The end of Amber

14 March, 2014 at 7:47 pm (Amber, game mastering) ()

I started an Amber game. One of the players was okay with playing but not too enthusiastic, one was very enthusiastic, and three others something in between. One of them was going too leave at some point.

One of the players, the enthusiastic one, wanted a political game with secret actions, players against each other and also against environment. Why not, for does not the rulebook also suggest that? He suggested playing between games by email, and so I implemented that. To make things even more interesting, I decided to recruit some background players who would play non-player characters of their choosing or design. This would also happen between sessions.

It turned out that not one of the players actually contributed substantially between games, in any way, not even the one who had suggested this. The organisation of the game was geared towards making this kind of game happen, and it became quite cumbersome and unmotivating when the players were not engaging with the game between sessions.

The background players did their jobs better than I could have hoped, and they did contribute. For a game of political scheming and plotting I will in the future consider similar implementations. I could have tied them more closely to the player characters and each other.

Also, in retrospect it is easy to see that the players, though enthusiastic at the table, were not generally very comfortable with using email for long messages, or responding promptly. Maybe some other players in some distant future will show more interest towards this kind of play.

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Playtest report of Coyotes of Chicago by Peter Borah

10 September, 2012 at 9:48 am (roleplaying-games)

You can find the document we used over here, but it may change in the near future: https://semielgames.wordpress.com/2012/07/25/the-coyotes-of-chicago-playtest-document/

What follows is the playtest report I sent to Peter. He did not give any clear guidelines on what to include, so I gave him what impressions I had and what notes I made.

Report

Players: Four, each with experience both playing and running games.
Three have played together a fair deal, one has not played with the
rest of us. One wants to be the character player while others glance
around if anyone wants to do it, so picking roles happens painlessly.

I explained the rules and the setting. Going through them again, the
only mistake we did is that we rolled one die per token plus two dice,
so one less die than we should have. This is a pretty serious mistake
- my bad.

One things that was not clarified: Is this a modern game, or maybe
everything happens during the ’70 or ’80? This caused some confusion
to begin with, but we later settled on the modern period. One
adventure sheet also made this pretty clear, but since none of us had
read those prior to playing, we did not know.

Our Alex was sharp witted (etc.) and a thrill seeker. The player
selected plot hook #3. (The badassity and roundhouse kicks and “it’s
awesome to seek danger” caused amusement among the players.)

A note on the rules: With a shared adventure sheet, who gets tokens
when the shared key moments are introduced? We gave them to whoever
introduced the moment, and I think that is what the rules also say,
but not very explicitly.
When explaining what a motif is, you refer to “your high school
English class”. That’s pretty specific to some English-speaking
countries, I’d think. Nothing serious, but a thing you may want to be
aware of.

Among the world players we randomly distributed three adventure
sheets. Sheet #3 became shared. There was grumbling – why could we not
simply leave one sheet aside? (A rhetorical question, so feel free to
not answer.) We positioned ourselves around the table so that the
character player was on one side and the world players roughly on the
other, so that we could read the shared sheet.

The mystery sheets had a fair deal of stuff, so at least for me it was
difficult to master two of them. We (the world players) were confused
about who should start narration and how we should decide who speak
next. We hesitated a lot and, perhaps due to this, did not start with
the plot hook and character explained in sheet #3. Rather, we started
with Alex driving with a broken camera from some suburb towards the
university.

I omit most of the fictional events from this report and remark on
some particular things that caught our attention. I do have all the
danger rolls listed with their goals, dangers and bonuses.

Almost every scene was directly inspired by a key moment, even after
one or two players could earn no more tokens. A couple were logical
follow-ups to previous scenes.

Often we used the danger tokens as soon as we earned them. This did
not always happen and did not bother us particularly. Two of us did
hoard them a bit to make the final scenes more dangerous.

We, the world players, switched the narrator often and nobody tried to
hog the spotlight (unless it was me and the others did not mention
it). This made scenes with several side characters work quite well
when compared to one GM playing them all, and also gave the character
player the impression that we all knew what was happening behind the
scenes, which we of course did not. After the awkward beginning it
worked out very nicely.

I did not have a theory to begin with, and moving towards the end I
had to figure out something related to prions that change one’s
perception and that’s why coyotes and people see these floating balls
of light and follow them around.

Near the beginning we had some trouble determining the goals and
dangers. In particular, the goal was often to face some danger or to
figure out something. As the game progressed, we put more effort on
making the orthogonal (and maybe even orthonormal), but it was not
always the intuitive and easy thing to do, and required discipline.
Some guidelines or rules on setting better goals and dangers might be
valuable.
In particular, in one conflict the danger was that an air conditioner
was about to kill Alex and a the goal was to get Thomas away from
under it. Or the other way around. It did not matter, and making death
of Alex the stakes felt unsatisfactory. (Thomas did die but Alex
survived.)

I don’t think the character player ever selected a high roll for
bonus. This might have been due to our rules mistake, but even without
it I think the situation would have been similar. Maybe we made it too
dangerous and dark?

The final roll we used as a sort of epilogue. Alex was injected with
disease (so woke up only later), did manage to save the day (and get
tenure, etc.), and doctor Behrt disappeared, but an old and cunning
coyote appeared on the campus area. The mystery was never solved in
that we did not determine if people we actually changing into coyotes,
but there were plenty of hints to that direction.

As a world player I enjoyed solving the puzzle of what was happening,
and also of giving the other players ideas and prompts and seeing what
they did with them. One of the players, the one who got sheet #4, was
unsatisfied with it. It was just a bunch of random stuff. He used it
well but it could have been better. Maybe sheet #4 should have been
the shared mystery sheet? That might have worked out better.

Disclaimer

Peter compensated for the playtesting through villages.cc .

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Myths and fairy tales

31 October, 2011 at 4:51 pm (game design)

One GM, bunch of players. Players may not get to play the same characters every session.

Characters are, for example: Hunter, Moon, Wolf, Spider, Woman. Those work as both names and descriptions – Moon is exactly and only that, a moon.

(So no, you can’t play Conan the barbarian. You can’t play Conan. You can play [the] Barbarian.)

Contracts

Player characters have contracts with other characters (player and non-player alike). Contract has value at most +3. Characters may also have oaths, with value -3 or more.

When player character tries to get another character to do something, player rolls 2d6+contract (with that character). E.g. Wolf wants Forest to provide bountiful meat for its young. Man wants Star to guide him home. Spider wants to catch Sun in its web. Soldier wants her Gun to slay her enemies. So, roll this whenever you want to do something to someone or want someone to do something.

  • On 10+: They do it if you promise to do something later; +1 contract when you fulfill that promise, -1 contract if you don’t. You may deny the deal at no cost.
  • On 7-9: They do it if you first do something for them; +1 contract if you do, -1 contract if you cheat. You may deny the deal at no cost.
  • On 6-: They may or may not do it, and make a demand. If you do it, +1 contract; if you don’t do it, -1 contract.

When player character wants to use the power of another character, the player rolls 2d6+contract. This is serious magic – roll to run as Hare, shine as Sun, burn as Flame.

  • On 10+, +1 contract and the power does what you wanted.
  • On 7-9: Select one. A: The power works as desired, but -1 contract. B: The power works mostly or almost as desired, but there are complications. C: The power is of no help at all, but +1 contract.
  • On 6-: -1 contract and the power is of no help at all.

At the end of a session, each player character goes through the other player characters. Tell them to mark +1 contract if they helped you and kept to the spirit of their agreements with you, and -1 contract  if they hurt you or wiggled out of agreements with you. You may tell them both, neither, or only one, according to their play.

If contract has value +3 and it increases, then instead set it to be +1 and get a permanent power. E.g. Flame never hurts you, you can see through darkness as if the Sun always shone, your sense of smell rivals that of Dog.

Oaths

At any point, any player character may swear an oath. The character can no longer be played by the GM at all, ever. When player select their characters, they must always first select the oathsworn ones. The oath starts at the value +1. Player character can swear several oaths (though make sure they are genuinely different).

If player character breaks an oath, the player takes it off the character sheet and they get -1 to all contracts, current and future. This stacks. The character still needs to be selected first when players pick their characters.

When character accomplishes something major in accordance with their oath (i.e. gets closer to fulfilling it, or acts as a paragon to all who aspire to follow the oath), +1 oath.

At the beginning of each session (where the character is in play), -1 all oaths.

When player character uses their inherent strengths to make their oath true, roll 2d6+oath. E.g. Knight has sworn to rescue Prince and faces Dragon in fair combat.

  • On 10+: Everything goes fine or there’s complications and +1 oath.
  • On 7-9: Choose: There’s complications or -1 oath and everything goes fine.
  • On 6-: Choose: Break your oath or -1 oath and it all goes wrong.

If oath has the value -3 and would decrease, the character instead leaves play, quickly and in a miserable way.

If character ever completes an oath, then they leave play. Check the oath’s value.

  • -3 to -1: They live their life miserably after.
  • 0: And none know what became of them.
  • 1+: And they live happily ever after.
  • Higher than highest thus far: And they live in extreme bliss ever after. The player has serious bragging rights. Keep score.

When character leaves play, that particular character can never be played again by anyone.

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Feeding gamers

21 October, 2011 at 3:14 pm (Amber, roleplaying) (, )

I usually cook something moderately edible and feed everyone before we play Amber. Nothing fancy, as my kitchen barely has room for two people to stand (the joys of living in a student apartment), but generally something edible.

I do this for a few reasons.

First one: Fed gamers are happier than hungry ones, and as we are eating people get to talk about comics, games, daily life and politics.

Second one: I like offering people food to eat.

Third: Amber has player contributions – players get points for their characters by agreeing to write game reports, draw trump cards, etc. I’ve got a GM contribution to balance things a bit. This shows certain commitment to the game, which I think makes it better.

Fourth: I think that everyone benefits from eating with other people once a while. This includes roleplayers living by themselves or in cell apartments.

This habit I highly recommend.

Easy food without recipes

Soup: Take some source of protein and enough cookable vegetables to make the food not too depressing. Add sufficient fat so the food contains enough energy that people won’t get hungry. Add salt and spices.

Omelette/etc.: Take eggs. Take whatever bits and pieces of edible matter you can find. Cook those that need it. Once everything else is ready and on the hot frying pan, add the eggs, salt and spices.

Meat and veggies: Take a lot of vegetables that can be eaten with little preparation. Fry meat or some other source of protein, add spices and salt.

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Not saving NPC dignity

18 September, 2011 at 9:48 pm (actual play, Amber, game mastering) (, , , , , )

So, we were playing Amber. There is this one NPC, lady A!Gyre of the house Meria, that holds a lot of very limited power and has been using it once or twice. She is also hidden in a place that is very hard to reach, even for Amberites.  And nobody knew she was there.

One of the player characters got in the contact with agyre. The form of contact was conversation through an old TV display, barely capable of showing colours. The picture was blurry. And on the other side there is this woman-like entity sitting on a far too tall black throne. She has a black featureless mask covering her face, and is made of stone, is the colour of stone, or is just covered with dust.

Some negotiation about who built this certain trap, and a’Gyre demands something in exchange for the information. Simeon, the character who had in his life played the part of Bond-like secret agent, offers a hot night (as reads in the session log – the exact phrase I can’t recall).

A_Gyr had not moved from her seat in ages, so the offer was surprising. She was a fairly unknown chaos entity, so it was surprising to me, the GM.

The two did end up in bed, but we not comfortable with playing through that. I and the player in question did play it out a bit – not the physical stuff, but more the emotional side and building trust and psychical meddling that happened.

Saying yes

My typical preparation for the Amber game is as follows: I have a list of stats for the NPCs, I know what many of them are up to, I have a relationship map which illustrates some of that. Further, I have the next scene for each character somewhat prepared, based on what their plans were at the end of the last session. I may also have a random scene or a few ready, for when the circumstances make it possible (if some NPC has prepared it) or when a good opportunity arises.

I also know, with varying levels of details, what has happened in the past. I also know something about how different powers and items of power function, but exploring this is a significant part of play, so much of it is unknown to me.

I knew a little about aGyre’s motivations, but nothing about personality. Would she accept Simeon’s offer? Could have gone either way, so I left it open for a bit, but than later said yes. In very certain terms – Simeon was at her court, such as it was, full of monsters and entities of unknown powers and intentions.

Status quo?

In Apocalypse world, one of the principles is to look at everything through crosshairs. Consider killing whoever your attention lands on, and do not try to maintain the dignity of NPCs. This does not translate to Amber as such as especially the elder Amberites demand some extra consideration, but in the situation – why not? I don’t have a precious plot to save, so why try to maintain status quo, and not let an adventurous Amberite get it on with a lady of a Chaosite house?

This is something for me to think about, and for something for other game masters to also consider, supposing they are playing a game where big and powerful NPCs roam the lands. Should there be a status quo that you strive to maintain? Why not let the player characters kill Elminster (or maybe fuck Elminster) – the consequences will create enough material to run the game for next sequence of sessions, and the players will be happy. Maybe I’ll look at the elder Amberites through crosshairs – blood curses expected.

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Two kinds of rpg design

14 September, 2011 at 9:53 pm (game design)

Suppose you have a specific experience or method of playing and then build a game so that it reliably creates that experience. Or maybe you play a game in certain way and want others to be able to do so, and to accomplish this you rewrite and possibly redesign the game you are playing to be accessible to outsiders in the way it is to you.

On the other hand, suppose you play in a certain way and build or tweak a system so that it supports you as well as is within your reach. Maybe you even write the results and publish them. (It might be called a fantasy heartbreaker or a set of house rules.)

The second method is not geared towards creating legible documents. The text is generally incapable of teaching the method of play that works so well for the designers. The first method requires very much writing and thinking that is mostly wasted effort if you are simply designing for your own play.

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Metaphysics of Amber

1 September, 2011 at 11:02 am (Amber) (, )

There is Amber, the only real place, of which other worlds are but shadows. There are also the courts of Chaos, ever changing, easily molded. Then there is Abyss, from which (almost) nothing has ever returned.

One way to think about it would be to take Pattern as the center of order and stability and lack of change, while have Logrus represent change and instability. But Abyss clearly is emptiness, which is totally unchanging, and still Abyss lies close to the Courts, which seems suspicious.

So I would have Abyss be emptiness while Logrus is everything. They are very close to each other, since neither can separate things from each other: None lie in Abyss, while all of them are in Logrus. Pattern, then, is structure – very far from nothing and everything. This is how an Amberite might see the situation.

But what of the Chaosite perspective? Certainly nothing is the ultimate in structure, for it (vacuously) has all the structure imaginable, and so Abyss must lie somewhere behind Pattern and Amber, if looked at from Chaos.

What of the Abyssian point of view? Well, it is empty, so there must be nobody looking, and so the issue is moot.

And what of Corwin’s pattern? Suppose it is another center of order. Is it compatible with the pattern of Amber, or do they simply not interact at all, or are their conceptions of order constantly struggling? And how does all of that look from whichever perspective one takes?

This all reflects on the use of powers when moving through Shadow. By Pattern-walking both Abyss and Logrus are distant from Amber, but maybe for the Chaosites, however they move, both Pattern and Abyss are distant places. Or do some Chaosites wield the powers of Abyss, or do some other entities? Then, for them, both Logrus and Pattern would be far, however they move.

Yet, as a further complication, it is tedious to shift Shadow near Amber. What of the other powers, and how well does Pattern work near the other centers of power? What of Corwin’s pattern, and initiates to it?

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Level or skill advancement idea

27 August, 2011 at 6:07 pm (dungeon crawling, game design, game element)

Levels or skills should advance when they are used, but Basic roleplaying (Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, etc.) makes it awfully slow, while Burning Wheel’s approach requires inelegant tables and book-keeping and system mastery.

The idea is: For each class or skill write a list of fictional actions.

So, for fighter in old school game:

  • Fight a superior foe
  • Fight against superior numbers
  • Protect an ally in combat
  • Avenge someone close to you (kill the orcs who burned your father’s farm, say)
  • Recover an ancestral weapon or piece of armour
  • Use an ancestral weapon or piece of armour
  • Recover a weapon or piece of armour of legendary status
  • Use legendary equipment
  • Slay a beast of legend
  • Lead an army
  • Survive a siege
  • Be the master of a company of mercenaries
  • Conquer a castle
  • Establish a stronghold
  • Keep a stronghold

Whenever an action is accomplished, mark it.

Once you have marks equal to next level or rank, erase all marks and increase the level or rank by one.

Note that the list includes things that fighters do, and likewise people who do those things are fighters, to some extent at least. At low leves fighter only need to fulfill their role in the party, while at high levels they need to build a legend of their own and influence the world in order to advance.

As a further bonus, this gives a nice way of estimating NPC strength. See how many things you mark, and that is an upper bound for their level. How many things they certainly have marked at the same time? That’s the lower bound. Lord of a castle in an area of constant warfare certainly has led an army, survived a siege and kept a stronghold at the same time (so level at least three), but may also have conquered a castle, led mercenaries, protected an ally in combat, fought against superior numbers and against a superior foe and avenged someone close (so at most level nine).

It is easy to change the conditions and at the same time change what fighters are in the setting, and who are fighters in the setting.

For further complexity, training: Obviously it could be yet another action. But maybe it is automatically erased when the character stops training. Otherwise, better action would be to train under famous/more skilled/legendary master.

Or consider: Add some actions that depend on character race or alignment.

Or: Have players build the list when starting play, or adding a new entry at the beginning of each session, or when someone levels up that class or skill.

There’s some limitations, of course. You would not want to do this in a game system with huge list of skills, or then you would have to have each character only develop a handful at a time.

Skill reduction can be handled like this, too. Write one action, or several actions, or absences of actions. When they are marked, the player has the option of reducing the skill or class level in question. If the players opts to do so, then they get some compensation equal to the marked actions and the marks are erased. Some tokens, say.

Similar rules: Magical items in Earthdawn (IIRC), keys in Solar system (the reduction is buy-off), this thread about Dungeon world.

In other news

I’m running two Amber games at Tracon (if there are players – last year it was an anime convention with some roleplayers huddling in a corner) and maybe giving away some rpg and maybe fantasy books I no longer use.

There has been several updates and one playtest of diceless/nopaton, which now lives on Google docs. It is still in Finnish. The major change is that now there are some principles for playing it. And there is rotating player (and hence game masters, sort of).

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Ropecon acquisitions (+ diceless)

7 August, 2011 at 9:28 pm (Nopaton, roleplaying-games, Ropecon)

So, Ropecon is done. I played one game of D&D 3,2 (rough estimation), which was okay since the sights along the railroad track were nice, and game mastered one game of Dogs and one Amber throne war. Dogs was mediocre, Amber went well, but I picked up no particular lessons from either. A few more contacts, though.

For Ropecon game masters there is GM loot, from which I picked up Tähti (Star would be the English translation), a game about maoist teenage mutant girl band in near future Finland, designed by Mike Pohjola. It is basically freeform with some fortune cookies thrown in for good measure and inspiration. The people one should play in the game are quite alien to me, as is the background of girl bands. There is some advice, but not enough to get me interested. So not my game. If anyone local wants to GM it, I’m giving it away. Or, if there’s no takers, I’m giving it away at some con (Tracon, maybe) to someone interested in GMing it. If there’s still no takers, well, bookcrossing plus some convention ought to do the trick.

I also bought Vincent Baker‘s Apocalypse World a bit after the con, when the Arkenstone people were able to actually sell games, and not only sandwiches. (It is somewhat complicated.) From simple read-through it is a good game, which does most of the things I like about Burning Wheel, but adds useful rules for game mastering and is lighter on rules that involve players. The game mastering tools should be highly applicable to traditional games that do not focus on combat, or only on combat, and where there is not a ready storyline to follow. World of darkness, Amber, Burning Wheel, maybe Solar system, that sort of stuff. I posted a bit about applying it to Amber on the AW message boards.

Also worth a read: Baker’s post on concentric game design.

And for the Finnish audience: New version of nopaton. Sekä laajempi että yksinkertaisempi kuin edellinen.

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Diceless in Finnish and other unfinished projects

26 July, 2011 at 11:40 am (Amber, dungeon crawling, game design, Ropecon, Solar system) (, , )

I developed the ideas of previous post a bit, cleaned them up, and wrote them down in Finnish. It is not done yet. It is free of copyright, so do whatever you will with or to it. Here’s the link: diceless

WordPress does not allow uploading .tex or .txt files, so if you want the .tex source for the PDF, feel free to ask. You can then recreate the PDF with LaTeX and easily modify it, change the appearance, remove the aesthetically unpleasing hyperlinks, or whatever you want to.

I also have two other PDFs that may have content of interest. I have not really worked on them for a while, and if I do so, it will include rewriting and in case of the old school project redesign from scratch. The projects are scifi material for Solar System (in Finnish) and yet another attempt at old school system (in English). Links: huomisenvarjot and OSrpg. A fair warning: The writing and presentation are horrible. These are more first drafts than anything else.

As previously, the .tex and .bib (bibliography) files are available on request.

Now I’m off to meet relatives and then to Ropecon, where I’m running one throne war of Amber diceless and one town of Dogs. Back online after a bit more than a week.

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