Monthly Archives: July 2013

Offloading Consequences

So, if you’re curious about how to handle something like Superman’s invulnerability in Fate, go read this – it’s well thought out and quite clever.

The takeaway from it, which I’m chewing on, can be paraphrased as such – Superman’s invulnerability does not prevent “taken out” results, rather, it offloads those consequences onto his environment[1]. This is a fun trick, but what intrigues me about it is that there are many more subtle forms of invulnerability than Superman’s, specifically the narrative invulnerability of named characters from TV[2]. You know they’re going to survive, largely intact, so how can you tie their actions directly to the tension in the story?

This idea of offloading consequences promises to be an interesting path to doing this, but I feel like it requires a next step. When you have only one Superman, it’s not hard to play the offloading by ear, but when the whole team is invulnerable, that can get weird and undifferentiated very quickly, so the question becomes how you make these things distinctive, and it strikes me that the answer is to give players some control over the direction that their offloading goes. It may not be 100% in player hands – situational offloading may also be common – but it can be a great way to differentiate the things that are important to a character.

This also might allow for one of Fred’s favorite ideas to get new legs, since it might also be a way to measure a hero’s scale. Hawkeye’s offloading is smaller and more personal than the Hulk or Thor because they’re larges “scale” heroes.

That said, I’m not yet sure how to create player-directed offloading that is evocative but easily comprehensible. I can think of some broad categories (Peopel around you, home cities, crime stats) but they’re a little bland. More, I need a good way to differentiate them from things that normally go wrong over the course of play. If all these things do is change the uniforms of the thugs I’m fighting then it might feel a little toothless.

So, chewing.

  1. Deep nerds may recognize this as an inversion of the idea of “punching Spiderman in the girlfriend” from Truth and Justice.  ↩
  2. And, of course, every major comic book character  ↩

Pocket Worlds

Yeah, I’m excited about Lords of Gossamer and Shadow. This should be news to no one. But I was proofing the bit I’m writing for it and really got to thinking about something.

Now, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the Amber DRPG (which LGS largely refined its ruleset from) one of the things you could buy with character points was a personal world (called a personal shadow) and I don’t think I’m spilling any beans to say that LGS allows something similar.

Now, the Amber item & ally rules (which shadows were a part of) were both simple and complex – there were a ton of attributes which you could invest points in to make a thing potent in one fashion or another, which lead to an array of potent and abusable personal artifacts (even before the rules got even crazier with the first supplement). it was a little screwy, but it conformed to a bit of basic math – the more points you put in, the more significant the whosiwhatsit was, as indicated by its power. For magic swords and pet dragons, this worked out ok, but it got a little bit weird with shadows.

See, for 1 point, you could have whatever shadow you wanted. Star wars? Kung Fu Hong Kong? Sword and Sorcery? Done. 1 point. This seemed crazy potent until you realized that you could also do it for free, if you just invested some time in play, but that’s what the extra points were for. Basically, you could spend more points to better protect or isolate your little private world.

And that’s where the disconnect kicked in. More points did not make a shadow more significant to play, ti made it less significant. You were spending points for extra shrink wrap around your idea, to keep it form getting dirtied up by play. Now, this was not totally unreasonable – the ADRPG GM advice was basically “screw your players, screw them hard” so it was not unreasonable to buy out of fear.

But it also introduced a more subtle problem – there was no way to signify – mechanically – that you wanted a shadow to be a part of play. If you didn’t put many points into it, it wasn’t important (as was the case elsewhere in the system) but if you did put points into it, it was untouchable.

Now, LGS handles this a little better. There are mechanical and cosmological tweaks that make personal worlds a lot more interesting, but I still found myself wrestling with it while statting up a character. See, I’d introduced a world in his story which was interesting, and had some knowledge and power that made it a place of note in the multiverse, but it wasn’t a Super Serious Place. Not a superpower, but a mere power, as it were. I spent 2 points on the world, which I think was technically correct, but I had a hard time coming to terms with that. The place was interesting and important to him – shouldn’t I signify that with more points?

Which in turn, revealed the real lesson that I have learned in Amber and other games – don’t get too caught up in communicating via points when the real kind of communication will do you better. It ultimately doesn’t matter how many points I put into a world if no one is interested in it but me. The importance of a world (or any setting element) is based not on my investment in it, but rather, by everyone else’s investment in it.

So take a minute to get out of your own head. If you have something you want to see in your game, think about ways it can make other players awesome and your GMs life easier. Do that, and you’ll have made something that matters, no matter how many points you put into it.

Elastic Initiative

The token based initiative system in Marvel Heroic has held up pretty well for me, and has left me chewing on more physical artifact solutions to pacing problems. In this case, I’m thinking about dealing with asynchronous play. That is, what do you do when the party splits up, but you still want to have a finale that draws in everyone? Few things are as lame as being that character three rooms away from the fight who can’t join in because you have no in character reason to rush over.[1]

Marvel addresses this by largely discarding the notion of time, and just moving from action beat to action beat. This works pretty well, provided you’re in a situation composed entirely of action beats. The problem I run into is in more open ended games where players have a lot of mobility and authority (Amber being the biggest offender) where the beats are a lot broader.

I’m averse to a strict scene framing economy (which would technically solve the problem), since I think the scene is a terribly inconsistent unit of currency. I use the word “beat” because it’s intentionally a bit more muddled, but generally means “Something happens” – a beat can be a single gesture or an entire scene, depending on what’s going on.[2] I admit, I like that kind of muddle.

So I’m wondering if it might be possible to do a currency-based initiative for asynchronous play. Give everyone maybe 5 tokens, and just go nuts, making players pay out to act, with “act” defined intentionally loosely, but roughly equivalent to a writing beat[3]. So long as everyone is spending at parity, then everyone can refresh regularly, but if anyone gets too far ahead, the distribution of tokens creates a natural elasticity that brings things back in line.

So far so good, but a good GM can generally juggle this without tokens – it’s basic spotlight management – but the point at which it becomes useful is when one player hits a “fixed point” – a dramatic scene which is going to have consequences and impact. If you “freeze” that player at that point, then each player now has their own units of currency to (if they wish) build a path to the fixed point. That is, if you end up facing down the dark lord and I’ve still got 3 tokens, then I might build three beats/scenes that culminate in my joining the big fight.

Not 100% sure of it – this merits some experimentation, but I really like the idea of elasticity rather than strict progression, so the question is whether this really serves that end. Well, only one way to find out.

  1. Yes, there are almost always cheats to try to handwave this, but I’d rather avoid the problem entirely.  ↩

  2. In a curious bit of serendipity, the previous Marvel RPG (the one with “stones”) is actually built upon a very similar idea, in that the currency of time is measured in comic book panels and pages, with panels roughly equating to actions and pages to scenes, but with the qualifier that the model allowed for cheating – travel and time could pass in a single panel, while a fight might go on for panel after panel. It feels a little artificial if adhered too too strictly, but it’s a very useful model to think about.  ↩

  3. I’m pulling terminology out of my ass here, but I say a writing beat in the sense that if I were writing this for TV, how many index cards would I use up? That is, Discover the crime, chase the fleeing witness and interrogate the fleeing witness are 3 beats. If I’m using a system that makes any of these beats particularly intricate (like chase or social combat rules) then I might treat them as more beats, depending on the game. I call this out as “writing” beats so as to distinguish from “emotional” beats, moments that reveal something about a character which may be important and significant, but are part of the flow of the scenes. It might be a shrug, a gesture or a line of dialog, but it’s a character moment, and they should be something cool that happens, not something to track in play.  ↩

Betting on People and Giant Robots

A long time ago, longer than I care to think about, I went to my first Dexcon (or maybe Dreamation) and went to my first of what would eventually become the Indie Round Tables, which would in turn lead tot he creation of Metatopia. It was kind of awesome.

One of the things that people talked about was what they were working on at the time, and the social contract at the time was that if you brought it up now, you could expect that people would ask after it when the next convention rolled around. I, for example, mentioned my eternally-in-a-drawer “Faith and Credit” idea, which was perhaps ill-advised given its status.

One guy who talked about his idea – a game of violent criminal action – was this very dapper gentleman whose name I would eventually come to know was Russell Collins. He was very detailed in the breakdown of his game, with exceptional clarity regarding what he was looking to accomplish, what he was doing, and what wasn’t working.

Russell’s playtests were a regular fixture at subsequent Dexcons & Dreamations, and at the Roundtables he’d talk about his progress (or lack thereof) with the same level of detail. Until one day he stopped. And the thing wasn’t he didn’t stop out of any kind of laziness, he stopped because he had pursued this idea with all due diligence and had decided it was not going to work.

If you’ve ever had to stop doing something you’ve put a lot of work into, you have some idea of how hard that has to be. Even setting aside the sunk cost fallacy, there’s the sheer amount of your identity that gets wrapped up in this stuff. And I admit, this worried me – Russell’s a cool guy, and it would be easy to just throw up your hands and give up on the whole idea of making a game in the face of that.

So I was delighted when I saw Russell at metatopia. I fear I may have embarrassed him a little bit at one of the panels by calling him out as someone who really understands how to judge their own work fairly, and when I asked him what he was working on now he said something to the effect of “Teenagers in giant robots fighting with emotional baggage”, which sounded great, and I was curious what would come of it.

And the answer is – A Kickstarter. Russell is happy enough with this new game – Tears of a Machine – that he launched a kickstarter to make it happen. I admit, i almost missed it – a bunch of cool people were excited about it, but it wasn’t until it had been going a while that I actually looked at the creator and went, “OH!” (I am not always super smart.)

In any case, all of this is obviously a pitch for you to look at the kickstarter and see if it tickles your fancy. It might, it might not. But that’s not why I tell this story. See, this is ultimately a smallish hobby, made of people, and the more time I spend in it, the more interested I am in the people than the things. Betting on a game is a crapshoot, but betting on a person is an educated choice.

And you bet your ass I put a bet on Russell.

Default Actions: The Quest

The discussion of the core action in cyberpunk yesterday got me thinking about core actions and what it looks like to start from those in designing a game. It’s been interesting, and has cracked open a few old jars.

One of the first things I bumped my nose against is that there seems to be a lot of overlap between this idea and what have historically been held up as classic adventuring structures. The exactly list of these varies, but the dungeon crawl is only one of them (albeit the most prominent). Others include the quest, the escape, the delivery, the investigation and so on. At first, I thought I might be able to mine this list for ideas, but as I started to do so, it revealed that while these are related to core actions, they are at a slightly different layer of operations.

To use a concrete example, let’s look at the quest. It’s one of the most classic models for an arc (whether that arc is a few sessions or a whole campaign), and if you know that this is the model your game is going to follow, you can plan a lot of clever things. But by itself, it is not a lot of great guidance in terms of what the characters will actually be doing in a session. Looking for the grail, yes, but what actual actions does that turn into?[1]

If the character’s know where the object is, then the bulk of adventure is in getting there, and the primary action is just that – going in a straight line and (hopefully) encountering interesting things. Most likely, this ends up following the “New Town, New Trouble” model that is a staple of television shows from The A Team to Avatar: the Last Airbender. So the action is – come to town, encounter an obstacle which (physically, morally or otherwise) will keep you from proceeding, overcome it, and move on.

If the character’s don’t know where the object is (as is more often the case) then it’s more likely to be the “Trail of Breadcrumbs”. You don’t know where the goal is, but you know where the next link in the chain may be. This plays out much like new town, new trouble, but rather than encountering obstacles to progress, there is usually some sort of problem around the breadcrumb (and pointer to the next breadcrumb).

This may seem like a very small difference. And it is – play is going to be pretty similar in both cases. But it becomes important when compared to the third approach, perhaps best described as “Let Them Figure it Out”. This is that awkward point in play where the GM has given a goal, but as players you have no real sense of how to act on it, so you flail about hitting streets or libraries hoping that something shakes loose. This can be fun if it’s the point of the game (Noir is full of these things) but it’s utterly frustrating when it’s a hurdle to actually doing anything. The difference is moving from the idea (The Quest) to the execution (what actions will this require?), and thinking about that transition before play starts.

More to come on this, I’m pretty sure.

  1. I’m defining action by a simple yardstick. If the GM doesn’t provide something immediate to react to, what is the thing the players can clearly see that their characters need to do next?  ↩

Cyberpunk Love Does Not Compute

Slightly worried that I gave the impression yesterday that there are no real options for Cyberpunk RPGs besides run and gun dungeon crawls. That’s not true, and in fairness, it’s never been quite that bad. From my perspective, the big three cyberpunk games (CP20XX, Shadowrun and Cyberspace) set the tone for most of what I’m discussing, but they all have elements that are better and deeper than I give credit for.

What’s more, there are numerous great cyberpunk games that address specific slices of the concept. Want to fight the man? Try Misspent Youth. Want to explore a seedy, connected world of betrayal an intrigue? Tech Noir is the game for you. Want to change the world? See if you can find a copy of Underground. RPGs have been written about Anime like Serial Experiment Lain, and I haven’t even touched on games like Remember Tomorrow, Eclipse Phase, GURPS: Cyberpunk and several more I’m sure I’m forgetting.

All of which is to say that cyberpunk – as an idea – is not poorly served, but there’s a lot of leeway[1] in terms of what shape that service takes. Some of this is just the normal spread of foci within a genre. For example, I’m not hugely interested in the questions of identity that are central to some cyberpunk ideas, but I expect other people are not hugely interested in media manipulation and stock prices (which completely tickle my fancy). This is normal and healthy.

However, I think there’s an underlying structural question which cyberpunk has a difficult time with[2] and that is the question of the default action.

The default action is something that authors don’t usually need to worry about, but RPG setting designers do, as it’s the question that goes “Ok, that’s all interesting and stuff, but what do we do?” For D&D, the default action (go into a dungeon, fight stuff, get treasure) is well established, and D&D settings are full of hooks that provide interesting reasons to do that. It’s not that this is the only thing you can do in the setting, but having a default makes play much easier on many levels.

Few settings have the same clarity as D&D and its ilk, and it’s no great surprise that cyberpunk seized upon it as a default, just replacing caves and dungeons with offices and arcologies. Because without that, there’s a good case to be made that the default action in cyberpunk would be “Watch the author’s vision of the future, then be audience to some world changing event that asks a Big Question about human existence”.

Ok, that’s cynical. If you read other cyberpunk, a perfectly valid answer might be “Drive hovertanks across a heavily patrolled border, like the cyber Duke boys” or “Sneak everywhere then die in a boss fight because all your points are in hacking” and that could be awesome too. But the underlying question remains, and the answer to that is really going to shape what you want out of a cyberpunk game (or any game, really). For me, I want the team of experts, missions based structure, taking steps to try to change the world, and Leverage speaks right to that. But it is FAR from the only way to go about it.

  1. As Seems to so often be the case in anything-punk.  ↩

  2. As do many settings and genres. This is a common problem, but cyberpunk gives us a great example.  ↩

Ethical Cyberpunk

I have a profound love of Cyberpunk which is based, I think, on very selective vision. There are lots of pretty lame things about it (most notably that’s it’s basically the suburban white kid vision of urban decay and socio-politics) but for me the beating heart of megacorps, corruption, the divide between the haves and have nots and the disruptive influence of technology really grab me.

The specific chrome (as it were) of cyberblades and mirrorshades doesn’t really do much for me, and this is where I end up at a disconnect from a lot of RPG cyberpunk stuff, especially where it becomes an excuse to really get into extensive weapons catalogs. Now, don’t get me wrong – the D&D model with ninjas, hackers and machine guns is good fun, but it’s not why cyberpunk interests me.

That divide colors a lot of the RPG space surrounding cyberpunk. The reality is that a lot of cyberpunk ideas are feeling uncomfortably close to real life these days, and that’s uncomfortable. It is no great shock that the most successful cyberpunk RPG, Shadowrun, is the most divorced from reality (through the introduction of magic) and historically the most tied to the D&D model of play.[1]

So I got to thinking about what I really would want in a cyberpunk game, because the answer is explicitly not long lists of guns and cyberware, or even extensive rules for virtual reality netrunning.[2] I was surprised to discover that the answer came very quickly, because it (and its source material) already exists in the form of Leverage. Setting aside the color bits, the structure (team of professionals, hard target, emphasis on smarts and planning over resources and overwhelming firepower) hits very close to the mark for what I would consider “ethical cyberpunk”.

Perhaps even more telling is what changes I feel would need to be made.

First, there is an obvious change to the color of things, so as to make it near future. This is largely just a function of changing clothes because the actual mechanics require almost no changes. Thieves, Hitters, Grifters and Masterinds are much as they have always been. It might look like Hackers would need to change, but the reality is that the Hacker role is timeless – changing the technology changes what it looks like, but not how it works.

Second, there would probably need to be some cyberware rules. I just accept this. But they’d be mechanically trivial to support, so this is more of an exercise in “What’s cool?” than anything else.

Third, there might be call for some resource rules, but only if it makes things more interesting. The default Leverage model skips this – the PCs have sufficient resources – but scarcity of supplies and the street finding a use for things are sufficiently key cyberpunk ideas that I’d want to reflect it. Most likely it would be part of scenario design rather than a real rule, so to speak. That is, an additional step for a job would be identifying the resources needed and acquiring them.[3]

This actually introduces an interesting complexity into play. Leverage basically starts from “you have made enough money to retire, so why stay in the game?” which allows skipping over a lot of RPG baggage in favor of purposeful action. If that is removed, a similar check would need to be put in place – in the case of cyberpunk, it would probably be “Here is how much money you could make if you quit this crap and got a day job. So why haven’t you done that?”

The fourth change isn’t a change at all, and revolves around the role of violence. There are already great games that use cyberpunk as an invitation for gunplay, but they do so with a kind of hand wavy thinking about the role of violence in society, the impact of the spread of weapons technology (and counter-technology). All of which is to say that I don’t think cyberpunk should not be violent, but rather, that the violence exists in a context, and context is critically important to the tone.

Leverage has already wrestled this particular bear. It is understandable why Elliot doesn’t use guns in the show – it’s a personal quirk – but why would every other Hitter do the same? Especially when the archetypical RPG badass has twin desert eagles (and katanas) under his trenchcoat. Leverage’s take on this is straightforward – guns escalate problems[4] and while they may be an option, they are very much an option of last recourse because the consequences are much more profound.

Cyberpunk won’t be exactly the same – there are place where the cheapness of life is the point – but that idea of actions (violence in particular) having consequences is part of what makes it cyberpunk for me.

The last change is not a mechanical one, but it’s probably the trickiest, and that has to do with the opposition. In Leverage, your target is a bad person, doing bad things, and taking them down is a positive step towards stopping (and maybe fixing) those bad things. In cyberpunk, the problems are systemic. There might be occasional corporate stooge who is worse than other corporate stooges, but its not like taking him down will drastically improve things. Even if you land a major blow, enough to hurt a corp, then it will just be other corps stepping in to fill.

In short, cyberpunk does not offer the same clear goals and victories that Leverage does, even if the activities are similar. This is dark, appropriately so, but it also demands that the players take a different view on their accomplishments and, perhaps, take a longer view on things. It raises the question of what the endgame is, which is a tough but essential question. Without that, incremental victories may not be enough to get by.

So, if it’s not obvious, I have a lot of love for this kind of game in my heart, and once the cortex plus licensing settles out, I may write a little bit more about the mechanical side of this, but it really doesn’t require much in the way of mechanics at all. It’s all in the clarity of the ideas.

And by extension, cyberpunk may mean something totally different to you. So much so as to make you go “Leverage? Really?” and that’s totally cool. These things happen with made up words. But for me, this is the heart of what I’m looking for.

Also, Riggers turn out to be super prescient, as dumb as I thought they were in the early 90s.

  1. This is not Shadowrun’s fault. For all that it’s got huge helpings of shameless fan service, there is a genuine beating heart of genuine cyberpunk love at the heart of every edition. The old Corporate Datafiles sourcebook is probably my second favorite cyberpunk supplement, and it has almost no rules (first is, of course, I.C.E.’s magnificent Sprawlgangs and Megacorps which is transcendant). Hell, Shadowrun 4e ended up falling flat for me at the table, but I still love it for it’s handling of wireless networks and augmented reality. But the reality is that faster ninjas and bigger guns translate into sales, so the market will drive the focus of the line.  ↩
  2. I also have just enough of a technical background to prefer a little more genuine networking and UX design in my hacking. I’m not a stickler, but “computers are magic!” falls very flat for me. This doesn’t mean no virtual interfaces, but rather, it means asking what the virtual interface provides that makes it worthwhile, rather than just the 2020 version of van painting.  ↩
  3. aka “The Burn Notice Model”.  ↩
  4. Explicitly, they escalate problems in a way that is less fun to play.  ↩

A Terrible Game Gone Well

I ran a terrible game last week, or at least it looks that way on paper. I did a whole lot of things which I tend to consider flags of a problem game, including:

  • Somewhat railroady plot, which players could interact with, but not really change.
  • Few personal stakes, as most of the important stakes belonged to NPCs
  • Powerful, proactive NPCs pursuing secret agendas
  • Negligible chargen guidance or coordination

Yet despite those things, the actual game went splendidly, and it was a great reminder of the importance of context.

See, the game in question was an impromptu gathering as it turned out that all of the Born to be Kings players[1] were in town for one night only, and we seized the window to get the band back together. As such, there was little time for prep, and the purpose of the game was a little bit different than usual. Since I was going to be running this one, my goal was to call back to and tie into the events of Kings in a way that would let the players feel like they got to see how some of their own threads unravel.

As such, the NPCs which I so grossly misused were, by and large, the PCs and important NPCs of the previous game. I didn’t handle it flawlessly, but I managed to limit things to a single puppet show[2], and was pretty proud of that. I tied up one thread from the old game in a way that tied many old elements together, and in the end, I think it was a pretty satisfying game for all.

But, man, even in the middle of it I was really cognizant of the rules I was violating, enough so to really question whether I was on the right track. But with a clear understanding of my table, my players and the goals of the game, the rules had to take a back seat. If I had done otherwise, it would probably have still been a fun game – that was a world class table of players – but it would not have been the reunion and epilogue we were looking for.

  1. For the unfamiliar, Born to be Kings was the first Fate game – it was the game that the system was originally hashed out for. It was an Amber game, run by Fred Hicks, and is to this day probably the single best campaign I have ever been in. it’s been over 12 years, and I still get a kick out of reading the session quotes.  ↩

  2. A scene where the GM plays more than 1 NPC talking to each other. Pretty much one of the most boring things a GM can do.  ↩

Brainstorming an Amber Idea

Ok, trying to solve a problem for Amber, and this is the current brainstorm. The problem is that Amber has super-competent protagonists, but at the same time, some of them are EXTRA competent within their field, and this needs to be respected.

Imagining an aspects as approaches system, it’s easy enough to express the idea of a paragon – that’s a +4 aspect, easy peasy. Those are basically unique, and super potent..

I could leave it at that, just allow players to buy one of those, or offer some tradeoff (more points or whatever) if they do not. But there’s also the question of powers. Historically, Amber handled powers on a different axis than stats, so there was no real interplay between them, excepting that they were bought from the same point pool (which NPCs blithely ignored). And since one stat[1] tends to control powers, you get a weird lopsided-ness where some characters are spiked in a stat and a power.

I find this kind of unintuitive, so I want to pull from the same bucket, so to speak, and make power flexibility as much of a signature as an apex skill.

The most obvious solution seems to be buckets. Is you character focused (so he can apex a skill), Flexible (so he can apex a power) or Forceful (so he can apex an attribute)? Maybe there are other potential buckets too, but I like this question since it also partly explains why you could pull this off and others couldn’t (or maybe could, if they’d chosen something else).

But the more I think, the more I believe I’m overcomplicating it. Allow a +4, no problem, and the trick is going to be how the bonus gets built. Aspect-Appoaches assumes two things, theoretically a skill + an aspect/approach, but I wonder if even that is overly constrained. Maybe I go full bore and just say “pick two aspects” and then allow fate point expenditure to bring in more of them.

Huh. That might work.

  1. Psyche, which I don’t use, since 90% of Amber’s problems can be traced back to the utterly crazy rules for this stat. I replace it with cunning (or craft).  ↩