Sunday, 29 October 2017

Say Something Nice

Another short game created in the space of one morning, inspired by a friend's recent experience with booking a restaurant and by the trend for some businesses to complain about their negative reviews.

In the near future, a conglomeration of businesses have made it virtually illegal to post a negative review about any commercial service: in this game, for 2 or 3 players, you’ll have to create a glowingly positive review for a business that has provided shockingly bad service.

Image result for dirty restaurant tableFirst up, choose who will be the Customer and who will be the Business: in a 3 player game, you also have a Commenter, who will provide their own spin on what the Customer & Business say.

The Customer starts by describing their visit to the Business, effectively outlining what sort of service they received; as the Customer, you might start by saying “On Tuesday, I went to La Belle Noire for lunch,” thus establishing that the Business in question is a restaurant or café that provides lunch and which has a slightly pretentious name.

From there, the Business starts to describe the actual experience the customer had and the Customer responds by putting that experience in the best possible terms as part of their review. The Business should make the experience as plausibly awful as possible, though it should be comically awful, not merely depressingly awful, such as:
“The waiter sneezed on you as they took you to your table.”
“The menus were in a language you didn’t recognise and no-one could translate, so you had to guess.”
“Your soup was served in an eggcup.”
“The fire alarm went off, but the waiter just took the battery out and carried on.”

For each experience the Business states, the customer must spin that into the most positive version they can come up with, such as:
“The waiter was very approachable, almost intimate.”
“There were a lot of exciting surprises on the menu and we didn’t know what to expect!”
“The delicate starter really whetted our appetites for the main course!”
“The wait staff went out of their way to cultivate a calming & relaxed atmosphere.”

If you have a Commenter, they may ask a question to modify or seek more information about what the Business or Customer says about any experience, but only once per experience, i.e. they may not ask both the Business and the Customer about the same experience. The Commenter’s questions should be about their own version of that experience when they made use of the Business, such as:
“Business: is that the waiter who had the nose bleed when I was there?”
“Customer: did you order the Cabbage Bread & Boiled Rump?”
“Business: do you still serve the soup with a knife?”
“Customer: did you sit at the table in front of the fire exit?”

No matter what the Commenter asks, the answer must always begin either “Yes, and…” or “No, but…”; the answer must always build on and relate to the question, but the Business should take this as their cue to make the experience worse, whilst the Customer is challenged to make it sound better.

When the Business describes the last experience of the Customer and everyone has responded to it, the game is over; the last experience will usually be paying the bill or leaving the premises (possibly to seek medical attention.)

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

We Only Want What's Best For You

I ventured out into role-playing again last night for the first time in months; among other things, we found time for a game of The Vicar is Coming for Tea, which made me think about Game Poems once again, so here's a new one I've had a go at this morning.

This short game takes place in a Multi-Agency Meeting, where those present will decide what’s best for a troubled young person with a challenging life. Imagine the kind of issues that might lead to a meeting like this, but don’t specify them: given the subject matter that is likely to come up, be prepared to tackle sensitive issues.
Image result for multi agency meeting 
Each player takes it in turn to state their role and their proposal for the young person in question: roles that may be present at the meeting are Teacher, Social Worker, Youth Offending Team Worker, Grandparent/Aunt/Uncle, Health Worker and Police Officer. Everyone present knows the young person and has had contact with them.

Once everyone has introduced themselves and outlined their proposal, prepare a set of paper tokens equal to the number of players: draw a smiley face on half of them and a frown on the other half. Place them in the centre of the table, within easy reach or all players, but move them about so that no-one knows which tokens are which.

Now you debate which proposal to accept for the young person’s future: everyone present will still interact with the young person in some capacity, no matter which proposal is accepted. During this debate, you may share something you know about the young person, adding a fact about them to the discussion: this might be as general as their age, gender or culture, but it may also be something specific to them or their history. You may use these details to add weight to a proposal or to argue against it, but when you add a detail, you must take a token from those remaining on the table. Look at it, then place it face down in front of you; you may only have one token, so you only get one chance to add a detail during the game.

Once the last token is taken, the game ends and all the players must reach a majority consensus on which proposal to implement: once this is decided, the player whose proposal is accepted flips their token over and reveals it. If a smiley face is revealed, they end the game by narrating how the course of action taken improves the young person’s life; if a frown is revealed, they end the game with a coda about the young person’s descent into a lifetime of trouble as a result of this.

Note #1: Tactically, once you know whether your proposal will have a good or bad outcome, it’s up to you how strongly you argue for or against it; this is just a game, so feel free to advocate for the type of ending to the story that you would like to see. You can’t withdraw your proposal, but you can throw your weight behind someone else’s.

Note #2: Multi-Agency Meetings are a familiar tool to anyone who has worked closely with young people in the UK, with the idea being to look at all aspects of the subject’s life and come up with a plan that benefits them the most. This game represents a vastly oversimplified version of the process.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017


An Exploration Game for One Player

You have left the world behind on an almost-fully automated, one-person spacecraft, with the mission to scout the galaxy and see what's out there. Your craft will navigate you to places of interest and record everything it can via its sensors: your job is to provide the human touch by means of a commentary on how each discovery makes you feel.

Image result for starYou can play this game as a daily blog, via text, audio or video: each day represents a different discovery as your spacecraft takes you to another remote part of the galaxy and invites you to record your own feelings about what you are experiencing. The game rules below exist to support you in creating that content, not to proscribe you from doing what you want with the game.


On each day of playing the game, you discover something new: you can play every day or as infrequently as you wish, but each time you play, use a random word generator like this or this to create some seeds for your imagination. Use the randomly generated words to suggest the details of the discovery you have made; you can use the last digit of the day of the month to suggest a category of discovery from this list:
  1. A star with unusual properties.
  2. A remarkable planet.
  3. A unique anomaly in space-time.
  4. A spectacular gas or dust cloud.
  5. A planetary system with a peculiar arrangement.
  6. An interstellar but non-sentient life-form.
  7. A rare event involving two or more bodies.
  8. An asteroid belt with notable features.
  9. A comet hurtling through deep space.
On days ending in '0', you discover the remains of a mega-structure of unknown purpose, the last remnants of a vanished civilization. Your discovery should never involve contact with other sentient beings in any form: the game is about your own personal experiences and reflections, undiluted by the influence of others.

For example, today ends in '7', so my discovery will be some sort of rare astronomical event: the random word generator gives me 'script, sink, harmony, shortage, impress.' I can use any of those words (or none of them) to suggest my discovery: 'sink' and 'harmony' appeals to me and makes me think of two co-orbiting miniature black holes which are finally about to merge.


Image result for gas giantYour blog should take the form of your personal log, recording your own impressions of the discovery you have made but most important, how it makes you feel. Your ship's sensors can provide you with as much detail about the discovery as you wish, extending your information about it right the way across the spectrum of all possible data, so don't feel confined to only describing what you can see out of a window. Other sensations to think about include:
  • The sensation of gravity affecting different parts of your body as you pass close to a very massive object: think of how tidal stress can make your ship creak and groan.
  • A build of up static electricity from passing through charged dust or gas might make your hair stand on end or create a St. Elmo's Fire effect inside your ship.
  • By converting low frequency radio waves into an audio signal, sounds like this are produced, that echo throughout your ship.
  • Even when describing a discovery in terms of what you can see, imagine how it changes over time: light & shade vary as your ship moves past the phenomenon, different colours rise & fall in a gas giant's atmosphere and even the very shape of an object just passing through our set of dimensions can alter from moment to moment.


Image result for asteroid beltEach discovery should elicit a different emotional response from you as the observer, but that response should in some way connect back to your own personal experiences: imagine each discovery making you recall something from your past. You don't have to state what that memory is or refer directly to it at all and you can choose whether to use a real memory from your own past or an invented one for the story you are creating. Below is a list of suggested emotional responses with questions that you may use to connect that response to a memory:
  • Anger: as you are witnessing a destructive or wasteful event, you might ask yourself what did I destroy when I was back on Earth? What made me angriest and how did I act upon that anger?
  • Delight: something is created or you discover something of surpassing beauty and you think when was I last this happy? What were my favourite things and what gave me pleasure about them?
  • Fear: a close encounter with something truly terrifying might leave you thinking what was my greatest fear back on Earth? Who was afraid of me and what did I do to scare them so much?
  • Melancholy: something empty or abandoned brings upon feelings of your own loss and regret, such as who do I miss the most from my life on Earth? What do I wish I had done differently and how could I go about making amends now?
  • Wonder: an encounter with the incomprehensible and enigmatic only leaves you with questions, such as why did I choose to come out here? Who did I lose contact with before I even left Earth and how did things end with them?


Image result for EarthThe game ends whenever you like, but I would recommend limiting yourself to a short time scale, such as five days if making a blog per day or one month if making your blogs infrequently. On your last blog entry for the game, after reporting your discovery as usual, you must make an additional entry that reflects on your whole experience so far and in particular your decision whether to carry on exploring the galaxy or to return to Earth. If the former, end your final blog with, "This is [name], journeying onwards"; if the latter, end your final blog with, "This is [name], coming home." Do not make any further log entries after this: the game is over.

For Philip, with all my love.

Monday, 18 September 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 sf pulp magazine coverI 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 (Redux)

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.

Since posting this game, I've been fortunate enough to get feedback from Story-Games forum user Rafu, who playtested it across several sessions: their suggestions for some changes to the game to highlight the player-characters are now included below.

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.

Highlighting Characters

Rafu provides two options for adding more definition and personality to the player-characters: the first option is a very light change to the rules which can be easily implemented; the second takes more work from all concerned but gives the PCs' own stories a more pivotal role in the proceedings. Both are quoted verbatim here, with thanks to Rafu for sharing these hacks.

The Small, Inconspicuous Hack: In-Character Chatter

During play, you'll often be tempted to discuss what-ifs and the significance of the evidence collected so far. You know, stuff like: "Wait! If Mr. Bocelli refused to get screened by the metal detector at Bruxelles airport, it means what the man we know as Ivan Ilic stole from his hotel room must have been..."

Do it, then, but do it in-character. It's not the players discussing the story, it's their characters discussing the case. Whenever you feel like making such a comment, do it in your character's voice - maybe you are at a briefing or debriefing meeting, maybe you're just rising your head and voice over your computer cubicle at HQ while everyone's busy screening different pieces of video, or talking over an encrypted connection into your team-members headpieces the very moment you put your fingers on incriminating paperwork. Any replies are considered to be in-character too.

As a side benefit, since you'll probably take your turns Observing and Investigating in an out-of-character, director-like voice instead, adhering to this rule makes for a sharp distinction between when you are declaring fictional facts as your binding game move vs. just making up conjectures as table chatter.

The Bigger Hack: Making it Personal

Not recommended with more than, uhm, 4 players perhaps? And only use this hack if you are planning an ongoing series, not just a one-shot (or maybe introduce these rules from episode #2).

You have a character sheet. On your character sheet, besides your character's name, mark what your Personal Card is - for example, "Aces" or "7s" (in all suits). To each player a different Personal Card, please. You can't choose Kings, because those are already reserved for the mission failure countdown.

On your character sheet you can, at any time, write down your Personal Strengths - skills your character most notably excels at or most extraordinary personal traits. You can have any number of Personal Strengths and you can add more whenever you wish, but they have no quantifiable effect until you get to draw checkboxes next to them.

Your Personal Card coming up represents your character's personal life and issues either getting mixed up with the case, in the worst possible way, or otherwise taxing them and impacting their ability to carry on the mission. This manifests as spotlight time for scenes which "waste" turns, not advancing the mission. As a trade-off, you get to activate your Personal Strengths for later use - to save the day or just have an easier time progressing in the mission when you really need it.

When any player - you included - takes an Observe action and happens to draw your Personal Card from the deck, resolve the Observe action as normal, but the card goes to you instead of the Open stack. When, during an Intervention, any player but you chooses to "push it" and the card they draw from the top of the deck happens to be your Personal Card, it goes to you instead of being discarded to the Closed stack; keep playing the Intervention as normal. You could, but don't have to, introduce personal elements to the observation or field action, if fictionally appropriate, to pave the way for the upcoming personal scene.

When your turn comes and you are holding a Personal Card, you have to frame a personal scene instead of Observing, Investigating or Intervening (you may think of this as "skipping a turn"). After acting out a personal scene, put the Personal Card where it belongs - Open or Closed stack - at last, and draw a checkbox next to one of your Personal Strengths (you choose).

A personal scene demonstrates a problem your character is facing. It can be just a conversation between your character and any other team-members, or it can be something more dramatic. If multiple personal scenes come up during the same mission (you have, in fact, 4 Personal Cards in the deck: one per suit) keep escalating that same problem to new heights or depths.

If you are the lead agent in the field, "push it" and your own Personal Card comes up, then something happens to reframe the whole Intervention into a personal matter. Whatever was originally at stake is lost, failed beyond any hope of recovery, but you get to set new stakes for the Intervention - as long as those are strictly personal matters to settle, which don't really advance the mission. You can't pass on the lead anymore: if you draw a black card and choose not to push it, the Intervention is over and you lost (with regard to your newly-established personal goal). Whichever the outcome, this Intervention "doubles up" as a personal scene, thus you get to add a checkbox. You don't have to skip your next turn either: you've effectively skipped this one, by failing to achieve the original Intervention goal.

So, what are Personal Strengths good for?

When on your turn you choose to Investigate, you can cross out an unchecked box next to a Personal Strength to benefit from that particular skill or character trait in your investigation. Choose a black card, and the data you access answers a question anyway - like a red card would. However, it *also* raises further questions, as appropriate to a black card.

When during an Intervention you choose to "push it" and have any unchecked boxes available, you can check one instead of drawing and discarding from the deck. You overcome the obstacle or challenge by taking actions specifically related to that Personal Strength of yours.

When the mission is over - no matter whether successfully or not - "reset" your character sheet by crossing out any boxes left unchecked. You retain any Personal Strengths you named, of course, unless you decide those don't apply to your character anymore. Any notes you made about your escalating issue you retain as an addition to your backstory, but next time your Personal Card comes up in a future episode, start over with a new issue.

Optional (hack of the hack): track the escalation of your personal issue on your character sheet. If all 4 of your Personal Cards come up during the same episode, it escalates to a stage where you're out of the case! As a player, keep taking turns to Observe or Investigate, but that's what the team does, not what your character does: your character is out of the action until the end of the current episode. You can't use your Personal Strengths and you can't choose to Intervene - in fact, you can't take the lead or even be featured in field intervention scenes (so there's one less team-member to go through before the Intervention fails).


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.