Monthly Archives: November 2010

Of Stars and Whales

With the publication of the Leverage RPG I have caught my white whale. The prospect of a caper RPG was one of those ideas that had pricked at my brain for years as something that could be done, but hadn’t. It was the big challenge, and if the opportunity to do Leverage hadn’t come along I would have had to make something on my own. Leverage was a perfect opportunity though, and I’m happy with it. Happy enough that I intend to mess around with hacks and modifications for it as time goes on, but for the moment I’m just going to bask in the joy of it being out.

Well, mostly bask.

The problem about white whales is that they’re a lot like good snack food. One isn’t enough. I find myself pondering the next real challenge.

By coincidence, I have recently started sating my curiosity about the Star Wars Saga game. This is the recent d20 version of the game released at the end of the D&D 3.x life cycle and is a weird sort of bridge product between that iteration and 4e. It’s a good game, full of good ideas, many of which were real improvements on 3.x. In some ways it seems to represent a a path not taken for 4e.

This has lead to me hunting down the more interesting looking supplements for the game, which have been by and large the slightly fringy ones. I cannot for the life of me imagine wanting to play a game in the movie eras. I did it in college in the old d6 game, and it was fun, but I really feel like there’s nothing I particularly want out of the setting. Similarly, the post-movie material has been a pretty serious turn off every time I have delved into it. However, the period between the movies (the era of The Force Unleashed) and historical periods (as in, Knights of the Old Republic) both are fun. So I got to looking at books.

It’s been interesting, and it vindicates all the worst part of my collector’s instincts. Specifically, the little voice that tells me that if I don’t get something now the opportunity will pass me by looked at the prices for some of these out of print books and laughed. That instinct used to be a big motivator for my my purchasing, but I’ve gotten more chill about it over the years, especially because most things either stay in print or are available in PDF. The two big exceptions are licensed products (because licenses expire) and anything WOTC puts out (because they just don’t do PDFs). The Star Wars games are a 1-2 punch in that category, and the net result is that some of the books are going for more than $100.

Anyway, I mention all this because one of the books I picked up on a lark was the quite fantastic Galaxy of Intrigue which may have set up my next white whale. It’s a good book full of interesting thoughts about how to run an intrigue-centric game. I’d like to talk about some of the ideas from it later, but it ends up falling a bit short of what I would like it to be because of the necessities of it being a Star Wars product. Those necessities include races and tech and trivia, all of which is excellent Star Wars material (and there’s even a page on the Tapani Sector, one of my big weaknesses) but is separate from the nugget of intrigue at the center of things that really holds my interest.

Anyway, not sure where this is going to go yet, just wanted to kick it around to see what it knocked loose.

Reverse Anchors

I’ve mentioned a few times how much I like the idea of anchors as a way to concretely draw aspects into play. The idea is simple: after a player picks an aspect, they name some element of the setting (a person, place or thing) that is tied into that aspect in some way. It provides the player easy ties into the setting and it gives the GM convenient handles with which she can grip onto character’s aspects. Win-win all around.

The other night I was talking with my friend Morgan about some ideas that we’d kicked around for Dresden but which has never really materialized. One of them revolved around thematic categories for aspects to fall under, and we were kicking around ways to capture that, and it occurred to me that you could really make this work by turning anchors on their head.

That is to say, you could begin a game with a limited set of anchors, and say have aspects tie into those. Exactly what those anchors would be depends entirely on the game and the genre. Amber, arguably, provides a great example of this in the form of the cast of characters (the royal family) plus a few key locations. The same thing could easily be done with the little town outside the dungeon or a city in a Dresden or cyberpunk game.

Now, there are some obvious benefits to this approach – a fixed list of anchors and an open list of aspects means you have a pre-built set of tools for building adventures, but this also taps into the same mojo as The Trick. The fixed set of anchors provide linking points for the characters through the anchor rather than directly.

One important qualifier is that the list of anchors is a snapshot, not a fixed list. The initial list should allow for some room to grow as players come up with ideas. After chargen, the list may change (slowly or quickly) over the course of the game. How it changes depends on the game – the game might be complex and call for only occasional changes or it might start with only a few anchors and expand over time.

Obviously, this calls for a little thought before character creation, but it’s actually pretty light duty stuff, and it has the advantage of helping prune the field of unwelcome elements. Any potential elements that don’t interest players enough to tie to their aspects probably deserve to be shuffled off to the sidelines. But with that small amount of work, you have created an easy way to keep a game’s central elements in the middle of play without breaking a sweat.

The Dog in the Microwave Job: Lessons

It’s always interesting to see a finished product. No matter how much work you put into it the original product, there is always room to be surprised. While there were no real surprises, there were plenty of tweaks and points of polish that caught my eye. Similarly, there is a difference between playing to see how the game works and playing something that’s done. Which is to say, I learned some unexpected lessons in actually playing the finished game.

The talents were a lot of fun since they were mostly new to me, having been written up by the ever-talented Clark Valentine. Lots of good stuff in them, and the section on creating your own is nicely concise (and very handy for potential hacks). That said, upon seeing them in action, I was pleasantly surprised to find the ones that really engaged the system were more fun. Not to say the ones that just added dice to certain activities didn’t work well, but the ones that did things like enhance asset dice or move plot points around were awesome. In retrospect, I would try to make sure every character has at least one talent too take advantage of opportunities because I think those might be the most fun of all.

The Complication Dial

Cam pointed out that I’d made a mistake in play by creating complications as d8s rather than d6s. He’s right, but that got me thinking – the d8’s actually worked fine and, I think, accidentally kept the challenge level up for a short job. That lead to my thinking that it makes a fantastic dial to set the seriousness of a job, with d6 being the normal level for the show, d8 for a bit harder, and d10 for the fecal matter hitting the rotating blades. Similarly, saying the GM’s complications start at d4 is a great way to declare a job will be more wacky and lighthearted than average.

It also could be used as a tool for escalating tension, if you’re playing a game for which that is appropriate. At some point during the game (either time-based or event-based) tension ratchet’s up, and complications now start at d8, and by endgame, maybe they’re d10s. There are definitely specific genres and styles this suits better than others (and default Leverage only really suits this for the two-parter episodes) but it’s handy for hacks.

Looking for Info

I made a call on the fly that I’m very happy with to handle situations where the player wants to hit the streets and talk to people to get information. The player may choose whichever role they like when they make this roll, but the roll they choose indicates the kind of people they’re getting information from. That is to say, you can always excel at this, but it’s always looking for trouble.

That said, the more useful trick for players in this situation (which I’d forgotten to suggest) is that this sort of scene is exactly the right time to create an asset for the person you intend to talk to. Let’s the player create their own informant and gives them a bonus at the same time. Much more satisfying.

The Bucket of No

When in doubt, the GM rolls 2d6 in opposition to the players. This is a handy rule of thumb, and when the actions speak directly to the various assets and complications in play, it is very easy to build an opposition roll that it about right. The problem comes when the players are making rolls against things that are tangential to the job but are still important enough to roll – without modifiers to really tilt the rolls, things can get a bit weird.

The first example of this came up when the thief was stuck in the office with a “Big Dog d8” and the grifter attempted to soothe the dog over the comm. Strictly speaking, that should have been a d6 (the default) and a d8 (for big dog) against the grifter. Sure, I might have thrown in a complication to represent the difficulty, but this was a full on crazy idea, one so improbably that I was inclined to just say No. Instead, a turned to a physical manifestation of the “Say Yes or roll the dice” principal – three d12s that I have set aside as my bucket of no. The are respectively labeled, “No”, “No Freaking Way” and “Are You Kidding Me?”. When I am tempted to say no, I just add the appropriate number of these to the roll. In this case, I dipped in at the “No Freaking Way” level, but the players still won the roll

There were a few other lessons, but they’re a bit more involved, and more suited to making very extreme hacks of the system, so those will probably percolate for a while until something comes of them.

Turkey Day

Happy Thanksgiving! It’s a holiday here today, so I’m gong to treat it as such and wrap up the Leverage posts tomorrow. Today, I will eat pie and be thankful for this hobby which has brought so much happiness to my life and which I look forward to sharing with my son as he gets older. I hope the day treats you well and gives you something to be thankful about.

The Dog in the Microwave Job: Play

I don’t want to get into a play by play of every scene that lead us to our finale, partly because I don’t think that would be useful and partly because I’d be hard pressed to recall all the details precisely. Instead, I’m going to talk about _how_ it played and the sort of things that happened at the table.

One of the player’s remarked that if the game does well it might be worth investing in 3M based on the sheer number of post-its used. By the time the game was finished I had pretty well covered the table in front of me with them. Index cards or a whiteboard would probably have worked equally well, but post its definitely hold up. Pro-tip: Use a sharpie if you can, to make them legible all across the table.

The first three notes were the three objectives for the game: Find the dog, sort out Rose and get the client to the hearing on time. The 4th had the time written on it. While the time changed, none of these had any direct mechanical impact on play, but they were useful for providing focus (at least for me).

Next, I put down post-its for the situation. One for the mark (Grifter d10, Evil d12, Psycho d12), one for the client and one for the dog (“Mr. Whuffles, yip dog d4”). It was only after Max’s player’s comment to this effect that I added “In a microwave d8”. Since there was also a guilty conscience in play, I put in Rose’s secretary (Secretary d8, secretly in love with Rose d8, guilty d4). Then I added “The Mob is Interested, d4” and that was pretty much the starting spread.

Thankfully, at that point the system stepped up and helped start bring things to life. After the characters talked to the client (at one point sending her further into hysterics with the kind of tact that makes it clear why Nate doesn’t invite the whole team along on client interviews) and things switched into investigation mode, something that many GMs may recognize as a bit of a bear trap.

Right off the bat, the players threw a curveball at me that I hadn’t planned for, asking if the dog was chipped (that is, had a microchip implanted for tracking purposes). I hadn’t even considered that, and there was an instinct to just say “no” since that would make things too easy, but that was a bad instinct – I just needed it to be playable, so I switched it to a “Yes, but…” – the dog was chipped, but the client didn’t have the code for it, her vet did, but he was out of the country (but presumably had it on file in his office).

I want to flag this one to any would-be Leverage GMs. What followed from this was procedurally very simple (and right out of the Fixer advice in the book) but was great fodder for play. The players had a clear goal (track the chip), a clear obstacle (It’s locked up in the office) and a clear course of action (Break in!) with the added bonus that it was clear _who_ should do this (the thief, of course). All of which is to say, when that little voice that says “no!” pops up, you should listen, but not obey. It I probably a great opportunity to throw up an obstacle rather than an insurmountable barrier.

The break-in ended up illustrating failure and complications very well. The thief utterly botched his original roll to case the joint, not only failing, but also handing me a complication (more on that in a second). Obviously, I didn’t want failure to stop things cold, and it would be silly to not have the thief be able to break in, so I asked the question instead “How can I move success to a different arena?” and determined that the issue was no good external access – to get in you’d want to go in through the adjacent office, which was open for business. The thief was forced to roll some grifter but managed to pass himself off as a patient, and got into the office, which is when the complication came up.

Procedurally, whenever a player rolled a 1 (creating a complication) I would pick up a d8 from the pile and put it on top of my post-it pad. When it came time to use it, I’d either write the new value on a post-it already out there, or I would (as in this case) take a new post it and write down the new complication. In this case it was “Big Dog d8” for the pooch that had busted out of his kennel. The subsequent scene of the grifter attempting to be the dog whisperer over the comms was unbelievable, even more so for it working.

Anyway, I won’t get into the details of the other scenes. The Mastermind talked to people in the mob (mechanically, the mob interest go bigger, then I later introduced “the real Danny Rose d10” into play). The Hitter found the guys who had stolen the dog and beat some information out of them. THe Grifter spoke to Rose’s secretary and as a 7-11 (using That Thing I Gave You) managed to acquire video footage of the Mark. Eventually the Hitter and Mastermind descended on the place the dog was being held. The Mastermind took out the guy at the door (somewhat to his own surprise) while the hitter took out the three upstairs, incorporating the “Dog in the Microwave d8” into his roll (A piece of debris bounced off one thug, opening the microwave, and the tiny dog jumped on another thug’s face). I rolled three 1’s on that fight, and our Hitter was a Badass (He basically takes out a mook every time I roll a 1) so it was about the most decisive victory imaginable. They got the fog back, got the client to the hearing on time, and as the wrapup, arranged for the two Danny Rose’s to meet, leaving that outcome to the viewer’s imagination.

It was a good game, and as noted, finished very quickly, and while I could probably have stretched it out a little, I think fast was just right for the room So with all that in mind, next post I’ll wrap up with lessons learned.

The Dog in the Microwave Job: Caper

For the caper, I went straight to the tables and rolled it up in front of the players. I note I could have kept some of the elements obscured if I had wanted to surprise the players, but I opted to lay it all out there and trust the players to keep IC and OOC clearly separate. The caper rolled up as follows:

Client: Politician or Public Servant
Problem: Threatened
Pressure: Out of Time and The Courts Can’t Help (rolled twice)
Mark: Grifter
Mark’s Angle: Evil
Mark’s Power: Scary, Sociopath (rolled twice)
Mark’s Weakness: Phony
Mark’s Vulnerability: Time
What Else is in Play: Guilty Conscience, Hostage
The Twist: The Mob Has Their Eye on This

This ended up being a surprisingly tricky spread, even beyond the number of 10’s (which spawned the double rolls) that came up. Certain elements gelled immediately. A threatened politician or bureaucrat is almost certainly an honest one who the mark is trying to stop from doing something. Plus, the mark’s vulnerability to time dovetails well with the Out of Time pressure suggesting that this job was going to be very much on the clock. The problem was the Mark.

That particular combination (Evil, Scary, Sociopath) is a tricky one to use, in part because they’re all secondary elements. They are fantastic for complimenting some other foundation for the mark to stand, but they’re a really, really strange match with Grifter. Not that it’s hard to envision and evil, scary, sociopathic grifter, but that’s only half the challenge. A mark like that would be one that the players would be inclined to go after head first because Scary and Sociopath are the sorts of things that work on other people, but not on heroes (even somewhat tarnished ones). And since the whole point of designing a caper is that you can’t just rush in and kick a guy’s ass, I couldn’t go with any of the obvious options.

The key came in the combining his weakness (Phony) with the Twist (The Mob’s interest) – Our Mark is not actually a scary guy, but he’s trading on the name and reputation of someone who actually _is_ that scary. That worked well because it gave him access to underworld resources (thugs!) but it clearly suggested an endgame where the mobster in question finds out about someone using his name. Awesome. That’s a workable mark. But what the hell was he doing?

Again, the answer came out of the table: the Hostage. I had originally envisioned some undefined person, but then I thought about the mark, who was a very small man pretending to be a much bigger one. He wouldn’t have the moxie to actually kidnap someone, would he? No, probably not, unless it was by accident. But he would be willing to kidnap a pet.

And bam, there it was. The Mark had kidnapped the client’s dog and was threatening it to keep her from doing something in the very near future. With that skeleton it was easy – I picked zoning out of the are because, hey, real estate development is big money. The woman had a damning report to present to the zoning commission before the voted on the site for the new All-Mart, and the commission was meeting today at noon. The Mark had taken her dog and made it clear that the report should not be delivered. To emphasize the time crunch, I had the crew find her (a woman crying on a park bench) and started out with the frame that the vote was at noon and it was now 9:45am. Go.

All in all, I think it was a great illustration of the generator in action. Even with a slightly rough spread, it had all the materials needed to make the game work.

Tomorrow: Actual Play!

The Dog in the Microwave Job: Chargen

Fred held the Dresden Files dice packing party on Saturday, and it was a great opportunity to see people, new and old. I also got roped into running a game of Leverage for some of the attendees which did not, I admit, take much arm twisting. It did demand some rapid reading of the parts of the game that I didn’t write and some of those I did, but that worked out fine because I got to be really impressed by the game several times. There’s some really good stuff in there

I’ll talk about the game in detail in a minute, but I don’t want to bury the lead, so here’s the thing that really impressed me: including caper design and character generation, the whole game was done in just about two and a half hours, and it was a complete (if not overly intricate) caper. I was utterly gobsmacked by this – it was a lot of well structured, fast moving play in a small window. This suggests some pretty fantastic things for weekday nights and convention games.[1]

Anyway, rather than do a recruitment job (a fantastic chargen method) I opted for fast chargen because I wanted to take the caper generation system for a spin. Chargen was, I admit, made easier by the fact that everyone at the table was familiar with Fate, so explaining distinctions was very easy. I also listened to their descriptions and just picked two talents for everybody (like stunts in SOTC, Talents are the element most likely to slow down chargen because there are the most choices and interesting options). The crew ended up being:

Hitter – Hare (properly, Peter Rabbit, which might or might not have been his real name) a Badass with a penchant for improvised weapons.

– Max, a seriously antisocial woman who spent much of her time snarking at all her teammates except sledge, because he was the boss. Max’s player gave me one of my favorite moments of the game upon realization that I was cheerfully taking the throwaway snarky comments and folding them into the game fiction, which is where the eponymous “Dog in the Microwave d8” came in.

– Benny, who just wanted to help. And if helping required a doctor, well, he could slap on a lab coat and step in, right?

– Sam, and older black gentleman in a bowler cap, modeled after the Fables character of the same name. I am pretty sure Same generated more complications than the rest off the crew put together.

– Sledge, scion of a an extended (and connected) Jewish family whose bagel shop served as the team’s base of operations. His mastermind schtick was less about having complex plans so much as knowing a lot of people. He was also the team’s leader, though only tenuously, since everyone else but the hacker had taken Mastermind as their secondary role.

Thoughts on Chargen:

  • I needed a better summary of what Mastermind does, or more concretely, when you might roll it. The other roles are very clear in their application, but Mastermind is a bit fuzzier. Having chewed on it a bit, I’m pondering summarizing it as the thing you roll when your action is really asking the GM a question, but that may not quite be right.
  • The talents were very well received for their clarity and color. I’m pretty sure those came from the ever-talented Clark Valentine, and I think they ended up being a big selling point for the game.
  • I definitely could have used a cheatsheet during chargen, since the material is a little spread out. This was mostly made a problem by the fact that I was running it out of a PDF copy on my ipad, and much like my experience with Icons, a PDF copy tends to fall short at the table when you need to reference it a lot (as is the case in chargen). The inability to flip or mark pages is pretty telling.
  • I ended up pulling a few framing questions out of the air (Where’s your home city? How long has the team been together? Is the Mastermind the boss? Where’s your base of operations?) and they were useful enough that I need to see about building a fixed list of them (or see if such a list exists in the book)
  • It was not instantly obvious to the players where to write specialties on the character sheet because the line under each role looks like a divider. Small thing, but something I’ll bear in mind if I do a character sheet redesign.
  • Specialties, as it turns out, are almost as much fun as distinctions as a way to flesh out the characters. Really happy with their final form.
  • One of the players (Ben’s I think) noted that a structurally pleasing element of the game is that the talents can be easily modified to add other genre elements (like magic and such) without touching the bones of the system. He’s right, and that’s a pretty big plus, though I think a lot of genres also end up needing a bit of redefining of what “Hacker” means.

Tomorrow: Caper Design!

1 – I’ve obviously run short games before, but usually they’re the result of me freeforming a bit, so the throttle is entirely in my hands. Leverage has more rules structure than that yet still plays very fast. Like, Fiasco fast.

A Bit of Leverage

So, there’s a mechanic in Leverage that I’m super pleased with. Ok, there’s actually a lot in Leverage I’m super pleased with, and the prospect that it will end up being an actually working caper game is a prospect that is hugely, hugely exciting to me. I, naturally, already think it is one, but the ultimate test of such a thing is in people playing it, so I need to be patient and wait and see how that goes. I am not very good at that.

But the mechanic I’m thinking of is actually almost entirely tangential to the idea of capers or anything else. To set this up, consider that it’s not hard to make a game, specifically a skill list for a game, that covers 90% of the situations that come up, and that reality allows for the creation of broad, stylized skill lists (such as Hitter, Hacker, Grifter, Mastermind, and Thief – the Leverage Roles) which are very playable. There are, however, two flaws in such a list. First, there will be skills – usually specialized ones – that are not covered by the broad skill list, such as piloting a helicopter or performing neurosurgey. Second, it will not always be entirely clear which broad skill a specific skill falls under. Handling explosives, for example, is something that might reasonably fall under the domain of the Hitter, Hacker or Thief.

Now, the good news is that these limitations are not huge drawbacks in play. The exception skills come up less often than you’d expect; partly because they’e usually suited to uncommon circumstances, but also because the existing skills tend to naturally funnel player behavior towards themselves. The unclear skills can be a problem, but every GM comes up with their own ways to handle that such as best skill applies, worst skill applies or determining appropriate skill based on context.

Still, they do come up and they do occasionally create issues; and that’s where the Leverage specializations come into play. Now, on paper, they look like any other specialization in any other game you’ve seen. You take a specialization (say, “Fighting when outnumbered”) and apply it to a Role (like Hitter) and voila, it gives you an extra d6 when appropriate. Mechanically, nothing new or interesting.

But here’s the trick. And extra d6 in Leverage is not that big a deal. It might help in an arena you’re otherwise terrible at, such as when you want your d4 thief to have at least a little bit of a chance of picking a pocket, but once you start moving into a character’s area of strength, a single d6 is nice, but not critical, and it’s usually pretty easy to generate some other d6’s from being awesome anyway. That would seem to suggest that specializations primarily exist to help compensate for a character’s weaknesses, but doing so misses their much more potent role.

In Leverage, the player decides which role the specialization is associated with, and that means that the player can use a specialization to “pin” a skill to a specific role, ideally a role they’re good at. This offers a much bigger bonus to that sort of activity by moving it to an area of strength, and it addresses the weaknesses of the broad skills very tidily. If there’s a skill that falls outside the sphere of things, like helicopter pilot, then a player can attach it to a role they already excel at, and they are now a *good* helicopter pilot.[1] Similarly, it means that if a certain activity (like, say, explosives or medicine) is important to the character but subject to interpretation in terms of which role it uses, the player can choose a specialty to guarantee that when their character rolls it, they use the role the player has chosen.

In the grand scheme of things, this is a very small rule, and in Leverage it’s even smaller because characters have other ways around these issues as well, but it’s exactly the kind of rule I really like because it’s small and easy to apply while quietly offering a very broad and useful impact.

Anyway, time to go back to waiting for the print edition to come out!

1 – Yes, that skips over the whole issue of characters being obliged to suck at certain skills unless they want to spend heavily just to cover some part of their concept that doesn’t come up that often. What a shame, that.

Dangerous Equilibrium

Equilibrium is a very tempting state in setting design. I has lots of fun trappings like a balance of power and broad opportunities for commerce and travel, and more importantly it lets the author really drill down into the things that make the setting interesting (at least in his eyes) without them getting all broken or overly complicated. The problem is that while this is very compelling from a perspective of creation, it’s a bad approach from the perspective of play.

Interesting things when systems fall out of equilibrium. Change, wars, revolutions, reformations and pretty much everything else, and all of these things are fertile grounds for play. When a game takes place someplace out of equilibrium, it has a sense of inertia and movement that is what many railroading games are trying to capture without realizing it. It’s a sense that the world if a moving, and you better keep up. By leaving things in equilibrium, that energy goes to waste.

As with many failings in setting design, I tend to pin this one on the terrible nature of social studies textbooks, which are the only model that many people have when it comes time to write up a setting. Having history presented in clean, digestible chunks warps the mind into thinking that’s how things should be, and overlooks both the narrative (which moves) and the reality (which is messy) in favor of simplicity and the least common denominator.

The trouble with equilibrium is, of course, that it has no trouble at all. If there was no game, things would proceed pretty much as they have, and even if there is a game, it’s likely to have a small impact as things play out. Now, a low-impact game may be desirable. Many styles of play emulate fiction where the main characters mostly drink and fight and while they may do hugely heroic things or even save the world, they’re likely to do it in ways no one particularly notices. Thinks like the earlier stories of Fafhrd an the Grey Mouser. But in such games, setting is usually designed very loosely, in broad strokes, with whole swaths of territory easily summed up in a sentence or two. Adventure is found in the exceptions and anomalies. Such a setting may well be at equilibrium, but it would also be almost silly for it to be more than a collection of notes, and maybe a really cool map.[1]

It is also possible to bring change to a system in equilibrium through the agency of the characters, especially if they’re the chosen ones or whatnot, but it’s a very brute force solution. It’s very nice and empowering, but it’s also not much of an improvement – unless the world responds to the change in a way that creates tension and problems, it’s just a kind of showpiece.

There’s been one interesting trend in setting design to address this, something I’ll call aftermath design. The idea is that in the setting, something big has just happened, such as the emperor being killed or whatnot, and the setting is going through changes as it sorts this out. This is a promising idea, but it bumps up against old habits. Too often, that change occurs (before play begins, natch) and it is then the ONLY change that’s going to ever happen. It’s just a push towards a new equilibrium.

And that, there, reveals the true rub. There is absolutely a tendency of system to move towards equilibrium, but even if they reach it, they don’t sustain it. Change is ongoing. For a GM, this is intensely liberating. For a setting designer, this creates a challenge of how to express that dynamic in a useful. Which is the thing I now find myself chewing on.

1 – Not to say this stops people from getting encyclopedic about it, but it’s a different beast.


Man, the Cold War game is kicking my ass. The mechanics have been working just fine[1], but man it is making me bump up against most of my real weaknesses as a GM. Some of it is no doubt that any night, any time, might not go well. I’m ok with that. Everyone has an off night. But some of it is that I think espionage may be my Achilles heel.

See, the heart of the matter is information. A spy game revolves around information, and as I had no desire to just infodump at the players, I needed to put information into play in a way that actually put it into mind through experience. In the abstract, that’s fine, but in an information-centric game, that’s a lot of data to push down the pipe, and it impacts the play experience.

This last session kind of came to a head. At the culmination of 3 sessions, the players busted up an underground auction of Marktech (technology related to supers), saw a number of players in action, had numerous reveals and move the plot forward, and at the end of the night, I felt like crap. That session felt much more about me revealing plot than about the players than about them, and that’s no way to run a circus, but at the same time I’d be hard pressed to say how to do it differently and still stay within the genre we’re shooting for.

Part of the frustration is that I dislike having to say no to players based on something I know about the setting and they don’t, especially when it’s about genre expectations. In a more fast and loose game (my preference) it is easier to roll with player ideas, but when there are hard limiters on tone (such as, specifically, guns are dangerous and your opponents are dangerous because they’re smart, not because they’re strong) it gets harder. Worse, when I throw up a barrier to something on that basis, I feel like I’m just being that asshole GM saying no because it’s not the way I want things to go.

It gets exacerbated by having thematic barriers but no real thematic core. The spy (and crime) stories I enjoy revolve around some sort of actual moral core, usually loyalty (Bond) or some sort of moral limits (Burn Notice)[2] but I shot that in the foot a little bit in the premise – things are sufficiently gray and muddy that there’s not a lot of purchase there. The players have brought some core to the table on their own, but it is sometimes better suited to a different kind of game. On some level, I wonder if I would just be better off flipping the lever from espionage to thriller. Thrillers require much less beyond the immediate situation to be engaging, and lord knows that would be easier to run.

Anyway, sorry for the down note, but chewing over this stuff is how I improve.

1 – With one exception – I may need a tweak to make a guy with a drawn gun more dangerous.

2 – This applies to other morally gray games too. Amber, for example, is full of villains, but at least they’re a Family