Thursday, January 28, 2010

Story Gaming, Trad Gaming, and Structure

The phrase 'Story gaming' is as screwed up as the phrase 'trad gaming', because different people mean different things by the same names. For some people, story means something akin to literature, with a certain structure and thematic meaning. I have found that by story other people mean the immediacy of the moment, which is totally opposite. For now, let's call the first 'story gaming' and the second 'experiential gaming', as the experience of roleplaying itself is the goal, not the resultant story. I'll get back to experiential gaming some other day.

Now "story gaming" is different from "story games", just as "trad gaming" differs from "trad games". You can game for story perfectly well with trad games, and people have been doing that since RPGs were invented. It requires a different attitude, generally cooperative from the group - everyone needs to be on the same page. It is done on the Group level, not the Designer level. Trad gaming just encompasses both story and experiential gaming, as well as other playstyles.

I tend, like Levi, to define things from the center rather than by the edge. For me, the center for story games revolves around, but is not in any way limited to, the following: Shifting from character to player level frequently during the game, Conflict resolution rather than task resolution, Setting stakes before resolution rather than using random quality of success after resolution, and generally a view of the character as a pawn - the controls are at the Player Level.

Trad games tends to center for me around, but not at all limited to, these concepts: Staying at character level during play and at player level between play stretches, Task resolution as opposed to Conflict resolution, Quality of success determined after or simultaneously with chance resolution, and a general view of the character as avatar - the controls are at the Character level.

Games vary in how they are presented, how they are designed, and how they are played - both individually and as a group. A game might be presented as one thing, but be designed to do something else altogether, and may be played differently to either - both WoD and CoC are famous for this. Designing tends to set a bias - playing a game is easier if you run with the bias rather than against it. The bias reflects the designer's intent for the game.

The designer creates rules to channel play. This is Designer level stuff - rules, setting background, and the like. The designer can always elect to push aspects of the game to the Group level, either by making tools for group use or by not specifying/designing a rule - when stuff comes up in play not covered by rules, the group must thus make a ruling and go with it. The group can also always usurp control from the designer by over-ruling the rules. This body of rulings, both pushed by the designer and usurped by the group, is called 'House Rules', and will always differ from group to group.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Astrology, Edges, and Conditions

After a long campaign in OHMAS - covering three years, three marriages with another long-term relationship, two births, the death and un-death of a queen, a fairy invasion, foreign machinations, and many strange monsters - I can now say the Astrology mechanic of the Savent is far more important and far-reaching than I thought when I created it.

Here's the Savant writeup from the Blog, and for those too lazy to click, here's the Astronomy bit:

The Astrology Table

Luna rules Emotion
Mercury rules Reason
Venus rules Romance
Mars rules Conflict
Jupiter rules Fortune
Saturn rules Order

Roll Luna Mercury Venus Mars Jupiter Saturn
1-2 Fear Deliberation Flirtation Trickery Secrecy Boundaries
3-4 Hesitance Inspiration Subversion Might Timing Laws
5-6 Horror Analysis Sex Indirect Boldness Customs
7-8 Anger Deduction Seduction Flanking Lavishness Families
9-10 Doubt Mystification Titillation Position Prudence Organizations
11-12 Affection Appreciation Fascination Intimidation Investment Channels
13-14 Lust Deceit Ingratiation Brutality Trust Ethics
15-16 Confidence Misdirection Sympathy Glory Miserliness Morals
17-18 Longing Compromise Intrigue Caution Distrust Patterns
19-20 Joy Persuasion Beauty Opportunity Openness Connections

Note: the Savant may roll several times on one column.

As I am writing IHW: StarCluster, this is becoming very important to me. In OHMAS I called them "temporary Traits", but they are not. They are - in IHW:SC terms - Conditions. In IHW: SC, Worlds have Conditions - i.e. Blistering, Freezing, Dim, Wind-swept, etc. Players have Edges, specialized training or experience with a Condition or range of Conditions. When Condition and Edge match, the character has a bonus.

In OHMAS, the Astrological forecast by the Savant - a random roll - describes the Conditions which are favorable. Whenever characters willfully act in accordance with the Conditions, they get a bonus. In effect, knowledge of the Condition becomes an Edge when the characters put it into effect by going that way. If Mars (Conflict) favors Intimidation, bluff and bravado become much more effective. If Mars favors Trickery, on the other hand, setting up a trap might be a better bet.

What this does that I didn't anticipate is set the day's agenda for both the PCs and the GM. If your Conditions are Horror, Mystification, Seduction, and Opportunity, the GM should set those Conditions in play descriptively. By matching the Conditions, the day's opposition starts to write itself. This becomes a powerful tool for Situational GMing - acting as a daily Situation seed. I began basing what the opposition was doing on these Conditions, by having the opposition act so as to create those very conditions. The PCs had automatic buy-in, because they *wanted* that bonus. The more Conditions they matched, the bigger their Edge.

The same will hold true with IHW:SC, though to a more limited extent. The world has extant Conditions, and matching these Conditions with Edges gives them bonuses. They will tend to act in accordance with their Edges, if they can be brought to bear. The Situation starts to build itself. It all makes a great deal of sense, from either an emulative or story point of view, and works without conscious volition apart from the players initial choice of Edges.


Monday, January 25, 2010

New Run of In Harm's Way: StarCluster

Saturday was the last session of my OHMAS campaign. The League averted an attack by a fairy army on London by negotiating a treaty with the Fairy King, and sealing it with a marriage between one of the League members and the Fairy King's daughter. We had almost half a session left, so we decided to create our characters for our next campaign, IHW:SC.

After reading Diaspora, one of the changes I made is a strong recommendation that the players create their own homeworld. I went a bit further, and more like Diaspora, in that I had each player create a component - a stellar system - of the Cluster Sector we would be playing in. First we generated the Sector and tied the systems together by Jump Lines - i.e. wormholes. Then each player created one of the systems in the Sector.

First we generated how many worlds there were in each system. They ranged from 9 to 15 in our case. Then we generated a world description for each world - basically a generic line like Gas Giant, or Asteroid Belt - which gave us a reasonable idea of what the worlds were like. Two of the players rolled the most unlikely result of all - "Really Physically Bizarre" - for one of their worlds. One decided that his Bizarre world was a torus of breathable gas and asteroids very close to the star, with river of water running through it. We decided it was probably a Seeder Artifact. The other player decided that his Bizarre world was a translucent crystal the size of a planet, formed inside a super Jovian planet. The people lived in cracks, crevices, and tunnels inside the crystal. Both ideas were awesome!

Then we arranged the worlds in order on an orbitmap of the system, from hottest to coldest. We made some worlds into moons, and some into planets. Next we generated the population type of the world - if it was populated at all - its Cultural Tech Level, and its Political Status. This showed which worlds were affiliated with which organization and how, and how technologically advanced it was. Then we linked colonizers with colonies, and generally made sense out of the mess. Next we generated the number of people on each world and the kind of people or peoples inhabiting it. Maybe it was a world inhabited by robots, or Aliens, or humanoids, or uplifts, or some mix - there are a lot of choices.

The last part was applying descriptors to the Player's chosen homeworld. There were Physical Conditions - like Dark, Cold, Windy, Rocky, etc. These may match up with Player Edges to give bonuses in those conditions. Next, we gave the Homeworld some Cultural Traits - basically describing a stereotypical member of this culture. Last, we gave the government Traits, where we described what the Character's homeworld's government is like. We didn't do this last process for all the worlds of the Sector, just the PC homeworlds - it takes some thought and judgment, and it's easy enough to do ad hoc if and when it's needed.

The rest of the night the Players created their characters, from these homeworlds.

I knew it was working from the general reactions of the players around the table as they were going through the process, but the general opinion of all the players was that it was a resounding success all around. One thing they all noted was the Cultural Traits they came up with served as a nice basis for the personal Traits of their characters. They also said they understood their homeworld, and the society their characters came from, and why their characters chose to leave and join the Military.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What Do the PCs Do?

Ok, I get it. Some settings are more focused than others, I know this, and have no problem with it. In some games, you are samurai climbing a mountain to seek a witch. It's pretty clear what the PCs do - they haven't a lot of choice there. More and more, though, I'm seeing criticism of broadly designed games for the sin of not being narrowly designed. "What do the PCs Do?" is the question that sets my teeth on edge. "Whatever the hell they want to!" is apparently not a sufficient answer. The answer must be explicit, restrictive, and simple. I see this in worded other ways as well: "What is the prototypical adventure for this game?" "How do you see the session structure?" As if there is a correct answer for each game!

The questions imply that there is - must be - a correct answer, and by not giving it, you are confirming that you don't have a clue, particularly heinous if you wrote it, you dolt! When asked of a game which is obviously broadly designed, it's a subtle variation on "Have you stopped beating your wife?" It's a debating trick and a cheap way to score points. It implies poorly thought out design when an easy answer can't be given. Sometimes a game is designed to give the PCs the option of deciding what they will do for themselves.

Thing is, I'm only seeing it lobbed at unabashedly trad games, or at games which are narrowly defined, and where it is perfectly appropriate to ask. Games like Diaspora, which I love for its pure openness, but which are wrapped in the mantle of the Forge Diaspora, are not asked this question. If you ask this of the Diaspora designers, they would have no more clue than I would if you asked me this about OHMAS. The group will define what the PCs do in either game, because they were designed to do just that. In both games, there are scads of tools at the group level that allow the group to define its own focus within a broad array of options. It's a design decision that reaps immense rewards in replay value.


Monday, January 18, 2010

Building a Setting - Part I: In-Built Conflict

In-Built Conflict

This is a vital, vital step in building settings! The point here is to build conflict into the setting before the PCs set foot into it. There are many variations on this that I use, and vary depending on the genre and time period. Here are a few useful Patterns:

Internal Conflict - The Powderkeg

In The Powderkeg, the setting is a pressure cooker which has been simmering for a long time, and just waiting for the first bump to set it all off. There are at least three sides here - the Status Quo, who want things to go on like they used to; the Opposition, who want to sieze power and change everything; and the Reformers, who want to change the Status Quo from within. The differences could be racial, cultural, or class related. They are real differences, but magnified by traditional practices which have been in force for a long time. You could have a clear right and wrong here, but I prefer every side being right in some ways and wrong in others.

External Conflict - Expansion

In Expansion, the PCs are scouts set to explore/soldiers set to pacify a newly aquired land which has an indiginous culture of a lower tech level. This culture does *not* have to be tribal - A SF game where the PCs are from a high tech culture in a world like modern earth would do just as well. The PC's culture need no be modern either - the Conquistadors were not modern, but they fit this pattern. Warning! - This pattern suffers greatly if you fall into the "Noble Savage" trap. You aren't James Cameron, and you can't use pure awesome to pull this off! Both of the cultures should have both admirable and squeamish points. For example, the Conquistadors get a lot of bad press, and many of them did terrible things, but the Aztecs were performing mass human sacrifices, and Cortez was justifiably horrified. You would be too!

Internal Conflict - The Cleanup

In The Cleanup, the PCs are in a thoroughly corrupt and nasty locale, with the Man on one side, and the People on the other. The Man stands for authority and privilege, the People for ordinary folk who just want to go on with their lives. I would suggest portraying the Man more as Goodfellas than as cartoonish Nazis, though your taste may vary. Yeah, they are bad guys, but bad guys who are not chortling with glee when they get to stomp on orphans. My favorite kink to throw into this one is important People being self-serving, and selling out to The Man at the worst possible time. Not everyone is a selfish bastard, but not everyone is a holy avenger, either.

Internal/External Conflict - Cheek by Jowl

Cheek by Jowl can be run as an internal or external conflict. The premise is one of many different cultures with conflicting ethical and moral structures living in the same area. Outremer will be set up as a Cheek by Jowl setting, for instance. There may be layers of settlement and/or conquerors - Normans over Anglo-Saxons over Britons, for example - or a hodge podge of human and alien cultures in the same solar system or Space Station, or a group of City States founded from different mother cities, or any of a number of different concepts. The PCs can come from any and all of these, and they have to thread their way through the conflicting culture/religious/ethnic systems in place in order to do what needs doing, not to mention just getting along with each other.

Internal - The Aftermath of Conquest

The Aftermath of Conquest pattern is set just after one culture has conquered another. The PCs can be from either side, but they have to deal with this fact. They could foment rebellion or resistance. They could work to integrate the two cultures. They could work to maintain their cultural identity without open rebellion. They could work to crush a rebellion. In short, they could respond in many different ways to the situation.

External or Internal Conflict - Life During Wartime

In the Life During Wartime pattern, two or more cultures are actively at war. The PCs could be soldiers in this conflict, or civilians swept up in the war, or people back on the home front reacting to the war. You could probably have a number of sub-patterns based on this division. A particularly underused example of this pattern is the home front, where you could have protests, sabotage, espionage and counter-espionage, and toher conflicts amidst deprivation caused by the war.

Internal Conflict - The New Religion

In The New Religion Pattern, a new religion sweeps into a culture. This may be through conquest or through cultural contact, or totally internal. This religion is prosletyzing heavily and gaining converts fast. You can approach this a number of ways - the PCs can be stubborn adherents to the old religion, or people investigating this religion for themselves, or journalists, or new converts. Is it some bizarre cult? Is it really a religion at all? Is it a religion which may have both good and objectionable faces? There are a lot of ways you can go with this!


Friday, January 15, 2010

Simulationism and other claptrap

I object to the terms "simulationism" and "simulationist". Simulation is not a belief system, nor is it a philosophy. Simulation is a tool which uses as its main mechanics modeling and abstraction. The goal of that tool is given situation X, produce result Y, where Y could plausibly happen in the real world, if the differences between setting Z and the real world are factored in. Modeling is an attempt to produce objects, forces, and people which mimic real objects and people, given the differences in setting, while abstraction is an attempt to lessen the data required to produce the fastest possible result with the least effort.

Thus simulation is always a compromise between modeling and abstraction. You can think of it in terms of digital sound sampling - the more samples you take over the duration of a given sound, the closer that sound is to the actual analog sound wave, but try to force too many samples for your playback system, and the system breaks down under the data load. Abstraction reduces the samples processed by the system to match the data capacity at the cost of some loss of fidelity.

So, you can easily see this with weapons in games, which is one reason why it's always brought up - the other reason being most roleplayers think they know a lot about guns, whether or not they've ever fired one. If a Smith and Wesson Bodyguard .38 special snub nosed revolver is mechanically different from a Colt Cobra .38 special snub nosed revolver, you have a very high ratio of modeling to abstraction. If a .38 revolver is mechanically different from a .45 revolver, but you can't tell the Colts from the S&Ws, you have a moderately high ratio of modeling to abstraction. If a heavy revolver is mechanically different from a light revolver, but you can't tell a .38 from a .45, you have a moderately high ratio of abstraction to modeling. If you can't tell a revolver from an automatic, then you have a high ratio of abstraction to modeling.

What the best ratio is depends on the game's mechanics - the data throughput capacity - the desires of the participants for fidelity - the listener's ears - and the particular aspect of the game in question - some people like lots of combat, others like lots of social interaction, still others like investigation, etc. Your ratio does not have to remain consistent throughout every aspect of the game.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Setting vs System

And here's why I don't talk much about setting here - setting is peculiar to the game, while System can be abstracted and borrowed, amplified, tweaked, extended, and components used in a variety of ways with other games. I posted a huge setting exposition yesterday concerning Outremer, but no one commented, asked a question, or made a suggestion - and this is typical when I talk about a Setting.

Setting somehow "belongs" to the designer in a way that system doesn't - and this is true even for copyright purposes. You can legally take mechanics you didn't create, and, so long as you express them differently, use them as you like. If settings are too much alike, you can have real problems.

So the setting "belongs' to the designer, to be accepted or not as is. When I talk about settings, I'm flying blind. I'm not getting any echoes. I just have to go with my gut, which I've been doing all along. This blogging format does me no good. With System, I get return, feedback. It belongs to everyone, and everyone feels they can comment. That rocks! It's a totally different feel.

So there you go, Bill, Mr. Setting! Why I don't talk about settings.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Outremer: A Brief Time of History

This will probably bore the pants off of everyone, but I've done that before and I'll do it again! My current project, Outremer, is alt history based on the Crusader states surviving until the mid 16th century - the same time frame as OHMAS. Like OHMAS, Outremer is a Blood Games II game. The point of departure for Outremer occurs during the Second Crusade:

The history of Outremer is the same as ours up until the Second Crusade. Edessa had fallen to Zengi of Damascus, who died soon after, and was succeeded by his son Nur ad Din. Conrad of Germany and Louis of France set out on Crusade with the object of retaking Edessa, Louis with his young and fetching wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had a suit of armor made for her. Conrad, as in the real world, set off overland to avoid Roger of Sicily, with whom he was feuding, was betrayed by the Byzantines, and the German army was destroyed. Unlike in our timeline, Louis went by sea, as he and Roger were on good terms, with Roger helping him out. Louis landed in Alexandrette, and went over the mountains to Turbessel, where Jocelin II, Count of Edessa retained a rump state.

From there, they attack the Syrians in the county, drawing down the army of Nur ad Din for a battle in front of Saruj, where Louis is killed. The army, led by Jocelin and Eleanor, retreats in good order to Bile, where Nur ad Din assaults them again. This time, however, inspired by Eleanor, the Franks crush the Syrians, and Nur ad Din is killed, along with Jocelin. The army marches into Edessa and restores the state, with Eleanor as Princess of the new Principality, which owes no fealty to Byzantium.

This removes Nur ad Din, who never takes Egypt, which is thus still Shi'ite. Saladin, the son of one of Nur ad Din's generals, has only Damascus and Aleppo for resources, instead of an empire with Egypt and the Hejaz. Eleanor marries Henry II of England, but their son Richard is eventually Prince of Edessa.

Instead of the third crusade happening, Baldwin IV, the leper king, did not die in 1185 - leprosy is a disease which does not kill you, but opens you to opportunistic infections which do eventually kill you, so he could have died any time - and was alive when Saladin took Tiberias in 1187, after the death of his young nephew and heir Baldwin V. His army was defeated but not crushed - because he wasn't an idiot like King Guy in our timeline - and Baldwin was able to retreat to Caesarea, where he was beseiged. He sent messengers to Tripoli, Antioch, and Edessa, but Saladin took Jerusalem and all the rest of the kingdom.

Richard marched an army south from Edessa, joining forces with the Prince of Antioch and the Count of Tripoli, and marched to the relief of Caesarea. He took back the northern coast of the kingdom down to Haifa, with an epic seige of Acre, suffering all the while from Muslim attacks on his flank. From Haifa, he broke the seige of Caesarea, and with Baldwin, set off for Jerusalem. The armies under Richard and Baldwin broke through into Jerusalem, but were unable to oust Saladin's men from the city. After a long and fruitless battle in the city, both parties agreed to a peace. Saladin's younger brother was to marry Richard's sister, and become heir to the Kingdom of Jerusalem when Baldwin, without heirs and a leper, died. Richard retained the northern coast as a separate and independent duchy, ruled from Acre. The Kingdom was to be both Christian and Muslim - that is, without favoritism - with the royal family Muslim. The thing was done. During the third Crusade, Richard did offer his sister in marriage to Saladin's brother, but Saladin did not think he was serious, apparently.

In Outremer, Baldwin IV ruled Jerusalem for four more years before dying in 1192. Saladin was assassinated in Damascus in 1190. At the same time, the Assassins took Homs and carved out a state between Damascus and Aleppo, breaking them apart while Saladin's sucessors squabbled. Richard's father Henry II died in 1189, and Richard became King of England. He had three sons. The eldest, Henry, became Prince of Wales. The second, Bohemund, was Prince of Edessa, and the third, Baldwin, Duke of Acre.

There is more, but this is the essential difference, the key point. By retaking Edessa and removing Nur ad Din, Saladin had a much smaller army, with fewer resources. Nur ad Din never took Egypt and overthrew the Fatimid Caliphate. The states of Outremer are able to play off the Sunni Caliphate in Baghdad against the Shi'ite Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt and the Assassins in Homs. The Assassins, who were Ismaili Muslims, separate Damascus from Aleppo, and play the Christian and Muslim states against each other.

So why am I setting this 350 years later? Because I am more comfortable with Renaissance than Medieval times for one, but also to give the setting a chance to stew and mature. What was raw in 1190 becomes smooth in 1560. Religious changes have time to foster and spread. Those 350 years were not peaceful and serene, far from it! There are always low grade wars, crises, rebellions, political machinations, and strange stuff galore - there are four more more states that come into being during this time - but there is also a modus vivendi, a working relationship with shifting alliances, which makes for a wonderful renaissance stew.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

Player Characters, GMs, and Issues with Authority

I run a lot of military games, and I write a lot of them too. In fact I'm writing one right now - In Harm's Way: StarCluster. When I mention one of these games on a forum or by talking with someone, i often get some variation on this response:

"Oh, that sounds neat, but my group would never go for that! They can't stand anyone having any authority over them! They'd just sabotage the whole thing."

I am usually dumbfounded - or I was until I heard it so many times! Why does this reaction happen? It happened once or twice to me many many years ago, but I attributed it to a character thing, not a player state of mind. It has *never* happened with my current group, who are all - except for my wife, who is ageless, beautiful, and wise - between 18 and 23, and they have been gaming with me since they were 12-13, the period you'd expect to be rebellious and resentful of authority.

Bill Corrie of Hinterwelt said that it was because of the way I GM it, that my group trusts me. I think that's true, but that leads to the corollary thought of "Why don't these other groups trust their GM?" That leads to the thought that maybe these guys, or maybe their predecessor GMs, abused their player's trust, or never earned it in the first place. Then that leads to thoughts on those indie games with a curtailed or sharply defined GM role...

Then I wrench myself back from staring into the abyss, and focus on what can I do to help GMs. I've begun putting together a GM help section for IHW:SC concentrating on running military or military-esque games, where the PCs are part of a greater organization. I'm asking here for thoughts from anyone reading this - is there any advice you might have that I can put there? I know I'm not the only one to run this kind of game - someone keeps buying them! - and I know I'm not the source of all knowledge.

Thanks in advance!


Monday, January 4, 2010

Thoughts on Traits and Edges

Some new stuff I have been thinking about for In Harm's Way: StarCluster:

First, the comments coming back to me have been exceedingly positive! Thanks all for participating! We haven't found a lot of problems, but we'll keep hacking at it.

Second, I've decided to change the concept of giving a world Traits to giving the world Conditions. Conditions trigger bonuses which are always in play - they are part of the environment, a condition - so long as you have an appropriate Edge. For example, if the condition is Snowy, and your Edge is Extreme Weather, that would match well. Traits are resources which are depleted during play and refresh every session. I think Conditions & Edges are a much better way to hard-code what a world is like mechanically.

Third, I'm adding a small mechanical change to make Traits into more of a currency. Up 'til now, when you use your traits up, they are gone until next session. What I am introducing is that when player characters uses traits to their detriment, they can gain one point back in that trait per point of trait used. For example, your character has a trait of "Hot-Tempered 2". During a bit of roleplaying, if you decide to give yourself a penalty of 2 Small, however that is expressed in the task resolution sub-system, you can add back 2 points into your Hot-Tempered trait. You can only use this method to refresh spent points - you can't gain points over your normal totals, which are the amounts you have at the start of the session. It's still not a full-blown currency like Fate points - I don't like Compels, and prefer that the players initiate anything - but now you can reward yourself for good roleplaying.

Fourth, I'm teaming up with Albert Bailey again for Outremer! I worked with Albert on StarCluster, Cold Space, Sweet Chariot, Book of Jalan, and FTL Now, and we work together really well! His depth of knowledge concerning both history and religion is astonishing, and will be vital to succeeding with Outremer.