Happy Bard's Day!

Reminder, also at Multitudinous Seas.

Today is traditionally observed as the date when William Shakespeare was born, and died. We'll be celebrating the occasion fittingly by attending a performance of Twelfth Night at the Curio Theatre in Philadelphia. It's a steampunk-themed interpretation, and pre-production photos are available here.

What are you doing to observe Bard's Day, or World Book and Copyright Day, or St. George's Day, or, y'know, Friday?

Ten Favorite Mechanics #4 - Vision Cards from Everway

Reminder: also at Multitudinous Seas
A blast from the bygone era of 1995, heres the oldest game to make my list.

#4 - Vision Cards from Everway

How do you make a character in Everway? Easy. Look at a bunch of beautiful fantasy art, pick a few images that inspire you, and tell a story about them. There's a handful of numbers on the character sheet and a tarot-like fortune deck, but the vision cards are where the magic lies in Everway. I've heard more attention-grabbing, vivid characters made in the first few minutes of Everway games than I have anywhere else. Why?

  • They're simple. Nearly anyone who's imaginative enough to play RPGs can look at a group of pictures and make up a story about them.

  • They engage different parts of the brain than words do. Pictures are perceived information. Words are received information--they need to be decoded to be understood. Pictures can set off players' imaginations instantly.

  • They're fast. There's no fighting over access to books, or waiting for the GM to explain character options one at a time. Everyone grabs a bunch of cards and looks through them simultaneously. Plus, the selection of cards conveys a wealth of information about setting, color, and tone instantly.

  • They encourage good communication. After you've chosen your cards, you explain what they say about your character to the rest of the players. This sets an immediate precedent for vividly imagining the game world, describing it to the group, and the other players paying attention to your contributions.

  • They short-circuit shyness and "writer's block." For shy players, the "show and tell" aspect of physically handling the cards allows them to be imaginative, while talking about something other than themselves. They can use the cards as a focus for the conversation. Plus, the rich imagery of the cards provide input to the imagination, priming the pump to get people started on making stuff up. I don't think I've ever seen anyone draw a blank when making Everway characters.

  • They encourage group involvement. Other players will ask clarifying questions about the details of the pictures. "Does your sword look like this one, or are you just saying your character is a warrior?" Even better is when more than one player chooses the same card. We know instantly that their characters are connected. Explaining how sets off another burst of creativity!

Up next: ...but if I win, your girlfriend marries the nefarious Dr. Venom!


Ten Favorite Game Mechanics #5 - Franchise Dice & Stress from InSpectres

A reminder: This is also posted on my new blog: Multitudinous Seas.

#5 - Franchise Dice & Stress from InSpectres

In 2002, InSpectres made tasty hamburger from a lot of sacred cows. Along with a whole new way of creating mysteries, and encouraging player interest and investment in each others' characters through the use of the confessional, InSpectres also threw everything we thought we knew about advancement out the window.

InSpectres characters never get better. If they're lucky, they might score some Cool dice, but those can vanish just as easily. Instead of each player being invested in the relentless upgrade of their character's scores, InSpectres invests the players' hopes for greater capability in the game in exactly the same place that the characters have invested their hopes, dreams, and 401(k)s: The Franchise.

Did you score a big payoff? The franchise gets more dice and you get to describe how things around the office improve. Maybe a new coat of paint, maybe a refurbished ectoplasmic containment unit. Did the mission go south and you spent more dice than you earned? The franchise loses dice and you describe what the downward slide looks like. Maybe the cool ghost hunting van gets repossessed, maybe a pink slip for the quirky secretary.

On this level alone, it's a brilliant way of writing teamwork directly into the system. Everyone is part of the franchise, so they all want it to succeed. And since success comes from the individual efforts of the PCs (both mechanically and fictionally), everyone needs to pitch in to make that happen. If this were the only function of the franchise, it'd be good, solid, innovative design.

But InSpectres adds a twist that puts it over the top. Franchise dice aren't used only to buy cool stuff for the office and do well during missions. They are the only things that heal the debilitating stress the PCs accrue from their missions. Want to heal that sprained ankle or free yourself from the Curse of Nyuckhotep? All you need to do is take dice out of the franchise to do it.

This sets up a tension between group goals and individual goals that really makes the game hum. Bigger missions mean bigger payoffs for the franchise, but also more chances for characters to get hurt. Games where players both want and don't want something can sometimes lead to analysis paralysis or creative disengagement if it becomes an internal tug-of-war. InSpectres has two further wrinkles that keeps it from these fates:

  1. Stress is fairly random, but self-reinforcing. Exactly who ends up taking stress penalties and who becomes nearly immune from them is usually determined by the first or second stress die roll. As the game progresses, those who did poorly on the early stress roll usually continue to soak up penalties. Those penalties also limit their ability to earn franchise dice for the mission. This usually sets up a dynamic where many of the players are in need of franchise dice to heal their stress, and a few are stress-free. This puts some players on one side of the tug-of-war, and other players on the other.

  2. The CEO decides. It is up to whomever plays the CEO character to hand out franchise dice to reduce stress. This short-circuits the possibility of endless arguments between players about the best way to distribute resources. Instead, that conflict is driven down to the characters, who can snipe at one another for being freeloaders, or sell-outs, or what-have-you, in a way that drives the story forward.

Up next: Worth a thousand worlds ... er, words.


Ten Favorite Game Mechanics #6 - The Nitu Tarot from Ganakagok

A reminder: This is also posted at my new blog: Multitudinous Seas

#6 - The Nitu Tarot from Ganakagok

A number of games over the years have attempted to make use of tarot cards: the vague allusion of Amber's "Trumps", the complete rewrite of Everyway's fortune deck, the beautifully-produced Mage: the Ascension deck, to the just-plain-oddness of Psychosis. I've never seen any of them succeed as brilliantly as Ganakagok's tarot.

At its root, Ganakagok is a game about making myths. Myths make use of the same tropes over and over, welded together in different combinations by the force of human imagination. Using the tarot for this purpose is ideal: Archetypal tropes are on the cards, but the cards invite interpretation. You need to add your own imagination to make a tarot card mean anything, but once you do, it doesn't seem like you've made up anything at all. It feels as if you've discovered something hidden and profound. Something that, mysteriously, always fits.

And isn't that what making a myth should feel like?

Furthermore, by customizing the tarot to fit the frozen world of the Nitu, the cards become the setting of the game, in a sense. The deck, just like the world, are populated with wise elders, impetuous youth, walruses, resting polar bears, fierce orcas, and ever-ravenous cannibal-ghouls. Players learn how to imagine the setting from the cards themselves. The island of ice is not a land of quantities and surveys, but becomes a realm of images, and concepts, and dreams.

Just like a myth.

Up next: I can't let you go on vacation. The company needs you!


Ten Favorite Game Mechanics #7 - The Four Roles from D&D 4th edition

A reminder: This is also posted at my new blog: Multitudinous Seas

#7 - The Four Roles from D&D 4th edition

For decades, if level was king of Dungeons and Dragons, then class was the power behind the throne. Cleric. Fighter. Magic User. Thief. What you could do in the world was sharply circumscribed* by what class you chose. Magic Users had to study their spellbooks. Thieves could climb walls when no one else could. Pages and pages of elaborate subsystems and class-specific spells and equipment. 2nd Edition brought class-specific handbooks and "kits" of even more specific abilities. Piles and piles of text about what your class would allow you to do.

But the game itself never addressed the question of what you should do.

Along comes 4th edition D&D, with its design goal of baking teamwork right into the system. And they do it with four little words: Leader, Defender, Controller, and Striker. Four roles that describe how a team functions. Four roles that explain why classes do what they do. Four roles that tell you how to play the game.

The four roles take the fundamental D&D notion of niche protection and breathe life into. They explain why each niche exists, and how they interact with other niches. And they offer guidance and structure for interacting with the game in several ways:

  • Character Creation. When navigating the vast options of feats, powers, and equipment, your role gives you clues about what will do the most good. If you're a Controller and need to decide between an option that lets you do more damage to a single opponent, and one that lets you damage a great many different opponents, you're probably better off taking the latter. The roles let you know that doing scads of damage is a speciality of Strikers, so leave that to your group's Rogue or Warlock.

  • Tactical Play. Likewise, in the midst of an encounter, your role reminds you what you're best at. If you're a Leader, you know it's your job to make the rest of the party shine. When you see an opening to grab for the glory at the expense of the party, your role reminds you that you're there to help others, and can do that really well.

  • Sustained Interest. Since each role affects the game in different ways, and provokes unique synergies with the other roles, there's greater incentive to stay interested in the game when it's not your turn. Maybe the Leader will give your Defender a chance to heal, or the Controller will set you up for an opportunity attack on the bad guy. Best to pay attention!

  • Social Reinforcement. Roleplaying is a social activity, and the four roles provide a framework for helping one another within the game. When you help someone in the game, they say "Thanks" in real life. The teamwork in the game mirrors and reinforces the cooperation that goes on around the table. We're all helping each other imagine this heroic battle against a malevolent beast, just as our characters are helping one another fight the monster as well.

Hardwired teamwork is the great strength of D&D 4th edition, setting it apart from previous versions. And the cornerstone of that teamwork are the four roles.

Up next: I am the walrus, you are Ancient of Stars

*Perhaps classes aren't quite as "sharply circumscribed" as I was once led to believe. When I was in 3rd grade, I had played D&D once, but had no opportunity to play again. So when I overheard two "worldly" 4th graders arguing over the game on the bus, my ears perked up. One guy wanted his magic user to be able to use a magic sword the group had found. His brother, the DM, said "It says right in the book that magic users can only use a quarterstaff or a dagger. You can't use the sword!"

The player responded, "Maybe I can't use it, but I can still keep it."

The DM countered, "No, you can't even pick it up."

The player was defiant, "What do you mean I can't pick it up? What happens if a magic user picks up a sword."

The DM had the last word, "You just die, man. You just die."

That's quite a way to go around killing wizards. Simply hand them a sword and they fall over dead!

Moving, and SHU on Actual People, Actual Play

Due to the increase in intrusive advertising and other technical issues, I'll be leaving LiveJournal for the greener pastures of Wordpress. My new blog is Multitudinous Seas. I'll be posting updates here at least through the 10 Favorite Mechanics series, but eventually I'll be posting over there exclusively.

I have the day off work Monday and a ton of errands, so no post in the 10 Favorite Mechanics series. However, I just listened to the most amazing podcast review of Serial Homicide Unit! Will, Laura, and Jesse recorded an episode of Actual People, Actual Play with great attention to detail and insight into the game. If my occasional posts about the game have left you with any doubt about whether Serial Homicide Unit is a game you'd enjoy, please take 25 minutes and listen to this podcast. It takes the game apart, describes how it works and what kind of fun is in it. Great thanks to the APAP crew!

Ten Favorite Game Mechanics #8 - Demon Creation from Sorcerer

Hey all, LiveJournal's advertising is starting to get very intrusive. That coupled with the exodus of several friends has me thinking about moving my blog. Just a heads-up. Further updates as events warrant.

And now, on with the show!

#8 - Demon Creation from Sorcerer

"Is your game balanced?" is a question you hear a lot. The question can mean a lot of things, but a decade ago it was often a nice way of saying, "Does your game give the players enough power to feel cool, without letting them screw up the GM's story?" Sorcerer throws that all out the window.

You want a demon that can help you in a fight? Fine. You want one that can help you impress the ladies? Not a problem. You want one that can teleport you halfway around the world and walk through walls and spy on anyone you've ever met? No sweat. You want one demon to do all of that and more? Now we're cookin' with gas!

By simply saying that there is no upper limit to the number of special abilities a demon can have--and therefore no upper limit on its Power score--Sorcerer murders the sacrosanct notion of "game balance" and uses its corpse to perform game design magic. The player is faced with the same dilemma their character faces: They can write a demon that can do anything they want. The game won't cripple their creation with nickel-and-dime disadvantages. The game won't hold them back because they are just a starting character. The game won't safely corrall them away from affecting the GM's story.

The only thing standing between you and power are the consequences that power brings with it. And your fear of those consequences.

How does Sorcerer pull this off so elegantly? Three main parts: 1) The aforementioned "no upper limit" coupled with the fact that the demon's Power is at minimum one higher than its number of special abilities. Simply, elegantly, this means that more powerful demons are MORE POWERFUL DEMONS! And the interplay of Power with the other scores during the sorcerous rituals means "more powerful" = "more likely to have the upper hand." Consequences are hard-wired into the system.

2) Giving all the supernatural power to an independent entity outside the PC--an entity that has its own needs and desires--forces the player to interact with the GM every time he wants something done. The demon's Need must be fed, and the GM is encouraged to demand it frequently. The things that the demons wants and demands are not pretty, and the player must deal with the impact this thing he has summoned makes upon the world. Consequences are hard-wired into the situation.

3) Changing the job of the GM from "telling the story" to "throwing Bangs" allows the events of the game to traverse where ever they need to in order to showcase the consequences of player action. Add to this the ability that the GM has to rewrite parts of a demon during a failed Contacting role, and you have a recipe for twists and surprises along the path to answering that central question: "How far will you go to get what you want?"

Up next: There may be no "I" in team, but there are strikers!


10 Favorite Game Mechanics - #9 - Initiative

This, of course, is one of my own creations. FVLMINATA as a whole is almost entirely Jason Roberts', but this little bit was mine. Humility be damned, but I still think it's one of the coolest mechanics around.

#9 - Initiative from FVLMINATA

If you've never played in one of my FVLMINATA convention games, you must simply imagine the devilish grin plastered on my face when the group first gets into a combat situation. My eyes twinkle as I say "Let me explain the initiative system of this game: Senators go first!" Players react in one of two ways: Stunned incomprehension, or immediate laughter.

In 2000-2001, it was almost a truism to say that game mechanics were the physics of the game world and the more "realistic" a game was, the better. Not that everyone believed that to be the case, but it was the common, accepted wisdom for a big chunk of the hobby. And more than the funny dice, or the Latin humors on the character sheet, or even the social interaction mechanics, the initiative system set FVLMINATA apart.

More than just being different than the norm, the initiative system focused on what the game was about: Rome as a living, breathing society. You may be fast, you may be strong, but if you're merely a slave, how important can you be? FVLMINATA was anything but dungeon crawls in togas. How your character fit into the social fabric was more important than anything else. It was a game about who you were, more than what you could do.

And who knows? It might be that game again...

Up next: You want something that can crush a car and make you rich and famous? Not a problem.


Ten Favorite Game Mechanics #10 - Endgames and Epilogues

I'm going to be blogging about ten game mechanics that I think are cool and why they enhance the game they're in. The list is my personal preference, and I'm restricting it to games I've actually played in and seen the mechanic in action. The "countdown" structure is not meant to show preference for #1 above all others, and the order (and even how many entries) would surely change if I started this next week or last year. Plus, it's also based on what I feel like writing about next.

Let's start at the end--endgame, that is:

#10 - Endgame & Epilogues from My Life with Master

In 2003, the idea that a role-playing game could have an ending--that the rules of the game and the numbers on your sheet could tell you when and how to stop playing--was revolutionary. It flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Lots of people considered the lack of a definite endpoint to be a defining feature of RPGs. They were different than all other types of games because they didn't end.

And yet, My Life with Master came along and said that when Love minus Weariness was greater than Fear plus Self-Loathing, and a minion successfully resisted one of the Master's orders, the gameplay shifted to a new phase--the last phase of the game. There was no doubt it was a role-playing game. No board game could have such rich, tragic characters. And yet it ended!

We can look back now and wonder why this innovation was not more obvious. In application, all RPGs have ended. I may have never run the ultimate campaign-ending scenario I had planned for the D&D game I was running in 11th grade, but there's no question that the game is over. MLwM's endgame took this real world constraint and made it a feature, rather than a bug.

Not only that, but the game itself shaped how your story would end. The decisions you made, and the outcome of those decisions, limit the possible endings for your character's story. The minion who never succeeded at making their ham-handed overtures of affection understood by the townsfolk, who reveled in the violence and villiany that the Master demanded, is going to have a huge Self-Loathing by the endgame, and likely not going to qualify for a peaceful "integrates into the village" epilogue.

This showed other designers how they could use the game's rules to reach into the fiction the players were making and shape it into a statement on the game's subject.

And role-playing games have never been the same.

Up next: Who goes first? Not who you think!