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Ian O'Rourke
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Tools from the (FATE) Box, Pt IV

I know, I said part III was the last one, but all the thoughts about tools from the box, courtesy of spending too much time on trains, has resulted in a fourth. This one is about FATE itself, specifically the phrase 'I am using Starblazer Adventures'.

I'm no longer convinced this is actually true.

If I step back a bit and look at it objectively I'm 'using Starblazer Adventures' for two reasons. These two reasons are specifically linked to two large sections of the Starblazer rules that either work well and / or can't be found anywhere else. They are also too significant and large to design whole cloth ahead of the game, especially since I don't do conversions and that includes writing lots of rules. There was three reasons, but the third reason may about to be trashed and was the inspiration for this blog.

Basically, Starblazer Adventures is used, literally, only in the sense of: skills and the starship rules.

The starship rules are essential to the game and I actually like the implementation in Starblazer. It's yet to be seen how they play out in actual anger but, in theory, I like how the full implementation manages to remain space opera, involve the narrative power of the ship as a character, while still retaining a bit of 'grit'. It's hard to explain, suffice to say it gives it a slightly more 'realistic feel' than just the 'World War II planes in space' view that is Star Wars. That's fine, but the bit of grit the rules retain works well for FATE Fading Suns.

The skills are retained for a different reasons: I really can't be arsed to write-up my own with all the trappings. In truth, I'm not entirely happy with the skills in Starblazer Adventures as they are a complete copy of the Spirit of the Century skills with a few added (mostly related to the Starship rules). They work. I'm pretty sure it'll not influence the game significantly and I'm probably 85% happy. Possibly 90% happy with a little tweak (a trappings move and the deletion of another). They are good enough to go considering the alternative.

All the rest is either core to fate or stolen from another iteration or both, possibly with a sprinkling of ideas from other games.

Character creation owes more to Dresden Files with an added nugget from Primetime Adventures than it does Starblazer Adventures. The rules implementation that governs the mainstay of the game is pretty much core fate rather than how it is written up in the Starblazer Adventure book (though the difference is minimal). I'm using the Starblazer Adventures view of stress, again just because it's easier (though the third stress track in Dresden is cool). Character advancement is a set of design choices based on numerous influences across FATE games.

This brings me to the other part of FATE: Stunts.

While I've kept the Starblazer Skills, I find the stunts weigh a bit heavier on my conscience. I just don't like them. The stunts hark back to the stunt implementation in Spirit of the Century, which works fine, but it isn't an elegant design. There is less consistency regarding what a stunt can do in the system and they have horrendous stunt trees, some up to three levels. This is confounded by some third level stunts being proceeded by odd first and second level stunts. I also don't like it when a player likes a specific stunt but is forced to take two others (which subtract from refresh) just to get to it. This is minimised if stunts don't effect refresh, but I like the subtract from refresh rule, as it enables player choice, maintains the measure of a stunt being against Aspect use and links in with character advancement.

The game would work and play fine, the stunts just play it close to the line in terms of whether I can tolerate the less than perfect feel of it. It tasks me, the skills don't task me.

I was going to go through them and do some basic analysis of whether the stunts fell into broad types and what damage there was in terms of stunt tree depth and frequency. I did this for one skill and then gave up. Too long. Not fun. There was also a crappy three level stunt tree in that first tree. I stopped. A simpler approach was needed.

I'm considering being brave, ditching them all (though they never truly go away as examples) and going with the 'stunt design principles' in core FATE, which are also the ones in Dresden it would seem. This has numerous advantages:-

  • No stunt trees as stunts are flat
  • Stunts are simpler and all operate off the same underlying design principles
  • All stunts are measured against the same criteria (a +2 Aspect invocation)
  • Players can select any stunt by inventing one based on the design principles

The problem is it means there is dynamic stunt creation going on during the character creation process which will involved discussion, negotiation and the mild risk we may have to alter the odd stunt later if the table feels parity isn't present (though I suspect the margin of error is small). The question is whether this will involved less handling time at during character creation and moving forward than the current set-up?

The fact I'm hovering on ditching them suggests to me I think it'll be better to go with the core principles, it's just I'm not ready to step over the line yet!

Overall though, it would seem I'm not using Starblazer Adventures, I'm using FATE.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 02/09/2012 Bookmark and Share
Tools From The Box, pt III

The final part. Having considered game openings and music in part I and physical tools for the game in part II, this time it's the more abstract things I'm trying to keep in mind as important to how I deliver the game. Keeping in mind isn't the same as actually doing, but it is a start!

And yes, I realise it's arguable as to whether dice should be in part II or III for those who remotely care.

Dice: Not normally something that is consciously decided ahead of running a campaign, unless there is an importance placed on different colours. FATE comes with multiple dice choices though, in my case whether to use the traditional D4F or D6-D6. Starblazer Adventures uses D6-D6, primarily so special dice aren't needed, but it also has some other wrinkles.

I went with D4F. The reason for which is largely one of calibration and how Fate points are used.

The D6-D6 method produces more extreme , less predictable results. This can be suitable for some space opera games, in which the edge of 'gonzo' feel is perfect. I'm thinking Flash Gordon or certain flavours of Star Wars. The dice choice would also 'enhance' the madcap momentum of the game. It's suitable for the more pulp orientated Space Opera. I wanted the gonzo feel to be calibrated back and the more stable results of 4DF play into this.

The D6-D6 bell curve, with its more extreme results, also influences how Fate Points are spent. They are more likely to be spent recovering from low rolls. I didn't like this. It puts a negative feel on Fate points as a recovery mechanism rather than the cementing of the characters dramatic fabric into the narrative. The 4DF dice, with their more stable results, means outcomes are easier to predict and Fate points are more likely to feel like they are being used to enhance strong rolls in character defining ways.

Scenes: All my previous games have had scenes. Every game does. None of them as of yet have explicitly recognised them as a tool, existing construct and a unit of measure. Just as framing at the macro-level is critical, so is framing at the micro-level and that comes down to scenes. It's the single mechanism for controlling the game that's in motion and all the proceeding items (in this blog post) fold into it. It also provides a throttle mechanism for the momentum of the campaign.

While I'm not looking for the game to be Primetime Adventures, otherwise I'd play that, I lot of the tools are being co-opted. The notion of Issue is present in the Issue Aspect, albeit that's also in the Dresden RPG. Implicit in the structure of the game moving forward is the concept of different characters being the focus in different sessions (and thus their Issue Aspect and associated Aspects and Relationship Map assets), possibly not mechanically supported, though this was used in the 4E Campaign as well (similarly not mechanically supported). I am thinking of throwing a session which certain player is the focus fate points. We shall see.

I'm not looking for every scene to have a pivotal conflict, but I'm hoping to keep an eye on each one roughly having a point, even if it is a bit of exploration, as these are sometimes essential to build to scenes which have conflicts.

Framing: I tend to tweak a common known phrase, it's not 'Content is King' but 'Context is King'. I'm not saying everyone thinks this way, but I tend to be big on context. Framing provides that context. Context of location, conflict, mood, etc. It's that small moment you get in game to gain some of the benefit writers have of just sitting back and painting the picture in broad strokes. This in turn can enhance immersion, though I really dislike that word due to the history of how it's been used in gaming.

One of the things I always regret when looking back on games is missed opportunities and these are almost always driven by a lack framing (obviously, from my point of view). Inadequate context to operate in. The scene just starts without that establishing shot of location, mood, temperament of principle participants, etc. Nothing to draw anyone in. In short, the environment to maximise the result isn't created. A lack of direction in terms of scene setting. There is a reason Primetime Adventures has the GM ultimately responsible for framing. It's also one of the reasons I think the GM is there.

Like most GMs, I guess, goals when running a game are often driven by what you feel doesn't work when you're a player!

Art Direction: I'm a big fan of keeping an eye on the art direction which, in a role-playing game, amounts to what is 'described' and how it is 'described'. A cinematic spy game describes different things and in different ways than a more gritty game of realistic 60's cold war espionage. It's important to recognise those differences and have them on tap at a moments notice. A more random art direction can really throw the game as things become disjointed.

Games fail or the participants lose enthusiasm without some level of consistency in this area.

Being conscious of the art direction worked really well in the 4E Campaign, something kept it within a certain tolerance and consistent zone over an extended period of time. Space opera is the same. The art direction of Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Firefly, etc, are all different. It's all to easy to inject something from the latest science fiction film that doesn't really fit. It's not a massive thing, but being constantly aware of it and using it usually delivers. A lot of mental prep goes into this I guess, which is great as it can be done while on the train or mowing the grass!

Language: Language is important. It sets the tone, the mood and is in itself a form of framing. I'm not talking about accents, they almost always fall flat and don't conjure up what they're supposed to. I'm talking about choice of words and patterns of speaking. As an example, the language of FATE Fading Suns could be said to be largely historical when religion and faith were spoken about in a different way to now? When honour means something different? Where talking about the darkness of space has overtones beyond just it being empty? When passion about love, life, faith and revenge and other concepts are all important! All these things need to be reflected in how people speak so the language isn't the same as how people talk normally. It's about making sure the things characters care about in the world they live in are reflected in how they speak. It works.

In many ways, it's the language of the passionate historical epic.

Of course, all this sounds great, and bits and pieces of the above have appeared in other games that have fizzled out (the two sessions of Mistridge were big on art direction and language, for instance) but it's also possible, once the game is running, I'll forget all this and it'll all merge into an amorphous mass of run on confusion.

That's the part that's exciting, nothing ever fully survives contact with the table.

Permalink | Comments(3) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 27/08/2012 Bookmark and Share
Principles of Fate (Dice)

Note: As usual, another blog that purely represents what I'm throwing around in my mind as FATE Fading Suns gets excitingly closer.

So, rolling dice in a role-playing games used to be so simple. I pick the lock! Okay, roll some dice. That's if you got people to roll much at all. Many an actual a session only really busted out the dice when someone wanted to punch someone in the face. In fact, such a claim used to be a badge of honour. Our game is imperially fantastic because we never roll any dice! It could be questioned why everyone put so much effort into the other skills on the sheet.

While much fun was had, and everything worked through an unstated consensus (now known as the social contract once it became more explicit than implicit), it was a bit dysfunctional in numerous ways.

In truth, it was never really that 'simple'.

The principles on which the dice are busted out in games is now quite important, as the recognition has grown that a game is being played, it's just the outcome of that game is more varied and rich across the range of available games.

Having a think while driving to The Wirral (remember it's not Merseyside), which took an hour longer than usual, due to rain and no doubt annoying festival attendees happy they could get their designer Wellington boots out, I decided the principles on which dice operate in FATE are:-

  1. Only roll when it matters
  2. Granularity of conflict is an in game design choice through stake setting
  3. An Aspect is the cause but the described effect = shape of story / narration
  4. Roll + Aspects = Resolution = Story / Narration

This can also be termed: Why, What, How and When? More detail below.

Principle One

Principle one (a.k.a why) is obvious and is included only to be complete. If the player is breaking an electronic lock and there is nothing at stake as to whether he brakes it or not then he brakes it. This sort of non-roll happens for two reasons: it truly is inconsequential and is happening just as background colour for something else or the stakes are set wrong (see principle two). A wider element of this is why roll to access more interesting narrative? This often comes up with the more granular conflicts. If the player wants to romance the Imperial Princess and that seems to be the most interesting narrative, she is up for that and has no 'internal or story conflicts' it just succeeds.

Principle Two

As indicated, principle two (a.ka what) is often related to principle one because setting the granularity of stakes often influences whether the roll matters. The simple example is it might not matter if he breaks the electronic lock but it might matter if he breaks the lock before the virus kills his girl friend on the other side? In a similar way, romancing the Imperial Princess may be destined to happen, but possibly the roll decides how much social damage is caused to her husband, her or the protagonist down the line? This could be part of something that is tracked very long term. The stakes can shift from success to consequences, these consequences can be various 'degrees of distance' from the roll itself. In fact that is very FATE, damage itself being called consequences.

The setting of stakes effectively decides where the roll is on the task (and even then FATE rarely resolves a specific task, even physical conflicts often represents abstract actions) to conflict resolution scale, which often also decides the narrative size of what s being resolved. This range can decide a whole scene, the outcome of an action or even more nebulous things like future impact disconnected from the scene by time. In some cases, it's interesting to go granular in others it's best to be less so. This is one of the strengths of FATE, it does not lock-in the dice rolls to a specific granularity.

Setting the stakes can make something that need not involve the dice into something that should involve the dice as interesting narrative direction is being decided.

Principle Three

Now we get more specific to FATE. Principle three (a.k.a how) concerns itself with the central power of Aspects, the key part of FATE that act as both flags and the way a player authors the fabric of his character into the game.

Key to this is how Aspects influence dice rolling.

In short, Aspects are the cause of an altered dice roll (through tagging to re-roll, but more for the +2 to outcome) but, importantly, the described effect is the influence on the story. The exact narrative outcome of a roll isn't decided until Aspects are applied, resulting in a different narrative for different characters even in situations in which the roll was for the same thing because the Aspects influence how the outcome is described significantly (even when the same situation is faced and the same skill is rolled).

In reality, the outcome of the raw dice roll does not indicate success or failure at all but sets the 'narrative resistance', made easier by a high skill, that has to be overcome by the protagonist's 'story power', represented by their fate points (+1 for each spent) or even better their unique awesome in the form of Aspects (+2 per aspect tagged). A success without Aspect use just indicating the resistance was obviously low.

In fact, that should be the quintessential measure of whether an Aspect should be allowed to enhance a roll: how would it be described in the narrative? Does it fit? Is it cool?

Principle Four

Principle four (a.k.a when) is the thorny one as it indicates the resolution of rolls is deciding story and narrative direction and content (such as in principle three). It's thorny, because in order for this to be true you have to make the roll before all that is actually decided anyway!

It's worth remembering that at this point it can be assumed principle one and two have been applied and principle three will be applied once the dice hit the table.

This creates the quintessential issue our group always wrestles with (albeit not in a game breaking way, more one of flow and 'feeling right'): the landscape of role-playing and dice rolling in terms of when one stops and the other starts and how they interact? If a roll is going to be involved you don't want it to 'just be mechanical', but neither do you want to role-play a dramatic dice roll into being an oddity, absurdity or irritation.

Principle four does leave you thinking along the following lines: is it best to distinguish between conflict scenes and exploration scenes (that may in turn involve conflicts, but not necessarily)? Is it best rolling early rather than late when the intention is for conflict? How is the role-playing integrated into the dice rolls to avoid too much 'distant third person' narrative? To what degree is the principle true (considering Principle three is certainly true)? How does it fit into a model of reciprocal attacks and defends?

Possibly a blog for another day, needs bit more thought.

...And Finally

That's about it, the principles in my head for dice rolling decisions in FATE, which will influence FATE Fading Suns. As usual, it represents my thoughts as the game gets closer, it may or may not be pertinent once the game actually hits the table. I'm also lucky to have a sensible group who will help self-organise some of this stuff, in a productive way, once the game gets going. Obviously, this doesn't preclude putting a bit of thought into it beforehand!

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 26/08/2012 Bookmark and Share
Tools From The Box, pt II

So, last time the tools focused on how to start the game with a side order of using music in the sessions. This time it's how my mind has wondered to tools to make the experience easier and flow more naturally. I must admit, historically, this hasn't been an area I've put much thought into. You have character sheets and your adventure printed on A4 paper (even though most of it changes), possibly some scrawled maps and away you go.

So, what's changed?

Well, technology for one. It's much easier to have technology at the table that is unobtrusive. Second, the 4E Campaign was one of our first primary campaigns to to use various types of widgets due to the nature of that game and the consistency on which it was run: floor plans, maps, currency tokens, etc. Last, but not least, you use all sorts of different tools at work to make life easier, might as well take the same approach to gaming.

Support Materials: Naturally, as a consultant, one of things I spend a lot of time doing is framing thinking ahead of an undertaking and capturing information during a task. It naturally filters into other arenas. It's never overly filtered into gaming. Still, putting some thought into how to get the best return on time isn't a bad thing.

Take character creation as an example.

FATE character generation is a big thing. It's not roll up a few statistics, make a few choices and go. It's a legitimate session zero experience and part of actual play. This is also true for FATE Fading Suns. A lesson from the Thrilling Tales character creations is it's easy to miss information or leave things implied during FATE character creation or you face chasing things down when the sessions finished and the energy in the room has departed. That's missing story potential right there.

So, the approach is to be prepared for character generation.

This means handouts for character generation to capture information. At each stage of character generation I want to capture aspects, invoke and compel examples and how the relationship map was extended all in one place so I don't have to go back asking for more information. This also has the advantage of being able to hit the ground running after character generation. I want to get the best use out of the time and activity.

Depending on events I can see zone maps coming into play for significant space battles, and I need to dig out some of those fancy, abstract combat maps I've seen on the web for FATE. All subject to time, of course. Thinking about it, you could do these with clear plastic pockets and write on them with pens? Have to ponder that.

Android Tablet: I've never brought technology to the gaming table as a GM. It's always been old school paper. There is a good reason for some of this, but not for all of it. The tablet has three strengths: it doesn't act as a barrier, it makes multimedia easy and the touch screen interface makes everything quick and allows for support materials to be on it.

A part of this is driven by me wanting a less cluttered environment. I don't want to be coordinating index cards or pages of A4. Over a number of years the written word has had considerable less impact on how I approach various things, being replaced with key principles and diagrams. This same will undoubtedly be true for FATE Fading Suns. If I can have any session information I need on the tablet it will be neat and tidy.

The multimedia aspect is also interesting but will almost certainly be something that will be discovered over the course of the game. I'm thinking sound and images. Sound as it provides a way to quickly pull in music when it would improve things in a scene. I'm also thinking of images, some of this is happening already with my use of Pinterest ahead of the game. It occurs to me images could be used in game just by turning the tablet screen around? That might be very handy, but I'll just see how that one goes.

So, I'm not 100% sure of how completely the tablet will feature. I'm not 100% sure how or what I'm going to use to hold information on the tablet. I do know the experience won't be a 100% paper-based exercise like it used to be.

Sticky Notes: Not everything can be done on the tablet. It's hard to make notes on. It's harder to use for things that will be used rather than referenced. This brings me to a tool that was used by the GM in the Promethean Institute campaign: sticky notes (a.k.a Post-It Notes, but without the costly branding). The other influence was a Marvel Heroic Role-Playing actual play example as they used sticky notes to represent rules artefacts that have dice attached. So, the 'Building on Fire' artefact (I forget the official rules name) is created and 2D8 is placed on top of the sticky note. This is the same principle as Aspects, of course, just without the dice.

The goal is fluidity, speed and ease. No flipping of pages. Just write it on the sticky note, pull it off and stick it in the notepad for reference later. I'm sure they'll have other uses as a well.

Cards: Cards are one of those things, like miniatures, that would once have been considered alien at our gaming table. This may have been more my feeling than the rest of the group, all of them having played collectable card games relatively hardcore. The 4E Campaign broke that with cards being a brilliant tool for making the application of rules something that happens fluidly.

While the core of FATE is not as complicated as all the powers in Dungeons and Dragons 4E, cards do have their uses.

As an example, what if each player had an Aspects Card for each of the other players? Laying out each character’s Aspects with invoke and compel examples? It would seem to me this would be a great reference tool. Similarly each player could have their own relationship map, probably viewed from the perspective of narrative chronology on a card? I could see these working on A5 / A6 cards.

I think this has legs it's just a pity I don't have free access to laminating facilities any more. We shall see. Time may be the main barrier, but I think it's a cool idea.

That's about it. It'll be interesting to see how these things pan out as the game progresses. I'm sure some will prove great while others will be dropped. I may even naturally regress back to sheets of A4 by session four, which will be a record in itself.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 25/08/2012 Bookmark and Share
Promethean Institute S7: All Done
It's strange when you come to the end of a campaign. It can probably be said the Promethean Institute conjured up feelings of excitement because it was going to conclude our various characters' stories, relief because the system had probably taken it out of us a bit and, as always, anticipation of new gaming territory around the corner.

The malaise of the pentultimate episode cast off, the finale was back to the edge of chaos, almost surreal, 'tentative foot in gonzo territory' of the more intense sessions. It's very odd to describe and it occurs for a range of reasons. I loved the finale because it played out totally differently to how I imagined it would and my character's narrative ended up a in a totally different place based on a few, key conflict rolls.

I'm not sure what ending I had in mind for Joshua, scientist, celebrity and the worlds most intelligent man. I really hadn't thought about it much. It's probably safe to say the absolute dismantling of all his ideals and goals probably wasn't something that would have come to mind. He ended burning so brightly for a short period only to destroy his ideals and the woman he loved in order to help save the Earth. It worked out well, based on the criteria of being interesting. The full actual play and the fate of all five characters can be found on the GMs Blog, specifically here.

The Smallville system? Not for us. We have numerous complaints about it which, in some cases, are due to how we applied it and the type of game we applied it to. The main complaint I have, whether it's the system or our application of it, is I found it constantly frustrating. I've probably mentioned the before, but it's worth closing them out.

It was frustrating because it is ludicrously vague. I'm not someone who expects rules to nail everything down with absolute measures but the Smallville system is epically vague. It then compounds this by being vague and specific at the same time with traits like Clever, Genius and Mastermind all being specifically different in a very vague way! I'm not even going to get into powers and their SFX.

The pulling together of the dice pool was laborious and felt more like an obligation than anything exciting or dynamic. It felt like a job trying to engineer reasons to pull together a big enough dice pool to actually feel like you were going to get somewhere. This in itself wouldn't be that bad if every conflict mattered or was guaranteed some sort of outcome with a narrative momentum, but that's not the case. A proportion of the time you seemed to be rolling to access the interesting result while failure was a zero sum game!

The system was also annoyingly hard to penetrate. The rules are spread throughout the core book as if it was part of the experience to get the reader to pull the threads together. Character creation makes taking a design approach to a specific end point very difficult as it's hard to understand the consequence of one choice as a part of the whole process. The dice rolling mechanic is so complicated statistically it's not that easy to, at any time, have a basic appreciation of likely outcome. It was like it was purposefully designed to be as opaque as possible. This isn't really a good combination when it's combined with a system for spending a currency to increase your chances.

When the system span the story off in interesting directions, as a result of the dice rolls, it was brilliant, but that didn't seem to be system specific it seemed more the result of player decision to get out of conflicts while something interesting was in play rather than face more rounds of dice pool building. I know I did that numerous times. It also meant the table was allowing this to happen, which was great, but without the associated controls. This meant it was like unbridled capitalism in terms competing for narrative outcomes, based on which scenes came first! This created an interesting feeling, albeit it may just have been me. It created a sense of urgency, or even competition to get your scene in, because there was no structure for it to happen. At times, due to what scenes happened, with no context of who might create next, you'd get odd outputs.

In short, Primetime Adventures does that sort of thing a lot better with a much simpler system. Characters aren't vaguely complex and there is a specific structure to when players create scenes and when they have narrative importance that provides a level of order to the chaos and a framework to be creative within (you know who is important and who is creating next, etc). I realise I may be saying Primetime Adventures does something better that the Smallville system wasn't designed to do in the first place.

Rather humorously, possibly Primetime Adventures is the answer! Do his games often follow an episodic format? Check. Does he like simple rules because his style tends to trump any rules present? Check. He tends to be a GM who orchestrates player creativity (in terms of player : GM ratio) so that needs a framework to happen? Check. Has he designed a game that is, in many ways, very similar to it in terms how conflicts are resolved? Check.

Excellent campaign though, really enjoyed it and I tend to think the creativity and system chaos was part of its momentum, raw creativity and charm. I also played quite a different character to what I normally play, which was awesome. You know, even if it did wear the GM out five episodes in.

As a famous ward might say, the campaign had a 'Holy epic burn out rate!'

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 20/08/2012 Bookmark and Share
Tools From The Box, pt I

So, with the new regime of pre-character creation preparation for Fate Fading Suns being focused on how rather than what I've been thinking of the tools that can be pulled from the metaphorical box. The first few are really variations on a theme: how do you start your game? How do you transition effectively from general chat on life, gaming stuff and genre happenings to zoning into the game itself?

I'm not a big fan of it just happening out of the blue with a quick 'Okay, what are you doing? And role-play now byutches!' as I know this is the worst possible start to a game for me personally. I really dislike it! It also doesn't work if the start of a session is hesitant, sort of apologetic. I'm all with being pro-active as a player, but I like being pro-active to something that has a bit of a kick-start.

Basically, I like to know the game has started.

Pre-Credit Sequence: These are a throwback to the Star Trek campaigns of my original gaming group, structure into seasons, episodes (complete with episode lists), theme music, 'played by actors' for characters, etc. They also featured pre-credit sequences to establish the episode. These sort of tools were also used well in the Buffy Campaign. At their best they're essentially great framing and a starting gun for the game. While I love them, I don't think they really sit right for Fate Fading Suns. Not really sure why, but they don't.

So, no pre-credit sequences.

Theme Music: I've primarily used theme music when it's been an established property, most notably starting Star Wars sessions off with the music. The advantage of this is it does act as a good 'the game is beginning' flag, providing people with the opportunity to move from one frame of mind to another.

In short, it's worked really well in the past. Especially if it's actually used rather than done as a chore or in a 'let us get this out of the way feel'. It needs to be part of the experience. The difficulty when not using an established property is finding the music for the theme. It has to be evocative. It can't be too recognisable as belonging to something else. It's quite difficult. It's for this reason it wasn't going to be a feature, but then I hit upon the Kingdom of Heaven soundtrack and the opening track Burning The Past.

Burning the Past is great. Evocative. Works for the games medieval 'roots' while not detracting from certain ways space and spaceships can be shot (generally the Firefly or Battlestar Galactica style). It also has a pattern to it that provides 50 seconds to do something with. Which brings me to the next tool from the box.

Opening Scrawl: I like the opening scrawl. In fact, I love the opening scrawl. This obviously comes from me running Star Wars mini-series and my love of all things pulp which this exemplifies. It also serves a great purpose. It can set the scene and re-cap events all at once, while providing another way to focus from out of game to in game. The difficulty is toning down the pulp riff while retaining its usefulness as a transition.

I didn't think the idea worked for Fate Fading Suns at first as I was being to literal. Too Star Wars. Too pulp. What about voice overs that are more in the vein of a priest re-telling ancient events? Or someone narrating current events? Then it works. It's just in the way it's written. It's very similar, but just different in tone. I've given it the odd go and it seems to work well.

Music: It's a mixed bag as to whether background music works in a game. We've not really used it in our games, a few sessions with music playing in the background during a the 4E Campaign aside. I used it a few aborted games, most notably AEGIS (superspies) and Mistridge (though the characters never actually got to the central location). It worked I think. At the moment I've identified two appropriate soundtracks, Kingdom of Heaven and Prometheus, but whether they'll be used or not for scenes isn't decided.

Everything is subject to change, but on the subject pre-credit sequences, theme music and opening scrawls I'm thinking of going with the Battlestar Galactica approach merged with that of Star Wars and 'ancient tales retold'. In short, them music and read out an opening 'scrawl' as a voice over. It'll also be in my northern drawl rather than portentous 'actor man', but I'm sure everyone can live with that. General background music has the wait and see vote.

It may change, but that's the plan at the moment.

The great thing about this modern technology is a boon. I intend to use the tablet during the sessions. Tablet plus portable speaker means instant musical jukebox with enough quality for a role-playing game session.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 18/08/2012 Bookmark and Share
Too Much Gaming Awesome?

When running role-playing campaigns is there such a thing as too much awesome? The answer is obviously no, the last thing you want is a deflated table with no one adding to the imaginative firmament. The detail has a few shades of grey though. For instance, is it better to have a dominant GM Viking Hat of Doom to act as a break on the players? Obviously, the two aren’t mutually exclusive I hear you cry! Quite true.

Basically, creativity is great, but it can also be destructive. Creative destruction. Creativity knows no boundaries and in the right atmosphere hurtles ahead, building on itself until at some point it goes too fast and the breaks start to fail, the wing mirrors fly off and you suddenly find yourself with ideas that are, if not breaking the game, certainly have less value or contain a risky payload. This can all be managed with a mature and sensible social contract at the gaming table, but avoiding it in the first place is also another option.

Let's give a couple of examples, I apologise to those whose games they occurred in, it's a testament to their boundless creativity.

We have had games in which this creativity has slowly, or quickly, established some sort of weird creation that finally the GM doesn't want to run any more or the players becomes disengaged. Pulsars and Privateers fell into this category, the creativity forked it off into all sorts of different directions resulting in a diluted focus and vision which ultimately eroded interest. I'm not 100% sure when it crossed into creating disinterest by the GM but it might have been quite early. Once this dilution takes hold it tends to gain speed, as the table continues to generate creativity based on the different forks! In the worst case scenario, it creates something that has so little common ground it's like running individual games for each player that are alien to each other. The fact this was also a space opera game has influenced my thinking a smidgeon.

Let's take another example, the 4E Campaign. It didn't in anyway lack creativity at the table but the balance was different. This balance tended to mean there was influences in place that channelled the creativity. What were these influences? A very strong common concept of what was to be created at the table. A stronger, more active sense of GM input to the 'story'. A stronger GM influence massaging ideas and creativity at the table not so much to stamp it down but keep to keep it within theme. The last one was quite subtle and the stronger the initial concept the less you need to do it, of course. At times we chafed against the boundaries, but they had advantages. As a result, while the creativity may have been less boundless or different than in the previous examples, it felt less like it was never going to break apart in orbit. It just had more 'glue' holdings things together.

Neither of these approaches is better than the other. Playing closer to the edge of chaos in Smallville has worked really well, though I'd argue it provides a lot of tools that provide framing and clarity of concept before the game starts. The question isn't really about too much awesome? But about channelled creativity. Focused awesome. Just enough shared self-control. How has this influenced Fate Fading Suns? Well, it's been the primary influence on pre-start preparation.

Enough Clarity of Concept. You have to get this right. Get it wrong and I think you risk dooming your game from the very beginning. Ironically, the is more important the more creative the players at the table! I'd even go as far to say, with the gaming table we have now, every game that has not had it, or communicated it effectively (however this is done), has suffered or, in the odd case, been broken by it. The 'setting prep' that has taken place purely exists to try and establish this clarity. It's broad concept, not specific like documenting planets, personalities, galactic geography, writing situations, etc. All that can be filled in by the table only as and if it becomes important. It's purely been about framing to enable shared, purposeful creativity. Keep in mind, like a lot of things, the process of doing it is as big an advantage as any 'final product'. It helped me work out and refine the concept in my head.

Tools from the box. I think as a gaming group we've changed significantly over the years. We are more conscious of the tools we use, how we use them and we discuss how games are going more openly. A few Spirit of the Century sessions aside this is the first game I'll be running under that matured ethos of applied tools. One of the core elements of pre-start preparation has been ensuring I have the tools that support the game. This is why the relationship map is being used, it is certainly the reason behind the aspect structure, specifically the Issue aspect. It's also influenced some high level approaches to how the campaign will be planned. All stolen liberally from other sources. It all falls into my belief in the explicit premium.

Inputs. Inputs. Inputs. One of the key problems when running a game is the lonely GM syndrome. The time between sessions. The couple of months before start as the current game concludes. It can be easy to lose focus and be sitting in a vacuum that doesn’t keep the creative juices boiling. In an attempt to address this I periodically, in short doses, gorge on appropriate media of all types: mostly image-based, be it TV shows, films or static images. It's worked really well and will no doubt continue to do so. It's also a process thing and has helped shape the principles of the concept in my head. I didn't realise when I started that period films are often more appropriate than a lot of science fiction, for instance. When I've been distant from the idea for a while, I can quickly engage again through the media (and in the future no doubt actual play). Pinterest has also been cool for passing on some of the static images I've been perusing, which also means they can be shared.

All this is part of re-focus of how I undertake pre-start preparation, which can be summed up by a shift from what to how. This is a good thing, as exactly how, what and to what degree to prepare has always been but muddled in the past. There is no point focusing too much on what is going to happen as it's born out of character creation these days. You can at an abstract level, or have things you'd like to see addressed, as it might support the character generation process, but it's more important to address how. That how, when you stand back and look at it, falls under the umbrella of making things explicit rather than implicit so it can shape and framing the creativity at the table.

Ultimately, that's what it's all about: how do you channel, challenge and frame the creativity at the table and how close to the edge of chaos do you push it?

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 10/08/2012 Bookmark and Share
Promethean Institute S6: The Aliens Are Coming!

This has been a while in coming, mainly because I was knackered on the weekend leading into the session and then rolled straight into two weeks of cut over on a project which amounted two twelve hour days for as many days and then a few more. It's not really left much time to write or even think about much to be honest.

So, session six, what can I say? It just felt very odd. The actual play of the session can be found here

Like most things that involve imagination, effort and channelled creativity sometimes the various mechanisms, drivers and inputs that make one session more successful than another are just a bit ephemeral. This session those factors were on a bit of a low ebb.

One thing was telling, which I'm not sure helped. When we were asked to review what had happened so far we all listed events from the previous session which was a flashback. That was happened last session, but not really what had happened so far chronologically. The chronological events weren't so much a problem because of how long ago they happened, for me anyway, but because the flashback had broken the sequence and confused 'the context things happened in'. It was all too easy to read events in the flashback we had 'witnessed' as things our characters knew which wasn't the case. It sort of disconnected you a bit. It was odd, but probably speaks to the strength of the flashback as a session. The issues born out of it were gold, but also felt a bit inaccessible in the proceeding session.

The system is possibly getting a bit tiring. I'm all for conflict resolution bringing in the dice to spin the story off in interesting directions, but there is something about the way that Smallville does it that is just...tiring. The building of the dice pool gets boring as it's always so similar. Rolling dice against important non-player characters in arguments soon starts getting boring and almost as frustrating as having the damned argument in real life. It works when it seems dramatically critical – but at times it just seems to be an argument that isn't that important. It can also feel like you're rolling dice to access the dramatic nugget that would blow things up a bit. Like it's the reveal that's important, but the reveal only games if you win the dice. In a way, it's like the conflict resolution mechanism of rolling to find the clue and then failing. This isn't all the system. I'm sure it's the system combined with how we are using it but it doesn't change the feeling.

I was also knackered, which probably didn't help.

The end result was probably the first subdued session of the campaign so far. That's very good going. The game has been placed at such intensity for five sessions it isn't really surprising it would eventually hit a session lull. You also have to consider many a TV show hits problems with the episode just before the final as well.

The campaign as a whole, and this session got me thinking about it again, as to whether there is such a thing as too much awesome at the gaming table? A question for another day.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 09/08/2012 Bookmark and Share
I Don't Do Conversions

It's safe to say, when it comes to role-playing games, I don't do conversions. The Internet tells me other gamers love them. The mechanical wizardry involved in accurately converting one complex system, point to point, into another seems to be something people will spend a lot of time on. Not me. I detest it. I don't even get very deep into modifying systems. Like them just to run as is.

This has seriously influenced my approach to using Fate to run Fading Suns.

In the most part of I've made conversion a none issue by not accounting for the rules to the existing Fading Suns game at all. They don't exist. I'm concentrated just on some of the leading principles of the setting. Not the detail. I've also missed elements of the concept out that would demand more fiddling, such as theurgy ('priest spells'). The fact I like religion to be entirely 'faith' based helps here. As a result, there is no nuts and bolts to convert. I've also found that Starblazer Adventures, the flavour of Fate being used, is fine for the look and feel. Well, that should be I think it's fine enough, that point at which diminishing returns kick in.

I've limited my self to cosmetic surface changes that hardly count as rules changes, just ways of using the tools in the box. I've established how character creation will work, pretty typical but incorporating a relationship map. How milestones and advancement will work. Then we have cosmetic changes to account for the difference in how the setting works, such as interstellar travel. Then choices on things like Fate dice over D6-D6 to stabilize the results range and flatten out gonzo results. Brief research indicates Fate points are spent more to smooth out wild failures using D6-D6, I'd rather have less wild, predictable results and make Fate points count more (and in a positive direction). I may tweak the stress tracks and the like once we get a feel for lethality and conflict speed, but that's an in game calibration.

All this is within my do hardly nothing approach. These have all taken minutes of thought not hours.

Then we hit the skill list. Starblazer Adventures is an early generation Fate game. It works fine. It incorporates post-Spirit of the Century improvements, but isn't as an integrated a package as Dresden Files. The skill system has some naming issues, which I'm going to ignore. It also has some odd skills that probably won't get much air time, such as Art, but it actually fits in the setting so I'm leaving it. It's not as 'nice' a skill list as the Dresden Files one. The bigger annoyance is how trappings are distributed as they clash with the setting.

It comes down to the knowledge skills: Art, Science Mysteries and Academics, which covers everything not listed under the previous three. Mysteries is a fine skill to have in a setting with the Darkness Beyond the Stars though it's use beyond 'knowledge' isn't something I've looked at much (it's trappings and stunts are too like those in Spirit of the Century). Art is fine. Academics is fine. Science is fine other than its epic width. It includes anything to do with science, being capable of doing medicine and computer hacking. Hacking computers in a scifi game has always bothered me. Medical doctors and scientists being the same thing frustrates me, as a Doctor may well be a priest.

So, what to do?

Hacking I'm just going to ignore. I want computers to be in the background, tools people use to do other stuff or as colour in a scene. Once a science fiction game features hacking as something important it degenerates fast in my view, unless it is a core concept such as in some Cyberpunk stuff. Activity in the game generates into doing a thing, rather than engaging with the material directly in a narrative way. It also devolves problems into...I'll hack the computer. Hacking breaks games. So, it's just not going to happen. If a professor of alien races is researching using a byzantine archive of a lost age he uses Academics. If someone is trying to infiltrate a building or rapidly get past a sequence of security locks they use Burglery (yes, they should have re-named it to Infiltration). If a scientists is trying to de-construct the AI of an ancient second republic android he uses Science. Use of computers is entirely colour. It also means there is no characters with computer use and hacking as their main forte, which is fine with me.

Medicine is a bigger problem. As it doesn't make sense it's under science. It creates a skill of epic width. In a Star Wars, Flash Gordon or other game of sweeping space opera that would not be as bad. You could imagine a Zarkoff equivalent being that brilliant. Hell, you'd want him to be that brilliant. Especially when you consider, without all the stunts giving bonuses to medical activity, a scientist without them probably wouldn't be that good at it. The problem is the post-scientific discovery age of Fading Suns and the division of science and religion. It is a division that blurs, but the division is problematic in the Science skill. A Great (a level of skill) Amalthean Priest would also be become Great at recoding that second republic android by virtue of having a Great Science kill to get the medical skills. Not right thematically or in terms of niche protection.

So, there is two problems: (1) Where should the trappings and stunts for medicine be? (2) Should the trapping be available by default to all who have that skill?

The current solution is to do two things. Put the medical trappings under Academics (possibly also remaining under Science). Make the Medicine trappings require an activation stunt (the Doctor Stunt).

It would remove the problem of those skilled in medicine also being brilliant all round scientists. It would mean those skilled in medicine would also be skilled potentially in reading ancient languages, sociology, psychology and alien races, etc. No great, but it gives a different option as some of those would fit a character seeking to make the health of other beings his main forte? It feels more thematically correct, realism isn't a concern. The fact it requires a stunt to trigger its use in this fashion would mean every academic professor can't cure diseases and help you with your severe blaster wound. This is also how Dresden Files does it. The stunt trigger also means it could stay under Science as well, if someone wanted to be an all round genius and take the stunt trigger and others.

Am I happy enough with this? Yes, move on, don't obsess about it. Eye ball it, find something better but not perfect, move on. After all, anything else can be resolved with a quick group discussion and that's assuming someone plays a priest skilled in medicine even to make it an issue (albeit such a character was briefly mentioned).

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 01/07/2012 Bookmark and Share
From Flags to Structure

It's no secret that I think the FATE system finally nailed the perfect combination of 'hippy story game ideas' and 'more traditional game structure'. I like the Aspects that act as flags, both ahead of play and during play, which also establishes the explicit premium and ensure that those player 'wants and desires' can have a mechanical impact on play. At the same time, FATE is a traditional enough with a scalable set of tools that keeps the game focused on a narrative reality rather than a realistic or gamist challenge one.

There is one thing it does not do: it doesn't move into structuring what might feature in actual play. It provides the building blocks for it, but the system makes no moves to put those blocks together in any shape or form. It's like a lot of Post-It Notes (representing Aspects) are scattered across the table but no effort is made to do anything with the random layout. I've got no problem with that as I do tend to think that is what the GM is there for. I like it. At the same time, I can see the advantage in some games that go that step further. So, I got myself thinking about how structure could be built from the Aspects in Fate Fading Suns?

We have the beginnings of how things can progress in the Aspect diagram from a previous blog, I've extended this to show my current thinking.

The Aspects to the left define the elements that are important to the player character's story. They are the defining situations, relationships, beliefs, assets of various types and whatever else that exist in the toolbox.


The two Aspects to the right define what the character is (which can change over the campaign, but it's most likely to when the Issue Aspect is resolved) as well what the player character's central issue, premise, story is. The Issue Aspect defines a future state (I Will Destroy House Decados!) or asks a question to be answered (Redemption for the Sins of War). That's what we had before and it comes from various FATE games, with specific additions sourced from the Dresden Files and Legends of Anglerre incarnations and inspiration from the concepts of Premise from Sorcerer and Issue from Primetime Adventures.

In taking this forward to define structure, I've had three things flying around in my head: Events in Marvel Heroic Role-Playing, Future Aspects in Legends of Anglerre and the Mission system in Duty and Honour and some stuff I took away from the 4E Campaign.

Marvel Heroic Role-Playing is based on Events, but we're going to call them Legends. These are high concept, big scale events that are split into parts and have milestones associated with them. In the case of Fate Fading Suns, each player character will have a personal Legend (the Event), the purpose of which is to resolve the Issue Aspect in some way. Each Legend will be comprised of three chapters and each chapter will comprise of a situation or situations to challenge and move the player character's story forward. When each player character has completed their first chapter we will have completed an Act. This means the campaign has three Acts. This is influenced by the 4E Campaign with its three tier structure, though in this case it doesn't represent significant changes in style of play mechanically.

The completion of each Act is effectively the completion of a major milestone (various FATE systems) so this structures character advancement as well. When an Act is complete characters increase in narrative power at the end of Act 1 and 2, while Act 3 is obviously the conclusion.

This means the Issue Aspect is brought to a conclusion through the completion of milestones (with an eye to the three Acts being the beginning, middle and end). This is how Future Aspects work in Legends of Anglerre, which is a more high level version of the Mission system in Duty and Honour. This provides a way to imagine a high level structure for each player character's Legend without getting too much into specifics and leaving plenty of scope to leave later Acts blank, vague or subject to change as played acts bring the awesome (hopefully).

The concept of laying out a high level road map of the three milestones can be purely GM driven or a collaborative effort between player and GM, it doesn't really matter which. It purely depends on the different approaches of those at the table. It does provide a way to think about the campaign and provides enough structure to frame things without being overly deterministic. This is probably more important now we are aiming for shorter campaigns.

A way to structure thoughts is always good especially when things are highly dynamic and ever changing...which will undoubtedly be the case! After all, later acts will change because of earlier ones. The Legends of player characters' may merge to different degrees, which is to be suspected considering the shared character creation. What happens at the table is often more awesome than vague ideas in advance.

It gives me a way to frame my thinking when I'm looking at that scattered mess of Post-It Notes.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 17/06/2012 Bookmark and Share
Fate Fading Suns Is Go...Again!

Okay, it's been some time in coming. I first started pondering a single system space opera campaign way back in July 2009. Then Mass Effect 2 started me thinking about it again in February 2010. A bit of thought was put into it around Mass Effect and Fading Suns influences. It even became the potential next game for the primary gaming slot after the 4E Campaign.

Then life events took over. Wasn't in a good place. Effectively stopped gaming for about a year. Now, it's back, scheduled for the primary gaming slot after the Prometheus Institute campaign. This is a good thing. In a better place both personally and in a gaming sense. It hasn't been two years in the making by a long margin but the idea probably sits better with me now. It's good it's come round now on both a personal and gaming scale. It feels right.

What's interesting is what I've taken away from the 4E Campaign and the Prometheus Institute. It's not so much stuff I didn't know, but seeing certain things put into practice is always interesting.

In terms of the Prometheus Institute it has shown that short and intense works. It's been a model we've been throwing around in the gaming group for a while. We want to play more games, after all? I'm a big advocate of it, but whenever we've tried to move to it before it always seemed to (a) coincide with a period of me being absence from the group and (b) a return to longer games due to periods of uncertainty between games (and you have more 'between games' with shorter games). The 4E Campaign ran for exactly two years and came after a period of inter-game turmoil. We've had two games now running under the shorter model, it seems quite stable.

The Prometheus Institute has worked because length hasn't meant lack of depth (eight sessions only). I never thought it did, but gamers as a 'population' aren't often convinced. I think there has been no less character development in the Prometheus Institute than there was in the much longer 4E Campaign. Certainly not for my character. It's just different. I prefer the Prometheus Model. I think the longer model keeps characters the same for extended periods. Drive the situation. Drive the conflict. As a player, be flexible on what your character's story is within a few guiding principles and make those principles explicit. The Prometheus Institute showed it works.

I've been a big fan of relationship maps as a tool for driving situation and drama since reading Sorcerer circa fifteen years ago. I have an abstract relationship map in my head for most of my player characters, though it's never implicit or written down. As a GM, it was in my head, sourced from the Aspects, for Thrilling Tales. It was awesome. It wasn't implicit, written down or understood in the same way by anyone else in the group. The Prometheus Institute has demonstrated that writing it down as a shared creation works. It was obvious it would, it's just we'd never sat down and did it until one was integrated into the actual system. It worked in the Prometheus Institute. It worked in a 4E game I never played in when not integrated. It just being present works. Like Aspects, it's explicit flags everyone understands and can frame things around.

In short, playing hard and fast works and the explicit premium is exactly that, a gaming premium that should be valued like gold. The Prometheus Institute was the Buffy game mark II but with everything explicit and on the table. There is a minor concern some of this may not go as well divorced from the system used in the Prometheus Institute, but it's a minor one.

I took different things away from the 4E Campaign. It could probably be said the Prometheus Institute influences slant to execution around scenes, situation and drama (and the associated tools) while the 4E Campaign influences are more around strategic-like approach and the big picture. Not entirely true, but broadly right.

The big thing from the 4E Campaign is clarity and consistency of vision. I've always believed this, it's a way of making things explicit again. We've even had one gaming campaign struggle because of a lack of clarity of vision. Worryingly a Space Opera one. The 4E Campaign had excellent clarity of vision and this was maintained throughout. It always felt consistent. It always felt right. Do this well allows for collaboration at the table that adds to the whole rather than grinding it down and fracturing it into weaker parts or drowning in disparate influences. Done well, it provides consistency without smothering control. We didn't get that right all the time in the 4E Campaign, but we did 90% of the time.

This clarity doesn't take much, it can be as simple as 'Heroes if it was a HBO show with a bigger budget'.

It influences everything, from character creation to the types of narratives that are created at the table, the props, sets and assets, the way the game is delivered even when things go in a totally random direction (which is often). It provides principles for guiding direction, without laying down a brick road.

The 4E Campaign also exemplified that delivery and performance are important. This is something I tend to agree with, so it was great seeing it done so well. I don't mean the players are rendered to an audience, nowhere near that, but some sense of flare, grand description and delivering adds to the experience. We'll see how that goes....not essential, but I tend to like it.

All this is influencing how I prepare for games. Well, not so much yet, as it's not started, but it will. This is a good thing, as it's not something I've found the right path through since stopping game circa 1996. The presence of explicit flags. The focus on clarity of vision. Even the MBA and the consultancy has fed into this due to needing to learn new things fast, occasionally having to talk about things after encountering them only moments ago, etc. As well as preparation of a few key materials enhancing outcomes. My tolerance of risk and unknowns as risen meteorically. Not sure what shape preparation for sessions is going to take, but it's certainly going to be more crucible, situation and potentially even diagrammatic in nature.

It's going to be an interesting ride. I have no idea where it's going to go exactly, who its main protagonists will be and what their stories are, but I'm looking forward to it.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 05/06/2012 Bookmark and Share
Promethean Institute S5: Acceptable In The 80's

We tried something new in the Promethean Institute this session: a flashback session. It was always planned to do one, as we'd created the relationship map for the previous generation of characters during character creation. It's probably safe to say it went better than we could have expected.

The session was constructed like a con game with each of us playing our character from the previous generation. In my case it was Joshua's father, Benjamin Thorne. We had pre-generated characters (and Benjamin isn't as big a Genius as Joshua which I took great pleasure idea why) with three broad aims and than three hours of discovery to see what happens. This works well with a group who takes the overall consensus and guiding principles and works towards an ending, whatever that may be.

The key reason it was brilliant is it used the 'Jabba Effect' to the maximum. The 'Jabba Effect' is simple: what you don't show is subject to change later. No reality has been established. In Star Wars, the fact they cut the scene of Jabba being a fat guy in a fur coat meant he could be an alien slug a couple of films later. Thankfully, one of the best things that happened in the original trilogy. Anything that hasn't been observed as fact is subject to being established. A few characters even had death immunity, because they had been observed in the future in a clear and concrete way. As an example, two of use had death immune characters and two didn't. It was also the case that Joshua's mother wasn't death immune but Benjamin was. Proved to be quite important.

This created some great stuff as Joshua was in the flashback, albeit aged five. It showed how bad his mother and father's relationship had got and he was also being resented by his father for potentially surpassing his genius. He even created the antidote to the Promethean Deactivation formula! He was also at ground zero of the Penville event. The explosion of the first Promethean, Tempest, that destroyed the secret lab and nearby small town. He escaped by using his teleport power for the first time, after being given the Promethean formula by his mother, with the hope he would be better man than his father and fulfill her shattered dreams. Is that awesome or what?

It's a process of narrative discovery that is fantastic. It has fed the contemporary story in excellent ways. It has ramped up the complexity of Jessie through explaining her complex web of connections that gives weight to her decisions regarding things like her father and her support of specific organisations. Characters who are the epitome of the 'Jabba Effect', such as the mysterious power behind Bio Dynamics ('The Man in the Government') turned out, due to this flashback, to be a super-soldier created by Joshua's father. Jessie, the love of Joshua's life, was also at the event, though I don't think they became aware of each other. Brilliant.

I also enjoyed playing Benjamin Thorne, who I was pitching as Walter Bishop in his more arrogant, egotistical and ego-driven interpretation. Ironically, exactly like he is in the eighties-ish flashbacks in Fringe (or the future when they put parts of his brain back together....don't ask). It was fun. It was also fun seeing the relationship between Tempest and Benjamin unravel.

The biggest 'Jabba Effect' event for me? Joshua's mother died at the Penville incident. I never knew that, as far as I was concerned she was alive, and just hadn't taken part yet. In other groups, this sort of 'establishing of events' that are different to the 'facts in the players head' would cause a riot. It's great our group works differently and I love it.

I liked the feel of the period in the game. We didn't apply exhaustive research of the period, but just sprinkled enough colour and film references to make it work. It did for me anyway, whether it was Paula Abdul being put on the jukebox in the diner, Tempests eighties denim and bright coloured clothes or the slight homoerotic entrance of the super soldier from his stasis chamber (lots of big tubes , dry ice and nakedness, no doubt chest and but shots). It was pretty cool. Even down to the massive mobile phone and the contrast between 'just into the future technology' of the current game and the retro feel of the flashback.

I still don't completely connect with the 'bucket system' approach Smallville uses. You basically build up a bucket of dice from your various traits and use that to achieve stuff. The issue remains building up the bucket. I still think it is a disconnect over the very specific meanings of all the traits. Genius and Clever are two different abilities, for instance. I'll also admit to falling into the trap of reacting to specific actions when in truth I'm trying to define the conflict from my perspective. What you can bring in without a plot point and what you can't still feels...odd.

I'm not convinced about the use of low traits either, as they're never used. They don't directly get you into trouble and neither do thy directly get you a reward. I suspect there is some sort of skill and actual play intent that is supposed to be used here to drag the low traits into play. Such as the GM or players actively challenging the character's weaker traits.

An excellent session that has created new context and depth in the proceeding sessions of the contemporary game. This is exactly what a great flashback should do. Brilliant.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 01/05/2012 Bookmark and Share
A Slice of Gaming Ideas
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

Why have boring lists when you can create diagrams that make you think of a green house and tomatoes? That's how my brain seems to work at the moment anyway. This morning I decided to pull together all the threads and vague shards of gaming ideas, which resulted in the diagram below. Of course, the diagram just hides a list, but what would be the fun in that?

A caveat before we get started. These things are always highly speculative. They are not written up in any order, with the exception of Fading Suns being first. Any ideas represented beyond this point are subject to the 'whims of time' which sees ideas fade, other members of the group run similar things (which does mean I get to play them) and a host of other things I can't predict. So, onward.

Fading Suns is the idea the that currently gets first place. If these were TV shows the others would be speculative while Fading Suns would be in pre-production. The idea is simple: grand space opera. Like all good grand space opera it tends to be shaped by other genres: such as westerns (Firefly, Star Wars), classic pulp (Star Wars prequels, Flash Gordon, etc). In this case it's space opera mixed up with a dark fantasy view of medieval dramas. The characters may be dashing around in starships and carrying laser guns but the suns are fading and their dimming brings with it the encroachment of the Darkness Beyond the Stars. Action, adventure, the human condition, religion, faith and dynastic power in the dark void of space. What exactly is it going to be about? No idea, as it depends on character creation, but I'm quite excited about it. Token nominated system: Starblazer Adventures, though I need to give it a first pass with whatever Fate-Fu I have.

If there is a superhero game left on the list, this is it. The 'whims of time' saw the contemporary superhero game get wiped out by the awesome that is the Promethean Institute. It has influences from Battlechasers and the Exalted role-playing game. It can be neatly summarised as ‘the Avengers in a fantasy milieu’. The central protagonists are essentially superheroes in fantasy clothing with egos to match, striding across the landscape dealing with world shattering events. Their very presence and decision can alter the flow of history. The approach is one of a superhero comic, not a traditional fantasy adventure model. Token nominated system: Marvel Heroic Role-Playing. It probably relies on that system maturing to playability in my mind due to it, hopefully, managing power disparity and completely side-stepping the 'superhero character creation' barrier to entry.

The risk with this one is it has been done before, to some degree, as a Cottage Con game and in the Epic Tier of the 4E Game, but in my mind it's different enough from these games by more readily accepting the superhero aesthetic.

I can pin down where Winter's Tale came from. It was after watching The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe film. It then kicked in again when watching Stardust. Wicked also sneaks in as well. Now, of course, I'm getting the same kick out of the 'flashbacks' in Once Upon a Time. There is something great about the fairy tale set-up. It's fantasy but more romantic, colourful and scary at the same time. I'm not really sure what format this will take. I have no idea if it will have children coming over from the normal world. I'm pretty sure I want the characters to be quite varied. A talking wolf? A toy soldier? Why not. I do know the winter motif is important, again from the aforementioned Narnia film, and I can't get the idea of talking wolves out of my head as an enemy along with the phrase....the winter wolf is coming. Token nominated system: not sure, it would probably need to be something quite flexible, open and narrative. Probably something I've yet to find.

Deadlands is a 'Steam Punk' Western in sensibility. It'll be a mix of stuff such as Jules Verne, the Deadlands role-playing game and elements of the John Shannow novels by David Gemmell. The setting will be in the future after some catastrophic event sends humanity back to some semi-fantasized era akin to the 1860’s but with the ‘Steam Punk’ element. It’s likely the ‘Steam Punk’ will be less steam, more some new source of power born out of the disaster, but the imagery and the like would remain the same. The Deadlands name coming from the fact the post-apocalyptic society believes they are living in the end of days and represent the souls left behind. I’ve been looking at a lot of ‘Steam Punk era’ clothing that you can actually buy and it’s very evocative. A western-style game with lots of scope for dark forces, conspiracies, mad technology, stylish clothing and, no doubt, goggles. Token nominated system: Strands of Fate, it's generic, but FATE awesome, fits perfectly.

AEGIS. I've left this on to last purely because it has history....a long history. A version of this idea was the first game I tried after not gaming for about four years. It goes back that far. It also counts as one of my worst gaming experiences (which probably says more about my previous gaming experience at this point). I assumed the approach too gaming that had developed with my last group(s) would be compatible with anyone.....not a safe assumption. Still, it was one element in a sequence of decisions that kick-started the origin of the current gaming group.

Anyway, it still tasks me.

Basically, what's survived the decade of procrastination is the concept of a contemporary, wide-screen series in the style of JJ Abrams, Jerry Buckheimer and Michael Bay. The exact crucible used to be cinematic spies, at one point it merged with contemporary super heroes, now I just know the headline concept tasks me but the exact crucible is to be decided. At the moment I'm thinking some sort of crucible that becomes a melting pot for any 'pulp-ish', 'modern world as a fantastic panorama', Hollywood, JJ Abrams brainchild idea I can throw into the mix. I could see this being about cinematic action heroes or something branching into super powers (in a similar way to Hell Boy or Atomic Robo), but in that case I'd want the cinematic action heroes and those with powers to work together. Token nominated system: would depend on the nature of the protagonists, could be D8 and D10 Marvel Heroic Role-Playing characters or Strands of Fate cinematic heroes. Not really sure.

That's it. As I said at the beginning. Highly speculative. Whims of time rule is in place and it's very doubtful the shape will remain the same over time, albeit some concepts have stuck with me for a good long while. There is also other ideas on the edge of my consciousness (such as something involving werewolves) that may push some presented here out. These things are only ever a time slice of something that's always in motion.

The other gaming 'thing' floating around is how to overcome the attention deficit. That is, how to overcome the vacuum of gaming discussion that used to be on of the primary forms of sustenance that kept games going in previous gaming group. It doesn't happen now, for various reasons, creating periods of nothing, punctuated by sessions. It's can be quite a lonely experience.

Permalink | Comments(4) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 22/04/2012 Bookmark and Share
Promethean Institute S4: My Head Hurts

I got home after the game on Sunday and I was knackered and had a headache. The fourth session of the Promethean Institute didn't fully cause this, as I was a bit tired before it started, which might have contributed to me being a bit irritable, but it certainly contributed.

As usual, the breakdown of the actual play can be found on the GM's blog, specifically here.

The headache is induced by the intensity of events and constantly having to think on one's feet – including spontaneous speeches to 'the nation' in direct competition to nefarious plots and what was essentially a presidential address. Everything is constantly in motion and the shape of things changes down to the importance of what order scenes happen in. Still, this is good stuff, you certainly don't want a game you play on auto-pilot (which isn't normally a feature of our games I must admit).

The geopolitics went a bit mad in this episode as we played out the fall out from the renegades nuking Jerusalem. We had to hunt down the renegade base. Free the captured Professor Thorne (Joshua's father). Stop the renegades from getting access to the Promethean kill switch. Deal with the US releasing their mind controlling, time stopping, mastermind super soldiers. Discover there is an 'activating' agent as well and the only source of this agent is Jessie's blood!

I'll admit, it was good as it happened, it was even better on reflection.

I like how Jessie has been brought more into the centre of events, other than through being a strong relationship on my sheet. She'd had a secret which was informing her decisions and causing conflict with Joshua (due her sticking to certain decisions because of it) and I was hoping this wasn't that she had super powers. As I rather like the fact she's normal and more a Mary Jane or Gwen Stacey rather than a Jean Grey. Basically her blood allows the production of an agent that can activate the 'shut down' Prometheans. She's a walking catalyst for one of the most sort after 'agents' in the gaming world. This makes her critical to events moving forward but not super powered. It's a bit Impossible Mission-esque. Clever. Like it. It creates an interesting dynamic they share: they've both been experimenting on for different results, possibly both by Joshua's father. It's also going to be interesting to see what choices brought that about in the historic episode, assuming it covers that area.

The plot points didn't seem to flow as well this session as they did in session three and in a similar vein the Trouble Pool remained anaemic. It would seem this element of the game needs attending to constantly through actual play by all the players, rather than 'just playing' and hoping it sorts itself out. There is also a few wrinkles...such as the ability of the players to get key conflicts in early when the Trouble Pool is low. The player still has a plot point or two to use but the GM only has a Trouble Pool of 2D6.

I have a number of observations specific to Joshua, now we've reached the end of act one. I've been finding it hard to bring a lot of dice into the roll and the size of your dice pool is everything, as it's from the rolled pool that you can bring extra dice in for a larger total. This tends to be caused by having difficulty bringing assets into the conflict (Values and Relationships come more naturally). The result is a perennial total of 10 – 20. The second issue is around my character being least pre-disposed to get involved in the superhero fights.

When in doubt, put it to your fellow players!

After a brief discussion it seems I was probably interpreting the rules too strictly, especially around what an SFX does and what you can get away with through just general use (the asset adding dice to the pool). I still think, in some of the examples given, I'd be breaking the rules (some of the examples for Super Senses stretched what I think the rules allow in a highly elastic manner without tweaking my SFX). Either way, I figure as long as the social contract at the table is fine, I'm fine also.

The outcome of the discussions means things should work like this. Joshua, in his bid to 'create a better tomorrow' (Glory) and defend the Institute (relationship with the Institute), engages in a scene worthy of the new Doctor Who or Sherlock TV shows in which the camera shows, in 30 seconds, what happens in a split second through powers, technology and pure genius. His super sight takes in a deluge of information regarding slight muscle tension, eye movements and heat distribution through his assailants’ body’s (Super Senses), his phenomenal brain processes this information to compute the maths of bullet speeds, reactions speeds, muscle mass, nature of enemy attacks angles (Genius), as well as AVRIL overlaying a combat schematic and the history of the assailant's tactics (AVRIL Resource) and then teleport to dodge and attack (Teleport). Queue a roll with a width of six dice, plot points allowing.

Basically, I have options.

I also need to remember the negative sides of my Distinctions. I only have one, but it has the benefit of being something that should occur as a natural occurrence of playing the character if I don't forget it exists. Basically, he is so clever he can get frustrated with people who don't understand him. Their brains operate at a slower speed and a less enlightened level, obviously. This gives me a way to keep the currency flowing a bit without spamming it ridiculously (though if the scenes come up delivered to me that are suitable then the anti-spamming rule drops!).

All this is good. It's also allowed me to come up with some great ideas on how to spend my growth pool, the key thing being some excellent Distinctions. Really excited about getting some of those, both in terms of their fit, plot point generating potential and simulating the awesome of teleport combat (it is such a perfect match I was quite surprised).

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 22/03/2012 Bookmark and Share
Promethean Institute S3: Hunting Terrorists...Lol

So, last weekend we played the third session of the Promethean Institute. It was a slow session for me, relative to the first two, but it did end with a nuclear bomb destroying Jerusalem! As usual, this won't be an actual play, if you want to read that visit the GM's blog, specifically here.

This week we swapped intense relationships for some Ultimates-style superhero clashes. I love this stuff, mega-political thriller orientated scenery trashing conflicts, and it speaks to the quality of the game that I'm playing the character who is least likely to get directly involved in that element of the game and I don't care in the slightest. Despite being slightly removed from the key events this week, it was still a really great episode. The super heroic action was great to witness. We got pasted, with the appropriate amount of collateral damage, including a character who had a building collapsed on him.

I seem to have become the target for some concentrated fire from the other players. It’s a bit like one of those real-time strategy games where the most efficiency strategy seems to take gang up and take one of the players out. Basically, protagonists sleeping with my childhood sweet heart, double-crossing me and using mind control suggestions on me. I deal with it by taking it as a complement. Due to Joshua being at the centre of events, as in he his in charge of one of the power blocks trying to forge the shape of the 'Promethean future', he tends to get targeted. This certainly happened, with both NPC features trying to coerce other player protagonists against him, and other player protagonists working actively against him. It's getting...very complex. The problem is I'm not as good at that political side of the game so it's going to be 'challenging'.

A number of these things are due Joshua's imperfections so it's not just players having a go at each other for no reason. It feels logical and an extension of events. This is one of the great aspects of the game and the makes player pvp work so well it's not even right to call it that. It's not. It's actually just role-playing working...well. It's what narrative is about. It's great drama. The whole thing writes itself. Character relationships actually change from scene to really do not know, in any shape at all, what the state of play is going to be at the end when you start the session and your view on where you want relationships to go changes constantly.

It's also ensuring the decisions and actions have consequences - they're actually difficult to make in some instances. Which is brilliant. You feel like a writer agonising, not painfully, but interestingly, over the direction of the narrative and the key relationships. You don't want decisions to be so easy they don't feel like they mean something. The events around Jessie meant that it felt like it meant something re-forging that relationship and changing Joshua's philandering ways. In turn, it will mean something when something happens to it in the future. There relationship will undoubtedly become tied up in world events. The complexity over Bio Dynamics is being the nexus of a power play that leaves you truly in a quandary for what to do about for the best. This element, a combination of the people at the table and the rules, means you want to deliver on the scenes. To get the money shot. To not avoid the harder ones. The scene that saw Joshua and Jessie take their relationship in a new direction would have been the exact type of scene that wouldn't have been fully wrestled with in some previous games. It was great and actually tackled the relationship directly. It felt like something from a TV show.

I like the tag scenes as well. They're basically a scene each player gets at the end to reflect and round off the events that have happened to them and the growth or relationships they've challenged. It’s a bit like a personal epilogue. They also provide a way to set the scene for how things might move forward, so they're not entirely 'historic'. Interestingly, most of these scenes have been descriptions of things happening, the sort of thing you'd see played to music of some sort as the credits approach. We've not gone for a tag scene with role-playing in it yet...I think you can though. So we shall see. The scenes are probably influenced by the fact they often come when we are pressed for time.

The bomb on Jerusalem is a serious event. It takes the geo-politics of the campaign to a whole new level. I don't know if the location was chosen purely just because one of the players has a connection to Israel on his character sheet or if it was because of its narrative power, either way it's powerful stuff. This is the leader of the rogue Promethians, Tempest, who essentially follows something akin to the 'Magneto Manifesto', she believes Promethian's are the new Gods, not restricted by current laws , and she has destroyed the birth place of the son of God in Christian religion. The world is going to explode and this is awesome. It felt like a prelude to something in the first two sessions, but now the opening move has been made and it couldn't have been bigger. It's what makes it a great game overall; it's just played to the max and then some.

Each session results in us playing the system better. It would seem many people are put off Cortex+ because it appears complex and it has its own language. Both these things are true. Yet, it is complex in a good way. It appears complex but it needs to be played and actively used. This is a good thing. It's like fine wine. You want the system to be rich and drive the game. The fade into the background and influence nothing idea is a waste of time. Now we can construct our dice pools with speed, decide on the width of the rolls (the number of dice) and how and when to use plot points to bring more of those dice into the roll. The longer discussion is over the nature of the conflict. We are also using the plot points better with them now flowing more freely based on choices the GM and players make now we have the rules on GM plot point use correct.

I still have a few issues with the system around complications and 'stress relief'. When it comes to complications it’s the open ended nature of them. There is very little structure around them. I prefer the Marvel Heroic Role Playing flavour of Cortex+ in this regard, which has a more structured view of what you can do when a 1 is rolled. When it comes to 'stress relief', the comedy name aside, which doesn't help, I think the problem is it always feels forced and unnatural. Ironically, these have become the scenes we sort of mumble through or do completely in third person to get to rolling the dice.

I'm in danger of just gushing every session as the game just includes everything I like packaged into one game. It’s like someone went through my personal checklist. The scenes feel like a slick TV show. It exudes HBO.

Permalink | Comments(4) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 07/03/2012 Bookmark and Share
The Superhero System Dilemma: Solved?
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

The first role-playing campaign I ran of any significant length was a superhero campaign. I didn't know it at the time, as I didn't read a vast amount of comics, but it was probably quite silver age in feel. Alien invasions. Transportation to other time lines and worlds. Superhero bases under the sea. Epic melodrama. It all used the Golden Heroes system, which is now probably uber-clunky. It involved division every time someone caused damage!

I continue to love the idea of superhero games. The reason is quite simple: it's quintessentially an everything louder than everything else sort of model. Big sets. Big Ideas. Big Characters. Scenery trashing fights. It's like a lot of the ideas I like in fiction...maxed out. I've not run one since though, largely because there continues to be a disassociation with the systems available to run such a game. They are either too complicated (Champions / Hero), have high barrier to entry character generation (Mutants and Masterminds), too simple (numerous to mention), focused in a different area (Smallville) or old and clunky. Nothing hit the sweet spot.

The question is: does the new Marvel Heroic Role-Playing game fill the esoteric niche? Hard to say at the moment as it's an effectively simple game that takes a long time to digest. But it might. It has a number of key wins.

The first is the character generation. It gets round the high investment barrier to entry system of most superhero games by not effectively presenting a system as such. No rolls. No balancing points system. Just pick what you want within broad guidelines. At first this sounds alien and a deal breaker. Chaos. Cats and dogs living together, etc. Then you start to realise it just might be a stroke of absolute genius and this links in with how the powers and the game works. If one player wants to create Black Widow and the other Thor why shouldn't they be able to without jumping through horrendous hoops? Not only that, if the system is doing it's job right the two characters should be able to enjoy a shared narrative without Black Widow being smudged by villains capable of slugging it out with Thor or being squeezed out as a protagonist by the rules. If that can happen all the need for a system to purchase powers goes away. Just let the player design what he wants.

Key to this is the concept of characters being 'balanced in play' not 'balanced in character creation'. Now, how well this works is yet to be seen, but it's a mixture of the higher ability to generate plot points which gives higher opportunity for stunt and asset generation. It should also simulate the comics with such a fight not being entirely about pure force of blows.

Is there some room for acrimony amongst even the best and most mature of players? Of course, should that player have one more Speciality? How many powers in a power set are pushing the limit? The trouble is I'm not sure complicated systems resolve these issues, they just obfuscate them and give the appearance of being being fare and you always have some people capable of investing the effort to max out every point and some who can't be bothered. Adults should be able to handle it.

Second, I'm liking how the powers work. Okay, some are a bit vague, but this exists to different degrees in every superhero system. The realisation of true genius in the game is the realisation that superheroes don't exist on a wide spectrum of power scalability with lots of points on the scale. Yes, we may start at human and move to Godlike but the points in between aren't infinite. The vast majority of heroes, say for Super strength are buff (assumed in this game), advanced human (Captain America), Super strong (Spider-man) or God like (Thor, Hulk, The Thing). Anything else is largely dramatic license and the domain of fan debates. No getting into the fact one character can lift five tons more than another because it doesn't matter. Who care whether Spider-Man or Iron Man is stronger? They are both Super Strong while not being God like. All powers break down like this into 3 or 4 points on a scale. The amazing thing is, I think it works brilliantly. This again, removed the need for many of the other 'systems' that other superhero games accumulate around powers while not being ridiculously non-existence. It's a thing of beauty.

Third, a core of it plays a lot like Fate but with dice values attached. Distinctions are Aspects with a die value. A Complication (via an effect die) is essentially the same as placing an Aspect (via a manoeuvre) on something it just has a die value attached. An Asset (via an effect die) works similarly way, establishing something akin to an Aspect on a scene or situation. It works in the same way but instead of the Aspect analogue being called on to get a +2 or a re-roll it provides the die value (D8, D10, etc) that can be added to the dice pool. They add dice. It's quite clever. This is potentially even more clever factored into the dynamic initiative order to allow heroes to create assets or complications for later heroes to include in their die pools.

It's another game that has to be played to fully appreciate I think. There is also other elements that aren't as solid in my mind and may still put me off the game (experience, milestones, etc). Still need to figure out the Doom Pool. Still slightly concerned why some of the mechanics around the Doom Pool seem essential to play (the cost of 2D12 from the pool to end a scene, for instance). It's looking good so far.

In many ways it's a Fate-like powered superhero system with the core dice mechanic working better (for superheroes) than Fate dice while utilising a lot of Fate concepts in the mix. It also has an interesting amount of crunch that feels right and focused in the right areas.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 02/03/2012 Bookmark and Share
Promethean Institute Session Two

We played the second session of the Promethian Institute a week ago, but time and the need to digest has held me up talking about it. The short answer is it was brilliant and the actual play is in the usual place on the GM's blog. The longer discussion follows.

The session took an interesting turn because the GM didn't choose to take control of the opening narrative by defining everyone's opening scene. The effect of this was the players' rushing in to fill the vacuum. This resulted in things getting complex, which is hard to describe without getting too much into an actual play. It's suffice to say it resulted in me testing my protagonists relationship with Jesse 'who is my childhood sweat heart', Seth 'the institute poster child' and my Love value 'Sucker for a Pretty Face'. The final one precipitated the situation in session one. Basically, it was awesome and will have lasting consequences on two characters that at character creation looked destined to be a solid, reliable connections and a duo.

The scene was also interesting from the perspective of how the game enables narrative power. For example, Seth created a scene with Jessie with the express purpose of using her weak emotional state to sleep with her. The weakened emotional state due to being betrayed by Joshua and 'manipulated' into airing her grievances (by another character) on a talk show. Joshua's teleport power gives me the option to insert myself into a scene at any time with the expenditure of a plot point. In short, I could have interrupted the flow, a different journey of events would have occurred. Who knows what might have been the result if I had? I chose to let it run its course. It's interesting, because it means I'm as responsible for the current narrative landscape as the player of Seth.

One of the key reasons the game is awesome, and I'm always willing to accept some perceptions may be unique to me, as is I think it has upped our gaming a bit. In a lot of ways the game feels like the Buffy game from many years ago, as that was also a game about relationships between characters, albeit not as mechanically supported. I'm certainly playing it the same way, just better. It works better because of the mechanical support, because we are more mature and comfortable with each other in the game and this has one big effect: follow through. In Buffy we'd create great relationships but never fully follow through on some of the killer scenes, in the Prometheus Institute we are and will. That's going to be awesome stuff.

If there is any negative to the current model of play it is that things could be burning too brightly...if that's possible? I also can't believe I'm the one saying a game based on changing relationship dynamics is changing them too fast considering I've wanted games to work on this model for years. The issue is getting enough time to explore the 'as is' before it moves to something else. Have we explored the relationship between Joshua and Seth before they've fallen out? No. Joshua had one session of 'philandering in the background', albeit it very cool, before I'm feeling the pressure (not bad pressure mind) to moderate certain character traits with respect to changing the Jessie relationship. You get the idea. If a relationship changes too fast there is little value in any particular state the relationship was ever in. It's sort of an issue born out of a hyper-positive.

This could probably be mitigated by there being more air and less vacuum in the sessions, ensuring the protagonists forge their relationships around grand events rather than filling the vacuum with them.

Smallville uses the Cortex+ system which, as I said last time, is hard to decode from reading it. This is because of the organisation of the book, but as I'm coming to appreciate it may be because it's a system that actually has to be played rather than just read. A few discussions on the new licensed Marvel RPG are showing how actual play is the key, though comparisons are dangerous as the flavours of of Cortex+ are different and the Marvel RPG seems to be close to Fate but tied into the Cortex+ dice mechanic (while Smallville isn't as close to Fate). Anyway, those discussions show how playing is the key no so much reading. The session felt like it was running more on solid foundations.

Great game. Great session. I still need to decide on the new shape of two relationships, a value and what to spend my experience pool on. Drama. Then onto pushing the relationships that don't involve Jessie (NPC) and Seth (Player).

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 26/02/2012 Bookmark and Share
Promethean Institute Session One

The first session of the Promethian Institute took place on Sunday. Really enjoyed it. Some brilliant scenes. I probably have to admit I didn't fully understand everything that was going on both in the game and in terms of the system. As is the usual practice, I'm not going to give a detailed actual play as that's always done somewhere else, in this case it can be found on the GM's blog.

It was a brilliant first session. I really like the tone of the game, which feels like Heroes if the series was done by HBO, with a substantially larger budget, and written from the perspective of a global power-play over the future destiny of powered individuals (a bit Ultimate X-Men in that regard). It had great relationships, some brilliant scenes and some budget blowing action.

I think some characters came across clearer and louder than others initially, but that's probably to be expected. It seemed to be a divide between the more subterfuge and publicity focused characters. It seemed easier to generate 'defining scenes' for the more celebrity orientated characters. It's easy when being various degrees of outrageous is the order of the day. The subterfuge orientated characters take a bit longer to come out. Of course, this may be a perception unique to me.

I'm playing a character that pushes the envelope a bit for me. It's not so much that I usually play a certain type, it's more that I don't normally play a character that outrageous. Hard to explain. In the game, I'm playing Joshua Thorne, the 'rock star' scientist, eminent genius and leader of the Prometheus Institute (as of this session). Essentially, part Professor X (as leader of the Institute), Read Richards (genius), Johny Storm (in that he's 28) and Tony Stark (hubris, arrogance, womaniser, etc). Brilliant, literally capable of changing the world scientifically, politically and to a lesser extent financially, but there is a lot of hubris, arrogance and womanising thrown in. It's great to play because the one thing you shouldn't do is think too much about what you shouldn't say and do.

This why I've never played a character of this type before as I'd think about it too much. I didn't think about it too much in this session. A reporter hounds you over sleeping with a minor porn star (due to an opening scene I put in albeit the porn star element was new), admit it and make a play for the journalist. Want to give the UN speech rather than your father, engineer him not turning up and then announce your taking over the institute and reverse the tone of the intended speech completely. That was a bit of a Tony Stark at the end of the first Iron Man film moment and it worked brilliantly. Loved it. So yeah, I'm enjoying it. I'm sure it will eventually have to be moderated due to the fall out, but that's fine as well.

As for not understanding what was going on? That comes down to system and the relationships.

I am sure the Smallville system is deceptively simple, it just seems to be doing everything it can to obfuscate that fact. I always used to shake my head incredulously when people used to complain that they found FATE complicated, as it always seemed quite logical and simple to me. A number of these people focused on the fact that it was the new terms with specific meanings that was the problem. After playing Smallville I may finally be experiencing their problem. It's a system that does specific things, in specific ways, using specific terms (some of them obvious, others obscure and a few that should have not have got past the 'check for comedy edit') and that makes it unnecessarily confusing. The utilising of every type of die known to man also doesn't help. As I say, I'm sure it is quite simple, it just seems to want to make you work hard for it. I usually get systems quite quickly (though remembering lots of specific rules is another matter), so Smallville has managed to achieve something unique in my personal experience.

Have to admit,for the first time ever in a game we've played, I don't fully understand what's going on with 50% of the table. I'm not sure what they are up to and why. I don't fully know why some outcomes came out the way they did at the table. This isn't so much a problem other than it makes scene creation difficult as I'm not sure what the premise, farming or foundation is. I realise a part of this is me getting on board with all the relationships in the map. There is a lot of them and it takes time. It's also only the first session. At the same time it was interesting to see the table not so much divided from my point of view, but certainly there was two levels of clarity.

The conflict and progression system is also a bit odd at the moment, though I'm sure a lot of this is practice. It's a problem we often have in conflict resolution systems: making the conflict something the player really wants to win. This isn't a matter of the group not liking conflict resolution or the conflicts not being consequential enough. In my case it's that what I find interesting is the fact the story goes in interesting directions I didn't expect and it would seem a lot of the time I either don't care because the conflict isn't that interesting (rare, and in this case we have done it wrong) or it is high stakes and consequential but both outcomes are interesting. Also consider this: since you define your winning condition, it's often losing that is the unexpected direction? The unique wrinkle with Smallville is your character progresses only if you take stress. You take stress by not giving in on a conflict. This can create the perverse situation of continuing a conflict for a few rounds to take stress when in truth you are fine with winning or losing. It feels like gaming the system if you don't mind losing. I want to lose, but just not yet.

That's about it. Excellent first session. It was great because it went in directions I wasn't expecting. The early fall out of the opening scene I put in wasn't expected. The relationship with Jessy has already gone in an unexpected direction (still working out how to deal with that) and the dramatic UN speech certainly wasn't expected at all. That's good. It's what makes it different to reading a book or watching a film. It's also great to be in the 'modern world' again, the most interesting change around this return being the social media influence on the game. Reminds me of the post-X Files influence of mobile phones back in the day.

I'm also interested in feeling our way through the system to execute it better.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 13/02/2012 Bookmark and Share
The 'One Ring' of D&D Editions

So, let me get this straight. They are designing D&D 5E to be the 'one ring' of D&D editions? No doubt in an attempt to stop the fragmented market totally killing them. Which it undoubtedly is and would continue to do so with every release. I can see the reason for the goal, but I think it's a lofty one.

An edition with an OD&D-like base that then, in a modular fashion, could grow into something that is more 2E and 3E like I could sort of see. None of them would be exactly like any of those editions but I could see the style intent and general widgets being similar. I'm not sure you could extend such a module approach to 4E. It seems that would just need so much new stuff it may as well be a new game...again. Also, it's interesting they put what version of these modular rules the character uses as a player choice. Very strange. Are they really suggesting someone could be interfacing with the game in OD&D mode while someone else has opted for 2E mode?

It's going to be a masterpiece or a complete disaster. Nothing in between. They vitriol during the games development may also sour the whole idea before it hits the shelves. Watershed moment me thinks.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 06/02/2012 Bookmark and Share
Session #0: Promethean Institute

So, I'm gaming gain, and yesterday we had session zero of the new campaign: The Prometheus Institute. We're using the Smallville role-playing system which focuses on the relationships being the core of the game, just like a TV show. Basically, as part of cold war activities and experiments, the Prometheans were created for espionage purposes. That was closed down only for the next generation to form the Prometheus Institute for the second generation. The HBO like series is the story of the key characters involved with the institute, their relationships and the issues surrounding the Promethians and wider society, celebrity, politics, etc.

What can I say about the Smallville character creation process? It's brilliant, frustrating and, while not complex, they certainly make it more complicated than it probably needs to be. It's like they've purposefully designed it to make it hard to predict. It's not easy to take a design approach to it with outcomes in mind. You can walk through the process entirely if you have the time, but even this isn't entirely possible as some of the elements you'd assign 'raises' to might only be present due to another player's actions.

This means it's a journey you have to strap yourself in for and accept what comes along.

The best you can do is have a broad destination in mind. It is an exercise in letting go on numerous levels, infinitely more so than a game like FATE, which also has collaborative character generation. The broad concept you wanted will no doubt win out, but lots of other stuff will be things you never predicted or elements you had in mind but they'll have morphed and changed. In my case, both elements of my main protagonist changed (though the broad concept survived) and key characters, such as his childhood sweet heart, totally changed in background, purpose and in game relationship due to the collaborative nature of the process. Invariably the outcome is better, as it was in this case.

The brilliance of the process is undoubtedly the relationship map that is produced. Naturally I'd think this due to being a fan of relationship maps to design the narrative crucible since it was advocated as a central mechanism for the Sorcerer role-playing game. It's worth the time invested. I've only done it twice in Smallville and each time it has produced a relationship map that was suffused with drama, intense relationships (with people and things) and narrative potential. Each time I've wanted to play the game afterwards. At least this time we'll get to do it. You could de-construct the process and use it for other games. For instance, you could use the process to build the map but not assign any values to it as the values are implicit to Smallville. This would give you a relationship map to represent the narrative space just without the integration into the system. It would still make explicit that remain implicit at the table. In fact, building it before you start adding 'stats' to it may well be a better method for Smallville.

The best part, which really adding something new and rich to the game, was the creation of a relationship map for the previous generation of characters (the protagonists' parents). This has created something akin to Heroes, in which the previous actions and future desires of the previous generation influences the lives of the current. We are going to have at least one flashback session to the 80's. It's also brilliant how the attitudes of one generation 'cold war spies' contrasts with that of the current 'public facing institute'. This element, being it's most unique one, could be the part of the game that creates something very powerful.

It's still going to be an interesting journey as the system is so different. We've played similar things before, both Primetime Adventures and Duty & Honour have similar, broad elements in terms of their resolution mechanisms but we only played them for a session or two and neither has the razor focus on relationships. Playing such a system for our typical season length of circa 8 – 12 sessions is going to be something new and interesting. Considering the systems focus on Smallville as a show, it's also going to be interesting to see how it transfers to the HBO-style.

It's also probably wiped one campaign of my 'to run' list as Hollywood scale, neo-Silver Age, contemporary thriller superheroes might be way too similar to this. We shall see.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 15/01/2012 Bookmark and Share
A Year Without Gaming

For a reason I've now forgotten I had reason to encounter the last blog post about the 4E Campaign. This is the last time I was actively participating in role-playing games. This is now over a year ago. Time flies. I have to admit, it doesn't feel that long. Needless to say it got me pondering.

The absence from gaming has been very...complete. The last time I had a gaming famine was 1996 to 2000 and it lasted around five years. Ironically, this was one of my most active periods in the gaming hobby, it just didn't involve actually playing. I was active on 2-3 key forums. I was actively discussing issues and ideas in the embryonic 'indie movement'. I took my previous gaming experience, put it through the wider experience of discussing it with my contemporaries, mentally applying some new theories and thus forged a great understanding of what I wanted from games and how they worked. It was very useful. I was also buying a significant amount of games, albeit in the 'ever so nineties' way of buying them to read. This time none of that is happening. I've stopped playing. I've stopped buying. I don't visit any internet sites related to gaming. I very rarely visit gaming stores.

As the time has passed it's become remarkably...easy.

There are numerous reasons for this, which originated with money and now are more related to time. Initially, it was easier to see the travel costs incurred by gaming as an outlay that could be used for networking costs. This changed in May and while things have changed again it isn't really the a factor to the degree it was. Now it's time. I think it's the issue of time which has made it remarkably easy. I'm working away on a project so that tends to make the time I'm at home more important, so spending what can feel like half of Sunday out of the house every other week feels gratuitous. If you then throw in the in the MBA which always hits the weekend to some degree or another time is even more crunched. Then you have mental space. Life just isn't that traditional and stable at the moment which is a bit irritating and there are activities and actions around that which further absorb time.

It's all too easy to see that as a gaming exit. The truth is though, once the parameters of time and mental space change gaming will flood back in to fill the void. No one likes a void and gaming stuff is always what fills it by default. Depending on how things go, it could be an extreme vacuum as the MBA will have gone as well.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 18/09/2011 Bookmark and Share
The Dungeon Masters

I've spent the last last month signed up to, by virtue of them giving me a 15 GBP Amazon gift voucher to trial their service. This means I've found myself trawling the site for something to watch occasionally. I randomly stumbled upon The Dungeon Masters in the documentary section and streamed it to the PSS3.

Oh boy, where to start? I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, if you're going to do a documentary about Dungeon Masters, it's obvious you're going to pick three people that have, for various reasons, failed at life. It's not like people may partake in the role-playing hobby as an overall portfolio of activities and career related endeavours in a nice, virtuous, life-enhancing way is it? No. You have to be dysfunctional. The documentary follows the lives of Scott Corum, Richard Meeks and Elizabeth Reesman and two out of three of them are embarrassments that don't change in anyway throughout the documentary, the third isn't as bad and grows as an individual. As you can no doubt guess, the two sad cases are the males.

In all the above, and the below, I can only go on how I interpreted the documentary.

Scott Corum is an interesting case because he seems to live in a delusional fantasy world. He's waiting for the silver bullet. He's waiting for someone to discover his genius. This may be through his novel, the journey of which you see on the documentary, or the production of a public access TV show. While he's doing this his wife seems to do all the usual stuff associated with running a family and what, I suspect, is his part-time job of being the 'manager' of an apartment complex. Still, it gives them an apartment to live in. I wasn't sure what was worse about this, Scott himself or the fact his coterie of gaming buddies seemed happy to join in the delusions, support him in it and not give him a kick in the balls to 'reality up' a bit.

The weird thing, is you could find yourself liking and having a conversation with Scott, he's a Christian puppeteer and a hypnotist, he's also amazingly naïve in terms of his attempts to get his novel published, which is a mixture of endearing and 'smash head against the wall frustrating', but he is interesting. He is a nice guy. It's just a pity his pursuits are spoken about with such purpose, as if they have a grandness to them. This makes sense, as you get the impression he is a man on a quest to do something with the skills he believes he has. He has an amazing ability to 'ennoble himself'. The problem is, it isn't realistic and this itself seems part of the larger fantasy world he's woven around himself. He's the sort of person who'd describe himself in some grand way, novelist, TV producer, or whatever, when in truth he's an apartment complex manager...well, his wife is.

Richard Meeks. What can I say? Other than he seems to be the poster-child for the psychotic DM. The big event in his life is the total party kill that saw his gaming group, and friends, disband in an epic explosion of gaming fail. This is so epic people still speak about it years later. I didn't really know what to make of such an event being such a critical life juncture. Whichever way you look at it it's dysfunctional and slightly mad? Basically, he thought his players were being too greedy so he set-up a dungeon room that was actually a 'sphere of annihilation (I don't know what this is either, but it probably explains itself), which instantly wiped out the characters.

Characters that they'd spent years playing. Oh yeah, Meeks runs traditional D&D campaigns. You know, the type that runs not for years, but decades? Well, he runs one campaign which he's apparently run three times. He also left his first family virtually on a whim. He doesn't do goodbyes.

He's also the quintessential DM who should never have players at the table. It's his game. The players are there for his campaign. They should be basking in his glory and sucking on his tit, which is probably lactating with the sense of power. When things aren't going his way he kills the players. He can. Obviously. He makes this clear at numerous times, after all, the DM has all the power, you just get the impression he thinks the players should thank him because he 'tones down the true power he has'. We even get the reading of a grand 'DM drama' mail when he drops one of his groups. Of course, he's the true power behind the throne even after leaving, because the new DM comes to him for advice. He's so quintessentially bad it's amazing the film maker found someone who ticks all the boxes. He's got problems.

Elizabeth, by her own confession, believes that she is a magnet for drama. She's also into live role-playing. This will be setting alarm bells off in many a gamers head. She dresses up as a Drow Elf. The key feature of the Drow Elves being they have an extreme matriarchal society. She likes that. You can't help feeling she is compensating for some sort of power she finds herself missing in life. In fairness, Elizabeth is likeable, if every so slightly damaged goods. Call me shallow, but I would navigate well clear. I've seen an 'Elizabeth' at virtually any live role-playing event I've been to (a feature of my dim and distant passed though they now are). I've heard of an 'Elizabeth' in virtually every story or re-telling of a live role-playing event I've ever heard. Skilled. Talented. Potentially excellent at weaving character-driven stories. Regrettably, attention seeking.

At least Elizabeth grows as a person through the documentary. I even found her discovery quite profound. Well, it wasn't epic. I'm talking small scale profound, written in a very small font. Possibly even subscript. It did cause me to raise an eyebrow though. She discovered that her relationships in the past had one big problem: the guy had been interested because she was a gamer, not because of who she was. I can believe that. There are gaming males who stick to any gaming female like a limpet on the basis they are gamers. Regrettably, some gamers exhibit a sort of 'gaming incest', as if they can't make there hobby presentable to the 'outside world' so they seek to date insiders. In truth, they probably can't make there hobby presentable.

I would like to sit back and say none of these people reflect my view of the RPG hobby, but I can't. They don't reflect how I experience it, but I do know they exist. I know one person who was really clever who crashed out of college because of his obsession. I've seen, thankfully not experienced, individuals that are toned down version of Meeks. As for Elizabeth, well, whenever you do anything remotely live role-playing like you'll encounter at least one Elizabeth.

This is a pity, as the idea for The Dungeon Masters isn't a bad one. It's just a pity the film wasn't more balanced. Why isn't there at least one subject who is outgoing, presentable, successful and using the skills he has learned running games to better himself. It would have made a better documentary.

Permalink | Comments(5) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 08/08/2011 Bookmark and Share
Turning The Difficulty Down

As I've been playing Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2 another contrast between traditional tabletop role-playing games and computer role-playing games has hit me. The thorny issue of turning the difficulty down.

The issue came up because I played Dragon Age: Origins on normal for 95% of the time (probably 99.999% for Dragon Age 2 and I've completed Act 1), but I did occasionally turn the difficulty down a notch to casual. Not an issue you'd think. I did it and didn't lose any sleep over it, but there was a small part of me who felt like it was cheating. Weird. It's weird because in a tabletop role-playing games I don't invest significantly in the gamist challenge. We had gamist challenge as an element of the 4E Campaign, but there was never a feeling of guilt for being cheated out of the challenge (as far as I was concerned).

What's interesting is this: when I play a computer role-playing game like Dragon Age the gamist challenge element of it gains enough importance that I feel like I'm cheating when I turn the difficulty down. The gamist challenge is sufficiently woven into the experience that I do feel like I'm diminishing it when I make the choice.

Games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect are forced to wrestle with how much of the game is about the gamist challenge and how much of it is about the narrative. Since it's a fixed medium once it's boxed and shipped they usually end up annoying a percentage of the potential audience. There is an audience who see the old Baldur's Gate games as role-playing games, and insist Mass Effect isn't one, for instance. Thankfully, market forces put them in a minority, hence the differences in Dragon Age 2.

What's also interesting in these two franchises is: where does what constitutes the tabletop 'game' end and what would constitute 'player delivery' begin?

This is particularly true in the two Dragon Age games. It could be argued, from one perspective, that the mechanics of the game and how they influences play, aren't orders of magnitude different? The talent trees are different but it's still a live action, party-based system with pausing for orders. I think Dragon Age 2 feels a lot different, more immediate and visceral, but I can see the argument and wouldn't discount it out of hand.

The major difference between the games is how they are delivered, the role the players would take at the table. Dragon Age: Origins was very much a tried and tested experience with long dungeon crawls, plenty of exposition and an old school feel to the plot (like 90's Bioware games). Dragon Age 2 is different, it scene frames aggressively to the drama, often shows rather than tells and everything is quicker and shorter. The two stories could be done with 4E Dungeons and Dragons, it can be played like Dragon Age: Origins, a or more like how we played it, which Dragon Age 2 gets closer to.

This also influences how often you hit the difficulty switch. As an example, the whole final segment of Dragon Age: Origins I played on casual. It wasn't because it was difficult, as I never got to experience whether it would have been a problem or not, it was just because I felt I'd reached a dramatic denouement, new what needed to happen next, but between me and it I felt like someone had inserted a whole new war film I had to slog through. The final segment was my 'Deep Roads'. In tabletop terms, the players had decided to have two sessions of combats between one dramatic moment and the next despite knowing exactly what the next dramatic encounter was about. It was a serious pacing gaff, a problem with a lot of the game. It's the tabletop equivalent of 'not another combat encounter' and being less engaged and the brain ceasing to be applied.

In Dragon Age 2, I suspect the hitting of the reset switch because of 'too much gamist content' isn't going to happen, due to the delivery choices, the better pacing and the way the games content is packaged up in manageable chunks. It may still happen due to difficulty, as it did with the final boss of Act 1. I didn't take Anders with me to the Deep Roads and as a result my healing capacity was never going to meet that demands of the encounter. It was the first serious, MMO-style combat, and just like an MMO if the resources aren't their it's just frustrating to keep trying.

In terms of the discussions on this site so far, I differ with respect to the two mediums. I tend to see the arguments for player skill in computer games, but favour character skill in tabletop games. I can see the point of gamist challenge enough that I'd rather not admit defeat in computer games, but don't really care about it at all in tabletop games. Still, I want to experience the narrative enough that I will turn the difficulty down. In terms of character death I'm pretty much equal, in neither medium to I see the point of it being excessively random, punishing or frustrating.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 30/05/2011 Bookmark and Share
The Explicit Premium

I'm a big fan of making things explicit (and coherent and maintaining context, but that's a different set of topics) across most things in my life, be it work or the various interests I have. By and large, I don't see the value in fog, confusion and people not understanding explicit intentions. Fog can foster creativity I hear people cry, indeed, but I'd say the 'creative wrestling with the fog' is guided by some quite explicit principles, intentions or broad outcomes.

Explicit is, in my view, almost always good. As a result, it's not surprising I seek that out in my role-playing games.

How does this manifest? Well, it doesn't turn me into an anal control freak, as I'm perfectly willing to let the social contract deal with many an activity at the table. It can mean I suffer 'minor frustration I can put to one side' when games I play in aren't implicit enough (or coherent, that's a real niggler). It does manifest in that I think some things are best (a) written down on the character sheet and (b) part of the game. As an example, traditionally role-playing games have made certain things explicit, such as combat and skill use while leaving many other things implicit such as who the character is outside of combat and skills (such as relationships and the like). This is why I like Aspects in Fate as they act as clear flags, and encapsulate who the character is relatively neatly and also make that portrait an essential part of the game. This makes who the character is, how he can be protagonised and, most importantly, what everyone at the table can do to push and help that much more explicit. It's left substantially less to complete luck and chance.

One element I've always wrestled with is making character relationships explicit in the game. In a way, Aspects do this. In Thrilling Tales there was a network of relationships born from the shared serials and the resulting Aspects, but there was still a level of obfuscation and it wasn't explicit enough. I'm relatively obsessed with this because I believe a core of any story is the relationship between the protagonists and how those change and develop. Quite often, this happens implicitly, and as a result it's not directly addressed, or it occurs 'with some distance' or purely in one player's head.

This is why I'm interested in the Smallville character creation experiment we have scheduled this week, as the game ensures character relationships are explicit and central to the game. I realise other games do this to different degrees, but they often do it less implicitly and often via relationships with ideas, institutions and people but not fellow player protagonists.

I'm probably not going to run Smallville. We may not even play Smallville. At the same time we tend to take gaming ideas and let them influence or social contract or hardwire them into other gaming experiences to one degree or another. The Buffy spin-off series we ran some years back would have been raised an extra level with some sort of Smallville layer integrated into the experience. In fact, I suspect that merger, without knowing the details, would have been amazing.

I'm specifically interested in how it may influence my future games based on the fact I like character relationships to be such a key part with scenes dedicated to progressing and resolving them.

Since I tend to be quite Fate-focused, let's look at it from that point of view. How hard would it be to make character relationships more explicit in the Fate character generation process? The process already promotes events (shared moments in the history of protagonists) for relationships to form and Aspects which allows the event to be represented in the game. The issue is, sometimes the Aspect doesn't reflect the relationship so it's not explicit. The thorny issue is going to be how to make any relationships more explicit without restricting the outcome of the event to be purely about the relationship. This could be done purely with Aspect wording, but there may be other solutions without radically increasing complexity. Smallville may spur some ideas in this regard.

After all, in Fading Suns, if you have 4-5 people on a ship, reaching out to the darkness between the stars to realise their destinies, you want them (a) to be dealing with issues bigger than themselves and have ties to those things (normal Fate aspects do that), but also (b) have relationships tying them together that are actually addressed.

I'm looking forward to seeing how Smallville works and hangs together....

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 19/04/2011 Bookmark and Share
Actually...Interesting Product!
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

As is traditional, when one is in Newcastle you visit Travelling Man. Quite often this is done just to see how further the stock of the typical gaming store has drifted away from stuff I'd actually buy. This is both because of a concentration on the 'big few' and because I purchase a lot less anyway. How much Warhammer product can a shop stock?

Surprisingly, this trip got a different result. Theoretically, watching the finances aside, I'd have quite easily made two purchases. Admittedly, they'd have probably been read and then never used, but I was interested in purchasing them.

Finally, Mutants and Masterminds third edition is on the shelves. It doesn't matter that both Mutants and Masterminds first and second edition are already on my gaming shelf and neither have been used. The book looks so nice. It's also surprisingly thin, which makes me think it might be simpler, or certainly no more complicated, than the second edition. It's a paperback, but it looks gorgeous. It had the 'must buy' smell, feel and visual aura. The other good thing it was 25 GBP, which is relatively cheap, probably because most books are often a good 10 GBP higher than that. It even had a purchase me price. Nice. The problem with Mutants and Masterminds continues to be the buy-in demanded of character creation, in actual play I'm still convinced it's pretty, damned anaemic and quick.

The second temptation came a bit from left field. There is a number of games that are 'slightly updated' from simpler versions of Dungeons and Dragons, they're not exactly the basic set series, or any of the previous AD&D versions, but they still have more in common with a more simplified era. One such game is Castles and Crusades. It's now been released in cute, A5 paperback format for 13 GBP (and 10 GBP for the monster book). I'm sucker for these cheap ass 'editions' of games. I know, it's old school D&D even if it does have some of the more extreme incongruities filed off, so would it really ever see play? Probably not, but those cheap, cute A5 books are damned attractive. Still, sometimes you have an yearning for writing something more module-like, an action and adventure, 'fantasy' mini-series (on the shorter side). You just can't be arsed with all the 'story gamer' mechanics in this sort of set-up. Or is that just me?

That's it. Well, apart from the board game purchases hanging on the periphery of my consciousness.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 10/03/2011 Bookmark and Share
The Only Criteria is Rules Manageable

There is a debate on RPGNet at the moment about whether the FATE rules are rules lite or not. It's a question that comes up every so often. I'm not exactly sure why people seem keen to see FATE put into the rules lite category or ejected from it, but based on the fact it's a recurring debate some people are interested in the topic. Personally, I've moved a bit beyond the rules lite and heavy debate. I no longer think it serves a purpose. A bit like the conflict resolution argument, things have moved on, it's all a bit richer.

Rules lite and heavy aren't really important, all that matters is whether you find the rules manageable or not, and this is related to the rules lite and heavy debate, but not directly.

The main issue is the lite or heavy rating applied to a role-playing game set of rules isn't an empirical measure, it involves a significant amount of personal opinion and feel. This personal opinion and feel is essentially a qualitative measure of whether the rules are personally manageable. We find it easy to assign the lite and heavy categories to the outlying rule sets, but everything else falls into a murky area. As an example, you will find people who think 4E isn't rules heavy? I think it is. What really differs is 4E was perfectly manageable by the GM of the 4E Campaign, but I freely admit it is not personally manageable by me. What's important to realise is this isn't necessarily directly correlated to the detail or complexity of the rules but also the intent of the rules and the ratio of rules to actual play application.

You look at FATE implementations like Spirit of the Century, Starblazer Adventures and Strands of Fate and the rulebooks are quite large. In the case of Starblazer Adventures it counts as an offensive weapon. There is every outward indication I'd not find the rules manageable, just like 4E. But, this is where the differences come in.

Despite the thickness of the rulebook there isn't really a vast amount of rules at the core. The majority of FATE is handled by the same set of core rules and these extend out through the system. As an example, Starship combat is essentially the same as character combat, as a starship has the same elements. The space in the rulebook taken up by skills aren't really rules, just examples of what skills cover. The major element that has exception-based rules that create extra rules volume beyond the core are stunts, but this brings me to my second observation.

Each and every rules set has a ratio of rules in the book to rules used in actual play. It's my view that FATE, at least in the implementations mentioned above, has big difference between rules in the book compared to rules used at the table. The optimised core of the rules isn't complex (though some people find it complex which is covered in my third point), it's the exceptions that make it fiddly (such as stunts). The issue is though, only a very small subset of these stunts are ever used at the table and they are easy to remember. The unflappable butler can use resolve as a defence skill, simple to remember and it's largely the players responsibility. It's often simple to remember as the stunts are often character defining, the fact the butler can use resolve for defence is part of his narrative signature. The majority of rules, like 80%+ of them are the optimised core which work on a simple set of principles. Now, other games with large rule sets use a higher proportion of their rules in actual play, I'd argue 4E is a case in point and this is why I don't find that rules manageable.

So, if 80%+ of FATE at the table is an optimised core of simple rules why is it an issue? Well, this is when you have to realise that not all rules have the same intent and design choices behind them. In short, all rules sets are 'rules different'. As an example, FATE is very much based on delivering narrative outcomes, either things that happen because of narrative importance or because it is cool. They are not based on simulative reality, say like GURPS, or providing a structured tactical and challenging experience like 4E (in part). This rules difference impacts the manageability. If the rules have an intent that goes against the grain they will be less manageable to one degree or another by default. It's also true that some individuals make this worse by wrestling with the rules difference rather than just picking a set of rules that match their personal intent. This is why compels, tags and aspects are complex for some people, because they are dealing with narrative importance and flow, not necessarily a simulation of a reality of physical things. It's only dark in this warehouse when I tag the scene aspect? No, it's only narratively important it's dark when you tag the aspect, otherwise it's a zero sum game (as the alternative is +2 for everyone all of the time), etc. It's also why some people describe aspects as a 'rules heavy way' of applying circumstantial bonuses, when in truth that's a minority 'aspect' (haha) of what's going on. They miss the fact fate points are a flow of narrative, and character defining narrative at that.

So, I know why 4E doesn't fall into my rules manageable range. It has an intent in its design that I love playing but isn't for me when it comes to GM'ing. It also uses a higher proportion of its rules at the table and, more importantly, a vastly high proportion of rules interactions. In turn, FATE hits a sweet spot in terms of actual complexity, the ratio of rules used at the table and the intent of the rules matches what I like to deliver so it supports rather than detracts. As a result, it's rules manageable. Where FATE exists on any empirical scale of lite to heavy is related, but almost irrelevant.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 06/12/2010 Bookmark and Share
Holy Strands of GURPS'ed Fate
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

It's a sign of the times that Strands of Fate got in under my radar. I just don't frequent gaming forums as much as I used to and when I do I'm not farming for information in the way I used to either. As a result, I was aware of the phrase Strands of Fate, and that it was some sort of Fate product, but I had no awareness of the goals or the scope of what the creative endeavour was. The amazing thing is, it may actually be the answer to all those people looking for a Fate implementation that becomes a great generic system, but with the power of Fate driving the narrative. How could I miss that? Anyway, onwards.

The most dramatic change as far as I can tell is the dropping of skills. No skills. No skill tree. This is the biggest omission for me as I quite liked the skill tree, as it fits in with my idea of characters having defining characteristics or abilities. The genius scientist, the unflappable butler, the ridiculously rich interstellar merchant prince, whatever. Basically, characters now have 12 abilities spread across Physical, Mental and Social (4 each) and they represent what your character is good at. They are essentially skills and attributes rolled into one. In turn, your abilities are enhanced with a number of speciality aspects as a method of increasing their base value and adding character definition. A character in a horror game might have Agility 3 (High School Cheerleader Captain), for example. There is a bit more to it than I can cover here, but it seems to work well. I like it. You also get the 'normal' Fate aspects as well, but they are the same as in any other game.

One of the key areas that delivers the generic nature of the system is the advantages, split into heroic, expert and power advantages. They basically replace stunts, increasing in scope and power. It's the power advantages that change the nature of the game significantly. Basically, while power advantages provide a way to create a superhero game, that isn't their main advantage. The main advantage is it creates a way to add powers to other games. So, if you creating a game of grand contemporary action fiction and you want your action heroes to come up against psychics, strange robots, an ancient sorcerer from Thule or aliens or whatever you have the rules to model. This is the part that really provides the generic boost to Strands of Fate, as it alters the narrow scaling and absence of systems for powers that often 'limits' other more specific implementations.

Ultimately, what Strands of Fate represents is a GURPS'ed version of Fate. Now, initially this sounds like a bad thing, but it isn't. It's good because it's generic in the sense of GURPS, but drops all of the simulationist stuff in GURPS so what you have is what seems like a very good generic Fate game, with the focus kept on narrative effect. You could also say it's a Fate version of Hero, BESM, Savage Worlds or Cinematic Unisystem. Strands of Fate is really good, and could be used for everything from normal folks investigating horror to superheroes. I'm not 100% sure how it works at the extreme lower and upper end (especially), but that isn't so much a problem (and I may be wrong in my initial scepticism), as it looks like it would work brilliantly at the cinematic to mythical hero sort of level, be it action heroes, mythical fantasy heroes, etc. Essentially the middle of its range.

Now, I've not pulled it a part in detail. Neither have I played it. Despite this, Strands of Fate shows every sign of being the perfect book to pull off the shelf for a myriad of ideas I tend to have across a range of settings and genre types. Hell, any game that has a two-gun packing modern day acquirer of ancient antiquities as an example character wins with me. I'd even go as far to say it's perfect for re-skinning other games. Always like the core idea of Werewolf: The Apocalypse but not all the White Wolf setting, system or the direction of the new games? Just do it with Strands of Fate, gain a narrative core to the system and strap that to your distilled, narrative heart of what Werewolf is about. Want to re-create a 13th Warrior style scenario? Do the same thing. Hell, I'd do a version of Warhammer Fantasy with it since the native systems are invariably dubious.

It's a bit more complicated in some areas, or it always looks it when you see a character fully created, but that may be misleading in actual play. It's certainly worth more experimentation. You know, when I have the time, for the game after Fading Suns, when, you know, life stabilises to let me get around to that. Strands of Fate, noted as a potential gem and filed in the back of my head.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 08/11/2010 Bookmark and Share
The ICONS Conundrum
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

For ages, my go to superhero role-playing game has always been Mutants and Masterminds. When I say go to, I mean 'pick it off the shelf when I have random musings that will go nowhere'. This has been the case since the first edition was released in 2002 up until about the last year or so. At some point, things changed while the game sat on the shelf. It suddenly just felt way too complicated and had D20 elements that were irritating (probably not the elements people think). It no longer felt like the right tool for the job.

The problem is, if you look around at the alternatives, you get the same feeling from most games. The older games are out of print and even if you can get them they are clunky. You also find a lot of them fall into the too complex category or are way too simple (or designed to delivery a vastly different play experience). You find yourself looking for something a bit in the middle but you're never exactly sure what that middle is. Then along comes ICONS, promising to be somewhere between Mutants and Masterminds and games like Truth and Justice as well as being FATE-inspired.

What is ICONS? In the first instance, it's a FATE-inspired superhero game. In the second instance, it's pretty much a FATE-inspired re-imaging of the Basic Marvel Superheroes RPG. This isn't a value judgement, it's just the best way to describe it. It shares the relative simplicity, the random power generation, the abstraction over ranges and other criteria, the relatively limited power configurations, the types of combat result (just without the colour coded table, etc). It even has the snazzy names for power levels.

ICONS has some great stuff going on. It has Aspects, which is never a bad thing, but splits them up into Qualities (generally positive and negative) and Challenges (negative) and categories for each. It's quite structured. I love the fact that all rolls are made from the point of view of the player, this was one of the great features of the Marvel Superhero Saga game, it's good it's carried over into ICONS. The player rolls to hit, but when the enemy tries to hit the players rolls to dodge, etc. In theory, the GM doesn't even need dice. No skills list, just a method of denoting specialities. Determination is also great, essentially FATE points, as their use is channelled through Aspects, but they are also used to do the stunt-style stuff featured in the original Marvel game and Mutants and Masterminds after it (the way to access power variations heroes in the comics pull out of their ass or use sparingly). I suspect it'll also play really fast. As in really, really fast. There isn't going to be any 60-minute combats to add to the actual play time in this game. This might also be a good thing, giving the game the feeling of a fast-paced comic, with concentrated stories that fit into a single issue despite having 2-3 fights.

The not so great? Well, I think it call comes down to the simplicity of it. Is it too simple? I find myself not wanting to declare it so but the thought bothers me from the recesses of my brain. The list of powers is far from being limited, but at the same time I'd hardly say it inspired me. I'm also not a big fan of random character generation, it just engenders a disposable feel for me and has too much potential for comedy value (sadly the character creation example is a case in point). It didn't exactly inspire me to create characters. It's also very granular, in that there is only so many powers you can select and very little manipulation you can do with them beyond having a different power level. I realise it's this very 'configurability' that makes Mutants and Masterminds complex in character creation, but it does come back to finding the perfect spot on the complexity scale. In keeping with FATE, it doesn't really offer much in the way of character improvement. There is possibly some deconstruction to do on the character generation front.

Finally, the chosen art direction is terrible. It's not that each piece of art is dire, I recognise the 'cartoon-inspired' feel they were going for, but that style throughout the book just generates a disposal, light, fluffy and not entirely serious feel. Possibly that's intentional, maybe the game is only good for creating a few randomly generated characters and giving them a one-shot or not much longer run? The term beer and pretzels role-playing game annoys me and is an instant turn off. I'd like to think not, but if that isn't true the art doesn't help. It just doesn't engender you to take the book seriously, and if art communicates actual play, that neither.

Final verdict? I'm not sure. It could be the set of superhero rules that is perfect for the mini-series style campaigns we are supposedly moving to. The worrying part of it is reading the books doesn't immediately scream that it is. It just doesn't immediately generate an 'Oh Yeah!' response. The irony is, reading Mutants and Masterminds is more inspiring despite the irritation factors. Possibly, it just changes the irritations. Pity. A part of me thinks it needs to be played not read, but that doesn't really avoid the character creation issues.

Early days. It's only an initial read through and I'm certainly distracted at the moment. So we'll see.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 15/10/2010 Bookmark and Share
D&D Essential(s) Objects of Desire
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

Over my years with gaming I have lusted after numerous RPG products. I can't specifically remember them all, but there has been many. There was a time, like most gamers of my generation, during which I was collecting role-playing games rather than playing them. Well, that's a bit unfair, as I have played quite a few games, but it was certainly true I had an epic amount of games and supplements racked up on shelves I'd never get around to running.

One game I never desired to own extensively was Dungeons and Dragons. I've played quite a bit of D&D, but I've never bought copious amounts of product. I had the three core books during the gaming groups opening 3E game, but that was mostly it. This is certainly true of 4E, which is an excellent game, probably the best game of all the versions, and is great to play, but there is something about the mindset demanded to run it that means it's not for me. Oddly, I never purchased a single book while playing 4E for two years.

Still, the digest D&D Essentials books sure are tempting.

First, I really like the digest format and any game that appears in that format already has a head start. Who would have ever imagined that D&D would be released in a Burning Wheel style digest format? All compact, dense, smelling and feeling gorgeous and full of useful content and a good game delivered for 30 GBP in a stylish way? I had a flick through them and they had that essential 'buy me' feel. The layout was nice, the font was appealing, they are a bit short on art but that is often a compromise in a digest format.

Second, I suppose there is a bit of a re-booted comic feel about them. You fancy getting into a specific comic, but it's gone on for years, has loads of back history and you feel like you're jumping into something way too large. D&D 4E can feel a bit like that. It's not true, of course, and it's more human nature that engenders that feeling as you can still just purchase the original three core books and get on with it, but the feeling is there nevertheless. The Essentials books make it feel like you're buying something new and fresh and that you are in at the beginning. Strangely, it also feels like you're getting into a simpler package, which isn't true at all. The Essentials game has exactly the same rules as all the books released so far. I even like the original Essentials books limit the classes to the core of Fighter, Cleric, Wizard and Rogue, it has a sort of classic feel to it (not sure what it's classic of, but it's there nevertheless).

They made me want to put 30 GBP down on the encounter, knowing I had a great set of books that would allow me to get into the D&D adventure experience. I was tempted. I was even thinking up some ideas in the store. Reality eventually did kick in, as I couldn't see me putting the effort in with all the associated D&D extras like miniatures and floor plans and the like.

It occurs to me the biggest seller might be the rules compendium. I'm not sure what rules the compendium includes as it gets quite confusing now with multiple Dungeon Masters and Player Guides and I certainly don't know what has been in each of them. Since the rules in the Compendium feature all the errata over the years, if they are pretty comprehensive across the DMG/PHB range, it would be a brilliant book to own for references purposes even if you have an extensive library. It's possible the Compendium will fly off the shelves.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 09/10/2010 Bookmark and Share
4E Sessions 35-37: The End of Everything

After two years, to the month,and 37 sessions, the 4E Campaign came to an end on Friday (two days ago). It was a unique experience, most notably because it was a conclusion of a campaign, rather than the conclusion of a period of play which just happens to not have any more sessions. The Buffy campaign had conclusions at the end of season one and two but was expected to go on. The Pendragon Campaign had a great conclusion, but there was a slight, group delusion of it continuing with a new generation at the time. We'd have to go back to the group's first Crescent Sea (3E Campaign) to find a proper finale. This was a proper, emphatic finale on numerous levels.

What the 4E Campaigns reminds me of is the role-playing group is blessed with imaginative, dynamic and mature individuals that embrace change and the new rather than avoid it and have an almost subliminal and preternatural ability to negotiate ideas and riff of each other for the betterment of all. This creates an experience at the table that we take for granted but probably isn't the norm. One of the facets of this heady brew is passion for renewal at the table, we don't just play the same thing continually, we look for something quite different each time, play it with a passion that all but consumes it, and then we move on to something else. The goal this time was to have our own version of the full 4E D&D experience: the full three tiers, levels 1-30, the use of miniatures for a level of tactical play (a major new element for the group) and an epic story that fully mined the potential for a different feel in each tier, ideally with the same characters. Okay, we tweaked the default experience in that we probably extended the authoring power of skill challenges a bit, had different rules for things inside and outside of encounters in the epic tier and we probably averaged a level every one or two sessions, but I'm convinced we got a distilled, injected with awesome, valid 4E experience. It was 4E to the max.

I'm going to take a moment to praise the characters: they were brilliant, if I do say so myself. I'd probably even suggest they were very different characters to what we normally see in our games. They were very unique, prideful, selfish and, in many ways, broken individuals. They were heroes in the classic sense, rather than the modern fictional sense. Heroes because they could make a difference, not because they were entirely altruistically driven to do so. This was intentional, another sign of the group's ability to clue into an idea and max it out. This was further strengthened by the fact this worked, it was always played to strengthen the experience at the table rather than destroy it and this carried on through the whole of the campaign with those attitudes bringing perpetual twilight to the world and us destroying lives and nearly the world while at all times we remained the 'heroes'. How that was balanced by all participants at the table, often in an almost tacit and invisible way, was brilliant, and it created a unique sword and sorcery experience woven through all three tiers. The characters had style, failings, brilliant imagery and just dripped pure awesome. As a composite creation, to blow the groups trumpet a bit, they were fascinating. I fully expect to benefit from this rich and passionate approach to characters in Fading Suns.

Let's face it, final episodes are hard. A Final episode to a two year long campaign that has seen the same protagonists go through three tiers of play each with their own unique feel and who have grown in depth and feel in proportion to that is even harder! Throw in the fact the penultimate episode was a blinder as well (I was influenced emotionally by small parts of the penultimate episode, it was very sad) and it seems almost impossible. The finale was brilliant though. The final miniature-based encounter was great. The final personal encounters before the end of the world worked really well. The big reveal on some new miniatures was strangely exciting. The way we got to define the nature of the next reality as the three remaining heroes, who once could only make petty and selfish power plays in the heroic tier, but who now stood as final arbiters was frickin' awesome by any assessment. Fantastic stuff, all the more powerful for having played through the three tiers and no less powerful despite the fact we knew it was coming! The ultimate indicator of the quality of the finale? It felt done. It felt right. I particularly liked how the three quite different views on the nature of the next reality actually came to be in balance and in agreement at the end. Not in a forced way, but in a natural way that was right for each protagonist and allowed them to be the fantasy equivalent of The Authority defending what they had created in the next reality. That in itself was another sign of the groups ability to subliminally negotiate such issues over time for the strength of all.

Was their some minor issues along the way? Yeah, but none that are serious or worth mentioning again. Indeed, they only got mentioned on here in the first place because I'm fascinated by how these things work rather than them being experience ruining issues. If I was to pick my favourite tiers it would probably be a toss up between the heroic and the epic, but then the middle of things is always difficult, and the paragon tier was one big middle which meant it suffered just slightly against the other two, while having moments that would probably sneak into a top 10 (which I'm not even going to try). I know what would be number one though? The killing of Ashura, the primordial of the sun and life, and the casting of the world into perpetual twilight. I'm not sure superlatives exist to describe that session.

Overall, the whole experience was just fantastic. Unlike many, many gamers who profess that their best gaming is behind them in their early twenties, I'm glad to say this isn't remotely true for me, and that is good.

GM Blog Links:-

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 18/07/2010 Bookmark and Share
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