Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘story games’

I recently discovered a new game that blew my mind when I read it: Swords Without Master, by Epidiah Ravachol.

Its genre is sword & sorcery — think Conan the Barbarian, although the author specifically cites Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories as inspiration.

What blew my mind was the game mechanics.  They are entirely focused on directing and inspiring storytelling.  There is no conflict resolution mechanic!  The dice are used to set the tone of narration, to trigger plot twists, to cue a new mystery, but never to determine a character’s success or failure (sometimes they’ll do that anyway, but that won’t be why you’re rolling).

It is as if the author asked himself: “Can I distill short-story writing down to a formula?  Now, can I make the formula into a group activity?  Now can I add rules and dice to make it fun?” And Swords Without Master is the result.  It’s group improv story-telling, with just enough direction from the rules to challenge and inspire, and to bring forth story elements like themes, morals, tension, and pacing.

Upon first read, it seemed completely different than anything else I’d ever seen.  Now, I can see the family resemblance to other story games like Fiasco (which I’ve only read) and 1001 Nights (which I’ve only read about).

It’s clear from the manuscript that Ravachol knows and loves the genre, and the art of writing.  The game text is economical and evocative like a good short story.

Just as interesting is the game’s packaging.  Ravachol publishes an e-zine of sword & sorcery short fiction and games, called Worlds Without Master.  This game, Swords Without Master, was included in issue 3.  The game was arguably his reason for starting the zine, and all of the zine’s other articles (thus far) can be seen as supplemental or inspirational material for the game.

I haven’t played the game yet.  But I know that I have to.  Not only because I’m a big fan of sword & sorcery fiction, but because one of my big fascinations with role-playing games (and fiction) is to explore the secrets of story structure.  This game does that directly.  My only question is: will any of my regular gaming buddies want to try it?

-J

Read Full Post »

2014 is turning out to be a really, really good year for new games.  Not only is Vincent Baker actively and publicly developing the next Apocalypse World game, and so far it looks brilliant; but Ron Edwards (of Sorcerer fame) is developing and publishing a new RPG!  The latter, called Circle of Hands, Kickstartered in March and is due to be published by the end of the year.  From now until the end of the summer, Ron is running an open playtest of the working draft.  What a great opportunity, not just to get a sneak preview of a favourite designer’s latest game, but also to participate in game development with him!  I grabbed the playtest document and assembled a few friends to play it with me.

Circle of Hands is a gritty story-now RPG set in a fictional iron-age land that culturally and technologically resembles Northen Europe around 1000CE.  Not castles but walled towns.  Not kings but chieftains.  Not swords but spears.  There are no non-human races, but there are some fantastic monsters.  The combat mechanics aim to be fast, simple and brutal while bringing a measure of realism never before seen in a fantasy RPG.  And there is magic, oh is there magic.  Gone is the false choice of muscles or brains; if you want to wield magic, you’d better be strong enough.  There are no skinny bookish spellcasters in this harsh land.  Wizards mutter spells through gritted teeth, between spear thrust and shield bash.

Mitch, Peter and Christian stepped up to try out the game with me (David also volunteered, but due to interference by Real Life never actually made it to a session).  They really threw themselves into the true spirit of playtesting.  Although I offered to teach them the rules at the table, they all read the playtest doc ahead of the first session.  They gamely tried the different character options, and worked to test all the mechanics in play.  And best of all, they gave good post-game discussion and feedback.  All of our comments were enthusiastically received by Ron on the Adept Press forum, and lead to some very interesting conversations.  Our names will be in the published game.  We played three sessions in total, and it was a great experience.

What’s the game like?  As promised, fast and brutal.  A scenario is meant to be started and finished in one night, which we usually achieved without having to rush.  The game has an interesting scenario-generation mechanic for the GM, which doesn’t take long at all and results in some very charged situations.  It’s a story-now game, so the GM isn’t meant to plan out what happens.  He creates the initial conditions (location, problem, some NPCs), and then plays to find out what happens.  Game play includes a mandatory social roll for every PC/major-NPC interaction, which strongly influences how things proceed.  This is great, because it makes it impossible for the GM to plan what will happen in a scenario, and leads to some very interesting unexpected situations.

Besides the above, the game stands out for two reasons: the combat mechanics and the magic rules.

Combat mechanics

Whenever you attack OR are attacked, you enter a “clash” with your opponent.  You each roll attack and defense at once, and either one of you can injure the other.  You also get to decide how far you bias your action towards attack or defense.  And then there’s the Advantage die; one and only one character in each clash gets an extra die based on the immediate tactical situation.  There are no rounds, and what we would traditionally call the initiative order is very dynamic.  Whenever you attack or fight back, you go to the end of the initiative order.  If you get attacked a lot, you might never get to initiate any actions, but you could still be doing a lot of damage.  Any time, you can spend a point of Brawn to skip to the front of the line.  But don’t be a spendthrift: Brawn is also your damage modifier, your hit points AND your spell points!  In practice, all this meant for some very exciting combat scenes full of rapid reversals of fortune.  The mechanics are just complex enough to demand quick and strategic thinking.

Magic rules

All PCs use magic.  Wizard PCs have access to all of the spells; yes, all of them, right from the start.  Non-wizards select just a few spells for their repertoires.  There are two types of magic: White and Black.  As you might expect, White is all about healing and purity, and Black is demons and necromancy.  But don’t make the mistake of calling them Good and Evil; they’re both terrible.  White magic run amok will purify your village right out of existence, erasing it as surely as a horde of undead will.  All NPC wizards are devoted to one source of magic or the other, and the war between White and Black magic is the scourge of the setting world.  The PCs are unique in that they alone have sworn to use both kinds of magic in balance.  Spellcasting expends your Brawn attribute (as mentioned above), and using too much magic of one colour has permanent consequences.

Circle of Hands has a few other unique spins on the way we role-play.  I won’t try to get into them all now.  Overall, we really enjoyed the game, and as GM I was forced to practice some new techniques.  We and other playtesters did manage to find a couple of leaks in the rules.  Ron is currently re-writing and reformulating several parts of the game.  I look forward to playing it again soon; and to eventually receiving the finished product.

-J

Read Full Post »

All four of us in my gaming group are serious, serious gamers, we like the same types of games, and we get along great.  But despite all that, each of us brings very different games to the table.  We all take turns choosing the game and GMing.  Mike is very plugged in to the online indie gaming scene, and brings us the new hotness.  Ryan is on a lifelong quest to discover or build the perfect story-gaming system.  Peter’s tastes run to the crunchy, and he loves superhero games.  And me, well…

When I look at the history of the games that I have nominated and run, there are both expected and unexpected trends:

I’m attracted to settings more than systems.  I know that system is vitally important to the gaming experience, but when I read a new game and go “hell yeah I want to play that,” it’s usually because the fictional content (or “fluff”) has grabbed me.  I find this especially when reading the GUMSHOE games: Trail of Cthulhu, Ashen Stars, Night’s Black Agents, et al.  I don’t even particularly like the GUMSHOE system, but these games have evocative, detailed settings that are ripe for drama and adventure.  Setting-rich games are kind-of a problem with my group, though, which tends to prefer games with a low barrier to entry (i.e. not having a lot of setting material to memorize before the game can begin).  When I run a game, I tend to spend a lot of time developing setting and backstory content, and then trying to figure out how I’ll introduce it all during play (without boring exposition scenes).

But system IS important.  I like systems that aren’t too crunchy; I don’t want to have to keep flipping through the rulebook during the game.  A system should have explicit mechanics for driving the story forward and in unexpected directions.  I want to be surprised, even as the GM.  We end up mixing and matching systems and settings quite a bit.  For example, I ran a game in the Elric! (a.k.a Stormbringer) setting using the Sorcerer and Sword system (with great success).  But paradoxically, reading setting-free system rulebooks (e.g. Fate Core) leaves me cold.  I need some sets and costumes with my rules, even if I’ll never use them.

Sorcery, ghosts and demons.  These are favourite genres of mine that I keep coming back to.  I feel like there’s something about forbidden knowledge and Things That Should Not Be Named that I haven’t successfully invoked at the gaming table yet; but I can’t say exactly what that is.  I’ll keep exploring these genres until I do.

I just finished my turn in the GM’s chair, so my next opportunity to pick the game is probably a year away.  Still, I’m always reading new RPGs and supplements, and of course I want to play just about all of them.  Maybe looking back at my previous selections will help me to narrow down on what I’m really looking for.  Or maybe I’ll decide to try something completely different.

Read Full Post »

Ah, serendipity! Shortly after posting this, I learned of a game that does something like what I was just proposing. Dirty Secrets by Seth Ben-Ezra is a noir detective fiction game in which the players simultaneously construct a mystery and work to solve it. I haven’t read the game yet, but here’s what I’ve been able to gather from reading AP’s:

In a game of Dirty Secrets, there is one PC (the investigator), and all the other players perform different aspects of the traditional GM’s role: adjudicate rules, create adversity, play an NPC, etc.. Not only that, but the roles rotate throughout the game, including the role of PC. As play progresses, GM-aspect players are laying down clues and creating plot twists for others to integrate. The game is finished when one player (it may have to be the one playing the PC) proposes a solution to the mystery, and either proves it with the available evidence, or can force a confession. Before that final scene, nobody knows “who dunnit.”

I still want to work on that game idea that I started to sketch out in the previous post; but I can’t wait to read Dirty Secrets.

-J

Read Full Post »

As the GM, what you need in your hands for the next session is a list of Bangs and a pile of “Assets” (NPCs, monsters, demons, locations and items).  Here’s how you get there.

1. Review Player-Characters’ actions in the previous session.  What do you think they’ll do next?

  • List any new Assets you will need to support what the players (probably) want to do.
    Just list them for now.
  • Think up some more Bangs that you can use to add pressure to their current situations and plans.
    • List any new Assets that you’ll need to support those Bangs.

2. Think about each important NPC in turn (including PCs’ demons). (more…)

Read Full Post »

Our first session of play was last night and it was – pretty great!

I was a bit more apprehensive than enthusiastic, because I didn’t feel like I had enough bangs prepared, I hadn’t decided yet why Mike’s character’s son had been kidnapped ten years ago and where he was now (re: Mike’s backstory and kicker), and I hadn’t quite figured out the best way to bring the story from a throne-room intrigue to a world-roaming adventure story.

But despite all that, it was a fun session because I have great players :).  Everyone really got into their roles.  I was especially impressed with how well Pete and Ry embraced the “Melnibonean-ness” of their characters, casually discussing execution and dismemberment of family members while seeking the most appropriate way to respond to infidelity and other betrayals! (not gratuitously, but to highlight the contrast with the characters-of-conscience in the story; this juxtaposition will be an ongoing theme in this particular game).  And Mike more-or-less allowed himself to be captured and labelled a spy, because it would be good for the ensuing story! (more…)

Read Full Post »

Okay I got the relationship map sorted out — and it’s HUGE.  Right now it’s actually on four different pieces of paper, and I’m not sure that I’m going to bother transcribing it all onto one (poster-sized) sheet; it would probably be too unwieldy anyway.  We’ve got:

  • inter-personal relations (good and bad)
  • inter- noble-house relations (good and bad)
  • several schemes in progress

This is going to be great fun.

Now I’m statting up (stat’ing up?) NPCs, demons and other critters and items.  LOTS of them.  They’re each half a page, to save table space (let me know if you want me to post my character sheet templates).

Then I’ve got to make up some Bangs (which should be easy, given all these ambitious NPCs and their clear motivations!), and detail some locations.

44 hours til game time!

When this is all over, I plan to polish up a bunch of this material and put it into the next revision of the Dictionary of Elric.  But first: the kick-assing’est game of Sorcerer & Sword, ever.

-J

Read Full Post »

The planning session went great.  The players came with the seeds of character concepts, and we jammed on each others ideas.  I had also prepared a list of questions that I wanted each player to answer about their character — I’ll post it later, some were from Sorcerer, some were setting-specific — and that spurred more conversation.

I especially loved it when the players proposed things to each other like “hey, can we say that our characters are brothers / I’m in love with your daughter / your uncle just knocked up my wife?”  These guys practically built their own tangled relationship map without any help from me!

Which is also the problem I’m now facing.   (more…)

Read Full Post »

Tweaks to the Sorcerer RPG, based on experiences from our last game and plans for our next one:
(once again, thanks to the guys in my gaming group for chewing this over with me)

Ad Hoc Bonus Dice

Bonuses, like taxes, should encourage desired behaviour.  According to the rules, ad hoc bonus dice should be awarded anytime for:

  • smart tactics
  • adding detail
  • strong role-playing

You want to encourage players to think about smart tactics.  That’s what makes the difference between “I hit him.  I hit him again,” and “I pick up the big candle and splash hot wax in his eyes, then kick his legs out so Sofia can brain him with a stool.”  It just makes play more cinematic and fresh.

You want to encourage the players to narrate in their own details into the scene.  The GM can’t think of everything.  With everyone at the table adding detail, you get a very rich environment – which means better story-telling and more tactical options for everybody.  Says the player: “The walls are covered with hunting trophies, okay?  Weird beasts.  One of the heads is from something that looks like a rhino with huge tusks.  I pick up the necromancer and try to impale him on it.”  In the next round, one of the other player-characters tears a trophy head off the wall and uses it as a weapon.  Cool!

Bonuses for strong role-playing?  Yes, role-playing is something we want to encourage, but how to adjudicate the awarding of bonuses?  Either you’ll give the same +2 dice to every attempt, or you’ll end up having to say things like “Mike’s role-playing was better than that; no bonus dice for you.”  Let’s avoid beauty contests and take this bonus off the table.  In my group, good role-playing is always a priority so this isn’t an issue.  Alternately, I’d advise GMs to award this bonus only when someone picks good role-playing over some other in-game advantage.  “I know he’s going to cream me if I don’t wait for back-up, but damnit, he killed my partner!  I can’t hold back,  I go in now, guns blazing!”

Once More, with Conviction!

For encouraging derring-do, Ry likes the Conviction Dice mechanic.  In Sorcerer, it would work something like this:

  • Each PC starts the game with a pool of Conviction dice equal to his Humanity score (for example)
  • At any time, PCs can add Conviction dice to any roll: combat, sorcery, ability check, etc. (but not to Humanity checks!)
  • Whenever the PC succeeds at a Humanity (loss or gain) check, his Conviction pool refreshes.

The deal is, a PC doesn’t just use his Conviction dice whenever he needs a boost, even if the situation is dire.  Let Story happen.   He should use them when the situation is really central to his character’s core motivation.

“I can’t fail now that we’re so close to rescuing my betrothed!  I’m adding all my Conviction dice to this roll!”

It’s the stuff that theme music is made of.  But that reminds me of the “Mastering oneself” mechanic that’s already present in the Sorcerer rules.  The difference is: by mastering yourself, you have one last chance at an heroic (but doomed) gesture.  You can only do it when you’re nearly dead.  With Conviction dice, you can choose your moment and be sure to own it.  There’s probably room for both mechanics in this game.  I guess it’s all about what kind of stories you want to tell.  I’m still thinking about this one.

Swing From The Chandelier – Please!

Further to encouraging cool tactics: the game’s damage rules seem to do the opposite.  Let’s compare two possible moves:

A: “I leap, swing from the chandelier and land behind him.”  The PC succeeds with 2 victories, which we apply as a penalty to his opponent’s next action.

B: “I punch him.”  The PC succeeds with 2 victories, doing 2 next-action damage and 1 lasting damage.  His opponent now has a 3-dice penalty to his next action, plus a 1-die penalty that will last til the end of the scene.

Notice in case-B, the PC is more effective when he’s just attacking instead of using smart tactics.  Multiply this effect several times if he’s doing Special Damage.  The damage rules provide a perverse incentive to just attack rather than to look for clever ways to gain the upper hand.

Solution?  I’m still thinking about this one.  First of all, the “smart tactics” bonus, if applied liberally, might even the odds in favour of cinematic action.  One other possible solution might be:

  • 1 bonus victory is awarded to successful actions that don’t do damage (in combat situations)

Well, the game does provide a cumulative 1-die penalty for unimaginatively repeating the same action.  So “attack, attack, attack” has a mechanical disincentive.  Is that enough?  In Sorcerer’s short combats, repeating the same action rarely becomes an issue anyway…

Two Hits

“Me hittin’ you, you hittin’ the floor.”  Fights in Sorcerer tend to go this way: one-round combats in which the loser is down before he can even take a swing.  A character is out when damage exceeds his Stamina score (3-5 usually, or higher for big demons), while anyone with the Special Damage ability is doing 3X+Power of total damage per hit (where X is victories rolled).  Even with 1 victory, a Power-5 demon is doing enough damage to knock out any mere mortal with one blow.  And even if you’re not down, remember that all damage counts as penalties against your scores.  You take a few points of damage, you’re effectively down on one knee.  It’s the “Spiral of death.”

So now it’s an arms race: everybody and his demon has to have Armor and Big if they want to survive past the first round, and Special Damage if they expect to win any fights, not to mention Boost (Stamina), Vitality, Cover (trained killer), etc..  Suddenly it’s not safe to walk out your front door without a Power-8 demon at your back, and it’s a game of superheroes in which “normals” don’t stand a chance.

Solution?  I’m still toying with some ideas:

  • disallow the Special Damage ability, or seriously scale it back
  • delay the spiral of death: penalties don’t accrue until damage exceeds Stamina.  So, penalties = damage – Stamina, and “stunned” doesn’t occur until damage > 2x Stamina.
  • make it much harder to keep a fucking big demon (see related tweak, below)

Your Big Cuddly Friend

Any character with a bound demon is essentially a one man army.  If your demon is Power-8, make that a superbeing.  Really, I think in past games we have been too easy on characters that summon up the equivalent of Satan himself, and order him around like a well-trained attack dog.

Any demon whose Power exceeds every one of its master’s scores (typically 5 or 6 max) should be fucking hard to handle, should be a stronger narrative force than the PC himself. The demon should be constantly pushing its sorcerer around, demanding that it’s Need be fed, demanding that the sorcerer’s plans feed into its Desires, and being difficult whenever it’s not getting its way.  Binding a Power-8 demon should be seen as suicidal even by other sorcerers.  Any stability should be short lived.  For as long as that uber-demon is around, the sorcerer/demon dynamic should become the main conflict of that PC’s story.

Demons aren’t cuddly.

Sorcerer players, let me know what you think of these tweaks, and share any house rules or experiences of your own!  Cheers,

-Johnny 0.

Read Full Post »

I’m preparing the setting for a campaign based on the excellent Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock, a set of books that I just can’t recommend highly enough.  And although the Elric novels were a big inspiration for the Sorcerer RPG, we’re not sure that Sorcerer is the right system for my Elric game…

This is a highly charged project.  I love the source literature, and my expectations for the game are sky-high.  The potential for a mismatch and disappointment at the table is definitely there.  So I’m taking a close look at my expectations before this goes much further.

Mike, Pete, Ry and I spoke about this at length, and my thanks to them for sharing their perspectives.  Any great ideas in here are theirs, any stupidity is mine.

I Want Sharks With Frickin’ Lasers On Their Heads

I have to admit that I have some pretty specific things that I want to happen in this game.  Here’s the big one.  A PC finds himself facing an overwhelming enemy; defeat is clearly in the cards.  He somehow buys himself a few minutes, casts his mind out into the multiverse and contacts just the right supernatural ally.  If his foe is a swarm of giant insects, he summons the Beast Lord of the Iguanas, which appears and eats them all.   If his foe is the Elohoin, a race of flesh-eating warrior women from an alien plane, he summons their sworn enemies the Grashnaks from across the void, who take up the fight with relish.

Basically, I want to see on-the-spot sorcery that turns the tide of battle.  And let’s leave aside the mechanical difficulties of this in the Sorcerer mechanics as written, cuz I have some ideas.  But for now, some quality-of-play concerns:

If I set up situations that only have one possible solution, then this won’t be Story Now.  It’ll be more like one of those old text adventures: if you have the key, and the old boot, and the crow bar and the gas mask, then you can get through the laboratory safely; otherwise, you’re screwed.  I’ll be hogging all the story-telling responsibilities and the players will just be following along.  A related concern: If I set up the situation, and the players find some other solution, how disappointed am I going to be?  So I have to:

  • create rich environments for set-piece conflicts, so the PCs have lots of things to interact with, lots of resources from which to build solutions.
    “PCs need sets the way Errol Flynn needs sets.”
  • accept that the outcome of the situation is not in my hands.  The players decide the characters’ actions, the dice decide their success or failure.

And remember: NO RAILROADING.  This goes for on-the-spot sorcery as well as summoning Lords of Chaos, visiting Ameeron or anything else from the books.  Okay no problem, I can do that.

Action-Packed

The Elric stories are fast-paced and action-packed, whereas Sorcerer is focused on developing story based around theme and  “Humanity.”  Maybe I should pick a more Step-On-Up system like Apocalypse World or even some sort of d20 hack.  But I don’t want to lose the Story Now… do I?

As far as I’m concerned, the best elements of Sorcerer are Kickers and Bangs, and these parts seem pretty portable.  Can a Step-On-Up system be played with elements of Story Now?  Sure it can.  But… if players know they’re going into a Step On Up game, an Us-vs.-Them cage match where the “Them” is the GM and all his creations, then they’re going to be trying to load their character backstories and kickers with all kinds of advantages for the fights ahead.  They won’t be thinking about creating cool Story.  That’s not the way I want this to go down.

Can Sorcerer do fast-paced and action-packed?  Sure it can.  The game’s conflict-resolution (as opposed to task-resolution) system ensures that combat situations evolve rapidly and in interesting ways.  Headlocks, chair-throwing, flying tackles and swinging from the chandeliers!  But… we’re gonna want to make some tweaks.

Next Up: The Tweaks

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »