Monday, 22 August 2016

A Quiet Night In

File this under 'Playsets That Never Were': it's one of two rough ideas for playsets that I toyed around with as additional content for Blood & Water but just couldn't quite make the concept gel. I think Nick Reynolds had the right idea in pitching a strong, distinctive setting for the game and going from there as usual, which is the approach I use myself at conventions now and I recommend to anyone else wanting to give a taster of the game to others.

Still, there's this...


The Best Laid Plans

Morgan, Tara, Walter and Jean share a house in an unassuming part of town: they keep themselves to themselves and have undemanding jobs that pay the bills. Also, they are not human: Morgan is a banshee, who is drawn towards the dying; Tara is a succubus, who feeds upon male lust; Walter is a djinn, who just can't stop himself from granting wishes; and finally, Jeanette is host to a legion of disembodied spirits who need to be contained lest they inflict great harm upon the world.

It's best for all of them if they have as little contact with the human race as possible, but's what best is not always what's done and compromises must sometimes be made. Tonight, they are all going to get very compromised.

This playset provides the complete resident's book for each of the above four characters, plus suggestions for the mediator to weave this into an appropriate narrative for a one-shot.

Better Off Dead

Colin Morgan as Morgan O'Neill
I am...   Morgan O'Neill, a banshee.
But I was... a paramedic with stress problems.
I crossed over when... I was taking an emergency case back to the hospital when the ambulance I was in crashed and something crossed over from the patient to me.

I cannot be with mortals because... the more intimate I become with them, the more aware I become of how long they have left to live.
but I'm held back by... my old mates from the Aston Villa supporters club; I keep trying to encourage them to live a healthier lifestyle.
I cannot be with my own kind because... they operate in total secrecy and I don't know anything about them or how I came to be like this.
but I'm drawn in by... the Whisperer, a strange entity I have seen watching me from the shadows but have never been able to catch.

My supernatural...
Strengths are...  I become invisible in shadows & darkness; nothing escapes my hearing; I can tip the scales of life & death.
Weaknesses are... I get disturbing impressions of how people will die; the sight & smell of raw or cooked meat makes me sick; whenever I try to smile, it looks forced & unnatural.

Personal
What do I want that I don't have? An intimate relationship.
What's stopping me from getting it? I just can't stop trying to 'fix' the life of anyone I date.
What do I have that I don't want? A chest freezer full of steaks, burgers, chicken wings & sausages.
What's stopping me from losing it? I'm holding it all for the AVFC fan club, as they have nowhere else to put it.

To do... prepare the house for guests, as the AVFC are coming around to watch a European league match tonight.

The Centre of Attention

Antonia Thomas as Tara Effe
I am...   Tara Effe, a succubus.
But I was... a sex worker.
I crossed over when... I was stabbed by a client, but the pendant left to me by my grandmother saved my life, at a price.

I cannot be with mortals because... heterosexual men are drawn to me and keep trying to win my attention.
but I'm held back by... needing to work; at least the call centre I work in now is nearly all-women and I have a female boss.
I cannot be with my own kind because... they keep encouraging me to punish all mortals harshly for their transgressions.
but I'm drawn in by... the Goddess Isis; she protects me and keeps my heart beating.

My supernatural...
Strengths are...  I can remove a mortal's inhibitions for a time; my kiss makes people lose their short term memory; I can make any adult male who is attracted to me do exactly what I say.
Weaknesses are... I can't help attracting the attention of men who like women; my body temperature far exceeds the human norm and I always feel too hot; I am indebted to Isis for giving me my life.

Personal
What do I want that I don't have? A way to avenge myself on the man who tried to kill me.
What's stopping me from getting it? His father is a powerful local figure, with connections to the police and politicians; the whole thing has been brushed under the carpet.
What do I have that I don't want? I have been commanded by Isis to seduce a holy man, as part of her plan to regain her worshippers.
What's stopping me from losing it? When I disobey Isis, she punishes me by with-holding my life essence.

To do... prepare the house for guests, as the girls from work (including your boss Vivian) are coming around for a product party, where you can all get make-overs and try out different looks.

What You Wish For

James McAvoy as Walter Allen
I am...   Walter Allen, a painter & decorator.
But I was... a powerful djiin.
I crossed over when... A mortal tried to steal my powers for himself, but it didn't have the result he expected and I ended up possessing the empty shell of his body.

I cannot be with mortals because... I don't really understand their idiom and keep taking what they say too literally.
but I'm held back by... my fascination with their lives; this is much more liberating than being a djinn and the mortals don't know the fun they're missing out on!
I cannot be with my own kind because... they have rejected me since I was bested by a mortal sorcerer and imprisoned in this form.
but I'm drawn in by... my desire to reconnect with my great love Azrael; now that I am unbound by my djinni oaths, I can dream of us being free together.

My supernatural...
Strengths are...  I can summon forth any material or object that I can picture clearly; I can hold time still for a few moments; I can change my shape into that of anyone I have a picture of; I can create fires hot enough to burn absolutely anything.
Weaknesses are... Fires tend to get out of control when I'm around; I can't resist giving people exactly what they ask for; I can be bound or repelled by simple rituals or tokens; water burns me like acid.

Personal
What do I want that I don't have? Freedom for all my people.
What's stopping me from getting it? They're so set in their ways, they all see 'freedom' as chaos & anarchy.
What do I have that I don't want? I've taken on two clients at once, who both want a rush job on their new interior designs.
What's stopping me from losing it? If I break the contract with either of them, or let them down, my professional reputation will be in tatters.

To do... finish the two design proposals you have on your plate, with both clients e-mailing changes and revisions at every step.
Also, someone is coming around to fix a blocked pipe: everyone else in the household keeps leaving the organisation of these little jobs in your hands, as you work from home a lot anyway (and no-one ever knows which personality will be in control of Jean at any time.)

We're In This Together

Christina Ricci as Jean Bailey
I am...   Jean Bailey, a host to dispossessed spirits.
But I was... the rebellious daughter of rich parents.
I crossed over when... I got into a crowd of disaffected youth like myself; an experiment with drugs & occult rituals brought me to death's door but I came back with unwelcome guests.

I cannot be with mortals because... I never really know when one of the spirits will take control of my body and make me do something awful or embarrassing.
but I'm held back by... needing to find a way to get rid of my guests, maybe by helping them to complete their unfinished business.
I cannot be with my own kind because... there is no-one like me, but there are other ghosts who keep trying to join the crowd in my body.
but I'm drawn in by... needing to know more about the afterlife and the otherworld; maybe I can find an escape clause somehow.

My supernatural...
Strengths are...  When 'Simon' possesses me, I have x-ray vision; when 'Laughing Bag' possesses me, I can move objects with the power of my mind; when 'Baby' possesses me, I become completely insubstantial; when 'Mr. Pelt' possesses me, I am inhumanly strong & fast.
Weaknesses are... When 'Simon' possesses me, I get the urge to correct what everyone says; when 'Laughing Bag' possesses me, I get the urge to play nasty tricks; when 'Baby' possesses me, I become completely insubstantial; when 'Mr.Pelt' possesses me, I must spill blood.

Personal
What do I want that I don't have? A good night's sleep, free of nightmares.
What's stopping me from getting it? The other spirits possessing me get up to all kinds of things when I sleep.
What do I have that I don't want? Ms. Paley, a 'fixer' who works for my parents and keeps interfering in my life.
What's stopping me from losing it? The only way they'll call her off is if I go home and face the music, which could mean one of my 'guests' hurting them.

To do... have a spiritual consultation with Paul Grace, a self-proclaimed exorcist & occultist with a degree in divinity; he's coming around tonight.

Let's Get This Party Started!

Take a good look over those residents with a mediator's eye: you should already see some potentially troublesome issues cropping between them, e.g. Tara makes people lose their inhibitions and say whatever is on their minds, but Walter keeps trying to give people whatever he thinks they want; Jean has a problem with the spirits possessing her but Morgan can tips the scales of life & death. That's just the tip of the iceberg though, we haven't even got to the clash of guests coming around to the house tonight:
  • The AVFC fan club: four mates of Morgan's, all men, here to wish their team the best in the match tonight whilst necking a load of food & booze that Morgan stores here for them.
  • The girls from the call-centre: five of the women Tara works with, including Vivian her boss and Suzanne, a girl who is getting married soon.
  • The plumber: he's coming around to clear a blockage, which means finding exactly where it is for one thing. As Walter was stuck with calling for him, Walter is also stuck with showing him around the house, but Walter has work he'd rather be getting on with.
  • The exorcist: found by Jean on the internet, he's here to consult with her, but she's hoping to get an exorcism out of it too, they just need some peace & quiet.
Not enough? Here are more problems:
  • When Morgan's mates get a look at Tara, they will hardly be able to think of anything else and will keep finding excuses to bust in on the product party in the other room. Morgan will barely be able to stay in the room with them once they start tucking into their bacon butties and chicken burgers, so another housemate might have to police this.
  • The woman providing the products for the product party is actually Ms. Paley: though introduced as a friend of one of the girls, she has deliberately inserted herself here to find out more about the type of people that Jean is living with and report back to her parents.
  • The plumber and the exorcist are about to arrive at the same time, quite possibly describing why they are here in roughly the same terms to whoever opens the door, i.e. "I was called about the problem; you wanted something clearing?" Hilarious confusion may ensue.
Honestly, there are more potential threads here than you could hope to resolve in an entire day of playing and you will likely find your own story from the elements contained within the residents' books, without needing anything extra. The key aspect of play is keeping everything within the house: if any housemate tries to run out to do an errand, then complicate it by having one of the guests from the two parties accompany them, e.g. any member of the AVFC could follow Tara or attempt to find out more about her from one of the housemates, or Suzanne could come out for a breath of fresh air, looking for someone to confide her wedding nerves to, or have a last fling with!

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Nightmare Housemates from Hell!

My second full game is now available on DrivethruRPG: Blood & Water is an original, stand-alone game, not a PbtA hack or indeed a hack of or supplement for any other existing system. Here's the back cover blurb:

There’s this werewolf, a vampire and a ghost who share a house... but this is no joke. As it turns out, death is not the end for everybody, though it usually puts an end to your social life. Somewhere between being human and being a monster you’ll find the characters in this game: people who cannot return to the family they knew but aren’t ready to embrace the thing they have become. They say that blood is thicker than water, but when your own blood turns against you, you have to find a new kind of family, one who will accept you for what you are.

The inspiration for the game come from two sources, which fused in my head several years ago and dropped the idea on me from out of the blue. Firstly, I was a huge fan of the BBC TV series Being Human, as no doubt many of you can tell from the references in the blurb above: it was a skillful blend of the supernatural and the mundane, positing that undeath did not mean the end of your life. Over five seasons, they peeled back the layers of the everyday world to expose the things that creep underneath, with our viewpoint characters being a trio of once-human-now-supernatural beings who had to find their own ways through the strange new world they had been plunged into. The focus was on how they could balance their desire to live a normal life with the demands & vulnerabilities of their new forms, plus those who shared it with them: Mitchell the vampire was seen as a potential new leader by his own kind to begin with, while George the werewolf desperately tried to ignore his wild side and rejected others like himself. Even Annie the ghost struggled to come to terms with her mortality as she uncovered some terrible truths about her ultimately shallow & selfish ex-boyfriend. Watching the show really put me in the mood to play a game like that, but I didn't know where to begin.

Then along came Monsterhearts, which tore apart some of the traditions of RPGs: dark, messy, conflicted relationships were right at the heart of the drama and sexual attraction ran rife among these young, hot, inhuman heroes & anti-heroes. As with all my favourite games, you built the situation from the characters chosen by the players, instead of getting the players to make characters to fit the situation you had created. Everything stemmed from the characters' decisions and actions, snowballing forward in a clusterfuck of hormones, angst and rebellion against the norm.

I toyed with the idea of using Monsterhearts to pitch a Being Human-style game, but like most PbtA games, Monsterhearts set up histories, small nuggets of backstory that loosely bound the PCs together, but these were often adversarial: it pre-loaded the game with PvP conflict, which was great for that style of game but didn't entirely suit the themes of Being Human. To me, the latter adopted an 'Us vs. The World' mentality, with the main characters bonded together in their shared desire to live as human a life as possible and not succumb to the temptations offered by their inhuman nature: they were recovering, co-dependent addicts in a world of triggers just tempting them to relapse.

Being Human (BBC)
This idea crystallised in my head as I reached the end of the first Monsterhearts campaign I played in and I recalled the wise words of a fictional character: you have to get behind someone before you can stab them in the back. All of a sudden, the bare bones for the basic mechanics of the game I wanted to play clicked into my head, taking a little inspiration by way of the trust mechanics in many excellent games like The Mountain Witch and Cold City. Rather than play around with bonuses accrued by placing trust in the other characters, what if you literally got another player to roll the dice for you? Any victory was yours, but their character had to foot whatever bill you ran up in the process.

That was the seed of the idea I took to Indiecon that year: a page of A4 with the rules in annotated bullet point form and some hand written character questionnaires to be filled in. Luckily, I got some players: even more luckily, the game worked, with only one minor tweak needed to how dice-roll modifiers were applied. I went home from the convention with nearly as many notes about the game as rules for it and began to write things out properly, putting in suggestions for how to create characters and their situation. One of the interesting things that developed was the emphasis on getting the players to draw a house-plan of the home their characters shared: I'd picked up this mapping technique from other story games and was using something similar in The 'Hood, the urban crime game I was also developing at this time.

The real mark of success for Blood & Water came when I realised that not only were some of the people I had run the game for now running it for their friends, but some of  those people were now running it for their friends. This is also about the time I started getting asked "When are you publishing it?" on a regular basis, so this went to the top of my list for rigourous playtesting and expanded content to support potential GMs and players. Along the way, another source of inspiration popped up by way of the excellent dark comedy mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows: though very different in tone to the other sources, it fit well within the parameters the game design allowed for and it was nice to see other people who had played the game pointing out how well it would work with this.

The final and by far the trickiest part of writing Blood & Water was the section on guidance & advice for the GM: analysing how I ran the game for others and then codifying that in some way seemed like an impossible task, much like trying to see the back of your own head. As part of this, I was determined to create a quick-start playset, intended for conventions and other one-shot situations, but the harder I tried, the less enthused I became with that prospect: the real joy of the game comes from the collaborative creation of characters and their situation. In the end, I decided it was better to commit to that vision entirely, rather than drop a bunch of oven ready PCs onto new players and tell them "Here's the scenario you have to play through."

What We Do in the Shadows
The thing I like the most about Blood & Water is that I haven't grown tired of it: it's a situation creator with endless possibilities that copes with a range of tones from slapstick comedy to appalling tragedy, often at the same time. Every time I've sat down with it, I've had no idea what's going to happen, even with players I've know for years, and each time it's created a bunch of unforgettable moments that people still talk about away from the table months or years later.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Mouthpiece

This is a short freeform ideally suited for 3 or 4 players in a comfortable location: some prep is required, but this can also serve as an excuse to bust out the art & craft skills of your group. If you use this as a lunchtime or teatime game, you can add culinary skills to the mix too.


Meet & Greet

Before you can play, you need to agree upon a situation the game will explore: something simple and domestic works best, but you can add genre elements to this in order to spice things up.
  • Meeting the significant other's parents... and you're all vampires.
  • A neighbourhood watch meeting... in a post-apocalyptic world.
  • Tea after the weekly church service... for the Cult of Dagon.
  • A baby shower... for the mother of The Foretold One.
  • A monthly book group meeting... for superheroes and their sidekicks.
Additional genre elements don't change any of the rules that follow and you get no additional mechanical benefit or penalty from them, no matter how much you think you should, e.g. if you are
playing a telepath, you get to add that as colour to your narration but you can't actually use that ability as leverage against the other players to find out what their characters are thinking.

 Try to pick a situation that accords with your play setting, not something that jars with it strongly: convincing yourself that you are sitting on the bridge of a starship is a lot harder with a coffee table, bookcase and chintzy wall-paper looking back at you. If you're playing in your front room, then set your game in a location that resembles that as far as possible.

As part of selecting the situation, everyone must also select the characters they will play, e.g. if going through the classic 'meet the parents' set-up, then you need a parent or two, their child and their child's new partner. It's almost inevitable here that characters will diverge from players and some of you will end up playing a role that is much younger or older than your own, or that is at the very least dressed differently from you... but if you can go the whole hog, prepare the game in advance and get into costume, go for it!

The last bit of prep requires some printing or drawing, as well as cutting and sticking: try doing this as a group activity too! What you want is a series of cartoon mouths each depicting a different emotional state, including at least one of  each to represent happy, sad, angry and shocked, but add more to taste. Glue each of these onto a lolly stick or use Blu-Tack to affix them to a ruler or the handle of a paint brush, then place them so that everyone can reach them easily. You will also need some small paper hearts, also with Blu-Tack on them: give two of these to each player at the start of the game and place the rest with the mouth-pieces.

Speak for Yourself

You play Mouthpiece as a series of dialogues, with two characters taking centre stage while they discuss a topic, but you don't always get to speak for your own character: each of you takes a turn to be the Interlocutor, who frames a dialogue that they want any two characters to have, including their own. You can pick a topic and suggest it, or you can just say which two characters you want to hear from and leave it to them what topic they discuss.

Every player always gets to portray what their own character is doing, acting this out if possible, but narrating their actions otherwise; this is the case whether your character is part of a dialogue at the time or not, so even when you have not been selected to speak, you may still act your role, you just can't contribute to the conversation.

When you are the Interlocutor, you speak for all the characters taking part in it, whether your own or someone else's: the only time you can speak for your character is when you are speaking in your own framed dialogue. When you are in a dialogue framed by another player, they always speak for your character.

When the Interlocutor frames a dialogue for your character, you can discuss their motivation openly before the dialogue begins, as well as establishing any history between the two characters concerned. Before the dialogue can begin, you must decide whether to wear your heart on your sleeve or to hide your heart away (unless you are the Interlocutor, in which case you just speak freely for your character without these rules):
  • Wear your heart on your sleeve: take one of your paper hearts and stick it to your sleeve; the Interlocutor then chooses a mouth-piece for you, which you must hold up so that it covers your own mouth.
  • Hide your heart away: keep whatever hearts you have hidden; choose any mouth-piece you would like and hold it up so that it covers your own mouth.
The Interlocutor speaks for your character during the dialogue, having both sides of the conversation, but they stay faithful to your choice for your character: if you wear your heart on your sleeve, then what they say is how your character truly feels, but if you hide your heart away, then your half of the dialogue must be a lie or pretence that hides your true feelings. The Interlocutor must also stay true to the emotion depicted by your mouth-piece throughout the dialogue, e.g. if you choose a smile, then the speech the Interlocutor provides for you must be happy, not sad, angry, etc.

A Change of Heart

During a dialogue, you may change your mouth-piece once in order to change the speech provided for your character by the Interlocutor, but you may only do so by changing your heart.
  • If you are hiding your heart away, you need to wear your heart on your sleeve in order to change your mouth-piece.
  • If you are wearing your heart on your sleeve, you need to tear your heart in two in order to change your mouth-piece.
Once you have changed your mouth-piece, the Interlocutor must change the speech they provide for your character accordingly, matching the mood the new mouth-piece represents; once you are wearing your heart on your sleeve, your speech must become an honest representation of your character's feelings, not a pretence.


When you tear your heart in two, do it: take the paper heart from your sleeve and tear it into two pieces. You now have one heart less to play with, but you are granted some freedom in return: whenever you tear your heart in two, you may drop your mouth-piece for a moment and speak one line for your own character, saying whatever you like. In this way, you may change the dialogue radically, disagreeing with whatever the Interlocutor has spoken on behalf of your character, breaking any promise you have just made, denying or altering your prior statements, etc.

If you reach the end of any dialogue with your heart on your sleeve, you get to take another heart from the supply; if you tear your heart in two, you lose it for good. If you have no hearts left, then all you can do during dialogues is hide your heart away, except for when you are the Interlocutor and may speak freely for your own character if you choose.

The game ends when everyone has had one, two, or three turns as the Interlocutor and everyone has been in a dialogue at least once or twice, depending on the time you allocate for the game: count up the hearts you each have and compare them. Anyone with no hearts left must break off their relationships with all the other characters and leave that social circle for good; whoever has the most hearts at the end gets to dictate the future for all the other characters who have any hearts left, though they may each tear their heart in two to disagree with or change any statement made about their character in the summary.

Thanks to Nina Conti for the inspiration, and to Lloyd, Elina and Nick for permission to use their images.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Saving Throw Down

Explicit Content Warning! This post is NSFW and contains explicit sexual references and profanities; it is not suitable for anyone under the legal age of consent and probably not anyone over the legal age either. Do not attempt to play this game with strangers or friends, or at all, really.

...

I think it might work with someone you were fucking, though.


Whores on the Orient Express

This game does for published scenarios what the porn industry does for Hollywood: it turns them into porn. That's the whole premise of the game, which is intended to satirize... something or other, I don't know; look, they can't all be deep, socially relevant metaphors because sometimes all you want is a good shag.

So, first off , get some players who are prepared to actually do this, but choose very carefully: this isn't just about being sensitive to other peoples triggers and limits, but to your own too. I've had the misfortune to become the vector for someone else's sexual fantasies in what was otherwise a perfectly innocent role-playing session and it left me feeling dirty & used (and not in the good way; you know what I'm talking about.) Yeah, we're all British here and get really uncomfortable talking about sex, but this is a comedy game, you see, so that makes it all fine and we can laugh uncomfortably and pretend we don't occasionally want to jump some of the other players.

You're reading this so you're going to be the GM; yeah, you try telling someone else about this game and asking them to run it for you, see where that gets you (in court, possibly; still, maybe this would work as a pick-up line in the right gaming circles.) First thing out of the gate, you need a published scenario... no, wait, don't go away, this isn't a trad game, it just uses trad games as a tool, like a sort of oracle. Take your scenario (or "module": I'd forgotten that was even a thing until I started doing some research for this game) and give it a porn name. Oh yes you do know what I mean, don't look so innocent, it's the way Saving Private Ryan became Shaving Ryan's Privates or Brokeback Mountain became Bareback Mountain. I've given you an example in the header for this section and I'm sure you can think of more; you can even make it part of the game setup, asking the other players to brainstorm a name and that's actually a much better idea, I should go back and re-edit this paragraph to make myself look cleverer, but I can't be arsed. Some other examples are Keeping It Up on the Borderlands, Pale Ass of the Silver Princess and of course Journey to the Cock; I would suggest that modules like Slave Pits of the Undercity and The Secret of Bone Hill might not need any alteration.

Character Procreation

Instead of creating characters as you normally would for that scenario, just don't do that; yeah, just skip that shit and tell everyone who you're playing. Use your imagination, really go to town, Mary Sue the arse off your character and don't really worry about it; I mean, this is a goddamn story game, who needs any of that stats and shit? Don't forget to give them some porn potential though, because they are mostly going to be having sex with a variety of other characters.

Some of you are going to want to have 'comedy' characters with silly names... yeah, ok, if you must; personally I think it works best if you play the characters seriously (or as seriously as they can be played in a porn movie) and just emphasize their sexual characteristics. Yes madam, your Paladin can have an enormous codpiece! And I can't recall the last time I saw a Barbarian who didn't look like they were in a stripper costume.

The same rules apply for non-fantasy adventure scenarios and in fact it's probably a bit easier to take investigators of cosmic horror as porn stars seriously, but please don't mention the tentacles. Oh, OK then, if you must.

Live Action

The first rule of Saving Throw Down is that you do not talk about- ...no, wait, that's something else. The first rule of Saving Throw Down is that you don't need rules for Saving Throw Down: you're only using the scenario for its plot, so ignore anything it says about rolling dice, tracking scores and so on. You don't need combat rules; you don't need to hold back clues until the characters ask the right question of the right person at the right time in the right way and roll the right result; forget that shit, just play the game. If you're a thief, then you're going to sneak past shit unless there's a good reason not to; if you're a pugilist, then you're going to win a fist-fight 90% of the time. When you're GMing, obey Wheaton's Law and don't be a dick: let the PCs be good at the stuff they're supposed to be good at.

The mechanics for Saving Throw Down kick in for that other 10% of the time, when the PCs are up against a difficult obstacle that they don't have the right skill-set to overcome or when they confront NPCs and have to find a way to deal with them. There are three techniques that a PC can use to overcome such obstacles, these being Innuendo, Filth and Sweet Talk
  • Innuendo: suggestive, subtle and euphemistic, Innuendo is about expressing yourself obliquely, so you can always pretend you meant something else if challenged.
  • Filth: raw, upfront and direct, Filth occurs when you express your lustful desires in a crude way to the object of that lust.
  • Sweet Talk: charming, seductive and persuasive, Sweet Talk is a way to express your admiration or affection for another... and get them into bed.
All three techniques have their place in the game and are triggered under different circumstances, with their own unique resolution systems: find the one that suits your character the best and push your luck with it as far as you can.

Innuendo

This is self-triggered when the GM presents you with an obstacle outside your skill set that you wish to overcome or when you meet a friendly or neutral NPC you must negotiate with; it doesn't work on hostile NPCs, but it does work on other PCs as a means of negotiating with them. Yeah, it brings a whole new meaning to PvP, baby!

Innuendo is resolved with verbal sparring, between you and the NPC/PC or between you and the GM for inert obstacles such as locks, traps, rickety bridges and so on. The PC who triggered the Innuendo Duel always goes first, by coming up with some witty, original and apt innuendo:
For example, a non-thief PC tries to pick a lock  and triggers an Innuendo Duel by saying "I'm not sure my big tool will fit in there..." or tries to sneak up to a guard to knock them out and says, "One blow is all it takes for any man..."

If the target doesn't respond with an innuendo of their own, then the PC succeeds; if they do respond, then the ball is back in the PCs court;  the duel continues back and forth until one side fails to respond.
With our second example, the GM responds by saying, "Well, this guard is harder than most..."; the PC says "I can finish him with a couple of strokes..."; the GM is left speechless, therefore the PC succeeds.


A response is only legitimate if it is an innuendo, if it is original and if it is apt to the situation; it's not an innuendo if no-one gets what you mean or you speak too directly ("Well, I'll just fuck him then!"); it's not original if it's already been said in this duel or the same dialogue has been used during this session; it's not apt if it doesn't refer to the current situation. Anyone at the table can object to the use of an innuendo on any of these grounds; if the consensus agrees with that objection, then the innuendo is disallowed and the player loses the duel.


Filth

This is self-triggered when any PC uses crude, sexual language, including but not limited to (look away now!): boobs, cock, cum, dick, fuck, prick, pussy, shag, tits, wank, etc. Also arse or ass, depending on which side of the Atlantic you're on; intent counts as much as the word itself, so referring to a well-fed pair of parus majors by saying "Look at those Great Tits!" doesn't count. I won't censor your language, use whatever terms your group is comfortable with, but don't complain to me when you get thrown out of the hotel.

Filth is an attack move, so you use it on NPCs whom you want to best in combat or some other physical challenge; you can also assault inert obstacles this way, overcoming them by brute force. When you use Filth, you must immediately engage in a Filth Challenge with whoever or whatever you directed your words at. A Filth Challenge is resolved by both parties playing Rock-Paper-Scissors, or in this case Fist-Spank-Finger: I'm sure by now you appreciate the theme I'm working up here.

If you're not familiar with Rock-Paper-Scissors, this is called the internet, so just fucking Google it, ok? For the purposes of Saving Throw Down, the three hand gestures are rebranded, therefore Rock=Fist, Paper=Spank and Scissors=Finger; Finger beats Spank, Spank beats Fist and Fist beats Finger, Jesus Christ what have I become? I hope my mother never sees this. Anyway, the winner of the challenge also wins the fight or conflict and gets what they wanted from it; when an inert obstacle loses a Filth Challenge, it is also broken as a result.


Sweet Talk

This is triggered by either the GM or a PC when, in character, they express their admiration for someone else and what they would be prepared to do for them, such as "I would not stand in the way of that perfect body, you may proceed as you wish, but first, a kiss perhaps?" When you Sweet Talk, you don't have to be all lovey-dovey with the hearts & flowers, you can express yourself how you wish, as long as you are direct without being crude, so another acceptable form would be "By Crom, never have I seen such mastery of the sword! I will fight at your side, if you will fight at mine!" The conditions for Sweet Talk are that it must include both sincere flattery or admiration and the offer of an explicit deal, which triggers a Sweet Talk Negotiation.

Sweet Talk Negotiations are just that: both sides talk about what they want from this deal and come to an arrangement that suits them both; the one thing you cannot do is turn down an offer flat: once the negotiations have been opened, you must conclude them to the satisfaction of both parties, even if what they get out of it is merely a token of what they requested or offered.
For example, Melinda congratulates Jennifer on the excellent quality of her fruit scones and asks for the recipe; Jennifer demurely suggests that she might part with the secret, in return for Melinda promising to play the harpsichord at the next music recital that Jennifer is organising. They engage in some genteel discourse, at the end of which it is agreed that Melinda will star in the music recital, in return for both the recipe and some of Jennifer's home-made blackcurrant preserve. They then get down and nasty with each other on the parlour floor.


Ménage à trois

Duels, challenges and negotiations are separate entities, so keep them apart: it can be hard to avoid Innuendo when making Sweet Talk or to avoid descending into Filth when you're meant to be engaging in Innuendo, but whichever form was first is also last. If a conflict starts as Innuendo, then it also ends as it and any deviation into Filth or Sweet Talk by either party is seen as a failure for them; the same applies to Filth and Sweet Talk. In the latter case, if you deviate from your Sweet Talk Negotiation into Filth or Innuendo, then the other party instantly succeeds and closes the deal on the terms they last offered.

Wait, What About the Sex?

I was just coming to that: the porn aspect of the game comes about at the end of any and every conflict involving two or more characters, since every such scene always, without fail, ends in sex between the parties concerned. All sex that takes place is consensual; there is an implicit pact between the GM and PCs that they will never portray their characters as being sexually unavailable, all characters are open to sexual escapades with all other characters. If that doesn't float your boat and you want more say in who your character gets off with, you're perfectly within your rights to exercise that option, but do it in another game, otherwise you're choosing to play in a wargame as a conscientious objector.

At the end of every conflict (a Duel, a Challenge or a Negotiation), the winner of the conflict closes it by framing a sexual encounter with the loser; this should never be represented as the loser being forced into sex with the winner, though there may be some element of coercion, such as in closing a deal. The winner gets to frame a single aspect of that encounter, whereupon the loser can build upon that in a standard back-and-forth dialogue. Start small, if you like, with unbuttoning a shirt or sharing a kiss; on the other hand, you can cut straight into the action, with the two characters stepping under a waterfall together, naked.


"Boom-chick-a-wah-wah!"

I'm not trying to squick out anyone playing this game and neither should you be (though you have to question anyone who signs-up to play and then gets squicked out by the mere mention of sex), so there is a safety net rule that should be employed often and without hesitation. The moment anyone at the table feels that a sexual encounter has gone on long enough or has become too graphic, they can curtail it immediately by saying "Boom-chick-a-wah-wah!" The scene closes and the game moves on.
For example, Kristana of the Blue Veil has emerged victorious from a Filth Challenge with her arch-foe, Nekrothor the Enshrouded, so they now move on to a sexual encouner; Kristana banishes all of Nekrothor's artifacts to another dimension, which happens to include his robes, leaving him naked; he responds by snatching her blue veil to cover his member, only to discover she too is naked underneath; with a mystical gesture, she commands her veil to weave itself around his wrists, forcing him to reveal his aroused for the love of God, won't someone say "Boom-chick-a-wah-wah!"?

Continue playing in this manner until you reach the end of the scenario; as there are few encounters that need extensive implementation of game mechanics to resolve them, with combats being decided on a combination of the PC's skills and a quick game of Fist-Spank-Finger, plus the GM giving away clues and information as opposed to hiding them, you may well get the whole scenario resolved in a short space of time.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Zombie Dice: Rerolled


There are a lot of games out there with their own customised dice, which is fine for the game they are designed for, but what about using them in other ways? 'Rerolled' is all about re-purposing custom dice to get more game play out of them, focusing on dice included with board or card games rather than those designed for promotional purposes or for use with a specific role-playing game.


This will be the first game tackled by Rerolled where the dice have no numbers on them at all; the players in Zombie Dice take on the role of zombies who are chasing after living humans in search of tasty brains to eat. You get a set of 13 dice with the game, which appear in three colours and there are only three different symbols that appear on these dice:
  • Brain: You get to eat a victim's brains!
  • Footsteps: Your victim gets away.
  • Bang: Your victim shoots you!
The three colours of dice denote three levels of danger: green dice have more Brains than Bangs; everything is equal on yellow dice; and red dice have more Bangs than Brains. To make another game around these dice, we want to exploit these features (the red/yellow/green colouring and the special symbols in place of numbers) but also we have a pool of dice to play with, so we can make use of that too.

Shooting the Dice

Hard times make hard people, everyone knows that, but do hard people make hard times? If we're all out to grab what we can, because there isn't enough to go around, maybe we're the reason there isn't enough; maybe we're all just getting exactly what we deserve.

Shooting the Dice is a noir storytelling game about bitter pragmatists doing what they must in a city that doesn't care about them one way or the other: succeed, fail; get rich, go broke; live, die; it's all the same in the end... but while you live, maybe you'll get a chance to change the way things are.

This is a game for four players without a GM, but there are optional rules for adding a GM to the game further on; in addition to the dice, you'll also need a standard deck of playing cards, some tokens and the play-sheets provided on this link.

Cloverleaf

Every game of Shooting the Dice requires four characters who are each derived from one of the four
play-sheets: the Club, the Diamond, the Heart and the Spade. Everyone has to use a different playbook, so you can't have two Clubs in the game, but you can create a different character each time you use a playbook: the Spade you play this time is a private detective but next time they might be a corrupt cop or a concerned family member. When you take your play-sheet, choose one of the options for the type of character you are, name them and give them a short, punchy description.

For example, the player of the Heart chooses to make them 'a naive dilletante', naming them Peter Forsythe, the heir to his family's fortune who would rather be an artist in Paris.

At the start of the game, you use the suggestions on the play-sheets to create an interlocking narrative for the four characters: this can be a single story that unites all their lives via a common thread; it can be four pairs of stories that go around in a circle; it can be a story where one character is central to the lives of the other three; or it can be two entirely separate pairs of stories that intersect at a common point.

For example, the Spade's story is 'overcoming my bad reputation', while the Diamond's is 'finding out who's out to get me.' The two players agree that the Diamond has hired the Spade to find his blackmailer, knowing the the Spade is the kind of detective who will work outside the law to get things done; the Spade isn't happy about the arrangement, but the Diamond offers him a lot of money to take on the job.

After discussing the starting point for the characters' stories, deal out one suit of cards face down to each player: the Spade gets all the spades from the deck, the Heart gets all the hearts and so on; keep your cards face down in a single deck beside your play-sheet. You also take three tokens and place one on each of the 'Green' squares on your play-sheet, but you may choose to slide any one token down to the 'Yellow' square and draw the top card of your deck, turning it over and putting it face up on the opposite side of your character sheet to your deck. This will start you off with a slight advantage when it comes to resolving portions of the story, but you will be closer to getting into very deep trouble too.

Hard Times

To play the game, you each take a turn to frame a scene for your character: state where you are and why you are there, asking if any of the other characters are also in the scene with you. Generally, the more characters in a scene, the more choices you have when resolving it, but sometimes you want a scene with some minor characters so that you face less opposition to what you do. Every other player either plays their own character or a minor character in your scene, though they can also simply observe and make suggestions instead of taking a direct hand in the action. When you play a minor character in another player's scene, you should still portray them using the theme of your play-sheet, e.g. Power for the Club, Money for the Diamond and so on.

For example, the Club frames a scene in an illegal gambling den, where they have come to confront a rival who has muscled in on their action; they can ask for any other characters to be there or they can say they only want minor characters in this scene. In the latter case, the Diamond chooses to play the rival, the Spade plays the croupier who is dealing the cards, but the Heart sits this scene out, though they may still contribute to the colour of the scene and suggest how background characters might react to the action.

Every scene needs at least one action in it, something that you do on your turn to push towards the outcome you want: this is where the Tough, Fast and Discreet tracks on your play-sheet come in. Each track is a measure of your character's ability and can be used in many types of action:
  • Tough: your physical & mental resilience; can you keep going and stay cool?
  • Fast: your physical & mental agility; are you quick enough to stay ahead of trouble?
  • Discreet: your physical & mental caution: can you slip through someone's guard?
An action can be triggered by you or another player: sometimes you will want something and the way to get it is to take action, but other times another character in the scene will threaten you and you will have to take action to deal with that. It is always you who takes action in your scene, not any other player, but the player who triggers the action decides whether you need to be Tough, Fast or Discreet to get what you want.

For example, the Club is building to making a demand of the Diamond, intending to be Tough on their action, but the Diamond beats them to it by saying that they flip up the card table and make a run for the exit; if the Club really wants that confrontation, their going to have to be Fast!

When you act, you roll: pick up a die of the correct colour (corresponding to where your token is on the track for that type of action) and roll it:
  • Wise: if you roll a brain, you get what you wanted; you succeed at this action and you may choose to draw one card from your deck or that of the character you were acting against. Also, all face down cards you have are turned face up.
  • Legwork: this will take a little more effort; your action only partially succeeds but it leaves the door open for more action later. You may draw a card from your deck or that of the character you were acting against, but you put it face down by your play-sheet instead of face up; turn your face down cards face up the next time you get a Wise result.
  • Trouble: you failed at this totally and suffer a little as a result; you don't draw a card, but you do move your token one square down on this track, from 'Green' to 'Yellow', from 'Yellow' to 'Red' or remove it entirely if you are already on 'Red.' Once a token is removed, you can't regain it and you automatically fail at any action of the corresponding type.
For example, the Club rolls a Fast action to catch up with the Diamond: their Fast token is currently on 'Yellow', so they are equally likely to get any result.
  • On Wise, they catch the Diamond and get them to agree to back off out of their territory; they may also draw one club or one diamond card and place it face up beside their play-sheet.
  • On Legwork, the Diamond gets away in a taxi, but the Club overhears where they are going and can pay a visit later; they may take a club or diamond card and place it face down by their play-sheet.
  • On Trouble, the Diamond leads the Club into an ambush, where the Diamond's minions rough up the Club; they have to move their Fast token down one square to 'Red.'
Some scenes might require more than one action to resolve them satisfactorily, but no player should ever trigger more than one action per scene, e.g. you can't extend your own scene indefinitely by triggering action after action.

Dealer's Choice

As you play, you will collect a set of face up cards in front of you which can be used to add various twists & turns to the story: every play-sheet contains a list of plot twists that any player can spend cards to activate. You can use the plot twist abilities on any play-sheet, not just your own, as long as you have the required cards to spend; when you spend cards, they go back face down in the deck for that play-sheet, e.g. all heart cards go back into the Heart's deck once spent, all club cards go back into the Club's deck and so on.

While you can achieve most of the same results as these plot twists by taking actions in scenes, spending cards for a plot twist simply makes it happen, at any time: you can activate a plot twist during any player's scene, not just your own. Also, a plot twist trumps an action, so if you spend 2 spade cards to reveal that the butler was blackmailing another character, then that overturns anything already established in the fiction about who may have done it and it can only be overturned by spending 3 spades: you can't change that fact by making it the target of an action. Once anything becomes locked though (by spending 4 cards of the appropriate suit on it) it cannot be changed by any means, neither actions nor further plot twists.

For example. the Spade is in a scene where they are attempting to track down a hoodlum who has threatened their client, hoping to find out who paid them off; the Heart, who has 3 heart cards, interrupts by spending 2 of them to establish that the hoodlum is actually the Spade's old partner, who has fallen on hard  times. Later, the Heart spends 3 more heart cards to change this and states that the Spade's old partner actually has a grudge against them for a perceived wrong and has been working behind the scenes against them all this time.

You can also gain cards directly, without taking actions, by making a deal with another player: you make a deal in order to push one of your tokens up the track, from 'Red' to 'Yellow' or from 'Yellow' to 'Green.' When it is your turn, frame the scene with the character you want to make the deal with: you can come to some arrangement with them in addition to taking actions in your scene, but the deal must be struck first. The deal consists of a formal arrangement between the two characters, where they negotiate how one will assist the other: when you strike a deal, you move one of your tokens up one square on it's track and the character you struck the deal with draws one card from your deck and one card from their own, putting both cards face down in front of them.

For example, the Heart has fallen on hard times and has their Discreet on 'Red', while both Tough & Fast are on 'Yellow', so they seek a deal with the Diamond: they frame a scene of going to the bank the Diamond works in to ask for a loan on favourable terms. The Diamond replies that they might consider this, if the Heart renounces their interest in someone that the Diamond is attracted to... reluctantly, the Heart agrees, so they push their Discreet token back up to 'Yellow', while the Diamond draws one heart and one diamond card, putting them both face down by their play-sheet.

The Joker

You can make room for a GM-like role in this game if that's your preference, which also allows a fifth player to take part: the Joker gets no play-sheet, no deck and doesn't get a turn of their own, but they can influence the game in a number of ways:
  • The Joker plays all minor characters in the game and controls the colour of each scene: other players may make suggestions or requests, but they only play their own characters throughout the game, no others.
  • The Joker gets to trigger one action on every other player's turn, whether they are taking an active part in that scene or not: they can establish obstacles or challenges as needed to trigger an action.
  • When you roll Trouble on any action, the Joker draws a card from your deck and puts it face up in front of them; the Joker may spend these cards just like any other player.
  • You can only make a deal with the Joker, in their role as a minor character: you cannot make deals with other main characters. When you make a deal with the Joker, they draw two cards from your deck and put them face up in front of them.
The Joker is quite powerful, but they depend on the main character's stories, they don't have one of their own: they reflect the mood of the city and the consequences of what the main characters do, but they can't drive anything to happen by themselves.

Monday, 20 June 2016

A Life of Games

It's been some time since my last post, again, so this is more of a catch up than anything else: there's some good stuff, some bad stuff and some very personal stuff, so skip this if you just want new game things (though there are some new game things mentioned haphazardly.)

So, all the way back at the end of March, when I last posted, I'd recently started a series of posts under the banner title of Rerolled (and there are still more of those to come: one is about one-third complete at the moment of writing and I have ideas for at least two more after that) and Concrete Cow was a pleasant memory... well, kind of pleasant. The day itself was as wonderful as ever, marred only by Neil Smith's announcement that, after 10 years, he was stepping down as organiser and handing over the reins of authority (the moment had been prepared for) but in myself, I was not happy. In the three months preceding this day, I'd lost my father to a sudden acceleration in his long-term illness and also the children's centre where I had worked for a dozen years had closed its doors for good, so two big tent-poles in my life were abruptly jerked away. I suspect other people noticed on the day my lack of energy or enthusiasm, which affected my morning & afternoon games, both play-tests of systems I'd loved creating but was finding it hard to remember why.

Which brings me onto the first good game thing: New Gods for an Old Town,the self-contained playset for Just Heroes, my super-heroic hack of Apocalypse World. I've had a chance to run this playset at two different conventions now, with 8 different players, and I'm quite happy with how it works: you don't get the full experience that you would in a true Just Heroes campaign, but you get a good feel for how the superpowers work, how the characters interact and how it creates an authentically comic-like experience from those things. It's persuaded me that the hack works, mechanically, but I still need at least one lengthy, multi-session play-test to really find all the kinks and bumps so I can smooth them out.
The playset comes with four ready-to-play characters who are built from the double-playbook style of the Just Heroes rules: each hero is composed of an Origin and a Style, with the former guiding the player though creating their origin story and the latter giving them a selection of powers they can use, either beginning with them in play or acquiring them as they advance.

Back at Concrete Cow, I recovered my mojo at the end of the day by standing up to 'GM' (I can only use the term loosely) an 8-player game of Newton, a very fast and loose, back-of-a-fag-packet game that we playstormed back at Indiecon 2012. The basic conceit, that various sci-fi B-movie monsters, aliens, mutants, androids and mad scientists have been co-opted by the British Government and now live in a purpose built, secret town, goes down very well, but weaving a story out of the chaos that ensues is hard: I think one player suggested that there should be no continuity between games, as Newton is obviously going to get destroyed at the climax of every game.

Speaking of Indiecon, that was the next setback that had to be endured: since first attending back in 2010 to shamelessly pimp my Game Chef entry Never to Die, this has been the gaming highlight of my year. Comprised of a very long weekend devoted to small press & home-brew RPGs, it's a place where you could get players for a game of just about anything at all: 300 dedicated gamers, looking to play morning, noon and night, would sign up to anything, even a blank sheet (yes, I did do that on a bet and all the players who signed up got a glass of the champagne I won.) After announcing a potential price rise in February, due to negotiations between the organising committee and the new management at the site where the con was held, this was followed by news in April that Indiecon would not be going ahead after all; combined with my ambivalent feelings about GMing at Concrete Cow, this left me with a long, blank future of no-gaming ahead of me.

Image result for severn valley railwayIf the three things that keep you going in life are family, friends and career, by mid-April all three of mine had received critical damage and I simply ran out of impetus: the world was going on and I didn't particularly care if it left me behind. With no reason to go out, I virtually stopped doing so, venturing as far as the local shops every other day for essentials; thankfully, I had my partner Philip's support, so I wasn't in dire financial straits, but I wasn't socialising with anyone other than him. I think  I had one good day out, when he took me on the Severn Valley Railway, a restored heritage steam service that runs the 16 miles between Kidderminster and Bridgnorth: it was a beautiful day that drew me back out of my slump for a week or so.

Generally though, things didn't get better and it was only the prior commitment I had made to run games at the UK Games Expo in June that I was holding onto: not in the sense that it was giving me the hope to carry on, but it was the last obligation I had to dismiss, after which I would be unencumbered by any commitments. My thoughts spiralled downwards, I sunk into despair, my temper shortened and overall I was looking forward to a time when I could somehow fade out of the world altogether.

Fortunately, come the start of June, the UK Games Expo turned out to be great: there were significant changes to the venue this year, as the hotel was given over almost entirely to RPGs, with the trade hall relocated over to the NEC a few minutes stumble away. A friend in need of a place to stop over made use of our guest bedroom the night before the convention began, so it was an excuse to practice socialising again and remembering how to talk to people: there were more friends at the Expo itself, plus lots of new people to meet as well and, overall, excluding the odd hiccup that could be laughed off, I ran three games I was very happy with, providing a metric ton or two or entertainment to the 13 players I had across the two days I attended. The rest of the weekend was given over to my partner, with whom I had a lovely unwinding day on Sunday before venturing out on one of the hottest, brightest days of the year to enjoy a quiet Monday afternoon in one of the many splendid heritage parks in the midlands.

Somewhat recharged, I began to contemplate writing games again, something that had turned into a Sisyphean task in the preceding two months: the Rerolled articles had been left on a bit of a cliff-hanger, so I relit the fires under those ideas and let them simmer. Also, I had promised myself that I would publish New Gods for an Old Town after its UKGE playtest, so I got on and did that. Things started to thaw and move in my mind again: perhaps not as freely and fantastically as they had in my productivity peaks, but steam was building and I could feel some solid ideas bubbling up, things I was keen to do and try out. Some more playing had to be done, so I rustled up a game on Google Hangouts: after a false start or two, I finally got my game on, on-line, with at least one more session in the pipeline.

Which brings me up the present day and the wheel that keeps on turning: following on from Indiecon, one of the other great UK conventions held at the same site, Conception, also announced that it would cease to run, not just for this year but for the foreseeable future. This is a great blow to the UK gaming scene, it was possibly the largest RPG-devoted convention in the whole of the British Isles and had attracted guests from Europe, America and maybe even further afield in its time. It was a highlight of the UK games calendar, people looked forward to it, prepared special games for it, turned their lodges into bar/restaurants at it! It was where I met gamers who have become, I hope, lifelong friends and I will apologise to them now for not sharing many of the thoughts on this blog with them sooner, but if coming out as queer is hard, then coming out as depressed is a hundred times harder.

So as not to end on a bleak note, my writing seems to be getting back on track and today I did something I haven't done for quite a while: this morning, I sat down to write a new short story-game and this afternoon I published it on Drivethru. Some of you will recognise Underfoot from it's earlier appearance on this blog as the first subject of Rerolled but this is a slightly meatier version with somewhat tweaked rules: as before though, you play a fae-creature or wizard's familiar trying to get by in a city that will crush you as soon as tolerate you. It's not a metaphor, but I can't stop you from seeing it that way if you want to.