Monday, March 31, 2014


A new sketch for Lowell Was Right! This one from my current IRC Campaign: Yahira

Monday, March 17, 2014

Re-Incentivising Play

So after de-Incentivising play in my games. I went on for a few years, quite happy. Play was focused on what the players and their characters were interested in doing. I wrote games based on the StarCluster engine, like a second edition of StarCluster, Sweet Chariot, Blood Games, Book of Jalan, Cold Space, and FTL Now. Then I decided to write the first game on my bucket list. My bucket list is a list of games I passionately want to write, whether or not they had any real commercial potential. StarCluster, Blood Games, and Cold Space all sold very well, and gave me resources to indulge my stupid side.

The first game on that list was something based on the long running Age of Sail naval series, like Hornblower, Aubrey and Maturin, Ramage, and Lewrie. I grew up with Hornblower, and the others I encountered and loved for their own sakes. I settled right away on a name - "In Harm's Way", after the quote from John Paul Jones: "I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm's way." That quote epitomized everything I loved about this fiction! Utter badassdom! So I started to adapt the StarCluster system engine to this setting.

The thing is, I needed to model a specific kind of behavior to make this work. This was a military game - and had to produce characters not only wiling but thirsting to go "In Harm's Way!" Characters content to sail around, visiting ports, and only getting into trouble when they couldn't avoid it were out! That was civilian think! Characters in this game had to mold their characters around a military framework, and adapt their dreams to it. So, I had to incentivize this!

Being a bear of very little brain, I went the only way I knew, which was research. How were the characters in these books formed into badasses? How were they able to stand there, not taking cover, standing exposed on their quarterdecks, and calmly order their ships into battle? These were, I found, two separate questions. The characters in the books were promoted for two reasons. They almost never screwed up normal jobs, and they succeeded far more than normal at extraordinary jobs. This was enforced by a system of "Notice". Notice was, in short, the ability to make your superiors *notice* you. If you failed at routine tasks, you were blisteringly reprimanded, and held in scorn. If you succeeded at extraordinary tasks, you enhanced your superiors' reputations, and they were pleased and sought you out for more.

So, in the game, Notice equated to points awarded or taken away for success or failure. The harder the task, the more points were at hazard. If you avoided bad Notice, and accumulated good Notice, eventually you would get promoted. I set out guidelines for awarding notice, and insisted on superiors giving notice personally, or in writing if that was impossible, *in-character*. Now all that did was give the character more authority. It did not affect traditional targets like skills, attributes, or the like. The most fit to command is not usually the best fighter, but is instead the best *leader*.

That brings us to the second question - "How were they able to stand there, not taking cover, standing exposed on their quarterdecks, and calmly order their ships into battle?" The answer, of course, is that if they showed the fear they felt, their men would break and run.

There are two means of getting men to risk their lives in war: Discipline and Leadership. The first drives the men, the second leads and assumes they will follow. Both are equally valid. So, Discipline and Leadership are skills - and are the defining skills of any officer. It doesn't do any good to be the best tactician if you try to drive the men and they won't go.

To back this up, I instituted a new metric for characters - Honor and Practicality. Like Pendragon Traits, these are an opposed "seesaw" stat - they were fixed in total, so that if one went up, the other went down. Honor engendered trust, so it measured the character's reputation for honor, and added to Leadership. Practicality engendered fear, so it measured the character's reputation for doing whatever was necessary for success, and added to Discipline.

So, in order to advance in rank, you had to attract good Notice and not bad Notice, and accumulate it. In order to get that Notice, you had to control your men, using either Leadership or Discipline, backed in either case by your reputation. The more difficult the task, the more good Notice you got if you succeeded. This was the school that made officers long to go In Harm's Way!

Despite being a game I did not expect to do well, it did very well indeed, and there are now seven In Harm's Way RPGs in print, ranging from Age of Sail to dragons to fighter pilots to space.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

De-Incentivizing Play

De-incentivizing play was one of the central concepts I formed before writing my first game. Back in the late eighties, I wrote a version of what later became my first released game (StarCluster) back in 2002. I call it StarCluster Zero Edition, and it is now in its third edition. It was painfully typed out on a typewriter, and I still have it somewhere. I was already sick of experience points, and the way they pushed play - "I'm five XP from leveling up! Is there a rat in the alley? I want to kill something." - that was an actual quote from a game session. This didn't model anything I wanted to do in the game, so first I discarded them from my AD&D game, then still running, by switching to a model of per session increases. The group had no problem and continued on their merry way - with some beneficial changes explained further on.

When I wrote the StarCluster Zero a bit later on, I avoided all trace of XP, leveling, and the like. Instead, the character's age determined his skills. It didn't matter whether that age was gained in-play or out of play - you could create a character of any arbitrary age, then advance her during a game campaign, then gen them up a couple years in-between and be older, and there was no functional difference between that character and a character who had been in play the whole time. No "reward" for inching the bastard up through some bogus "Hero's Journey" from incompetent to functional to ultra-competent.

Balancing that, I dropped the concept of inflating Hit Points as well, creating a derived stat from combining your physical stats and using that as an ablative pool. Balancing things, I made physical stats deteriorate with the years from the end of that plateau after maturity. So increased skill was balanced with decreased natural ability. I also made the age-related increases small, so that younger characters could play with older characters, and they wouldn't be totally outclassed.

So, the final product looked like this: Slow but sure advancement in skill if the character survived, along with slow but sure physical deterioration, and a life-pool based on those deteriorating stats. This resulted in something that felt more natural. Younger characters were less skilled, but harder to injure or kill. They were unskilled compared to oldsters, but were better at picking up unfamiliar skills. Older characters were very good at doing things they knew how to do, but grew increasingly fragile. That looked pretty organic, self-balancing, and facilitated a somewhat more survival oriented feel.

So, without the incentives, why play? I had already proven to myself that such play was just as much fun when I dropped XP from D&D - that experiment worked like a charm. Besides, Classic Traveller had already shown you didn't need leveling - hell, it didn't really have any advancement at all at first! It seems play itself is a hell of a lot of fun, even without the "kick" of leveling, and very different to boot. Players didn't do things just for the sake of grinding out a few more XPs. They did them because they were interesting, or for in-game rewards, or for achieving personal goals. All the XPs had been doing was getting in the way of that.

With XP, characters had been doing things that gave rewards preferentially, whether or not those things in themselves were interesting to the player. Once doing things for rewards had been stripped out, players began doing things they wanted to do. It fostered a revolution in tactics - if you don't get XP for killing things and taking their stuff, it's just as good to scare them away or trick them. The mission is accomplished either way, and it makes characters built on things other than combat far more viable.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Perfectly Star Wars-ish!

This episode seemed to me to be perfectly in tune with the Star Wars feel, and I offer it up for your enjoyment. Again, I am using StarCluster 3, with specific "Star Wars-ish" modifications.

So the PCs are temporarily stranded in Tibannopolis, the abandoned floating city on Bespin, their ship's landing gear broken, sitting on a landing pad. Sharaska, Dindar, and Delilah wanted to explore a small ship they saw through a break in the clouds, sitting on a pad about a quarter of the way around Tibannopolis. There was no way to go there directly, so they had to go into the abandoned city, then out the other side. They left the droid and Lyssia aboard, working on the landing gear.

The layout of Tibannopolis is as follows - each landing pad is linked to other landing pads like a cluster of grapes, with the stem leading to a door. Inside, the level of the landing pads is a commercial level, with bridges arching up from each landing pad stem  and meeting in the center at a small park - all plants dead now, of course -  with waist-high parapets on each side of the bridge. All around the periphery are stores, shops, eateries, and bars, with occasional others beside the bridges. Between the periphery and the center are two radial roads, like a spiderweb. There is a void/atrium under the center area, going down the four levels of residential living area, and a clear glass dome overhead. All very airy and clean. Below the residential levels are a couple of maintenance levels, with work docks and a well equipped hospital, then the huge work levels, extending downward, where the Tibanna gas is extracted and refined.

The PCs had gone to the center and headed back along the proper bridge, when they met up with a tall figure in black jedi-style robes and a deep hood, accompanied by five stormtroopers. He demanded the party turn over Duke, as his master - assumed to be Vader - required his (Duke's) services. This was in response to Duke 'throwing in' with Vader to avoid being thrown into carbonite last weekend. Sharaska refused to say whether they had Duke or not. The Dark Jedi got impatient and force-choked Dindar, picking up the Wookie and dangling him over the void/atrium, then demanded Duke again, the stormtroopers readying their blasters.

At that point, Delilah broke out into a song and dance - being a former entertainer, she pulled it off well. All eyes turned in her direction. At that moment, Sharaska launched herself through the air, knocking the Wookie across to the inner circle bridge with her, and breaking the force choke. She called immediately for the Jedi on the ship to come to their aid. At this point, while attentions moved back to Sheraska, Delilah darted into a small alleyway between two buildings, and hid herself - Delilah is at her most dangerous when you don't know where she is.

In a short, sharp fight, the dark jedi gravely wounded Sharaska, though not before she got an excellent hit on him, whch he half-healed. Dindar hid from the jedi, as not only was he badly wounded by the force choke, he is a bit of a coward. Three storm toopers went down the alley to locate Delilah, while two remained, covering the Dark jedi.

The troopers went right by where Delilah hid, and she slipped out behind them. She sneak killed two, leaving the leader alone while hiding again. The leader turned around at the end of the alley, and seeing his two mates dead on the ground behind him, and nothing else there, he opened up at random, then dashed back to the mouth of the alley. Again, Delilah slipped in behind him and her knife flashed once more, and none were left.

Meanwhile, the jedi from the ship - Hosea, his padawan Torota, Duke, and Daykon - came in on the scene. The Dark Jedi stood, one foot on Sharaska, his light saber on and pointing down at her back. He offered to trade Sharaska for Duke, implying that she was of far more use to them than a jedi who was definitely darker than he ought to be. They conversed, while Hosea readied a TK. He flung a pebble, loosened in the fight with Sharaska, up into the Dark Jedi's light saber, turning it off for a crucial moment.

The two covering storm troopers immediately started firing - and missing! I couldn't roll anything at all on ten total dice! - and the Dark Jedi grabbed Sharaska and force jumped down four levels to the floor of the atrium. At this point, with four jedi against him, he was just trying to escape. He had only known of Duke and Daykon, but four was a bit much, even for a very dark adept.

Torota leapt and killed one of the two stormtroopers. Daykon grabbed his blaster rifle, and began shooting at the Dark Jedi below. Duke and Hosea followed the Dark Jedi, matching his leap. and confronting him below. This time he held Sharaska up with his light saber at her throat. He bargained, offering to let them have Sharaska if they would let him go. He had his lightsaber in shield mode, and it would take a lot to batter that down. Meanwhile, Torota killed the last storm trooper. Daykon, firing from above, couldn't penetrate his defense, as he slowly backed towards an opening.

Duke offered to let him go, abiding by the deal. The Dark Jedi refused to accept his word, as he had proven himself false already. Hosea, a jedi slightly on the light side, took his offer, promising to let the Dark Jedi leave if he left Sharaska behind, alive, and agreed to cut off Duke's head if he intervened, promising to do so "by the light side of the Force." 

The Dark Jedi took Hosea's  word, letting Sharaska go and steping back towards the door behind him. Duke grabbed Sharaska and dragged her away to safety, but Hosea attacked, becoming forsworn, and gaining dark side points while losing light side points. Between Hosea and Daykon, shooting from above, they had beaten down his defenses, but had nothing left to actually harm him, when Torota force leapt from on high, coming down behind him, slaying him with her light saber.

With this, they located the hospital level and patched up Dindar and Sharaska, Daykon and Torota contributing jedi Healing as well. Then they moved the partly repaired Albireo, and the Dark Jedi's small ship, down to the garages below to hide from sight and finish all repairs, and as well to reconfigure both ships so that they looked somewhat different.