Dream Riggers

The new game I’m working on has the working title of Riggers, more specifically – for the playtest – Dream Riggers. The system came first and exists to test out a mechanic that interests me. If it works out, the game will likely evolve to better fit the setting.

The setting was created using the scenario creation rules from Nefertiti Overdrive (which is now in layout). There is a bidding mechanism, and players provide the “Features” which describe the setting and campaign.

From the movie Mirrormask

The first is Inspiration, which has the greatest amount of influence on the feel of the game. This is stuff like genre, time period, or even an existing intellectual property. For Dream Riggers, the Inspiration is superhumans (the other term is copyrighted, doncha know) and the movie Mirrormask (which I haven’t seen).

Setting describes the physical space in which the campaign happens. For Dream Riggers, that’s waterworld, slums of South Africa, and orbital refuges.

Plot describes things that are happening in the world in which the PCs might get involved. For Dream Riggers, they were “super powers are against the law,” “war between supers and normal,” and “global ecological collapse.”

Goals relate to what the PCs are doing, what their purpose is in the game world. In Dream Riggers, that’s “find a device to resurrect the eco-system,” “defeat evil super villains,” and “become normal.”

Then there are Themes. Themes are specific scenes, events, activities, or characters that will appear at some point in the game. We have “trickster guide,” “psionic mental powers like in Scanners,” and “Planet X.”

Finally, the players decided on the Attributes that would provide dice for conflict resolution in the game. I actually shouldn’t have done this, because the system already had everything set, but luckily what the players provided works pretty much perfectly for the system. We have Handicap (which I’m changing to Flaws), Powers, Skills, and Hope (which I am changing to Drivers).

There you have it. The basis for the Dream Riggers playtest. It should be interesting.

League of Extraordinary Misfits

If you’ve been around here long enough, You’ve probably read about the game with the working title A Team of Pulp Losers. Well, that game is no more, and rising from the ashes is . . .

League of Extraordinary Misfits.

I asked around for suggestions, and I got a ton of them. This one was from one of the playtesters, Kat. The playtesters all agreed it was the best fit for the game.

Gerry Saracco thought up a great tagline: “Preserving the past….by any means necessary!”

What is League of Extraordinary Misfits about? It’s about action archaeology, in which a group of misfit adventurers seek out the past’s mysteries, learning that some myths have a foundation in fact and sometimes monsters do hide under the bed. They fight Nazis as well as horrors of the past resurrected in the present (1937), shooting/beating/sciencing the shit out of anything that gets in their way as they hop the globe saving artifacts that belong in a museum.

I’m very happy with the system.

Next in the queue? Dream Riggers, in which the characters find that reality is fluid, and that they just hit the rapids. This game is developing and the first playtest session is soon. The characters have super powers, and the conflict mechanic is based on skills providing a die that is rolled against a target number. Like Centurion, this is being developed from the ground up, but I’m building Riggers around a mechanic rather than a concept.

Give the Players What They Want

As I mentioned, my A Team of Pulp Losers (needs better title) campaign finished last week. It reinforced a lot of my practices and thoughts about GMing – the importance of flexibility; that robust preparation is unnecessary; that players are your allies, not your opponents – but the major one was “give the players what they want.”

Gratuitous Raiders of the Lost Ark pic – this was the direction my players pushed the campaign, and I was happy to follow their lead.

This is especially easy if one is running an improvisational style campaign. I’ve mentioned before about my one-pagers, and most of the sessions were run from a page of notes, so improvising and changing the game or story on the fly posed no real problem for me.

This doesn’t mean that one must be an improvisational GM to be able to respond to your players’ interests and desires. If you are a high-prep GM, you probably are not comfortable shifting gears during a session. If you are, all the better, but if not, make notes of player reactions and comments for use in shaping the further campaign to better reflect their interests.

For GMs that are very sensitive to their players’ reactions, they can use their perceptions of what worked for the players and what players desire to help shape future games. There is also nothing wrong with asking for player feedback. It’s easy for players to tell you what they enjoyed, but most probably won’t tell you what they didn’t like in order to spare your feelings. Just ask if there were any moments that dragged, or what part of the session was their least favourite – not necessarily bad, just least good. You can also ask the players to recap the previous adventure at the beginning of each session. Note what areas they skip over – they aren’t going to recall the parts of the session that felt slow or disinteresting.

It’s honestly not that hard to adjust even pre-made adventures to add in some encounters or items tailored for your crew. You’re probably doing that already to make sure every character has a spotlight moment, so this is just a little addition to that.

It’s more work, certainly, but it will pay huge dividends and make you feel like a pretty epic GM.

Disappearing Characters

The playtest campaign for A Team of Pulp Losers (needs better name) is complete, and I’m very happy with how the game held up. I ran my home group through a globe (and dimension) trotting adventure finding the lost pieces of Pandora’s Box, that took them to 1937 Manchuria, the Congo, Romania, Northern Ontario, Mexico, the Lost World, Atlantis, and finally an archaeological dig in Tanis, Egypt. It was a success both in that the rules held up remarkably well and the players had a lot of fun.

One situation that I encountered on a regular basis was missing players. Usually it was one, but there were occasions when two or more people were missing. This was a serial campaign, so this created some narrative issues, especially when a character that had been important during the previous session was suddenly missing, or when a character that had skills needed to overcome a particular obstacle was missing.

I don’t really have any advice on dealing with that situation, because my preferred solution was just to ignore it. The character wasn’t there, so the character didn’t act. We didn’t remark on it in the narrative, although there were plenty of out of character jokes about disappearing and re-appearing characters.

If a scene had been built for a specific character, I adjusted it as best I could so that the characters in attendance could get the spotlight instead. It’s easy enough to change Challenges on the fly, so not having the “right” character to address a Challenge was never a problem. Recaps of the previous game always happened, so players who had been absent got a bit of a download during that. In the end, it never really caused a problem.

I tend to be a very improvisational GM, so having a character missing was a minor curveball if a problem at all. Those who undertake more robust preparations might have more or bigger problems than I did, but no GM should be so rigid that such changes create serious problems.

As long as no one splits up the party. 😉

Fallout Noir

Those of you who have been around here a while are aware I’m a big fan of the computer games Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. Fallout 4 has been announced, and already it is providing inspiration. How is that possible, you might ask, given that we know next to nothing about the story? It’s the imagery that has piqued my interest.

One of the initial pics from Fallout 4 had me thinking of F:NV. F:NV is a mix of the post-apocalyptic and western genres. This image made me think that Fallout 4 would also mix genres, specifically post-apocalyptic and noir. Given that I’ve published a sword & sorcery noir, you can imagine how this might have grabbed my interest. So what about post-apocalyptic noir?

The one aspect of noir that I think is important is an urban setting. Post-apocalyptic adventures don’t really need urban centres. In fact, most work without them. Fallout, though, has regular urban areas of different sizes, from towns to cities. These are represented in the computer game by groups of buildings and characters of varying sizes, but all much smaller than the populace they are to denote. New Vegas is actually a pretty small geographic area, but one can imagine that it indicates one of the larger urban areas in shattered North America. Rivet City in Fallout 3 is the same.

With examples like those, and the urban density the image seems to suggest, it is easy to imagine cities with governments and rudimentary law enforcement in this setting. Most of the plots and macguffins of hardboiled detective fiction could be ported into such a world as easy as they could a sword & sorcery one.

You could easily take your standard travelling group of troubleshooters that are regularly getting into messes as they move between points of light in the wasteland and bolt that onto hardboiled plots. Imagine something like Raymond Chandler’s the High Window, in which the characters are hired to find a treasure their employer believes was stolen by an estranged daughter-in-law. This could totally work, and work well, in New Vegas or Rivet City. Instead of a rare coin, it could be a piece of technology – though this would make a couple of the twists in the story a little bit difficult.

There’s also something like the Dashiell Hammett novel the Thin Man, in which Nick and Nora Charles investigate a dead body and get involved in a pretty messed up family. The key points of the mystery and the family would work just as well in a post-apocalyptic setting.

Just take a look at that picture and try to figure out the story behind it. I’m pretty sure it includes corrupt officials, femme fatales/homme horribles, criminals, and snappy dialogue.

You can find out more about the Fallout series here.

You can find Sword Noir: A Role-Playing Game of Hardboiled Sword & Sorcery at Amazon and DriveThru RPG.

You can find out more about the High Window here.

You can find out more about the Thin Man here.

SEP State of Play

Every week I’m trying to get two articles up on the website, but some weeks it’s tougher than others. Tuesdays I generally like to have an advice column while on Thursdays I write about inspiration. This time, instead of providing advice, I’m going to let you know what is happening over at SEP.

The main concern for SEP (which is me) right now is Nefertiti Overdrive. It is in layout and the graphic designer – Rob Wakefield, who has laid out all our books since at least the Khorforjan Gambit – is optimistic about getting it back to me early July. Fingers are crossed. Once we get those files in a format with which we are both happy, the PDFs will be sent off to backers and to the printers to get some books done. I wish printing were faster, but due to schedules and the early start to Gen Con this year, I can’t see us having any Nefertiti Overdrive books to sell at the con.

However, I will be at the convention. The Nefertiti Overdrive games that I am running are all full, but I’ll be on the panel for a couple of seminars, and there are seats available to those. On Friday at 9 AM, I have “Indie RPG Matchmaker” with Jason Pitre of Genesis of Legend Publishing, while on Saturday at 1 PM, Ben Woerner who wrote World of Dew and I sit down to talk about “Historical Gaming.” I will be selling copies of both Sword Noir and Centurion there at the Independent Game Designers Network booth. Come by, say hi, shake hands and chat!

The play test for the game with the working title A Team of Pulp Losers is winding down, and the rules have proved successful through a one-year campaign. I am wondering about beta-testing these rules, but have had difficulty finding playtesters beyond my alpha-test circle. In the end, there is no business plan for these rules. I have not costed-out a release because I am a bit burned out on Kickstarter. What will happen to these rules? First, I need to find a better name. After that? We shall see.

Another system is ready to go for Gen Con. I’m calling it Fancy Pants because – as noted above – I suck at creating good titles. Fancy Pants is a game very much in the vein of Nefertiti Overdrive. It provides players with the opportunity to control the narrative and pushes them to get fancy – describing “success or failure in a way that is dramatic, cinematic, amusing or otherwise dazzling.” Unlike Nefertiti Overdrive, rather than providing an incentive by providing better dice or bonuses, getting fancy is tied to advancement. One Fancy Pants session at Gen Con will be based on Borderlands 2 while another is going to be a high octane action take on Sword Noir.

I honestly have no idea what will happen with Fancy Pants . . . even if it finds itself a good name.

There are two other completed systems that are steps between Nefertiti Overdrive and A Team of Pulp Losers: Direct Action and Starship Commandos. I’ve written about both games before, and they have both had shakedowns. They lack art or professional layouts, but they are ready to move forward.

And even with a backlog of four games, I have a new one for which I am about to pull the trigger on playtesting. This one is termed Riggers, although that name no longer applies. Riggers was tied more to the setting than the system, and I am working on playtesting the rules in a campaign attractive to my players. I intend to use the scenario generation system from Nefertiti Overdrive to create the campaign for the Riggers playtest. Maybe the setting will work with the name.

Riggers won’t be ready for prime time for at least a year. Like Centurion, it is a system built from scratch. Nefertiti Overdrive, like Sword Noir, was inspired by mechanics encountered elsewhere. Riggers was built from the ground up. I’m not going to say it’s totally new and unique, because I honestly expect someone at some point to say “this works just like X.” Still, because it’s new and unique to me, it’ll take a while to work out the kinks. Centurion changed dramatically during the playtest, and I expect something similar from Riggers.

So, there you go. Three completed games, two getting ready to have their tires kicked. Once Nefertiti Overdrive is in the hands of the backers, I’ll be doing some serious thinking about what I want to do and how I want to do it.

Until then, stick around. Let’s chat over at the SEP G+ group.

Edge of Inspiration: Bond Contains Multitudes

On Tuesday I wrote about niches and how important I believe them to be. What if you are looking for inspiration for niches from mass media? There you are in for a bit of trouble, because in many cases the niches are all wrapped up in one person.

In the very first Accidental Survivors podcast episode, we talked about James Bond. One of the pieces of advice we gave for adapting Bond to an RPG was to break him up into his constituent parts. Bond is good at everything. His sidekicks are truly sidekicks – they rarely do anything essential though they are sometimes useful. Bond needs no one.

With apologies to Walt Whitman . . . Bond is large. He contains multitudes.

This isn’t to say that you can’t find niches in a Bond movie or novel. You can go through any mass media property and look for the different obstacles the characters must overcome and what kind of role the character(s) assume when overcoming them. Those are your niches.

As an example, let’s look at my favourite Bond movie: From Russia With Love. This is a really simple breakdown of some of the challenges within the movie, ignoring the role of Red Grant in seeing much of it through to success.

The first real obstacle or challenge Bond faces is the surveillance of the Soviet consulate. Bond is being a spy or a sneak.

Then, in the Gypsy camp, Bond needs to ingratiate himself. So he’s a diplomat or a face.

There’s a big fight at the camp in which Bond mostly shoots the bad guys (though he also fisticuffs a couple) so we’ve got him as a shooter or marksman.

He assists Kerim Bey in killing an enemy spy, so maybe as a leader or controller?

Once he has the floor layout of the consulate, he plans the assault and theft of the decoder. I would say in this he’s a commander/leader or possibly an expert.

The theft goes really well, though this is very much Bond in command, leading others, so certainly leader or controller.

While it might not be obvious at the time, Bond does realize what Red Grant is doing during the escape on the train when he drugs Tatiana. This is him being a spy or a sneak.

The big fight on the train – which is actually kind of a boss fight but well before the end of the movie – is all fisticuffs all the time with Red Grant. In this, Bond is being the martial artist or maybe the muscle.

On the run, Bond shoots down a helicopter with a sniper rifle, definitely being a shooter or marksman.

The boat fight – in which Bond destroys some pursuers – is kind of based on resourcefulness as much as it does marksmanship, so I’d go with Bond as an expert or thinker (with a dash of shooter).

And then the final fight with Rosa Kleb, in which Bond is once again the martial artist or muscle.

Understandably for an action movie, Bond leans to the shooter/martial artist, but there are plenty of displays of his expertise, leadership, and diplomacy. In a game, you would want to add more scenes for those kind of characters, but depending on the rules, being an expert, face, or leader in combat can still be effective, if not as effective as a shooter or martial artist.

Mass media can provide inspiration both for challenges and for the kind of characters needed to overcome those challenges.

Even when it’s all the same character, like Bond.

You can find that podcast episode here. It’s kind of rough, since it was our first outing.

You can find out more about From Russian With Love at Wikipedia and IMDB.

Protecting Niches

I believe niche protection is as important in simple systems as it is in complex ones. To me, niche protection means that each character has a unique role or purpose in a group, and that this unique role provides the character with the spotlight at certain times during the game. D&D does this with Classes. In Centurion and Nefertiti Overdrive, I have left it to the players to devise their own. I’m working on a new game, tentatively called Riggers in which the niches are set. That’s something different for me and it is causing one small headache.

Classes from D&D

In Riggers, I have six niches: leader, muscle, face, shooter, expert, and sneak. The thing is, my group now has seven players. In general, this is not a problem as we almost never have all the players in attendance. My sweet spot has always been four to six players, which is why I designed six niches for Riggers and six pre-generated characters for Nefertiti Overdrive. Now I have seven players and six niches.

I’ll be dealing with the problem for Riggers through consultation with my players, but I will institute some kind of niche and niche protection for the characters. Sharing out the spotlight is – to me – a very important part of keeping all the players invested. Isn’t that why we play? Don’t we want to develop our characters so they do something cool, something noteworthy? And when that is happening, do we not want everyone to see it? In my opinion, this is the most important reason to include niche protection in an RPG.

For some players, getting the spotlight is easy. Some players are confident or expressive, or have some other personality trait that allows them to dominate when they choose. Not all players are like this, and niche protection ensures that even quiet players will have a chance to show off. Without niche protection, one can’t always guarantee everyone gets a chance at that spotlight. If everyone is a sniper in your modern action game, how do you – as a GM – ensure everyone gets a chance to shine?

With niche protection that’s easy. You have a scene in which someone needs to get punched in the face, then one in which a computer needs to be hacked, and then one in which someone needs to sneak past the guards, etc. Having niches allows the GM to dole out the spotlight evenly and not have to worry about it at the same time as she is running the game. It’s hardwired into the adventure.

I don’t think it will be a problem to create one or two more niches for Riggers. As long as everyone has a clear idea what they want to be and what they want their character to do, niches can follow from that without much effort.

You can find Centurion: Legionaries of Rome at Amazon and Drive Thru RPG.

You can find out more about Nefertiti Overdrive here.

Ancient Inspiration and Immortals of Bronze

Immortals of Bronze was an idea that didn’t actually go anywhere. We had one, maybe two games, and then moved on to Nefertiti Overdrive. Over at Sword’s Edge, I reviewed Cities of the Ancient World, a lecture series from the Great Courses, and I mentioned my interest in ancient history. Immortals of Bronze was based on that interest.

Public domain art of port of Eridu, from Wikipedia

The game was set in 2600 BCE Mesopotamia, and the players were representatives of the city-state of Eridu. The Overseers of the city-states are immortal. They have been given eternal life through magic. The necessary reagents for this magic can only be obtained from foreign lands, which leads many to send trade missions abroad. Other trade missions are from those of wealth or influence wishing to increase these. As the heroes of city-states, the PCs directed or protected these missions, which leads them into action, adventure and intrigue. These allows character to take on niches as warriors, traders, diplomats, spies, explorers, sorcerers, or pretty much anything else.

I was excited about a game set in Mesopotamia since, although we have evidence and information, we have no concrete facts. I like the malleability of that setting. I mean, in Nefertiti Overdrive, I took a well-documented moment in history and bent it to my will, but with Immortals of Bronze, history is even more interpretation than usual.

Further, basing adventures on trade missions provided a coherent explanation for the PCs being inserted into all sorts of dangers and intrigues – these aren’t just wandering murder-hobos, they represent the power of the a city-state government, meaning that they will be extended some level of deference and acceptance by most other states, except, of course, rivals.

The complex society of ancient Mesopotamia, its importance to the growth of Western civilization, and the ephemeral nature of our knowledge of the period make it fertile ground for adventures in a mythic locale most of your players will have at least some ideas about.

You can learn more about Mesopotamia with Dr. Kenneth Harls’ lecture series Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations at the Great Courses.

High Plains Theft

Todd Crapper, award-winning designer of Killshot, cooked up a pretty sweet mechanic that I encountered in the last playtest for High Plains Samurai/Screenplay. High Plains Samurai is basically kung-fu spaghetti western . . . maybe we could call it japchae western. It’s like he was in my head.

Anyway, certain effects last for the duration of a scene. We took some time to demarcate how to measure this duration. Each scene has an intent, and once that intent is met, the scene ends. This was refined so that the intent had to move the story forward, and once the players succeeded in their intent, moved the story forward, and were ready for something more, the scene ended.

I really like that. In Nefertiti Overdrive and Centurion, a scene is based on the concept used in plays, TV, and movies, but it’s not quantified. Demanding an intent, requiring that intent to move the story forward, and then measuring a scene based on meeting that intent works on both a narrative and mechanical level.

The game I am designing now is more fiddly than Nefertiti Overdrive. It isn’t complex by any stretch of the imagination, but there are more moving parts. Scenes based on intent are now going to be one of those moving parts. It just works so well in my mind.

There’s a mechanic to interrupt, and that is also something I’m toying with including – allowing GM’s to interrupt the players’ scene, or have the players interrupt the GM. More thought needs to go into how to use that.

There’s nothing like gaming with another designer to jumptstart creativity.

Japchae is delicious.

You can learn more about High Plains Samurai here.

You can learn more about Killshot here.