Friday, 13 April 2018

Rose-Maiden Virtuosos, A Class

So, I'm running a game in Ynn for a couple of players, and among other things they've made friends with a rose-maiden whom they treated after finding her injured. They call her rosebud, her true name is unpronouncable if you have human mouths rather than stamens and petals.
I think that I'd let them take over playing her as a PC when one of them dies. And, for that end, they need a class for rose-maidens.
Now, as written, the rose-girls can only cast if they're in a choir; multiple rose-girls need to sing at once to create the harmonies for the magic to work. That's not ideal for PCs, so I'm making a class for the rare virtuosos who have learned to produce multiple distinct notes at once, mongolian-throat-singing-style.

So, the Rose-Maiden Virtuoso.

  • Hit dice is a d4, as for the MU.
  • Saves are as the MU.
  • XP is as the MU.
  • Rolls to-hit are as the MU.
  • AC is as leather. The Rose-maiden may not wear armour; it interferes with her photosynthesis and its hard to find armour that will fit a walking flower.
  • The Rose-maiden may not use weapons. Her thorny branches can't grasp weapons firmly enough for use in combat.
  • The Rose-maiden gets two attacks with her thorny fists, each dealing damage like a dagger.
  • The Rose-maiden does not start out with any equipment, but may be able to use it if she aquires it. Magic rings will fit on her branches, but magic cloaks just get shredded by her thorns. Use your common sense.
The Rose-maiden is both a plant, and a person. Effects that target plants effect her just as well as those that target people.

The Rose-maiden can perform magic by singing. The abilities she has available to her are:
  • Walk Through Plants (allowing her to move through any plants as if immaterial)
  • Grow Plant (causing a plant to grow rapidly, at a rate of rounds or turns rather than days or months, in the shape the Rose-maiden wishes)
  • Talk With Plants (allowing her to speak to and understand plants)
  • Move Plants (allowing her to make a plant move for a single round, as if animated).
  • Charm Plants (causing a plant to consider her a friend if successful)
These work like a thief/rogue/specialist's abilities. The rose maiden sings for a round, and there is a chance that the ability will take effect.
In b/x and similar games where % chances are used for thief skills; Walk Through Plants uses the chance to Pick Locks, Grow Plants uses the chance to Move Silently, Talk With Plants uses the chance to Climb Sheer Surfaces, Move Plants uses the chance to Hide In Shadows, and Charm Plants uses the chance to Find Traps.
In LotFP and similar games where skills are x-in-6, each of these skills starts with 0-in-6 chance to succeed. The Rose-Maiden has 5 'skill points' to put into them at 1st level, and then 2 more for each level she gains thereafter.
Remember, the Rose-Maiden is a plant. It is very possible to use these abilities on a Rose-maiden. Possibly even the rose-maiden herself.
When multiple rose-maidens sing at the same time, combine their chance of success (so two level 1 rose maidens each with a 17% to Walk Through Plants, can sing together and have a 34% chance to do so).

When she doesn't cast spells, the Rose-maiden can produce a droning song that distracts those listening, which works in addition to making an attack or other action. When she does, everybody able to hear is affected; there is a 1-in-10 chance that any action requiring concentration (such as casting a spell, first aid, etc) simply fails. This effect stacks; it's 2-in-10 when two Rose-maidens drone, and so on.

Lastly, Rose-Maidens evaluate everything in terms of beauty and ugliness. They get double the XP for killing ugly monsters, and half XP for killing beautiful monsters. Likewise, they get double XP for beautiful treasure, and half XP for ugly treasure. One should expect Rose Maiden PCs to be thoroughly snobbish to ugly people, and deferentially polite to beautiful ones.

Monday, 9 April 2018

For my island-crawl - the ship

One thing that I'm working on for my next big project (a dawn-treader inspired island-crawl adventure) is the idea of the PCs ship as almost an NPC. Since its their base of operations and only means of surviving the ocean - and the biggest thing brought with them from the old world - the ship becomes a powerful totem of the familiar contrasted against the weirdness of the isles.
As a result, I need ship rules. In the end, I've lifted a lot of ideas from the Lamentations book. The ship is, where relevant, treated like any other stat-block, with hitdice, hitpoints, AC and so on.
I wanted the ship to have a strong and comfortable identity; in the end (and after a little reading) I settled on a retired tea-clipper.
I'm abstracting carrying capacity somewhat. I want to drive home the logistics of such a long-scale sea journey, and how there's not enough room to carry everything.

* * * * *

The Primrose
The Primrose is the ship on which this voyage takes place. It was once used for coastal trading voyages, but is now several decades old and reaching the end of its use. It has seen many former captains come and go, and has been mended and altered enough to become its own idiosyncratic vessel, almost a character in its own right.
The primrose is painted black, the hull tarred, with the various railings and masts painted a pale yellow. It was built as a tea-clipper, so its frame is narrow and angular. To look at, its silhouette almost reminds one of an elegantly curved knife.
The figurehead is an owl, wings spread wide, as if swooping down on prey.
Below deck the cabins - like the ship itself - are angular and narrow. The furnishings are a little old fashioned, the Primrose nearing the end of its useful lifespan and so rather old itself. None the less, until overcrowding becomes an issue, things are reasonable comfortable by the standards of merchant shipping.
The ship has three masts, each bearing a broad, square sail. It is 90 yards long by twelve yards wide. It has three lifeboats, each enough to hold 12.

Mechanics for the Primrose
For most purposes, where there is peril
involved, the Primrose can be treated much like a creature, as follows.
ò 40 Hit-dice.
ò 200 hit-points, and completely ignores any attack that deals 10 or less damage.
ò AC as an unarmoured human against those physically on-board, or AC like chainmail against attacks from outside the ship.
ò Mostly either automatically passes saves, or automatically fails them, based on the nature of the effect. Where the an effect’s outcome is truly in doubt, treat the save as 11+.
ò Immunity to cold, poison, mental effects, sickness, etc.
ò Double damage from fire. Once it has taken damage from fire, it will continue taking that much each round thereafter. Putting it out requires 1 action spent dousing the flames for each round it has already burned. (This can be a character acting once each round, or several acting all in one round, or somewhere in between).

When the Primrose hits 0 hp, it is effectively wrecked. It cannot move, and will begin to sink, taking 3d6 rounds to do so.
The Primrose does not attack. Those on it, however, are capable of manning the cannons.

Damage and Repair to the Primrose
During an encounter, keep a tally of how many times the Primrose has taken damage. Once the encounter is over and it is possible to take stock of the ship’s state, for each tally mark, roll d20 on the table below to see what damage has been done to the ship. If the same result is rolled twice, ignore the second time it comes up; the ship cannot lose a rudder it no longer has, for example.
-1- Rigging is shredded.
-2- Forward mast is useless or lost entirely. -25% speed until fixed, requiring a new mast to be found in order to do so.
-3- Middle mast is useless or lost entirely. -50% speed until fixed, requiring a new mast to be found in order to do so.
-4- Rear mast is useless or lost entirely. -25% speed until fixed, requiring a new mast to be found in order to do so.
-5- Sails are damaged. -25% speed until fixed.
-6- Rudder is inoperable. Steering is impossible until fixed, which will require 10 batches of timber and the ship securely anchored to work on it.
-7- Anchor lost. Will require a new anchor; something big and heavy and ideally grappling-hook shaped.
-8- Upper deck torn up.
-9- Forecastle deck torn up.
-10- Quarterdeck torn up.
-11- Poop deck torn up.
-12- Bowsprit lost.
-13- Hull damaged above the waterline; port side.
-14- Hull damaged above the waterline; starboard side.
-15- Holed below the waterline; forward port side. Ship will sink in 2d10 turns.  Requires 10 batches of timber to fix.
-16- Holed below the waterline; rear port side. Ship will sink in 2d10 turns.  Requires 10 batches of timber to fix.
-17- Holed below the waterline; forward starboard side. Ship will sink in 2d10 turns.  Requires 10 batches of timber to fix.
-18- Holed below the waterline; rear starboard side. Ship will sink in 2d10 turns.  Requires 10 batches of timber to fix.
-19- Figurehead lost.
-20- Tiller damaged. Steering is impossible until fixed, which will require 5 batches of timber.
Each HP of damage done to the ship can be repaired. It requires one batch of timber, and somebody working for a turn.

The primrose requires at least 28 on board to be able to sail reliably. This can be both NPC sailors, and PCs who are willing to do the work.
For each person below this, -1 to all d20 rolls related to sailing it, navigation, and so on (for example, roll-under-intelligence or saving throws). For every 4 people below this, -1 to all rolls related to sailing it, navigation and so on (for example, surprise rolls).
The ship has enough room for up to 35 crew plus the initial number of PCs. So, with a party of 4 PCs, there is enough room for 39 on board.
NPC sailors have the following statistics, where it matters:
ò 1 Hit-dice.
ò 4 HP.
ò Armour as leather (if properly equipped) or unarmoured otherwise.
ò Knife (+1, d4)
ò If properly equipped, Maritime Weapons (+1, d8)
ò Saves as Fighter 1.

The ship can carry 1500 batches of cargo. Cargo that can be carried includes:
ò Provisions: each batch of provisions feeds one person for one day.
ò Timber: each batch of timber is enough to repair 1 point of damage to the Primrose.
ò Cannon Ammunition: each batch is enough for one shot from a cannon. (Assume that the gunpowder uses up very little space, and that it does not run out when the cannonballs do).
ò Armaments: each batch of armaments is enough to arm a single NPC sailor with proper weapons and armour for maritime combat.
ò Treasure: each batch of treasure found on the voyage uses up space on the ship if it is to be carried. As a rule of thumb, 500 XP’s worth of treasure makes up one batch; maybe more or less for particularly bulky or easily transported goods.

The Primrose has been fitted with 6 cannons, 3 down each side. Each sits in its own little gun-port, with the necessary tools and supplies to hand.
There are four stages required to fire a cannon:
ò It must be loaded with a charge of powder.
ò It must be loaded with a cannon-ball.
ò It must be aimed.
ò The powder must be lit, which fires it.
Each of these stages takes a round's activity to perform. Multiple crew can work together, so that four of them can charge, load, aim and fire a cannon each round.
When firing a cannon, roll to hit as normal with the bonus of the person who actually fired the thing. If hit, things that are normal-sized (people, wolves, etc etc) get to make a Save vs Breath Weapons to get out of the way of the shot. (Larger things like giants and other ships get no such save). A cannonball does d6 x 10 damage.
If used to fire grapeshot, a cannon does d10 damage to everything in front of it, with no to-hit roll required. Smaller-than-ship-sized things still get their Save vs Breath Weapons to avoid it, as normal.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

New Class - the Link-boy or Lantern-girl

Something knocked out fairly rapidly when I had a moment of inspiration.
Link-boys and lantern-girls are pretty commonly hired as retainers; kids expected to follow the PCs to provide light, carry things, and not much else. What if you wanted to play as this unfortunate urchin, though? Well, here's how.

Hit Dice: D4
Saves: As Cleric
Attacks: to-hit as Cleric
XP to level up: half of that required for a fighter.

Special Abilities:
Night Vision: A lantern-girl is accustomed to carrying the light for the party. She can see twice as far by any light from a source she herself carries.
Perceptive: A Lantern-girl has a 3-in-6 chance to hear noises, to notice unusual architecture, to be woken by the sounds of intruders, and so forth. She is only surprised 1-in-6 of the time.
Insignificant: Many monsters and NPCs will assume that - being only a child - the lantern-girl is unimportant and no threat to them, and act accordingly. This may mean that monsters do not attack her while there or other valid targets. It may also mean that human NPCs treat her like a mere child, even when she's accumulated quite a lot of wealth and experience. This ability is as likely to hinder as to help, and is at the GM's discretion.
Fortunate: Being small and nimble, a lantern girl is adept at avoiding perils, and furthermore her childlike innocence (or deliberate facade thereof) can sometimes pause the hand of even the most ruthless enemy. Wherever a saving throw reduces some danger when passed (such as a Save vs Breath halving the damage taken from a fireball), the Lantern-girl instead ignores the danger, and is entirely unaffected. 
Sneaky: A lantern-girl can easily escape notice. In an urban environment, she can blend into the urban landscape, becoming just another unremarkable urchin; when she does so, she has a 5-in-6 chance to escape detection from those trying to locate her. Likewise, in the countryside or dungeon, she can attempt to hide behind whatever cover presents itself; here, she has a 2-in-6 chance to escape notice.

Starting Gear:
A lantern-girl begins with a torch or lamp; a dagger or sling & 10 bullets; 3d6 silver to spend; and whatever her companions feel like giving her.

Other Systems:
For systems which use a Prime Requisite, the lantern-girl's is Charisma. She gets +5% XP if her Charisma is 13+, or +10% if it is 16+.
For systems that restrict Weapons & Armour by class, a lantern-girl can wear only leather armour and can carry a shield. She can wield only one-handed melee weapons, and any melee weapon bigger than a knife requires both hands to use. The only ranged weapons she is allowed are thrown weapons and slings. She is treated as a Thief for the purposes of using magic items.
Upon reaching level 9, a Lantern-girl does not get to build a castle or anything like that; she is, after all, only a child. On the other hand, to have reached that level she probably has a rather nice amount of wealth to invest in the projects of others.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Project Idea - Into the Utter West

I've not made much of a secret of how my fond memories of the Narnia books influenced the design of Ynn. I actually don't much mind about the blatant christian allegory side of them, even; what with the parallel worlds thing, and all the rest it works perfectly well as a Christianity-inspired fantasy setting. The religious stuff actually really helps the tone of the books, I think.
My two favourites were Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair. It's no coincidence that these are both basically wilderness adventures that showcase the weird and wonderful peripheries of the setting.

Dawn Treader has been on my mind. I've been combining it mentally with the 'sailing into the west' motif from Tolkein. A voyage by boat that takes you over the horizon towards a more unworldly realm. A metaphor for sinking peacefully into death. That's not to say that there's no adventure and hi-jinks and danger, but the slightly melancholy feel of this idea knocking about in my head is a strength worth preserving.

So here's the setup: the most westerly shore of the known world borders onto an endless ocean. Few who sail out into the sunset return, none report more lands out there. None the less, rumors persist. The campaign follows a ship of explorers as they travel over the horizon to see what's there.
Structurally, the campaign has three broad arcs:
Firstly, setting up the ship, buying supplies, and setting sail over the mundane ocean. This establishes the 'normal' of the world and ties it strongly into the ship you'll be sailing in. A few weeks of travel over the grey ocean will probably be skipped over fairly quickly. The journey serves to give PCs a chance to settle into the ship's mechanics and to separate what's to come from the everyday world.
Stage two is the Wondrous Islands. If one travels far enough, one reaches a vast archipelago of islands. Each island contains some weirdness or whimsy, maybe a mini-dungeon or a resource to exploit or some such. Here, players can explore a nautical map, with random encounters at sea, islands here and there, and so on.
One of these islands is the Red Isle; here, the route into the utmost west is unlocked. The setting sun casts an orange-red reflection over the sea, forming a path to the horizon. Once the Red Isle is found, the players can choose to sail down the sunset road whenever they wish, but doing so is a one-way journey.
The final stage is sailing down the sunset road itself. Here, there are few islands to replenish supplies at. Instead, the ship, and the PCs will be torn at and tested to destruction by the road. At the far end are the gates to Paradise; those PCs who finally struggle to the end get to enter. Once they do, that's campaign end. THAT SAID: I want reaching Paradise to be a goal worth striving for, so I'll probably have those PCs that get there get a hefty bonus to their next PC in the next game you run.

Thoughts on this:
The sunset road is optional: you can dick about in the wondrous isles for a bit, and then go home again if you want.
OBVIOUSLY the wondrous isles are procedurally generated through random tables and stuff. It's me, I love tables, what else is gonna happen? The sunset road, however, is likely to be a fairly linear sequence of challenges of a fairly finite duration.
The ship itself is gonna be detailed, as are its crew. Mechanics for the ship in combat, its cargo, damage to it, etc etc. The ship, as much as the PCs, becomes our island of normality in the weirdness that is the wondrous isles.
The bulk of the content's gonna be in the wondrous isles. The start of the voyage are more of a prelude and endgame.
The module's likely to include some religious symbolism. I'm from a christian background, so that's where most of it will come from. Obviously I'm not writing religious propaganda, but I think using these themes will give it some emotional punch by tying it into ideas about death and redemption and so on.

I want to keep the tone fairly light. A mixture of bittersweet and dreamlike. Because it's me, PCs will inevitably warp and mutate over time. So will the ship itself and its crew.
This is still fairly early stages. I'll update as stuff gets solidified and written down.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

And now for something completely different

So, up until now, I've mostly been writing about OSR stuff, with occasional forays into oWoD. Here, instead, are some thoughts about Monsterhearts, and some homebrew I made for it.

If you aren't familiar with it, Monsterhearts is a game about playing sexy teenage monsters (vampires and witches and so on). It uses the Apocalypse World engine and tries to be a metaphor for queer stuff. I have mixed and conflicting opinions about it.

The underlying engine is really neat. 2d6+mod, 7-9 is a mixed success, 10+ is an overwhelming success, that's pretty elegant. The way the game uses strings, and the various social moves, is likewise neat. It fits its genre nicely, and drives play forward well.

On the other hand, the game has some problems. The moves seem very incomplete; a lot of actions that I would require a roll for (avoiding being noticed and reacting to surprises spring to mind) simply don't have a move tied to them, which means as a GM you can't get people to roll. Fights are far too hand-wavey for my taste, meaning that it usually boils down to either a) roll really well or b) narrate really fast so the GM lets you win. Plus, some of the skins (aka classes) available - particularly the alternate and third-party ones - are wildly unbalanced; for example, the Succubus fills basically the same niche as the Fae or Infernal but has none of the drawbacks, and the Unseen is just a ghost but so much better at the ghost's sneaky information-gathering that if the Unseen is in play, the ghost is largely pointless. 
Underlying this is the game's stated goals. It's meant to be an arty metaphor for queer stuff and teenage hormoney stuff and, tbh, that sounds like wank to me. However, I've played it in ways that tone down the arty side and instead focus on emergent stories and character goals, and that works really well.
It's a flawed game, and it tries to be something I'm not really into, but it's pretty easy in my experience to turn it into something much more my cup of tea.

I made some homebrew skins, so now I'm gonna talk about the design ideas behind each of them. The skins themselves are the Flatliner, Alice, The Hive-mind and The Wendigo. Each of them was designed to focus on an area not really covered by other skins, and to have a playstyle other skins don't.

First up, I wanna talk about the Hive-mind. When I last played Monsterhearts, I initially played the Anansi, a spider-trickster figure. Because, after all, I fucking love spiders (they're adorable and amazing and why are people frightened of them?). It was neat, I guess, but didn't really fit what I wanted to play perfectly, so I wrote up homebrew instead, and that pushed me down this rabbit-hole.
The Hive-mind is a swarm of insects (or worms, or spiders, or whatever) in a fake human skin, walking around pretending to be a person. It's an imposter, and under the surface it's very much monstrous and alien. I wanted to play with its outsider status, so it got a few moves that encourage it to not quite fit in; people get XP for explaining how to be human to it, and it can force people to explain their motivations when they try to manipulate it. To contrast this, it gets a few abilities that really play up how horrific it is; it can engulf people in a tide of bugs, or frighten them away with a horrible revelation of the Hive-mind's true nature.
The key to the skin, though, is that it can split itself up and its form is fluid, which gives it a lot of power in terms of scene-framing. By splitting the swarm, it can be in two places at once, and other abilities let it do things like put a 'bug' on people or places to monitor them, or to mimic people's appearance. Combine this with the ability to engulf people (preventing them fleeing) or force them to leave out of fear, and the Hive-mind has a lot of control over pacing and access to plotlines.
The playstyle is probably the most normal of the skins I've designed. On the other hand, the basic ability to be in multiple places and the fluidity of form, combined with specific other abilities, means that the hive-mind in play normally feels unsettling and alien.
If you want to be metaphor-ey, then the whole 'outsider in human society who frightens people and doesn't understand human behavior' makes a pretty neat stand in for something like autism or mental illness.

Next up, we have Alice. Alice is, predictably, inspired by Alice in Wonderland, and her key thing is that she causes weird shit to happen around her. Since most of her abilities come off causing weird things to happen, she's a tempo-setting, plot-creating machine, but doesn't really have much ability to do things or control things herself, so she's all about making game for other PCs.
Essentially, whenever somebody in a scene with Alice gains XP, a Weird Thing happens. Alice picks a 'daydream' from those provided, which provides a sequence of rough spurs for what the weird things are. Each new weird event will be the next one down the list.
Since Alice knows which daydream she's on, she knows what the next event will be, and a few of her powers let her cause or delay weird events. This is, in practice, surprisingly powerful; if Alice's player knows that next up is 'a building catches fire' she can delay that event happening and then trigger it at the moment that best suits her.
On the other hand, Alice only gets two abilities not directly related to controlling the tempo of weird events; she can go into mirrors (giving her a safe hiding place) and gets power from playing games with people. Both of these are neat tricks but still have ways they tie indirectly back to the tempo control.
I'm pretty sure my enthusiasm for random encounter rolls played a part in the design here.
There's no real metaphor here, but considering the persistent rumors about Lewis Carol's interest in children, I'm sure a creative GM could come up with something.

After this, there's the Wendigo. This one's probably my weakest design, because the archetype (eat people, be super strong because of it) overlaps so much with the Ghoul. On the other hand, the ghoul focuses much more on dealing with unwholesome urges of various sorts, while the wendigo is tightly focussed on eating. This one's the class that's the most overt 'themes and art and metaphors' of my designs, as it's pretty obviously about eating disorders.
Fundamentally, the Wendigo doesn't have a Volatile stat (this is the stat used for most physical confrontations in MH). Instead they have Hunger, which fluctuates wildly based on what they've been eating recently. If hunger goes too high, they start taking damage, but on the other hand by pushing hunger they can hit heights of physical prowess inaccessible to other skins; normally, stats range from -3 to +3 ith +3 taking a little min-maxing to achieve), but the wendigo's hunger goes from 0 to +4.
Most wendigo abilities tie into either using hunger (typically for violent or similarly brutal means), or else controlling the hunger score. The wendigo is hard to deal with in a direct confrontation, but needs to be really careful that it doesn't starve itself to death.

Lastly, we have the Flatliner. The Flatliner is, essentially, Tomie (from the work of Junji Ito). Constantly dying but impossible to prevent from returning, and incredibly sexy into the bargain.
The flatliner messes with the assumption that PCs want to be alive, and can't do things while dead. For a start, death is only temporary for her; no matter what happens, she can always come back. She gets various ways to continue interacting with the plot while dead; she can gaze into the abyss for information (at an advantage) while dead, and with the right abilities can also continue using her sex appeal or even communicate directly with people while dead. Her other abilities are about maximizing the impact of her death, letting her give XP to those who see it, or kill herself rather than fall victim to other people's social moves, or force those she sleeps with to either give her a lot of social leverage, or murder her.
The skin, therefore, has it's own little cycle built in, gaining sexual leverage over people, dying at a dramatic moment rather than facing the consequences of her actions, resting for a while whilst dead to subtly steer things, and then returning from the dead to do it all over again.
Again, the metaphor potential here is quite heavy. It's an archetype that's all about romanticizing suicide, which lends itself to all sorts of themes. Or, you can just play it as a weird necromantic femme-fatale. Either works.

If you're interested in Monsterhearts, I'd recommend giving it a try. It's a game that, tbh, I think needs to be hacked in order to really work, but if you're reading this you're probably OK with that. You can get the stuff I wrote for it here.

I also made a Patreon account, because I'm poor and need money. You can find it here, and if you feel like chucking me a few bucks because you like my work, that's always nice (I like being able to pay rent and eat food).

Oh, and test prints for The Gardens Of Ynn are on their way. It should be available in paperback in a week or so.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Dancing the Black Labyrinth

I'm writing a class for OSR games.
I want it to tie into a few OSR-ish ideas: frequent character deaths, prioritizing the story of the party over the stories of individual characters, amorality.
I want it to subvert expectations of play in ways that other classes don't. That is, I want to make a class which does not mind dying. A class that sees the unpredictable lethality of OSR play, and embraces it, and profits from it. A class for which death is not the end.

Here's how I'm gonna do it.
First up, the fluff. The Dancers Of The Black Labyrinth are a mystical religious group. The Cleric as a class embraces fundamentally western ideas of spirituality. Worship, death as a finality, the granting of favors through divine grace. This class, meanwhile, takes on a more oriental approach, focusing on the soul's journey through reincarnations towards transcendence. I want this class to be morbid, thanatological mystics who treat death as a minor setback.
The do not see death as an end. The soul passes into a lightless maze, from which it cannot easily return. These mystics, though continually retread the paths of the black labyrinth, each journey expanding their knowledge of its nature and how it might be exploited.

In play, how does this work? The Dancers work like clerics: it makes sense for such a mystically-inclined class. They have only a few spells, mostly surrounding death and divination. Compared to an MU or even a cleric, their repertoire is limited.
The first Dancer you play is capped at level one.
When they die, if your next PC is also a Dancer, then this cap is increased; if they survive and gain enough XP, they can progress to level 2. The new PC is, on some level, the same entity as the last one. Though their body and mind are different, they have some degree of memory of their previous life and their exploration of the Black Labyrinth can continue.
Furthermore, each time they die, the nature of their death unlocks new secrets to them: each subsequent Dancer gains a permanent bonus for each new type of death unlocked. For weirder and more esoteric deaths, these bonuses can be quite dramatic.

So you get an entity who reincarnates into different PCs over the course of the game, gradually unlocking greater power as they do. One who is motivated to die in new and unusual ways.

Leaving Kansas

One day soon I will post something you can actually put in your game rather than merely philosophizing. Not today, though.

One thing which I think is at the heart of of a lot of old-school aesthetics is the clash between weirdness and familiarity. In particular, I find these games tend to have familiar characters from familiar locations visit somewhere strange. 
The thematic heart of the game, then, is this; can our representations of the familiar world survive and prosper from contact with the Strange?

Setting up the familiar is pretty simple. Most players of RPGs are acquainted with the 'default medieval fantasy' setting, with feudal lords, peasants, knights, priests, and so on. Likewise, the modern world, or mundane history can serve as the familiar. So long as it's the sort of place and time that your players can readily understand, make assumptions about, and so on.
This is the background your PCs are drawn from. The options available to a PC come to define the everyday normality of your setting, the baseline from which the weird departs. If you have wizards capable of casting spells as part of your 'normal', magic itself is not 'weird'. It is something the PCs can do and, presumably, might be familiar with. A vampire is never going to be scary when you can roll up a level 1 vampire PC, after all.
I actually think that, here, a certain degree of blandness is good. Exotic and strange details in this part of the game world detract from its normal-ness, and likewise make the strange seem less strange. The more default and obvious this baseline seems OOC, the easier it will be to see it as default in play.

This, then, is contrasted with the Weird. The weird is other. It is external to the players, unfamiliar, separated from them somehow. It might be a dungeon. It might be an unexplored wilderness or a strange foreign land. It might be intrusions from other worlds, even. But it must be different.
The weird can, and should, break the rules that PCs operate by. Enemies can use spells, certainly, but they shouldn't have the same spells in the same spellbooks that the PCs do. Their capabilities should be unfamiliar.
It must likewise be clear when you are stepping out of the familiar and into the weird. When you go down the steps into a dungeon, you enter the Weird. Sometimes, this process is drawn out (such as the mounting strangeness in the overland section of Deep Carbon Observatory, before descending to the observatory itself). Sometimes it's abrupt (such as stepping through the doorway to Ynn). However, for the weird to seem weird, it needs to be clearly marked off.
So now we have our PCs - little avatars of the 'normal' - entering into the weird. This is our 'through the looking glass' moment, our 'I have a feeling we aren't in Kansas anymore' moment. What happens then? Exploration, conflict, and consequences.
In short, the PCs explore and investigate the weird. They see how it is different to the normal, how their assumptions (and likewise the ooc assumptions of the players) do not apply to it. The uncover the true extent, nature and weirdness of the Weird. This establishes the ground for the next stage.
Next up, we have conflict.  We know the familiar, and we are becoming aware of the weird. The two are opposed. They simply co-exist as each is incompatible with the stability of the other. So, the Weird will threaten the PCs, and try to destroy or weird-ify them. Perhaps this is violent conflict with monsters, insidious mental effects, traps, environmental dangers, and so on. The weird strikes out at the PCs, and the PCs strike back at it.
Lastly, we have consequences of this conflict. Perhaps the PCs are weakened, killed, mutated, crippled. Conversely, perhaps they overcome the challenges they face, grow powerful, gain useful things. It's very possible that by overcoming the Weird, they can incorporate it into the Normal (perhaps by seizing magical weapons for themselves - after all, anything the PCs do is the normal default). But, either way, the weird changes them.
Finally, they will return to the familiar world to recover or enjoy the fruits of their efforts, and the normality of the normal world reasserts itself.

Start in the normal world, cross over into the weird, explore the weird, come into conflict with the weird, suffer consequences, return to the normal world. Repeat. It's an easy pattern to spot. Every trip into a dungeon follows this pattern, for example.
Likewise, because the weird needs to remain unusual, it naturally lends itself to picaresque narratives. Journeys through the comparative normal where periodically, the PCs cross over into an area of the weird for an episode, explore it and return. Each episode on the picaresque is a new 'weird' to contrast against the ongoing normality of the campaign.

So far, so much arty wank with little application at the table. How to make this useful?
Firstly, understand that the PCs represent what's normal. If your PCs can cast spells, magic is normal. If your PCs can be elves and dwarves, elves and dwarves are normal. If your PCs have easy access to weapons and armour, violence is normal. Anything the PCs can be or do can not, therefore, be the Weird. Magic, dwarves and fighting are not in and of themselves weird, for most D&D games.
(It doesn't have to be this way. In our normal lives, most of us are not familiar with real violence. In a purely mundane modern-day game, the introduction of warfare, weapons and so on can push things enough away from the 'normal' to be their own sort of weird. Look at the Bates Motel, for example...)

Second, it must be clear when you are no longer dealing with the normal. Clear transitions, marked boundaries, and so on. Make the entrance to your dungeon foreboding. Mark the start of the dangerous wilderness with border fences and sentries. Likewise, when leaving the weird and returning to the normal, put markers in the world for this.
A game that does this very well is Lacuna. By establishing the modern-day corporate world the players operate in, and then the process of plugging into Blue City, the weirdness of Blue City is accentuated and kept defined.

Lastly, the weird needs to stay weird on an out-of-character level. Basically every player by now knows what an orc is. Those that don't soon will if they're encountered more than a few times. So, to keep things weird, you need to vary them. Make them feel new. 

Friday, 23 March 2018

more theory models - what makes decisions and what drives the game?

So, Zac is continuing to slowly and meticulously vivisect the GNS essays, and this has got me thinking about the different ways we can divide games up. I don't really have an overarching theory of gaming, but I do have the basic categories I tend to put stuff into. These are largely based on my own observations and prejudices.
Worth noting that when I say games, I mostly mean a specific group playing a specific system. The way I run (say) LotFP is probably very different to the way the next person does it.

First up, what controls the game? When an outcome is doubtful, how do you decide what actually happens?
You can divide this into three rough categories: crunch, shared narrative, and fiat (and then also hard skills sort of). 

In a crunch-based game, there is almost certainly a specific mechanic for what you want to do. Players interact with the world and the ongoing story through game rules and often by applying specific character powers. Mechanics are carefully balanced so that the 'right' outcomes are probable or guaranteed (...if the designer did their job properly). You often have a broad underlying mechanic, and then loads of modifications to it for different situations. These games tend to put a lot of focus on character builds. What you can and can't do is strongly defined by the decisions you make in character creation. Often, a skilled optimiser can make a character that's much stronger than an unoptimised character. These sorts of games tend to involve a hefty character gen (maybe taking up a whole session or more) spent pouring through books comparing options, and then in play fairly strict adherence to the rules. In play, there tends to be a lot of focus on working the system in your favor, so that the raw mathematics of the situation rigorously defines what happens.
Rules-mastery and character optimization are how you get ahead. Combat is often a focus, there are typically huge amounts of books for this detailing ever more options. It's the kind of game that encourages spreadsheets.
Ultimately, here, when something is in doubt, you apply game mechanics to find out what happens.

Vampire the Masquerade is an example of this sort of game that I like, Pathfinder is an example that I don't.

Shared narrative-based games (AKA storygames, narrativism, wank etc) are focused on deciding who gets to decide how things play out. The system is there to determine who gets narrative control, and the GM's power to decide world details and outcomes is spread among the players more evenly. Games without GMs, or which give players a lot of tools to take over GMing fit in here nicely. It's all about collaborative storytelling.
Usually, the mechanics are pretty abstract and universal. You tend to get the ability to force the story in particular directions and control over things that aren't your own PC. These games have much more of a tendency to think of themselves as Art, and to deal with genres that aren't variations on action, horror, fantasy and sci-fi. 
These games require a lot of creative input and a lot of buy in. All of the worst experiences I've had in gaming have been with these games, because by exposing your ideas for others to judge in the sorts of creative struggles these games produce, you inevitably let yourself be emotionally vulnerable to the results. So have a few of the best; when everybody is firing on all cylinders you can get some cool results.
An example I like is Monsterhearts, an example that made me want to pound nails into my eyes was Ten Candles.

Last up, we have fiat-based games. This is where the OSR style is focused. Outcomes are mostly decided via the GM making a judgement call and often an ad-hoc rule. Rules are minimalist, and tend to focus on things that are hard to make fair judgement about (magic because there's no real-world version to refer to, character death because of the stakes, violence because it's so complex and there are also high stakes).
Character gen is usually fast, because the mechanics are comparatively unimportant. In-world details are more important than game mechanics: if you can find or make a ladder, you'll climb easier. This goes back to the 'GM's rulings' thing: any mechanical effects are adjudicated by the GM based on specific circumstances.

Player skill tends to be an important concept here. A player who comes up with smart ideas is likely to succeed, regardless of their actual character strength. Game balance tends to be a low priority, as that artificially restricts the GM's ability to make an accurate ruling, and means that player skill would need to be minimized if they do something 'too good' or 'too stupid'.
If you're reading this blog, you probably play this sort of game. 

(in larp, there is a fourth category: hard skills. Which is to say, there are few game mechanics or storytelling tools: to do a thing, you actually fucking do it. In one of my favorite games, Odyssey, pretty much everything was hard-skills based. Fighting was done by smacking your enemy with a prop sword, religion was done by actually performing ceremonies and hoping that the members of the plot team watching were impressed, thieving required you to sneak around the camp at night while people were sleeping, and so on... you see this sometimes in tabletops, such as in things like riddles, chess puzzles and talky social bits, but it's less common and normally the game has another system so the fights don't descend into unplayable freeform anarchy)

Although different games focus on different styles of decision making, there's overlap. I find Vampire tends to be hardskills social scenes and politics, and crunchy combat and powers. Likewise, fiat-based decision making is inevitable at least a little, because no game can cover every circumstance.

Ultimately, this distinction is about where the power lies in the game: with the game's rulebook, with an agreement to share creativity, with the GM's judgement, or just 'well actually do it then'.

The other distinction I tend to care about is what the game is about. What are we here to do, where is the fun in the game? Where are your goals and what will drive things forward? Again, I'd divide this up into a few categories: challenges, finding stuff out, characterization and plot.

Challenges is pretty self explanatory. There is an obstacle or danger, and you need to overcome it. This is most purely expressed by your crunchy tactical combat of 4th edition D&D. Here is an encounter: beat it. You get your fun by taking on an obstacle and winning. This is the 'challenge based' play a lot of blogs talk about, or what GNS is pointing at when it talks about gamism.

Finding stuff out is also pretty easy to grok. It's your mystery games like call of cthulhu and gumshoe. It's also exploration-based games. This is how I tend to run something like Wolf-packs & Winter Snow, and what The Garden's Of Ynn was all about. You keep playing because you want to learn what's over that next hill, what the next dungeon level down is, how deep the conspiracy runs... 
Finding stuff out is also, tbh, my where my fun tends to be. I like learning about things, I like putting information together. 

Characterization is focussed on the PCs, their personalities and their interactions. You roleplay the shit out of your character, and see how that ends up. Games driven by this stuff care about the PCs backstories and personal philosophies and what links them together. Often, low-level social PvP happens, but violent and lethal PvP is unlikely. Every time I've played Monsterhearts, it's been like this. I often find Vamp tends to go this way, to; I think it's something about playing a monster that makes you really want to get IC and explore that character.

Plot is, you know, plot. There is a story ark, and we are going to play through it. At it's worst, it's going to end up as a horrible railroad. Of course, if you're sensible the plot develops as you go. This is, I think, how WW expected Vamp to be played, but not how it usually ends up in my experience.
I'll be honest, if I want a plot, I'll just read a novel. RPGs scratch other itches much better. Your mileage may vary, though.

So yeah. That's how I tend to divide stuff up and describe things. Like 'oh, VtM is characterization driven and crunch based' or 'wolfpacks is exploration driven and fiat-based'. 

These are only rough thoughts. I could put them into a better essay, but I'm lazy.