Saturday, May 26, 2012

Unplugging For A Bit...

There are times when one is forced to admit that one has too much shit going on. This is one of those times. I'm going on a temporary social media/web fast as a form of spring cleaning. My goal is to return in about a month or so, hopefully with a new house and a better appreciation of the stuff that really matters.

(I'll still respond to email or comments on the blog if you need me)

Monday, May 21, 2012

WaRP Speed!

I'm a little late to the party but in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Over the Edge, Atlas Games has made its underlying system available under the OGL. The Wanton Role-playing (WaRP) SRD can be found on the Atlas site, free of charge.

Of interest to rules-lite RPG fans, this come directly from the Risus rules:
"The final shape and form of the game was inspired by Over the Edge, from Atlas Games."
The roots of Risus are very obvious in Over the Edge/WaRP. Characters have broad traits in much the same manner that characters in Risus have cliches and both games use a pool of six-sided dice. Unlike Risus, Over the Edge and WaRP make distinctions as to how "useful" a trait would be to an adventurer. OtE and WaRP also differentiate traits that can be operated at default levels vs. those that absolutely require special training or talents. Coming to Risus from Over the Edge, this was something that I struggled to unlearn and I spent months hacking Risus to get it to behave more like OtE.  

Even though I have settled into the Risus way of looking at things, I do find the WaRP SRD to be packed with useful ideas:
  • Experience Dice: I think it's kind of neat to award dice for experience and to be able to use them before they are cashed in for higher traits/cliches. The advancement system from WaRP could easily be ported directed to Risus.
  • Signs: I like that each trait or flaw has to have an outward sign that could be visible to other characters. It's mostly for color but it definitely would help with characterization. 
  • The Unstoppable Six: A nice twist would be that even if a character fails a roll or loses a contest, any sixes rolled help to mitigate that failure in an unusual or surprising way. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Idea Bird

A quick missive from a monkey that is still overburdened by a stressful hunt for a new home...

A while back, I noticed the following link on io9 regarding Idea Bird, a wonderful tumblr with cool story ideas updated every few days or so. Many of these ideas are for are aimed at writers and thus can't always be directly ported to gaming. But most can be mined for some kind of useful nugget.

An example from 5/16/12:
He knew he’d faked his way into the CEO slot, and plenty of people knew it. But damn if he didn’t look good in a suit, and competent people made his initiatives work. Until they didn’t work, and he wound up in front of a Congressional hearing. A year or so out, and he was asked to appear on an interview show. He’d forgotten to shave, and the cowboy hat looked OK on him. His gritty approach and tough language led to the vice-presidency. Which was fine until the president choked to death. 
Not much of a scenario, but it is a pretty cool character concept (player or non-player). And the previous post on 5/14/12 offers up a pretty cool world-building nugget:
Clarke’s third law makes most think technology & magic are somehow interchangeable. But magic is more like singing or solving math equations, it’s a function of personality & skill. Technology, however, is great for recording things and playing them back. Record how an equation is done, and feed the variables into the calculator. Anyone can autotune their voice. Translate this into a world of Real Magic, where people cast spells at each other. Non-magic users use technology to record every step of a magician’s spell, and recreate it, over and over again. 
Anyway, the word "Idea Bird" inspired this Silver Age super hero for Risus:

Description: Kate Loveless fell into a team of London superheroes by virtue of being Spring-heeled Jackson's girlfriend. It wasn't long before her nascent technical aptitude proved indispensable - her more martially inclined mates stopped calling her Jackson's Bird and and starting calling her Idea Bird instead. The moniker fit like an expensive pair of go-go boots (which she always sports) and she has become famous for coming up ingenious gadgets disguised as women's fashion accessories.

Cliches: Fashion Conscious Gadgeteer [4], Super-spy Wannabe (2), Bookworm (1)

Hook: Half dice when threatened with capture (getting rescued from or escaping from captivity is constant occurrence).

Monday, May 14, 2012

Candy Zombies Invade Solomon

Thanks to another one of Trey Causey's inspirational Weird Adventures nuggets, candy zombies invaded Solomon in this past weekend's Buffy: The Vampire Slayer RPG game. Rather than try out new preparation techniques, I went with the old standby to great effect. You ever have one of those sessions where you think "how the hell did I pull that off?" This was one of those sessions. A whole host of inter-related plot elements are starting to converge in preparation for the series/campaign finale. Not forcing this on the players has been quite an act of GM jujitsu.

Anyway, the update will eventually make it up on the Slaying Solomon website. I say this, because additional episode write-ups have just been posted. Thanks to Jodi (who plays Sam) and Greg (who plays Drew) for getting this all down for posterity.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Building an Adventure: The Map

Previously, I detailed my usual technique for creating self-contained adventures for episodic campaigns (like Slaying Solomon) or convention one-shots. That technique works very well, but it is far from the only way to prepare for such games.

Dating all the way back to the earliest days of Dungeons & Dragons, perhaps the oldest technique is the classic keyed map. It is possibly the best form of preparation for a certain type of game (dungeon or hex crawls). It is also a bit difficult (for me at least) to adapt to fixed-length sessions outside the D&D genre.

The problem is pacing. As a game master, my goal for a one-shot is to end the session with some kind of satisfying conclusion. I don't particularly care where the party ends up or even if they fare particularly well. But nothing annoys me more than an adventure that doesn't have a satisfying ending.

Going way back to about 2005, I can remember many excellent Dragonspire games (D20 and Risus) where the party explored adventure sites that I keyed out ahead of time. But that was an extended campaign in a non-episodic style, and for that reason I was perfectly fine with calling the session in the middle of a dungeon. But the end of an adventure and the end of a session are different things. I do recall trying (successfully?) to wrap things up nicely when we reached various campaign milestones.

In recent years, I have run only a single adventure off of a keyed map: my Karst Chantry One Page Dungeon (developed for Risus, run using Old School Hack). I had hoped that the adventure would take but a single session. But three hours into the first session, I realized that there was no way in hell that the party would get anywhere close to exploring the entire dungeon. And they certainly weren't going to pull out and retreat to civilization with any kind of consolation trophy. 

No, it took a second session to get to satisfying end-point. That, in itself, wasn't so bad. But due to scheduling difficulties, two-part adventures are difficult for our group. We lost one player (who's character went two-dimensional in part two) and gained another (rescued from a dungeon). It work amazingly well, but it took quite a bit of juggling to get there.

Hmm, I guess it wasn't so bad after all. But it is still a form of preparation that I don't get a lot of practice at. I *like* drawing maps (especially ones keyed with DungeonWords). But I think I need to exercise more careful planning to make them suitable for one-shots. How long will it take to explore a given room? What if the players dilly dally? What if they take a short-cut? I think that a good, non-linear dungeon map could use some switches to allow a GM to adjust pacing. Perhaps various side passages become available if the party is making good progress? I'm not sure how I feel about that. It's funny that in non-D&D games, I have no problems stepping on the gas or the breaks to adjust pace. But a dungeon crawl seems to demand some degree of fidelity to what's on the map. Or not. Maybe it's just that more of my old-school sensibilities come out when I'm running off a map.

Of course, there is another idea: put the characters on the clock, or more likely, the dungeon itself. Link dungeon events to the real-time clock. Imagine a dungeon that is sinking into the muck, a self-destruct sequence, a gate home that is about to close, or a dying companion that needs the the dingus in the treasure room to recover. As part of the social contract, the players need to know that the real clock is roughly synched up with the game clock.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Episodic Adventure Construction

Since I will be running my first game in over a month this coming Saturday, my thoughts once again turn to the process of preparing an adventure (episode, actually, as I'm running Buffy: The Vampire Slayer RPG). It has been long enough since I've last run that I might actually venture beyond my tried-and-true technique and try a different approach.

But first, a word on how I usually prepare for Buffy (and, by extension, similar episodic one-shots).

I start with a new page in my gaming notebook (or some kind of electronic document if I'm going to have access to a laptop or my iPad). I label the episode number and come up with a catchy title. Yes, I start with the title. Some may think that I'm putting the cart before the horse, but at least 80% of my Buffy episode owe their entire existence to a clever title. Everything else usually follows from that.

Next up, I start a "Previously On Slaying Solomon..." section where I try to highlight the important plot threads and update the status of the major and minor cast members. Over eight years into this game, this step is absolutely essential. This is especially true given that my session notes can be sparse and our limited play frequency makes it hard to recall exactly what happened in a previous session. Writing everything down helps job the memory.

After that, I try to come up with a three act structure and a snappy teaser (the action and/or cliffhanger sequence that hooks the players). Sometimes, I come up with the teaser first and the rest of the episode follows. Usually, however, I need to have some idea of where the episode is going before I can think about what crucial element needs to be established in the opening sequence.

Now, even though I use a three act structure, I should be clear that I'm not doing any railroading here. I know my players and I have a pretty good idea of what they will do. But rarely do we finish the episode in the place that I imagined. In fact, much of the fun for me (as Director/GM) is seeing how it ends.

Thus, I set up an initial situation and lay out a rough plot in an outline format. Considering the seasonal arc (which is always in flux) I make note of various plot points that I'd like to hit. These plot points are often worked in though non-player characters, with plenty of clues thrown about to invite player involvement.

The player characters will always have their own agenda and I make sure I listen to their inter-party dialog during a session to look for where they will come into contact with the plot.

Pacing in these things is critical. While I do not put the *party* on rails, I do note in the plans of the various NPCs where I might need to cut corners or draw things out in order to hit a satisfying conclusion at the end of a four hours session. This sometimes manifests as a "to do list" for episode's Big Bad, which can expand or contract as needed.

Finally, I like to gather general resources for a session. For me, that means name lists, monster stats, inspirational images, and ideas for good action sequences. 

Ok, that's how I generally prepare episodic games. In my next post I hope to explore other techniques that I've used in the past, as well as techniques that I'm itching to try.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Stress & Consequences in Risus

Though I've only played one game of FATE, I've been a fan since the seeds of FATE began appearing in Fudge Factor. I've long assumed the Aspects of FATE borrowed heavily from Risus cliches (and Over the Edge traits before that). But after seeing a post by Steve Kenson about incorporating a FATE-like stress track (and consequences!) into ICONS, I began to wonder if such a thing couldn't be done for Risus. FATE could then give back something pretty cool to the little purple Anything RPG.

First off, why?

Short answer: the death spiral.

Slightly longer answer: because I have a few players in my group who like elements of Risus but for various reasons (death spirial being one of them), they are decidedly not fans. This means that Risus guy that I am, I only get to play the game at cons or for the rare online chat game. This rule might help.

In standard Risus, when a character loses a round of combat, they lose one die from the cliche that they were using. As combat progresses, their pool of dice gets smaller. They can switch cliches (which is totally part of the fun) but when a cliche goes to zero, they are at the mercy of their foe.

Dice lost in combat do not always (or even usually) equal physical damage. It can be loss of moral, tactical position, magical energy, consumable resources, pride, etc. The point is, a loss of a die means a significant set back, thus precipating the dreaded death spirial.

What if, instead, characters record their cliches as follows:

Grolfnar Vainsson the Viking
Viking (4) [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ]
Womanzier (2) [ ] [ ]  
Gambler (3) [ ] [ ] [ ]
Poet (1) [ ]

Those "boxes" (I'm in hurry, so pardon the lack of graphics) represent a seperate stress track for each cliche. "Damage" suffered while using said cliche (not to mention pumping) is applied to the stress track at the level of the damage received (1 by default), rolling up if a given box is crossed off. When the highest box in a track is checked off, the character is taken out.

On the surface, this looks just like the standard "lose a die from your cliche when you lose a round" of combat. But to mitigate the death spiral, characters could operate at full capability until they are taken out.

Ah, but how to represent disadvantages that are incurred such as injury or los of gear? The consequences of a combat, if you will. Well, FATE has a mechanic for that as well. Instead of marking a box off a given track, a character can instead take a consequence. The first consequence in a track is mild, the second is moderate, and the final consequence is severe.

Lacking FATE points or the notion of compelling these consequences, Risus would need a mechanical effect to represent them. Hopefully an effect that doesn't just reinstitute the death spiral. Without a terrible amount of thought, here is what I propose:

Mild Consequence: Minor effects on the order of a 1 die penalty to combat rolls. The TN of Target Number rolls would also be adjusted to account for the narrative explanation of the effect (+5 suggested).

Moderate Consequence: For a moderate consequence, effects on the order of losing your proper tools would be about right. This could obviously mean a loss of gear or resources. But it could also mean a more significant injury that removes some of the character's natural "tools" for tasks that fall under this cliche. Half-dice penalty to all rolls until the consequence is removed (not cumulative with Mild Consequences).

Severe Consequnce: While not taken out, the character's ability to perform when acting as this cliche is so impaired that the rules for "When Somebody Can't Participate" must be invoked for combat rolls. In Target Number rolls, the TN would be increased dramtically (+15 to +20 seems about right in most cases depending on the narrative explanation).

Finally, the system really sings when you aren't just taking a point of damage each turn. To get anything more than that, you'd need another house rule. Depending on the combat system in effect, I suggest the following...

Standard Rules: Damage is equal to the margin of victory divided by 5 and rounded down (minimum of 1).

Deadly Combat: Damage is equal to the number of dice that are higher than the opponent's highest die (minimum of 1 in case of a tie that is settled by the Goliath rule).

As per FATE, the damage is not the number of boxes checked off, but instead the *box number* that is checked off (counting from the left). If a box is already filled or non-existant the the character must take a consequence.

Finally, characters have the option of offering concession in lieue of taking a consequence. In other words, they are surrendering in the hope of getting some say in the manner of their loss. If they are taken out without doing this then victor can have their way with them, as is typical of Risus.

Oh, and a word on healing...

I imagine that the stress tracks could be cleared out fairly easily between combats. Rest should be enough to do it, as well as a simple Target Number roll for healer/healing types.

Consequences are another matter. Since the narrative explanation for the consequence is recorded, the requirements for removing them can be adjudicated fairly easily. I imagine that minor consequences would be easy to clear and that severe consequences would be quite difficult).

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Deal-A-Plot Discovery

As an eager backer of the super-cool Story Forge Kickstarter project, I was thrilled when project mastermind B.J. West threw in a free and unexpected benny. Seems that way back in 1936, an anachronistic RPG supplement... er, writer's brainstorming tool was produced by the publishers of a magazine for writers called "The Author and Journalist" and originally sold for $1.00. It consisted of a deck of 36 cards packed with story  elements that could be randomized by cutting the cards and opening them like a book. The number on the top of one half the deck would serve as an index into the chosen element of the revealed card on the bottom of the other. Not only is the list of elements itself super cool (and very handy to modern GMs), but the randomization method appears to be unique and loaded with potential for similar home-brewed projects.

Mr. West was good enough to digitize the exceedingly rare Deal-A-Plot, including the original instructions and examples of use. The link can be found on the last Story Forge project update: Update #23.

Risus Game Masters will note that this a great tool for coming up with politically incorrect but perfectly pulp cliches. Just combine an adjective with an item from the character list.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Microscope on the Go

In an effort to squeeze more creative time into an unreasonably busy day, I've

turned to mobile apps for help. I still haven't found the perfect solution
for solo gaming on the go (I'd write a Mythic GME app if I only had time).
But I have discovered that there are now tools for playing Microscope on the go.

An official Microscope app called the Microscope Journal has been
created by Trey Marshall. After messing around  with various outlining apps (CarbonFin's Outliner being my favorite), I was amazed to discover that this app was even available. It was exactly what I was looking for.

The Microscope Journal is a young app that clearly has room to grow but it  already does so much. It basically guides you through one or more concurrent games of Microscope, tracking who's turn it is and recording all the periods, events, and scenes as if you were laying out your index cards on a giant table. I'm totally going to use this the next time I play Microscope face-to-face. But better yet, I can now "play" solo on my commute with nothing but my iPhone (using invented personas to make the game more than just a writing exercise).

Two features that I'd love to see in future updates of the software:

  1. An additional notes field associated with periods, events, and scenes to record additional details to help job the memory.
  2. The ability to export to OPML (or some other format) so that games can be transferred between devices or loaded into writing tools like Scrivener as the first steps of a writing project.

For those of you who are curious, I'm through the worst of the business travel and family obligations that basically obliterated my creative life in April. I *hope* to be posting much more frequently now because actually creating stuff and interacting with other members of the community is good for my sanity/soul.