Weald & Wyrd

Recently, I posted seven campaign ideas I would love to play. One of those was a dark fhttp://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/mercury-woodman/antasy campaign, set in a remote village beset by weird forces. I wrote that and put it out of my mind. Then Vincent Baker (the creator of, amongst other things, Apocalypse World) mentioned his dormant Apocalypse World: Dark Age project on Google+. That sparked that idea once more.

In this post, I’ll outline how the game could look as a reskin of Apocalypse World (AW). I feel that AW is a pretty good fit for this kind of game, even if Apocalypse World is a post-apocalypse game and this would be dark fantasy. Both games are about isolated settlements, beset by both internal and external forces threatening their survival. A number of things would have to be adapted, though. I’ve made a quick outline below, and after that is a list of possible playbooks.

Premise

The game takes place in a small-ish village far a good distance away from the Imperial mainland. This allows them to remain their independence, but it also makes them vulnerable to things coming from outside. And there are many things around them to threaten them. The woods teem with wolves and robbers. And in the shadows, weird creatures lurk: fairies, trolls and undead, looking upon the Humans with unkind eyes. Meanwhile, something sleeps nearby. Maybe in the mountain, maybe below the lake, maybe in the minds of men. Something getting ready to stir once more, sweeping aside all that stands before it.

This is also a game of more human conflict. The Old Gods and the spirits of Nature have taken their tribute for many generations. But now the followers http://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/king-warwulf/of the Light Above arrive together with the Imperial Bureaucracy, asking for exclusive devotion and promising sweet gifts in return.

And so the characters will play the parts of prominent people in the community who work to mount a defence against the threats to their existence. Fairies, overzealous Imperials, raiding barbarians – or the other characters.

Stats: The stats would have to be adapted, but to start with, I think I would mostly change the names, and keep them roughly equivalent to the AW stats. Weird might be Spiritus or Wyld, but would still govern the supernatural and mystical. Similarly, Hot should perhaps be Mien, Bearing or Charisma, but would still be about affecting other people.

Basic Moves: Again, some of the Basic Moves probably need new names, but mostly, I would keep them functionally identical. I might want to change the dynamics of violence a little, but I think the two moves that are there now are probably roughly sufficient. Seduce and manipulate can stay almost as they are, though maybe with minor modifications to account for Debt (see Currencies, below). The one I want to change the most would be Open your mind, which would become When you entreat powers beyond your understanding. It does basically the same thing, except you appeal to something beyond you – and preferably something specific. That will be part of framing the world: which entity/entities people appeal to. The Old Gods, the Sidhee, the Light Above, Mother Nature … all are possible.

Currencies: I want at least two currencies in this game, Coin and Debt. Coin is, like Barter in AW, an abstract measure of a certain amount of value. In this case it’s a certain amount of the coinage of the society beyond the village. Coin is useful mostly for goods, particularly from foreigners. Foreigners generally prefer Coin. The locals, meanwhile, deal just as much in Debts. Debts are governed by a Move, affecting both player characters and non-player characters:

Whenever another character does something that helps you in a meaningful and significant way, and they do it without payment and without waiving repayment, you owe 1 Debt to that person.

This Debt can then be used later to extract services from you, or it can be used as leverage against you. In certain circumstances, Debt can also have mystical effects. You may not want to have Debt to a Fairy, for instance. I considered calling it Favours, but I want to put focus on the obligation of the ower instead of the opportunity to the owed.

I might want to include a third currency, Stock, or some other way of representing the materials needed for survival. Particularly if long time survival might be part of play, trying to get by throughout winter.

Playbooks

When it comes to playbooks, I have some ideas for playbooks that could work. Many of them are somewhat similar to one or two playbooks from AW, but the feeling of them should be quite different – the world and the theme of the game are quite different.

  • The Liege Lord: the closest thing to a Hardholder. He owns a major mansion with a small serving staff, and is owed obligations by the community. The obligations go both ways, though, and if he forgets that, torches and pitchforks might be in his future. Has both a lot of coin, and a fair amount of Debt, both ways.
  • The Proclaimer of the Light Above: The village priest. Maybe a little similar to the Touchstone. Inspires people, and conducts minor miracles. Has a lot of informal power over his parishioners.
  • The Wizened: A wise woman or cunning man. Their dealings with powerful forces makes them shrivel up before their time, and so they may look older – and feebler – than they are. These are in contact with supernatural forces, and can use them for many subtle effects, like healing and cursing people. Drawing out somebody’s shame could be another effect, crippling them emotionally. More powerful effects might be possible. I think they might also be able to manipulate the animals of the world around them.
  • The Keeper of the Peace: A sheriff, appointed to keep the peace in the area. Probably a common man, with a few people deputised from the general population. He has several martial abilities, and can serve as the voice of the Village, handing out sentences and demanding reparations. This also means, of course, that if he loses the support of the Village, he loses much of his power.
  • The Emissary of the Imperial Bureaucracy: An official, sent from the Empire as a representative for the machinery of government and progress, to collect tax, and to ensure whatever the empire needs. He has one or two assistants, and can demand things on behalf of the Grand Majesty. He has a good amount of Coin, but is vulnerable to Debt – he may owe, but the locals see him as outsider, and so may not be so keen to honour their Debt to him. The Emissary also has his own currency, Favour at the Court, by virtue of which he can gain concessions from the Empire.
  • The Fay-touched: The Fay-touched may be a changeling, or they may be someone who was once a plaything of a fairy. Now, they are a little odd. Their contact with fairies has taken over their life. This results in them being somehow very fair, but also disquieting to others. They can make deals with fairies, and can use deals with others to create powerful effects.
  • The Equestrian: A combination of Driver and Gunlugger – a hard-hitting warrior when he is on his horse, he prefers to pick battles where he can fight mounted. That goes both for physical and other – he will also gain social advantages when on horseback.
  • The Lore-Hoarder: A scholar, hoarding books and scrolls containing ancient knowledge. Some of it may be arcane, and a lot of it will definitely be powerful and dangerous in the wrong hands. The Lore-Hoarder can go into his library to look for certain kinds of knowledge, though it may well come at a price. Obviously somewhat related to the Hoarder.
  • The Dabbler: An alchemist and experimenter. He is in many ways similar to the Savvyhead, in that he can make many interesting potions and contraptions in his laboratory (think workspace), but they will often come at a cost.
  • The Chief: The leader of a band of armed men. Maybe a group of mercenaries, a gang of robbers or a local war band. The Chief can lead them – as long as he provides them with whatever they crave, whether security, loot, excitement, fame … and if not, I’m sure someone else has dreams of leadership.
  • The Luminary: A person, touched by …something. Maybe the Light Above, maybe an old spirit, maybe something entirely else. In any case, this person radiates with inner light. Among their gift may also be a certain prophetic vision. Of course, they never just see the good things …
  • The Mysteriarch: A possessor of mysteries, a leader of seekers. This is basically an abbot or some other form of leader of a religious community. A bit like the Hocus, but with a more tight-knit group of followers.
  • The Pure: The leader or instigator of a group of religious fanatics. They are their own thing, believing that they alone have the true way of purity. The name is taken from the Cathars, literally “the pure”, a group that gave name to the Danish word for “heretic”. But the pure might also be flagelants, or they might be remnants of an old cult of the Old Gods.
  • The Huntsman: A hunter and knower of the wild areas. He knows the lay of the land, he can set traps, evade detection in the wild, and he has at least one type of hunting animal for his use – hounds or birds of prey are most obvious. Of course he might easily attract somebody’s attention, out there in the woods.
  • The Gracious Host: The innkeeper. He can host people, make them feel at ease and make peace in his home. A bit like the Maestro D, I think. An important figure in his community, because his place is where people gather, it is where deals are struck, gossip exchanged, and often also where people meet in case of a crisis. The inn is also where strangers come when they arrive in the village, and so he knows almost everything that happens.
  • The Night-Man: Some things are too dirty or unsavoury, either physically or morally, for regular folks to deal with them. Emptying latrines, removing carcasses, procuring illicit goods … the Night-Man takes care of all this and more. He is an unofficial, but essential, member of the ecosystem of the village. A lot of people owe him great Debts – but they will not acknowledge this in public. He knows this – and he waits until he is alone with them to cash in. Of course, the reverse is true as well. None would admit to having done anything for the Night-Man, so he can ignore his own debts in public.
  • The Headsman: Officially, nobody knows who carries out the dirty work of justice. Unofficially, everybody knows who the man with the mask is. The Headsman is a two-faced character. On one hand, he is a respected member of the village. On the other hand, when he puts on the Headsman’s mask, he turns into the dirty warrior of Justice’s Vengeance. This transformation is not just cosmetic: When he wears the mask, he channels the spirits and heroes of bloody Justice.

Fronts and Threats

I think the basic framework of the Fronts and the Threats will remain the same. I want to include some Encroaching Menaces, though – powerful things coming closer and closer to the village, getting ready to devour it. These are a kind of Super Threats, orchestrating or somehow unifying many other threats. In many ways, I think they are comparable to the Campaign Fronts of Dungeon World, though I don’t want that game’s structure of adventures forming campaigns. I guess they should serve as a hideous crossbreed between campaign fronts and countdowns: in the beginning, these things are vague and far away, but throughout play, they get more and more concrete as they come closer to the village.

There are a number of different kinds, tying into the themes of the game:

  • The Tides of Progress: The will of the Imperial Bureaucracy will not be held back. The village will adapt and conform to the needs and requests of the great minds of the Empire. The Word of the Light Above will be spread to every darkened corner of the world. If that will choke the way of life of the village, then so be it.
  • The Devouring Hordes: Barbarians and invaders are threatening to invade the country, and sweep the village up in tides of war and destruction. Chiefs dream of conquest, while Imperial nobles dream of reliving the glory of long-dead heroes, carving out Kingdoms for themselves, at the risk of throwing the country into chaos and turmoil. War rides out, with Pestilence and Famine close on her heels.
  • The Courts of the Night: The King of the Trolls, the Prince of Fairies, the Dead Thane in the Burrow. Any of these might be holding their court in the wilderness, watching these humans encroaching on their Domain. Or maybe, deals were struck with them in olden days, and now they come to collect …
  • The Unspeakable Powers: There are strange and terrible powers resting in the mountains, in the water, and in the minds of men. Old gods, alien creatures and terrible intellects. All of these might be waiting to arise, shaking off insignificant humans in the process, or maybe using them as pawns.

I’m quite fascinated by the possibilities of this idea, and I bet it could turn into a really interesting game with the right people. Also, while the game still needs a whole lot of work to be done, I think most of it could be done while we play, exchanging mechanics as we get to them.

Seven Campaigns I would love to play

In the Danish roleplaying blogosphere, there’s a challenge that’s been going around: which seven roleplaying campaigns would you love to play? It all started with Johs’ post, later followed up by Peter and Oliver. I figured I’d like to give this a shot as well – and so, here are seven campaigns I would love to take part in.

One caveat before we start. I find that I often enjoy the types of roleplaying games – and particularly campaigns – that grow organically out of what happens at the table. That seems to be one of the strengths of systems like Apocalypse World and Spirit of the Century: that the world is very vague until such point that the players start making their characters. This means that there is not one person in charge of creating the world, which in turn can make a much richer world than what the GM can make on his own. Nevertheless, having a strong concept before starting out can help focus the game – so I guess that is what I’ll be setting out here: strong concepts. Some would have to be developed by the GM before the game, others by players and GM in cooperation.

Also, many of these are bound up on particular worlds, taken from comics, computer games, books or similar. Of course, that would merely serve as the starting point for a further development that would likely see the game turn into something quite different.

The Heroes of English Magic

We are currently watching the brilliant BBC series based on Susanna Clarke’s novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell. I never finished the book – it is rather long – but I am really impressed by the series. It is gripping, funny, beautiful, dramatic, and set in a completely wonderful world, soaked through with a particular idea of magic. I’d love to try to do a game set in that sort of fantasy world.

The game would most likely take place in Britain, because the United Kingdom seems to have the folklore and the culture for that sort of a game. I like that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell is set in Napoleonic England – it confers some wonderful dichotomies between the posh society and the crude masses – not to mention between the rigid, cerebral world of academia and the visceral, chaotic world of superstition, fairies and power. Of course, another version might be to set it in Denmark, and replace the fairies of Clarke’s vision with Giants and Vølver from Danish mythology.

There are two obvious systems to use for such a game. Mage: the Ascension is a system that I have always wanted to do more with. I’m not sure this game would fit that system, though. I might prefer to go with Ars Magica – part of the essence of Strange & Norell is that the magicians spend a lot of time studying and reading, and that seems to be better captured by Ars. I would probably include some form of power gained from experience, as that seems to be part of the difference between the titular characters of Clarke’s story: That Norell has lots of knowledge from books, while Strange learns a lot from his experience in the field.

Alternatively, the game might use some entirely different system. Nine World might be adapted to fit, as might Sorcerer, though I’m not sure Sorcerer supports the kind of game I would want it to be.

Bookhounds of London

I have yet to try Trail of Cthulhu or any of the other GUMSHOE games. Now, the Bookhounds of London setting seems perfect to me. It gives players a great entryway into the occult world of Lovecraftian horror, more than many other Cthulhu games. It also opens for a lot of mundane interaction, and some very human antagonists, trying to prevent the PC’s from getting the books they want. In that sense, there is a lot of good story before you even start getting into the weird stuff.

I think that if I did it, I would want an overarching plot that is light on horrible monsters, and heavy on terrifying mysteries and madness. A plot that slowly graduates from being merely about humans looking for human things, to slowly encompassing more and more otherworldly stuff. There would probably be some weird creatures here and there, but the main stuff would be at the very least something that could be explained away as something mundane.

Magic and Madness

In the world of fantasy literature, Grimdark Fantasy seems to have a high star, with Joe Abercrombie as Exhibit A. Some of this has seeped over into gaming – not least in the form of the game, Darkest Dungeon.

Darkest Dungeon is what Diablo might have been if it was a 2D, party based game where the foes are Cthulhoid instead of demonic, and the heroes aren’t really heroes at all, but a misfit band of expendables. You return to your ancestral mansion to find that it has been taken over by strange and threatening forces. You must gather a party and venture into the darkness in order to gain intelligence and strength, until you are ready to face whatever awaits in the eponymous Darkest Dungeon underneath the mansion.

In the game, you have two kinds of “health”: physical health and mental shock or sanity. Running out of one will kill a character in the short run, but gaining too much of the other will make your character erratic and dangerous to his comrades in the long run. This seems an interesting mechanic, though one that it would require some thought as to how you might capture that in play.

The feel of the game actually reminds me a fair bit of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRPG). It has the same non-heroic character types, with Grave Robbers, Bounty Hunters and Plague Doctors instead of Paladins, Clerics and Mages. It has the same deadliness and insanity, and like Darkest Dungeon, Warhammer centres around the threat from insidious, inhuman, corrupting, maddening Ruinous Powers.

That is of course a prelude to saying that a roleplaying game based on that kind of (grim)dark fantasy could easily be done in WFRPG. I would prefer 2nd edition, but I did like several aspects of 3rd edition – among others, the “party sheet,” welding the characters into something more than just a bunch of random people. Other options would be using a game that’s Powered by the Apocalypse – like Dungeon World (though I’m not that keen on that game) or maybe something like Vincent Baker’s ideas for Apocalypse World Dark Age.

For a setting, I see in front of my mind’s eye a small village, set out in a vast, dark wood. The next nearest city is miles and miles away, and the forests are not safe for lone travellers. Wolves, witches and worse are lurking among the trees, while anyone inside the village might be corrupted by the eldritch forces at work. Players have to alternate between paranoid investigations, village politics and frantic hunts throughout the woods (without any mention of who is hunter and who is hunted).

World of Stars

I have fallen in love with the mechanics of Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World, and the host of other games it has spawned. At the same time I’ve been watching a lot of science fiction series of a particular ilk: Star Trek: Deep Space 9, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica (and Firefly, though it isn’t a completely neat fit). It struck me that the two might make a great match. And thus, the idea of World of Stars (or Star Worlds, or some other name) was born. I have vivid images of a campaign set in some corner of the stars, in which Sisko and Apollo clash over the running of the effort to protect some planet while Ambassador G’kar is hiring Mal and his crew to conduct some clandestine operation. It makes perfect sense for me to write the different character archetypes up as playbooks, and turn the Cylons, the Bajorans, the Alliance, the Reavers, the scheming politicians on earth and the wide assortment of other threats into, well, Threats and Fronts.

This is actually a bit more than an idea for a campaign. To me, one of the brilliant things about all the games that are Powered by the Apocalypse is that “system” and “setting” are so tightly intertwined. These games don’t interchange chapters (or paragraphs) on game mechanics with chapters (or paragraphs) on fictional natural laws, culture or history, such as World of Darkness usually does. Nor is it pure mechanics, like games like GURPS. Instead the two are so tightly linked as to be inseparable.

This is part of what makes the games great, but it is also a challenge: you cannot simply change out the setting and keep the system – if you want to adapt one, you must adapt both. In other words, making the game I’m envisioning means writing my own hack of Apocalypse World. This is by no means beyond me – but it is a bit of a challenging idea. Of course, one of the good things about AW is it’s modular design – it’s fairly easy to swap out parts of the game that I want to change, and see what works.

Night Witches

I’ll be honest, I don’t know that much about Jason Morningstar’s Night Witches, beyond the fact that it is Powered by the Apocalypse, and that it features a band of female, Russian pilots during WWII. It sounds like it could be an intense, action packed and emotional experience, though, and I’d love to try it out. It seems like it would be perfect for a short and intense little campaign of no more than five to ten sessions.

Movers and Shakers

A lot of campaigns are actually very narrowly focused on the player characters themselves. I wouldn’t mind playing something more political, though. I’m thinking of the players as movers and shakers in a society, having access to big resources and to big decisions about the direction of their society. I think I might like to make it something slightly sci-fi, but fantasy could work as well. I think part of my interest in this kind of game started with Birthright. I played a computer game in the setting, and I was quite fascinated with it.

I have a long-time love of Alpha Centauri, the Civ-game about going off to a different world and creating a colony there. I got a GURPS book based on that setting, but I don’t have a lot of love for GURPS, so I would probably do it in some other system. Maybe Fate would do the trick?

Another option would be to set it in Sigil, as part of D&D’s Planescape setting. That would offer loads of opportunities for political intrigue, weird stuff going on and mercenaries from all over creation. Players might be factols (the leaders of the political parties in the setting) or they might be representatives of some company, place or world.

No matter the setting, it would probably be more of an ensemble piece, in which there would be more characters than players, with each player changing between different characters depending on the circumstances. If someone orders a raid on some facility, the whole troupe of players take on the roles of the soldiers running the raid. Someone trying to assassinate another player takes on the role of the assassin, while the victim plays himself. And so on and so forth.

On the Verge

When I was younger, I had a great fascination with TSR’s Alternity system and the settings it spawned. In particular the very elaborate Star*Drive setting, outlining a very complex and interesting space opera setting. I would love to do a campaign in that setting, having the players travel around the Verge (the main area of space for Star*Drive) in some old spaceship, doing odd jobs, trading, and of course uncovering some major plot or happening. I’ve considered having them be part of some military force, but that seems too restricted. I would prefer to have a band of free operatives who can stake out their own claim in the Verge, and make a name for themselves by solving problems for the different governments in the area. There are a couple of variations – the Lighthouse, the big space station slash carrier ship that sails from area to area would be a perfect base of operations for such a game.

Spirit of the Century

I have a great love for Spirit of the Century. I like the feel of it, the ease of creating a story and the way the aspects underline the feel of the game. If I were to do a game of it, though, I would probably work with the players to create some point of departure – a mission, perhaps, or more likely a common resting place where the players can all hang out between adventures.

One of the good things about SotC is the flexibility of it. When I ran a campaign of the game, I would design it based on who was there on any given day. The game has a lot of tools to use in quickly designing a scenario, so that you don’t need a lot of planning. I usually prepared a scenario in about 30 minutes. That also makes it a great kind of campaign for busy people with erratic schedules, because if someone is missing on a given day, you just design a game that doesn’t include them. That probably makes it the most likely game for me to run any time soon.

So, there you have it: seven campaigns I would like to play. There are others, obviously. I would definitely be interesting in playing Apocalypse World, Monsterhearts, Primetime Adventures, Orpheus, Shadow of Yesterday or a number of other campaigns. The above are seven specific cases I would love to delve into that go beyond playing a plain vanilla version of some system or other.

What would you love to play? Let me know in the comments below

Pining for Orpheus

Cover of the Orpheus book.

Recently, the Kickstarter for the 20th anniversary edition of White Wolf’s (now Onyx Path’s) Wraith ended. That made me reminisce fondly about the greatest campaign I never played: Orpheus! If you don’t know Orpheus, it’s a game in the World of Darkness-series of games*, and is more and less a spinoff of Wraith. The players play either ghosts or humans projecting their spirits from their bodies. In the standard set-up for the game, the Orpheus Group, a company specialising in dealings with the dead, has hired them as operatives, dealing with a variety of cases. A lot of them deal specifically with the spirit world, like getting rid of a troublesome ghost or making sure daddy is all snug in the afterlife. Of course, there are also more nefarious uses for ghostly operatives – like eavesdropping on somebody’s secret negotiations, or conducting industrial espionage. Which means that there is a burgeoning market for incorporeal security. All in all, Orpheus and its competitors are doing a nice bit of business.

If that was all there was to it, it wouldn’t be much of a game. But of course things aren’t what they seem. Both inside and outside of Orpheus, events are unfolding that will drastically change life for the characters – and for everyone around them. In fact, that’s the special thing about Orpheus: by default, it comes with a storyline, outlined in the five supplements that came out for the game. Each contains some new major development in the story, along with some new toys for the players and the Storyteller – new character types, new powers and new ways to use old powers for the players; new allies, opponents, environments and challenges for the storyteller to throw at the players, as well as new explanations for everything that’s going on.

*Orpheus is not really set in the same world as the other World of Darkness Games. Where it would be quite all right to have a crossover between Vampire, Werewolf and Mage, the setting and rules of Orpheus do not exactly encourage having a Garou or a Kindred (a werewolf or a vampire for you laymen) appear in the middle of the game.

What’s so great about it?

Orpheus takes up a significant amount of space on my shelf

Orpheus takes up a significant amount of space on my shelf

I remember when Orpheus was coming out, back in 2003-2004. I would wait with anticipation for the next instalment of the saga, to read about the exciting ways they twisted the story, explore the intricate backstory for the game – and of course to geek out at the new mechanics and rules they put out. My big tragedy was that I didn’t really have a group I could play the game with, so I had to contend myself with reading along, and running a couple of one-shots at local events.**

Since then, whenever I looked at that black-white-grey block upon my roleplaying shelf, I felt a little bit of longing. I haven’t had much time to play campaigns, but Orpheus has always been on the list of games I would love to try my hand at. Why? Several reasons.

  • The setting: I really like the setting. It feels like a slice of real world, but with something odd, disquieting and fascinating on top. Some elements have a whiff of sci-fi, while other parts smack of urban fantasy.
  • The characters: The player characters of Orpheus are real people. At least, they begin that way, and hopefully, they stay that way. They gain access to powerful abilities, but they are still vulnerable.
  • The story: The big plot included is of course a major attraction. I would love to try my hand at unfolding that story and seeing how it plays out.
  • … And the players’ place in it: I like the fact that while there is a great big plot, it’s not actually that meta. The way it is designed, the players are smack dab in the middle of it – and they have a real opportunity to influence events, without necessarily being the primary movers and shakers – though they could be, if that is the way things unfold. It’s a good mean between the lowly neophytes of a Vampire-campaign and the epic heroes your D&D-character might quickly evolve into.
  • The duality: I like how the game turns the physical world and the ghost-world into separate, but related, entities. When you are a ghost, you have supernatural powers, but you can’t easily affect the physical world. When you are a human, you are just a human – but you are also really a human. Plus, the still-living members of the group are safe from many of the threats posed to them by things in the spirit world.
  • The Crucible: The Crucible is the game’s name for the supernatural union that will exist between the characters as they work together and their essence is slowly woven together. This mystical bond can eventually be used for several different feats of power. This is a wonderful addition to the game, as it gives a reason for staying together, also after some of the things that happen in the storyline. It also means that the players have an incentive within the rules to work together and coordinate whenever they are engaged in an action scene – they are actually, numerically, stronger together.
  • The system: I really like many aspects of the way the system underpins the setting and the story. I like how you can change your basic nature – are you sleeping in a tank, projecting from a bed or a straight up ghost? – but doing so requires a significant change within the story (to wit, your death). I like the fact that your Horrors (special ghost powers) have no ranks or dots, but are simply a matter of having the power or not – and of how much power you feed into it.
  • The social critique: Orpheus is no piece of socialist propaganda, but it seems to me that it points several fingers at modern society. Not least at the world of business – Orpheus and its two major competitors are not precisely portrayed with admiration and veneration. They engage in questionable business practices, treat their employees as expendable property and lie to the government, their employees and the public alike. This is not an unusual feature in the Classic World of Darkness, but I do feel that it hits with greater precision here than in some of its older cousins – not least because it has a narrower story.
  • The finality: I like the idea of a campaign with an end point in sight. To be frank, I think an end point will help the campaign be focused, and will help it move on at a good pace. It may also make it easier to pull people together: they know it’s a limited commitment, and that it will move on without them if they don’t commit.

All in all, I like a great many things about the game.

** I have always enjoyed reading role-playing books for their own sake, particularly the ones with heaps and heaps of setting. Old World of Darkness was always great for this, as all of them had massive meta-plots behind them. Unfortunately, they were either mostly irrelevant to players, or the players were just minor pawns caught in the webs of major movers and shakers – unless you “cheated” and created them as major players. New World of Darkness cut down drastically on the meta-plot, which made the games more accessible, but also made the books less fun to read for their own sake – Changeling being a notable exception, at least for me.

So, what’s the bad news?

Of course, it’s not all good. Just as I like a great many things about the game, there are a great many things I am not so fond of with the game. These include:

  • The pacing: One of my major concerns, and a major reason why I never really tried to organise a campaign, is that it would risk being a very slow moving campaign. You need to make an introduction to Orpheus, both game and company, and play a number of regular missions, so the players get to know the situation they’re coming from. Then you slowly introduce some of the elements that will play major parts in the coming plot, before you introduce the first major plot twist. Then you need to play a couple of chapters before each plot twist. All in all, we could easily be looking at several years’ worth of campaign. That’s quite a commitment, particularly if it will take five to 10 sessions before you introduce the first of the six plot twists, and the story begins in earnest.
  • The system: So, I like many things about the system. I also loathe many things about it. The basic engine is White Wolf’s d10 system, the same one used in Vampire, Werewolf and Mage. It works fine to give you an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the character, but once you start rolling the dice, I’ve often found it to be a bit clunky. That is especially true of the combat system, which is about as precise as a bazooka. Also, it almost requires the Storyteller to use fleshed out characters for their NPCs in a conflict situation, and I don’t want to have to write out scores of NPCs, just on the chance that my players will end up in a fight with it.
  • The integration between rules and world: This is pretty much the same complaint as above, but I’ve often found that the WoD systems have had a bit of a loosey goosey relationship with how the rules and the story affect one another. Take the willpower rules: Willpower is one of the most important currencies the players have, and it’s handed out in a variety of situations that basically boil down to “whenever the storyteller feels like it”. Similar complaints can be levered against the backgrounds.
  • The ending: I really like the story… but I have my misgivings about the ending of it. I won’t spoil it (I might want you to play it with me, after all), but they have a big showdown planned for the end. I’m all for a great big blast at the end, but when I read the final book, End Game, I remember feeling a bit let down. In the books, they talk about the “movie model”, and compare it to Aliens – but as I recall, Aliens doesn’t end so much on a big showdown as it does with a last, desperate attempt to overcome the Xenomorph threat to Ripley and co.’s personal safety (not to mention the threat they pose to all of humanity). Sure, they need to give the characters a chance to show off all the cool powers they have accumulated throughout the campaign, but I feel like they could have done this in a more elegant way. This is not at all a deal breaker, particularly since each group can interpret it as they want, but I remember feeling let down by what felt like a rather generic end to a very interesting story arc.

Bottom line is that I would love to play the game – either as a player or as a Storyteller, but I would have to think carefully about the best way to do it. Particularly bearing in mind everything that has happened in the roleplaying world over the last eleven years – I couldn’t do this without hacking in a few elements of story games and indie game design.

A sound judgement or how I decided to stop worrying and to start a podcast

So, I have had an idea rummaging around in my head for a while, and around Christmas I made a decision: I want to start a podcast centred in the roleplaying and board gaming community I’m part of in Denmark. I love listening to podcasts, and I’m missing one that highlights the great work being done with game design in Denmark, particularly when it comes to the scenarios written for Fastaval in particular, but also for Viking Con, Vintersol, Projekt Særimner and (I’m assuming) the Stockholm Scenario Festival. Of course, it’s also a good excuse to satisfy my curiosity as to how all the many different scenarios work.

So what is the content going to be?

First and foremost, I want the podcast to focus on dialogues and interviews – me talking to somebody with something interesting to tell. I’ve listened to many different kinds of podcasts, and while podcasts consisting mainly or solely of one person narrating can really shine, they take a lot more work to do well, and I don’t really want to be the expert expounding on this or that topic. I’d much rather be the journalist interviewing the most interesting people I can get my grubby little mike in front of.

Secondly, I want the main focus to be on game design in scenarios and roleplaying games, with secondary foci on the roleplaying community and on board game design.

As such, I’ll want to do interviews with scenariowrights about their scenarios, but also with GM’s, Otto judges and those responsible for picking out scenarios for the big conventions to get a broad view of the state of the art.

I’d also want to interview some of the board game designers about their games, and people from around the community about the dynamics and the history of the roleplaying community in Denmark.

So what now?

I need to finish Fastaval before I do much more on it. Then I need to finalise a format for it, acquire some theme music and a few jingles and figure out the logistics of hosting. I would also like to line up a few episodes, so that by the time I launch, I have a little bit of a backlog.

For now, it’s still in development. I would like some input, though. Would you listen to a podcast like this? Which topics should I take up? Which questions would you like answered? And by whom?

 

Iteration and progression in games: Progressive/ Entropic games.

Last time, I took a look at some games that have iteration as a core part of their gameplay. Today, I’ve set myself a task that is both easier and more difficult: Finding games that continuously progress or “decay” without returning to the same game state.

This is an easier task, because almost all games have development built into them. I mentioned poker as an iterative game yesterday – but while it iterates, it will also be progressing towards a conclusion: bankrupting all players except for one. At the same time, this is a more difficult task, because I want to find games that have almost no iteration at all, and that is a relatively rare phenomenon.

I’ve called this post “progressive/entropic games”. But while they are similar, I would say that entropy and progression are two different things:

  • Entropy is a term in physics describing the principle that all things in the universe are slowly devolving into heat (put very, very bluntly – I’m using this term for my purposes). More generally, I would determine it as “things decaying on their own”. In game terms, I define entropy as mechanisms within the game that will drive the players away from the starting position, often slowly moving the game towards a conclusion. A turn counter is perhaps the bluntest form of entropy. The pile running out is another form of entropy: no matter how well you are doing, the pile is going to end at some point, and the game is going to end.
  • Progress, meanwhile, means development, maybe towards some kind of goal. If you are constructing buildings that give you more resources, you are progressing. If you are moving towards your goal in a racing game, you are progressing.

Both of these can be reversible or irreversible. I would say that entropy is very often irreversible. Many games have built in mechanisms to make sure the game does not go on indefinitely – and indeed, quite a few games could have benefited from that kind of mechanism. Progress can be either, sometimes in the same game. Take Munchkin – killing monsters in Munchkin gains you loot and levels, both of which are examples of progress. If you die, you lose your loot (so that progress was reversible) but keep your levels (so that was irreversible progress).

And so, without any more ado, a few games that, to my mind, are progressive and/or entropic.

Tic-Tac-Toe

When I played this game as a kid, I seem to remember a game with three little circles and three little crosses that could be moved around on the board. But when playing on paper, you draw your symbol on the paper and don’t erase it. In other words, the game will never take more than nine rounds. After nine rounds, the grid will be full, and you can’t play anymore. A very clear example of irreversible entropy.

Chess

Chess is another great example of entropic gameplay, and also one in which the entropy can also be progression. From the first time a pawn is moved, the board will never look the same again, as you can never move a pawn backwards. Soon, pieces will be captured, leaving both players with fewer and fewer pieces.

As a matter of fact, I seem to recall that there is a rule in chess that states that if the same board position occurs a certain number of times, the game ends in a draw. In other words, any player hoping to win the game must drive towards a resolution. Progress or die!

Settlers of Catan

I’ll be honest – I’m not a big fan of Settlers. It is, however, a very good example of a game that progresses. Every time you build a settlement or a city, you will gain more resources (as you will have one more space to harvest from). And as settlements and cities gain you points, you are also driving towards the 10 points that close the game. This is an example of irreversible progress: once something is built, it is not taken off the board again.

Warhammer

I used to play Warhammer Fantasy Battles, and I dabbled in Warhammer 40k. In both games, once you’ve set up your figures, there’s no going back. Moving back takes such a long time, your only sensible move is almost always to go forward, towards the enemy. And once you start fighting, your army starts slowly deflating. The game, then, is about making sure the other player expends all of his resources before you can expend yours. And of course, many of the scenarios you will be playing also have turn counters build into them.

Red Dragon Inn

One thing I’ve always admired about Red Dragon Inn is the way the game is designed to end. There are two ways to lose the game: run out of money (as symbolised by cardboard coins), or have your alcohol content meet your fortitude (represented by a clear and a red stone, starting at opposite ends of the same track). You gain alcohol almost every turn, and lose fortitude regularly through cards played on you. Fortitude can often be regained as the game progresses, but it’s almost impossible to get rid of alcohol content once you get it. As such, you will eventually pass out.

Meanwhile, money is more of a fluent resource that can change hands quite often. There are a number of ways money leaves the game completely: many cards will do it, like having “the wench” take away the pot of a round of gambling. Also, whenever the drinks deck is empty, everybody pays to have the deck reshuffled. And when somebody passes out, at least half of their money will go to the inn. As such, there will be fewer and fewer coins to go around. This means that somebody will eventually run out of money, unless everyone passes out first.

Now the genius of this game is that each character in the game has one or more strengths. Some are good at gaining money, some are good at dealing damage, while others are good at avoiding getting alcohol. As such it will often be a matter of having enough of one resource while trying to protect the other resource. In a way, this feels like progress – while it really is entropy.

Geiger Counter

The story-game Geiger Counter contains two inbuilt countdown mechanisms: First of all, the menace slowly increases in size until it reaches the maximum, after which it can be whittled back down. Secondly, every time someone loses a challenge, they gain a condition – a certain number of conditions and you’re out. This means that there can only be so many confrontations in the game before it ends. Either the menace gains a die or loses one, or one or more players gain a condition. This will inevitably lead to the end of the game.

Fifteen Men

Fifteen men is a Fastaval scenario about pirates. There are five players in the game, each of whom will get to play a number of characters throughout the game, until all fifteen characters have been played by someone. As such, each time somebody dies, we will be one tick closer to the end of the game.

At the same time, the game has an inbuilt compulsion to progress: at certain points, you can’t progress the game without killing someone. This seems like a double-edged sword: on the one hand, you force the players to do something they may be hesitant to do. On the other hand, if they don’t do it, the game is stuck.

Starcraft

One of the neat things about RTS-games like StarCraft, Warcraft and similar, is how the resources drive the game onwards. There is progression in the game – but you can easily be reduced to rubble. You can’t continue building indefinitely, however. Eventually, your minerals will run out or your Vespene Geyser will run out, and you will have to go find more resources. This means that any game of Starcraft (and Warcraft, and – if I remember the game correctly – Command & Conquer) will have to end, at the latest when the map has been drained of resources.

Other progressive or entropic games

  • Racing games: In racing games, you may be taking several laps –but the more you progress, the closer you get to the finish line.
  • Sid Meyer’s Civilization: in the game, you progress through research and years towards the inevitable ending of the game.
  • Bausack/Bandu: Each time someone pays gems, he’s a little closer to being broke. Each time someone puts a piece in their tower, they get a little closer to toppling their tower. Each time a tower topples, you get a little closer to ending the game.
  • Race for the Galaxy: The game ends when someone has 12 cards in their display, or when a certain number of VP have been gained.

The golden is mean

All the games above have progression as a core thing in the way the game is constructed. But very few, if any, games are completely devoid of iterations. And why should they be? The best games happen when a designer hits a perfect combination of the two. Some way the player progresses with each iteration, some way each iteration ends for another to begin.

But that’s for next time. For now: does this make sense? Is it a useful distinction to make? And do you have any great examples of entropy or progression within a game?

Iteration and progression in games: Iterative Games

Lately, I have been playing a number of little games on my computer: Reus, FTL and Now Boarding, among a few others. In all three, you play a series of relatively short games. But each game will impact the next game in some way. That made me think of how important iteration is in many games. Thus, I’ll be doing a small series on iteration, progression and entropy in games, both computer games, board games and roleplaying games.

Iteration means repetition. From Wikipedia:

Iteration is the act of repeating a process with the aim of approaching a desired goal, target or result. Each repetition of the process is also called an “iteration”, and the results of one iteration are used as the starting point for the next iteration.

Many, many games use iteration – the basic turn-taking that is present in a vast majority of board games, and in the combat system of many, many roleplaying games, is one example of this. Take a game like Race for the Galaxy: You choose a role, reveal all roles, then go through the phases selected from lowest to highest. Rinse, repeat.

Today, though, I want to look at what I would call “iterative games” – games where a central part of the game is playing it several times, often in a row. Usually there’s a mechanical effect of one game on the next, but sometimes the effect is very subtle. The spill-over might just be each player’s feeling for the social dynamics of the group – like which player is more likely to bluff, or to fall for a bluff. I’d like to give a few examples below.

Poker

One of the best examples I can think of is poker. The game as written is roughly this: the players are dealt some cards, they bet, then change or add some cards, then bet some more. Players may fold if they don’t want to follow the betting. If there’s more than one player left at the end of the round, the players compare their cards and see who has the best hand. That’s it – the winner takes the pot.

But you can’t really play just one game of poker. The real game of poker is what emerges after you’ve played a few hands: chips are redistributed and players start getting a feeling for each other. The real game ends when only one player remains at the table.

In other words, a play-session of poker consists of playing a string of games; with one game determine the starting layout for the next game. If one player has more money than the others, he can afford to be bolder, while someone who has lost most of their chips might be forced to take desperate measures, going all in on a mediocre hand to try to get back into the game. Which might of course lead to the next game having one less player.

Reus

In the computer game, Reus, you play a planet-deity, expressing your will through four elemental giants. Each game is called an “age”, and the idea is that you and your giants go through periods of activity interspersed by periods of sleep. While you sleep everything reverts to a flat and barren state.

Each age starts with an empty planet. The giants can add terrain and resources to the land, attracting people to settle and build on the planet. Each age lasts a set amount of time before the giants (and you) fall back asleep. At the end of each age, you earn achievements which unlock things for future ages: more advanced resources, more advanced projects that the humans can build, and longer ages, allowing you to achieve more in each age.

As such, each game starts with a blank slate. But you will be able to do more things than you could in previous games, and you will be faced with more difficult achievements to fulfil. Each iteration of the game is both a game in itself, but also a part of a larger arc of playing the game.

Spirit of the Century

Roleplaying games are not usually thought of as iterative in the sense that I just described – you play a campaign that keeps progressing, or you play a one-off thing. But there are actually a few of them out there. One example is Spirit of the Century. The game is designed to accommodate a string of linked but independent stories. At the beginning of a campaign, you get everybody together to make characters. Before each session the GM will find out who will be part of that session, and design a scenario to fit those heroes, taking cues from the aspects on their sheets.

At the end of each session, you don’t hand out experience points, but players may change their aspects to reflect things that happened during the game. There are some progression rules in the game, allowing players to add one more aspect every two games, and also a new stunt once in a while.

Spirit of the Century could be used to play the “big plotline” campaigns that traditional roleplaying games often excel in. But the strength of the game is in the episodic games, where you get a group together and play a game based on those characters. In TV-terms, this is more like the Simpsons or Star Trek than it’s like Lost or 24. It’s important to note, though, that that doesn’t mean it has a static starting point: each episode will change the backstory of the character, giving him new facets, reflected in new aspects.

Magic the Gathering (or Pokemon, or Netrunner, or…)

When Magic: the Gathering came out, it created a whole new genre of games unto itself: the Collectible Card Game, or CCG. What defines this genre is not something that is written in the actual rules of the game. That is because, just like in poker, the real game of a CCG is not what is written in the rules – it is what happens as you play the game over and over. Thus, CCG is a whole genre of iterative games. Lately the genre has evolved into the Living Card Game (LCG), and most of what I say about the CCG goes for the LCG as well.

In the basic game of Magic, two people sit down with each their deck of cards. They keep playing until someone loses all their life or runs out of cards.

The real game of Magic is on a larger scope, however. While you can get a readymade deck and just sit down to play, really playing Magic means collecting cards and assembling your own deck. You buy cards in random booster packs, and then select ones from your collection that complement each other to make a well-balanced deck. When you have a finished deck, you take it out to play with it, then take it home to tune it based on what worked and what didn’t.

This also means that success in Magic doesn’t necessarily mean winning more than you lose. The designers of magic have described three personas of magic players: Timmy, Spike and Johnny (read the very interesting article defining the personas here). Two out of the three care more about how they win than how often: Timmy wants to get out his huge cards and smash his opponent, while Johnny wants his carefully constructed engine of cards to kick in and do what they were designed to do. Only Spike wants to have a deck that can beat them every time.

Magic shares this meta-game with other CCG’s and LCG’s, like Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh and Android Netrunner. For the people who seriously play these games, sitting down to play is as much a way to test your deck as designing a deck is preparation for play. In this way, these games are iterative: you play, then reset, adjust, and play again.

Other iterative games

A few other iterative games, off my cuff here:

  • Las Vegas: In this game, you play three rounds. Each round is basically the same, and the winner is the one who earned the most money at the end. Only difference is the knowledge of how much money everybody else has.
  • Meyer and Cheat: small bluffing games with dice often played while drinking in Denmark.  It is customary to play more than one round of either
  • Rummy, Whist, Bridge, Hearts, Oh Hell!: In these games, you play a number of games, totalling the number of points you get in each round. The winner is the one who earns the most (or least, in the case of Hearts) points at the end, or the first to a certain number of points.
  • Classic D&D: In classic D&D (which I’ve never really played, so I have some reservations) you make a party, go down the dungeon, come up, divide loot and level up. Rinse, repeat. Plot-arcs optional.
  • Hinterlandet: Morten Greis’ remake of classic dungeoncrawl is even more so. You bring your character, then go out to a dungeon, hopefully returns to town with loot and experience, say bye bye, and take your character home. Next time, you may play with someone else, and your character is better for having been out before.
  • Kingdom of Loathing: In KoL (as it’s known among friends) you play through 13 levels of questing and levelling up. When you are done, you can “ascend”, which basically means starting over with a new character class at level 1. You get to keep your stuff (though you can’t access all of it), just as you can make skills carry over from ascension to ascension. Each time you ascend, you can modify your next run-through of the game, restricting what you can do or gaining special items to help you in this incarnation.

The march of progress!

That’s it for purely iterative games. Tomorrow, I’ll post something about games that do the opposite: progression and entropy in games. The third post in this series will deal with ways of mixing iteration and progression/entropy in games.

It’s a brand new year!

So, last year, I had aimed at writing 52 blog posts – here and two other places. Well, that didn’t happen. It almost did – if I had finished my (unofficial) advent calendar, I would have been there. Then life (and Chrstmas) happened. Ah, well.

But what my mad dash towards the end told me, was that I really want to do more with this blogging stuff. The blog’s been more or less in limbo for a while, as I didn’t play a lot of roleplaying games – or games of any kind, really – and I didn’t have a lot of energy or drive to write stuff. Well, that’s changed. I’m playing more games, and I am feeling more of an urge to blog. Plus, I have some projects that I want to write about (but more about that a bit later).

In any case, I want to make some adjustments to the way the blog works. These changes may not be noticeable to anyone outside of me, but I’d still like to state them clearly.

I write about all manner of games (and sometimes other things)

When I started this blog, I was mostly focussing on writing about roleplaying games. Since then I’ve had much more time for board games than for roleplaying games, not to mention computer games. Roleplaying games still fascinate me more, and I will probably still spend more time talking about them than about board games, particularly in relation to how much I play them. But as I play many more board games, and as I play more indie computer games, I’m starting to notice things in those two genres that is interesting – and often ways in which the three types of games are similar, or ways in which they diverge.

I also want to write about films, books, and maybe even podcasts. When I started the blog, I said it was about storytelling, and that is still my focus – when  I play board games or computer games, I mostly prefer ones with an interesting and engaging story (a topic I might very well return to). Generally, if I can see the connection, I’ll write about it.

I often write reviews

I like writing reviews. And I like finding out what I think is good or bad about something. My biggest challenge is often convincing myself that there is merit to my opinion as to what is interesting or noteworthy in something. I’ll try to be bolder, and rely on you, my readers, to call me out when I’m wrong.

I write often – whenever something is on my mind – but I endeavour to be brief

I have a tendency to be long-winded. Once I get going, I just keep on rolling. But that also means that writing a post becomes more of a task, and that makes me refrain from doing so. I want to write more often, but the average length of the post may well decrease. You don’t have time for idle chatter anyway.

I think one problem for me is that I feel like I have to be intelligent on this blog. I will try to allow myself to be searching and questioning when I write something – you guys can help me find an answer.

But about what?

And that is it. My blogging endeavour for this coming year is to write more regularly, and more interestingly. There will still be play-reports from whatever I’ve been playing, but hopefully, they will be interspersed by more posts about other things.

Like I said before, I have some projects that should help me come up with more content for the blog, just as I have some ideas for things I want to explore.

But before I do that, I would like to hear from you guys. What should I be writing? Which posts have interested you? What are the strong points of this blog so far? What do you want to see more of? Concrete ideas for posts are welcome, as is all manner of constructive feedback.