Posted on : 27-06-2012 | By : Brian | In : News, Role-Playing Games, TheDemolishedOnes
Interested in The Demolished Ones? A backer maybe? Here’s a nice little sneak peek at it for you: the character sheet.
Interested in The Demolished Ones? A backer maybe? Here’s a nice little sneak peek at it for you: the character sheet.
I’m currently reading Ryan Macklin‘s Mythender, which is a game about punching Norse gods in the face and trying not to become a god yourself. It’s freaking awesome so far.
At any rate, I’ve been applying the Jedi Rule as always (I may blog about why I do this at a later date), and I think I’m coming up with something pretty sweet.
It’s called Sithender. The idea is that the Jedi Order has a black ops team called the Sithenders, whose job it is to hunt down and destroy the Sith. They’re a lot more morally gray than the Order as a whole, and they often skirt the boundaries between the Light Side and the Dark Side. Some of them fall to the Dark Side, and when that happens they become a target for their former allies.
The idea is that the Dark Side provides power. The more of it you take in, the more able you are to fight the Sith. Taking in that power exposes you to the corrupting influence of the Dark Side though, and by doing so you risk becoming what you’ve dedicated your life to fighting.
What’s this? It’s another preview for Becoming!. Following the philosophy of “show, don’t tell”, I’m going to give you a sample turn of the game, along with a little bit of setup. I won’t delve too much into specific mechanics, but it should give you an idea of how the game plays.
Setup: Our Hero is a peasant named Carter whose home has been destroyed by a dragon. He used the Words of Virtue provided with the Quest to come up with a backstory for himself and his village, as well as three Virtues, to which he assigned some dice.
This turn is a few rounds in, in the second Act of the game. He’s lost some things and had to sacrifice some things to come this far, and the Chorus is starting to really put the screws to him. In addition to Carter (the Hero), there are three players in the Chorus: Fear, Pain, and Doubt. Pain is the current Choregus.
Pain looks at the current Scene (entitled “Trouble”) and its associated Theme Words. She takes a few moments to gather her thoughts, then frames the scene.
Pain: You sit upon your horse, slowly following the path through the woods. An ominious presence bears down on you but you pay it no mind. When you look up, though, you find that you are surrounded by men wearing wolf skins, wielding naked swords in their hands.
A large fellow steps forward and speaks. “With a horse like that, you likely have other things we might want. Hand it all over and we won’t take your life, too.”
To illustrate the point one of the men behind you steps forward and swings his cudgel, knocking you from your horse. The challenge is simple: fight through the pain and drive these men off so that you can continue your quest. This challenge has a difficulty of . . . oh, let’s say twelve.
Pain slides some tokens into the middle of the table.
Carter: Yikes. Okay, let’s do this. I struggle to my feet and stare the leader in the eyes. I know that my family is depending on me to slay this dragon, an I can’t do that if these bandits kill me or take my weapons away. I’m going to use My Family Needs Me to grit through the pain and stand up to them. That gives me three dice.
Pain: Okay. There’s the very real threat of death here, though. I’m going to invoke one of your Flaws here: Fear of Widowing Your Wife. That gives me . . . let’s see, six more tokens. Difficulty’s up to eighteen now.
Carter: Uh oh. I could use some help here.
Doubt: You’re not sure you can do this. It might be easier to just let them have your things and go back home. You can always say you tried.
Doubt slides forward two more tokens.
Doubt: You might be able to fight past this, though. I might be willing to take these tokens back and give you a die for this challenge, but it’ll cost you something. To fight past your doubt you’re going to have to fight dirty. That’ll cost you a die from your Honor.
Fear: Not so fast. You’re pretty scared here. There are, like, seven of these guys and only one of you. Like Doubt said, you’ll have to fight dirty, but fear can give you power. You feel all that adrenaline coursing through you? That’s fear. If you give me that Honor die instead of Doubt, I’ll give you three dice for this challenge. How’s that sound?
Carter thinks for a few moments, then replies.
Carter: I’m going with Fear on this one. The difficulty will go up to twenty, but I’ll have six dice on my side. I like my chances.
Carter slides a die from Honor over to Fear, and Fear gives him three of her own dice. Doubt slides two of his tokens into the center of the table. Carter picks up his six dice and rolls them, coming up with 18. Not quite good enough.
No! Oh, man. That didn’t go well for me.
Carter takes two of his dice and gives them to Pain for winning the challenge. Then Pain and Doubt, who both had tokens in the challenge, get to put some of them on Carter’s Flaws. Fear gets her dice back.
Pain: You swing your sword wildly, killing two of the men and driving the rest off. However, one of them managed to give you a nasty cut across the ribs, and you injured your leg falling off your horse. I’m going to give you a new Flaw: Badly Injured.
Things didn’t go well for the Hero in this turn, but he’s got more chances to make that up. Doubt will be the next Choregus, and a new Scene begins.
Below is a rough draft of some of the introductory material for Becoming. I got inspired and wrote this tonight, and I thought I’d share.
What Is This Thing?
Becoming starts with a question: what does it mean to be a hero? A hero is someone who saves lives, protects others, and fights those who would do them harm. A hero stands up for what she believes in, suffers through great hardship, and wins the day no matter the cost. But what is the cost?
Being a hero is not easy. It requires pain and sacrifice; it comes at a steep cost. The hero often has to give up the things she holds most dear, the very things she is fighting to protect. When the hero comes back from her quest, she comes back changed. She has faced hardship and torment that her friends and family cannot imagine, and she is no longer the same person she once was. She is more, but also less. She is an outcast, and she cannot truly go home again.
That’s what Becoming is: it’s the story of the hero facing adversity and overcoming it at a steep cost. Sometimes it’s a story of triumph over impossible odds. Sometimes it’s the story of a fall from grace. It can be an exciting adventure or a heartbreaking tragedy; often it’s a little of both.
But Becoming is also a game. It’s a framework of rules that helps you tell these stories, your stories. It’s meant to be exciting and tragic, but it’s also meant to be fun. You may see the hero lose everything she has, but you’ll have a good time doing it.
It’s a special kind of game: a story game. During play you’ll each contribute to a shared narrative, building the characters and the world in turns, showing each other your own vision of the story and meeting in the middle to create something that is more than the sum of its parts.
Be not afraid, hero.
What Do I Need?
To play a game of Becoming, you’ll need a few things. First, you’ll need this book. This book contains all of the rules you need to play the game, as well as the Quests that you’ll use to help you tell the story.
You’ll need several six-sided dice in four different colors. You’ll need nine of one color (for the Hero) and five of each of three other, different colors (for the Chorus).
You’ll need tokens for the Chorus in three different colors. Each member of the Chorus needs twenty tokens in a single color. Poker chips work well for this purpose, as do glass beads. In a pinch, you could even use three different denominations of pocket change.
You’ll need some index cards, probably about ten or fifteen of them. If you don’t have any, you can use scraps of paper. You have paper, right?
You’ll need friends, three of them to be precise. Becoming is a game for four players exactly. If you don’t have friends you might find some at your local gaming store, supermarket, or homeless shelter.
Finally, you’ll need some pencils or other writing implements.
What Do All These Crazy Words Mean?
Becoming uses some mechanics that you may find unfamiliar, and certainly some of the terminology is unusual. Luckily, I’ve decided to provide a list of terms and their in-game definitions. Some of the words are weird, but it’s really not a hard game to learn to play.
The Hero: the protagonist of the story. The Hero is the one who goes on a journey, defeats evil, protects his loved ones, and saves the day. He’s also the one who has to sacrifice everything important to him in order to succeed.
Words of Virtue: a list of nine words, specific to the Quest being played, that provide inspiration for coming up with the Hero’s Virtues.
Virtues: a Hero starts with three Virtues. These are things that are important to the Hero, things he draws strength from. They are used to overcome challenges, but they can also be sacrificed or lost.
Flaws: when the Hero loses challenges, Flaws are introduced. Flaws represent the Hero’s weaknesses, his vices, or direct manifestations of Fear, Pain, or Doubt.
Quest: a collection of scenes to be played out in order, creating a cohesive story in which the Hero is the main character.
The Chorus: these three players provide opposition and temptation for the Hero. They frame scenes, present challenges, and offer bargains. There are three members of the Chorus: Fear, Pain, and Doubt.
The Choregus: first among equals, the Choregus is the active member of the Chorus. It is her job to frame the current scene, present the challenge, and decide upon its difficulty. The Choregus is a rotating position; each member of the Chorus will get a chance to play this role. Three, in fact.
The Stasimonos: the members who are not the current Choregus are known as the Stasimonos. While they do not provide direct opposition to the Hero, it is their job to tempt the Hero by offering bargains, aid for a cost. They can also threaten the Hero.
Act: the game is played in three acts, each containing three scenes. Things are relatively easy on the Hero in the first act, but the stakes get higher with each subsequent act.
Scene: there are nine scenes in the game. During a scene, the Choregus uses theme words to help frame the scene, setting it up and describing the situation. Each scene also has a challenge, presented by the Choregus.
Challenge: a conflict of some sort where the outcome is in doubt. The conflict grows out of the framed scene and is informed by it. It need not be a physical conflict; Fear and Doubt are motivators just as powerful as Pain.
Theme Words: a collection of nine words specific to a scene, used as inspiration for the Choregus while framing the current scene.
Challenge Tokens: chips or other small markers that the Choregus uses to indicate how difficult a challenge is to overcome. They can be wagered, lost, and bartered throughout the course of the game.
Bargain: the heart of the challenge mechanic, the Stasimonos offer the Hero aid in exchange for things the Hero holds dear. Nothing is free in Becoming, and all bargains are binding.
Yesterday at Meetup of Doom I got a chance to playtest Becoming. It was an extremely productive and educational experience. It was probably the most successful playtest I’ve ever run, and I’d like to share what I learned with you.
Be Flexible, Be Receptive
Becoming came very close to doing exactly what I wanted it to do. My goal was for the game to create a mood of slow attrition for the Hero, a situation where the Hero has to constantly comprimise his values in order to succeed. It did that . . . mostly.
One of the more important things that the playtest pointed out to me was that I wasn’t incentivising the bargaining mechanic enough. There was no reason for the Hero to give up his dice; he could just sit on them for the whole game and win, regardless of what the Chorus did to him. Pretty big flaw, right? Luckily it was easy to fix, and we did so quickly and moved on.
When you’re playtesting, you have to be able to see the warts on your game, the ways it doesn’t quite work or doesn’t quite accomplish what you want it to. You have to be able to hear that when the players say it to you. And you have to be able to fix it and move on if you don’t want to scrap the playtest and try again later (which is an option, albiet not an ideal one).
Solicit feedback from the playtesters if you’re not sure how to fix something. Presumably you got them to play the game because, on some level, you value their opinions. Use that. They may come up with something you never thought of, and it might be totally awesome. Don’t be afraid of that.
Don’t Take Feedback Personally
There should be a caveat in that title: unless it’s good. If your players give you positive feedback on your game, if they love it and say it’s great, feel free to take that personally. You made that thing, you put a little bit of yourself in there; if someone else thinks it’s good, you should feel good about that as a consequence.
The reverse, however, is not true. If someone criticizes some element of your game, it doesn’t mean you suck or even that your game sucks. It just means that it needs a bit of work. No game is perfect, even after playtesting. The goal of playtesting is to get it as close to that mark as you can within whatever confines you’re working with, and the only way to do that is to take feedback for what it is: a way to improve your game. It’s not a personal attack (unless it is, in which case screw that guy, don’t let him playtest your stuff anymore).
Be a Neutral Party
When I playtested Becoming I gave all of the players a cheat sheet with the rules they needed on it, sat back, watched, and answered questions when I was needed. It worked astoundingly well. There was a little explanation required at the beginning but, for the most part, people got it quickly and the game just played. I observed and took notes, clarified rules when necessary, and talked to them about ways to improve the game when they came up.
I’ll admit that this isn’t possible with all games under all circumstances. It worked well with Becoming because it’s a pretty rules-light game without a traditional GM. Games that diverge from either of these will be harder to run this way. You’re not going to want to have each player read five or six pages of rules text before playing and you’re not going to want your GM to read a sixteen page adventure before the game gets started; that’s a fantastic way to shoot your game in the foot.
However, there are a lot of advantages to being a neutral observer rather than a participant when you can pull it off and, if you can’t, it wouldn’t hurt to be as neutral as possible in whatever role you need to fill. Ideally, at some point, you’re going to want someone else to fill that role too, so you’re going to have to think about doing this eventually anyway.
Yes, playtesting is stressful. Yes, you’re going to see your baby criticized and pulled apart. Remember that it’s a game: it’s supposed to be fun. Enjoy it. The more you let yourself enjoy it the more likely the playtesters will enjoy it, and if the playtesters aren’t enjoying it then you’ve got bigger problems. Chances are that there’s at least a little bit of fun to be had in your game though, so capitalize on that and amplify it where possible.
I was listening to an episode of the Giant Bombcast and they started talking about D&D and other tabletop RPGs. One of the people being interviewed mentioned that, in his current game, people tended to avoid combat because they felt that combat removed a lot of their agency within the world.
It’s an interesting idea, and it made me think about player agency and its relationship to the rules of a game. In D&D you can have quite a bit of player agency during role-playing scenes. This is dependent in a large way on the DM and his or her personal style of running the game, but in general you get to choose what you say, where you go, what you do. Occasionally you’ll have to make a skill check to see if the guard believes your lie or if the count is swayed by your honeyed words, but more than a few DMs will grant bonuses or even hand-wave these rolls for good role-playing. You have a lot of control over the narrative and over your character’s personal role within that narrative.
When combat starts, the dice start playing a much bigger role in the game. Success and failure become a lot more important, and this does tend to reduce player agency. You can say that you run up to the orc and stab it through the gut but if the dice don’t say that’s true, it’s not true. You can say you jump up into the air, grab the chandelier, and swing to the other side of the room, but botch your Acrobatics check and that simply won’t happen.
There are two issues at work here, I think. The first is that, the more the dice are involved, the less control you have as a player over narrative flow. You can describe your actions as much as you want but the dice are the final arbiter of what you’re capable of, and they can be fickle. To be fair, this is the case in most role-playing games: you describe what you want to happen, but the dice might disagree. Some games, though, give you a way to buy out of an unfortunate roll.
Fate, for example, has much the same sort of resolution mechanic that D&D does: you describe what you want, you make the roll, and if you’re successful it happens. The difference is that, in Fate, if you fail the roll you can invoke a few aspects to buy back your narrative control. You get to decide how important that particular part of the story is to you and, if it’s important, you can make it happen regardless of what the dice say. D&D doesn’t really have a mechanic to mitigate failed rolls, so the loss of narrative control is that much more potent.
The other issue is that failure is often boring in D&D. In some games you get to describe how you fail to perform your action. This means that, even though you didn’t get exactly what you wanted, you still get to push the narrative in a specific direction. In D&D, failure often means that nothing happens. Fail your to-hit roll? Oh, you missed the orc; move on. Fail your Arcana check? Oh, you don’t know anything important. Many DMs probably house-rule this away, and doing so is pretty easy. I can’t help but think that interesting options for failure should be a part of the game to begin with, though.
So what do you think? Do you feel a loss of narrative control in combat (or any other time when dice are a major component of the game)? Is that important to you? How would you like to see it change?
At Metatopia I heard a quote that I can’t get out of my head. I’m unsure who to attribute the quote to (it could be Ken Hite, Fred Hicks, Rob Donoghue, Brennan Taylor, Joshua A.C. Newman, or any number of smart people; I just don’t remember), but the quote itself strikes me as a set of words for a game designer to live by.
“If you want your game to be about something, you need mechanics supporting that thing.”
The corrolary of this is: If you do not mechanically support a thing, your game is not about that thing. You can say it is and you can support it with your fiction, but the grim truth is that, if you do not incent players to do the things you want them to do in your game, they may never do those things.
When it came time to design mechanics for Becoming, this quote was rattling around in my head the whole time. I knew what I wanted my game to be about. I wanted Becoming to be about what it costs to be a hero, not just in terms of the adversity that the hero must overcome but what he or she must give up to overcome it. The game is, at its core, about heroic sacrifice. At least, that’s what I wanted it to be about; I needed to make sure the mechanics said that too.
Becoming has a dice-based resolution mechanic where the Hero rolls dice to try to overcome a static difficulty set by a member of the Chorus (roughly analagous to a GM, at least a little bit). More dice equals higher chance of victory, and failure means that the Hero must pay a cost of some sort. I knew this much, but it wasn’t enough. The mechanic was sound, but it didn’t encourage sacrifice; it was a simple pass-fail mechanic that required sacrifice as a result of failure, but it wasn’t enough. In order for the Hero’s sacrifice to be meaningful in this game, it had to be a choice.
That’s where the bargaining mechanic came from. The Chorus is made up of three players, and there’s a very good reason for that. While only one player at a time may place a challenge in front of the Hero, the other members are not without purpose during that scene. In most cases the Hero will be outgunned, or at least daunted, by the difficulty of the challenge in front of him or her. Success is going to be a slim possibility.
That’s where the rest of the Chorus come in. The Hero can bargain with the other two members of the Chorus, giving up pieces of him/herself in order to gain aid from them. This aid comes in the form of additional dice for the most part, but it costs the Hero some of his/her own dice that are not currently being used (the Hero can’t bring all of his/her dice to bear on a single challenge). In most cases the Hero has the ability to pull off a victory, but it will come at a cost. The interesting bits come when the Hero has to weigh the cost of victory against the cost of failure, and decide which is the lesser evil.
A month or so ago I got the seed of an idea. That seed sat in my head, refusing to let me think about other things until I watered it, nurtured it, and let it start growing. I did so, and it’s growing into a game called Becoming.
Rather than simply explaining what Becoming is, I’ll let my pitch do the talking.
Becoming is a game about what you must sacrifice to be a hero. Taking on the mantle of the hero makes you an outcast. In order to save the things you love, you must lose them. When you complete your quest will you still be a hero? Or have you become something else?
Simply put, Becoming is a game about going on a heroic journey, but there’s a twist: the outcome of the journey is not in doubt. You will succeed in your quest. You will slay the dragon or find a new homeworld for Earth. What is in doubt is the price of your heroism: what will you have to give up? Will you still be the same person at the end of the quest? Will you be able to go home again?
The core of the game is all about making choices, about choosing what to give up and what to hold on to. There is dice rolling. There are conflict resolution mechaincs. But tied intrinsicly to these things is a system of bargaining and of sacrifice.
The game is still in its early stages. I don’t have a fully playtestable prototype yet, but I will. I’ve made it my goal to get this thing written and published this year. My intent is to document the design process to some extent. Because I’m very excited about it, you’ll likely hear more about it in the future.
The more I read indie RPGs, the more I want to read and play more indie RPGs. More than that, I want to share the awesome of indie RPGs with other people, people who don’t know that there are games other than D&D and Pathfinder out there.
To that end, I’m in the process of making arrangements with Rob, the proprietor of Family Fun Hobbies in Hamilton, NJ, to start up a monthly indie game day. The idea is that, once per month, I come into the store and run a different indie game with the intent of getting people excited about them and showing them what’s out there.
A little while back, during the Meetup of Doom, my friend Nick and I were talking about D&D and the kinds of things you can do to it to make it run more smoothly at the table, and to make it more improv-friendly. It got me to thinking about various ways that I’d like to hack the game before running it again. I figured I’d share them here, if for no other reason than to get some feedback on them.
I like the way monsters work in 4e quite a bit. However, making encounters can be a real bear sometimes, and you have to spend a lot of time doing it if you want to fill a session. The problem with all this front-loaded prep work is that you wind up creating a fairly linear path for the PCs to move down.
I’d like to go for more of a sandbox-style game, running pretty much everything off of the Page 42 Table (or whatever the more modern version of that is). To that end, I’d probably wind up creating a few sets of generic monster stats and just making up monsters on the fly, adding abilities to them as I feel appropriate.
In addition, rather than tracking individual hit points, I’d like to use a series of check boxes. That is, a monster can take X hits before it dies, where X is probably around four or 5 for a standard monster, 6 for a brute, 8 for an elite, and 10 for a solo. Each time a player hits a monster, check off a box. If the player does a large amount of damage (as strikers are capable of doing), check off two or even three boxes. Easy book-keeping, and I’d probably feel better about just declaring a monster dead if a PC did something really cool to finish it off.
Hacking Powers and the Action Point Economy
I like powers. I like that they give everyone cool stuff to do. I also like action points, but I feel like they don’t do enough. There’s the start of an economy there with action points, but I feel like it could be pushed further. So, here are some ways I’d like to change action points, and how they interact with powers.
Conditions eat up a lot of time and brain-space at the table. However, I like them and think they’re necessary to the game. Rather than getting rid of them, I’d like to just get rid of the explicit mechanical effects of conditions. Instead I’d run them sort of like aspects or consequences in Fate. So, if you’re Blinded, that doesn’t impose any kind of explicit penalty. However, any time you do something that being Blinded would affect, the DM can compel the condition to complicate your life. This winds up being an additional source of action points, and also allows for situations where players can use their conditions creatively to actually invoke them for a benefit.
Hacking Magic Items
This might be controversial: I want to get rid of magic items. Well, not entirely. I want to get rid of all of the pre-created magic items in the various books and replace the mathematical necessity of them with inherent bonuses. Magic items, themselves, would be pretty rare and, again, would be a bit more Fate-like. For example, you might find a sword that has magical properties like Flaming, Bloodthirsty, and Protective of its Wielder. These can then be invoked or compelled with action points.
Going along with this, I’d probably do away with the gold piece economy altogether and instead add a more abstract wealth system, similar to what’s found in Fate, World of Darkness, or d20 Modern.
So, that’s what I’d do. Thoughts?