Immersed in Packaging

The printed volumes of Nefertiti Overdrive have arrived, and I have about 30 copies to sign and ship and a handful of other books to send to reviewers and other lucky recipients. That’s not a lot, but it takes up most of the limited free time I have, and I want to get this done so I can put a pin in Nefertiti Overdrive.

Then on to the next challenge.

Capital Gaming Expo – Nefertiti Overdrive

If you are going to be in the Ottawa area on 3-4 Oct 2015, you can get in on a game of Nefertiti Overdrive. I’ll be running it twice – Sat and Sun both at 1030 to 1430. Also, if you backed the Kickstarter and will be at CGX, I can hand deliver the book and shake your hand while thanking you. That would be kind of awesome for me, because I am seriously, seriously appreciative of all the people who backed it.

You’ll notice in the RPG schedule that you can also get in on a game of Screenplay, the engine that runs the amazing High Plains Samurai. If you bring a lunch and have a really good bladder, you could actually do a cool game marathon with Nefertiti Overdrive and then Screenplay. Or, perhaps a wiser move, you could play one on Saturday and one on Sunday.

You can find out more about Capital Gaming Expo here.

The RPG schedule is here.

Abstractions – When is a Bullet Like a Baby?

I was talking about damage and stress in the last post, and I wanted to continue to talk about the problem of abstraction and “damage” in a role-playing game.

I design games with pretty abstract mechanics. These mechanics generally model all type of conflict the same, whether one is hacking at another with a sword, trying to explain complex mathematics, or interrogating a prisoner, the mechanics are the same. And with a streamlined mechanic for “damage” – which I’m going to call Stress, the mechanic I am using in Dream Riggers – it doesn’t matter whether it is the sword, the mathematics, or the questioning, you top off Stress and you are removed from the scene – in D&D you would be dead, but I don’t kill off PCs in my game.

We all understand that a bullet can kill anyone, no matter how well-trained they are, so generally, people are okay with a system that accepts one-shot kills. What I think is difficult is accepting a melded Stress mechanic that allows a character to be removed from a scene due to mental or emotional fatigue as easily as that same character could be removed by a bullet.

How many people here have been frustrated to distraction by trying to assemble a piece of Ikea furniture or a new BBQ? Those of us with children, do you remember trying to get the kid to sleep or stop a baby from crying? I’m not saying it always affects you the same, but these do affect you. The crux is that without very good cause-and-effect modelling, it’s hard to say exactly HOW such failures will affect a character. Sometimes we can breeze through such situations, laughing off failures, sometimes you have to put the instructions down or leave the baby in the crib and just walk away for a bit – essentially, being removed from a scene.

And for those two challenges (Ikea furniture and baby) the actual level of the obstacle is minimal but can still inflict levels of Stress that can remove an average adult from a Scene (in game terms).

So how do we model this? The problem is that we are okay with a kid with a 9mm getting lucky and putting a bullet in the throat of a Navy SEAL but we are not okay with visualizing a crying baby defeating that same Navy SEAL unless it is in a situation in which lives are at stake or there is some other exceptional pressure.

I would argue that Navy SEALs and particle physicists, and super geniuses . . . genii . . . are sometimes defeated by their crying children or their new Ikea furniture. All the time? No. Sometimes? Absolutely. Further, I would strongly argue that after failing to get the baby to stop crying, if that Navy SEAL went to the gun range, the preceding failure would impact on the individual’s performance.

This is what the abstractions in my games model – not true cause-and-effect but the possibility of a catastrophic failure in even a simple task. What it asks in return is the ability to then narratively model the outcome.

I’ve seen really smart and capable people brought low by simple tasks at which they fail. There were almost certainly reasons for that failure, but I am not interested in perfectly modelling cause-and-effect inputs in my mechanics. Honestly, no matter how complex a system, you will fail to adequately model actual cause-and-effect in the real world, which has innumerable inputs into its system.

I’m pretty sure most RPGers could narrate a good scene in which you character is removed from a scene due to emotional or mental Stress. This is all that is really necessary. If you can conceive of how it might happen, than the resistance should subside. I think resistance may be because most people still equate removal from the scene with being physically beaten. The abstraction causes a disconnect – being shot by a 9mm and having to put a baby down in the crib and walk out of the room doesn’t equate in people’s minds. It’s a matter of wrapping one’s head around the abstraction and playing with it, just like many of the other mechanics we use to simplify replicating life with dice.

The difficulties of abstractions.

Damage and Stress – Blowing Up Your Mind

My group and I have had a lot of discussions recently about the abstraction used for Stress/Damage in my new game, Dream Riggers. It’s led to a few long emails to explain my intention and thoughts, and it’s something I’ve never really done before – I’ve never really tried to explain my take on abstraction and its use in RPGs. Specifically, the abstraction used for damage.

This was mostly initiated because a character received a ton of Stress – used as a measure of negative outcomes that can lead to a character being removed from a scene – after failing to hotwire a car while fearing the police would soon arrive. In Dream Riggers, physical, emotional, and mental stress are all put together into Stress, and enough Stress can remove a character from a scene (the game – like Nefertiti Overdrive – does not have PC death)

Let’s start with conflict resolution. If you’ve seen any of my games, you know that I reserve conflict resolution – when the dice hit the table to figure out the outcome of a task, called a Test in Dream Riggers – for significant actions. One does not undertake a Test to take out the trash. Tests are only for actions that have interesting consequences. Hot wiring a car in an alley when no one is around? No need to roll, unless that car is something special (a police car maybe, or a gang leader’s bullet-proof SUV). Trying to do the same after a major battle while the sound of police sirens approach? In that situation, it definitely needs a Test.

In the game, the character failed. The Stress inflicted by failure is determined randomly, and the character received a lot of Stress, enough that one more failure would likely remove him from the Scene. Recovery of Stress during the game is difficult and requires the use of Fortune Points, a scarce resource. The players wondered about the severe impact of a failed Test, especially when it was psychological rather than physical.

To me, it made sense. Think of giving a speech in front of a crowded auditorium. Will your head blow up? No. But if you flub it, you are generally stressed to the point where you have problems doing even simple tasks – your hands shake, you have difficulty focusing, your thoughts are all scattered. Depending on myriad other factors – lack of sleep, the person before you totally aced the presentation, you have a sick relative in the hospital about whom you are worried – the stress can be greater or lesser.

This is why I term it Stress rather than damage. Failure at a mental task, like trying to debug software or figure out a mathematical equation – can also have severe impacts, sometimes debilitating depending on the situation.

I am consciously trying to keep the system simple. Very simple. Because it is a simple system, it can’t factor in every possible modifier and influence, so it has a very random determination of the amount of Stress failure causes.

This places a separate and significant demand on the players: it is up to them – and the GM – to explain why the failure inflicted the amount of Stress it did. In a fight, that’s easy – low Stress equals a mere scratch while max Stress means a bullet in the chest or throat. It can be harder when it is mental or emotional. However, I believe with some thought and an understanding of one’s character, a good explanation is never that far away.

For the particular situation – the failure to hotwire a car while the police are approaching – and the outcome – a huge amount of Stress – made sense in the context of the character. The player had presented to the character as arrogant and the character’s power (these are superhumans) was that he was a super-genius. In failing at such a mundane task, I could see the character having a bit of a meltdown, unable to grasp how he could possibly have failed. “I’m the fucking smartest man in the world, you stupid piece of shit!”

I like having the threat of removal from a scene implicit to any Test, so to me, this worked out perfect. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Edge of Inspiration: Bronze Age Trade

You know I kind of dig ancient history as a setting. Nefertiti Overdrive – set in 25th Dynasty Ancient Egypt – is on its way to backers and should be in stores by November and I had previously dabbled with Immortals of Bronze. Listening to the Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt over at the Great Courses has, as usual, hit on more than one points of inspiration.

Ruins of Byblos from “gordontour” used under Creative Commons

In the last lecture I discussed for the Listen Through, Dr. Brier talked about Old Kingdom Egypt’s trade missions, and specifically to the Sinai for turquoise and Lebanon for cedar. That definitely hit the right buttons. Immortals of Bronze was all about trade missions as the connectors of cultures, and  1177: The Year Civilization Collapsed does a great job of showing how trade created the kind of intricate, interwoven networks we believe happened only with “globalization.”

To me, the city of Byblos is key. This was likely the destination of the Egyptian mission to acquire cedars, and from the very cursory research I did, it sounds like a relatively cosmopolitan place. I’m thinking the group could similarly be cosmopolitan – my first thoughts are of an Egyptian emissary and his (or, if we want to have some fun with it, her) bodyguard, a Phoenician captain (yes, the Phoenicians were an artificial division of cultures used by the Greeks, but we’re gaming, so shorthand is acceptable), maybe an astrologer (wizard?) from Mesopotamia and a barbarian or two for “fish out of water” moments (maybe one from Central Asia/Turkey and one from Sub-Saharan Africa, just to stir things up).

Yes, the trade mission would get them to Byblos, but they would be facing political negotiations as well as economic ones as the city is rife with factions. There would be favours needed to achieve for the rulers, and that could lead to unexpected discoveries, possibly of “monsters” now thought mythological. The Sneferu mission described in the lecture would have been around 2600 BCE, so before even the Mycenean civilization in Greece, but easily encompassing the height of Mesopotamia. Adventures in and around “the Great Green” could be awesome, and this is a period with little actual primary evidence, so your version of history can be just as valid as any others.

You can find Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt here.

The Listen Through for lecture two “Sneferu” is here.

A discussion of my attempt at Bronze Age gaming here.

My review of 1177: The Year Civilization Collapsed here and you can learn more about the book here.

Law vs. Chaos? Order vs. Freedom

In writing about the Centurion Overdrive overlap idea (“Centurion Overdrive – the Palmyra Connection“), I got to thinking about the Law vs Chaos dynamic, something Basic D&D introduced to me and Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories helped illuminate. It’s been something I’ve never really bothered with, given that Chaos – to me – denotes something much more abstract than evil. I think I can identify evil, and it always seemed to me that Chaos was just another moniker for evil.

The army of . . . Law? (from HBO’s Rome, which is awesome)

Rome as the champion of Law, in its constant quest to maintain order, helped to clarify this dichotomy in my mind. If one accepts Law as order and Chaos as freedom, this conflict becomes one with two acceptable sides, rather than good and evil which has one socially acceptable faction against one generally rejected by societies.

Both order and freedom have benefits and drawbacks, and most societies find some acceptable consolidation of the two. Even moreso than good and evil, they represent a continuum in which compromises are possible. If one wants a complicated conflict in which it is hard (but of course not impossible) to demonize the opposition, Law and Chaos could offer that.

The surrender of Vercingetorix as depicted by Kieron O’Gorman for Centurion: Legionaries of Rome

Consider Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Were these the conflict of Rome’s Order against the Gauls’ Freedom (and so Law vs Chaos)? I think one could reasonably argue that. If we look at Rome’s declining years, Law ceded more and more to Chaos as barbarian nations were commissioned as legions, creating armies of Chaos within the embrace of Law.

You could actually have a group composed of adherents to both sides in a game without it coming off strange. I think most of us have social circles with people on different parts of the Order-Freedom continuum.

This is actually a fascinating concept. I don’t know if it was just poorly presented or if I lacked the intellectual capacity to visualize it in the past. It’s now something I’m interested in exploring.

Centurion Overdrive – the Palmyra Connection

In the listen through for the Great Courses lecture series Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, I mentioned an idea for an adventure in Roman times with the magical crown of Egypt as the MacGuffin. While Centurion: Legionaries of Rome is all about adventures in Roman times, depending on how you wanted to approach this game, it could be run in Centurion, in Nefertiti Overdrive – using the system if not the setting – or any number of games. I’d be partial to running it in Nefertiti Overdrive because I’m thinking of it as more of an action-adventure than a historical game.

The conceit is that Emperor Aurelian, after conquering the breakaway Palmyrene Empire (we’re talking around 273 CE), gains intelligence that Zenobia – the “queen” of Palmyra and the real force behind it’s success – had sought for the crown of Egypt, an artifact dating back to 3150 BCE and Pharaoh Narmer. The crown reputedly has magical powers to help bring peace and prosperity by uniting divided lands, and Aurelian – the first real emperor during the Crisis of the Third Century – is desperate to gain any advantage in his fight against chaos. (Hey, maybe it’s a literal fight against Chaos, because Rome’s dedication to order makes it a good proponent for Law)

The PCs are a collection of specialists – probably some bad-ass legionaries for muscle, maybe a local Egyptian loyal to Rome or paid well, a frumentarius (spy), and Aurelian’s hand-picked troubleshooter – sent into Egypt and specifically to Thebes. At this time, along with a few soldiers and some Roman bureaucrafts, the town was small, and mostly a tourist destination. There was likely an auxiliary unit of unspecified size who had a headquarters near Luxor (according to “The Theban Region Under the Roman Empire” by Adam Lajtar in The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt, Oxford University Press, 2012, edited by Christina Riggs pp 173-4, a really good resource if you decide to try something like this) Although the size of the unit isn’t known, let’s say it was small, just a few hundred, giving Thebes a kind of rough-and-ready frontier town vibe at the end of the Crisis.

Zenobia’s people are still there, led by Iaribol, a Palmyrene loyalist who seeks the crown to help revive the Palmyrene cause – possibly linked to the rebellion in Palmyra led by Septimius Apsaios. The crown is maybe somewhere in the Valley of the Kings, part of a grave unknown even today. It could be hidden in a secret tomb of one of the High Priests of Amun who were the de facto rulers of Upper Egypt in the 21st Dynasty. An interesting conceit might be to have a flashback to the escape from Thebes as represented in Nefertiti Overdrive. Heck you could even change the Icon of Amun-Ra in that game to a piece of the crown – perhaps the crown of Lower Egypt. The Princess and her companions need to hide the crown because they are heading north to confront the Saite Dynast or are otherwise not following the last Nubian pharaoh south. That could be a kind of cool link between the Nefertiti Overdrive scenario and this one.

The PCs  in 273 CE are involved in political intrigue, archaeological investigations, perhaps some digging through historical documents or interacting with sages, and plenty of fisticuffs as the Palmyrene loyalists and locals opposed to Roman rule throw obstacles in the PCs’ path. And there is always aggression from the Nubian nomadic peoples of Blemmyes and Nobatia – the reason for the auxiliary unit – to keep up the pressure.

You can find “Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt – Narmer, Part Two” here.

You can find the Great Courses lecture series Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt here.

You can find out more about Nefertiti Overdrive: High Octane Action in Ancient Egypt here.

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

Heinlein Meets Cameron

Right now, a second proof copy is winging . . . rolling? . . . posting its way to me and I’m in a holding phase until all is settled. I don’t feel it’s wise to move forward on other projects publically until I have fully delivered Nefertiti Overdrive. For those who don’t know, I technically delivered Nefertiti Overdrive‘s PDF on time, but things are not looking good for the print copies. And I can’t market Nefertiti Overdrive to the wider world until the backers have their chance to get their product, so probably November.

Until then, I am in a holding pattern, but I can tell you what is coming next.

Starship Commandos.

Armor by Odobenus

This game has been around for a year and a half, maybe longer, but while I was working on getting Nefertiti Overdrive out, I didn’t have a chance to do anything with it. Right now, I’m cleaning it up and preparing it, hoping that it will get the chance to get out into the wild.

Starship Commandos is about the MARSAT – Marines Special Armour and Tactics – a special purpose squad within the Colonial Marine’s MEU – Marine Expeditionary Unit. The conceit is that human colonization has identified life on other planets, just not sentient life.

Until now.

The idea would be to publish an 8,000 to 10,000 word rulebook and then the introductory adventure which sets up the opposition in the game I ran.

How is this coming out? I don’t know yet. Do I want to try to Kickstart a 20 page PDF? I might be able to get some real art, but then again, the Kickstarter itself is a whole separate project from the creation of the work, and sometimes takes more effort – since it hits on talents I don’t have.

I’ve mentioned before about Patreon, and that is something I am strongly considering.

Or do I just say “fuck it” and release it with some stock art, a very basic cover, and see how many I can sell for $2.99 USD?

We shall see. But likely not until November.

You can find out more about Starship Commandos here.

Unfocused

I’m not ignoring you, I’m really not. I’m finalizing the print files for Nefertiti Overdrive (should be ready to go to print on Tuesday) and getting another project ready to go.

And, to be honest, I’m a little lost. I was kind of this way between releasing Centurion and deciding to try to Kickstart Nefertiti Overdrive . . . the first time. I have the new game that I’m working on – Dream Riggers – but this is in its very early stages meaning that it’s not taking up much time. I have plans for projects, but those are on hold until all the books for Nefertiti Overdrive are out.

So, for now, feeling very . . . unfocused.

Dream Riggers Are Go

First run of Dream Riggers went okay. On the story side, I did the silly thing of trying to begin a game with a social encounter. For me, that never works. Every single one-shot I’ve written for Nefertiti Overdrive starts with a fight. Dream Riggers is definitely not Nefertiti Overdrive, but my home group just came of a series of action games, and I think they were in that mindset. I was even mean enough to threaten real and absolute character death in the opening scene – in the Dreamtime. Again, players were not used to this and thought it was an empty threat until one player pushed a little too far.

I finally did relent and let him keep his character. It luckily showcased the actual threat to the rest of the players. Suddenly it was a social encounter based on hard choices rather than an obstacle to punch the heck out of.

The second encounter was an action encounter as the players met the dreaded Scanners – looking like Matrix agents but with the brain ‘sploding powers from the David Cronenberg movie.

In “cameo of the session,” I had Michelle Forbes from her Miranda Zero appearance in the failed pilot for Warren Ellis’ Global Frequency. She played Valentine the Muse in the Dreamtime. I’ve always dug Michelle Forbes and I think Miranda Zero was her best character – bad ass but not criminal or psychotic.

Mechanics wise, there were a few clusterfucks that need to be taken out behind the chemical sheds. Since finishing Nefertiti Overdrive, I’ve been aiming for games in which the GM doesn’t roll the dice – just like Sword Noir. I tried it with Dream Riggers, but it didn’t work, and all of the problems stemmed from that.

Dream Riggers includes Complications linked to NPCs and Settings that players and GM can activate. Without the GM rolling, those Complications needed to act as penalties against the character. It started getting a little too complex. I had to decide whether to keep Complications or make it an opposed roll system.

It’s an opposed roll system now.

I’ve already made a bunch of changes to some of the core mechanics, and I’ll continue to tweak until the next game.

My poor players. Never the same rules twice.

You can find out more about Global Frequency at Wikipedia

I’ll be writing more about Dream Riggers as the game progresses.