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.