Monthly Archives: November 2010

Open Games Now

I cannot play 4e (or now Gamma World) without regretting the lack of openness of the system. I really dig the 4e engine, and I love the sheer breadth of things that one might do with it. When something new, like Essentials comes along, I get excited and think about the things I’d do with that (like make more classes – I would SO much rather make an essentials class than a core one). Then I remember that no, that’s not really an option.

I mean, yes, I can still write about it, and if I have an idea for a hack, I can blog about it, but if I really want to put some serious work into making something solid? I immediately balk.

Now, yes, nominally I have the same problem with any other closed system, but the reality is more messed up. Posting a hack for Leverage or Dragon Age theoretically has the same problems, but I’m much more open to doing so for a couple reasons. Some of them have to do with the respective companies, but that’s actually a very small part of it. The big issue is that 4e is a _little bit_ open, and in many ways, that’s worse than not being open at all.

That may seem paradoxical, but consider this. If I hack Smallville, I feel that so long as I proceed on good faith, I’m fine. I might write up an adventure or some alternate rules, and if by some chance I ever go to far, I can be told to back off, and I will. It’s MWP’s game, and I’m just showing it some love. In contrast, with 4e, there’s no issue of good faith. WOTC has laid out in black and white, via their GSL, where they consider the boundaries to be (and that I need to sign an agreement to go that far). Yes, I could ignore the agreement and treat it like any other game, but that feels like playing with fire. The simple reality is that if I’m going to make a mistake in my enthusiasm, I don’t want to make it with WOTC. Too much likelihood of a response that I won’t like.

This might be ok if the boundaries of the GSL were at least broad enough to play in, but they’re explicitly not. In fact, the scope of the GSL is treated as an afterthought in every way except the things it excludes. Hell, I’d even be leery of writing and adventure for fear of accidentally using a monster that WOTC considers protected content.

Now, maybe I worry to much. I’ll cop to that. But whatever the amount of worrying you consider appropriate, I’d suggest that it’s still more of a headache than dealing with a truly open system. And that’s a big part of why we dig openness in games. We like what people do with Fate, and we’re glad they have the chance to do so.

To my mind, the only downside of open systems is that at the moment there are only so many of them that are reliably open, and that may sometimes result in people choosing to use one that may not be the best match for their project because they can’t find a good alternative. D20 saw a lot of this, and Fate is hardly immune, but I like to look at this as incentive to get more open systems out there.

Faces and Places

Edit: Seems I screwed up my scheduling, so there’s a double post today – this one and the one below. Enjoy the fruits of my inability to read dates!

Dresden Files’ city generation is one of my favorite parts of the game, but it can occasionally create problems for groups that are trying it for the first time, especially if they’re using the Vancouver method of sing a generic city as a backdrop. The problem tends to be the points of inspiration – the usual model is to outline places, the come up with the faces associated with them, but that can be rough when you have no starting point.

So this came up in discussion the other night with Chad “Robot from the future powered by beer” Underkoffler, and his solution is probably the most straightforward – if you don’t have places, then start with the people and then figure out where they are. That works pretty well, but I know that some people like a little more inspiration, so I got thinking about how to do that for a city.

The trick is that you’d basically be generating “A [QUALIFIER] [PLACE] with [SITUATION]” and that’s easy enough to turn into a set of tables, so I sat down and started doing so. Simple enough, at lest for qualifier and place, but situation is a bit trickier. Yes, sure, it’s totally possible to come up with a random list of situations, but I think that would ultimately be counterproductive. Generic situations are all well and good, but the point of doing collective city creation is to come up with things that are relevant to the players. Now, I am sure your players are creative, and they would tie themselves into the events that rolled up with no problem, but that feels enough like cheating that I’m leaving that out. Instead, here’s a simple table of qualifiers and places. My suggestion is that before you roll on one of these, pick an aspect, and let that be the inspiration for the situation in the place.

Open Games and Me

So, back in the Day, Steffan O’Sullivan and a bunch of folks on usenet got together to collectively create an RPG. That rpg eventually became Fudge, and in the spirit of community that lead to its creation, S.O.S. declared the game to be open to all comers. Do what you like with it, and if you want to make a commercial product with it, just bounce it off Steffan, and send him two copies. Steffan did say no to one guy, once, and regretted it later, but by and large, it all worked pretty well. A community of independent developers grew up around Fudge, taking it in a number of different directions and producing a number of great products, some free and some commercial. Yet despite the vibrancy of this community (and it was vibrant in its day) there was never a real break-out Fudge hit. Fudge never truly went mainstream.

There was a lot of discussion of this back in the day, and as many theories for why as you might expect, but for me and Fred, it eventually became a very practical issue. We had produced the early version of Fate, and had gotten a fairly positive response, winning a few awards and so on. This was great, and this success can directly be traced to the eventual creation of Spirit of the Century and The Dresden Files, but it put is in a tough position. See, it was all well and good to do a small game on what amounted to a handshake and good faith, but did we really want to put ourselves in the position where we built our house on that foundation? It’s not that we distrusted Steffan, but what if something happened to him?

This was ultimately a matter of risk evaluation. The odds of there actually being a problem were quite small (at least in the near term) but if there was a problem, there was a chance it could be an utter dealbreaker. If we were going to proceed like a real business, we needed to move away from the risk, and with that in mind we started working on a “fudgeless” version of fate. However, while we were doing this, we were not the only people having this conversation, and Grey Ghost Games (who had published the print versions of Fudge) acquired the rights to Fudge in 2004, and began a discussion of how to open it up. In 2005, Fudge was released under the familiar-to-gamers OGL and that allowed us to stick with Fudge as the underlying engine of Fate in SOTC and Dresden.

As an upshot of this, I’m always curious what people mean when they say an RPG is open. While some games are explicitly open (either under the OGL or Creative Commons), other games are much more hand-wavingly open, especially many so-called indies. This can be a bit muddled – copyright issues around games and rules are wonderfully messy in practice – but it also usually means a creator who is positively invested in what other people do with his game. Whatever this may mean commercially, such games tend to offer fantastic opportunities for a budding designer to sharpen their teeth, and we’re lucky to live in a world these days where these things are possible.

It’s a good future. But I want more. But that’s for another day.

Gamma World Impressions

So, Fred ran some Gamma World last night, and in addition to an opportunity to play with some locals who I usually only see at conventions, it was a chance to change the game from hypothetical to actual. We had a good time on the outskirts of the Baldy Moor, seeking the fabled All-Mart. and getting into some trouble along the way, and my impressions follow.

  • The Gamma World box is nice, but it’s awkwardly sized to use as an actual box (A point that was reinforced by Fred showing off his Monster Vault and City Tile boxes). For any future play, I will certainly migrate it into something more compact. If I was younger, I would see if it all fit in an ammo box.
  • We only had one death, but it was a very near thing – several other characters came very close. This was expected – GW has a reputation for lethality – and I was curious to see why that was so when compared to a D&D group. Having seen it now, I think I have a sense of it, and I think it’s two things.
  • First, there is less overall alpha strike capability, which 4e provides with its encounter and daily powers. This is not so important in terms of general output so much as the ability to respond to specific threats (since it is often the case in combat that one enemy proves a disproportionately high level of threat) by concentrating fire on a dangerous enemy to tip the balance. Alpha mutations and Omega tech fills some of this niche, but unreliably, and in fact we had a generally stronger draw of tech in the second fight (which was nominally harder than the first) which proved much easier. I don’t think these facts are unrelated.
  • Second, there is less synergy between the characters than there is in 4e. This is partly a result of how the powers are structured, but it’s also a result of the more freeform chargen. Without roles or clear ways to make other players more awesome, figuring out how to get a group to work as an effective team takes some time and experimentation.
  • The random gear table is actually a surprisingly powerful tool for telling you what your character’s story is. If anything, I wish it had more stuff – we had a lot of repeats, and certain things (like canoes) suggested more about the character than more practical things (like flashlights).
  • This didn’t come up, but does anyone know: When you hit 6th level do you get both crit effects at once, or do you get to choose which one applies on a per-attack basis?
  • Doppelgangers, BTW, are particularly awesome, especially when paired with a good secondary power. Having now seen more of the templates in action, the logic of their balancing makes a little more sense. It would be very easy to create new templates of a certain type (like the pyrokinetic or radiation ones) but others, especially the ones with odd novice powers (like Doppelgangers) or novice powers that are encountered rather than at-will (like Rat Swarms) are often balanced against something less obvious.
  • While the Alpha Flux rules (which kick in on a 1) are nice in theory, the don’t help much when everyone is rolling 3’s.
  • Having now seen it in action, the temptation of the custom deck is very clear to me now, for two different reasons. The first is thematic – After I finished making my character (Doppelganger/Mindbreaker) I quickly pulled all the biological mutations out of my deck – I did not see this guy growing spines or spitting acid, so I themed the deck to that. I didn’t feel this was terribly abusive or cheaty. The second is practical – the range of utility of the mutations and tech is insane. One mutation might mean you get to attack twice every turn while another means you can breathe underwater[1]. The range in Alpha Tech utility is similar. This means that over and above the temptation to stack the deck in a way to suit your character, there’s a temptation to just make a deck out of “the good stuff”.

    I cannot decide if I consider this a hurtful design decision (effectively designing cards to not be used) or a profoundly cynical ploy to drive players to buy cards, rather than leave them at the whims of the GM’s deck, which is going to be neither thematic nor optimized.

  • Despite the specifics of its implementation, the deck idea is pretty fantastic. One thing Fred and I were discussing is that you could easily tweak things into Torg by doing a GM-Deck game where the GM’s decks change depending on the Realm you’re in. The decks already have the hints of the ability to do this (with the various power and tech origins) and it would be a lot of fun to explore that. Unfortunately, cards are more work to mess around with than rules.

All in all it was a very fun game. A few warts that come from learning a new system and having a full table, but since the full table was full of fun players, it was quite worth it. I suspect I may take a hand at running it soon, and I’ll be curious how it looks from that side.

1 – And since the GM doesn’t know about these too far in advance, it’s not liek he has time to make the scenario account of such things.

Leverage is Here!


It’s Here!

The Leverage RPG went live yesterday! You can buy the PDF now, or if you order the book through the MWP Store you get the PDF with your order (Physical books are probably a few weeks out – shipping is a bear). I’ve already got my PDF, and it’s absolutely lovely, and I’m loving it as I read.[1]

This is a great game of capers and unconventional justice by a great team masterminded by Cam Banks (try his novel!) with Matt Forbeck (try his novel too!) and Clark Valentine casing the joint, Tiara Lynn Agresta and Stephanie Ford distracting the guards, Fred Hicks and Laura Anne Gilman taking out the security system and Ryan Macklin and Amanda Valentine making off with the goods. With a crew like that, it’s hard not to rock out, and I’m super-pleased I got to be a part of it.

The development of Leverage was pretty interesting because a lot of it happened in parallel to the work Josh Roby‘s team was doing for Smallville, but neither team had any visibility into what the other was doing. Even so, there are some similarities between the games that sprung from similar inspirations, but they are definitely very different games designed to serve very different purposes. And I’m happy about that. Don’t get me wrong – Smallville is freaking brilliant, but if we had just made a different version of it for Leverage, I think it would have hit the wrong note. Smallville is a relationship based action-drama, Leverage is a caper. There may be similar elements of relationship and action, but the emphasis is very different in ways that I think the two games reflect.

Now, obviously, I’m biased in favor of the game (though the one review I’ve seen so far was pretty positive so maybe it’s not just me) so I absolutely think you should pick it up. But knowing that it takes more than that, let me note 3 different awesome things.

1. Distinctions
Distinctions are like aspects in that they are free form descriptors like “Crazy” or “Sterling Always Wins” which might be good or bad for the character in any given roll, but unlike aspects, their application is in the player’s hands. When a player uses a distinction, they decide if it helps (in which case they roll an extra d8) or if it gets in the way (in which case they get a plot point and roll an extra d4). Why do they roll a d4 rather than take a penalty? I’m glad you asked!

2. The Rule of 1
So, the basic mechanic is roll some dice, add together the best two. The base two dice are one for an attribute (Agility, Alertness etc,.) and one for a role (Hitter, Hacker etc.) with other dice being thrown in by props, distinctions and other circumstances. Pretty simple, and given that characters are quite capable, it’s not had to succeed within your sphere. But there’s a catch.

See, 1’s are problematic. Dice that come up 1’s (even if unused) on a player’s roll introduce complications into the situation, while dice that come up 1’s for the GM create opportunities for the players, and many abilities trigger off this. The net result is that you can get very nuanced outcomes to rolls, with clear success at the task at hand, but all manner of trouble spinning off from it.

Because of this, d4s are dangerous[2]. Sure, any die can throw up a 1 at a bad time, but d4s just invite it. Adding a d4 to a roll is unlikely to help much but it greatly increases the chances of something going wrong without increasing the chances of failure, and that’s a very important distinction. It is far more in keeping with the spirit of the show to have things go wrong than to have the characters suck.

3. Caper Generation Tables
Yep. Roll up a caper. I mean, yes, there’s also advice for fleshing it out and running it, but random tables to roll up a client, a mark and a situation? How is that not super fun?

There are other awesome things. Cha0s’s distinctions (page 153 of the PDF). The fact that you could really get away with index-card sized character sheets. That the book looks REALLY frickkin’ sweet. But you get the idea.

I admit, I’m really curious to see reactions to the game. Part of that is normal egoism, sure, but there’s a bit more to it. See, if you had asked a year ago, I think it would be safe to say that the Cortex system would have been described as workmanlike. It was a solid little stat + skill generic system, and while it had evolved through iterations[3], the system was very much second fiddle to the licenses it accompanied. With Smallville, I think this dynamic shifted – the Smallville mechanics are so good that the game has a lot of appeal for gamers who are not fans of the show.

My hope is that Leverage will have a similar mechanical appeal (though I love the show, so I’m also all for bringing in the fans), and that between the two games, we’ll have helped create the idea that Cortex Plus (and by extension, MWP games under the guiding hand of Cam Banks) is a great system, one that makes for games as good as the licenses they support.

And, well, more shallowly, I love this game, and I hope other people love it too.

1 – I always need to read things I’ve written for, in part because my the time they come out I have usually totally forgotten what I wrote or, more problematically, I remember every version of it and can no longer recall which was the final one.

2 – Hat tip to Dogs in the Vineyard, for the roots of this idea.

3 – If your instinctive reaction to this is to tell me how badly it was a mismatch with Firefly, I’ll ask you to hold on for a second. Yes, boating, I know. But the Big Damn Heroes supplement really put some polish on it, and is well worth a look. Of course, now that there’s Smallville and Leverage, I’d probably use one of those, depending on how I wanted to emphasize things.

3d6 and Bonus Dice

Gonna be a nerdy one today, with more noodling on the FATE Spies 3d6 mechanic (which I may need to start calling something else soon).

EDIT: I just noticed I didn’t upload the key. Basically, the black line is a flat, familiar 3d6. Red line is 3d6 with 1 bonus die, blue is 2 bonus dice and green is 3 bonus dice. Click the image to see it in better detail.

Yeah, I was feeling a little crazy last night and wanted to see just how big an impact bonus dice had on a regular 3d6 distribution (the black line). But even so, I admit that’s kind of crazy to see.

Bonus and penalty dice, for the unfamiliar, are a fairly simple mechanic I first encountered in Over the Edge. They work quite simply – when rolling a set of dice, say, 3d6, if you have a bonus die, you roll 4d6, and tally up the best three of them. If you have a penalty die, you roll 4d6 and tally up the worst 3 of them. The math is pretty easy, and so long as you’re dealing with tallies that people can handle comfortable then I find it’s a useful mechanic because it has a few curious attributes.

Most importantly, it doesn’t change the range of outcomes, it just changes the likelihood of where a result will fall. This is a fantastic way to keep the numerical representation of the world consistent yet bounded, because the best result that can ever possibly be rolled is a known value, and you can reasonably set difficulties based on that.

This model works exceptionally well when the dice themselves represent values, as in Over the Edge (where your attributes were rated at 3d6 or 4d6) or in the newer versions of Cortex (where everything is described with a die value EDIT: as illustrated in the Leverage RPG which is out today!).[1] It is a little odd to be using it with a bonus system, as I am with the Fate Spies game, but it’s proving a surprisingly good match for the relatively short skill ladder (only 4 steps, though I have a hunch 5 might be better) because the range of bonus seems large enough to tilt a roll, but not large enough to overwhelm it.

Consider, in contrast, if your roll a d20 and have a +2 bonus. Your bonus isn’t going to make too much of a difference in the total value of your roll. It weights it a little, sure, but the range of outcomes is broad enough to overwhelm it. In contrast, if you have a +32 bonus, the bonus is much more telling. (Yes, this is partly math, but there are some caveats to that. But it’s also about perception).

Compared to that, a +0/+2/+4/+6 set feels pretty good, especially on a 3d6 curved outcome. +2 is still enough to pretty impressively improve your odds (increases your chance of hitting a 10 by almost 25%) but is more likely to drop you in the 10-14 range (complicated success), which seems exactly right. Once you start adding bonus dice and penalty dice into this, it feels like a very potent range of options in a fairly tight package.

As a bonus, setting a hard limit on potential outcomes makes it easier to handle superhuman ones if and when they come up. If the best guy in the world’s best shot is a 25 (18 + 6 + 1 point misc bonus) then I know that superhuman starts at 26 and can build from there.

Even more, it makes the game nicely compact in terms of materials. D6’s are easy to come by and it’s easy to get sets by color. If I’m feeling saucy, it’s entirely possibly to hand out fate points[2] as differently colored d6’s. Combined with the fairly minimal skill list, and the whole game kit could probably fit in an index card box. I love the physical elements of games, but I lean towards minimalism in my tastes, so I’m always thinking about what’s involved in building a kit, and this may end up shaping into a true kit game.

1 – There’s some similarity to Roll & Keep systems, such as L5R, but those have different benefits.

2 – Aspects in this system either grant a reroll or add a bonus die. I had worried that wasn’t quite potent enough, but looking at the math, it pretty much is, but it offers no incentive for spending them before the roll. I need to decide if that’s a bug or a feature. If it’s a feature, ti means I’ll assume it will _always_ be after the roll, and make specific narrative demands to that end.

More Spy Results

Another session of the spies game last night. The mechanics are still present, just because they’re primarily in my head (or on the blog), so I’m trying to keep them transparent, but I think they’re holding up. Specifically, We’re been playing the 3d6 variant and it’s proving fairly robust.

Last night was the kind of session where things took a much more wiggly path than I anticipated, but I made a lot of unexpected discoveries. The sole downside is that the tempo system feels a little stretched in a close quarters gunfight – one that feels like it should be more dangerous than normal. While it’s easy to give one side or another an advantage, there’s no dial for making a specific fight nastier. I could probably tweak the margin of success in the background, but that seems a little ham-handed. Something to think about, but I don’t think it detracted from the game.

On the upside, I think I finally internalized the need for penalty dice as a difficulty gauge. As it’s a fixed-outcome roll (influenced by Apocalypse World, but it is definitely not an AW hack) the game has the frustrating habit of distributing outcomes independent of the fiction of the world. Tossing in a penalty die to say “This is harder than just doing the same thing in different circumstances” feels very natural, and since the impact of the penalty die is immediate and palpable, I get a lot of mileage out of just using a few. One means this is hard, two means this is really hard, and three means you’re really pushing it. Keeping it down to 3 possibilities keeps it easy to grasp.

I also made a realization which Fred verbalized. As in AW, there is a “Success with complications” outcome that is the most likely of outcomes, but unlike AW, the complication is not automatic – in this, the complication is at the GM’s option, and if he adds it, the player gets a fate point. This worked out very well in play, and added a few surprises to the game, but the real payoff was on the meta-level. As a GM, it allowed me to back off from a roll I shouldn’t have called for or which I was just using to test the breeze. For the players, Fred pointed out that it removed a lot of the hesitation of using lower skills, since those were the ones most likely to hit these results. That last in particular pleases me.

Didn’t get to test combat too much – two fights, the first one ending in rapid withdrawal (that was the close quarters gunfight), and the second ending under the weight of such an overwhelming opening roll that it couldn’t really be categorized as a fight.

As a GM, I was reminded that I have a weakness for NPCs who manage to pull off an escape in the face of overwhelming PC firepower, and I had to let myself get comfortable with letting the dice shape the follow up. I’ve also made a note to myself to see how the tempo rules fare in a chase.

Anyway, all in all a good game, and this may yet shape up into a full system.


This has been stuck in my head as I’ve been reading through Influencer by Patterson, Greny et al. It’s a book about how people change their minds – in some ways a practical companion to the Heath Brother’s Switch – and it’s chock full of interesting stuff. But the bit that’s been riding me has been that about persuasion and how it works.

See, verbal persuasion (making a good argument and so on) works pretty well in lots of situations so long as the recipient trusts your intentions and your expertise and so long as they’re not already invested in the subject. If another cook offers you a tip on how to prepare garlic, odds are good you’ll change your behavior and give it a try provided you don’t think they’re trying to pull a fast one. But for less tractable issues, ones where there’s already an investment or other sorts of gravity? Well, the book puts it quite well:

Consequently, whenever you use forceful and overt verbal persuasion to try to convince others to see things your way, they’re probably not listening to what you say. Instead, they’re looking for very error in your logic and mistake in your facts, all while constructing counterarguments. Worse still, they don’t merely believe you’re wrong, they need you to be wrong, in order to protect the status quo. And since the final judge exists in their own head, you lose every time.

I read that and had to go dig up a highlighter to mark it, because I had never seen every argument on the internet, ever, described so succinctly.

The author’s go on to assert that the best real persuader is personal experience, and I have to agree with that. Seeing and doing real things impacts people profoundly, in a way that just thinking or talking about it does not. But they concede the problem with that is that experience can be hard to come by, especially specific experience. And that is where stories come in.

The book has an interesting output driven view on stories as our most effective tool for creating vicarious experiences. That is to say, if you can’t actually be there, a good story from a good storyteller is the next best thing in terms of power to influence how you think. This is not news – marketing has been telling us for years that we sell with stories, but I found this the most practically explained framework for the idea to date.

And it also has me thinking about what we mean when we say stories. What’s interesting about this approach is that it talks very little about how to tell good stories, instead acknowledging that it can be done well or poorly and moving on, and just concentration on the _outcomes_. This fascinates me because, I think, it highlights some of why the term is so contentious in gaming as some people talk about inputs and others talk about outputs, and are then so busy stabbing each other to sort it out.

Anyway, I’m still chewing on this, but I needed to get it out of my head and into circulation.

Glass Bead Fate

Ok, so before I start, I have to ask: did you learn how to play the game? You should have, and if you didn’t then this isn’t going to make a lot of sense.

The reason you want to learn the game is simple: the skills that make you good at playing the game will help make you better at designing adventures for FATE games, including the Dresden Files. The method is simple – once you start getting used to drawing connections between seemingly unrelated items, you can start applying those same skills to finding connections between aspects.

This is one of those ideas that is simple and powerful, so much so that there’s a temptation to just stop there and say “That. Do that.” because if you actually do it, odds are good its benefits will be sufficiently self evident that any explanation will seem like overkill. Still, assuming you don’t have the time to walk through it right now, let me break out an example. This is a variant on the default Glass Bead Game board:

Now, let’s combine this with some aspects from the sample Baltimore characters in the DFRPG.

Evan: Young White Council Wizards, In Over My Head, Heir to Montrose, Precision is Everything, Here’s the Plan, Hail Hail the Gang’s All Here, I’d Rather Not be a Warden, Thanks.
Biff: Trust Fund Jock, “Sorry Mouse”, Dumb Luck, Krav Maga, Mortimer Lewis Abernathy III, Hail Hail the Gang’s All here, Plays the Dumb Jock

I’ve randomly distributed these on the grid. How is not terribly important, you can do whatever you like to spread it out.

One curiosity of this particular map is it’s asymmetry – the item in the middle right is disproportionally connected to the grid, which has interesting implications when applied to adventure design – it suggests that aspect is going to be a crux of things. Something to think about when you fill in the grid for your game.

Next, let’s grab two of these and pluck the string between them to see what it makes. There are a few gimmes – Heir to Montrose and Mortimer Lewis Abernathy III are an easy pair since they suggest a range of issues about society and family and so on. To easy to even consider using as an example.

Let’s consider something a bit more challenging, like, say, Dumb Luck and Young White Council Wizard. White Council drips with hooks, but Dumb Luck’s a tricky starting point because, while it’s easy to bring up during play, it doesn’t have a lot of setting hooks, but the upside is that it’s a wildcard. If these two aspects were on the same character, it would be easy to put these two in conflict with some bit of mundane luck (like winning a lottery) drawing too much attention to his Council role, but it’s a little trickier to tie in both characters. The best bet would be to draw on Dumb Luck as an initiator – the lucky find or discovery of come sort, one that might be of interest to the council. Something that the council values or wants. If you want to introduce some tension, then you give Biff something cool that the council demands Evan take away. If you want to tie them together, then have Biff stumble upon one of the White Council’s secret’s (perhaps a way map, or something personal about a senior council member) that is personally useful, but which Evan either needs to keep concealed from the council, or Evan gets some pressure from the council to “do something” about.

Whew. Ok, that one took some work. ( This is, by the way, one more reason I like anchors – having concrete things to plug into the grid is much, much easier.) But whatever the case, it’s doable, and something similar could be done with almost any pair on the grid, and I encourage you to try. But despite my saying so, you may not believe it.

It is easy to saysee the connections between these things and find potential points of intersection” but as advice goes that’s only marginally more useful than “be creative.” No matter how much you intellectually understand that’s what you want to do, it still can seem impossibly hard.

And that, right there, is why you need to try the glass bead game. Yes, it’s fun and interesting and that’s great, but it’s also a drill, a drill that makes you get better at seeing connections between things. Like any skill, it gets better with useful practice, but like many soft skills, practice is not easy to come by. That is, unless you can find something like the glass bead game. It’s not something I can demand you do, but if seeing connections is something you want to get better at, whether to make for better games or for some other personal purpose, why wouldn’t you give it a try?

Learn This Game

Nominally, the Glass Bead Game is an idea whose roots can be found in Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi, but I’ll cop to it right here: I’ve never read it. I picked up a secondhand copy once, but it utterly failed to grab me, and it ended up getting lost in one move or another. Perhaps I’ll give it another try sometime, but I’m not in any rush. Too many books, not enough time in life.

My introduction actually came through a very interesting (and old) website, Hipbone Games, presenting an actual Glass Bead Game based on the concept from the novel. This game is one of my favorite ideas of all times, combining an interesting game that’s curiously self-balancing with a thought exercise that is useful in almost any endeavor. Specifically, it’s incredibly useful for someone looking to run Fate, but I get ahead of myself.

The game centers around a map, but the details matter little. All that it requires is that the map be composed of spaces connected by lines. This can be as simple as a dumbell illustration or as complicated as one of those crazy cabala diagrams. Play is simple: the first player writes down something, anything, in an empty space. The next player does the same thing. They alternate until one of them fills in a space that is connected to another space by a line.

Super Simple Example

At this point, the person who just wrote comes up with a list of everything the two things have in common (if there’s more than one connection, this is done for each connection). After they finish, their opponent has the opportunity to come up with any new similarities his opponent hasn’t thought of. After they’re done, each commonality is worth a point. Now, there are some potentially fiddly bits here – while you don’t necessarily need any limitations, depending on the nature of the players, some sort of time limit is usually necessary. Add one if you need it, but it’s secondary to what’s really going on here, the creation of connections between apparently unrelated things. And these connections can be pretty freaking crazy. To illustrate, consider the example of “Orange” and “Rock & Roll”. I might be able to score any of the following points:

  • REM’s “Orange Crush”
  • Both depend on Frequencies
  • Rhyming opposites (One depends on easy rhymes, one can’t be rhymed)
  • Both are passionate/fiery

If I could remember the name of that CD I can see SO CLEARLY that was safety orange[1] I could probably use that too, but I’m drawing a blank, so I might have to give that one away, and regret that it’s not Black, because, man, you could go nuts with that.

Anyway, It’s the kind of thing that people who see fractals underlying everything can go crazy with, but it also has a subtle twist that it favors your personal expertise, whether that’s 17th century french poetry or an encyclopedic knowledge of the members of G.I. Joe. You may not be able to draw connections between Voltaire and the Great Wall of China, but you might be able to go nuts between Optimus Prime and Jem and the Holograms. The way you think is the right way to think to play, but expanding the way you think can expand the way you play.

As a twist, you can also use found things to create the map. Rather than writing things down on the fly, you can take a stack of…well, almost anything, but cards work pretty well.[2] If the contents of the spaces are determined randomly, it changes the nature of the game again, and pushes the players even further.

And that space it pushed you to? That’s why you need to learn this game, if only to play it against yourself, for reasons that will make up much of tomorrow’s post.

1 – Safety Orange! Safety Dance! There’s another point!
2 – Though, again, it depends what you know. If I laid down the minis for various D&D monsters on the map, or books pulled off the shelf at random, I feel pretty confident some people could make a hell of a game of it.