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?



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.


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.


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.


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »