterday's post was problematic. It was like giving someone the recipe to C4. Even of you know it can be used for good purposes, throwing it out there for anyone to use is asking for trouble. It might be time to pull in anothet idea I had z few yeats ago.

Instead of rolling a d8 for each of the eighths, maybe roll a string of d4s, marking the results in order. Now the die results represent something a bit more abstract, the nucleotide bases of a DNA string. With 23 base pairs, we could maybe use a d10 for the Genetic ID die. If the random results were evenly distributed, tnere would be 5 or 6 of each protein type, thus giving an even chance of a bonus or penalty with the items. If a charactet is skewed toward one protein type, they'd be less receptive to the others.

This might be a better path to pursue.

03 March, 2018

The Cult of the Genetic Locus

I've had idea... it's for my game "The Law", if you haven't looked at it, go and do so immediately (it's on the GM's Day Sale)...

The setting is Judge Dredd with the serial numbers filed off. There are mutants, cultists, rogue AIs, and corrupt agents to investigate. I've had what I think is a fun antagonist for a future sourcebook  but I think it might be a bit delicate and potentially troublesome. It's a fanatical religious pseudo-mystical cult who believe in eugenics, genetic purity, and a concept of 7 progenitors who founded the races of humanity. The aim would be to draw on the writings of the 19th century Theosophical Society (yes, those same writings that basically ended up contributing to the worldview of the Nazis), then to apply a pseudo-mystic technology to the concept.

My seven progenitors will be semi-mythical beings, from millennia ago. Basically one from each continent; negroid, mongol, caucasoid, australoid, polynesian, [middle eastern] and [amerind].

I'm not going to say one race is better than another, nor am I going to automatically apply traits or attribute bonuses to characters based on their racial heritage. Instead it's the purity that this cult seeks. For generations the cult have engaged in eugenics and selective breeding, to spawn the "perfect caucasian/polynesian/[insert race here]". Meanwhile the population explosion and intermingling of cultures has lead to the average citizen on the street becoming more mixed and less pure as time has progressed.

From a game mechanism perspective, all characters are divided into eighths. If tne cult is being used in the campaign, a player may choose up to 4 of those eighths as heritage to a particular genetic blueprint, they roll a d8 for each eighth not specifically chosen (where 1-7 represent one the genetic heritages, while an 8 is a genetic code so mixed that it doesn't register as any). NPCs in the cult may have more of their eighths specifically chosen...where status in tne cult is measured by how pure your lineage is.

Rico Honda has 3 Caucasian, 2 Amerind, 2 Mongol, 1 Polynesian.
Chandra Kwan has 4 [middle eastern], 3 Mongol, 1 Negroid.
Takehashi Ashikaga, the cultist has 7 Mongol, 1 generic.

The cult's technology is attuned to the specific genetic codes of the progenitors, this is true of weapons, med-kits, psi-shields, etc. You always set the device to a specific code then roll an additional Genetic ID d8 when using it. Compare the d8 to the number of eighths possessed by the target for the specified code. If the Genetic ID die is equal to of less than the target's specified genes, a success level is added, if the genetic die is greater, a success level is taken away.

A cult "Gene-Lock Taser" is set to "Mongol"... if the cult shooter's Genetic ID die is 3 or less when shooting Chandra, she cops a bigger hit. It would require a 2 or less on Rico. If it were fired at Takehashi on that setting it would almost always do extra damage (only a roll of 8 would avoid cause problems). If the taser were set to "Caucasian", there would be a chance of a bigger hit to Rico, but both Chandra and Takehashi would never see extra successes when shot on that setting.

Conversely, a cult "Gene-Lock Medi-Nano" would heal more damage if the setting matched and Genetic ID die was low enough. Such a device set to "[middle eastern]", has a 50/50 chance of repairing more damage to Chandra, but would always suffer penalties when used on Rico or Takehashi in this manner.

Thus genetic heritage becomes a two edged sword, you want your allies knowing it to maximise their ability to give you bonuses...you don't want your enemies knowing it and maximising their damage against you.

Any thoughts?

02 March, 2018


If you aren't challenging yourself in some way, you aren't going to develop.

I always trying to push myself artistically, or in some other way to develop a new skill or refine a skill I've got.

I'm also a strong believer that if you're going to call someone out, you need to back up your words.

So, when I called out James Shields for his half-inch square map, I had to do something adequately interesting to compete with it. So, why not a new thumbnail map, but this time continuing across all my nails.