Dec 30, 2012

40K Stars Without Number Warrior Training Packages

The character is either a member of the Adeptus Arbites or a similar planetary institution. He investigates crimes and violently confronts the guilty.

Skills: Combat/Projectile Weapons, Combat/Primitive, Culture/World, Perception, Persuade, Security

The character is a member of an assassin temple or death cult, or they are a professional killer for pay.

Skills: Athletics, Combat/Primitive, Combat/Projectile Weapons, Security, Stealth, Vehicle/Any

A holy warrior motivated by faith. Crusaders are found throughout the Imperium, and are often attached to the Ecclesiarchy or the Inquisition.

Skills: Combat/Energy Weapons, Combat/Projectile Weapons, Culture/World, Leadership, Religion/Imperial Creed, Tactics

Feral Warrior
The character comes from a backwater world, often a Death World, and prefers to use the techniques they acquired there.

Skills: Athletics, Combat/Primitive, Combat/Unarmed, Culture/World, Stealth, Survival

The character acquired their skills as part of an organised criminal group where they supplied muscle.

Skills: Combat/Unarmed, Combat/Any, Culture/Criminal, Persuade, Security, Vehicle/Any

The character was a member of the Imperial Guard or PDF or a professional mercenary organisation with similar training.

Skills: Combat/Energy Weapons, Combat/Any, Leadership, Tactics, Tech/Imperial, Vehicle/Any

The character has worked as a pirate or armsman aboard a voidship, defending it from attack.

Skills: Combat/Any, Culture/Spacer, Exosuit, Navigation, Tech/Imperial, Vehicle/Space

Naval Officer
The character has served as a naval officer aboard a voidship, either as part of the Imperial Navy or a private vessel.

Skills: Combat/Gunnery, Culture/Spacer, Leadership, Navigation, Tactics, Tech/Imperial

40K Stars Without Number Psychic Training Packages

The character is an astropath, a psychic communications specialist.

Skills: Culture/Any, Language, Navigation, Tech/Warp

The character is an Imperial diviner, a precognitive specialist. Diviners make a good living predicting the future for their employers, both private and Imperial.

Skills: Combat/Warp, Gambling, Perception, Tech/Warp

Medicae Psyker
The character is a psyker-healer. Many of these individuals are sent to the battlefields of the Imperial Guard to serve as field medics.

Skills: Combat/Any, Religion/Imperial Creed, Tech/Warp, Tech/Medical

Psychic Investigator
The character uses their psychic powers to investigate crimes. This may be for the Inquisition, the Adeptus Arbites, or for private interests.

Skills: Perception, Persuade, Security, Tech/Warp

Psychic Scholar
The character is a researcher into the mysteries of psy-power. Many of these individuals dabble in forbidden lore, and are greatly prized by the Inquisition.

Skills: Culture/Any, Religion/Any, Science, Tech/Warp

The character comes from a feral world or other primitive background and uses its rites and rituals to activate their psychic powers. Shamans often serve as the keepers of lore for their societies.

Skills: Combat/Warp, History, Survival, Stealth

The character is an unsanctioned psyker, who will either fall prey to Chaos sooner or later, or who has already sold their soul to the laughing gods.

Skills: Combat/Warp, Culture/Ruinous Powers, Religion/Ruinous Powers, Tech/Warp

Combat psykers are in high demand amongst the Imperial Guard.

Skills: Combat/Any, Combat/Warp, Leadership, Tactics

Dec 29, 2012

Darkness Visible / Polychrome Review

Darkness Visible and Polychrome are supplements for Stars Without Number by Sine Nomine Publishing (which is a one-man shop run by Kevin Crawford). Stars Without Number is one of the most exciting and interesting science fiction games to come out this decade, and I think both of these supplements expand the possible kinds of games you can use the system for.

Polychrome covers the eponymous world, which is a cyberpunk dystopia. You've no doubt seen and read about cyberpunk dystopias before, and can create your own, but if you're pressed for time, there's one premade for you here. There's a description of the world, NPCs profiles, pre-established conflicts for you to exploit,  hooks for why off-world visitors would want to come to Polychrome, all good stuff. Unfortunately, this section doesn't include faction write-ups to use the SWN faction / politics system.

The really exciting parts of the book are the rules additions and game structures in the back half, starting from about page 14 onwards until page 30. You've got rules for "shadowrun" operations, investigations, hacking, new cyberware and other gear, stats for various NPC antagonists and allies, and generators for adventures and NPC resources (one table is called "A Memorable NPC Quirk Is Their..." and another is "What's that Underhab Building?"). At the very back of the book is a PC-suitable handout with the player hacking reference sheet.

This kind of stuff is not unusual, though as always for Stars Without Number the material is both high-quality and extremely gameable. What elevates it above the ordinary bunch of tables, and this is true of most material like this in Stars Without Number books, is the detailed information on structuring play and using the tables as part of that. The information on running investigations is literally one page of text with two columns, and yet it packs more useful advice about how to handle investigations and legwork in cyberpunk games than dozens of similar pages in Dark Heresy. Similarly, the two pages titled "Inside Jobs" dealing with undercover corporate espionage / sabotage almost reads like it was written to cover all the information about these things that Shadowrun 4e left out (for example, how much PCs should be paid) and has a bunch of generic adventure seeds that can be repurposed endlessly, as well as a couple of quick tables to flesh out these seeds. SWN's great strength compared to many other adventure games is its concision and concreteness where other games are prolix and vague, and Polychrome demonstrates that well.

There's also an introductory adventure in Polychrome. I haven't played or run the adventure, so I can't speak to it, but I like that it only takes up six pages instead of say, the thirty-one that the intro adventure in Dark Heresy does.

As fond as I am of Polychrome, I actually consider Darkness Visible the better supplement of the two. If I only had to buy one, it's the one I would buy (fortunately, I didn't have to choose). Darkness Visible is a 97 page supplement about running an espionage campaign. The first chunk of the book deals with the Perimeter agency, which is part of the core Stars Without Number setting. They're an interstellar covert-ops group left over from the previous interstellar human civilisation devoted to preventing technological experimentation from creating existential threats to humanity. I don't use the actual Stars Without Number setting much, so it's of limited gaming value to me, but I did find the section well-written, interesting, and full of gameable ideas. It passed the "Chupp Test", where after reading it, I wanted to play a Perimeter agent.

The bulk of the book is taken up with rules material for running espionage campaigns, and it's a feast of good stuff. There's a subsystem or replacement system for the faction / politics system in stock Stars Without Number that focuses on the resources and actions most relevant to espionage agencies. These rules are meant to by used by PCs to direct the course of the agency they work for, and used properly (as the rules explain), they allow the players to create missions for their characters to go on instead of requiring the referee to come up with them. It's a really well done system, and I encourage other writers to study it as an example of how you can take what initially appears to be a very limited, strictly defined frame for a campaign that appears to provide limited agency (the PCs are operatives given missions by a patron agency) and turn it into a "sandbox" game.

The maltech antagonists are given extensive treatments, including stats, cool new gear, a genetic modifications subsystem and good discussions of how each type of organisation (eugenics cults, doomsday cults, and "godmind" cults focused on unbraked AI) works. There's a lot of work done exploring why and how people might want to tamper with this stuff despite the risks. At the end of this section, there's a version of the Stars Without Number "tags" system for the cults with a random generator.

If you're unfamiliar with the "tags" system, it's a set of randomly generated keywords that are attached to things (mainly planets and factions in the core rules) that have associated entries that suggest friends, enemies, complications, things, and places. These are tied into the adventure generation system in a consistent way so that with a couple of quick rolls you can create entire adventures. The terminology is consistent across books whenever adventure seeds or structures are presented, so you could actually take the tags from the cults in this book, plug the associated subcategories into the adventure seeds in Polychrome or the stock rules, and instantly generate adventures. It's a really subtle, well-done part of the Stars Without Number system that I don't see a lot of people comment on, and it's always surprised me that it hasn't been more influential or studied.

"Tradecraft" is the chapter explaining how to create espionage adventures in detail, and is worth the price of the book on its own. Even if you're not that interested in the Stars Without Number system itself, this section is worth reading through as a very concrete, well done example of how to structure and run espionage / intelligence missions. Once again, it's incredibly concise at 13 pages, with about half of that devoted to specific mission types. After that are rules specific to an espionage game, more background and training packages and some new gear.

What these two books have done IMHO, is turn Stars Without Number into a better system for running Dark Heresy-type games than Dark Heresy itself is. As long-time readers of this blog know, I have a 40K - Stars Without Number conversion, so the idea for me is not a new one (checking my back posts, I just realised I never posted the training packages for warriors and psychics - expect those to go up in the next few days). I think that between Darkness Visible and Polychrome, you now have more rules support for playing a bunch of Throne Agents going around investigating heresy than you do in Dark Heresy itself. If you're currently playing Dark Heresy and finding yourself butting up against what is a very clunky, overly complicated rules system that is mostly available in extremely expensive full-colour hardcover books, it might be worth your time to dole out a much smaller amount of money on Stars Without Number and the two supplements mentioned in this review and switch over. Not only will this be easier on your pocketbook, I suspect you'll actually have a superior play experience.

Dec 26, 2012

Christmas Haul

A brief list of games I either purchased or found free, legal copies of in the past couple of days:

Heroes Against Darkness
Make a Fantasy Sandbox
Delving Deeper
Adventures on Gothic Earth
Pars Fortuna
Ambitions and Avarice (Beta)
Backswords and Bucklers
Blood, Guts and Glory
The No-Art Grindhouse Edition of Lamentations of the Flame Princess

A physical copy of Heroes Against Darkness
Polychrome for Stars Without Number
Darkness Visible for Stars Without Number
Red Tide
Fiasco and the Fiasco Companion
The Dungeon Alphabet
De Profundis

So expect reviews of a lot of this stuff as soon as I get the time. I'm basically putting Kevin Crawford's kids through college, so far as I can figure. My choices for purchase differ pretty significantly from my choices to freely download, as I'm sure anyone will notice. In general, for buying stuff, I look for innovative game structures that I can learn from (Fiasco, De Profundis), or procedural generators that I think I can use and reuse (anything by Crawford), and works that will teach me how to design better game artifacts for play (Vornheim, Fiasco). All my purchases were from Drivethrurpg due to Lulu logging me out at the last minute, but I find that those are the only two platforms I'm willing to go through. I want to turn my credit card info over to as few vendors as possible, so I tend to avoid company websites unless absolutely necessary. In general, anything that I intended to study but not necessarily play, I was content to pick up a PDF of, but anything that I expected to play with at the table, I wanted a print copy of.

In general, I would say that the least attractive products for me, other than those tokens, counters, pictures and other bric-a-brac type pieces, are OSR rules systems. I have somewhere around 30 very slightly different takes on old school D&D. I'm well saturated. And to be honest, very few have much to recommend them over the already existing Swords and Wizardry Complete, Microlite74, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Dark Dungeons (and even that's really more than I personally want or need). Really, what we need are more products like Adventures on Gothic Earth / Tales of the Dungeonesque and Grotesque, the Arcane Abecediary, and Kellri's Encounters Reference - things that genuinely extend the already existing systems in new and interesting ways or that systematise and catalogue information in a useful way. It's crazy that we have such a large number of core systems, and not a single catalogue of all the possible ways to make a drop die table.

Dec 25, 2012

Heroes Against Darkness Gets 4e Right

You can download Heroes Against Darkness for free, or buy a copy of it from this link.

I played 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons from 2008 to late 2009 / early 2010 with what was at the time my long-term roleplaying group. I hate edition warring, but we ended up abandoning 4e for a couple of reasons. First, the supplement treadmill became overwhelming, especially since all the changes were integrated into the character builder. There were new books almost every month through the early years of the line, almost all of them adding new powers, new species, new classes, new paragon paths, new epic destinies, new magic items. Evaluating this material ate up hours and hours and hours of time, and required the character builder program to stay on top of it, which only one of my group had. We'd had similar problems with 3.x, and it had pushed us to play Iron Heroes, Arcana Unearthed and other variants of D&D.

Second, we found that the game encouraged us to use powers, rituals and skill challenges to resolve almost all problems, and particularly with skill challenges, we kept on creating more and more types of skill challenges, trying to find a system that worked for us. We had similar problems trying to stage certain kinds of fights on grids (like chases on horseback). It felt like we were constantly racing ahead of the system and dragging it along. I don't think we ever played a straight, stock version of D&D 4e, and it made discussing my games with other people, regardless of where they stood on 4e, very difficult, since the attitude I got back on both sides was to stick closer to RAW. At a certain point, the errata on core pieces of the system like page 42 of the DMG (the one explaining skill challenges) had become so extensive that I just lost interest in using the 4e ruleset.

Third, we tend to play campaigns that don't fit well into the at-will / encounter / daily structure of power use and while we did a bunch of work to try to reconcile our style to the game, in the end it wasn't a comfortable fit. We tended to play with a highly variable number of fights per session, which meant that there were some fights where the PCs could blow all their dailies because it was obvious this was going to be the only fight of the day. Outside of set-piece dungeons designed to provide the required number of encounters in the requisite amount of time, we had to fiddle with XP budgets and fight set-ups extensively, and I don't know that we hit the sweet spot consistently, though there were a few really grand fights.

I mention all of this because Heroes Against Darkness is a 4e heartbreaker, and a really good one. It removes or diminishes the parts of 4e I really didn't like, while preserving its more interesting features. The obligatory grid is gone. The intricate sub-game of optimising characters, choosing feats, paragon paths etc. is gone. Skill challenges don't appear. There are a few mechanics related to encounters, but they are softened, and in general, where 4e hardcoded play expectations into the rules system, either overtly or subtly, HAD softens them to incentives. For example, PCs can take multiple short rests in a row, but each one takes 4 times the length of the previous one. PCs accumulate bonus experience for each encounter beyond the first that they plow through in a single day. There are lots of little tweaks like this that I really like. The GM advice chapter is also pretty meaty, and I'd feel fairly comfortable giving Heroes Against Darkness to a new roleplayer as their first adventure game. There's even a chapter on making the mechanics more like earlier editions of D&D (variable HP, harder healing, etc.) for those who want it.

There are two main downsides to the game, one serious, one not particularly serious. The not particularly serious one is that there's some extraneous swearing in a couple of chapters. I'm not a prude, but it kind of comes out of nowhere and doesn't serve much purpose. The more serious one is the underdeveloped skill system. Skills are mentioned in a couple of places: Each class has some suggested skills they should have, and there's a big list of possible skills, but the actual rules for skills are totally missing, from how many skills characters should have, to how and when they select those skills, to what skills do or how one uses them, to how one gets more. As a quick set of house rules, I'd imitate 4e somewhat: Having a skill would grant a +5 on any checks related to that skill. Character would select say, four at the start and could add another every other level.

Heroes Against Darkness in general has the feel of 4e done right. I don't say that as someone who hated 4e and wanted it to be fundamentally different, but as someone who played it and felt that the game didn't live up to its own promise. If that sounds like the kind of thing you'd be interested in, go check it out.

Dec 23, 2012


From Tim Brannan's Other Side by way of Black Vulmea's Really Bad Eggs, comes the idea of posting about the 7 adventure games you have run or played the most. Here's my list, in rough order of amount of time spent playing or running them:

1) Dungeons and Dragons

Especially if you count d20 variants. I've been playing some version of D&D off and on since 1993. Started with the Rules Cyclopedia, moved to 2e, and then abandoned it in the mid-90's only to pick it back up around 2003 and play it more or less continuously until early 2010, when the guys in my group decided they hated 4e and we collectively decided to try other systems. And even then, in 2011 I started playing Swords and Wizardry, and in 2012, Microlite Iron Heartbreakers. Of the 21 or so years since I started playing, I have been playing some version of D&D for about 14 of them.

It's odd because though d20 is inarguably the roleplaying game system I am best at manipulating the mechanics of for personal and team advantage, the D&D family of systems has never been a favourite of mine. Swords and Wizardry and the other rules light variants / retroclones suit my purposes well enough to use for paedogogical purposes. I use them to train people in the basics of playing adventure games with the hope of eventually moving onto crunchier systems.

2) World of Darkness / Storyteller

I used to be much more fond of this family of games than I am now, though I do consider the games to have mostly gotten mechanically better over time. I played a lot of Mage: the Ascension online between 1998 to 2003, which was a gaming drought for me in the physical world, and a lot of Exalted online between 2000 and 2006 as a supplement to it. I also a ran really strange, very short-lived Hunter game when I was 17 that was based on the players playing "adult" versions of themselves (the characters were them imagined at age 25 or so). All told, I've playing Storyteller games for about nine years of my gaming life. Between 2010 and 2011, as what used to be my main gaming group moved away from playing D&D, we took up the new World of Darkness system, though most games were short run horror-themed mortals games. This is part of a general move on my part away from horror-themed games, and away from rules-light games towards crunchier systems.

3) WFRP / 40K

I calculated a year or so ago that if all my current WFRP 2e campaign obligations as both PC and referee are to be fulfilled, I will be playing campaigns of it until sometime in 2015. I started playing it online years ago, in 2005 IIRC, then moved to playing it in real life in 2007, and have been playing it with some group or another ever since. Since then, the only major interruptions in playing some session of WFRP 2e have been to play short runs of Rogue Trader and Deathwatch. I figure it to be about seven years of playing it in some form, typically in biweekly sessions or play-by-posts.

Of all the systems I play consistently, WFRP 2e is the one I like the most, though of course I have a few complaints about it. I like the power curve, I like the setting, I like mechanics for the most part. I wish the gear list was better, though it's pretty good. At the very least it should have the prices for more of the career trappings. I also find the specialties of some skills excessively narrow, though this isn't nearly as bad as in Dark Heresy. When I run WFRP 2e I tend to run it very differently than the people who are my main referees for it, but that's mainly a stylistic issue.

I can't really stand Dark Heresy in many ways, but I have played a ton of it, and I've run games of it, as well as Rogue Trader and Deathwatch. There are many, many elements of DH I would rewrite / have rewritten for my own games, to the extent that I'm almost playing a different game. Still, I love the setting, and the actual campaigns were great.

4) Heavy Gear

From 1994 to 1999 Heavy Gear was one of my go-to science fiction games, along with Alternity. One of the great things about the game was the incredible buy-in to the setting from the group I played with for most of my adolescence, at least partially due to the war game elements and the tie-in computer games. PCs went out and bought, and then read, setting books and supplementary material, and I could drop casual references to other elements of the setting in and rely on the PCs catching them. It was a golden era of young gaming.

The game where I got into the knife-fight at the table with one of the PCs was a Heavy Gear game in summer 1998. Superficially this probably seems like it coincides with the end of my RL gaming for about five years, but in actual practice we played for another six months or so (mostly Alternity at that point), and it was only at the tail end of 1998 that we ceased meeting regularly. When I reflect on Heavy Gear now, it's always with a bit of melancholy and nostalgia, and I feel like I can't really go back to this system and play it in a clear, adult way. Playing Heavy Gear basically ruined me for any other mecha game, and I've never gotten back into the genre in the way I did when I played it as my preferred game in my teenage years.

5) The BRP family (Call of Cthulhu, Openquest, Mongoose Runequest 2)

It's odd that the family of systems I like so much crops up so low on this list I suppose, but that's because I discovered it so late. I first played Call of Cthulhu at Giant Space Telescope Con in 2009, playing the sonar operator in Grace Under Pressure. It was also the first time I played a prewritten module. Upon discovering the then-newly-released Mongoose Runequest 2, and Openquest, these systems won my heart. I've played a bit of each, though nowhere near as much as D&D, obviously. I hope that over the course of the rest of my gaming life, this ratio will even out, or even shift in favour of BRP.

6) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles And Other Strangeness / Rifts / Heroes Unlimited / Recon

The first roleplaying game I ever played, from 1991 to 1994, off and on. I am a self-taught gamer who came to roleplaying through an adventure game that was not D&D, both of which are somewhat unusual as I understand it from hearing others discuss their backgrounds. TMNT was great, though the kids I mostly played it with were my toxic and horrible neighbours, who taught me at a very young age how terrible people can be in groups. I'm not saying my interest in group dynamics in adventure games from a set of experiences I had when I was eight, but that interest is definitely informed by them.

Heroes Unlimited and Rifts were grafts onto the same group, and while I am still nostalgically fond of the systems, I experience even less desire to play them. Of all these games, only Recon, which I played later, with the same adolescent group that I played Heavy Gear with, is one that I'd like to revisit. It wasn't the first military game I played, but it was the first one that was based on a real conflict and that emphasised the complexities of military activity, and that wasn't really heroic.

7) Everything Else

At this point, the list starts to break apart into a basically arbitrary selection. Any of Diaspora, Traveller, Burning Empires, Burning Wheel, Unknown Armies, FUDGE, Star Wars D6, Shadowrun, Nobilis, Stars Without Number or Alternity would qualify. I've probably spent a bit more time running Alternity or Unknown Armies than the others, but Traveller and Stars Without Number are systems that I use as supplements to other games I'm running (the world generation systems, in particular). Most of these are games that I've run or played in one-shots, or short series of games, or campaigns that failed to launch, or that I draw on as supplements or reference books. There are a couple that I would love to play more often than I do (Diaspora, Stars Without Number and Traveller) but can't fit into my available gaming time.

Dec 20, 2012

The Long Narrative: Being Totally Unfair About Rewards

One set of questions I feel referees ought to explicitly ask players about their characters is "Does this person want to be an adventurer? Why do they want to go on or not want to go on adventures?"

Having an explicit answer for each PC is surprisingly useful. I've played in many games where there is a lot of confusion about whether or not a given character actually wants to be an adventurer. The wrong assumption by a referee has led to them offering the wrong kinds of incentives for participation in the campaign to PCs, and frustration when they are uninterested in the incentives being offered.

I suspect the specific site of cleavage here is amongst players more than characters, games, frames, etc., though all of these play a part. Some players are risk-averse, and some are not. In my experience, risk-averse players tend to run their characters in risk-averse ways, unless they are consciously playing against type. Risk-averse characters can make good adventurers, but they require external compulsion to push them into adventuring. Rewards are accumulated with the eventual goal of being able to stop adventuring and take up some much less risky career. One must constantly deprive them of the social bonds and material wealth that would allow them to stop adventuring or to employ someone else to take the risk in their stead. This is not to criticise these players or characters - the finest roleplayer I have ever gamed with is a risk-averse person who plays characters who adventure only reluctantly. One can often play on their sense of morality and duty or their foresightedness or fellow-spiritedness, though these are almost always short term means to the end of getting them to go on adventures. One can also push them to adventure by presenting a greater risk caused by not adventuring, though this threat will retain its effectiveness as an incentive only insofar as it remains immediate, dangerous, and close at hand. When one does reward them, one ought to give them only enough to continue adventuring, or rewards that are only useful for adventuring, or by averting some threat (to themselves or others).

I suspect that referees who are risk-averse themselves predict that the PCs will act in a similarly risk-averse way, and deliver the kinds of compulsions that would spur them into action. This is fine when dealing with risk-averse players, but can be intensely frustrating for venturesome players, as one is constantly being pushed into action rather than freely choosing to participate in it.

Venturesome players (of which I am one) tend to play their characters in venturesome ways. Specifically, the characters have strong internal motivations to go on adventures, stick their noses into other people's business and just generally interfere in situations they come across. Venturesome players require frequent small rewards to enable them to keep adventuring, but the main thing one ought to avoid doing is using the same strong external compulsions one uses for risk-averse players, as this limits the choices, options and freedoms they find rewarding. These players seek to accumulate agency, and rather than limiting agency by denying it to them, one ought to complicate this accumulation with responsibility. Whereas a risk-averse player will think "Now that my character has a child, they ought to settle down", a venturesome player will say "Now that my character has a child, how can they continue going on adventures?" Money, etc. are not reasons to stop adventuring, but rather ways to enable the irresponsibility necessary for it. Threats and perils should be presented as challenges to be overcome, but as ones that require a serious investment of energy and effort, and the rewards for overcoming them should restore a character's autonomy and freedom.

Venturesome referees will often offer PCs incentives that increase their agency and ability to make choices, which can lead to frustration with risk-averse players who will take the gold and start running an inn, or take their newly-awarded noble title as an excuse to retire from active play. Players will wonder why the referee isn't driving them towards the drama and struggle they want.

While these are presented categorically, I suspect that most people contain both tendencies, and which one predominates depends on the player's mood, the character concept, the group dynamics, the campaign concept, the setting and the system being used. For example, I play a lot of 2nd edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and I tend to overwhelm the scenarios a bit because I am a venturesome player and the default assumption of WFRP modules (I am currently playing in the Liber Fanatica team's Thousand Thrones rewrite, for example) seems to be that the PCs are mostly reluctant adventurers and highly risk-averse. There are plenty of times where I am running ahead of the plot, throwing myself into trouble willingly, in a way the campaign can compensate for but does not necessarily anticipate.

Most groups probably have mixes of risk-averse and venturesome players (and this mix may change over time without the membership of the group changing), so one has to attain the right balance of different kinds and strengths of incentives. I propose that if one has not experimented with doing so, ought to try being totally unfair about rewards and compulsions, tailoring the rewards and compulsions to each PC. Give the venturesome player a barony while his reluctant companion is hunted by the same king's men. Of course, you aren't actually being unfair here, but rather offering each player the type of incentive that they require to want to go on an adventure.

Dec 11, 2012

Some Things to Steal in the Dawnlands

The Crimson Pyx

Said to contain the heart of an ancient hero, the Crimson Pyx is one of the high treasures of the blood-drinking cultists of Basilion, one of the vampire-martyrs of the Orthocracy. It is constantly full of a rich red blood highly sought after by vampire and mortal alike for its restorative properties. The pyx itself is made of priceless onyx and white jade, and rests in the vampire caverns of the northern mountains, guarded by fanatical cultists whose family members were saved by its power. From there, the blood is transported in great casks to the city proper, staying fresh and liquid until consumed. The Basilion cult anoints the sick with it, their families giving up a single child to the cult to serve it in exchange.

The Dreamsilk of Zagara

The finest silks, finer than even the Salt Men bring, are bartered for at high cost from the Forest People. They demand precious steel weapons and often, living sacrifice, but bring a silk so rarefied that optimates of Dwer Tor gladly pay whatever they demand. No one has ever found the source of this silk, but when tortured, prisoners claim that it is harvested from a great and massive silkworm - the size of a hundred oxen - that feeds on the Forest Dream itself. Only the Zagara ("Silkworm" in the southern Forest dialect) tribe can propitiate it, but no one knows where they can be found.

The Rune-Eyes of the Cyclopean Prophets

There are twelve great seers who belong to a secretive order known only as the Cyclopean Prophets. Each one is ritually blinded and their eye replaced with a rune-eye, a powerful tool of divination. Rune-eyes look like small steel balls, marvelously engraved with runes picked out in jet that change as one rotates the eye. It is said that replacing one's own eye with a rune-eye will allow one to see the future, to weep fine ink instead of tears, to smite one's enemies with a gaze, and to exert a powerful control over the minds of anyone who looks into the eye. The Cyclopean Prophets are believed to be hobgoblins, gnolls, and other monsters - they are often credited with inventing the Sarxian branch of gnosticism - but their whereabouts are unknown.


Bronze is the holy metal of the Dawnmen, composed as it is of the metals of sunborn men (copper) and moonborn elves (tin). Their armaments were composed of many clever alloys of bronze, into which they forged mighty enchantments. The passage of time has turned these bronze weapons a brilliant, distinctive green that holds even when scrubbed with sand. These weapons rust steel and crack stone with the slightest strike (to better aid the Dawnmen in subduing the hobgoblins and dwarves, for whom these are sacred materials respectively) and they are highly prized as the secret of their enchantment was lost with the Dawnmen.

Even today, the Orthocracy forbids green patinas and lacquers on armour and weapons. The greatest accomplishment a Kaddish smith can earn is to be known not as a "Blacksmith" but as a "Greensmith", and this is reserved for the rare few artisans who are capable of ensorcelling metal.

The Spider's Fangs

In the far south are two sharp-edged mountains between which stretches a great web of stone nearly two miles across, in the centre of which is a colossal statue of a spider rearing back to strike. It can be seen miles away, and is famous for the fact that the unknown builders carved the spider's fangs from what appears to be solid silver - a fantastic, unimaginable sum of the stuff, more than the slaves of Dwer Tor could pull out of the mines in a year. The scale humiliates the imagination, and if only one could get up onto the web, overcome whatever guardians keep it safe, and wrench them from the statue, one would be first amongst the merchant princes of the Dawnlands.

The Puissant Ravens

Carved from aquamarine beryl and then painted by a deep black ink, the Puissant Ravens are in the possession of the hobgoblin lord Kartak-Who-Blinds, god-emperor of the unknown hyperborean domains beyond the northern mountains. They grant him the powers of the Lord of Winter: To freeze his foes dead, to shape primordial ice like clay, to command the ancient spirits of winter. By his possession of the statues, he is the one who sends the winter flocks of ravens south, where they torment the Dawnlands until summer returns once more and his power diminishes.

The Hoard of the Red and Blue Snake Cult

Stored in the Cobra Tower, this is the personal bankroll of Cassius, high priest of the Red and Blue Snake Cult. It is hundreds of thousands of coins of real gold and real silver, not cheap Kaddish scrip. After the city granary, it is the greatest hoard of wealth in the city. Hundreds of fanatical dragonmen guard the Cobra Tower at all hours, and the tower itself is hundreds of feet high with few windows or handholds. Many magical items may be found there as well, prizes Cassius has taken off his many foes.

The Tongue of Basdrubal

Basdrubal was a revolutionary orator chosen to make the announcement that launched the first riots of the revolution. He was caught, killed and mutilated, but as his body parts were flung into the roaring crowd, a fellow-traveler made off with his tongue. It continues, even to this day, to move and waggle as if it were still alive. Anyone who holds the tongue gains the power to enchant those who hear his speech, but it gradually works its magic on the bearer too, until he becomes its slave. The tongue, driven mad by Basdrubal's death, now wants only madness and horror, endless atrocity. It would make the world a charnel house. The tongue reappears from time to time, always in the hands of an unknown but suddenly charismatic orator.


A sword of unknown origin, this is the only weapon known that can slay a daimon. To do so is to deprive a shaman of their connection to the divine power, and it is a terrible crime against the laws of the universe itself. It is rumoured that the same process that allows it to kill daimons will work even on the gods themselves. It is currently in the possession of the vampire-cult of Herunaxos, borne by their vampiric champion Heron the Spiritdrinker, who is ascending towards godhood himself. He intends to use the blade to destroy the other gods and take the sky and earth as his personal possessions.

The Cursed Fingers

Giant, ancient, rotting fingers of flesh, the colossal hands of a dead giant, jut out of the stone of Cursegrave Mountain in the Stormbreakers. They extend hundreds of feet out from the side of the mountain, are as thick around as the hull of the largest ships, and are stiff with centuries of death. Eight fingers remain, two others having been destroyed or consumed, or missing for some unknown reason. The rotten flesh of the fingers no longer draws scavengers, but once it did, and these first intrusions have been extended by foul undead things into tunnels through the fingers in which they hide, hunting explorers, treasure hunters and other fools.

What draws explorers and treasure hunters is that the fingers themselves bear rings, giant rings of gold and silver, with gems as large as a wagon. There are only six rings remaining, but any one would be enough to establish one in a life of luxury for eternity.

The undead protect the fingers though, and they are led by a powerful lich who has taken up residence in a great web spun between the fingers for unknown reasons. He has not touched the rings, instead setting his numberless legions of zombies, skeletons and ghouls to dig into the earth and free more of the great dead creature, whatever it may be.

Red Glass

Red glass in the Dawnlands is the solidified blood of Eternal Night. As it comes from before time began, it is an eternal substance not worn down by the ages, and was used by the Children of Night (the precursors to the Hill People) to build many things after Eternal Night was killed by the Dawnmen. The Bloody Star in which the First Murderer was imprisoned was built of red glass, as were the binding stones of Thranisphane, and the altars to Moon in every one of the Cities of Night were built of it. Few pieces of the stuff still remain, often intermixed with steel to produce the weapons of Hill People champions. It is worth more than its weight in gold, though it is almost impossible to quarry or chisel out of known sources. Where the people in the southern gate of Thranisphane's tomb found enough to build a city of the stuff is unknown, though it excites rumours that there are massive quantities of red glass still to be found somewhere.

Jarek the Snake, to fulfill the rites of kingship and crown himself the king of the Hill People, requires eight blocks taller and thicker than he is for the ritual. This will make him the first Lord of Night since Moon was slain, suzerain of all the tribes of the Children of Night, and possibly a demigod. He has two already, at a hidden location, and is searching for the other six. There are rumours that the hobgoblins at Balwan are searching for that city's altar on his behalf, which would give him a third pillar.

Nov 24, 2012

Gorgeous Pictures of Knives from BladeForums

I've been saving a bunch of these to show to my PCs in the upcoming Dawnlands game. I figure if they choose their knives from these photos, they're likely to actually remember and possibly even use them. These are all pictures of incredible Bowie knives from BladeForums.

First thread
Second thread
Third thread

Check them out!

Nov 13, 2012

Mao's Little Brown Books

"If we have shortcomings, we are not afraid to have them pointed out and criticized, because we serve the people. Anyone, no matter who, may point out our shortcomings. If he is right, we will correct them. If what he proposes will benefit the people, we will act upon it."

I am making one last ditch effort to salvage the Necrocarcerus game before cancelling it and starting another game up in its place. This is after discussing the issues in the current game with a couple of the players. The most frustrating and unfortunate situation to be in with a game is when there is no single, critical flaw, but only a thousand minor ones. In our case, the issues range from personality clashes to organisational issues, to thematic and aesthetic unfamiliarity, to rules confusion, to creative block on my part. Drastic measures are needed.

"Another point that should be mentioned in connection with inner-Party criticism is that some comrades ignore the major issues and confine their attention to minor points when they make their criticism. They do not understand that the main task of criticism is to point out political and organizational mistakes. As to personal shortcomings, unless they are related to political and organizational mistakes, there is no need to be overcritical or the comrades concerned will be at a loss as to what to do. Moreover, once such criticism develops, there is the great danger that within the Party attention will be concentrated exclusively on minor faults, and everyone will become timid and overcautious and forget the Party's political tasks."

The Necrocarcerus group is part of the Emern group, plus three new players (as in, new to playing adventure games, not just this campaign). I thought the group would be able to build on the knowledge and experience-base from the Emern game to flow into a new style of play, but in hindsight, I think the foundations we had in Emern were shakier than anticipated. This problem was exacerbated when I expected 2-3 of the players to be familiar with the source influences for this game (Dark Souls, etc.) and it turned out none of them were in any great detail. I have been unable to use this blog or other means to educate them in the world as thoroughly as I would have preferred due to work commitments. Many of them are also extremely busy, and the net result has been that the entire group is in a reactive, rather than proactive, mode about scheduling attendance, handling events in game, and solving several personal issues that impact play at the table.

"As for criticism, do it in good time; don't get into the habit of criticizing only after the event."

"Don't wait until problems pile up and cause a lot of trouble before trying to solve them. Leaders must march ahead of the movement, not lag behind it."

I'm making a last effort to "save" the game by pushing for proactivity on the part of a few key influence-wielders at the table. I'm hoping to dampen down disruptions in play with their help; to spend more time exploring the world, clarifying it themes, and fleshing out details. I'm also having one of the players push for a longer-lead-time on cancellations from the others, since we've been having some frustrating last minute cancellations that leave us unable to play. My goal is to shift us over to proactivity by making players feel as they own a piece of the game, rather than just showing up to be entertained by me. I am going to socialise parts of it, in other words.

"If we have a correct theory but merely prate about it, pigeonhole it and do not put it into practice, then that theory, however good, is of no significance."

With adventure games as with all other social activities, history is prior to structure, training and practice prior to theory. Unfortunately, due to work commitments and personal creative block, the bric-a-brac I created for Necrocarcerus (maps, cards, etc.) is more sporadic and lower quality than the stuff I created for Emern. My inclination is to hand the group over to one of the players (a specific player I have in mind) who does have time to devote to producing this material, after training him on how to produce it. I should also continue to assist him in producing it. While appealing, this would be a stop-gap measure until he too became jammed up with work or other responsibilities. The best possible outcome would be to train all the players on how to produce it, and then to build opportunities to produce it into the game.

For example, when the players encounter a collection of random potions, have each player write out a duration, an effect, and an appearance on separate pieces of paper. The referee can create either the same number of entries as anyone else, or perhaps salt things with a few random ones. Everybody puts their entries forward face down collected by type, which is then shuffled (so all durations go together, all appearances, all effects). Whenever someone drinks or tests a potion, you draw an appearance, effect and duration. Some potions may be more useful when applied to foes, which should create a nice mix. And of course, you can recycle these back into the deck each time you have more potions appear, so that you're gradually building.a vast library of possible effects.

I'm also tempted to do this with magical treasure when PCs discover a hoard. PCs choose one of three targets ("The wielder", "Someone else", "the object itself"), define an effect (no mechanics), and then describe the object, and these are randomly recombined into actual items by drawing from each deck. If these are successful, I may expand it from there - monsters, NPCs, etc.

'Complacency is the enemy of study. We cannot really learn anything until we rid ourselves of complacency. Our attitude towards ourselves should be "to be insatiable in learning" and towards others "to be tireless in teaching".'

"In times of difficulty we must not lose sight of our achievements, must see the bright future and must pluck up our courage."

Oct 20, 2012

Inhabitants of Necrocarcerus: Citizens and Guardians

Now that the PCs have been in Necrocarcerus for a while, one of the ones whose character died is creating a character familiar with the place. Therefore, I wrote the following primer to the inhabitants Necrocarcerus for his use:

Necrocarcerus is a vast city the size of Australia which serves as the temporary afterlife for twenty-one worlds. The identity of its creator is not known, though many assume it was one or more of the various gods of those twenty-one worlds. That there are more than twenty-one worlds is known to those who study such things, though what happens to the souls of the dying on those worlds is not. Though many of those worlds have sentient life forms other than humans, almost all souls in Necrocarcerus are human, with only a few unusual exceptions.

The Necrocarcerus "Program" takes place over a span of ten thousand years, at which point everything is destroyed, the Guardians and Necrocarcerus are recreated, and all citizens who did not manage to transcend are set back into the rotation to wait for a second incarnation. The current year is 9995, though the general population is not widely aware of this. The twenty-one linked worlds are not destroyed, so far as anyone can tell, though why not is unclear.

The dead souls who come to Necrocarcerus, whatever time they may die in their own world, are incarnated on the schedule of the Guardians, which mean that two people who died several thousand years apart may awaken at the same time. All times in Necrocarcerus are coterminous with all times in the twenty-one worlds, so that one moving across the Chorismos, the gap between worlds, can enter or exit Necrocarcerus at any point in its history, to enter any point in the destination's history, and vice versa.

The particular area of Necrocarcerus that the campaign is set in is known as the Lythmarch, after a particularly troublesome rogue who operates in the area. The primary temporal geographic periods its inhabitants are incarnated from are Lirnthians during the eight hundred years of the Empire of Shothon, Zuraithi from between the founding of the church of Solok the Mighty and the fall of its successor cult the Order of Ukal-Solok two thousand years later, and Dorivites while Thazul is active, some four hundred years.

Inhabitants of Necrocarcerus

The population of Necrocarcerus breaks down into several major groups, with a small number of outliers.

The Citizens

Citizens of Necrocarcerus are those people who Necrocarcerus was intended for, those inhabitants of the twenty-one worlds who have died without strong moral alignment. Their bodies, like almost everything else in Necrocarcerus, are made of a substance known as "hyle". They lack most internal organs other than lungs, a brain, a heart and a small cavity in their chest that serves as a storage chamber for blood. Upon incarnation in Necrocarcerus, citizens are drained of the memories of their lives by the Guardians, which becomes the drug known as "Nepenthe". The soul of an incarnated citizen becomes their actual breath, which is known as "pneuma".

Cutting one open releases pneuma, instead of blood, and the total dissipation of one's pneuma is the total destruction of one's soul. Citizens who have lost pneuma slowly regain it over time by breathing. As already dead, citizens are killed only by the loss of their pneuma - cutting off heads, arms, disembowling or impaling them are not inherently fatal. Detached arms, heads, etc. can be repaired like any other wound, by being bolted or sewn back on. This crude measure also allows the "corpses" of slain citizens to be harvested, so that it is not uncommon to find citizens with multiple arms, eyes, etc. Other than the occasional dose of blood, citizens do not need to eat, though they do enjoy doing so. They sleep as if they were still alive, and dream of their lives, even if they were drained of their memories successfully.

Citizens are incarnated in vast halls created for this purpose by the Guardians, as hyle becomes available (there is a finite amount, and much is needed elsewhere). They are given a short explanation of their new situation, including a tour of the local area of Necrocarcerus they are in, and an explanation of transcendence as the local Guardians understand it, and then set free in the city. Depending on the area, they may be hired as cheap labour, enslaved, destroyed, ignored, or proselytised by one or more cults as they step out of the incarnation hall. In the Lythmarch, Lyth has recruiters who try to tempt them to serve him, which many do.

Transcendence is the process by which a soul leaves Necrocarcerus, and is the goal all citizens are given by the Guardians who incarnate them. Some transcend within moments of being incarnated, but for most the process is centuries long, if it happens at all. To transcend, one must fully align one's self with good or evil, expressed through repeated action. Across twenty-one worlds, there are many different moral systems, and there is a great deal of debate about which one is most "true", or at least most effective at causing one to transcend. There is no definitive answer.

The Guardians

The Guardians were created by whomever created Necrocarcerus, and are the order of beings responsible for maintaining, preserving and defending it. The Guardians are not citizens, but a unique class of being also made of hyle. They begin as semi-sentient, and over decades and centuries they develop into full consciousness. The small number of fully conscious Guardians are the leaders of their society. They are capable of creating more of themselves, with responsibility for doing so given to the Blues. There are only a small number of them (77,777) compared to the vast extent of Necrocarcerus. The Guardians come in seven types, each associated with a colour and a function.

Red - Fire Control
Orange - Transport
Yellow - Population Management
Green - Repair
Blue - Production
Violet - Coordination
White - Design

Guardians resemble monks wearing heavy robes. Their hands and face are streaked with dye of the appropriate colour to their function. Guardians normally look more or less human, though changing their appearance is relatively trivial for them. The great power of the Guardians derives from their ability to work hyle through a process resembling magic or even mere will. They use this power to execute their specific function, and each type has a relatively specialised range of possible manipulations.

 They can be killed, and while they can be recreated over time, the new version returns to the semi-sapient form, and a new personality will develop, so that conscious Guardians are as wary of death as any citizen. They are generally non-violent, though they recruit proxies amongst the citizens to serve their need for violence when it arises. This is not a philosophical commitment to non-violence, merely a recognition that it lies outside their talents.

The incarnation centres throughout Necrocarcerus serve as their "temples" and headquarters. The Guardians are split into factions under the small number of fully-sentient Violets and Yellows. The factions almost never fight directly, instead using citizen, projector and undead proxies against one another when differences have become so severe that violence cannot be avoided. The factional differences are philosophical ones about the correct role of the Guardians and what the purpose of transcendence is.

Some of the larger factions:

Expediters - This faction believes that the goal of Necrocarcerus is for all citizens to transcend to the next state of existence (whose nature is unclear) by aligning themselves to one moral state or another, and the correct role of the Guardians is to facilitate that happening as rapidly and intensely as possible. They strive to create situations in which citizens must make moral choices, pushing them to identify more and more with good or evil. This often creates chaos, which in turn they exploit to create further decisions. The Expediters have been extremely active over the last century, as the Necrocarcerus Program prepares for destruction and recreation. They believe that more souls they help transcend, the fewer they have to deal with next time around. They are decentralised, and often uncoordinated. Many Expediters are nearly indistinguishable from rogues in their behaviour.

Jailers - The Jailers believe that the purpose of Necrocarcerus is to punish and reform those who failed to satisfy the speculated desires of the Creator during life. The people who did transcend only moments after appearing in Necrocarcerus, leaving only the flawed and weak behind. The Jailers believe it is the correct purpose of the order of Guardians to reforge these flawed individuals into ones better suited for the Creator's purposes. The societies of citizens that they create tend to be stable and long-lasting compared to the other factions, as well as highly organised and severe. They seek to prevent chaos and disruption to the Necrocarcerus Program,. The reform programs they initiate vary, but tend to focus on productive labour and organised action, with factories, state-like institutions, and a functioning economy. They are the largest faction, and have a rigid, hierarchical internal structure, led by a council of 7 Violets at the highest level.

Theosadists - The Theosadists believe that the Guardians are themselves the souls of those who have transcended, given power over Necrocarcerus as reward for fulfilling the creators desires, and that the remaining citizens are therefore theirs to use and dispose of as they please. The theosadists create grand monuments to their own glory, pursue ingenious but whimsical plans, and otherwise make Necrocarcerus into a hell for those under their rule. The Theosadists are the smallest and most hated faction of all the Guardians.

Perfectionists - The Perfectionists believe that souls that transcend are reincarnated back on the twenty-one living worlds as a reward for the force of will they display, and that this reincarnation in turn brings those worlds closer and closer to perfect accordance with the will of the Creator. The role of the Guardians is to prevent any but the truly worthy from transcending, with "truly worthy" defined by them as "good". The Perfectionists attempt to destroy those they consider evil, which almost always include projectors, rogues and the undead. They combine the penchant for chaos of the Expediters with the organisation of the Jailers, and they are often responsible for the closest things to wars that Necrocarcerus sees.

Oct 10, 2012

Necrocarcerus Session 4 Round Up

From the email I just sent to the PCs:

"Final tally: One PC beheaded, one PC's head crushed at terminalvelocity while attempting to escape from a freefall tube, one PC disemboweled by a skull-ninja, one PC impaled by said skull ninja, one PC lost in the mysterious ether of the malfunctioning freefall tube, and one PC captured by the projector cult."

I was really hoping the guy who was beheaded would survive if one of the other PCs got to him in time with a healing potion. Since the characters are already dead and in the afterlife, they lack vital organs, and are basically bags of solid ghost-putty filled with soul-air, so being beheaded isn't inherently incurable.

The two best sections tonight were:

1) When Rogar threw a shrinking potion at an ogre mage and shrunk him to 8 inches tall, which led Dathun to throw the ogre mage into a sack. Carlos sawed him to death with a longsword through the sack, and the description was "Imagine what it looks like when a kid tears apart a doll".

2) Carlos throwing a javelin of returning at a gold coin endlessly circling between two portals rigged so that anything between them was in constant freefall, which caused the portals to suck all the PCs into the tube due to the interaction between the two kinds of teleportation magic. They then had to push off one another to escape, which resulted in Carlos striking his head against the lip of the bottom portal and dying, his body continuing in freefall until Logan swatted it out with his shield.

"Projector cults" are groups of individuals from the living world that attempt to travel to Necrocarcerus, which is forbidden, and the dead who attempt to assist them (in exchange for blood, fire, magic, souls, information and other.stuff). The PCs have been sent by the Guardians to kill a projector cult to prove their worth.

Sep 21, 2012

20 x 20 Room's Incredible Essay on Cancer and Dice Mechanics

Jim Henley was diagnosed with tongue cancer and wrote an incredible essay about how his chances of survival, and his conceptions of whether he has good odds or not, differ from the assumptions of roleplaying games. It's hard to explain clearly, so go read it.

Sep 17, 2012

The Long Narrative: Anti-narrativism

MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research goes far beyond the typical Forge nonsense used in theoretical discussion to get into a really useful model for games. It's worth reading, since it bears pretty directly on why I consider myself an "anti-narrative" referee, and what that means.

I want to pull this part out from the beginning: "Fundamental to this framework is the idea that games are more like artifacts than media. By this we mean that the content of a game is its behavior not the media that streams out of it towards the player."

By "anti-narrative", I mean that my primary focus as a referee is not on "telling a story", moving PCs from rising action to rising action until an emotionally cathartic climax is attained, but on presenting interesting and meaningful choices with escalating consequences, and pushing the PCs to decide which option to take. The peaks and troughs on a plot graph for me represent varying levels of PC agency over time. Sometimes they are potent enough to layout all the alternatives and choose freely amongst them, and sometimes they're scrambling to react to a loss of control, and that oscillation takes over from the oscillations of inner character that drive a dramatic plot. The transition between acts tends align between the two models, as an act in a traditional drama is opened or closed by a choice that cannot be undone, whereas under this model, an act is opened or closed by a choice that the PCs must make but cannot exert any agency to layout the options of ("You must either go to war with the Baron or surrender to him. Which will you do?").

I chose this kind of substructure to my games because I find it simplifies the planning for what otherwise appear as traditional story-driven, plot-heavy games. By focusing less on specific events that must happen, and by instead aiming at specific choices that must be made, the substructure is freed from dependence on particular configurations of characters, material, etc. If a single NPC is killed or not, if the PCs steal a specific item, these no longer "sink" a story like they would in a more rigidly-crafted tale. A choice is a virtual entity that can be realised through many possible configurations of characters, material, external events, etc.

In play, this means fewer "cutscenes", fewer invincible NPC badasses, and of course, more meaningful choices (both in quantity and intensity). This method is not "illusionism" - the consequences of PC choice, as the core stake, must be respected, and developed appropriately to the decisions they make. Nor does it have much to do with "narrativism" in the sense of the word used in indie RPGs, which tend to set defined limits on the agency involved rather than varying the agency of the PCs over time (or which vary in only a single, progressive manner encoded in the system itself). "Narrativist" RPGs operate at the level of "mechanics" under MDA, whereas I am talking about doing this on the level of "dynamics" and "aesthetics".

Variance in this kind of substructure is across several factors. First, there is the variance in the stakes of the consequences - some choices are more meaningful, some are less meaningful. I favour being relatively upfront with PCs about which are which in situations where they have more control, and being a bit more opaque in situations where I have more control. Second, there is variance in who has more control, me or the PCs. This is usually obvious - if I'm laying out the options and saying "You have to pick A, B, or C", then I have control. If they're saying "What if we do this? What about this?" then they do. Information, urgency, and resources all serve as subfactors which can be manipulated to adjust their agency.

In any given situation, one structural subgoal should be to vary the level of control and the importance of the consequences across the situation. That is, few situations should start with the PCs at a given level of agency and with a certain set of stakes, and then end at the same level. Either or both factors can increase or decrease, but the change is what produces "dramatic" variety in this kind of structure. The referee is partially responsible for this, but the players are as well. Good play should be capable of minimising the importance of certain stakes (e.g. because you packed plenty of rope, you don't have to worry about falling to your death as you climb the castle walls; because studied the weaknesses of the big bad, the fight is much less risky than it would be otherwise).

Sudden transitions in agency and importance are where surprise comes back in. In traditional dramatic narratives, surprise tends to be driven by misinformation or lack of information, either between characters or to the audience. This is true here as well, but the important thing to bear in mind is that the information in question should relate less to character motivations, plans and plots, and more about the expectations of PCs about how they can deal with these things.

For example, concealing that the big bad is planning to overthrow the kingdom is usually a waste of time. If the PCs don't know what the villain's overarching goal is, they will rarely be invested enough to care about preventing it. Under this model, the surprise is played not in revealing the plan, but in confounding player expectations about what they can do about it. An appropriate scene for this kind of "revelation" would be something like when the players go to the king and tell him about the plot, expecting him to crush the big bad (who is say, an evil minister). Instead, the king refuses to believe them, and insists they stop harassing him with these wild tales unless they have solid proof.

Many times, the kind of story that emerges from this method will be similar to the ones people hope to attain by writing out intricate novelistic plots, but the process itself simplifies and eases attaining these kinds of outcomes while preserving the play experience for PCs. That is, by thinking about the structure of the game in a way that is fundamentally different from being directly concerned with the movements of the narrative, we can incidentally achieve a complex and interesting narrative.

Edit: Courtney and I are on the same page, it looks like. I just saw his recent post on the same topic.

Sep 16, 2012