Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Fuck Balance

 There's a vampire the masquerade game I'm playing in. One, Josephine, is a successful ancilla, with significant social influence over mortal and vampire society, a title in the camarilla court and a big pile of mind-control she can do. The other, Anh, is a mentally ill (and rather impressionable) mortal scientist who's been actioned off to one of the local vampires as a ghoul, and who's had a total emotional breakdown as a result.
Both are a whole lot of fun to play, in very different ways. 

The first one I made was Josephine. She's got a lot of XP and a lot of social clout. She is, in a lot of ways, a character who acts, who makes things happen. This has grown to be quite a heavy weight. What she does has significant knock-on effects for other characters.
So I made a second PC, one who would give the opposite experience. Anh's bad at things, on purpose. She's a character who things - often quite bad things - happen to. She's experiences events, but rarely instigates them. And this has been a refreshing change of pace.

Why do I bring this up? Well, my point here is that there are different experiences you can want from a game. You may want to feel empowered and in control. You may want to feel powerless and be acted upon. You may want to struggle for agency. You may want to have agency taken from you. You may want to observe and understand, but not act. Or to act blindly, but not have the full picture.
These are pretty different experiences, and the key thing about them is that they're about experiencing different amounts - and sorts - of agency. It can be compelling to play a character without agency, it can produce some wonderfully emotionally charged moments. 
I have a reputation with certain storytellers for building PCs who are underpowered on purpose. It's become a bit of a joke.


It's a pretty common understanding that mechanical power can give your character agency in the fiction. A character who's mechanically powerful will be powerful in the fiction. Most people who think very much at all about this agree on it.
The follow-up thought, though, tends to be this: "Therefore, all PCs should be about as powerful mechanically, so all PCs have as much agency in the fiction." And this I disagree with.
Sometimes, I come to a game, and I want the experience of being weak and out of my depth, and the system doesn't want to let me. Character creation's strict guidelines funnel you towards a particular level of mechanical power, and if you want less or more than that, you have to fight the game for it. You have to powergame to be powerful, or reverse-powergame to be weak. 


I wish more games just gave you an explanation of what different stats and values mean in the fiction, what effect they'll have on play, and then let you stat whatever the fuck you want with that in mind. You don't have to twist the character gen system to get it to do what you want, you just stat the character, like the GM might stat an NPC. 

That's the thing. Balanced characters don't matter. They don't, they just don't. People willingly played D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder 1, and had fun with them despite the wide disparity in power between (say) a 7th level Druid and a 7th level Monk. I have a lot of criticisms of 3.pf as a system, but "some classes are stronger than others" isn't one of them really. Yeah, playing a monk or a ranger made you weak, but that's only a problem if you didn't find being the underdog fun, and ended up in that position without wanting to. But when somebody knew that monks were under-powered and played one anyway, and knew what they were doing? It's fine. 


There was a discussion we had during the playtesting for Dungeon Bitches, on this topic. I forget exactly which people it was, but it went something like this:
A: "So, if you take the Beast's sex move to max out your Hard at +4, and then combine it with the right Amazon and Beast moves, you can make it so you can never fail at Lashing Out and basically never suffer any consequences for it."
B: "That's pretty powerful. So what do we do about it?"
A: "I dunno, I think I'm fine with it. Yeah, you're amazing at fighting, so what?"
B: "Right. You've made a character who's only good at violence, and so desensitized to it that it just doesn't affect them anymore. That's not a mechanical problem, that's a compellingly flawed character."
A: "So we keep it as is."
Which sums it up pretty well, I think. I can see a lot of a Certain Type of player looking at Dungeon Bitches, spotting that little combo, and going "Aha! I have broken this game!", but no. You want to be great at one particular move? Go ahead! It's only a problem if you think it's a problem. If you want to be really good at something? Go right ahead, the game will be just fine.

I think in RPGs we inherent a lot of assumptions from other tabletop games - wargames, boardgames, etc - about balance, that an option being stronger or weaker is a problem. We forget that, unlike wargames etc, ttrpgs are open ended experiences. They aren't competitive, there's no defined end-point, there's no winner or loser. So if one option is stronger or weaker... so what? It's not unfair to the players because they aren't in competition. And - as I explained earlier - being stronger or weaker can be fun in its own right.

The problem isn't mechanical potency of characters, it's how much spotlight time they get, how much the narrative cares about them. A character can be disempowered and have horrible things happen to them, and still be compelling to play so long as they get as much narrative focus as everybody else, as anybody who's played The Mortal in Monsterhearts can attest.

If I want to play a vampire Elder and be hugely powerful, a mover and shaker of the game... why shouldn't I do that? And if I want to play a Ghoul, and be out of my depth and disempowered, why not? And, indeed, the presence of both in one game starkly highlights the differences between them that makes playing both more rewarding. Being the Elder makes you feel powerful, because there's the ghoul PC to act on. And the Ghoul gets to feel the struggle of being manipulated by vampires, because those vampires are mechanically stronger than them.

Now, it might happen that some players try to make mechanically powerful PCs in order to be able to engage in other toxic behaviors. They hog the spotlight, they invalidate other players' creative input, etc etc. The problem here isn't lack of balance, it's bad players using the tools the game gives them to do toxic things. No amount of carefully written mechanics will make a toxic player nicer, they'll just exploit whatever ruleset you give them.
The solution is not to play with shitty players.

I don't think it's possible to design a perfectly balanced game without all options being mechanically identical. And if you pursue balanced character creation in your design, other aspects of character-creation-design will suffer. You'll have playstyles that don't feel meaningfully distinct. You'll have less options for what you can really make in the system. Things will become constrained, and if players try to move outside the very narrow band of balanced design you set out, things will fall apart. 
So why bother? Set out the options, what they mean in the fiction or as metaphors, and what sort of experience they facilitate. 
Then trust your players to make characters they'll enjoy, with the right level of mechanical power for the experience they want.

Monday, 2 August 2021

On Fudging The Dice

 Been a while, hasn't it? And now Ya Girl is back with her hot opinions.
I'm doing discourse. God help me.

here is a photo, because the algorithm likes that.


So. Dice fudging. It's been in the conversation lately and everybody has very strong views and I cba to try to fit mine in a tweet so here we go.

First up, let's define our terms. Dice Fudging is when you roll a dice for some mechanic, and the result is rubbish so you pretend you got something else instead. You generally see it discussed in the context of the GM doing it in order to keep the story flowing or anything too weird happening.

So, right off the bat I'm going to say that the "never fudge, let the dice fall where they may" people are wrong. Not because that's not a valid style of play, but because they're being absolutist about a matter of subjective taste. I'd also say that the (less common) people who say that a GM has an obligation to fudge to keep things on track are making the same mistake.

In practice, how you handle this is going to vary wildly from group to group depending on tastes, priorities, the system being used, etc etc.

The question isn't really about the GM getting to ignore the dice, it's how you relate to the game mechanics as a power structure. If following the mechanics and dice rolls to the letter results in a naff outcome, do you overrule them? And different play cultures have different answers to that question. Assuming everybody else shares your culture of play, or that a single culture of play applies to all the games you use, will lead to less interesting results.
If I'm playing Call Of Cthulhu and flub a Notice roll to get that vital clue that moves the investigation to its next step, then the GM tweaking things so the investigation doesn't stall out is pretty justified. On the other hand, if I'm playing B/X and fail a save vs poison and my PC dies, the GM shouldn't be tweaking that because unexpected lethality is part of the intended experience. Different priorities in different games.

I mean, hell, even as an OSR GM I've done this now and then. Mostly for random encounters, if I roll an encounter and it makes no sense for it to be there (perhaps I get a large predator in a tomb without enough prey to support it), I ignore that result and re-roll. I'm prioritising keeping the fiction internally consistent over obeying the whims of the dice.

On the other hand, I'd never fudge things like combat or traps. If you die, you die. Play smarter next time. Otherwise, if I tweak things to save one PC, that sets a precedent for similar situations in future. Bad vibes.

Ultimately, it comes down to having a robust social contract in place. If everybody's on board with that style of play, it's fine. If they aren't, it's not. Just make sure everybody's on the same page, and be open about what you're doing. 


A lot of the time, fudging the dice is a corrective mechanism. Perhaps you called for a roll when you didn't really need one, and realise after the fact that actually, no, you already know what should happen. Perhaps the game mechanics are flawed or don't cover this situation, and produced an inappropriate result. Nudge things back on track, and move on.
No RPG is perfect (except the ones I write, obvs). Some amount of maintenance will be needed on the fly. Sometimes, fudging dice is just a way to account for those flaws without having to take the whole game apart and houserule it to be better, which might be more effort than it's worth.




So far, so milquetoast. Now time for a 1000 scoville take.

If the GM can fudge the dice, why can't the players?

This is one of those questions that gets people really weirdly angry. Like asking 'if you eat meat and that's okay, why isn't it okay to kill animals for the fun of it'? It exposes those little irrational biases that make people uncomfortable, I suspect.

And the answers I mostly get generally take the same form.
"Oh, you can't trust players, they don't know what's best for them."
"If you trust the players with that, they'll abuse it."
"The GM's job is to make the game fun, and players don't have that responsibility."
"What's to stop the players fudging every roll and winning everything?"
...and so on and so forth.

And I dunno. I find this perspective fucking infantilising. It treats players like selfish assholes with no impulse control who just want to win at all costs. The GM has this paternalistic duty over the players, who will ruin everything if you let them, because they don't know what's good for them. Urgh. 

Here's another thing. 
"No, the players can't fudge! That's cheating!"
Is it? Is it though? If everybody at the table is cool with it, if it's explicitly an option, then you're not violating your social contract.

(See also the question asked of many polyamorous people: "If you hook up with somebody else, aren't you just cheating on your partner?" No, because no agreement is being violated, and they're fine with it. Jeez. Okay end of stupid aside.)


What this comes down to is power structures. The GM is given power. They can ignore the rules, if they want to, because they're in charge and it's their prerogative. Rule 0 means what the GM says goes. Players can't, though, because we don't allow them that power.
Fuck that noise.

You want to know a dirty secret? I've fudged dice as a player sometimes, too. And you know what's fascinating, and counter to all the arguments I hear on the topic? I've never done that to make myself succeed.
But sometimes, I want to fail and the dice won't let me. Sometimes I want to RP having that trauma and paranoia, and want my investigator to fail her San check. Sometimes I think it would be more fun to fail my self-control roll and accidentally blood bond myself. Sometimes I want my Dread character to knock over the jenga tower and go out in a blaze of glory.
Sometimes failing is fun, and the dice won't let me.
And this is a playstyle that so many people in this discussion just... don't seem to account for. They see it in terms of 'winning' and 'unfair advantage' because... 
Well, look. Because D&D is often played as a game about violence and winning, and they assume that's how all RPGs work.

You know what? If we've decided that we're going to override the mechanics sometimes to make the game more fun, then that power probably shouldn't be centralised in only the GMs hands. Players should get their own creative input.
Heck, sometimes people ignore the dice because, look, they've had a shitty day and they just want to feel powerful, and if they do so fucking what? We aren't playing poker, money isn't on the line. Heck, it probably isn't even a PvP situation. Just let them have it. It's not a big deal.

Why are people so mad about this?
Because it questions the unspoken, unchallenged assumptions about GM authority. And that makes them uncomfortable.

And look. High GM authority games where the players don't have that control can work fine. Plenty of mystery or exploration games, for example, rely on hidden information to function, and the GM is making calls with info the players aren't privy too, and bringing the players behind the curtain to make these calls would spoil the process of discovery.
It can work really well. But it's not the only way of doing these things.


I feel I should probably clarify that I tend to favour games that don't fudge dice, either as a player or a GM. But also, I favour games which only roll dice occasionally, in high-stakes, uncertain, dramatic situations. Mostly you can handle things with the conversation loop, letting the fiction evolve without needing randomness to get involved.




Anyway in conclusion, it's a complex topic that largely comes down to individual taste, and also our default assumptions about GM authority aren't the only way to do things.



Addendum: a friend described dice fudging (when used in healthy ways) as basically a retcon. Something went wrong - either the mechanics were flawed or a bad call was made - so we're going to go back and undo that mistake. Which I think is a good way to look at things.

Friday, 30 April 2021

The Daughters Of Cacophany for Vampire 5th Edition

As with my post on the Kiasyd this is all completely unofficial and I have no idea what, if anything, White Wolf plan to do with the Sirens in v5. This is my own take on them, hacked together for v5 based on what I find cool about them.

I might put this in a little zine. Maybe with my kiasyd stuff, maybe on its own. I don't know. We'll see.

With that out of the way...


The Daughters Of Cacophony

 Also known as Sirens, Banshees, Daughters, Chanteuses, Sisters of the Fugue.


The Daughters of Cacophony are a rarity among vampires, a lineage apparently descended from none of the great clans. Seemingly incredibly diverse, the Sirens can be found in all sorts of situations, among all sorts of vampires. Still, there are two consistent factors; all of them are women, and all of them are driven by music only they can hear.
This song - called 'the Fugue' by most who hear it - is central to the Daughters' identity. It shapes them, guides them, and sets them aside from other vampires. Indeed, one of the distinguishing marks of the line is their ability to channel the Fugue into hypnotising music.
Ask five Daughters where they came from, and you'll get six different answers. They date back to the nineteenth century, or the renaissance, or the first nights. They're descended from Malkavians, or Ventrue, or Toreadors, or some blend of those lines, or are a separate line all of their own. As ever, the only consistent element is the Fugue, which all identify as being the heart of their identity.

"Listen to that. You hear it, don't you childe? Isn't it beautiful?"
"People will tell you that you're just hearing things that aren't there, but that's not true, is it? No, not when I hear it too. We all do, daughter. The most important thing you can do is learn to listen to it. Pick out the individual threads, learn what they mean, how to pull on them to your benefit. Let it flow through you, guide you, inspire you."
"You'll hear all sorts of things about us. That we're actually Malkavians, or Toreador, or even Ventrue... that we're a mere offshoot of some greater clan. Untrue. We're united by the fugue we all hear, in a way distinct from those other clans. The music is far more fundamental than mere blood."
"So, if we're not just a splinter from one of the Thirteen, what are we? Rumour has it that we were made. Oh, the stories vary. Some have it that we owe our existence to the actions of the fey. Others to the mysterious Black Hand, or to the mythical Crone or Lilith."
"In truth? Well, I'll tell you what my sire told me. She told me that the stories all have a note of truth to them, but whoever made us doesn't want to be known, and that those of us who investigate our origins too thoroughly tend to find themselves... disposed of. Not killed, nothing so crass as that, and besides, we're hard to kill. But the closer those daughters get to the truth, the more the fugue rises up within them, until they become overwhelmed by it, a banshee, little more than a vessel for the fugue to flow through them into the world."
"Perhaps that's what we were always meant to be, hosts to the music that guides us."
"Still, there's one clue I'd give you. We're a sisterhood. We don't - with a very few exceptions - embrace men. And we're not alone in that, throughout history there have been all sorts of obscure lineages of a similarly matriarchal bent. The Lamia, the Lhiannon, the Ahrimanes. Us. Sisterhoods that rise and then dwindle into obscurity after their time of prominence. Why is that?"
"Well, as I say, we were made. And so, one assumes, were they. One then simply has to ask, who by, and to what purpose?" 
"Why were we given the gift of music? To express some deeper truth? Very good, childe. Now you start to understand our purpose."


Who Are the Daughters Of Cacophony?

The Sirens are a comparatively young lineage. The most popular histories claim they emerged at some point in the Victorian era, and indeed the 19th century was rather their heyday. More informed histories place their origins before this, and have the Victorian era merely be the point when they stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight of kindred society. Other chronologies have them well established, if secretive, by the renaissance, and suggest that their creation - however it happened - was at some point in late antiquity.
To outsiders, the most noticeable feature of the Daughters of Cacophony is the supernatural power carried by their voices. Their ability to project their voices or imbue their songs with overwhelming emotion seems more or less unique to the bloodline, but it's merely a sign of the deeper matter.
That matter, of course, is the Fugue. Each Daughter hears a constant soundtrack to her life, that underpins everything she does. At times this might prove a comfort or provide guidance, and at others this Fugue can become a source of inescapable torment. The unique skills of the Daughters all depend on tuning into the Fugue, picking out specific melodies or replicating it for a wider audience.
Whilst the Fugue can be a source of inspiration and strength for the Daughters, it's not without it's risks. The music can prove dangerously distracting at critical moments, preventing a Daughter being able to focus or pulling her attention from details others would notice. Further, those who immerse themselves in the Fugue too deeply risk being overwhelmed by it. To give in to the Fugue and let it guide you completely is to relinquish control, becoming a mere vessel for a force greater and stranger than yourself. The Daughters who do this - either willingly or driven to it - are commonly called 'Banshees' and are, by all accounts, utterly inhuman creatures, driven by alien urges to bend the emotions of those they encounter to strange purposes.
In truth, every Daughter has the potential to become a Banshee if she just lets go, and there's no distinct cut-off point for who is and isn't a Banshee. The more she relies on the Fugue over her own faculties, the closer she comes to that state.
For the most part, the Sirens are not a well organised lineage. They tend to be fairly isolated, with a domain containing perhaps a single Siren or a small handful of them. Relations between them are casual, with no formal structure guiding the bloodline. Given Daughters might be friends, lovers, or rivals, and behave accordingly, but there's no leadership or positions within the bloodline. That said, every Daughter is guided by the Fugue, and when necessary the Sirens have been known to gather in larger numbers, forming choirs who's songs are capable of incredible feats. Such gatherings are never formally announced, but the Sirens involved feel the tug of the fugue guiding them.
For the time being the bloodline has no particular allegiance to any sect. Many find the refined structures of the Camarilla comforting, while others have little interest in politics and become autarkis. Regardless of a given Chanteuse's allegiance, most find themselves welcome in the halls of Kindred society as socialites and entertainers.



Disciplines

Fortitude
The Daughters of Cacophony are surprisingly resilient, physically and emotionally. They have to be, after all, to cope with the constant barrage of stimulation that is the Fugue. Further, the Sirens are not known for being particularly discreet, being driven by strange passions and urges, and Fortitude grants them a certain survivability that others might lack.

Auspex
The Sirens are, at their heart, artists, driven by an urge to express themselves creativity. Auspex is an invaluable tool here, heightening their senses and letting them read their audiences. 

Presence
Presence is perhaps the most favoured discipline of the Daughters. The desire to be the centre of attention, to express themselves and bend others' emotions is strong in the Daughters, and many indulge in obvious uses of Presence as part of their performances. There is also, of course, the added benefit that Presence can make feeding wonderfully easy.


Bane

All Daughters of Cacophony hear the Fugue, constantly and without respite. While many will argue that this is not a flaw at all, in practice the constant din has its drawbacks, and can prove incredibly distracting. Whenever a Daughter is in a heightened emotional state - angry, newly in love, terrified or similar - she loses as many dice as her bane severity from all dice pools not directly relating to the subject of those emotions.

Compulsion: Inspiration
The Chanteuse is filled with a sudden, overwhelming urge to perform some act of artistic expression. This might be a performance, a written work, a religious rite, a musical score, or some other creative act. The urge is not always entirely the Chanteuse's own, as the Fugue can provide strange inspiration.
Until the work is complete, the Chanteuse is distracted by the urge, which steadily grows more and more overwhelming. She takes a one dice penalty to all dice pools until the work is completed to her satisfaction, which - depending on the nature of the art - might well take several nights.


Additional Options

Merit: Hypnotic Voice 
Your voice is unusually beautiful, and people naturally find themselves drawn to listen to you. You get an extra dice to attempts to seduce or tempt people, and to vocal performances.

Flaw: Twitch 
There's a distinctive tell to your behaviour that indicates your emotions. Perhaps you tap your fingers to music only you hear, chew your lip when agitated, or can't keep your eyes from people who've upset you. Pick a particular emotion for your tell; you suffer a two dice penalty on rolls to hide that emotion.

Flaw: Urges • or Banshee 
The fugue is stronger for you, compelling you to strange acts and driving you deeper into madness. The call of the banshee beckons you stronger than it does your sisters. 
If you took the one-dot version of this flaw, pick one of the standard Compulsions (Hunger, Dominance, Harm or Paranoia). Whenever you roll that Compulsion, you also suffer an Inspiration Compulsion to express whatever urge you suffered. 
If you took the two-dot version of this flaw, whenever you roll any other Compulsion, you also suffer an Inspiration Compulsion.


Melpominee - The Discipline Powers Of The Sirens

The Missing Voice - Auspex 1
Amalgam with Presence 1
The Daughter's command over her own voice lets her project it elsewhere in her surroundings, allowing her to send disembodied whispers from across a busy room, duet with herself or voice opinions without drawing attention to herself. 
With a little effort, she can pick out specific notes in the Fugue, and draw on them to send her voice further afield, to a place or person somewhere else entirely.
Cost: Free, or one rouse check.
Dice Pools: None, or Wits + Auspex
System: The Daughter can project her voice anywhere in her immediate surroundings automatically so long as she concentrates on the effect. So long as the target location is within her immediate awareness, there's no cost or roll to use this power.
In order to project her voice further, the Daughter must be familiar with the target of the power, having already visited the place or met the person in question. She makes a rouse check, and then rolls Wits + Auspex. Each success on the roll lets her project her voice for one round. If she scores 3 or more successes, she can channel her voice for an entire scene.
While projecting her voice in this way, the Daughter's concentration is taxed. She takes a -2 penalty to any rolls whilst projecting her voice, except those involving speech or singing. 
Other Melpominee abilities that rely on the Daughter's voice can be channelled through The Missing Voice freely.

Siren Song - Presence 2
The Daughter can channel the Fugue into her voice when she sings, creating an overwhelming emotional response in her audience. This might be used merely to enhance a performance, but it also allows a Daughter who can attract attention to herself to manipulate the mood of a crowd or gathering wonderfully.
Dice Pools: Charisma + Presence
System: If the Daughter scores any successes on her roll to use this power, everybody listening is affected. The song induces an appropriate emotion in all those listening: romantic longings for a love song, grief for a dirge, etc. This doesn't compel or direct the listeners in any way, but their behaviour will naturally be influenced by the emotions they're feeling. The effect lasts at least for the rest of the scene, but may linger for longer.
If a listener wishes to shrug off the effect of the song, they must spend as many Willpower points as the Daughter's successes to suppress their emotions for the scene.

Drawing Out The Banshee - Presence 3
When she draws on the Fugue fully, the Daughter's voice carries an almost hypnotic effect. When she sings to a single listener, she can draw out the exact emotional response she wants. The listener finds themselves strangely compelled to act on the feelings the Daughter induces in them.
Dice Pools: Manipulation + Presence vs Resolve + Composure
System: If the power is used successfully, the Daughter can choose any compulsion to induce in her listener. This might be Hunger, Dominance, Harm, Paranoia or a clan-specific Compulsion, even one for a clan the listener doesn't belong to. The listener is affected by the Compulsion until it's resolved, as normal.

Scream - Presence 5
Amalgam with Fortitude 3
The Daughter opens herself up, and releases the full effect of the Fugue on those who hear her scream. The effect is physically uncomfortable, causing nose-bleeds and ruptured eardrums, and the sheer emotion it creates can push all but the most strong willed into a frenzy.
Cost: Two rouse checks.
Dice Pools: 
Charisma + Presence vs Resolve + Stamina
System: If the Daughter scores any successes on her roll, every listener takes that many points of Superficial Damage from stress, damaged eardrums, etc. Every listener then rolls Resolve + Stamina, and if they don't beat the Daughter's successes, they enter Frenzy. 
When the Daughter screams, she can choose which sort of Frenzy she wishes to induce; every listener is affected the same way. 
The Daughter is not affected by her own Scream.


New Loresheet - Awakening Banshee
The Fugue sings to you, and it has so much to say. It guides you, berates you, pushes you to do strange things for reasons you don't fully understand. Which might seem like a problem, but you've learned that if you just listen to it, it can teach you so many wonderful things.
You start to see the greater purpose of your sisters. In little glimpses and urges, you come to realise that there's a task for you, for all of you in fact. 
The Fugue doesn't just exist in your head, it's something bigger than any single vampire who hears it. And it's aware, and has intentions. Not in the way that a person does, but in the way that a swarm of insects or a fungal network does. An intelligence distributed through the blood of the thousands of Sirens in the world. 
You come to understand that your bloodline is dormant. Waiting. When the time is right, the fugue will rouse you all and you'll sing as a single choir to... some end. You're not sure what yet. All you know is you're waking a little earlier than your sisters.
And to what purpose? You don't know, but the Fugue whispers little hints to you. Your sisters were made in anticipation of some grand upheaval. You hear whispers of the end times, of Gehenna, of the revenge of Lilith, of the Crone's return, of the ancient Black Hand. Ancient vampires who would see the society Caine built remade into something new.
You don't know how much of this is true, but you know that when the time comes you'll be powerless to resist the Fugue, part of something bigger, and the world's foundations will be shaken by your song.

• Fugue Instinct
The music in your head isn't merely a distraction. It forecasts things to come, nudges and hints towards the right course of action. Once per story, you may listen to the Fugue and let it guide you. Ask the Storyteller what you need to do, and you'll get an answer from the Fugue. Roll a Compulsion for the side effects of giving yourself over to the Fugue too much.

• Mad Harmony
Unlike your sisters, you've learned to listen to the whispers of the Fugue that lie under your worst urges. The Fugue guides you, and so long as you listen to it, you can retain a measure of self-control that others lack. Whenever you suffer a Hunger, Dominance, Harm or Paranoia Compulsion, you may spend a point of Willpower to replace it with an Inspiration Compulsion. 

• A Vessel
The Fugue gives you strength, a strength you can share with your sisters. Whenever you would need to make a rouse check to use a Presence power, you can let the Fugue provide the necessary power; instead roll a Compulsion as you let the Fugue into your head.

• The Choir
You can guide your sisters, showing them how to open up to the Fugue and draw on its strength. If you sing to another Vampire who hears the Fugue to assist them, they can use Fugue Instinct, Mad Harmony and A Vessel as if they possessed it themselves.

• An Invitation To The Concert
You know a secret; the Fugue needn't be limited to your sisters. You can spread its influence if you wish. By feeding them your blood, you can cause them to hear the Fugue just like any Siren. They replace their clan's Compulsion with Inspiration, and their clan's Bane with the Daughter of Cacophony Bane. This effect lasts indefinitely.

Thursday, 11 March 2021

In Love And War (part 2 - characters)

(Part 1 here)
 So how to make a character for the game?

First step is to pick your Classification. Your Classification is at the heart of your character: where their true loyalties lie, and why they're even involved in espionage.
There's six of them:
-The Prodigy, merely using spy work as a stepping stone to something greater. 
-The Mole, a double agent torn between her loyalty to the team and a second set of handlers. 
-The Outsider, planted by an uncertain outside power to assess the team. 
-The Waif, dragged into all this without real training by her loyalty to one of the other spies. 
-The Monitor, ruthlessly loyal to the team's handlers and tasked with keeping tabs on the others. 
-The Imposter, who joined the team under false pretences to pursue her own agenda. 

Once you've picked your Classification, the next step is to determine relationships. Each Classification has a key relationship - one that's particularly deep and complex. Pick another player's spy for that relationship to apply to, and work out the details with her. For everybody else, your relationship with her will depend on her Classification.
Once you've done this, a few people will already have raised Perils, and you should have a nice little web of intrigue and emotional ties between you, represented by the distribution of Hooks.

Next, there's your Assets. Note down your starting Assets; one begins at +2, one at +1 and one at +0. You can add an additional +1 to any Asset.

Penultimately, there's moves. Note down your Classification's Unique Move, and pick one of their Special Moves too.

Lastly, there are a few details within the fiction to finalise. Give your spy a name. Determine, if you haven't already, how she came to be involved with espionage. Decide her appearance, social background and other quirks.

And then you're ready to go.

 

The Prodigy
You're too good for this. Really, you're on a level above your team-mates, you can do things they simply can't. This team is a stepping stone. You'll excel at your spy work, get dirt on people in power, rise up the ranks. And then you'll make your move. You've got plans.

Your Key Relationship:
One of your team-mates knows your plans. Decide who. With her, decide what your plan is and how she's involved. Whatever the case is, both of you get two Hooks in each other. With her, decide if she was part of your plan from the start. If so, she raises her Suspicion by 1. If not, you raise your Heat by 1.

Your Other Relationships:
For every other member of your team (except your key relationship), establish the following:
The Mole is up to something. Maybe you can work together? Ask her if her plans align with yours. If they do, you both get a Hook on each other.
The Outsider is a wild card. You need leverage over her, but have none. She gets a Hook in you.
The Waif is too innocent for what you have planned, and you must protect her. She gets a Hook in you.
The Monitor is your lifeline to your handlers, and you rely on her. She gets two Hooks in you.
The Imposter isn't who she seems, and this fascinates you. Do your plans account for her? If so, you get two Hooks in her. If not, she gets two hooks in you.

Your Assets:
You start with Weapons at +2, Lies at +1, Clues at +0. Add +1 to any one Asset.

Moves:
You start with your Unique Move, and pick one of your Special Moves.

Your Unique Move:

Just Better Than Them
You get +1 to all rolls for Field Moves. You can spend Hooks you have on your team-mates to give yourself another +1 to any Field Move, even if they aren't involved at all.

Your Special Moves:

Flashy Violence
Whenever you would gain Pain from Resorting To Violence, you can go all-out and cause a dramatic scene to avoid being hurt. You don't gain that Pain, but gain 1 Heat instead.

Flawless Infiltrator
When you flawlessly Escape Notice, you get +3 to act with surprise or from cover, not +1.

Ice Queen
When somebody uses an Intimacy Move on you, you can try to shut her out, giving her -2 to the roll and a Hook in you.

Things Are Moving Too Fast
Whenever one of your team-mates makes a Crisis Move, you can intervene with a brutal application of violence. When you do, they add your Weapons to the roll, and then increase all of your Perils by 1.


The Mole

You were a plant. Placed in the team by their enemies to track their actions. It's a dangerous game you're playing, and you're not even sure which side you're on. When push comes to shove, where will your loyalties lie? You're working very hard to avoid having to find out.

Your Key Relationship:
One of your teammates suspects that there's something not quite right about you. Decide who. Ask her how much she's told her handlers about her suspicions. If she told them everything, raise your Suspicion by 2, and get 2 Hooks in her. If she told them a little, but not all of it, both of you raise your Suspicion by 1 and get a Hook in the other. If she told them nothing, she raises her Suspicion by 2, and gets 2 Hooks in you.

Your Other Relationships:
For every other member of your team (except your key relationship), establish the following:
The Prodigy is up to something. Good, you're up to something too. She gets a hook in you.
The Outsider is a potential ally. Ask her if she'd be sympathetic to your cause if she knew about it. If she would, you get a hook in her. If she wouldn't, she gets a hook in you.
The Waif is an easy mark. Get a Hook in her.
The Monitor is dangerous. You've got her fooled for now. Get a Hook in her.
The Imposter is somebody you share an understanding with, both of you having your own secrets. Each of you gets a Hook in the other.

Your Assets:
You start with Lies at +2, Clues at +1, Weapons at +0. Add +1 to any one Asset.

Moves:
You start with your Unique Move, and pick one of your Special Moves.

Your Unique Move:

Double Agent
You answer to a Contact working for the enemy. When you or your teammates would gain Heat, you can rely on them to cover it up for you, and you gain 1 Suspicion instead. If you go against your Contact or their orders, the resulting fallout increases your Heat by 1.
Whenever you complete secret orders from your Contact, you gain 1 Experience.

Your Special Moves:

Manipulative
Whenever you spend a Hook in somebody to offer her Experience, if she goes along with what you want she gets two Experience, not one.

Divided Loyalties
When you ignore your contact's orders to protect or benefit a team-mate, she gets a Hook in you and you get +1 to act on it. When you throw a team-mate under the bus to fulfil your contact's orders, you lose a Hook in her, and get +1 to act on it.

Cards Close To Your Chest
When you Push Her Away, if you're doing it to try to keep a secret, you can roll with Lies.

Get Me Out Of This
Whenever your team-mates spend Hooks on a Field Move to get you out of trouble, each hook spent gives +2, not +1.


The Outsider
You're not from here. A visitor from another power, you've joined the team for your own reasons, offering the unique talents your homeland trained you in. You have a secondary mission, on behalf of your homeland, to report back on what your team discovers. Your divided loyalties are tolerated... for now.

Your Key Relationship:
One of your team-mates made arrangements for you to join the team. Decide who. With her, decide what it took to convince your handlers you were a good investment. Increase your Suspicion 1. Ask her; does she trust you? If so, you get two Hooks in her. Ask yourself; should she trust you? If so, she gets two hooks in you.

Your Other Relationships:
For every other member of your team (except your key relationship), establish the following:
The Prodigy is your rival. Ask her if she considers you her peer; if she does, you get a Hook in her.
The Mole is interesting, and you want to understand her better. She gets a Hook in you.
The Waif is somebody you've been able to open up to. Have you told her anything shocking? If so, she gets a hook in you.
The Monitor is risky, without her favour you could lose this little arrangement. Ask her if she trusts you; if she doesn't, she gets a Hook in you.
The Imposter worries you. Ask her if she's been keeping tabs on you, if she has, you get a Hook in her. 

Your Assets:
You start with Weapons at +2, Clues at +1, Lies at +0. Add +1 to any one Asset.

Moves:
You start with your Unique Move, and pick one of your Special Moves.

Your Unique Move:

Special Arrangements
You have a Contact from your homeland, who relies on you to pass information on to them. When they learn something critically important from you, you gain 1 Experience and they smooth things over for you with your handlers, allowing you to lower your Heat or Suspicion by 1.

Your Special Moves:

Favourite Weapon
You have a unique weapon that you're specially trained in. When you're using it, you can Resort To Violence at +2.

A Harmless Oddity
You don't gain Heat for causing a commotion or scandal if you can play things off as merely a cultural misunderstanding.

Deadly Beauty
When you're armed, dangerous and flaunting it, you may roll to Flirt with Weapons.

A Fish Out Of Water
Whenever one of your team-members makes an Intimacy move on you, you may spend a Hook in her to ask "Why did you do that?". If she answers truthfully, she gets a Hook in you.


The Waif
You're in over your head. Circumstances dragged you into this, somebody you couldn't bear to abandon even as she dived into the dangerous world of espionage. So you let her pull you in with her, and now you've got to learn fast. If you can't keep up, it's not just yourself at risk, it's her too.

Your Key Relationship:
You got pulled into this world by one of your teammates, who you were close to before all this began. Decide who. Decide with her how you know one another and what happened to drag you into her messes. She gets two hooks in you. Ask her if she thinks you're coping with this new life. If she thinks so, you both get another Hook in each other. If she thinks not, you get two Hooks in her. Then ask yourself if you're actually coping. If so, raise your Suspicion by 1. If not, raise your Pain by 1.

Your Other Relationships:
For every other member of your team (except your key relationship), establish the following:
The Prodigy dazzles you. She gets a Hook in you. Ask her if she even notices you; if she does, you get a Hook in her, if she doesn't she gets another Hook in you.
The Mole feels like a kindred spirit, almost as out of her depth as you are. She gets a Hook in you.
The Outsider is fascinating and dangerous. She gets a Hook in you.
The Monitor is somebody you feel driven to impress. Ask her if she takes you seriously; if she does, you get a Hook in her, if she doesn't she gets a Hook in you.
The Imposter isn't what she seems, and you suspect something. She gets a hook in you. Ask her if she realises; if she does, you get a Hook in her, too.

Your Assets:
You start with Clues at +2, Lies at +1, Weapons at +0. Add +1 to any one Asset.

Moves:
You start with your Unique Move, and pick one of your Special Moves.

Your Unique Move:

Out Of Your Depth
You rely on others for strength. You get a flat -1 to all Field Moves. Whenever somebody makes a Field Move to protect or cover for you, they get +1 to the roll, and you each get a Hook in the other.

Your Special Moves:

Backstage Support
Whenever you spend an Advance to reduce a Peril for anybody, you get to do so twice. The second time doesn't need to be the same Peril, or even the same person.

Healing
When you successfully Rescue or Open Up To one of your team, or visa versa, you can take a moment to tend to her. If you do, she reduces her Pain by 1.

Knows More Than She Lets On
Whenever somebody rolls an Intimacy Move on you, ask her if she has a hidden motive. If she does, you sense that something's up, and get a Hook in her. 

Helpful & Comforting
Whenever your spend Hooks to assist a team-mate, each Hook gives +2, not +1 to the roll.


The Monitor
You're here because you're handlers don't trust everybody, but they trust you. Somebody in particular has your handlers suspicious. You're tasked with keeping an eye on your teammates, making sure they're completely loyal, and if they show signs of going off brief... you're there to correct that.

Your Key Relationship:
You're here to watch another of your teammates. Decide who. With her, decide why your handlers suspect her, and if that's even true - whatever the case is, she raises her Suspicion by 1. Ask yourself; in your heart, do you believe the accusations against her? If not, she gets a Hook in you. Ask her; does she suspect that you're watching her? If so, you get a Hook in her, too.

Your Other Relationships:
For every other member of your team (except your key relationship), establish the following:
The Prodigy seems too good to be true. Do you trust her? If so, she gets a hook in you. If not, you get a hook in her.
The Mole has your trust. Why wouldn't she? You've shared some moments, and get a Hook in each other.
The Outsider impresses you. You've tried to get her working with you. Ask her if she went along with it; if she did, you get a Hook in her. If not, she gets a Hook in you.
The Waif needs your help if she's to avoid being a liability. She gets two Hooks in you.
The Imposter is somebody you've come to rely on. She gets a hook in you. Do you suspect anything about her? If not, she gets another hook in you.

Your Assets:
You start with Clues at +2, Weapons at +1, Lies at +0. Add +1 to any one Asset.

Moves:
You start with your Unique Move, and pick one of your Special Moves.

Your Unique Move:

Guaranteed To Be Uncompromised
You never accrue Suspicion for your actions. Never ever. You can't gain Suspicion because of any move, or as a result of something you do.
There's a single exception to this. When your team-mates would gain Suspicion, you can lie to your handlers to cover for them. If you do, you gain the Suspicion instead of them.

Your Special Moves:

In Her Head
If you have any Hooks in somebody, you can roll to Flirt with her using Clues.

Interrogation
When you successfully Read Her, if she can't just leave the conversation (due to emotional leverage or physical isolation), you can ask two questions instead of one. She chooses to answer or evade each question separately.

You Can't Have Her
When you successfully Rescue a team-mate, you both get a Hook in each other.

I Know His Weak Spot
Whenever your team-mates Resort To Violence against somebody, if you've fought them before, whoever rolls may roll with your Clues if she wishes.


The Imposter

You're not who you say you are. You joined the team under false pretences, to pursue a hidden agenda. It's a dangerous game you're playing, but if you pull this off you can leave your old life behind you. And in the mean time, your position in the world of espionage gives you a chance to make a real difference.  


Your Key Relationship:
Somebody knew you before you took on your new identity. Decide who. With her, decide how you knew each other, and how the two of you got you into the world of espionage. You both get a Hook in each other. Ask her if she trusts you; if she does, you get another Hook in her. Ask yourself if you trust her; if you do, she gets another Hook in you.

Your Other Relationships:
For every other member of your team (except your key relationship), establish the following:
The Prodigy seems like something to aspire to. Have you tried to be more like her? If so, she gets a Hook in you.
The Mole is up to something interesting. How does she factor into your plans? If she's a potential asset, she gets a Hook in you.
The Outsider is a useful distraction, and you've used her to cover for yourself. You get a hook in her.
The Waif is too good for this nasty world. Do you want to protect her? If so, she gets a Hook in you. Ask her if she wants your help? If she does, you get a hook in her.
The Monitor is a problem, if she uncovers you. She gets a hook in you. Ask her if she suspects anything: if so, you get a hook in her, too.

Your Assets:
You start with Lies at +2, Weapons at +1, Clues at +0. Add +1 to any one Asset.

Moves:
You start with your Unique Move, and pick one of your Special Moves.

Your Unique Move:

Cover Identity
Your current identity is a fake persona, a mask you wear. Actions you take when you've discarded that fake persona don't increase your Heat. If you're caught adopting or discarding your fake persona, your Suspicion raises by 1. You may ask a member of your team who catch you adopting or discarding your fake persona to keep it a secret - if she agrees, then your Suspicion doesn't rise and she gets three Hooks in you.

Your Special Moves:

Yet Another Face
You have a carefully prepared disguise you can assume. You get +2 to Escape Notice when you do.

Hidden Weapon
When you Resort To Violence, if your victim had no idea you were armed or dangerous, roll with Lies.

Turn The Question Back
When somebody Gets A Read On You successfully, you can ask her the same question back, just as if you'd likewise Got A Read On Her shakily or flawlessly.

Contingency Plans
Whenever anybody rolls a Crisis Move, you can reveal a countermeasure you took against this possibility. Add 1 to the roll, and if it succeeds everybody involved in fixing things gains one Experience.

Saturday, 6 March 2021

In Love And War (part 1)

I have been watching princess principal and I have become inspired. Here's a loose skeleton for a game.

 A PbtA game about spies, and dangerous sapphic romance.


Each player character is a spy, is gay, and is in over her head.
A spy's Classification determines her capabilities, initial relationships to others, and ultimate loyalties.
Everybody is lesbians because it's my game and you can't stop me.

Assets:
You have 3 sets of assets, each rated from -1 to +3. They rate how good you are at an area of spy work.
-Lies, for concealing yourself and hiding your intentions.
-Clues, for gathering information and understanding others.
-Weapons, for using force to get what you want.

Perils
You have 3 perils facing you, threats that can end your career if they rise too high.
-Heat, as you expose your identity and damage your cover.
-Suspicion, as your handlers come to trust you less.
-Pain, as you're physically hurt.
Each Peril starts at 0. When it reaches 5, it triggers a Crisis Move - a moment of truth where the accumulated peril threatens to overwhelm you.


Increasing Perils
Sometimes a move will tell you to increase a Peril.
There will also be moments in the fiction when it makes sense for a Peril to increase. Some examples:
-Backchat your handlers, and Suspicion will rise. 
-Let a civilian know too much about you, and Heat will rise.
-Get caught in an accident or similar danger, and Pain will rise.
When this happens, increase Peril by 1. 


Hooks:
Hooks represent how much emotional leverage you have over a fellow spy. You build up a pool of Hooks, and can spend them to do things.
A hook can be spent to:
-Give her +1 or -1 to a roll by or involving her. Spend after you see the result of the roll.
-Offer her Experience as a bribe to do something. If she does as you wish, you both get one Experience for it.


Experience:
You rack up experience as you get pulled deeper into the spy world, representing what you're learning. You get experience whenever a move says so. Further, at the end of every mission each spy who took part is awarded 1-3 Experience depending on the danger and complexity of the mission. Every full five experience can be spent go get an Advance. An Advance can:
-Give you +1 to an Asset (can be take up to 3 times, no Asset can go above +3).
-Gain a new Special Move from any Classification (can be taken up to 3 times).
-Reduce one of anybody's Perils by 1 (as many times as you like).


Resolving Moves:
When a move is triggered, roll 2d6 plus the relevant asset. 6 or less is a bust, 7-9 is a shaky success, 10+ is a flawless success. 
Some moves roll with Hooks instead of an asset. Roll 2d6 plus the number of Hooks you have in them, and then lose a Hook in them.
Moves are divided into three sorts: Field Moves and Intimate Moves. Field Moves are for on a mission and revolve around action and suspense. Intimate Moves are for interpersonal, emotional scenes and handle how your spies relate to each other.
Finally, Crisis Moves are triggered when a Peril reaches 5, determining your spy's ultimate fate. Crisis moves aren't tied to a specific asset: which one you roll with will depend on how you try to resolve it (if you reach out to another spy who can help you, roll with Hooks as normal). A crisis move should get a whole scene to resolve it after the current scene resolves: set the situation up, see how the spy in question handles the crisis, roll for the move, and then narrate the results.


Field Moves:

Escape Notice (lies)
Bust: You attract unwanted attention. Increase Heat by 1, and you've been spotted. You'll need to find another way out of this mess.
Shaky: Its touch and go. Pick one:
-You get away barely, but leave a dangerous clue behind. Increase Heat by 1, but you're safe for now.
-You're spotted. You'll need to find another way out of this mess.
Flawless: You remain nicely hidden, no complications. You get +1 to act from surprise or using cover as a result.

Assess the Situation (clues)
Bust: You fuck up badly in pursuit of answers. You may still ask a question and get an accurate answer; if you do pick an appropriate Peril and increase it by 1.
Shaky: You get something useful. Ask a question and get an accurate answer, and get +1 to your next roll to act on the answer.
Flawless: Things fall into place. Ask one of the questions, and get +1 to your next roll to act on the answer. You, and every spy you share the answer with, get one Experience.

Resort to Violence (weapons)
Bust: You're badly injured before you can escape. Increase your Pain by 1, and you fail to achieve what you wanted.
Shaky: It's close, and getting what you want will hurt. Pick one:
-You're forced to retreat, and don't achieve what you wanted.
-You get what you wanted but are injured in the process. Increase your Pain by 1.
Flawless: You get what you wanted, without any injury.

Rescue Her (hooks)
Bust: You fuck it up, and now you're in just as much peril as she was too. Pick an appropriate Peril and increase it by 1.
Shaky: You get her to safety without anything terrible happening.
Flawless: You get her to safety. Each of you gets a Hook on the other.


Intimate Moves:

Flirt (lies)
Bust: She sees what you're doing, and gets one Hook in you as a result.
Shaky: She's into it. She picks one or both:
-You each get a Hook on the other.
-She offers you something she thinks you want.
Flawless: She's really into it, it's a moment. She picks one or both:
-You each get two Hooks on the other.
-She offers you something she thinks you want.

Read Her (clues)
Bust: You push too much, and spook her. She gets a Hook in you.
Shaky: Ask her a question. If she answers honestly, she gets a Hook in you. If she evades, you get a Hook in her.
Flawless: Ask her a question. If she answers honestly, she gets a Hook in you. If she evades, you get a Hook in her. Either way, you get an Experience, and if you're happy with what you learned so does she.

Push Her Away (weapons)
Bust: It ain't working. She gets a Hook in you.
Shaky: Its painful. You each lose a Hook from each other. If she leaves, you each lose another hook from each other.
Flawless: It's too easy. If she stays, you get a Hook in her and she loses a Hook in you. If she leaves, she loses two Hooks in you.

Open Up (hooks)
Bust: This is awkward. You lose a Hook from her.
Shaky: Expose something about yourself to her, and she gets a Hook in you. If she accepts it you get a Hook in her, too.
Flawless. Expose something about yourself to her, and she gets a Hook in you and one Experience. If she accepts it, you get a Hook in her, too, and one Experience.

Crisis Moves

Heat: Exposed And Pursued 
Bust: You don't escape. Maybe you're taken prisoner, maybe you die unceremoniously. Either way, that's the end of the road.
Shaky: You're able to give them the slip, narrowly. Reduce your Heat to 4. 
Flawless: You wriggle out of the trap effortlessly. Reduce your Heat to 0.

Suspicion: Left In The Cold
Bust: Your agency considers you a liability to be dealt with. Maybe you get a bullet to the back of the head, maybe you're cut off and abandoned. Whatever the case is, you won't be seeing your companions again.
Shaky: You're on thin ice, but you placate your handlers for now. Reduce your Suspicion to 4. 
Flawless: Your name is cleared. Reduce your Heat to 0.

Pain: Bleeding Out
Bust: Well, this is it. At least you might get some last words in before you die, but it's game over for you.
Shaky: You pull through, just about, but are gravely wounded. Reduce your Pain to 4.
Flawless: You make a miraculous recovery. Reduce your Pain to 0.


That's part 1, the basic mechanics. Parts 2 and 3 will detail the different Classifications of spy, and tools for generating missions and events.

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

What I consider good design

So, one thing that I've been considering recently is what a 'well designed game' even means to me.

I don't think "Is it fun" covers it. Basically any game can be fun if you play it with your friends and the chemistry works. I've had fun playing Pathfinder, because I was playing with my buddies and we were bouncing off each other, but that wasn't because of the game's design. We'd have had just as much of the same amount of fun with any other game, really.
And, conversely, plenty of really valuable experiences I've had with RPGs have hit me with darker emotions. Pain, grief, regret, fear... these can all produce intense emotions that make a game worth playing in my view.


So, what am I looking for?


After some thought, I figure I want a game to
create a specific emotional experience when I play it
and the better it does that, the more successfully it does that, the better I consider the design.
The specific emotional experience will obviously vary by game. OSR games create nervous tension like a survival horror game, Monsterhearts produces messy bitchy angst, Duneon Bitches gives you defiantly vulnerable hope. But I look at the experience the game tries to create, and if it does that, it's well designed.

But lets go into a bit more detail. How do games achieve this? How do we judge what they're doing?
Three ways come to mind:

1: Set expectations
2: Shape play 
3: Cover creative gaps


The better a game does these three things, the better it will create an experience, and the higher I rate it.
Let's go into each of these in a bit more detail.



Setting Expectations

This bit is all about communication. I open the book up, browse its fluff and mechanics and look at the art and graphic design, and I get inspired. It makes me picture what it's about, the feelings it wants to evoke, the themes it wants to explore.
This isn't just about the mechanics specifically. There's a reason so many RPG books start with a couple of pages of fiction to set the tone (or with several dozen, if they were made by white wolf). Same goes for visuals; The Stygian Library would feel totally different without Alec's art and Anxy's layout. It all serves to put you in a particular headspace when you go through the book.

A game doing this bit well has everybody come to the game already imagining what the game could be like. That image in their head will be strong, and will be similar. Everybody goes in on the same page.

Shaping Play

This is what most people think of when they talk about 'game design'. Things like how characters are designed, how events are resolved, and so on.
And this shit absolutely matters. Sure you can freeform things, or make every resolution mechanic up on the fly as you go, but that won't create the same experience. Game mechanics push and tug you in particular directions, the limit you in some ways and open up possibilities in others. 
Think of it this way: compare a fight in D&D 5e, and one in Dungeon Bitches. Even if you go in with the same starting fiction (the same location, characters, enemies, etc), the experience will be totally different, because the mechanics care about different things. In D&D, the fight is resolved round-by-round, its a chance to use various character tools, the consequences are (relatively trivial) physical injury and depletion of material resources, everybody gets to contribute about as much, and the PCs are pretty sure to win. The end result is empowering, tactically challenging - fights in 5e feel good. Compare to Dungeon Bitches. The fight is resolved with a single roll, only one PC's capabilities directly shape the results, the consequences might be emotional trauma or gruesome injury (both of them very hard to mitigate), and there is never a clean win. In DB, violence feels nasty and frightening, and characters respond to it far more seriously. 
This is a small example, but it applies to broad structures too. Who even are PCs? What capabilities of theirs matter? What tools do they use to influence the narrative? What rewards and disincentives shape their actions? All of these things will create a particular experience in play.
Like, here's a really simple example. The tension you get making a jenga-pull when you play Dread creates a feeling of mounting nervous anticipation that you wouldn't get if the game wasn't using Jenga as it's main mechanic.
This isn't just mechanics, either. The fiction matters. A setting without law enforcement plays very different to one with incredibly strict law enforcement, for example. That stuff shapes play, too. You'll have an easier time telling stories where PCs struggle with predatory instincts if - in the fiction - all your PCs are vampires.


Covering Creative Gaps

Its nice to imagine that we can simply draw on our infinite imaginations to create all the details and ideas we need for a good experience at the table, but that's just not true. There's going to be moments where nothing immediately comes to mind, or you would normally tend towards the generic. So, here, the game provides concrete examples, so when you might hesitate creatively, there's inspiration to fill that gap.
This might be the way a lot of PbtA moves offer specific options to pick between when they resolve. This might be the use of random tables (such as wandering monsters) in play. This might be pre-packaged character archetypes that clearly communicate the sorts of PCs you might play.
This is something a lot of design neglects. Vampire the Masquerade, for example, doesn't really provide much in the way of concrete examples to draw on. Want to run a feeding scene? The vessel, and how they're approached, has to come from the ST - there's no 'big list of vessels' you can pick one from for a side-scene where a PC feeds.


So that covers it, I think. I want the game to clearly communicate what it's about, for the procedures of play to nudge and push the game towards that experience, and for the game to pick up the slack where the participants might falter. If a game does all of these things, I can be pretty sure that I'll come away from it having had the emotional experience I was looking for. And that's a success.



Thursday, 31 December 2020

Progress on Dungeon Bitches

So. 2020 has been a heck of a year. 
In march, right as the 'rona hit, I started work on Dungeon Bitches as a project. It's a bit of a departure for me - a storygame about feelings with an overt message - but it's been a really rewarding game to work on. In a lot of ways, its more personal than other stuff I've written, more heartfelt. It deliberately reflects my experiences as a queer woman in ways that are at times rough and raw and unpleasant. So, this is a piece of design that matters to me.
I'm gonna talk about it some, and sprinkle in screenshots of how the thing looks in my layout program atm. 


Over the course of the year, the game's been extensively playtested, taken apart, hacked, re-written and iterated on to get to a point where I'm happy with it. It's close to that point now. I've got a decent version of the book that I'm tweaking, but the writing is mostly done. 

So, what's actually in the book?
You get the introductory stuff at the front - credits, what the game is about, a snippet of fiction to set the tone - and then from there the game's mechanics are explained. Starting with the basics of how storygames work, and then going into mechanics like how to roll for a move, hurt, getting broken, bonds, experience and so on. Those basic game mechanics take up 9 pages; the actual rules of the game are pretty light.
Then we get the games default moves. Each stat (queer/subtle/hard/soft) gets a two page spread. 

There's a few pages on how to set up a game and make PCs, and then we get into the Deals (a 'deal' being the game's term for class/archetype/skin etc). Each Deal gets 4 pages; a two page spread with a luxurious full-page illustration and the fiction for the deal, and then another two page spread with the mechanical stuff. After this, some guides for homebrewing your own Deals and Moves, and some rules for 'Legendary Bitches' - basically high-tier options for PCs who've run out of stuff to spend advances on.




After this we get into safety tools, taking up thirteen pages. This shit is important in any game, but doubly so in something like dungeon bitches that delves into darker, more personal stuff. There's a lot of useful tools out there - enough to fill a good sized book on their own with no game attached - but I've focussed on two particular topics here. Firstly, why safety matters and how the key to getting it is trust and communication. And then a sampling of tools that I've used personally and found worked well. Really, this section is a jumping-off point, an introduction to the topic, because the best tools for you will vary from group to group. The point is to encourage a culture of consent and care.



There's then a decent sized section explaining how the game is meant to be played. It's not really mechanics, but more about communicating the intended playstyle. There's sections on queerness, romance, trauma, violence, safe places and so on. This is kinda the meat of the book. You could read this section, ignore the mechanics and just freeform it, and if you follow the advice in here you'll get the intended experience. 

Then last up, you get some thoughts on using the Wounded Mother and Hollow Men, before the book closes out with GM tools. Some explanation of GM responses and how to use them. Then, because it's me, a big ol' pile of random tables. Encounters, events, monsters, NPCs, problems. And similar tables to put a setting together, building a dungeon and a town based on random dice prompts. 


So. It's a decent sized book. About 150 pages, give or take, a4, full colour, illustrated. I've been experimenting with some graphic design stuff, and Sarah's artwork is frankly stunning, so I'm confident its gonna be pretty once it's done.



Anyway. How does this play out in practice?

The single key element here is Bonds. You can spend 'em to give each other plusses to rolls or to offer each other XP. Bonds represent the strength of your relationships with other PCs, and you absolutely rely on them to succeed. In practice, I've found the flow of bonds between PCs is hugely important, and can tell you a lot about how they relate to one another.
This is something I really wanted to get across in the game. Your biggest strength is your fellow bitches, how you support each other. The bonds between you really, tangibly keep you sane and alive. A bitch on her own can easily be screwed, but a group of them together can - if the bonds between them are strong enough - basically overcome anything. 

I've tweaked Hurt some since the initial write-up. Now, when you get too much Hurt and are Broken, it's temporary. You're overwhelmed and helpless, but if your fellow bitches can get you to safety you can recover. However, being Broken like this leaves permanent scars, reminders of the extreme trauma you've been through. Pick up too many, and it'll subsume you, and you'll be gone for good.
So, characters are less fragile. You're less likely to lose your character, more likely to have her become vulnerable and fucked up. 
A key thing here, I think, is that you the player get to pick the exact form your character's scars take, and how they manifest. Trauma affects people differently, and the game lets you explore and portray this however fits your character best.

A few moves - flirt, share pain, spending bonds, healing - serve to build up a web of connections between PCs. Relationships between bitches tend to end up tangled and messy. There's often a strong level of romantic tension ('flirt' is probably the most commonly rolled move, after all), sometimes this remains bubbling under the surface and sometimes it emerges and gets acknowledged. You get these overlapping relationships and petty conflicts and love triangles and it just works. I've seen some absolutely wonderful love stories told in the playtests, sometimes painful, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes ugly, sometimes heartwarming.
And, like, sometimes that means sex. The relationships between PCs can get intense - intentionally so - and so that moment when two characters finally fuck is just... its got some real potential there. I could have shied away from some of the more overtly sexual elements, but I think including them enables some really powerful moments.

Something that emerged over time, that I'm really pleased with, is the relationship between the town and the dungeon. In most games, the town is safe - a place you retreat to in order to rest and recover and resupply. Here, that's not the case; the town is controlled by the specific systems of oppression your characters want to escape. Town is dangerous. It's somewhere you venture into for potential rewards - food, equipment, etc - but don't stay too long because of the risks.
The dungeon is kind of the opposite, really. It's a space where the rules of Man don't really reach, a marginal space outside of their control. That's not to say that it's entirely safe, but it's certainly safer. You descend into the darkness, and the darkness embraces you, and you can be yourself. 
So, in a way, the dungeon becomes an inherently queer space. One where you can find others like yourself, where you can be yourself. And this comes with its own risks, but when it comes down to it you're welcome in the dungeon in ways that you aren't on the surface. Heck, a good proportion of the encounters you'll find down there are other bitches like yourself, or creatures that were once bitches like you but which have slowly transitioned into being something else, something unique. There are communities in the dungeon. Rough, harsh, communities, often very weird ones, but there's a space for you.

So all of these elements come together to create a game where the shared experience of marginalisation brings people together. Your characters can no longer stay in mainstream society, so they find others like themselves and form their own little communities. Insular, tangled, fucked up communities, but still. Trauma hurts, and the scars it leaves can cause problems a long way down the line. But that shared experience pulls you together. 

Ultimately, I think the game's hopeful. It says that you can be there for each other, can support each other through your pain to find a place in the world, to be yourself. It's angry, defiant, burning with this idea that together we can make a better future, despite what we've been through.
What's that phrase? "Not gay as in happy, but queer as in fuck you." The game's fucking queer.


But. I'm being arty and sentimental. Where are things in practical terms?
Well. We have a mostly done manuscript. It's just a matter of finishing the art and layout, getting it properly edited and proofread. Then it can get released properly. 
Which is why I'm pleased to announce that
the game's getting kickstarted in January. 
There's a team of three of us on this: Myself, Sarah doing art, and Khan doing editing. 

So, that's something to look forward to. I know I'm excited.



Finally, I wanna take a moment to thank the various people that have helped me get this project where it is. Playtesters and collaborators and sounding boards, y'all have been wonderful.
Thank you, I love you all.