It works!

9 May, 2008 at 9:19 am (game mastering, persistent fantasy) (, , , , )

In which I will gush about the actual play of the game I built in the previous post; first, a few words about In a wicked age, then the actual play.

In a wicked age

The game that inspired this one; if you want sword-and-sorcery, a light but important system and episodic play, I can really recommend the game, assuming it plays at all like my hack does. For more information on the game, see the rpg.net index (and linked review), this rpg.net thread (or the relevant seach results), or search the Forge for relevant actual play.

Actual play

Players present, in no particular order: Ari, Thalin, ksym. Players not present: Wgaztari. Hence, no victorian game. The random generator, which I tweaked a bit before play to provide slightly more explicit NPCs, generated the following:

A conjurer who needs blood to entice his uncouth spirits.
A troupe of musicians for hire, one of whom is a burglar and cutpurse.
A seerstone, one of only five, which rumours suppose to be close to the entrance into the underworld of lost souls.
The site of a pitched battle, ground churned and stinking, and the widows mourning there.

Thalin first claimed the burglar/cutpurse/musician, Ari fixated on playing the seerstone, while ksym after some pondering chose to play a one-armed veteran of the pitched battle. The game kinda drifted towards somewhat oriental flavour, so the final characters (at chargen) were:

  • Lông (bad musician 6, ninja training 3, liar 4) played by Thalin
  • Chen Pong (merchant 4, stone 5, fat 4) played by Ari
  • Kyo (ronin 6, one armed 3, fast 3) played by ksym
  • Martoh (summoner 5, fighter 4, spirit guardian 4), an NPC

Quick and shallow characters, much as they should be. I told it doesn’t matter and is in fact positive. Mister Chen Pong requires some further explanation (if Ari plays Chen again, the traits will probably be changed to reflect this). Chen’s one eye, usually covered, is (IIRC) an emerald. Chen does not know this and to him the eye does not feel extraordinary.

On that note, I just now notice that I managed to misread one of the entries: The seerstone is “supposed to be close”, not “supposed to close”, a gate to underworld. Well, no matter. Other things were ignored or altered slightly, too. The widows were totally ignored and the uncouth spirits somewhat turned into demons of Christian mythology. Not to mention “burglar and cutpurse” evidently meaning “ninja”.

Crafting the situation

It did not take long for me to draw connections between three of the random elements: Certainly the site of pitced battle is exactly what is necessary for a summoner to open a gate to the underworld (which was implied by the seerstone). I asked if any PC had connections to the summoner; it turned out that the Chen Pong the merchant has a deal regarding a barrel of gunbowder, for which a small opal was given as a payment before the deal and more were implied to be the reward for providing the barrel in a fairly discreet manner.

Where does this leave the others? Well, in the same tavern as the merchant, of course. Of Kyo’s background it is known that he was healed in a nearby monastery (which later turns out to be a Christian one) and tended by one sister Victoria residing therein. Lông and the related troupe of four musicians get some meager food and lodging in echange of performances.

The plot threads are created

The musicians play (Lông pretends to). Kyo is drinking. A young man or woman, shaven completely shaven of all (visible) bodily hair, including eyebrows and lashes, enters the tavern He or she is wearing robes that are somewhere between grey and black in colour. People first fall silent, then nervously start talking about anything but the hairless one, who walks straight to Chen Pong, handing him a sealed letter. The letter containts instructions on where to deliver the gunpowder and when (a burned building midway between the monastery and the only local mountain, at the this midnight).

Soon the hairless goes away, merchant Pong asks the tavern’s owner about the young one. He instructs not to ask more. Kyo sits nearby, yet reacts not. The troupe stops playing, Lông sits next to Chen the merchant, orders some milk (cue random jokes), steals a few gold coins from Chen and finally pays his milk with one. This is first time the rules as used; Thalin rolls 3d due to ninja training, Ari 2d due to merchant 4. Thalin is the victor and suggests the aforemention stealing, which Ari accepts. Tavern keeper is quite impressed with the gold coin and soon offers a meal.

Some interaction between Chen Pong and Kyo, Chen and Lông, happens. End result: Chen offers to provide Kyo with some fairly rare rice beverage from a certain village, further notices that some coins of his have been stolen, one troupe member called Jin is more-or-less framed by Lông, is chased away by Kyo who doesn’t catch him (but gets on the list due to failing the roll), after which all the player characters gather outside near where the musician got away (the vile rogue!). Ari adds trait “suspicious towards artists 1” to Chen, ksym “suspicious towards vagabonds 2” in imitation.

A serving wench from the tavern addresses Lông, provides him with an iron key to his room for the night, should he wish to take it, then goes back to the tavern. Lông soon follows, enters his room, goes to rest. Chen Pong hires Kyo to work as a bodyguard and the two take Chen’s wagon and start their way towards the meeting point, though Kyo first wants to visit sister Victoria in the monastery.

Tying some threads together

Visiting sister victoria at night involves waiting and an illicit deal with a monk who greatly appreciated a soft pillow and traded it for a nice, hand-crafted prayer carpet.

Lông gets a visitor; the aforementioned tavern wench. They try to make each other drink the provided wine; end result is Lông taking 1 harm and the wench being drugged to sleep (after some hours that were promptly skipped when playing so that people may imagine whatever they will). Lông leaves through a window, immediately after which a trapdoor on the floor is opened and six robed, hairless young ones come in, pick up the drugged woman and lock the trapdoor behind them. Lông runs to catch the two other PCs, who do not expect him.

Aside: I so wanted to get Lông there. Who has ever heard of evil summoners using beautiful women as sacrifices? Well, the dice roll as they may and random serving wench is not a terribly powerful opponent, generally speaking.

The grand climax

Chen and Kyo are at the burned house. The stone walls are still standing, but roof has burned away. The doorway is covered by a curtain that serves as a temporary door. Chen’s eye feels a bit strange. There is someone playing a flute inside the ruins; Lông, now present, recognises it as Jin the alleged thief, who did not play quite that well before the occasion.

Kyo rolls the barrel next to the doorway, Chen enters first. Inside there are the following: A naked serving wench tied to an obsidian altar. A bonfire. Jin, not very attentive, playing the flute between these. A warrior, sword on his belt and a sacrificial dagger in his hand, waiting. Some initial hostile reactions avoided the trade is sealed: Six of the hairless kids carry a small chest, which containts a small fortune in opals and gold, to the merchant’s wagon; then they carry the barrel of gunpowder inside what remains of the burned house.

Every PC is ready to depart. Lông reveals his presence. First there’s some hesitation but then the PCs decide to go and rescue or kill whoever is in need of either. Chen Pong sees the doorway fluttering, as if in wind, but the others see no such effect. The action: Lông enters the building, Kyo is about the follow, Chen starts playing with fireworks aimed towards the doorway, which takes some time. As Lông brushes aside the makeshift door and steps in, the situation is as follows: The six young ones are holding vessels with gunpowder and are standing around the bonfire. The pace of the music has been ascending; the summoner is preparing to use the dagger. Oh, yeah, and the curtain-door dissolves into something of a living, axe-wielding shadow that attacks Kyo at the Summoner’s behest. (It is the summoner’s very own death spirit guardian shadow demon. Something to that effect, anyways.)

Kyo and the demon start dueling. Lông utilises the blowpipe hidden in his flute against the summoner (dice favour Thalin, whose suggestion I accept) who is hit, drops the dagger which cuts one hand of the (right now very drugged) woman free from the bounds, then staggers some steps backwards and (my small addition) draws out the spirit of poison, which starts fluttering around him.

Kyo and the shadow duel; Kyo is clearly better at it, even if his blows are not terribly effective. They do drive the spirit back to the building, where the energies involved in opening the gate fortify the spirit again (2 more dice due to summoning 5 of Martoh the BBEG). The dice favour me and my suggestion is that the shadow is, finally absorbed into the blade that Kyo uses; it is accepted. New trait: Demon sword 3. (Summoner consequently loses the relevant trait.)

Chen Pong fires one of the prepared fireworks. Dice get rolled (doorway has 2 dice; 2 seems to be a decent arbitrary number for random enviromental obstacles); the doorway wins and my suggestion that the projectile hits one of the young ones, who spills gunpowder around; particularly, upon the woman (and Jin the flute player). Such happens, the projectile then goes up and explodes pretty harmlessly there.

Kyo gets there and starts fighting the summoner, who is pretty overwhelming due to the demonic sword being the summoner’s pet. Pretty intense bit of fighting ensues, end result being that Kyo gets a small wound and two drops of his blood end up on the altar. Meanwhile Lông is busy saving random people, which involves jumping into the bonfire and slapping the flutist, and so forth.

Chen’s eye starts seeing things; there had been random ominous signs some time before, but now
there is an actual gate inside the bonfire; it is small, but grows slowly. Chen walks to the gate and the bonfire it is around gives way. The summoner approaches Chen, Kyo gets in the way, there’s dueling and finally Kyo defeats the summoner.

The gate is bound by an iron crossbar, but something big is striking at it from the inside. Chen knocks on it and a window appears. There’s negotiations with demons, which don’t seem to be going too well be fore Lông starts playing music; such bad music is something the demons can’t stand (and the three dice give some extra weight to the negotiation). The final deal: Demons get the summoner (who is in need of what they call training, having failed in opening the gate), some of the rice beverage and some fireworks, but don’t open the gate by themselves.

Everyone leaves the scene; Lông had saved all the hairless and evidently enchanted young ones and now grabs few opals from the chest before leaving. Kyo and Chen Pong leave with the drugged girl and the wagon.

Everyone lives happily ever after, or at least until the next game where they take part. Chen Pong gets trait “rich 3”, Lông gets “rich 2” and The current list with strikethrough indicating that the character is no longer on the list (at least in that position).

  • Chen Pong (Ari)
  • Kyo (ksym)
  • Lông (Thalin)
  • Kyo (ksym)
  • Martoh (Tommi)
  • Chen Pong (Ari)
  • Kyo (ksym)
  • Lông (Thalin)
  • Lông (Thalin)
  • Martoh (Tommi)

The setting

Here’s what is known about the setting: There are somewhat oriental lands, there are also mroe European-themed lands with Christianity dominating. There was a war between these two. There is a tavern with at least one room designed so that people sleeping there can be captured. There is a monastery of mixed genders (strictly separate). The monastery is very close to the war zone, but was not pillaged.

Running the game and theoretical blathering

There process of running the game is not mechanically complex; to use DNAPhil’s terms, the hard skills are not terribly complicated. The way dice work is complicated to explain in words, but very intuitive in play.

The process: First, use the oracle to generate random inspiration. Then guide players in character generation and explain how the game works. Once all the characters are somewhat done it is time to weave them together. Players are a great help here, especially those who sometimes GM. The trick is to have enough plot threads to make the situation interesting, but not too many so that it doesn’t explode all over the place. One session only to solve all of them. Either I have accidentally learned to do this or got lucky. (We did play past midnight, but that is not unheard of.)

In actual play try to win all rolls and suggest interesting stuff. The players are good enough to beat you every now and then, but there is little reason to play soft with the resolution. You can’t accidentally kill anyone off or otherwise screw their characters, because they get to shrug off unwanted consequences by taking harm. Essentially, the players have total control over their character concept, but if they are blocking everything, the character will be harmed enough to drop from play.

Note to self: Thalin is a powergamer and good at it. This particularly means that I have the responsibility to hold him in check by throwing some nasty consequences at him. There’s always harm as an alternative. So, next session will involve stress-testing the system when real pressure is applied to at least one player.

Resolving conflicts

There’s the traditional way: Player tells what he tries, rolls dice, GM tells the success or failure and describes it (or lets the player to describe it). There’s the hardcore Forgish way: What happens upon success and failure are negotiated before the dice are as much as touched. (I usually live between those two, though closer to the Forgish extreme.)

This game used a third way: First roll the dice, then negotiate. This has the good aspects of stake-setting, in that everyone must know why the dice are on table, but this is faster, as the margin of success kind of implies how significant the suggested results can be and only one outcomes needs to be negotiated. Further, the way traits are gradually brought into play creates narration during the conflict, which often implies certain consequences and hence guides the process.

It is interesting how this resolution feels extended while actually being mathematically equivalent to just rolling all the dice at once and being done with it. I guess it is the extra narration and the fact that the dice can shift who the conflict favours mid-conflict, even a few times.

Fictional content

I relied heavily on stereotypes (and so did the players). It may not be necessary with a group that has enough common history, or if the session can take a long time. One should not think too hard about such things as a cohesive setting or sensible villain actions, if there is a villain.

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Hacking together a game

6 May, 2008 at 11:51 pm (game design, game element, persistent fantasy) (, , , , )

Vincent Baker a.k.a. Lumpley has published a game called In a Wicked Age. Being the cheap bastard I am, I won’t buy it (unless Arkkikivi/Arkenstone stocks it, at least), but will rather hack together something vaguely similar and play it.

What makes the process fun is that I have neither played nor read IAWA.

Components

The parts are, in no particular order, the List, the mechanics, the way resolution is used, and the random generator. Their implementation is explained after first explaining the components on more general level. And, as before, there’ll be one GM as a default assumption.

The list

This is stolen more-or-less directly from IAWA. Whenever a certain condition is met, the relevant character is added to the bottom of the list. Character can be crossed off the list by the player of that character to get a bonus. Whenever a game is played and the list is not empty, a number of characters from the top of the list are automatically in the game and their names are crossed off.

A (short) list might look like the following, with the character name first and player name in parenthesis after it. One entry has been crossed over. (Usually, there would be a huge swarm of entries crossed over in the beginning, but that is not very illustrative.)

  • Kisfal (Gastogh)
  • Ceosinnax (Tommi)
  • Kisfal (Gastogh)
  • Mori (Thalin)
  • Animagynth (Gastogh)

The random generator

The idea behind having a random generator is that at the start of every session/scenario/story/game (choose whichever is appropriate) a number of entries is generated and those are used to build the starting situation. I personally use Abulafia, but other generators can fit the bill. If one wishes to be independent of computers writing down or printing out a suitable list is advised. Number it, use dice or playing cards or whatever.

IAWA was what sold me to the concept of using random generators like this. (Actually, a random thread or two about IAWA, but the point remains unchanged.)

The mechanics

Characters are composed of a (finite) number of freeform traits. At least one should be an archetype or profession or something similar. Each trait has a numerical value, which directly determines how many dice it is worth in conflicts where it is directly and unambiguously applicable. Halve the number for somewhat applicable traits. (The idea of freeform traits is originally from Over the Edge; the numeric value corresponding to number of dice is from somewhere.)

When two characters are in conflict they get dice as above. Not all of the dice need to be claimed at once; it is possible and recommended to first roll whatever is most relevant and then add more dice from other traits if necessary. This bit stolen from Thalin‘s current victorian game, where it is not really doing anything due to there being too few traits per character. Any flaws give dice to the opposing side. If side 1 has no applicable traits, other sides have their pools doubled and side 1 gets a single die. Good luck.

Once dice are rolled and both sides as satisfied, or have run out of traits they intend to use, the dice are compared as per a method I have used before: First remove opposing and equal dice, then the side with highest remaining die is the winner, margin of success equals the number of dice that are higher than all the dice of the opposing side.

This didn’t really work in the previous incarnation, largely because there were too few dice on the table and I used too few dice for the opposition. The lack of a sufficient number of interesting traits also made it stale. Hopefully this attempt will work out better.

One should note that the resolution is very chaotic; it is possible for a single die to turn a minor defeat into a major victory. This is very much intended, so that one who is just about to win a conflict will be tempted to use all traits, even the ones that are of a somewhat questionable nature.

The resolution

After dice have been rolled (as above), the winning participant (player or GM) suggests what happens; the losing side either accepts that suggestion or takes harm equal to the margin of failure in the conflict. This, again, is from IAWA. The idea is that the winning participant needs to suggest something the losing participant finds interesting (or be content dealing harm, which won’t actually solve anything).

The resolution generalises to several participants: Whoever wins has a total margin of success that can be divided among the opposing sides. Every side with successes above the opposition can do this. All the dice can be targeted at single opponent or they can be divided in arbitrary way among the opposition that was beaten.

This we will play(test)

This is an explanation or example of play, which reveals details not included above. Assume everything written above still applies.

In the beginning

I mixed several appropriate generators on Abulafia to create the fantasy oracle compilation I’ll be using in this game. The oracle seems to generate too few actual characters; I’ll have to see if that is an actual problem. An example of output:

Ore which seems to whisper with incoherent voices.

The guardian spirit of a foolhardy, naive, reckless and impressionable young person.

A genius of flame, imprisoned within a brass mirror. (Might be a typo; maybe should be a genie.)

Forest of Eternal Peril

What is relevant is that there are explicit and implied characters generated. There’s the piece of ore or whatever resides inside it, if anything. There’s the guardian spirit and the foolhardy youngling. There’s the fire genie. And there’s whatever, if anything, that resides in the forest of eternal peril, whatever that is.

Part of the list may be ignored; namely, if a player is not present, all entries keyed to that player are simply ignored. If the list is empty (of relevant entries), every player selects something implicitly or explicitly generated by the oracle. If there is something relevant on the list, take half the number of participants, rounds down. This many different characters, counting from the top, are included in this session. The other players take characters implied by the oracle.

Assuming three players and one GM, the cast of player characters might be as follows, with traits and their values listed in parenthesis. Starting limitations: Up to three traits, up to six dice per trait. Scaling: 1 and 2 are minor, 3 and 4 significant, 5 quite powerful, 6 a bit too powerful to be used very often.

  • An efreet (genie 5, essence of flame 4, entrapped 3)
  • A kid (street kid 4, naive 3, “The stone guides me.” 2)
  • A guardian spirit (unseen 5, protect the kid 6, mute 4)

The starting situation could be: The kid, following the whispers of the stone she carries have taken the kid to the forest of eternal peril, where she discovered a beautiful brass mirror lying on the bottom of a pond. Her guardian spirit could only watch as she scrubbed it clean…

The next task is to determine something for the characters or the players to strive for. This can be formal (a trait) or informal, but the characters should bump into each other frequently.

The play

Characters done and the starting situation established it is time to play. Feel free to skip the next paragraph; it is mostly dry mechanics.

There’s the normal narration and roleplay and so forth until a clear conflict emerges; at least two entities, named or not, are in conflict more severe than mere discussion (arguments, intimidation, swindling, … are not mere discussion). For example, the efreet wants the kid to free it. Efreets are good at bargaining (that’s their purpose), so the efreet starts with 5 dice. The kid starts with 3 dice for the entrapment, the power of which makes it harder for the efreet to be released. Efreet: {6, 4, 3, 3, 2}, kid {3, 2, 1}. After putting the matching dice aside, one is left with {6, 4, 3} for the efreet and {1} for the kid, with {3, 2} aside from the efreet and the kid. The guardian spirit protects the kid from the vile efreet’s influence: 6 dice for protecting the kid. Dice show {4, 3, 3, 2, 2, 1}. Since the kid and the guardian are allied and not the same entity, one 3 and one 2 the spirit rolled is set aside, as the kid and the efreet also lost one of both. Then another 3 and 4 are cancelled from both the efreet and the spirit. This means that the relevant sets are efreet {6}, spirit {2, 1}, kid {1}, aside several (which I won’t write down; this is a lot easier when there are actual dice on an actual table and they are moved and grouped). To make matters worse, the kid is naieve, which the efreet’s player can draw upon, giving extra three dice, which show {5, 4, 2}. Other traits are not claimed, so the final result is efreet {6, 5, 4}, guardian spirit {1}, kid {1}. The efreet has 3 successes over both opponents, the others have none. The dice are biased tonight.

So, the efreeti has total 3 successes over the kid and the kid’s guardian spirit. Efreet’s player offers that the efreet is released from the mirror, owes the kid three wishes, but the kid does not know that with mere 1 die to back it up. To the other involved player the efreet’s player suggest that the efreet can see and interact with the guardian and does not seem an immediate threat, backed with the remaining 2 dice. Both suggestions are cordially accepted. Efreet’s player changes the trait “entrapped 3” to be “Those who imprisoned me shall burn! 3”, which seems appropriate, so the GM and other participants accept. There would naturally be some roleplay involved in describing these events.

What if one of the players had not accepted the suggestions? Their characters would have taken 1 or 2 harm (kid and spirit, respectively). The meaning of harm: One can only use traits with value exceeding the total harm suffered. That is: Harm 4 and only traits with 5 or more dice can be used. This does not affect opponents using weaknesses, but does affect the harmed character exploiting the weaknessses of others. Harm is recovered only when the session/story ends, and is then recovered completely. Harm equaling or exceeding the character’s highest trait (or all traits, same thing) implies that the character is unable to do anything meaningful; maybe dead, maybe imprisoned, maybe searching for more peaceful lands elsewhere. Such characters, if they are on the list, can be encountered later.

The list, right. Current idea is that any character losing a conflict gets on the list. This condition may be too lenient, but only play(testing) will tell. More restrictive conditions in the same spirit: Only when when actually suffering consequences for losing a conflict (marginally more restrictive), only when losing a conflict and accepting the interesting consequences suggested by the other participant (as opposed to taking harm; if people take harm too often, I’ll implement this), only when taking harm (feels too limited and encourages taking harm, which I assume will not be that interesting). Crossing the name of the character you are currently playing has the following effect: If the name is on top of the list (of the characters whose players are present), get 3 extra dice. This is typically a very significant lucky incident or divine favour. If crossing the name on the bottom of the list, get 1 die. For any other location on the list, get 2 dice. This can be done exactly once per conflict per character. These dice are not restricted by harm. Alternatively, the player can choose to cross over all places where the character is on the list. This gives single die per name, and hence should not be used unless there are at least three names of that particular character present. Note that this has a significant chance of permanently removing the character from play. Take care, use wisely.

In the example, the guardian spirit and the kid get on the list. I think their order will be first the spirit and then the kid; this because the spirit risked 2 harm. If this is not sufficient to determine the order, remaining draws are handled by the GM by pure fiat (which may include asking the players if they have preferences).

A character can get on the list if and only if the character is named.

Character change

When participant feels a character has changed in some significant way, he ought to tell that to the other players and any relevant change in traits should happen immediately. Training is suitable. Saying the character has practiced something during his or her downtime is likewise suitable.

One of the more interesting possibilities is trait change due to losing conflicts: The winning participant may suggest changing, adding or removing a trait. For example, an assassination attempt could lead to traits like “crippled”, “wounded”, “They all are out to get me!” or “nervous”.

The end

Game master gathers character sheets and the list. They are persistent from session to session. Any detail generated about the game world should likewise be recorded somewhere, because emergent fantasy setting are fun and useful.

A note on design

This is very much bricolage-style design; that is, building from old parts, mixing them together and hoping they interact in good ways. The purpose is to create a game that I can play with, well, anyone, even if the groups of people change, there is irregular attendance, or otherwise separate groups are brought together in, say, Ropecon. Episodic gaming, pretty much.

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