Archive for January, 2008

That Nixon Fellow

2008 Jan 31

If you’re like me, you may have missed that Clinton R. Nixon has a newish blog and might not have it in your blog reader yet. As the quieter half of what made the Forge work for the first 5 years (before Clinton passed on the reigns to Vincent Baker), Clinton’s thoughts on roleplaying as a medium and a teeny tiny industry are not as well known and publicly discussed as Ron Edwards’. This is unfortunate, I think, because Clinton is in many aspects more of a revolutionary than Ron.

In a recent post, Clinton claims to not really be a game designer and to have “gotten lucky” once, which I assume means with his game The Shadow of Yesterday. While his “Keys” are, I think, one of the most valuable and generally useful roleplaying concepts of the past 5 years, it’s true that his real strength, as a designer, is in pulling together dozens of ideas from disparate indie roleplaying projects and distilling them into something that does what he wants. I still think this is a pretty cool gift, all told, and I am definitely looking forward to his upcoming projects, like Inuma.

Clinton’s thinking is especially potent and innovative in the area of game publication, where he is focused on creating a community around free games and developing ways in which to get free game content into the hands of players. I suspect that he is influenced by working in the software industry and thinking about issues of open content and Web 2.0 kinds of issues, but he is the first person I met who was thinking hard about applying those concerns to roleplaying. The few times that I’ve been able to sit down and chat with Clinton over a meal, I’ve felt like I was in a different place than he was, but over the years I’ve found myself drawn closer and closer to his position, wanting to get out of selling roleplaying games and back into sharing my ideas with people who will appreciate and implement them in play.

Having just discovered Clinton’s newish (since October) blog, I ravenously read through the whole thing in one sitting. As I suspected, it’s full of really great stuff, including thoughts on several issues that are much more articulate and thought-through than some of the things I have been trying to articulate lately. Check it out.

Ice Castles

2008 Jan 31

I’ve been sick since Friday at noon and been home the first part of the week because of it, barely being able to think because of lots of sinus pressure. I’m feeling pretty solid today, so hopefully I’m through the really bad stuff.

While I was home, I managed to finish Ico, the brilliant video game that is the main inspiration for my future game based on The Snow Queen. While I thought the last section of it was fairly anticlimactic — I expected the game to be longer, exploring the rest of the castle, and wasn’t expecting actual combat to be at the focus of the finale, given the relative lack of violence in the first sections — it was good to see the entire scope of it.

In the imaginary Snow Queen game in my head, there is a GM who plays the enormous ice castle and the players, however many there are, play Gerda and Kay, the two children trying to flee the Snow Queen’s palace. Ideally, I will be able to eventually work something out with Tony Dowler, who will draw a giant poster-sized ice castle with hundreds of rooms.

To give structure to the castle, I am imagining that the rooms will probably be broken down into sections, like the aerie, the catacombs, the crystal chapel, the wolfen kennel, the snowflake factory, etc. In most sections there will be one or two main puzzles that the children must solve — working together! — before they are able to move on to the next section, but the puzzles will probably require doing things in multiple rooms or moving objects around the section. I’m imagining that the game will often be played with actual children as the players, right before bedtime, instead of, say, reading to them. So the children might play through one section of the castle and then go to sleep, tackling the next section on a subsequent night.

In my mind, the game consists of a laminated poster of the castle and a small booklet that explains how to play. It might even be possible to put the text of the game — both the instructions and the short descriptions of various rooms — on the poster as well, in the white space around the outside of the castle illustration. That would be cool, but if it doesn’t all fit, the rest of the text could go in the booklet.

Getting Out of the Status Game

2008 Jan 30

Jason Morningstar started a great thread on Knife Fight about the status games and internal politics that occasionally appear in some parts of the American indie game community / scene. I think many folks are quick to stomp on factionalism and clique forming. I still remember Luke Crane being all like “Fuck that jazz” when I brought up sentiments like that one time, saying I didn’t feel a part of things and wanted to form my own club or something. He was totally right.

In response to Jason, I wrote:

…I’ve been fighting against this for a while. My tactics have included.

1) Leave the Forge and stop worrying about my (lack of) status there. It was driving me crazy feeling like I wasn’t being heard.

2) Start blog and do own thing. Care less about getting feedback and attention.

3) Start Story Games Boston. Spend more time playing and (IMPORTANT!) designing games for real, local people instead of an imaginary audience on the internet who will some day love me.

4) At GenCon 2007, be a full-time IGE/GOD booth person, not a sales booth person. Hang out less with other designers in a sales context. Instead: play more games with more people. Stop caring about how many copies of Push I sold. Stop talking to people about new products that were coming out. Stop caring so much about publishing.

5) As of 2008, stop all commercial activities related to games. I’m giving stuff away, fullstop. I don’t want my value to be measured by how many products I have in print or how many copies I’ve sold. For me, not being involved in game sales is pretty much the easiest way to make that happen. Stuff will be posted online when I feel like it and updated when I get around to it. That’s publishing.

I’m looking forward to returning to the IGE/GOD booth at GenCon this year. Best decision I ever made: to get out of sales. Play is where it is; play is what it’s all about; play is where everyone is equal, where I can sit down with Vincent and two folks I’ve just met and have a great game, with nobody giving a damn who’s done what. Thank god for that.

In a nutshell, my solution: talk less, sell less, care less, play more.

Our Roots Are Showing

2008 Jan 28

I’ve recently noticed that games which require players to think strategically frequently annoy me, especially when the central goals of the game don’t require strategy. I can enjoy playing Warhammer 40K as much as the next person, but if I’m playing a roleplaying game about relationships or character growth, the strategic elements are probably going to be really bothersome, because they just don’t fit.

Chris Chinn just wrote a brilliant post about similar issues, related to the difficulty of finding a game to play with non-roleplayers, even one as accessible as a fairly complex video game. Sometimes, it’s really frustrated how little roleplaying has moved beyond its wargaming roots.

WH1K1 Character Sheet

2008 Jan 24

Last night’s playtest was awesome. Here’s the new sheet I just worked up:


Water Margin Cover Sketch

2008 Jan 22


Making a Bravo: Lin Chong

2008 Jan 19


Here are the chapter titles that refer to Lin Chong:

  1. The Leopard Headed unwittingly enters The Hall of White Tigers.
  2. Lin Chong is branded and sent into exile.
  3. Lin Chong overcomes Captain Hung with his staff.
  4. Through wind and snow Lin Chong goes to The Temple Of The Mountain God.
  5. Lin Chong on a snowy night ascends the mountain of the robbers’ lair.
  6. Lin Chong becomes a robber in the Great Lair.
  7. Lin Chong kills a comrade in the robbers’ lair.

Together with the fuller description of Lin Chong from his wikipedia article, we should have enough information to select Lin Chong’s forms. Attractive options include:

  • unwittingly (so honorable that he’s often fooled by trickery);
  • through wind and snow, on a snowy night;
  • in the robbers’ lair;
  • with his staff (he also frequently shown with a spear);
  • with authority (he’s one of the five “tiger generals”);
  • with honor (due to his background as a loyal military instructor);

So, if I end up going with six forms per character, there’s Lin Chong right there. I still want to figure out, though, why Lin Chong is generally depicted with a wine bottle tied to the end of his spear (as in the cutout above). I don’t remember that part of the story. Perhaps he is more drunken than I recall?

Water Margin Forms

2008 Jan 19

Going through the expanded Water Margin oracle that I created yesterday, I made a list of the following, commonly appearing words or phrases which describe the manner in which characters performed actions. Plus marks indicate duplicates.

  1. in headlessness, in a careless instant, through accident;
  2. in drunkenness +++++;
  3. in battle;
  4. by guile +++++++;
  5. with his fists;
  6. alone ++;
  7. secretly +;
  8. lets fly an arrow, with his arrow +++;
  9. without great pains;
  10. in his wrath, in a madness of anger;
  11. by the light of the moon, by night ++++++++;
  12. because of friendship, through great mercy, justly;
  13. disturbs, makes a mighty turmoil, makes a great furor, rouses evil passions ++++++++++++;
  14. captures, seizes, conquers, traps, takes, steals, robs ++++++++++++++++++;
  15. kills ++++++;
  16. attacks +++++;
  17. using his magic;
  18. in the robber’s lair ++++++++++++;
  19. through wind and snow, on a snowy night, upon a snowy day.

It’s only after reading through the chapter titles carefully and verifying them against the original Chinese titles that I see how much the name of Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy, the Cultural Revolution era “model opera,” is drawn from the Water Margin. I mean, if you were “taking tiger mountain by strategy” in this game, you’d roll the dice for Captures (same characters that are translated as “taking”) and By Guile (same characters translated as “by strategy”). Makes me wonder about a “model opera” oracle.

In any case, now I either need to distill this into a list of six or, perhaps, make a longer list and have individual characters have slightly different lists of forms, picking the six that they have. Also, is six forms really the best number? How would a game work if you only had four forms? Would it be more iconic?

A different (and provocative) idea would be to take all the characters explicitly mentioned in the titles, which is only 30-some characters probably, and make the forms for each character the phrases that are explicitly associated with them in the titles. This would give each character more of an individual flavor. Some would be drunken and some would be just or have magic. Hmm…

Pray Hear It Told in the Next Chapter

2008 Jan 18

Cross-posted on Story Games.

Spent most of today updating my Water Margin oracle. I typed up all the chapter titles from Pearl Buck’s translation, began converting the names in it to Pinyin (the official romanization system that didn’t exist in Buck’s time), and started hyperlinking listed names to the Wikipedia articles on individual heroes. This is a MUCH slower process than I anticipated, but I think it will ultimately be super useful.

I’ve also been thinking about an interesting way to use this oracle. The chapter titles of the Water Margin are not really problems about to erupt, which is what Vincent explicitly has his situations be for In a Wicked Age. Instead, they are descriptions of what occurs in the chapter. They are always paired, two titles per chapter, the same character is never explicitly mentioned in both titles of a single chapter. So check this out:

  1. Before play begins, you draw 4 chapter titles from the oracle. All characters and places mentioned in the 4 titles are automatically in this chapter, but instead of using the oracle situations as “what has already happened,” you use them as goals to drive the narrative towards. Brainstorming, then, follows along the lines of figuring out “what has to happen for these events to come true.”
  2. Play then proceeds until two of the original four titles situations have occurred. Circle them on the chapter sheet. Those two titles become the actual titles of the chapter. At that point, the two unfulfilled conditions bump to the next story and you draw two more to make a new set. Any characters that are still explicitly listed are guaranteed to be in the next story. Otherwise, they have to make it in from the We Owe List.

For example, say you draw:

  • The two brothers Xie escape from the gaol.
  • All the tigers turn to the robbers’ lair.
  • Shi Xiu leaps from a balcony on the execution ground.
  • Blood splatters The Hall Of The Mandarin Ducks.

So for bravos you have the two Xie Brothers and Shi Xiu. For places you have the gaol (jail), the robbers’ lair, an execution ground (with a balcony overlooking it), and The Hall of The Mandarin Ducks (whatever that is). NPCs might include a jailer, an executioner, perhaps a priest or monk in the Hall, some NPC robbers in the lair, etc.

You know that the four titles above are your goals for this session, but how do you make them happen? Eventually you decide that, at the beginning of this chapter, the Xie Brothers are in jail for banditry and are going to be executed, and Shi Xiu has snuck into the capitol to attempt their release, disguised as a wandering Daoist mystic.

You don’t want to prepare too much. Perhaps The Hall of Ducks overlooks the execution ground (bad fengshui) and has an ornate balcony. Perhaps not. But the rest is to be found out in play.

Let’s say that Shi Xiu gets into a fight with the abbot of the Hall of Mandarin Ducks when he attempts to spend the night there and is rejected because the abbot sees his tattoos and knows him to be a bandit in disguise. In a rage at the lack of hospitality, Shi Xiu battles the monks and ends up killing the Hall’s champion, a local hired thug. Having nowhere else to go, Shi Xiu wanders through the streets and is invited to sleep in the watchtower by a honorable guard who takes pity on the itinerant mystic. After getting pleasantly drunk with the guard (to his host’s great surprise), Shi Xiu falls asleep in the tower. When he awakes, he finds the tower surrounded by soldiers who are shouting. Thinking that they have come to arrest him for murder, Shi Xiu leaps from the balcony at the top of the watchtower, only to see that the tower stands beside the execution ground and the soldiers have actually dragged the Xie Brothers there to execute them.

At that point, the GM calls an end to the session, since the group has completed two of the title conditions and can now call this chapter: Blood splatters The Hall Of The Mandarin Ducks; Shi Xiu leaps from a balcony on the execution ground. The GM also says the following ritual passage:

    Did Shi Xiu manage to overcome a company of soldiers and save the Xie Brothers from execution? Pray hear it told in the next chapter.

So the group would now take the remaining two titles…

  • The two brothers Xie escape from the gaol.
  • All the tigers turn to the robbers’ lair.

…and draw two new titles to go with them. Together, these titles would form the basis of the next chapter.

Booyeah, an “Owe List” of sorts for oracle entries.

For Dev: Warhammer 1K1

2008 Jan 17

Crossposted from Story Games.

In the nightmare future of the 41st millennium, mankind teeters upon the brink of extinction. The galaxy-spanning Imperium of Man is beset on all sides by ravaging aliens and threatened from within by malevolent creatures and heretic rebels. Only the strength of the Immortal Emperor of Terra stand between humanity and its annihilation. Mortally wounded by the traitorous Warmaster Horus, the first Space Marine Primarch to devote himself to the foul Chaos Gods, the Emperor has reigned on the life-preserving Golden Throne, neither alive nor dead, for ten thousand years, sustained by the soul-sacrifice of countless millions. His penetrating mind tears through the void of space, powering the Astronomicon alongside a choir of ten thousand psykers, allowing the starships of man to harness the energies of the warp and travel faster than light.

Dedicated to his service are the incorruptible Adeptus Custodes, the Golden Throne Guard, who watch over the God-Emperor’s physical shell. To ensure the Emperor’s continuing lucidity and to preserve their own minds from the dark energies of the warp, the Custodes have begun reciting from memory the great Liber Militaris, chronicling 10,000 years of humanity’s campaigns against aliens, demons, traitors, and heretics. In between passages, they consult with one another, endeavor to discern the ineffable will of the Emperor, and take part in the high politics that only the Custodes and the High Lords of Terra know.

During recitation from the Liber Militaris, place one gem (d6) on the table to represent each character mentioned. Whenever a character you control shoots another character, 1) make sure your opponent’s gem is within range (24″ for standard bolters) and line of sight and 2) roll your gem and try to get under your character’s Ballistic Skill (BS). If the attack is successful, the player in charge of the defending character should roll their gem. Normal Space Marines have a 3+ armor save, but remember that Terminator armor saves on a 2+ and has a 5+ invulnerable save vs. things that ignore armor. If your opponent fails their save, add that die to your pool and narrate the defending character’s gruesome demise.

At the end of each story, split the dice you’ve won between the following three categories:

DEATH OOO (Don’t get this; it means the Emperor strikes you dead.)
WARP OOOOO (Don’t get this either; it means the warp is driving you insane.)
POLITICS OOOOOOO (Pursue this; it’s your status within the realm of high politics; if you get all 7 dots, you “win.”)

P.S. I will be eternally grateful if anyone comes up with an equipment list for the Adeptus Custodes. Y’know, so we can describe what they are wearing before we begin play. I want a chainsword, a powerfist, and a lascannon.