Monthly Archives: December 2012

GMotW: Red November

Red November box Hey all. Happy Holidays, and New Year, and Not Apocalypse, and all that rot. How’s it going?

My wife and I were lucky enough to get a few board games for Christmas, including Fantasy Flight’sRed November, the game about gnomes surviving for one hour on a submarine which is currently in the process of falling completely to pieces. It, uh, it is not super-easy to do so, it seems, and we managed to get killed with a few minutes left on the clock when the missiles armed themselves and everyone was trapped by a combination of malfunctioning hatches and hallway fires on the other side of the ship. Everyone, that is, except for those of us who had been killed in the interim because they tried to put out the fire in the missile room which would allow them to stop the launch. It’s okay though, because even if they had managed to hold off that trouble we were going to die of asphyxiation in another two minutes.

Good times!

Red November is a game in which every minute counts; rather than having any individual goal be a victory condition, it’s about surviving until the end, regardless of the state of the ship. Your only goal is to keep things operational enough that you aren’t all killed before the game ends, which is what makes this rule so delightfully terrible.

The player decides how many minutes to spend attempting the repair. He can spend between 1 and 10 minutes.

Well. That doesn’t sound so bad. HOWEVER.

The less time you take on any given task, whether that be pumping out water, fixing the engine, putting out the many, many fires which have started on the ship or fending off the mighty Kraken (all necessary tasks!), the less likely you are to succeed. You roll a 10-sided die, and try to roll at or under the number of minutes you spent, you see. Sure, you might be able to hammer on the reactor for one minute and prevent the ship from exploding, but it would be better to take two! Doubles your odds! Take five, and it’s a fifty/fifty chance! Take ten, and you are guaranteed to fix the thing! Why, then, not take ten minutes on everything?

Because the resource management of the game is clever. Problems don’t arise every turn, oh no. They arise every few minutes. If you take ten minutes to fix the engines, then you’ll draw, oh, three to five cards to represent potential disasters, and these will also take time to deal with! Sure, you can ignore the occasional leak or small fire, but if the pressure gauge is nearing its end, every card you overturn threatens to be the one which ticks it up two more notches and makes the ship collapse under pressure. So you have to ask yourself not just how much time you are willing to spend on a task, but how many dangers you are willing to put the ship under. Heck, if you take ten minutes to fix the engines, there’s a decent chance that one of the resulting disasters will start them breaking down again. There is no safety, and your best bet lies, therefore, in resource and risk management. Take as little time as you feel you can justify, use any goods you can get your hands on to increase your odds of success, and by all means, prioritize taking care of the major impending disasters (the reactor is one bump away from going critical) over the minor annoyances (all three airlocks are on fire).

The great thing about this is that it means every roll, every single one, totally sucks.

No, really. I mean, okay. Sometimes you spend a minute or two in desperation and it pays off, and sometimes you spend six minutes and roll a six and your time spent feels exactly worthwhile, but so much of the rolling ends up in one of two camps:

“Dammit! Why didn’t I spend another two minutes on this?” when you don’t make it, or “Dammit! Why did I waste so much time on this?” when you roll less than what you needed. Because wasted minutes are only slightly less painful when they come with you getting the reactor to not explode.

It’s frustrating, but not in a “bad user-interface” sort of way; it’s a good frustration, the sort which sells the panic and helter-skelter parade of indignities and failures which IS working on the Red November.


Hey, here’s a couple ways magic could work (but consider other options if you want to)!

… yeah, okay, I guess I can talk about how Fate is a a supremely hackable game, and that’s all well and good, but what does it prove, exactly? Not a whit.

So I’ll just go ahead and write that sidebar I was thinking would be nice to have.

1) Low Magic– think Conan, or Xanth, or any setting in which magic powers are best thought of as individual gifts. For instance, the Twilight universe. Ugh. Anyway. A wizard in this sort of low magic setting isn’t someone capable of a multitude of spells, so much as he is someone capable of one single act of magic, which is rare enough that it makes him notable.

We create a skill; call it “Magic” or “X-factor Mutation” or “Psionic gift” or what have you. Anyone who wishes to have access to magic MUST take this skill, but it does very little… depending on the setting, knowing Magic might be useful in a knowledge check, or having Psionics might be generally useful in creating advantages with a little mindreading, but those should be minimal functions, and there are absolutely no direct attack or defense applications.

The ability to actually DO something is a stunt, one which creates a rules exception (for instance: Power of the Blaze: You may make a command of a source of fire nearby, which will attempt to obey you. You may ask the fire to extinguish itself, grow hotter, or travel where you wish it to go). In order to activate this stunt, you must roll using your “Magic” skill against a target set by the GM (or, if your spell is usable as an attack, against someone’s defense).

Advantages: This makes it easy to make every magic-user quite unique, but doesn’t allow any one to be so powerful that they are overshadowed entirely. The spells attached are necessarily powerful, and might be easily made delightfully idiosyncratic. The GM can do a lot of fun things when the caster fails or ties as well; a psionic attack might have a minor cost expressed in mental stress and a major cost as a a Minor Consequence, for instance. A tie roll for the Power of Blaze spell might work, but force the caster to take the aspect “Now I’m on fire!”

2) High Magic– For worlds of arcane schools, where just about everyone knows a little magic; many D&D-style universes run like this, or the Elder Scrolls, for instance. This might also apply to worlds of high technology which allows for myriad powers.

Rather than one “magic” skill we create a dozen, a score, a ridiculous number of arcane schools: Evocation, Illusion, Charms, Transfiguration, Necromancy, so on and so forth. There’s a fair amount of work on the outset here, because we need to know how all of these work, and the players all have to be on the same page; is there any way Necromancy can be used as an attack? What is considered an Evocation? Where do fireballs come in? (In another setting, it might be “Just what can Power Armor do? Can a Cybernetic Enhancement Suite be a form of attack? Where do lasers come in?” or something of that nature). Lots of questions. But once we have these schools set up as skills, being able to cast is simply a matter of using the skill to do something appropriate to that school, provided the skill is at Average or above–no casting with a Mediocre skill!

Advantages: It’s very easy to take on a little extra magic, if that’s something that interests you. It’s very, very hard to excel at all forms of magic; players still start with ten skill slots, so a player who wishes to be master of all ten schools of magic is going to, by necessity, ignore all other possible skills. Great wizards are therefore terrible at being anything but wizards, and even folks who wish to be primarily casters are going to wind up with gaps in their skill set if they want to have any luck with basic athletics, rapport, or will.

3) Middling Magic– Great for a world of superheroes, or wizards who can’t rise to truly epic power levels but still have plenty of options within their sphere of influence.

Rather than defining a number of magic schools at once, every player is allowed to create a single skill which reflects her High Concept; if she is a “Downtrodden Illusionist” then she can create the skill Illusions. Optionally, the skill might come from another aspect… if my Trouble is “Fighting the curse of Lycanthropy at every step” then I might be able to create the school Lycanthropy. Like in high magic, take some time to discuss how all of these skills can be used… when can Lycanthropy create an advantage, and can Illusions ever be used to attack, things of that nature. Every player then takes the skill they created, but no other “Magic”-type skills. They can take stunts off this skill as usual, but nobody else gets access to it (unless they also have an aspect that would confer this skill; some NPCs might, though the other PCs probably should not).

Advantages: This gives the players a broad set of wondrous abilities to work with, but doesn’t force magic to take over the setting; its great for superheroes who need to have flexible skillsets within their power and who don’t want to see someone who has the same exact power as them. It’s also easy to code in mundane folks (no special skill) or more powerful threats (two or more special, unique skills). Also, this makes the creation of magic/powers very much player-focused, which is always good.

Fate Core!

Folks, if you have’t kickstarted Fate Core (or rather, given that the thing is kicked to the tune of 55 times its asking price as I write this, joined the kicking party for the well-and-truly started Fate Core) you should do so. If only to throw a buck in the well, if only because that gets you access to the Fate Core rules immediately upon backing. And that’s fine and dandy because, even without illustrations, they are damn fine rules, and it’s worth well more than a dollar to be able to pick them up now.

If you’ve ever played a Fate-based game, Core is worth your while because it simplifies and streamlines the rules to an amazing degree, pulling in the elements that work best from the various flavors of Fate into something whole.

If you’ve never played a Fate-based game, Core is worth your while because, dammit man, it’s really good and you should at least get in a game. I want to get in a game. I want to run a game, like, right now with anyone who will listen.

Is there anything missing? To be perfectly honest, the document is just about perfect; the things that are missing are things which are intended to be handled in the Magic System Toolkit, as well as other expansions, Fate-based games, and personal hacks: magic, supernormal powers, cyber-enhancements, and things of that nature. Some of this is covered under the Extras section, to to be honest that is a chapter which could benefit from a sidebar titled “Hey, here’s a couple ways magic could work (but consider other options if you want to)!” Even that’s a mild concern, though; Fate Core is a very, very hackable game. Purposefully so! It invites potential players and GMs to figure out new skills as needed, and split, merge, or delete the skills already on display. It invites us to alter the way the world works when it would be compelling, and while it sets some guidelines on what rules work and why they do, it’s not afraid to let us know that we can rewrite the rules as needed. Any magic system might be read as “the way magic works in Fate”, and that’s a troublesome interpretation. I’d just like a tiny guiding hand to help me as I start down the road of hacking in a magic system.

Anyway. I recommend it. I recommend you get it. A ++, would back again.

GMotW: Cosmic Encounter and the extra step.

Last night, I managed to play a little Cosmic Encounter with my wife and her parents, and I won, and it was delightful, and it got me thinking about game mechanics, and I guess I’m going to talk about them. So that’s where we find ourselves… hello there. Let’s stop by page nine of the rule book, shall we?

Cosmic Encounter Box“The offense and defense now each select an encounter card from their hand (an attack, negotiate, or morph) and place it facedown in front of themselves.”

Cosmic Encounter is a very… let’s call it a mechanistic game. It’s not that there isn’t a theme, (alien colonization and expansion) and it’s not that the game doesn’t make use of the theme, with its multitude of alien powers and abilities, and it’s not that the components don’t reflect that theme beautifully (and indeed, it is a beautiful game), but at its core, it’s about the rules in a way that, say, Arkham Horror isn’t.

If you stripped away the alien powers, for instance, it would be a perfectly suitable abstract game, no less worthwhile than chess to be played and studied and talked about. Five spaces, twenty units, unknown cards, secret decisions, and rules that are, let’s be honest here, thematically arbitrary. Wherefore the destiny deck, which forces you to attack a particular player instead of freely choosing where you aim your forces? Wherefore the rule allowing you to attack a second time if your first one ended in victory? These make sense from a mechanical standpoint, but from the universe’s standpoint it’s all a bit… strange. It doesn’t necessarily follow, and any attempts to incorporate them into the narrative are, well, sort of lame.

Which makes the rules which do make narrative sense all the sweeter, which is why I’m a big fan of the one above. It taps into the confusion of battle, and the threat of unknown forces, and more than anything else, paranoia: if he’s attacking my space, where I have three units, and he has four, then what card is he going to use to try and buff this attack?

He’s got the numbers, but just barely, so will he aim high? Or is he going to trust that, because he’s got the numbers, he’s going to win, so he’ll aim low? OR, alternately, is he assuming that I think he’s going to aim high, so he wants me to use a high card, while he’s just throwing these guys away to get a low card out of his hand? He must attack, after all, and he must use all his encounter cards, so why oh why wouldn’t he want to get rid of that darn 01 attack, which means countering with my 20 attack is so much wasted effort that I could use on my turn to take out someone else’s planet and get some points?

Gosh. It’s a struggle, to be sure. And the rule goes out of its way to re-enforce this moment, the emotional beat of the situation. you see, there’s an extra step here. Place the cards face down, THEN reveal them. On the one hand, this allows certain alien powers to easily slide into the order of turns (the Oracle forces her opponent to put his card down face up, the Sorcerer may switch the cards after they’ve been placed on the table, so on and so forth), and on the other hand it prevents players from jumping the gun and showing their card so quickly that the other player gets to readjust their plans. But on the gripping hand–the hand which would make this an excellent rule even if there were no alien powers–it gives the players an extra second to sit there, reveling in that paranoia, before they can resolve things. Oh yes. It’s an emotional moment for everyone at the table, and it’s the place where the mechanics and the theme really do overlap.

It’s a thing of beauty.

GMotW: Vox Populi Vox Dei

Hey folks. I’m still under the weather, but I was able to pull my head together enough to make a game mechanic of the (slightly delayed) week, concerning a brief but interesting little flash game: Vox Populi, Vox Dei (a Werewolf Thriller).

VPVD doesn’t have any written instructions, so I’ll sum up the appropriate rule as best I can.

Once you’ve attacked an enemy, repeatedly press or hold Space to kill it.

Simple, although if you play the game (and it’s very short; I encourage you to at least play the first few screens to see the attacks in action) you’ll quickly discover how much of an impact this rule has. The enemies are werewolves, you are some sort of ninja, you attack by leaping upon them from behind, and then you knock them to the ground, landing atop them, ready to finish the job.

And you can wait, and wait, but there’s no way around it. Once you’ve got the werewolf in your clutches, the only way to progress in the game is to finish the job, which is a fairly long and fairly brutal process. It’s three or four seconds, but they’re inescapable, and incredibly, ridiculously bloody. Pixelly red blood spatters all over the level, dripping down to lower levels and getting caught in cracks, all while your little protagonist ninja tears the werewolf apart with his bare hands.

Here’s the thing: you can’t avoid this. Some enemies need to be attacked for the game to progress, and attacked enemies need to be killed, and in this spectacularly violent way.

Why so spectacular? Why so violent? What does this accomplish?

In part, it sets the scene. These wolves are dangerous, and to allow one to notice you without following up and killing it is to ensure your own death. So there’s that.

In part, it defines the protagonist. Without dialogue or backstory, all we know is that he’s wearing a blue jumpsuit and planning to rescue someone wearing pink; even calling him a ninja is a bit of a stretch, but we no know that he’s also not afraid of getting his hands extremely bloody, and taking care of situations in the most unseemly way possible. So there’s that.

But more than anything else, it makes the players complicit in violence. If the attack animation ran automatically, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective. It would be a time sink and an annoyance. But if the player has to press buttons to make things happen, then the player is inflicting this damage. It’s the same immersive mental connection that lets a player control characters at all, that lets them press the jump button and think “I am jumping” and not “I am causing my avatar to jump”. The player is the one tearing this werewolf apart as it struggles in vain to escape. And of course some of these enemies are unavoidable, there is no way to play the game without attacking at least one werewolf and going through this process at least once, during which the player has no choice but to press on the attack.

Taking control away from players can be a powerful emotive tool, but it can also be misused. There are many, many games out there which pull the player out of the action for cutscenes, in which the game’s protagonist does something that the player cannot or wouldn’t want to do. Usually this is to push the narrative along, sometimes it effectively delivers an emotional beat, but often it has a distancing effect; the player isn’t actually doing anything, and so the emotional resonance with the character is lost. Here, the player is still in control, but that control can only be used for one thing. The emotional resonance is still there and still strong, whether the player likes it or not. Its an interesting object lesson.

Hey folks, I know I usually try to have the game mechanic of the week up by Sunday, but I’ve been hit pretty hard by some sort of foul cold, so I’m going to lay low. GMotW should arrive tomorrow though.

GMotW: Truth and Justice and Story Hooks

Truth and Justice Cover

Truth and Justice Cover

“In conflict situation, whichever ability the player selects to take the first hit of damage generates a Story Hook.”

Truth and Justice, from Atomic Sock Monkey Press,

is one of my favorite RPGs, and certainly my go-to choice for thrilling superheroics. As it should be everyone’s. PDQ does two things extremely well: it creates unique and incredibly flexible characters, and it makes combat a battle of creative application of skills, rather than an exercise in optimization. That’s superheroes in a nutshell.

For those unfamiliar, a T&J hero is defines by his, her, or its Qualities and Powers, all of which are created by the players. If you want to play a cop, you might have a Quality like “Expert [+4] Cop”. What you don’t have is any sort of hit points or fatigue… instead, you take damage right to your Qualities and Powers. If our cop is grazed by a bullet, he may temporarily become a “Good [+2] Cop”. It’s simple, it’s effective, and it works in genre because it allows a hero in the middle of a fight to take damage to the Qualities which define his civilian life… if he is a “Master [+6] Laser-Eyes” hero, does it matter if he loses some points of “Master [+6] Violinist”? Not in a firefight, that’s for dang sure.

And yet… it does. In this one way, this one little detail. It’s easily ignored or overlooked (and I myself have played and run sessions without giving it the attention it deserves), but it’s really, really neat the more I think about it.

Mechanically, it means that there won’t be a stat that exists purely as a damage sink. No Batmanalogue who gives himself +6 in “Drywall installation” just so he can take some punches to the snout without hurting something he cares about, because this gives the GM leave to MAKE him care. Don’t worry, Batmanalogue… your drywall installation is going to be tested, just you wait and see!

(Cue evil laugh from the GM).

It’s a little reminder to the player that every Quality on the sheet is important to the character, and it give the GM leave to force those Qualities to come into play. Obviously, the GM is an omnipotent dictator who has ever-present leave to make these Qualities important, but conceptualizing them as Story Hooks…. giving them a name and suggesting that the GM make an allusion to their future important right then and there… that’s the sort of thing which provides great guidance to the GM and couches the entire event in a veneer of fairness. Batmanalogue isn’t suffering at the hands of The Black Mold because he’s being dicked around… every time he tags Drywall Installation because he doesn’t want to lose some of his “Master [+6] Punching dudes out” he’s encouraging the story to keep going in that direction.

And that brings me to narrative, and I love being brought to narrative directly from mechanics, because the two are so inextricably linked. And they are, right now. And that’s great! Every time you enter into a conflict, not only are you driving the short term story which is a fight scene, but you’re directing the long-term story as well! The GM gets a big well of potential plots to draw from, and a little guidance as to where the story should go. The players get to say, quietly, where they think the story should be going: they want to deal with their civilian life a little more, they tag the Qualities that relate to their job and family and secret identity.

When mechanics and narrative drive one another so well, I smile.