Sunday, 11 October 2015

Playbook Games

So, it turns out I really like games with playbooks: ever since Apocalypse World came out and encouraged lots of hacks to be produced, I've been fascinated with the idea of compressing all you need for a game into a set of playbooks. There's just something about holding that unique character archetype in your hands, with all its promise of exclusive special abilities and tailored story hooks, that piques my interest and heightens my engagement with the game.

I've written three small games that depend on playbooks for their game structure, all of which are now available on Drivethru as Pay What You Want games; they tackle the design goal in different ways and produce quite different play experiences as a result.

Secret Dossiers

This game consists of a set of eight characters for an espionage and action-themed design, where each of the eight playbooks contains the following:
  • An outline of the character for you to build on and flesh out as you play.
  • The characters abilities and what they bring to the team for the mission.
  • The complete rules for playing the game.
It's GMless game, where the players create their mission and resolve it by taking turns to describe the obstacles they face, for everyone else to then decide whether they are going to help overcome that obstacle or complicate the mission further. There is no separate rule-book or guide, the design goal here was to compress all you need to play into one pamphlet, so any set of 3-5 pamphlets from the 8 would be sufficient to play the game for any given group of 3-5 players.

I did something very cheeky for the first playtest of this game; it was at the London Indie RPG Meetup and I took along the 8 pamphlets with me, placing them on a table with the fliers for other events and menus for the pub we were meeting-up in. When it came time to pitch games, I said "There's a game on the table there if anyone wants to play it, but I'm going to play that," and promptly walked up to someone else to join in their game (note: I really did want to play that other game, this wasn't a piece of theatre). For whatever reason, Piers and others did indeed play the game and gave me some good feedback on it too.

First Issues!

This is a simple, superheroic storygame: using just a pocketful of change and your imagination, you can create your own comic book adventures featuring the eight superheroes provided, or you can even make up your own superhero.


The game includes eight ready-to-play characters, a blank template for creating your own superhero and a brief guide to running the game for the GM.

Dynama: Unstoppable Woman of Energy!
Dr. Fauna: Master of the Animal Kingdom!
The Haste: The Man Who Can Outrun Death!
Hotwire: Mysterious Alien Mistress of Science!
Ms. Mob: The Invincible One-Woman Army!
Photus: Mightiest Mechanical Marvel of the Age!
The Seraph: Angelic Defender of the Downtrodden!
The Witness: Sharp Suited Spectre of the Streets!
Hero Template: A blank playbook for creating your own characters.
Letters to the Editor: Rules explanations, guidance and tips.

For the first draft of this game, I did try to compact everything into the playbooks, including rules and guidance for the GM: the intent was for most of the players to take on the roles of the heroes of the story, while the GM played the villain. In practice though, there was more that the GM need to think about and know about the game, so I compromised and wrote a small guidebook to accompany the game. Each time I've played it, I've gotten very different results: the last time, we managed to get through about 4 or 5 comic books worth of story in around 3 hours, in what turned out to be a very fast-paced, almost competitive game.

Monster Force Terra

This game uses the Apocalypse World Engine to tell tales of giant monsters who terrorize the Earth but also just happen to save the human race from an even worse threat in the process!

You take on the roles of the kaiju in this game, going about your own business of seeking food, shelter and a mate, when disaster strikes! In getting back to the normal order of your lives, you inadvertently find yourselves becoming the heroes, though you may never be aware of what you've done. You play your monster as a pawn in the story, using them to achieve the goals that you want, by having them stomp, steal or investigate the story's obstacles.

The game includes twelve different monster playsheets:
The Avian: a giant flying creature.
The Bug: a giant insect.
The Critter: a giant mammal.
The Crustacean: a giant crab or lobster.
The Digger: a giant burrower.
The Glob: a giant mess.
The Lizard: a giant scaly creature.
The Mech: a giant robot.
The Plant: a giant vegetable.
The Simian: a giant ape-like creature.
The Swarm: a giant colony life-form.
The Unspeakable: a giant horror.

You'll also need the Monster Force Terra core rule booklet, a mere 10 pages long, including tips for the MC on running the game. The genesis of MFT goes back long before Apocalypse World and started life as a more trad RPG with boardgame-like elements: the core concept of the Size of the monster's determining most things was always there and was used to calculate their strength, speed and the amount of collateral damage they did to the city they were in as they moved and acted. It was a fun design which I played about with for years, but eventually gave up one because I couldn't resolve the interaction between the monsters and the hazards they faced in a satisfactory way, an issue that still gives me problems when dealing with trad-style design.

The game concept got a fresh start last year though, after various changes to my Just Heroes hack for AW: that had originally been a one-stat game, but I expanded it out to four stats as the game gained depth. I still liked the idea of having only one stat in AW though and something clicked when I recalled that MFT had always been intended to be a one-stat game. The AW framework also solved a lot of other problems with the game design, so a few weeks and a playtest later, I had the version now available.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Lally Tullet

This short game is about delivering a monologue that recounts a notable event in a person's life: the monologue for each player may be comic, tragic or just a slice of life.

The Beginning

Start by agreeing some boundaries and limits, paying special attention to the tone of the game: some
players may want something gonzo, bringing in elements of sci-fi, fantasy and horror, then cooking them up with some extreme real world situations, while others might want something more down to Earth and almost meditative in it's approach. I recommend the latter: don't push to make your monologue as exciting and remarkable as you are capable of, aim for something slower and focus on the Orator's feelings about the tale over the events that occur in it. The purpose of this game is to practice your characterisation skills and how you communicate to other players: aim to get under your Orator's skin and spin a tale that enthrals.

You will each need five index cards or note-papers and a pencil; there are five rounds at the start of play where everybody writes something down on their paper, these elements then being used to weave each of your tales. The five rounds of preparation are:
  1. Location: The place the Orator is in when they begin their tale, keep the description brief to allow for someone else to fill in their own details as they tell their Orator's tale. Examples include a covered porch on a fine summer's evening, a young mothers' coffee morning, a corridor on a WWII submarine and so on.
  2. Theme: Write down a one word description of the theme of the Orator's tale, such as Betrayal, Ambition, Breakthrough, Holiday, Mistake, etc.
  3. Cast: Write down one or two very short descriptions of other characters who will feature centrally in the Orator's tale, but try to keep these neutral and open to interpretation in a range of narratives; use descriptions like 'cheating spouse', 'gifted daughter' or 'disturbing preacher' rather than ' vampire master-criminal' or 'stranded astronaut.'
  4. Event: Choose an event that will represent a turning point in the narrative; the event does not have to be the cause of the change in direction, but it should be simultaneous with it, e.g. an unexpected storm, the door-bell rings, the washing machine breaks down, Christmas Day, etc.
  5. Resolution: Write down any theme, event or character to represent how the tale will end, using the same guidelines as above.
Make sure to write down on the card the round it was written in, as it may not be obvious to others whether what is written on it is a Theme, Event, Resolution or whatever. As each round is completed, place all the papers for that round face down in a separate pile, so that at the end of this process, there will be five piles on the table, one for each round.

The Middle

Starting with the first round pile of Locations, give each individual pile a good shuffle and deal one paper out to each player: repeat this for all the other piles. You and every other player should now have five papers, one each for Location, Theme, Cast, Event and Resolution; check to make sure everybody has a full set and swap papers around if it is necessary to do so.

You should each now take a few minutes to read your papers and think about your story, in particular who your Orator is: you will note that the character telling the tale is not directly mentioned or described in any of the papers created, because this is for you and you only to decide. No-one else can tell you what the character of your Orator must be, so if they have attempted to do so in what they have written down, by loading their statements with assumptions about the Orator for example, you may feel free to ignore their suggestion.

Look in particular to the Location and Cast when deciding who your Orator is: ask yourself who would be in that location and how would they know these other people? The tale you tell is always a personal one from the Orator's own life, not a second-hand narrative about things that happened to friends of theirs, so think about how the elements on your set of papers describe your Orator's life and thoughts.

Frame the  Orator in your mind, then look at the Theme you have been dealt: this has to have meaning for your character, something they feel strongly about or which represents something significant to them. The tale you are about to spin should use this theme as its basis, whether it starts from there and moves on, builds to that as the climax or uses it as a twist halfway through, but wherever the theme lies in your telling of the tale, it must be central to what that tale signifies for your Orator.

Finally, look at your Resolution: this outlines how the situation your Orator describes is resolved, but that doesn't mean it has to come at the end of the tale, e.g. you might start your tale by saying "Did I ever tell you how I met my husband?"  or "That reminds me of the time I accidentally went to prison."

When any of you feels ready to do so, you may begin your tale.

The End

When it is your turn to tell your tale, start by setting the scene: it's best to do this out of character and to fill in details about the Location, such as the time of day, time of year, the lighting of the scene and especially who is present besides your Orator, as you must always be telling your tale to an audience. You may assume that the others players are in the roles of your audience, but they do not get to speak or otherwise contribute to your tale: the golden rule of the game is that you speak only when it is your turn as Orator and that you listen the rest of the time.

Once you have set the scene, describe your Orator briefly, enough to set them in the minds of the other players; once that is done, you can begin your tale. While you are speaking, you may assume questions from the other characters present, and answer them, but you must only speak in your own voice, you never take on the role of any other character, whether present in the scene or a character in your tale. You may quote characters in your tale in the third person only, e.g. "She said... he replied..."

Remember that the Orator's tale is a personal one, so focus on the events they were present for; if an event they were not present for is important to the tale, relate the circumstances under which they learned about it, e.g. "I was just getting ready to go out when the phone rang and I knew it couldn't be good news..." Always keep the narrative personal and always tell your audience how the Orator felt about it.

Joyce Grenfell, 1910-1979
Spin the tale to your audience in your own way, find the voice of your Orator and tell the tale the way they would, with interruptions, corrections and uncertainties: they might forget a bit of the narrative and then remember it later, they might answer a question or dismiss an interruption from their audience, they might even try to interrupt their own narrative with an observation that it is getting late, only for their audience to insist that they finish the story or answer an ambiguous point about it. Don't live the story, live the telling of it.

You should take at least 2 minutes to tell your story but no more than 10: once you start, speak until you have reached the end, allowing for breaks to take a drink, pause for breath or collect yourself. Once you have finished, take a few moments for the tale to sink into the minds of the other players before moving on to the next who takes a turn as Orator.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Phasmagraph

Did you enjoy the tale of Howell's Phasmagraph in the Black Catalogue? Well, now you can play it at home! Sort of.
This is a mini-story game about a seance: it works best with 4 or 5 players, but it can also be a neat 2 player game and all you'll need is an ordinary pack of playing cards (Ouija board is optional.)

Seat all the players comfortably around your dining table or Ouija board, placing a well shuffled pack
of playing cards in the middle and deal 3 cards from the top of the deck to each player. Believe it or not, you are now ready to begin: for simplicity, players are encouraged to take on the roles of characters who look like themselves, so play someone of about your own age, gender, ethnicity, etc. This will make it easier for everyone else around the table to identify and remember the character you are playing. You can form an idea about your character in advance and then introduce yourself as you sit down at the seance, or you can allow your character to form through play, reacting to questions & answers spontaneously rather than according to any plan.

Whoever has the highest ranked card acts as the Medium, who will be first to guide the seance: in a tie, cards are ranked in the order Spades, Hearts, Diamonds and Clubs (reverse alphabetical order) from highest to lowest. The Medium begins the seance by asking "Is anybody there?" Another player responds to this by putting one of their cards face down on the table to confirm that a spirit is present; the Medium then asks, "Do you have a message for us?" and another card is placed face down on the table, by the same player as before or a different one. Whoever plays this card becomes the Subject: only the Medium and the Subject can ask questions in each round of play, but anyone can provide an answer so long as they never answer their own question.

If the Subject has two cards face down in front of them, the Medium must ask the first question; if the Subject has only one card face down in front of them, then they must ask the first question. The first question is always answered by the player who first put a card face down on the table and they answer it by turning their card face up and following the guidelines below.

Questions should always be provocative and important: the spirits won't bother with trivial matters and you can dismiss the normal chit-chat about what things are like in the spirit world. Aim to construct a personal narrative without filling in every last detail: a question like "Where is the wedding album?" is fine, as it suggests a story without delving too deeply into it. Try to avoid purely binary questions, with yes or no answers: these are allowed, but a whole string of them can make it seem more like a guessing game than a seance. You can give a detailed answer to a seemingly binary question, e.g. if the Subject asks "Is that you Uncle Harold?", it might throw the cat among the pigeons if the answer is T-H-I-E-F.

Answers from the Great Beyond

Once the Medium and Subject are chosen, the next two questions are answered by turning over one of the cards that are face down on the table, with the player who placed that card there answering the question. Therefore, if you are the Subject and you have two cards face down in front of you, the Medium must ask the next two questions and you must answer them. The answers to subsequent questions can be provided by anyone who didn't actually ask the question. When you provide an answer, you simply play a card from your hand face up in front of you; there are two ways the cards can be used to answer questions from the Subject or Medium, creating either a simple answer or a detailed one.

Simple Answers: this applies to answers that fall into binary pairings or other small sets, e.g. yes & no, young & old, dead & alive, male & female, past & future, near & far, etc. After playing a card to provide a simple answer, draw a replacement card. The colour of the card played must correspond to the answer, like so:
  • Black is for answers such as no, old, dead, male, past and far.
  • Red is for answers such as yes, young, alive, female, future and near.
If a simple answer is given that does not appear above, the colour chosen should be noted and applied consistently for the rest of the seance, e.g. if the answer 'Guilty' is given with a black card, then black cards means guilty and red cards mean innocent for the rest of this seance. Try to stick to the themes for each colour, hence 'guilty' seems like a more fitting match for black cards than red.

Detailed Answers: you can respond to any question by spelling out a word, with a number of letters equal to the rank of the card you play, with all court cards counting as a flat rank of 10. You can combine cards, playing two or three at once to provide a longer answer if necessary. When giving a detailed answer, stick to one word and spell it out; you can be cryptic or tangential if you must, but don't be obfuscatory or obstructive. A detailed answer should excite or unnerve, not baffle or confound. You don't draw replacement cards when providing a detailed answer, so there is a limit to how many detailed answers can be given in each round of play.

A round of play ends either when the Subject and the Medium have no further questions or when there are no more cards left to play; in either case, the Medium should announce that the spirits have left and a new round of play can begin. All cards on the table are shuffled back into the deck and dealt out to the players until everyone has three cards once again; choose a new player to be the Medium for the next round and proceed as before, but ensure that there is a new Subject for each round of the seance, so that no-one gets to be the Subject twice. Also, anyone who wants to be the Medium should get a chance to do so, regardless of who has the highest ranked card at the start of any round.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Gingersnap

This is intended as a relatively light, possibly sad game about queer romance, dating and sex... but you could use it to tell non-queer stories too, I'll leave that up to you. It's a little more substantial than the average short game on this blog, because it covers some more complex topics than usual. Finally, you don't have to be queer to play this game, but it helps!

Getting Started

Tom Daley & Dustin Lance Black
The game's set-up and final outcome is strongly affected by the number of players: if you have an odd number, then one of the character's is almost certainly going to end up alone at the end. In order to play, you'll need some blank sheets of paper to serve as character profiles, some post-it notes or index cards cut in half to identify Qualities, pencils & erasers and at least one six-sided die per player.

Deal out 4 cards to each player and talk about Qualities: a Quality is the sort of thing that you might find on a dating site profile as an enticing description of someone's lifestyle, personality or interests. Some examples include:

Sporty                 Literate              Cinephile               Well-Off         Biker
Educated            Political             Handicrafter          Spiritual           Musical
Cook                  Artistic               Pet Owner             Sociable           Well-Travelled

Discuss which of these are interesting to you as a group and define what you mean by them, so that everyone shares an understanding of what the Qualities signify. Each player should propose two Qualities which will be used in the game, writing each one down twice in a short-form on their cards once they have been agreed, so that there are two cards for each Quality. It will also be helpful to maintain a document that lists all the Qualities and their definitions, for reference during play.

Once the Qualities are written, create two decks, by placing half the Qualities in each deck: to be clear, place both cards featuring a Quality in one of the decks, not one card in each deck. Shuffle each deck separately and then deal one card to each player from each deck; this process avoids any player getting two identical Qualities.
For example, I might write out the Quality 'Knitter' on two of my cards and the Quality 'Cosplayer' on two others; I would then put both 'Knitter' cards in Deck A and both 'Cosplayer' cards in Deck B. When I draw cards for the Qualities my character will have, I draw only one card from Deck A and one card from Deck B, so I won't get two Qualities which are the same.

Use the Qualities you are dealt to create your character: you are not confined to using only those Qualities in your character's profile, you may use any you like, even those not recorded on any Quality cards, but the cards you are dealt will determine which other characters you might be a match with. You cannot show your cards to any other player nor directly communicate to them which cards you have been dealt.

In addition to the Qualities you have, you also choose two other Qualities which you do not have: one of these is your Deal Maker and the other is your Deal Breaker. The Deal Maker is a Quality you are consciously seeking in a partner, whilst the Deal Breaker is the Quality most likely to put you off a potential partner. When choosing your Deal Maker and Deal Breaker, only use Qualities that have been agreed for this game, don't make up additional ones; also, after writing these down on your profile, do not show them or communicate them to other players, as with your two Qualities.

When creating your character profile, keep in mind that all the characters are potentially available for romantic or sexual partnerships with all the other characters: the assumption that the game makes is that all the characters share the same gender identity and sexual preference, but you can use a different set of assumptions, such as a mix of polysexual, multigendered characters.

For simplicity, it's worth establishing relationships between the characters before beginning play: the quickest way to do this is to state that they all share a common social space, whether that is a virtual one or in the real world. The more complex and realistic way is to have the first player establish their character's relationship to the second player's character, who then establishes a relationship to the third player's character and so on, until the last player establishes a relationship between their character and the first player's.

The Heady & Complex World We Call 'Real'

Once the characters are defined, the game begins by the first player framing a scene, using the standard simple process of answering these questions:
  • Where does the scene take place?
  • What is happening there?
  • Who else is present?
When it is your turn to frame a scene, make sure to invite at least one other player to place their character in the scene, giving a reason for them being there in the process. Try to make a scene open to as many characters as possible, don't restrict your focus to the relationship between two characters: if anyone else wants their character to enter a scene, and can provide a legitimate reason for their character to do so, they may.

Ellen Degeneres & Portia de Rossi
A scene continues until it hits a Snag: this is a situation, dilemma or problem that the characters can attempt to resolve within the boundaries of that scene, so they can't put the whole world to rights but they can fix a broken window, organise a surprise party, get someone to a hospital, pass a job interview and so on. Any player who has a character in the scene can identify the Snag, but if the other players don't think it's that big a Snag, they can simply resolve it through the narrative and play on until a better Snag is reached.

To resolve a Snag, each player who has a character in the scene may opt to roll a six-sided die, indicating that they are co-operating to resolve the Snag; if you want to complicate matters, you can allow players to split into sides, with some rolling to resolve the Snag and others rolling to prevent them from resolving it. Whoever rolls the highest wins the narrative rights for resolving the Snag, but that's really only half the story.

Everyone who rolls in any scene compares their dice to everyone else who rolls, even if they are on opposite sides of the situation: any two players who rolled the same number have clicked with each other. When you click with another character, discuss or play out with them an aspect of the scene, its Snag or its resolution: try to find some commonality that makes the characters feel like they have grown closer, whether that's an outlook or simply a shared memory. If three or more characters all click on the same number, then they must all agree on what common experience they have shared in this scene. If you click with the highest result rolled, then the shared experience should be something amazing that resolves the Snag: all players involved in the click should come up with this resolution co-operatively.

When you click with another character, write down their name on your character profile and record the number you clicked on: you can only click with each other character once per number, i.e. if you have clicked with another character on a roll of 1, then rolling 1s with them again in a later scene has no further effect.

A Short Aside On the Matter of Sex

On your turn as a player, you can go on a date with another character: date scenes work like any other scene, but Snags are replaced by Sex. It's up to your group of players what you find is a suitably detailed level of narration for dating scenes: you might want to play through the date and draw a veil over the Sex, but you should at least mention that Sex takes place. At the end of each date scene, you roll dice for the Sex: take one die and add one for each click you have marked for the character you are on the date with. If there are any new clicks in this roll, then the sex is pretty good and both characters should mark the new click on their character profiles.

True Love, Romance & Eternal Happiness

The game ends when any player wants to try and find True Love: declare your intent to do so at the end of any scene you took part in, but play to the end of the round so that all players have had an equal number of chances to frame a scene.

At the end of the round, each player writes down the name of the character they think their character would most want to find True Love with, then reveals them; as with other things, you can't show anyone else your choice nor communicate it to them until they are all revealed.

If you and another character choose each other you can try for True Love right away: create a pool of dice equal to the number of clicks you share and add 1 die to it for choosing each other as your True Loves, then reveal your Qualities and your Deal Maker & Deal Breaker to each other. Add  1 die to the pool one for each Quality that matches the other character's Deal Maker; if either of you have a Quality that matches the other's Deal Breaker, than halve the final pool, rounding down. If you both have Qualities that match the other's Deal Breaker, then your pool is reduced to zero, so you don't get to roll.

If you chose someone who didn't choose you, you can still try to find true love with them, if they also don't have a match; this works as above, but you don't get the extra die for choosing each other as True Loves. Negotiating who you try to find True Love with can be tricky if there is any kind of love triangle present, so the first couple who agree to try get to do so.

When you roll for True Love roll your pool and look for the highest pair of matches in it; if there are no matches, then you don't find True Love. If there is a match, the relationship is rated on a scale from 1 to 6, corresponding to the match rolled: matching 1s means it's an uncomfortable, troubled relationship, while matching 6s means its perfect and satisfying for the whole of your lives.

You can try again if your pool gets reduced to zero or you roll no matches; you can even choose to break up your relationship if you want to try for something better. Once the initial round of True Love rolls has been made, anyone who wants to try again can do so with any other player who is also willing to try: create a pool as before, adding one for each Quality that matches a Deal Maker, but halving the pool for each Deal Breaker. You can try again several times if you remain unhappy with the results, but you can only try for True Love with each other character once

During this True Love round, narrate how each couple attempts to get together and the results; pay special attention to anyone who trys again for any reason, whether that's because they had no match in the initial round or they simply wanted to try for a better relationship than the one they rolled previously.

Feedback

This is a short game about processes and building upon what has already been stated: in it, the player's collectively take on the role of a crashed AI trying to diagnose what went wrong with it and complete its function, whatever that is.


REBOOT

In order to play this game, you'll need a large sheet of paper (graph paper or plain paper work best), a sharp pencil, an eraser and a coin: the larger the sheet of paper you pick, the longer the game may take. Start by drawing a 4cm x 4cm box in the upper left corner of the sheet (it doesn't matter what shape the paper is or whether you orient it in portrait or landscape): the overall aim of the game is to reach the bottom right corner by drawing a series of boxes and arrows to represent the decisions the AI is faced with, the data is gathers and the actions it takes.

At the start of the game, as the AI reboots and goes through a check-list of procedures, none of the players will know what the AI's purpose is: this will only be learned through play, as the AI accesses its database and sensors. The story of the game will told through the data the AI gathers as it restores itself to functionality.

It isn't necessary to detail every function and process of the AI as it reboots, only the interesting ones: the game is about finding out what the AI's purpose is and whether it can complete that successfully, so it doesn't need to be 'fully programmed,' a rough sketch of its programming is sufficient. The starting point for the game is to choose an ACTION or DECISION for the first box on the chart: how does the AI respond when it reboots after crashing? What is the first thing it does? Since the first box on the flowchart potentially determines a lot about the story, you might want to make this choice as a group, before proceeding to play in turn order.


ACTION

The AI may begin its reboot by taking  an ACTION: each ACTION the AI takes involves it activating a part of the physical system it is operating and has access to. Some potential ACTIONS include:
  • Begin warm-up sequence for main thruster.
  • Send crash report to mission HQ.
  • Engage active defence systems.
  • Power-up drone workforce.
Whenever the AI takes an action, draw a 4x4 box on the flowchart: this should be connected to at least one prior box by an arrow pointing to it. Note the type of ACTION taken and leave space to draw arrows leading out of this box to subsequent ones. Having described the ACTION, complete your turn by tossing a coin to see what the outcome of that action is: if the result is heads, the ACTION is successful and the AI proceeds to the next point on it's check-list; if the result is tails, the ACTION is unsuccessful, so the AI must attempt to rectify the failure before it can proceed. In either case, draw an arrow leading from the box to the next one, but try to be consistent, so that all successful tasks completed are in a continuous line, whereas unsuccessful ones form small loops attached to this line.

If an ACTION fails, it fails: don't simply repeat an ACTION on subsequent turns, as the game will be dull if it features too many back-ups, fail-safes and auxiliary functions. A failed ACTION can be corrected by drawing an arrow back to it after a loop that contains a successful DECISION or ACTION: the AI can gather data and perform functions that allow it to repair or work around failed ACTIONS, so the second time any ACTION is taken, it succeeds, as long as the arrow that is drawn back to it originates from a successful ACTION or DECISION.


DECISION

The AI may attempt to gather more data on its situation, in order to assess what steps it needs to take to resolve a problem; DECISIONS are taken by accessing memory banks or live sensors, interrogating them for whatever data is needed in order to determine the correct course of action. In order to make the DECISION, the AI must apply a binary choice to the data, usually phrased as an IF/THEN statement; some typical DECISIONS might include:





  • If the perimeter is breached, then seal all internal doors.
  • If the drive plasma is below 10%, then change course for the nearest star.
  • If no confirmation is received from mission HQ, then prepare missile launch sequence alpha.
  • If total profits are less than total outgoings, then dismiss the least productive staff member.
When you phrase a DECISION, draw a box on the chart as for an ACTION and describe how the AI obtains the data required, by accessing stored data or collating live feed from sensors, then toss a coin: if the result is heads, the question is answered affirmatively, but if tails, it is answered negatively. When a DECISION is answered affirmatively, the AI takes the ACTION described: add the box for that ACTION to the flowchart but do not toss a coin for it, it succeeds automatically. When a DECISION is answered negatively, the AI must seek further data, therefore the next player must also frame a DECISION for the AI.

DECISIONS are often triggered by failed ACTIONS or negative responses to prior DECISIONS: for example, if an ACTION like 'Begin heating of incubation chamber' fails, then the AI will most likely seek a reason for the failure and take the appropriate steps to rectify it.


NARRATION

The game requires the most narration where DECISIONS are taken, as these are at least a two-tiered process: the active player must both narrate the data being gathered, stating how it is obtained and then incorporating the result into their narration. For example, a player states on their turn that the AI must make a DECISION about this statement: "If there is vehicle activity in the city, send out a drone to investigate." They might narrate this by saying the following: "The AI signals the satellite surveillance network requesting the most recent images of the city at this location." The player then tosses a coin, with the result being tails, so the DECISION is answered negatively, like this for example: "12 microseconds later, the network sends a dossier to the AI containing images of the city over the last hour; comparison of these images shows no significant change, therefore vehicle activity is flagged as absent."


CONCLUSION

The game continues until the AI reaches a CONCLUSION, a point at which it has completed all current functions required of it and can go into hibernation mode until it receives more direct input, such as new instructions or urgent new data. The game should arrive at it's CONCLUSION by the time the flowchart has reached the bottom right corner of the page: the line of boxes may loop back and forth on the page before it reaches the CONCLUSION or it may take a more direct route if a shorter game is acceptable. The CONCLUSION may even be reached abruptly, if an ACTION is successfully taken that all players feel adequately represents a CONCLUSION.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Enemy Within

In the usual process of going through things on my hard drive, looking for that thing I wrote that time and can't remember what I did with it, I discovered this lost piece. I proposed it as one the essay pieces for Andrew Kenrick's Dead of Night 2nd Edition, but it ended up not being used; here's what I wrote about games where the PCs are the monsters.


The Thing, 1982
Two characters are stuck with each other, survivors of the mayhem that has claimed so many other lives; as they look at each other, a paranoid glint in their eyes reveals their inner thoughts: “Are you the monster?” It’s a hard situation to reach in a game, but here are some approaches I've used to good effect.

The Ringer: Brief the players for the scenario, then hand out pre-gens; one of the pre-gens contradicts the briefing however and informs the player that their character is just a façade, since they are really playing the monster. The ringer is created in the same way as any other PC, but with an agenda that includes the death and/or torment of the others. Make sure you give the ringer to a player with a good poker face who is comfortable with pro-active role-playing; with this technique, I have seen three different players take on the same ringer in three very different ways.
  • Patient: Waited for players to put their characters in jeopardy and took advantage of the situation; none of the players knew anything was up until the last half-hour of the game.
  • Subtle: Made use of the ringer’s façade to isolate other characters one by one and put pressure on them, so they turned on each other.
  • Monstrous: Immediately started isolating characters and endangering them; everyone knew something was up, but as it wasn't what they expected, they largely ignored it.

The hard part about this technique when GMing is not accidentally giving the game away; keep a briefing sheet in front of you with all the PCs agendas on it, including any false agenda’s pursued by the ringer, as well as their true agenda. Refer to your briefing frequently in regards to all the PCs, even if you don’t have to, and avoid giving the ringer any special attention beyond the support needed to threaten the other PCs.

The Traitor: Brief the players on the scenario or ask them to collaborate in creating one, but also ask one of the players to take on the role of the monster! All players can collaborate on deciding the traitor player’s agenda and suggest suitable attributes & specialisations, but the traitor is a regular PC during play, whose agenda is the major threat facing the other PCs. This can be played as above, with the players keeping their out-of-character knowledge from affecting their character’s actions, or the nature of the traitor can be known from the start, making it a game of cat & mouse for most of the session.
                The monster PC in these cases usually has a strong home ground advantage and can freely narrate whatever locations or environmental conditions best suit their ploys; as GM, I let that PC frame their own scenes more often and don’t interfere in them too much, but add pressure to any scenes they are absent from to keep the other players on their toes. If the human PCs all put aside their differences and co-operate, they can probably overwhelm the monster PC pretty quickly, so I keep feeding them reasons not to trust each other and encourage them to ignore the immediate threat in pursuit of their own agendas.
In addition to the above, here are two gimmicks you can try; you can also use these to turn a GM-as-monster game into a player-as-monster game half-way through, but it would only be fair to warn players of the potential for this to happen.

Possessors: Ghosts, parasites and evil psychics can use a PC to carry out their bidding; prepare a set of index cards, writing on one a potted monster PC description, focussing on their agenda. At an appropriate point in the game (e.g. at the very start of the game or during a séance) hand out one card to each player; whoever gets dealt the monster is now playing that agenda. Any player can engage any other player in a conflict to swap cards; if they win the conflict, they swap cards with the loser and take one Survival point from them, adding it to their own Survival points. That should give plenty of incentive for everyone to do so, which of course throws suspicion on both players involved in a swap. It also present the players with the challenge of pinning the monster down in one body for long enough to kill it.


Infectors: Zombies, vampires and sentient diseases can all convert any number of humans into fellow monsters; using a variation of the above gimmick, players retain the monster’s agenda even after passing the card to another player. Depending on the monster type, the conflict required to infect another PC may require violence or physical intimacy; players should retain the option of still pursuing the regular agendas of their PC, but as their Survival points diminish, the monster should come more to the fore. The endgame here is all about defeating an ever growing army of monsters before they overwhelm the remaining humans... or before the humans join them.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Room 66a: A Treasure Chest Guarded by Two Orcs

This is a one-act story game for two players, though others may be added if required.

Scene One

Waiting for Godot
Our drama takes place in a dungeon, within which there is a room containing a treasure chest guarded by two orcs (or more, if required.) The orcs are not clear on whose dungeon they are in, what is in the chest or why they are standing here guarding it, though they expect a party of adventurers to arrive and try to steal it, at some time, soon... possibly. The orcs are surprisingly erudite and loquacious, as we shall see.

In order to play, you will need a deck of cards: the first player turns over the top card of the deck to determine their opening gambit; the rank of the card revealed does not matter at this point, only the suit:

Clubs: the subject is their routine and role in the dungeon, such as how long they have been there, what's in the chest and when are they having lunch.

Hearts: the subject is themselves and their destinies, such as how easily they can crack a skull, how a date with the sorceress went and what they hope to do once they are finished guarding this chest.

Spades: the subject is the adventurers, such as how long they will take to arrive, what they'll do when they arrive and musing about famous adventurers.

Diamonds: the subject is philosophical or scientific musings, such as the way they perceive time to pass, the nature of morality and the evolution of species.

The game continues by each player turning over the next card in the deck and continuing the conversation by way of that theme, but the rank of the cards makes a difference to how that response is framed.


Scene Two

If the next card turned over is of a higher rank than the previous one, then the response must be in the form of a question: this may be a rhetorical question, one seeking clarification or just a reframing of the previous statement in more circumlocutious terms.

For example, if the prior statement, from the 3 of Clubs, was "I've brought a cheese sandwich for lunch," then the responses might be as follows:

On the 7 of Clubs: "Were we supposed to bring our own food?"

On the 7 of Hearts: "I thought you were gluten intolerant?" or "Did you buy it or make it yourself?"

On the 7 of Spades: "What do you think the adventurers have got for lunch?"

On the 7 of Diamonds: "How did they discover cheese?"


Scene Three

If the next card turned over is of a lower rank than the previous one, then the response must be in the form of a statement: this may be an answer to a previous question, an angry outburst or simply a meandering stream of conciousness, as long as it stays on topic.

For example, if the prior statement, from the 7 of Clubs, was "I hear they're bringing  in a dragon," then the responses might be as follows:

On the 3 of Clubs: "Oh... they'll have to widen the doors then."

On the 3 of Hearts: "I hope they're not going to sack us"

On the 3 of Spades: "They'll kill it. They killed the last one. And the one before that."

On the 3 of Diamonds: "That'll be for the treasure then. They love treasure."


Scene Four

If the next card turned over is of the same rank as the previous one, then there is no response: the orcs are interrupted by the suggestion of events outside the room. The player whose turn it is may insert any kind of jarring interruption to the narrative, regardless of the suit of the card drawn; the game then continues with the next player turning over the next card and starting a new topic of conversation. Examples of interruptions might be the sound of a trap being sprung or a great beast roaring, the echoes of distant footsteps or bloody battles, or even another denizen of the dungeon opening the door to the room, saying "Sorry, wrong room," and closing the door immediately behind them.


Final Act

The game may end in one of two ways:

1. The last card is turned over, the last question is asked or statement made, the light fades to black and the curtain comes down.

Or

2. On any double, the player whose turn it is may choose to have the opening of the door to their room as the interruption to the dialogue: the adventurers have arrived, at last. Fade to black, curtain down.


Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Spectres

This is a short hack of InSpectres by Jared Sorensen, so you will need a copy  of that game, or at least familiarity with it, in order to play this one. In Spectres, most of the players are ghosts who have died in the same residence over the centuries, while the GM poses the problems they face from the mortal world.


inspectres_432x666.gif
InSpectres, 2002

Being a Spectre


All the player-characters in this game are ghosts who died in the same place, the same building they all now haunt. The first step to playing is to agree on what that place is: it might be a castle, manor house, industrial space or a house that has been renovated and modernised many times over the years. The history of the building will inform the choices made when creating the spectral characters.

Spectres have two attributes: Mortal, which covers the ordinary things they do, and Spectral, which governs the strength of their supernatural powers. Every PC starts out with scores of Mortal 3 and Spectral 1, but this can be changed during character creation.

Mortal Concerns


The Mortal side of each character is divided into three aspects:
  • Can they be seen?
  • Can they be heard?
  • Can they be felt?
The default answer to all three of these questions is "Yes," so all Spectres are innately visible, audible and tangible to mortals, but players can change any of these answers to "No," which has three consequences:
  • They lose 1 point from Mortal and add it to Spectral.
  • They gain a new Spectral Power.
  • They lose the ability to interact with mortals in that way, e.g. they cannot be seen, heard or felt by them.
A Spectre that is unseen is invisible to mortals under all circumstances and nothing they can do will make a human see them; a Spectre that is unheard is always inaudible to mortals, even when screaming in their ear; finally, a Spectre that is unfelt passes through all material objects without affecting them. Players can only roll their Mortal attribute for things their Spectre can still do, so if they answer "No" to all three questions, then their Mortal score is reduced to zero and they no longer get to do any of those things.

Spectral Powers


Every Spectre starts with a score of Spectral 1 and one Spectral Power, but they increase both of these by reducing their Mortal score as explained above. Each Spectral Power represents a specific supernatural ability the Spectre possesses, including but not limited to:
  • Pyrokinesis
  • Telepathy
  • Teleportation
  • Clairvoyance
  • Prophecy
  • X-Ray Vision
  • Possession
  • Shape Shifting
The only restriction on Spectral Powers is that you cannot have one that replaces or replicates a lost Mortal ability, e.g. you cannot take Telekinesis as a Spectral Power if you are unfelt and you cannot use Telepathy with mortals if you are unheard . Equally, there's no point in taking Invisibility if you are unseen or Intangibility if you are unfelt.

Every Spectre also has one restriction upon them, which is they cannot leave their resting place, so they are confined within the house & grounds of their residence. Players can assign one of their Spectral Powers to overcoming this restriction, however, but it has no other effect: if a player takes Teleportation as a power, then they can only use it to move within the residence unless they also use up another power on being allowed to roam freely. Overcoming the restriction grants no special benefit on its own, so though the player's Spectral score still increases by 1, the ability to leave the residence is not considered a Spectral Power in itself and grants no special abilities, nor does it require a roll.

Passions

The Ghosts of Motley Hall, 1976-1978

Each Spectre also has one Passion, which is something that was singularly important to them in their life: this could be connected to their profession, their hobby or their family life, but it cannot be the house they share with the other Spectres. Examples include:
  • Childhood toys
  • Electronics
  • Care for animals
  • Housekeeping
  • Food & drink
  • History
  • Law
  • A favourite grandchild
Whenever a Spectre makes a roll that is closely connected to their Passion, they add 1d6 to their pool prior to rolling; this does mean that even a Spectre who is unseen, unheard and unfelt can still attempt actions which involve any of those, as long as their Passion is concerned.

Hauntings


When their common home & peaceful existence comes under threat, the Spectres band together to face it: this is known as a Haunting. Each Haunting has a score that the Spectres must meet in order to resolve the problem, using the rules as for earning franchise dice presented in InSpectres: when the target Haunting value is reached, the problem has been solved and peace returns to the Spectres' residence... until next time.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Dead of Night: Hacked Up

Dead of Night, Second Edition
One of my favourite games, and an influence on how I play, run and design others, is Dead of Night by Andrew Kenrick: it's a deceptively simple horror game, which models movies & campfire tales excellently. It's not so much the rules of the game which do this but the meta-rules: the second edition contains extensive guidance on how to tweak the rules, adjusting variables and circumstantial effects to best reflect the style of horror game you want to emulate, whether that's dark horror comedy or tense, claustrophobic psychological thriller.

The nature of these meta-rules encourages experimentation and I've had some success playing with the possible combinations to produce different effects: my Cold Fusion scenario, which appears in the book, changes the ways Survival point are used, splitting them into two colours which are drawn randomly from a bag, providing a countdown to a fate other than death for the player-characters.

I've also hacked the game more extensively, to profoundly change the assumptions of play, tailoring it to extended campaign play or ensemble disaster movies. Presented here is the essence of those two hacks, plus one more to represent tense, situational horror that can still be used in conjunction with 'humans vs. monsters' style games.


Die Faster: Ensemble Cast Play
This is a big change to the fundamental way Dead of Night works, as each player can control several characters at once, but the stats of the game are greatly stripped down and simplified.

Instead of the existing four stat pairs (Identify/Obscure, Persuade/Dissuade, etc) there is only one pair, Proactive/Reactive and each PC gets 10 points to split between the two halves of this pair. Proactive is used when a PC tries to make something happens or to change the situation; Reactive applies when the PC tries to prevent something happening or to keep the situation as it is.

At the start of play, pitch a setting and get everyone to suggest possible characters who might be in that situation: you 'll need a list of at least 5 times the number of players, but keep descriptions short and stereotypical, e.g. 'Greedy Executive', 'Rookie Cop, 'Foul-Mouthed Labourer' and so on. Each player takes 5 Survival points as normal, but then takes it in turn to pay 1 Survival point and buy a character from the list: go around doing this until everyone is happy with the number of characters they have bought. More characters can be added to the list at any time, but any time a player earns a survival token, they must take a character from the list instead; they can also buy another character at any time, as long as they have a Survival point to pay for it with.

Image result for tremors cast
Tremors, 1990
As well as their stat pair, each character can also have one trait in the normal way, reflecting one thing they are especially good at; it's also a good idea to give them a name and think of a short, catchy description that can be used when introducing them to the narrative.

In all other ways, characters are treated exactly as Survival points: if you lose a Risky challenge, you must lose one of your characters, but not necessarily the one who made the roll. Each time one of your characters dies, you get to narrate it, so even if you choose to spend one for a re-roll or to establish a plot point, you get to choose the manner of the character's death and how it achieves that end.


Baggage: Campaign Play
This was an add-on I created when I set out to offer an 8-week campaign using Dead of Night as the ruleset: the basic idea was to give the player-characters an additional life-line that would hopefully slow down the mortality rate and allow storylines more time to develop.

Each player in the campaign creates one piece of Baggage for their character: this should be an object or NPC which represents an important goal or issue for the PC. For example, Baggage for one character might be their significant other, whereas someone else might have the hunting rifle bequeathed to them by their grandparent which they have won shooting contests with.

In play, each piece of Baggage has two uses: first, the player can choose to sacrifice their Baggage instead of having their character die. This doesn't require any re-rolls, they simply succeed at whatever they were doing, but they permanently lose their Baggage in the process.

The Walking Dead,  2010-Present
Second, they can bring their Baggage into the action: by doing so, they get to roll 3d10 and pick two results, instead of just rolling 2d10. This gives them more chance of success, but they have to be able to narrate how the Baggage helps them with that roll and if they fail the roll, they must either spend a Survival point to re-roll or lose their Baggage.

Keep in mind that the Baggage rules are in addition to the standard rule of each player gaining 2 more Survival points at the start of each new session, though as with many other rules, this can tweaked to suit the style of play you want, e.g. don't give out extra Survival points, but allow characters to have two pieces of Baggage, if you want 'losing the things you care about' to be a theme of the game.


Hazard Pay: Situational Horror
The Dead of Night system is built on the assumption of protagonists vs. antagonists, e.g. the Heroes of the movie against the Monsters, but there is a simple way around this, by defining the monster as something within the environment, such as a storm or an earthquake, or to reify an abstract threat, such as 'paranoia' or 'despair.'

Even so, there are often situations where the player-characters are doing something that is obviously dangerous, yet there is nothing acting against them, so technically there's no reason their success would cost the Monsters a Survival point, even though failure should clearly cost the PC one. This hack is a suggestion for dealing with those situations and comes in the form of Hazard Pay.

Let's take a standard disaster movie trope, where the one hope the characters have of escaping danger is for somebody to go out into the dangerous situation and open a door/restart a generator/retrieve a weapon and so on. As GM, you take Hazard Pay from the player-character who does so: they give you a Survival point to hold while they are exposing themselves to the additional danger, but they get it back when they return to a safer environment.

Aliens, 1986
This means that, while they are exposed to the increased danger, they are more at risk of death, since they have fewer Survival points to call upon; the danger can even be compounded, for example if they fail the vital roll, they owe more Hazard Pay and have to try again before they can make their way back to safety.

The Survival points held by the GM as Hazard Pay are fully paid back to the player as soon as their character is out of immediate danger, but until then, those Survival points are not available to them for any purpose; additionally, any extra Survival points they earn in that situation are held with their Hazard Pay until they return to safety. This makes dangerous situations mean something without arbitrarily taking Survival points away from the players or making them take Risky checks in which they have no chance of making their opponents lose any.