Monday, 7 August 2017

The Continent Adrift

Over the past four weeks, I've been sharing a sci-fi supplement for Dungeon World in twice-weekly installments to Google+ communities: this is the full story of that supplement.

Chainsaw Dungeon

Image result for pulp sf cover alien worldI have a soft spot for fantasy adventuring: like many other people, I can while away a happy hour or two pretending that I'm cleaving goblins in two with my axe, setting them alight with fireballs or sneaking up behind them to stab them in the back. It's pure, simple fun, with maybe a little bit of wish-fulfillment, where I can kick back and enjoy the fantasy without worrying about real-world issues. When it comes to literature though, I prefer sci-fi to fantasy: I like my stories with wormholes & time-warps rather than myths & spells for the most part. This inevitably lead me to consider blending the two together, which caused the image of a hero chainsawing alien monsters in a techno-dungeon to spring into my head.

There has been a setting idea floating around in my head for a while, about a world used as an experimental site by aliens who dumped a lot of different sentient-but-lesser species there one or two thousand years ago and then vanished. The central conceit of this setting is that, before they disappeared, some of the aliens taught their captives how to access their advanced technology, including the master computer that manages all aspects of the experiment. Fast forward a few centuries and these access protocols have been passed down as 'miracles' by those who venerate the aliens as gods and 'spells' by those who figured out how to hack the system. It's a fantasy-campaign world that doesn't know it's actually a pulp sci-fi setting!

With the above framework loosely in mind, I sat down and seriously started to work out the premises I'd need to stick to in order to bend pulp sci-fi into something resembling an archetypal fantasy-gaming world. This is what I came up with:
  1. Civilization Is Fractured: there need to be frontiers and wild, unexplored places, not a known, safe, urbanized world.
  2. Technology Is Limited: the day-to-day tech used by the inhabitants needs to be at a medieval or pre-industrial level, so no trains, cars, radios, mass-production and so on.
  3. The Amazing Is Possible: while the day-to-day tech is of a low-level, there still has to be access to much higher technologies so that the heroes can pull off magical-seeming stunts.
  4. Monsters Are Real: it's not just about the intelligent beings here working together, there has to be conflict with other races, sentient or not.
Contemplating this, the next idea that sprang to mind was having alien abductions but on a massive scale: I wanted intelligent species of different races to mingle in this setting, but if they'd arrived at this world under their own power, that would undermine the first two premises. What would stop them from simply colonizing the whole world and getting support from their home-worlds to do so?

The Petri Dish

The world I was building had to be one that the inhabitants didn't have full control of, because they had been snatched and dumped there rather than arriving in their own spaceships: if they were being snatched and dumped, then there had to be a more advanced civilization doing that for their own reasons. This fit nicely with the older setting idea of the alien experiment world, but making it a whole world didn't feel right: why wouldn't the abductees just colonize it completely within a few generations? What would be holding them back? Well, what if it wasn't a planet but an artificial world? Something like an asteroid colony or Dyson sphere or some other constructed habitat? A non-natural world wouldn't have natural resources, so the inhabitants would find it very hard to expand beyond a limited area without fuel sources, metal ores and so on.

GatewayNovel.JPGAt this point, I was thinking of a loose cloud of artificial habitats orbiting a star: the larger ones would be cities acting as entry points for abductees, while the smaller ones would be the dungeons, consisting of exotic, strange and dangerous places that abductees could visit for their own gain. I didn't want the inhabitants to have spaceships flying them from place to place though, as that raised too many questions about their level of knowledge, so I went with a teleport-network connecting all the habitats in the cloud together. There was a little bit of the idea of Gateway by Frederik Pohl in the back of my mind here, with the abductees not really understanding the system they were using and just going to random destinations to find out what was there.

I really liked the teleportation idea, as that also neatly explained how the abductees suddenly found themselves in the cloud: I expanded this concept so that the abductions occurred at regular intervals, with the most recent wave being significantly larger than previous ones. This gave me a 'best of both worlds' set-up, where there was an established abductee civilization of sorts but it could be stirred up by new arrivals with a better idea of where they were and what might have happened to them. In all forms of this setting, the superior aliens behind it all were long gone, otherwise the story would have turned into captives rebelling against their captors, which wasn't the sort of story I was trying to tell.

The logistics of this setting still troubled me and if they troubled me, it was reasonable to assume they would trouble others as well, who would then ask questions I wouldn't be able to answer. With the size of the habitats I had in mind, how did the inhabitants support themselves? How could a city-sized ecology support a city-sized population? Where would their food and water come from? The basic foundation of the setting needed to be larger, at least the size of a country to be really plausible, but then what did it look like? How did it get day & night? Discs and rings and asteroids all seemed a bit impractical and limiting, all requiring compromises to the vision of the setting to get them to work. I asked my partner what shape he would make an artificial world in orbit around a star and his suggestion became the framework for The Continent Adrift: a series of domed habitats attached around a rotating axis! I didn't even need the local teleport network, as the inhabitants could walk to other habitats through the superstructure connecting them all, which added a whole new dimension of adventure to the setting!

Dungeons In Spaaaaace!

Now, I'm making it sound like all these ideas occurred in series, like 1, 2, 3, 4, etc, but the truth is that the creative process is a lot more muddled than that and a lot of this thinking took place in parallel, with different parts of my imagination working away at many different ideas at the same time. For example, I like making PbtA games a lot: it's good to build a game from that foundation, as it's simple enough to hack easily, familiar to a lot of people by now and also happens to produce really great stories. So, all the time I was thinking about the details of the setting for this game, I was also thinking about how to implement the rules and naturally gravitating towards the Apocalypse World Engine to save myself from re-inventing the wheel.

There's already an outstanding fantasy adventuring PbtA game in the form of Dungeon World, so I chose to hack that rather than build a game from the ground up using the Apocalypse World Engine, only to arrive at the same destination anyway. In fact, I didn't even want to hack Dungeon World, merely to supplement it: it was already a quintessential dungeon-exploring game, so the more of it I changed, the further from that ideal my game would be. The fundamental form of supplementing an existing PbtA game is the playbook, which adds a new character archetype to an existing setting, and I was already thinking of three or four playable character-classes for my game, so playbooks were definitely the way to go. I couldn't just create playbooks though, as that wouldn't really explain the setting, so I needed to include more information but I also didn't want to write up a complete setting book as that would restrict what players could create and ran counter to Dungeon World's philosophy of drawing your own maps as you explore.

With a handful of playbooks sketched out in my notes and ideas for a few more, I started roughing out the first one, the Pioneer, and realised they would also make the perfect voice for introducing the game to others. I added a datasheet as a prologue to the playbook, giving the basic outline of the setting and it's history, and decided to do the same for all the other playbooks, using each one to provide the necessary details, rules and content for the game. These voices got a lot stronger the more I wrote and insinuated themselves into my thinking about the game: the original concept of the Warden drifted away from a knight errant into a wild-west sheriff just because I enjoyed writing in that voice so much!

Form & Function

I shared the Pioneer playbook with some communities on G+ to see what feedback it got, but I already had the next playbook almost complete, had started work on the third and had made notes on three others. Very early on, I knew that I wanted to keep as much of the Dungeon World design as I could and to deviate it from it as little as possible, so all the stats and Basic Moves remained untouched, but I wanted alien races rather than fantasy ones and I just couldn't justify alignments to myself at all. The alien races were pretty easy, arbitrary choices: I wanted to avoid 'bumpy headed humans' and with the unlimited budget of the imagination, I could make my aliens look like anything at all.

Image result for crane birdAeriths were my first idea because I thought the bird-like image made a good contrast with humans, which also brought with it cultural ideas of nesting, flocking and so forth. I built on that whilst trying not to get too stereotypical and made them suspicious and insular, with a low-tech level compared to humans, putting them somewhere in the bronze or iron age. Their look is something of a cross between a crane and a kingfisher or hummingbird: elongated and elegant but with a show of colour. Across the eight playbooks I eventually wrote, I used the voice of an aerith three times to showcase their different personalities and also drop in a few suggestive turns of phrase: they're the Apothecary, Scrapper and Warden, in case you were wondering.

Image result for pangolin
I wanted a real contrast for my other sentient aliens and just decided to use pangolins as the basic shape of them, hence the name 'gola' calling that to mind, but in my subconscious, a little bit of tardigrade got into the mix, so they aren't all sweet and cute. They got an intermediate level of technology, industrial but not electronic yet, bringing to mind the Victorian era, which then informed their culture and personality types. I like the idea of them being seen as bossy and over-confident by the other sentient races, as that can manifest in a variety of different ways: the Pioneer was a classic gola right from the start, but the Augment and the Chorister showed how that trait could display itself as faith or piety as well.

The classic Dungeons & Dragons tropes of Good, Evil, Law and Chaos had to go: it was fine for a fantasy setting with magic, gods, heavens and hells, but stuck out like a sore thumb in a sci-fi framework. I wanted to keep some equivalent of that though, so I thought of some political or social questions that characters could stand on different sides of: the one I liked most was what do we do here? All the abductees are trapped, but some of them want to go home, some of them want to take control of their prison and others don't care either way, they're just happy to be alive and well with all these opportunities in front of them.

Condensing all the necessary information for the playbooks into that limited space lead directly to another creative decision and I stole from myself for this one. Taking the idea of upgraded moves from Just Heroes, my superhero PbtA game in limbo, I was able to offer moves at both the 2-10 and 6-10 levels just as in Dungeon World, but without having to take up space with two separate lists.

I used a quote as a title for the first datasheet and that became a feature of all of them: some sprang to mind, such as the Arthur C. Clarke quote about technology and magic, but others I had to search for, which lead to a mix of classic and contemporary quotes. The first two are probably the best summation of the game's overall philosophy though, that the world is wonderful & strange and that the things that seem most wondrous of all can be explained with science if you just look for long enough and ask the right questions.

Now & Next

You can download all eight datasheet & playbook combinations at this link, though this is still an alpha draft and therefore subject to change, but I would like to share my reflections on the experience of writing this supplement. First and foremost, it didn't go where I expected it to: my initial idea had that cloud of small, separated habitats as a centrepiece, but I just couldn't make that into a living, breathing world without sacrificing some of my fantasy-adventure premises. I changed the setting in order to preserve the tone I was aiming for, something I must keep in mind for the future, but I still think that 'cloud of habitats' setting might find a place in a game I create one day.

The process of writing the installments also changed my plans for them, as I initially wanted to present the datasheets in a detached, authorial tone, but that last paragraph at the end of the Pioneer's datasheet inspired me to give each installment a distinct voice. Some of them were stronger than others purely because of my past role-playing history and reading preferences, with a sheriff from Deadlands and a witch from Terry Pratchett's Discworld series pushing their way in.

I like condensed writing and see it as a challenge to see how much game I can fit into a limited space: the two cheats used to do that here were first, assuming knowledge and familiarity with an existing game, and second, splitting the supplement up over eight installments, so that each one could be read separately even though you'd need all eight to really play the game. This struck me as a versatile and useful technique: I've dabbled with it before, but this was my most successful effort in that direction, inspiring me to use it for a different game. One thing I really like about Dungeon World is the design of it's playbooks, such as making the choice of Race & Alignment an integral part, rather than requiring a separate chapter to explain it all: an Elf Ranger gets a different benefit from a Human Ranger and that's all you need to be told, the rest is left up to your own creativity and shared understanding with your play group. About half-way through writing The Continent Adrift, I had an idea for using analogies for Race & Alignment in a different context but still in this installment-based, playbook-&-datasheet model. I've begun my next short-term writing project already, another PbtA game tentatively entitled Worlds in Motion...

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Situation: Comedy!

If comedy is tragedy plus time, then you should probably read this later, but if you will insist on reading it right now, then here are some rules for a light and simple comedy story game for around four players.


Related imageFirst things first: what is your story going to be about? You can pretty much pick any premise you like, as long as everyone who is going to play feels confident they know enough about the subject matter to participate in telling a story about it. You could skip over that confident amount of knowledge requirement if you prefer, but recognise that what you are playing is a pastiche or absurdist take on the premise, not a realistic portrayal. For example, a story taking place on an oil rig might be cool, but what do I know about oil rigs except what I've seen in films and TV series? Nothing really, so any story I set on an oil rig is going to be divorced from reality, which is fine so long as I don't fool myself into thinking I've understood oil rigs by telling that story.

You can avoid the whole question of verisimilitude by making up a fictional setting, such as vampire hunters in a nameless Gothic nation or the crew of a space-cruise liner ferrying passengers around the galaxy. Don't go too far in this direction though or you'll lose contact with the character's motivations and end up with meaningless gonzo fare, e.g. if your setting is an art gallery after dark when all the exhibits come to life, it's hard to connect that to average human experiences so the plots will eschew that in favour of randomness and surrealism.

Make sure to pick a setting that will give all the player characters equal spotlight time: avoid making one character the centre around which everybody else's life revolves, who gets the lion's share of the scenes and story as a result. Of course, you can try to create a story with a central character and supporting cast, if you talk about this and everyone agrees to it, but spontaneous narratives have a life of their own and once you begin playing, you might find that your 'central' character isn't as important to the narrative as you thought they would be.


Next, create the main characters who will feature in your comedy: a good hook to use is a family or work relationship, so Mother, Father, Elder Child and Younger Child or Boss, Secretary, Designer and Labourer. Find something that describes the relationships between all the leads before creating each one as a unique individual. Some other types of relationship group are education (Head Teacher, Math Teacher, English Teacher and Gym Teacher), retail (Floor Manager, Cashier, Display Assistant and Trainee), fantasy (Warrior, Wizard, Thief and Cleric), space opera (Captain, Science Officer, Chief Engineer and Security Officer) and so on.

Image result for father tedOnce the core relationship that binds all the leads together has been selected, everyone can start creating their own character, but just stick to their personality and history for now, don't try to define their abilities or skills. Begin with a simple description of their personality or outlook that can be summed up in a couple of words, e.g. "On the verge of total panic", "Blind optimism that everything will be fine", "Condescending cynicism & world-weariness", "Spaced-out New Age hippy", "Ultra-trendy, tech-savvy hipster", etc. Don't forget a physical description, but maybe keep it to three things: three words, three distinctive features, whatever, e.g. "Long, blonde hair; tall; always wears a raincoat" or "Elderly; petite; wears glasses with huge sparkly frames."

Talk to the other players about that concept and how your character relates to theirs: give each relationship a unique but short description like "Adores them and hangs on their every word", "Want's their job", "Tries to impress them", "Constantly feels intimidated by them" and so on. Relationships don't have to be reciprocated, so your character might adore someone who despises or ignores them, but that's good for more laughs!

Round off your character description by giving them a Focus and an Issue: the Focus is what they are most interested in, what they spend the majority of their time pursuing and devoting their energy to. The Issue is an external challenge they face, something they are trying to overcome, fight against or put behind them. The Focus and the Issue might overlap or interact with each other but they shouldn't be two sides of the same coin; for example, Joey Tribbiani of Friends has a Focus of "Get hot dates" but an Issue of "Become a successful actor." Detective Amy Santiago of Brooklyn Nine-Nine has a Focus of "Get everything neatly organised" and an Issue of "Be respected as a detective."


Each lead character will be described by a set of three stats: these are Physical, Mental and Social, which we'll call the 'PMSL' stats for short, because why not? Now, before you even think of doing anything else, you all need to have a talk about the tone and style of the comedy you want to have, because you're going to pick one of those stats that all the leads are really bad at. This universal flaw is the weak stat and it will influence the comedy flavour of your story.
    Image result for spaced
  • Physical: this covers strength, dexterity, nimbleness, endurance and speed; choose this as the weak stat if you want a lot of slapstick comedy, with prat falls, zany stunts and so on.
  • Mental: this covers knowledge, intelligence, observation, wisdom and education; choose this as the weak stat if you want a lot of bloopers, mistakes and stupid jokes.
  • Social: this covers romance, etiquette, staff relations, lying and persuasion; choose this as the weak stat if you want a lot of misunderstandings, misapprehensions and comically awkward social situations.
Whatever the weak stat, all the lead characters are universally bad at it, even if they are meant to be quite good at that thing: the comedy comes from them thinking they are good when they're not or having to do things which the rest of the world expects them to excel at but they know it's much harder than it looks and they normally screw up.

Within each stat there are three sub-stats and each lead will have one outstanding sub-stat under each stat:
  • Under Physical there is Strength, Dexterity and Quickness: everything to do with lifting, pushing, carrying, breaking and general endurance is covered by Strength; all acts of manual dexterity, from changing a fuse to firing a gun at a target, are covered by Dexterity; finally, anything relying on speed, agility and fast reflexes uses Quickness.
  • The Mental sub-stats are Intelligence, Observation and Knowledge: use Intelligence to make deductions and solve problems; Observation covers all your senses but mainly sight and hearing; test your Knowledge to see if you recall the things you have been taught.
  • The sub-stats for Social are Diplomacy, Willpower and Subterfuge: use your Diplomacy to smooth over matters with charm and persuasion; an exercise of authority or intimidation uses Willpower, as does trying to resist temptation; finally, Subterfuge comes into play when you bluff, lie, deceive and conceal the truth.
Just write down the name of each stat in it's own column on a piece of paper, big and bold, then list the three sub-stats under each stat. Mark the weak stat with a cross, then either mark both the other stats with question marks or mark one with a cross and one with a tick.
  • A cross indicates what you are bad at: you will pretty much always fail at this.
  • A question mark indicates what you are average at: you have a chance of succeeding.
  • A tick indicates what you are good at: you'll often do well with this.
You get to choose one sub-stat under each stat that is outstanding, but nothing can be worse than a cross or better than a tick, therefore:
  • If your stat is marked with a cross, you get to mark one sub-stat with a question mark.
  • If your stat is marked with a question mark, you get to mark one sub-stat with a cross or a tick, but only once for each, e.g. if you tick a sub-stat under one question marked stat, you would have to cross a sub-stat under your other question marked stat.
  • If your stat is ticked, you have to mark one sub-stat with a question mark.
Mark the other sub-stats appropriately for completeness, so cross the other two sub-stats under a crossed stat once you have marked one sub-stat with a question mark and so on.

Comedy & Error

Image result for parks and recreationThe engine driving the comedy of this game is the principle of error, i.e. failures and mistakes are funnier than successes and correct answers. Now, I'm not saying you need a GM for this game, but it helps: you can go GMless or GMful if that suits you, but it is useful in a comedy to have a foil who interferes with and complicates the lead characters' lives. In some set-ups, one of the lead characters might be the foil to the others and vice versa, but a common theme of comedy is the perversity of the inanimate and how the world seems to arrange itself to confound the lead characters' best laid plans. So the GM can be that.

Anyway... somehow or other, either through your own comic misadventures or through the machinations of the GM, you'll get to a point where you need to know if your plan succeeds or fails, whether you get what you wanted or make a mess of the whole situation. Resolving tasks or conflicts is quite simple: you toss a coin and check the result against the mark on the sub-stat you are using.
  • If the sub-stat is crossed, you're going to fail regardless: Tails means you make matters even worse, Heads means you only have to deal with the failure, nothing else.
  • If the sub-stat is question marked, you might succeed or fail: Tails means you only have to deal with that failure, nothing else, Heads means you succeeded but with unintended consequences or an unexpected price for success.
  • If the sub-stat is ticked, you're going to succeed: Tails means you succeeded but with unintended consequences or an unexpected price for success, Heads means you get a straightforward success without complications but no extras either.
Optional Rule: I like knowing where the comedy should be coming from, so having some stats that you know are going to fail makes it easier to plan for the jokes, but if you're playing with people who want at least a chance to succeed, then here's how to give them one. When you toss Heads for a crossed sub-stat, you can either keep that result or gamble and toss again; if you get Heads again, then you succeeded but with unintended consequences or an unexpected price for success, as for a question marked sub-stat. If you toss Tails though, you fail and make matters even worse, as if you has tossed Tails the first time: you don't get to toss again if the result is Tails, you're stuck with the worst possible result.

Being Funny

Ooh, that's tricky and I can't do it for you but I can help: the twists that occur on some actions, where matters get worse or success has unforeseen complications, are the seam of comedy potential you should be mining for laughs. Here are some of the sort of complications you can bring into play and how they can affect the narrative:


  • Break something: the door, the furniture, an artwork, some technology. Now, are you going to fix it, hide it, repair it, replace it or runaway and pretend you don't know about it?
  • Get on the wrong side of a door: you're locked in or locked out, whether that's your home, a bank vault, a jail cell or your car. How can you get the door open? Does someone else have a key, how long will it take them to get there and what will they want in return?
  • Lose something: you had it, then dropped it, whether its an engagement ring, a dog, a winning lottery ticket or something else not easily replaceable. Now, how are you going to get it back without letting that important someone know you lost it and letting everyone else know just how much it's really worth?
  • Slip, trip and fall: you can make a fool of yourself in public, get stuck and need rescue, make a mess that needs fast cleaning-up and a thousand other clumsy accidents that you'll have to think your way out of.


  • Forget something: you should have remembered your anniversary, your orders, your shopping list, the place you were supposed to go and the name of the person you're talking to. Now, will you bluff your way through until someone else reminds you, cover up your error or just jump to a conclusion and assume you've got it right?
  • Make an irreversible error: you pressed the wrong key, said the wrong name, gave the money to the wrong person or otherwise cocked things up. Are you going to try and undo things, even though the bureaucracy is impossible, or you'll have to make a complicated explanation of what exactly went wrong? Or will you look for a way around your mistake, say by getting more money or trying to palm off your unwanted purchase onto someone else?
  • Get confused: you mixed up the thing that was to be thrown out with the thing to be kept, or the dish with peanuts in it and the dish without, or your boss' wife and his secretary. Somehow, you've got to extricate yourself from the mess with a cunning plan before things get even worse than they are now and the clock is ticking.
  • Act dumb: you don't know which way is up or what anyone is talking about; now you've opend your mouth and shown your ignorance to everyone! You might not have realised it yet, but everyone is laughing at you and now you're going to be the butt of their jokes as they have fun at your expense.


  • Mistake their intentions: you thought they were asking you out, but they were just inviting you to a meeting; you thought they were talking about a terminal disease but they were actually talking about their holiday or promotion. You've got hold of the wrong end of the stick and until someone sets you right, your plans are going to keep snowballing until they lead to an awkward confrontation.
  • Caught in a lie: you thought you'd be helping out, but now you're stuck with keeping up the pretence, so you have think on your feet every time you slip up in order to maintain your cover. How many more questions will they have and how far will you go to confirm the lie before it becomes too much?
  • Causing a distraction: you were just meant to keep them away from the house for an hour, but things have gotten complicated and it's turned into a weird day out. They want to get away from you, so you have to keep inventing ever wilder reasons why they can't leave yet.
  • A dare too far: you're trying to see how far they'll go with their practival joke or elaborate trickery, but they're seeing how far you'll go; now it's blown up to absurd proportions, with neither side willing to back down and admit defeat. What's your next move in this game of wits and nerve? And what will you lose if you give in now? 

Friday, 28 July 2017

Best Friends Forever

Lately, I've had an urge to dig some Gregor Hutton games out of my stack and introduce them to a new audience of players; one of my favourites for doing this is Best Friends, a simply brilliant design that I've used in the past for sessions inspired by Galaxy Quest, Scooby-Doo and The Guild. It's a perfectly well-balanced game; in fact, it's almost too well balanced, as it is designed to work best for exactly six players plus a GM. These are my thoughts on how to release Best Friends from it's constraints and make it work equally well with any number of players and even without a GM; think of this as a 'Chapter Zero' or appendix to the main rules, but you will need to have read  the latter to understand what follows.

The Hatreds

The stats for each player-character in BF are generated via the hatreds of the other player-characters, with a hatred being the reason why they are jealous or resentful of someone else. For example, Alice hates Brian because she is jealous of how much Cooler he is than her, but in return Brian hates Alice because he resents how much Richer she is than him. As each player assigns one hatred to each other player-character, and there are five stats to hate the other PCs for, the game works best with exactly six players: you get five points spread across your five stats and an instant basis for your relationship with each other PC. The system still works with more PCs, so everyone gets their five stat points and five relationships, but there will also be some undefined relationships between some PCs and these might be uneven, e.g. Alice hates Brian for being Cooler but Brian doesn't hate Alice for anything.

With less than six players, the rules advise you to 'double-up' on your hatreds, so each player actually picks two or three other PCs to hate, each for a different reason. This means everyone still has five stat points in total, but now they also have two reasons for hating some other PCs but still only one reason for others. It's a system that works well, but I'm now going to suggest an alternative that will tighten up the relationships between PCs in games with only three or four players and more closely link the stats to the setting. This is also totally compatible with the GMless optional rules that will follow.

The crux of this hack is that, instead of using the stats out of the rulebook, you create you own set, custom built to fit the game you want to play. You might come to the table with a pitch and the stats already decided or you might have a brainstorming session, with everyone discussing the sort of game they want to play and which stats would suit it best. Customising stats has two great benefits when playing BF: you change the assumptions of the setting & tone of the game, but you can also change the number of stats you use. If you only have four players, then whittle it down to just three stats; if you have three players, use only two stats.

For three players and two stats, do what Gregor Hutton does in 3:16 Carnage Among the Stars. In this game of space marine combat, the only two stats are Fighting Ability and Non-Fighting Ability, i.e. everything else. If you want to have a heroic action-adventure game, then your stats could be Bold/Gritty for combat and stunts, while Calm/Cool could cover all the other stuff like hacking computers, spotting trouble, talking to bystanders and so on. If you're going for investigative horror, then Spooky or Weird could cover all the ghost hunting, vampire slaying, seance holding business while Steady or Earthy would be used for dealing with day-to-day problems.

If you've got four players and three stats, try dividing things into a classic triumvirate, like the generic Physical, Mental and Social, but flavour them for your specific setting, e.g. Tough, Smart and Mean for something with a military or Wild West theme; maybe Quicker, Slicker and Trickier for a noir detective story or a heist thriller.

With five players and four stats, it's easiest to take the basic stats from BF and agree which one you won't need or which isn't very important for the story you want to tell: being Richer probably doesn't count for much if you're all stranded on a desert island and being Prettier might not make a lot of difference during the zombie apocalypse.

Even if you have six players, you can still choose a different set of stats that better fits the game you're pitching; in a game about the classic Universal Monsters (mummy, werewolf, mad scientist, etc) sharing a house, I created some custom character sheets with the stats being Scary, Strong, Smart, Stealthy and Smooth. I've also created a 'blank' version of the BF character sheet to use for this sort of situation, allowing everyone to discuss and fill in the stats they agree on.
When discussing stats, remember to listen to everyone's ideas, but keep in mind how many stats you want: it's easy to talk for ages about all the qualities the characters might have or ought to have, but you need to focus on which ones are going to have the most impact in your game. You'll quite likely still end up with more than you can use, but then you can talk about folding some of them into each other, so they are still part of the game but covered by one stat instead of two or three. For example, in a game about the power games of wealthy socialites for three players, you only need two stats to cover all the concepts like Wealth, Beauty, Fame, Power and so on; you could break that down into 'Fame' (for all the wealthy, powerful, beautiful things) and 'Infamy' (for all the down and dirty, hands-on things.)

One last twist on re-theming stats to think about: what about embedding comic tropes in the narrative by inverting their intent? As is, the stats represent each PC's competence in a field, from a base-line zero 'Can't do anything' to a maxed out three or more 'Best in the world,' but what if you change what the stats mean? Try replacing Pretty, Cool, Smart, Tough and Rich with Homely, Dweeby, Stupid, Weak and Poor, so the hatreds aren't jealousies but resentments or pity, because you can forgive a friend for being really bad at one particular thing. This sets up the game as a sitcom, with characters having exaggerated, cartoon-like flaws and they exploit how bad they are at them to succeed in absurdly amusing ways, e.g. the character with Homely of 3 can frighten animals and peel paint just by looking at it, whereas one with Stupid of 3 is too ignorant to notice that they're on fire and so takes no damage from it.

Reasoned Hatred

To lift an idea from PbtA games and others besides, instead of just saying that you hate another PC for being more whatever than your PC at something, you can add details and histories. With only three or four players in the game, you've got time to flesh out the reasoning behind each hatred. Try rephrasing your hatreds as "I hate [PC's name] for being [stattier] than me because..." and then completing the sentence with a memory or feeling about them, e.g. "I hate Alice for being Richer than me because she bought the exact car that I've always wanted." Flesh out the content of these reasoned hatreds and add them as Stuff & Nonsense, so in the example above, Alice add's Brian's dream car under her Stuff.

Tying a hatred to a specific past event or a general behaviour that's been repeated many times gives you more meat to chew on in the story that follows: Alice's car, instead of just being a convenient prop, now becomes a bone of contention for Brian. The same goes for rivalry over careers, lovers and success in life, as well as coping with failures and disappointments, e.g. "I hate Brian for being Cooler than me because he talked his way out of trouble with the police and left me to face the music alone." A detail of the history shared by each pair of PCs will often create a plot or at least a sub-plot all by itself, encouraging personal motivations and quests for each character that will add depth to your portrayal of them.

The GM's Role

With fewer players, you're going to get more bang for your buck by having everyone take on a PC role and do without a separate GM. I've done this informally with experienced story gamers who were happy to make up content and roll with the direction the story was pointed in by group consensus, but here are some solid, mechanical suggestions for handling it.

The simplest non-traditional GMing style is to hot seat that role, so anyone can play the GM for a scene or two: if you're happy with a scene-framing style of play, you can just all take turns to be the GM for the other players. This works well for a drama using the framework of a TV episode, with acts and scenes breaking the narrative into manageable chunks. Everyone gets a turn in the spotlight, saying what their character is doing, where and who with, then someone whose PC is not involved in the scene plays the supporting roles and pushes the scene towards a dramatic resolution, invoking the mechanics to do so. Go around the table, giving every PC a scene; one round of scenes completes an act and three to five acts completes an episode.

For a slightly more dynamic version of the above, add a Dictator-chip to the pool of Friend-chip tokens: the Dictator-chip is a differently coloured token from the Friend-chips and replaces one of them. Put all the tokens in a bag or other container at the start of the game, then have everyone draw from the pool one token at a time until each player has three: one of you will have the Dictator-chip, so they are in the hot seat to begin with. The Dictator plays their character as well as serving the GM's role of playing supporting characters and pushing the narrative towards dramatic conflicts, but their PC cannot resolve any challenge in the current scene as long as they are Dictator, e.g. if you create a confrontation with some hostile locals in your Dictator role, then your PC cannot be the one to fight, charm, bribe or otherwise deal with them.

When using the Dictator role, PCs can still challenge and confront each other, so even though your PC can't face challenges that you have created as the Dictator, you can still get involved in conflicts and exchanges with the other PCs as normal. The Dictator-chip is just like a Friend-chip in this respect, so you can push to win a conflict by passing it to another player who then immediately becomes the Dictator. This form of fluid hot-seating lets you adopt a looser approach to framing the narrative, creating something more like a novel or a found-footage piece, with more natural segues between scenes instead of forced, televisual-type shifts. Since the focus of each scene can change just as fluidly as the Dictator changes, you can get a less predictable, more naturalistic-seeming story and as long as you aren't currently the Dictator, your PC can take on any challenge in the story.

Awesome Interruptions

This is my preferred technique for dealing with a player getting five Friend-chips at any time and it's what I advise whenever I run the game, but I'm going to present it here in an expanded form to complement the hot seating rules above. The basic form is that whenever you have five Friend-chips, you have to immediately interrupt the drama with something awesome, in the form of an unexpected twist or shock: this can be in-character, pushing as usual to do something outrageous ("I steal Alice's
car!") or out-of-character, adding an element to the narrative that fits with what has been established but greatly raises the stakes ("Alice's car slides on a patch of ice and tumbles over the edge of the cliff!") In the latter case, you just give the chip to whichever PC is most affected by the interruption: you can use this technique to shift the spotlight to someone who hasn't had as much screen-time as other PCs or just to give a chip to the player who currently has the fewest.

If the Dictator-chip is one of the five chips you have at any time, then you must push it to another player, you can't push a Friend-chip to them instead: in this way, players can tactically maneuver a Dictator out of the hot seat by pushing Friend-chips to them until they have five, if they want to do that. This can be a democratic way of letting someone know that they've had enough time in the hot seat or just a fun side-game of vying for the Dictator-chip. Either way, it makes sure that no-one can hold onto the Dictator-chip forever: you can control the scene while in the hot seat, but you can't control what the other PCs do, so they can always engage in challenges that channel chips to you until you reach five and are ousted from the hot seat.

Wheaton's Law

When you're hot seating or otherwise sharing the GM's duties, don't be tempted to abuse your position: remember that the point is to create an enjoyable, entertaining story together, not to have your PC win at all costs, crushing all opposition. Don't set unreasonable stakes for failure ("If you fail to find your front door key, you house blows up!") and do accept the consensus when determining the need to push a chip or not (finding your own front door key probably doesn't even need a push unless the PC in question has a Smart stat of zero.) Bear in mind that, at some point, someone else is going to take the hot seat and have just as much authority over your character as you had over theirs, so don't invite petty, tit-for-tat one-upmanship. Be respectful, be kind and most of all, have fun.

Friday, 26 May 2017

The Leviathan Manifesto

The title above might sound like one of those thick-as-a-brick Len Deighton novels, but in reality this post puts together a number of ideas that have been fermenting in my head for a while. Ingredients in this heady stew are the TV programme Person of Interest, current events relating to security and personal liberty, and many years of online discussions about the best way to conduct investigative RPG sessions. There's also some reference to classic social theory, whose origin I hope should be obvious from the title. What follows is a both a nano story game and a statement of my personal philosophy about certain types of game, where the players have to investigate a mystery and put together the clues they find to come up with a solution.

Knowing & Doing

The State sees almost everything: cameras watch us in public and at out work places, 24/7. Our
Person of Interest, CBS, 2011-2016
personal details are harvested from our online transactions and our private files are subject to government scrutiny. We can hide nothing from them. This may be the way things are in the near future or how they are right now; you may be working for the State or rebelling against it. What is known is that you have the keys to the kingdom: free access to any piece of information the State has collected about it's citizens.

This level of scrutiny has a drawback though: the machinery of government sees everything but understands nothing. The eyes that watch us have no comprehension of what they see, they merely observe and collate, storing the data without the knowledge of what it signifies. There is a vacuum in the process: your role is to fill it. With unrestricted access to the personal lives of tens of millions of citizens, your job is to pick out the ones who pose a threat to themselves or others and to defend those who are unaware that they have become a target for violence.

Using the above premise, you can play this as a game of maverick heroes tapping the data to help ordinary people, or you can be the State's ultimate sanction, an elite team of operatives who work to bring criminals to justice or even prevent crimes from happening. Think of the personal back story of your character and how they came to be involved in this, writing the concept down in a short sentence or two. Don't worry about their personal skills or abilities: you are all multi-talented experts and you all work in a team that supports each other as needed, so you can always call upon the exact speciality that you need as you need it.

Surveillance & Research

Start each new mission with either a criminal/violent incident (bank robbery, unexplained explosion, security breach, murder, etc) or simply have the system throw up an identity flagged with a 'suspicion index'. Keep the initial details to a minimum: the time & location of an incident or the name, age and gender of a person of interest. The game then continues as an investigation into that incident or person, following these two principles:
  • Every question will get an answer.
  • You may only act upon what you know.
The first principle is the most important: answers are never kept from the players, so the trick is asking the right questions. There is an element of time pressure applied by both the rules and the situations the characters are in, so they can't simply ask every question they can think of, they need to focus on what they need to know and then act upon it swiftly. The results of their investigations, and the time they have remaining to conclude them, are mediated via a deck of standard playing cards. Each player takes it in turn to perform one of the following actions. going around the group until the mission reaches a conclusion.

1: Observation
Starting from the initial seed data about the incident or person to be investigated, agents may call upon video footage from any camera and there are presumed to be cameras in all public and business locations. In order to Observe, you must first name a time and place you want to see, or a particular target you want to follow forwards or backwards from a named time and place. It's up to you what you choose to Observe, but you must be able to describe it in the above terms: you can't ask to see "the murderer's current location" or "the site of the next murder." Time passes in a linear fashion, as normal, so you can't see past the current moment in time, and the time you spend Observing is time that passes in the mission.

When you Observe, draw the top card of the deck and turn it over: you always observe something, no matter what, but it is only relevant on a red card; if the card drawn is black, the data you collect is either irrelevant to the investigation or is relevant but complicates the mission unexpectedly, e.g:
  • You Observe someone you know personally, interacting with the target.
  • The target is revealed to be working with someone else, adding another suspect to the mission.
  • The target is Observed to be doing something they should not know how to do, raising a question over their identity.
Basically, a complicated answer should confirm or support the information you were acting on, but then raise questions that might also need to be followed up to complete the mission. Whoever provides the answer, and any complication, does so in terms of what might be seen or heard on the video footage collected: they can't reveal the thoughts or motivations of those observed. The card drawn is then put face up in the 'Open' stack, unless it was a King of any suit, in which case it is placed beside the deck in the countdown row.

2: Investigation
The agents have access to recorded phone conversations, bank details, personal files and all other public or private records pertaining to all citizens. You can use your turn to access this type of data and get more details about anyone who has come under scrutiny: do this by choosing a card from the 'Open' stack, either red or black. When you choose a red card, describe how the data you access explains or clarifies what you already know, answering a question that had been raised; when you choose a black card, the data accessed just raises further questions about the identity, connections or motivations of the citizen or organisation being Investigated. In either case, put the card chosen in the 'Closed' stack, which effectively acts as a discard pile: cards in the 'Closed' stack are out of the game.

3: Intervention
Agents can get out in the field at any time during a mission, collecting more information from witnesses, suspects or crime scenes, or even taking direct action to protect, capture or neutralise a person of interest. There are any number of ways this might be done: flashing their authorisation (even if faked), infiltrating events under cover or launching an assault against a suspect location. Whenever you commence a field Intervention on your turn, take the current 'Open' stack, turn it face down and shuffle it thoroughly.

An intervention is played out as a separate scene, taking place in the field, with the player who began the Intervention naming a goal for it. They then act as lead agent in the field; the lead agent sets the scene and controls the 'Open' stack during it, drawing and assigning cards as required. Every significant action taken in the Intervention (getting past security, bypassing a locked door, capturing a suspect, fighting off an attack, etc) requires a card to be drawn from the 'Open' stack: if it is red, the action succeeds fully, but if it is black, the lead agent has a choice. They can either fail the action or push it: if they push it, they simply draw and discard the top card of the deck, or place it in the countdown row if it is a King, then carry on with the field operation. If they fail it, they are taken out of the Intervention in some way and must pass the 'Open' stack to another player to continue it, who then becomes the lead agent. In both cases, the Intervention continues until the current lead agent determines that they have successfully met their goal or that the goal is now unobtainable, or until all agents have have failed an action in this Intervention and their is no-one left to continue it. Whatever happens, all cards drawn from the 'Open' stack are discarded to the 'Closed' stack and all remaining cards in the 'Open' stack are also discarded when the Intervention ends.


A mission is complete when justice is done or when a target is safely secured from any further threat from a particular source: it's up to the players collectively to weave a story together that ends in their success, but a failure can be determined by the cards. Each time a King is drawn from the deck, it goes to the countdown row: Kings never go into the 'Open' or 'Closed' stacks. The moment a third King is drawn and placed in the countdown row, something occurs that forces the end of the mission in failure for the agents: perhaps the target they were trying to protect is killed or the criminals complete their plan, getting away with millions. Whatever the worst outcome is for that particular mission, it happens when the third King hits the countdown row.

You can soften the above hard ending by giving the agents a chance to continue; you can even play this as a series, so the failure of one mission is a set-back, not the end of the story. When you hit the third King, pick up all the cards and shuffle them back into the deck. Now you can begin a new mission, with all the information you had from the previous one, taking the failure of that mission as the starting point for the next.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017


First of all, a big thank you to all of you who backed The Imposters on Kickstarter, an anthology of conspiracy themed games that I contributed to. It set off a chain of thought about conspiracy theories, which leads me here: a short game you can play online, via text, or in person. You will need access to Wikipedia, a pocket encyclopedia or a fact finder.

Everything is Connected

If you're playing this online, start by going to a random article on Wikipedia; if playing face-to-face, open your encyclopedia or fact finder to a random page. Whatever article you find is your starting point for this chain of conspiracy; the first player then does this again to find a second article. They then have to link the first article [x] to the second  [y] in one of the following ways:
  • y secretly controls x
  • y is trying to destroy x
  • x is a hoax perpetrated by y
On your turn, you have to explain the link between the previous article and the one you have randomly chosen, using whatever arguments or evidence you like, but you can't just claim it to be true, you have to present your conspiracy theory. An example of a chain might be like this:

Starting from an article about Cave Spring High School in Roanoke, Virginia, the next random article concerns Oregon Route 41, so I have to link those in one of the three ways dictated above; I might say that the High School is a hoax perpetrated by those responsible for the highway. Using the school as a kind of cause celebre, they plan to gain sympathy from the public and more funding that will enable them to extend the highway all across the country, allowing those 'poor, needy children' to get fast access to the West Coast! In actuality, this is all part of the plan by the highway authority to take over the country!

The next article is about Zum Roten Bären, the oldest hotel in Europe, which is clearly the secret puppet master behind Oregon Route 41, using the highway as their beach-head in their planned invasion of the USA! Soon, there will be a chain of Zum Roten Bären hotels stretching all the way across the United States! Bwah-hah-hah-hah!

The next link in the chain is Benoît Laffineur, a French swimmer who competed in the 1976 Olympics and clearly wants to destroy the hotel, as he has his own plan for world domination by way of raising the sea levels so that everyone must enroll in his swimming academies merely to survive in a flooded world! If the hotels are built, then the citizens of the USA will learn to swim in the pools provided by all those hotels, depriving Benoît of his customer base! Curse you, Zum Roten Bären... he might say.

Etiquette for Conspiracy Theorists

There are some guidelines to follow when playing, to keep the game fresh, fair and interesting:
  1. Don't use the same connection as the previous player: if they used y secretly controls x on their turn, then you must use one of the other two options on yours.
  2. Explain yourself: don't just state the connection, explain it. What is the motive of y and why is it targeting x?
  3. Be brief: other people are waiting their turn, so don't go into huge detail about the conspiracy, just provide the highlights.
  4. Sharing is caring: whatever is said can be unsaid, so your contribution is not set in stone. A later chain in the conspiracy can reveal any of your statements for the sham they are and, equally, you should consider everything that has already been said as open to reinterpretation and even contradiction on your turn.

Don't Believe Everything You Read

Image result for conspiracy theoryThe game suggested above is just one way in which it could be played, with no real ending: just play until it stops being fun. There are a couple of alternatives you could try to add some strategy into the exercise though.

Conspiracy Radio: play competitively. The first player chooses two articles, then opens the table for the other players to each contribute their own version of the link between the two; once everyone else has proposed their connection, the first player chooses one of those answers as 'correct' and passes control of the game to the 'winning' player. That player then chooses the next article and repeats the process: you can either score points for winning or give each player a number of 'lives': they lose a life each time they are not chosen as the 'winner' and the games ends when any player loses their last life, as the Conspiracy shuts down all this speculation the hard way...

Crosstalk: another competitive version, but in this, any other player can challenge your statement about the connection between two articles, challenging you to answer a question about it. They pick another random article and challenge you to explain how that fits in to what you have said; if you can't, they score a point, but if you can, you claim all their points or score a point if they have none. You may only be challenged once on your turn and, if you aren't, you score two points; play passes on to the next player as usual. The game ends after a fixed number of rounds or when any player reaches a particular score.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Twilight of the Gods

or, You Can't Teach an Old God New Tricks

What follows is a very special playset for Blood & Water: the rules stay the same, but the setting and assumptions are different. This playset is based on an idea by Scott Dorward, adapted from his notes.

Shade Orchard

What happens to the Gods when their believers dwindle and their powers fade? The Gods can never truly die, as long as someone in the world still believes in them, so they find ways to pass the quiet millennia. Shade Orchard is a nursing home with some very special residents, though the staff remain largely unaware of this; a significant number of the people living here are in actual fact the Gods of various pantheons who have settled in for the long haul. Though individually weak, collectively they have enough power to cast a haze about their home that prevents the mortal staff from asking too many inconvenient questions.

With this basic set-up, some parts of the Resident's Book for Blood & Water are already taken care of or can be skipped over, i.e:

  • I crossed over when... None of the residents have 'crossed over' as such: they have always been Gods and technically they still are, but they have chosen to reside here while the world quietly forgets about them.
  • I cannot be with mortals... The Gods aren't avoiding mortals (most of the staff at Shade Orchard are mortal), they just find it inconvenient to have mortals disturbing their retirement. They are still Gods and enjoy all the privileges that go with that, but their powers are weak and their mortal forms decrepit, so they prefer to keep their relationships with mortals on a personal, one-to-one level rather than trying to command legions of followers.
  • I cannot be with my own kind... The Gods have always mixed with their own kind and, apart from a few petty squabbles, get along quite well with each other; in their retirement, even the boundaries between pantheons have blurred and the various Gods rub shoulders with only minor rivalries.
The following list of residents is not exhaustive, merely a suggested group with some built-in dynamics to drive play forward; you are free to create your own residents using these examples as guidelines.

Ms. Horrocks
You are... a feisty, fresh old lady with the heart of a seductress, who dresses like a femme fatale from the 1930s.
But you were... Aphrodite, known as Venus to the Romans, the Goddess of love, beauty, desire and pleasure.

Your Supernatural...
Strengths are... You can heighten any mortal's attraction to anyone or anything; when you kiss a mortal, they must do precisely what you say; you can appear to any mortal as the one they love the most.
Weaknesses are... You cannot resist praise or flattery; you are irresistibly drawn to handsome young men; you have a tantrum when you are denied or rejected.

What do you want that you don't have? Adoring fans: you act like a fading movie star and have convinced many mortals of your past fame, but you secretly yearn to be a true star.
What's stopping you from getting it? You can't abide sharing the spotlight with anyone else and insist on having the first, last and only word in any endeavour, therefore no-one will work with you.
What do you have that you don't want? A chequered past: your long life is littered with ex-lovers, both mortal and mythological. Some of them are bitter, some remorseful and some are still obsessed with winning you back.
What's stopping you from losing it? You can can always call upon your ex-lovers for favours, so best to keep them sweet.

To Do... persuade the management of Shade Orchard to allow it to be used for location filming for a little project you've inveigled your way into; the promise of a cheap set was what got you a part in the film.

Mr. Ireland
You are... a stuffy, crusty, Old English Gentleman, with the manners and prejudices of an upper class that is now sadly out-of-touch with reality.
But you were... Herne the Hunter, a Pagan Deity associated with the woods and forests of England.

Your Supernatural...
Strengths are... You can track anything or anyone that leaves a trail of any sort; you can transform into an assortment of wild animals; you can talk to the trees.
Weaknesses are... You can only eat raw meat, never cooked and never vegetables, grain or dairy; you have an overpoweringly musky, earthy odour; you trigger the 'fight or flight' reflex in all animals you come near.

What do you want that you don't have? The Reformation of the Wild Hunt: with fox hunting and other blood sports banned in the UK, the ancient pack has broken up and gone their separate ways.
What's stopping you from getting it? The Wild Hunt have dropped out and become travellers: not only do you have to find them, but you have to persuade them to go back to the old ways.
What do you have that you don't want? A strict diet: the staff at Shade Orchard keep trying to feed you healthy, balanced meals, so you are forced to desperate and cunning measures to avoid eating the damned stuff.
What's stopping you from losing it? Mrs. Leech, the Kitchen Manager and resident nutritionist, a charming mature women who shares many of your politically incorrect views; you hate to get on her bad side.

To Do... stir up interest in a Countryside Alliance march to lift the ban on fox hunting; write letters to the papers, call on people you know and do what it takes to raise public interest in the matter.

Mrs. Oterma
You are... a slender, dark-skinned woman with a tendency to gossip and pass judgement upon others with little to no provocation.
But you were... Kaali, the Divine Mother and the Destroyer of Evil in Hindu mythology.

Your Supernatural...
Strengths are... You can afflict any mortal with morbid terror; you are unbeatable in hand-to-hand combat; you can move instantly from one shadow to any other shadow.
Weaknesses are... You cannot keep what you know to yourself; your preferred method of dealing with troublesome mortals is to kill them; you are compelled to face evil whenever you come across it.

What do you want that you don't have? A victory over Mrs. Johnson in the Thursday Night 'Pub Quiz' the staff at Shade Orchard run: despite being a mortal, she knows much more about the world than you do.
What's stopping you from getting it? Try as you might, you never seem to win the quiz (because unbeknownst to you, she's cheating by bribing the quiz setter for the answers every week!)
What do you have that you don't want? A belt of human skulls, a trophy of your past glories kept in a suitcase under your bed; the whispering, chattering voices of the skulls keep you awake at night.
What's stopping you from losing it? You've tried on several occasions, such as by leaving the suitcase on the bus, but some well-meaning do-gooder always brings it back to the nice little old lady who forgot her case. On some occasions, a mortal has peeked inside the case and you've had to slaughter them, adding another skull to the belt...

To Do... you're convinced that all the staff at Shade Orchard are thieves & slave traders: investigate what goes on at the retirement home by spying, prying and poking.

Mr. Tyndale
You are... a very old man with wild, unkempt white hair and beard, who seems out of touch with the modern day and spends his time dreaming of past glories.
But you were... Jehovah of the Elohim, the God of the Old Testament.

Your Supernatural...
Strengths are... You can see all things that are occurring on Earth at all times; you can transform anything into anything else; you can bring the dead back to life.
Weaknesses are... You get confused by concepts like 'past', 'present' and 'future'; you become a silent, invisible, intangible presence when atheists are about; you sometimes manifest as pure, golden fire and set light to things accidentally.

What do you want that you don't have? More time with your son: he inherited the family business and has made quite a big name for himself, with millions more followers worldwide than you ever achieved.
What's stopping you from getting it? He's very busy and will only visit if it's an emergency, so you keep engineering reasons for him to visit, hoping that he won't realise what you're doing.
What do you have that you don't want? A creeping sense of shame: you can't help but feel responsible for all the ills of mankind, which is a most un-Godlike feeling.
What's stopping you from losing it? You've tried to make amends by 'fixing' what's wrong in the lives of staff at Shade Orchard, but it never seems to help; you keep trying though, hoping to assuage your guilt.

To Do... Mary, one of the carers at the retirement home, wants to be a success as a singer; maybe if you help her achieve her dream, it will be one less thing to feel guilty about? Plus you always had a soft spot for women called 'Mary.'

Guest Characters
In addition to the main cast of characters suggested above, there are also some NPCs who can meddle in the residents' lives.

Elder Knox: a neat and handsome young man, wearing the short sleeved white shirt and smartly pressed black trousers of his Evangelical Christian sect at all times; he adds to this a pair of skin tight black leather gloves, because he is also the Angel of Death and one touch of his finger will kill any mortal. He visits the retirement home frequently on business... that is, both kinds of business, as he also volunteers there, talking to the mortal residents about the afterlife as well as occasionally helping one of them into it. He has a respectful but difficult relationship with Mr. Tyndale who is always pressing him for news of his son.

Cecilia DeMille: a film student whose great aunt is a resident in Shade Orchard, she has fallen into the orbit of Ms. Horrocks and somehow ended up with a commitment to cast the elderly love goddess in her next short film, on the condition that they can use the building for location filming. As the film is a short horror piece about Death, not only do the management think this is inappropriate, but many of the residents will be only to happy to point out what she's got wrong.

Mr. Manzano: a new resident has arrived recently at Shade Orchard and he is in fact Anansi, the trickster and story-teller of African mythology. Somewhat younger appearing and more sprightly than the other residents, he has stirred up a lot of jealousy and passion with his fabulous and enchanting tales; he also likes to make bets with the other residents, which he inevitably wins by some form of trick.

Mary Calvin: a carer at the retirement home, this young woman still has ambitions to make something of her life and aspires to be a world-famous singer; at the moment though, she's just gigging in night clubs and other venues. Mr. Tyndale has taken it upon himself to meddle in her life in order to make her dreams come true; a plot point to work on could involve Mary meeting Mr. Tyndale's son, them hitting it off, then next thing you know there's a Son of the Son of God on his way! Time for a New Improved Testament?

Thursday, 20 April 2017

What's On Your Mind?

Way back in 2014, I created a short story game about telepaths living in a police state: in The Thought Police, each player takes on the role of a citizen of an oppressive state, only one of the characters is a telepath who can hear the other characters' thoughts. The game asks whether you can identify the telepath among you but also, if you can, what will you do about it? Turn them over to the authorities? Or protect them from the state's fury? I've since contributed an extended version of that game to an anthology project called The Imposters, which is currently being Kickstarted. The game itself has a history behind it that I've wanted to talk about for a while, so this seems like the perfect time to do so, as well as talking about The Imposters.

In The Thought Police, each player takes on the role of an ordinary citizen in an authoritarian state, going about their daily business: the twist is that there are telepaths among them who can read their every thought and the state takes action to oppress these telepaths as a matter of security. The inspiration for this came not from dystopian fiction but from the ways in which role-playing games are played at the table. Games mostly tend to be open, with all the players sharing what their characters are doing as they do it, but with the understanding that other players won't abuse their out-of-character knowledge to take in-character actions that they would otherwise have no reason to. Some other games are closed, with players secretly passing notes to their GM to secretly instruct them in what their characters are secretly up to, secretly.

During one of my game-design splurges, I wondered what a truly open game would look like, one with complete transparency, where you not only said what your character was doing, but explained and dissected their reasons for doing it. This kind of table-talk does occur in games which use stake setting, so that everybody is on the same page in regards to the motivations of the characters and what they expect to achieve in any conflict. For example, in espionage & conspiracy related games like Cold City and Hot War, it's not uncommon for characters to appear to want one outcome when they really want something completely different, but it's essential that this is communicated clearly before any dice are rolled in a conflict, to avoid unintended outcomes.

I began the game design with that simple premise, that any player could ask any other player what their character's thoughts and motivations were at any point in the game and that you had to answer honestly when asked. The next step was coming up with a story-telling framework that made sense of that one mechanic, something which would be supported and strengthened by this total openness over character agendas. Perversely, it seemed like the best story for this mechanic was one in which characters were encouraged or expected to keeps secrets: there would be no point in knowing what a character's true motivations were if they were as transparent as their actions. Therefore, something with secrecy and subterfuge, where a character might legitimately be thinking things that they didn't want the other characters to know.

For short games, I'm a fan of minimal exposition, so I like to to use familiar tropes as settings, with a statement like "This game is heroic fantasy" or "This game is gritty space opera." My favourite sort of elevator pitch is one that begins "It's like the modern world, but..." because then I know everyone instantly has a picture of what to expect. That's what I defaulted to when beginning the design of this game idea, so it already had that "contemporary but with a twist" shape in my mind. The criteria I had so far then were:

  • A game in which you could ask other players what their character's thoughts and motivations were at any time.
  • There had to be reasons for characters to keep secrets and/or want to unearth the secrets of others.
  • The setting would be pseudo-contemporary, with a twist that explained the above two points.
This suggested an element of conspiracy and paranoia, but I wanted to avoid something like spies on a secret mission and keep the game grounded in what the players were familiar with, so the paranoia had to be domestic, the kind of thing where neighbours spied on neighbours... a police state, in fact. That was the key that unlocked the design, the idea that the characters all lived in a fascistic state that curbed their human rights, which also felt like a hot topic for play: what would you do as a citizen of that state?

Setting a game in that situation wasn't sufficient though: what if everyone decided to play a 'good citizen' of the state? It would be pretty dull if none of the characters had anything to hide; also, what was the deal with always knowing what the other characters were thinking? Where did that fit in? Things clicked together quickly here and I realised that telepathy explained everything: the state had grown to protect its citizens from an internal threat to national and personal security. As it was, the players could hear the inner monologue of other characters, but what if one of the characters could also hear it?

From there, the design flowed quite naturally, with just a couple of elements put in place to encourage characters to strive to find and expose telepaths and one player-character randomly & secretly selected as a telepath before starting to play. I wrote the game up as a blog post, but even as I was doing so, I was thinking of ways to change the premises of the game to elicit other behaviours in play, e.g. what if the telepathy power was stronger? What if more than one character was a telepath? What if none of the players knew how many telepaths were in their group? I made a few notes to this effect in a book group discussion-style and appended them to the end of the blog post, but I kept meaning to come back to the idea and expand the game with suggestions for many changes to the rules, in an extended appendix that would be titled "The Thought Experiment."

By 2016, I still hadn't done that, when Josh T. Jordan asked for designers who wanted to contribute to
an anthology of games with a conspiracy theme, with one other requisite: that the designers themselves struggled with Imposter Syndrome, the feeling that they were just bluffing their way through and expected to be exposed as a fraud at any moment. That struck a chord: I have no idea how to design games, I just muddle through and make what I like, with the vague apprehension that some other people might like them too. It's actually somewhat reassuring that even other well-published designers like Josh struggle with this feeling of being an outsider and somehow not part of the club (oh my Bob, I don't even know the secret handshake! Is there a Club Song too?)

Anyway, The Thought Police with its appendix and The Imposters seemed like a good fit (or they were after some ruthless editing to the appendix to get it in under the word count allowed.) Instead of an appendix though, the alternative rules are scattered throughout the text as notes from a revolutionary underground seeking to change the narrative presented by the state, because I enjoy subverting my own texts. As of writing this, the Kickstarter is more than halfway to it's goal after just one week and that feels pretty good: perhaps not a cure for imposterdom, but certainly a treatment,