Archive for February, 2008

New Transantiago Board

2008 Feb 29

Here’s a sharper version of the new board I posted earlier. Like in Go, the stations are placed where the lines cross and then the subway tracks are drawn on top of the lines, with parallel lines drawn off to the side.


I want to make it look like a very retro-board game and so far I really dig it.

Geiger Cover Draft

2008 Feb 29

This is mostly George Cotronis, with some tweaking by me to make it be a full, folding cover. I kinda like it without any cover text, since it’s pretty clear that the game is about monsters that want to kill you.


Interlude: Brutal Poetry

2008 Feb 28

Crossposted from Story Games, because it’s closely related to the “style sheet” developments.

Fights come in all styles. If you’re interesting in recreating the feel of movie fights, it’s important to recognize that most American action movies are really different from the Bruce Lee / Shaw Brothers tradition, which is, in turn, pretty different from the Yuan Brothers / Tony Ching tradition, which is pretty different from Japanese samurai films, which is pretty different from the awesome shit Jeff Imada put together for The Bourne Ultimatum, which is pretty different than what they did in The Lord of the Rings. Personally, I find it really hard to talk about “what makes a good fight” unless I know what kind of fight you’re trying to go for. Different kinds of fights require different elements.

One weakness I think many American movies and games have is in clarity and pacing. In some of my favorite fight scenes, like those by Yuan Heping or the big fight in Bourne Ultimatum, there is never a shot within which nothing happens, but the blows are not relentless, an endless flurry of punches and kicks. Things happen. Someone gets knocked down and has to get back up, strengthening their determination or showing a sign of weakness. Each section of the fight is punctuated by a change in the emotional or physical status of one of the characters, so the audience knows which way the fight is going. Also, the physical actions within the fight are not murky or too quick to really follow. Rather, even if the camera is shakey (as in the Bourne 3 fight) or cuts quickly between a variety of different angles (like in a Yuan Heping fight), the choreographer ensures that the audience can tell exactly what is going on. This makes the actions of the characters meaningful and significant, instead of seeming to be so much flailing. I think both of these can be replicated in roleplaying, but it takes some practice and skill. I don’t think I’m particularly good at it, but I don’t think most game systems do a good job of supporting that kind of fight.

Best systems for these kinds of fights: The Riddle of Steel and Dogs in the Vineyard. If someone could combine the speed and attention to fight detail that Riddle has with the back-and-forth, give-and-take of Dogs conflicts, with escalation and bringing in reserve traits and all that, I would play the shit out of it.

Here’s another reason I think a lot of roleplaying fights suck: they’re competitive when they shouldn’t necessarily be.

Think of the competitive fights you’ve watched: boxing, ultimate fighter, fencing, wrestling, fights at your local karate dojo. All times where one person was trying to humiliate or beat the crap of another person.

Now think of the cooperative, staged fights that you’ve watched: all movie fights ever. In movies, the fighters are cooperating to tell the story of a fight, which is way different than actually competing to win. This actually came up in the giant shark game I ran last night. I didn’t make it clear to the players that their role in the story was to be actors in a giant shark movie, which often required them to willingly put their characters in danger or die in really interesting ways. Instead, they like kept trying to survive and stuff, just like anyone would if they were faced with giant sharks. It was a very “duh” moment for me as a game designer and player.

So, yeah, we’re basically really bad at narrativist fights or even creating the expectation that conflict should be expressive and not about survival or winning. Issues surrounding hit points are just the tip of that very large iceberg.

Here’s another issue: in all of roleplaying, but especially in fights, we’re really focused on delivering pictures when what we’re got are words. We’re not video game designers or movie directors, and, unless you’re working with miniatures, our visual tools for illustrating what’s occurring are very few (even with miniatures, the visual vocabulary is still pretty limited). I can say, “I pull off a butterfly kick that lands on the top of his head and tips him backwards into the vat of acid,” but that takes WAY longer to say than it does to watch on a movie screen, which robs roleplaying fights of a lot of the pacing and clarity that I mentioned earlier. Also, since the moves in a roleplaying fight are generally described on the spot, not prepared beforehand, it can be hard to pull that crazy ultra-awesome kick description out of your brain. You can see it in your head, but can you describe it like a brutal poet on command? Probably not consistently. (Also, I hereby declare my copyright on Brutal Poet as the name of a future fight game). Unless we can figure out a way to develop a verbal vocabulary of fight, one that’s not an imperfect rendering of the pictures in our heads, then descriptions of fights will always be a pale imitation of the visual media we wish we were partaking in.

Style Sheets: Part 2

2008 Feb 28

This is a continuation of the last post.

So I played my Avatar: The Last Airbender game at Story Games Boston with people who’d never really watched the show before. There was a wandering drunken boxer, and that was still kind of okay, because he was pretty funny. Then there was a geisha house, but a “real” one that was about dancing and manners, not about prostitution, and that was mostly okay. But then the game got pushed more towards sex and violence, which totally isn’t what I want in my “kid show” entertainment, even in a Friday night kid show. It definitely surprised a number of the players and ended up being okay, but not great.

The main problem with that session of the Avatar game was that it ignored many of the things that make fanfic really work, and Avatar (like Primetime Adventures, like Buffy, like Serenity, like Dark Heresy, like Dragonlance) is driven by player familiarity with the material the game is inspired by and their ability to generate content that “feels like” the TV show or novels or miniatures game that they love.

Over multi-session play experiences, groups often create a similar shared understanding of the setting, characters, and general feel of play, but this takes time. The early sessions of a medium to long-term campaign can still feel a bit rough as the game “gets off the ground” and the divergent expectations of group members are ironed out over a series of interactions. However, in a one-session game, like a con game or a game system specifically designed to produce one-shots, we just don’t have time to wait for that. Instead, we have to fake it, and faking that shared background and understanding is hard.

My experience of running Geiger Counter at GenCon suggests that is might still be possible.

Geiger Counter is a game I’m working on that tries to do for survival horror movies what Primetime Adventures did for primetime television. I hope that the game can eventually recreate movies about serial killers, aliens, ghosts, supernatural monsters, giant sharks, dinosaurs, the undead, and natural disasters. The problem I was having in playtests was that all these movies feel somewhat different, even if they are all survival horror movies, and it was difficult to even get all the players on the same page about what kind of zombie movie they were playing out. Were these zombies fast or slow? Did they eat brains? Could they swim? And since not everyone has recently watched a whole bunch of zombie movies, the appropriate tropes are not always present in people’s frontal lobes where they can be easily picked through. Sometimes they’re hiding in the back recesses and people have trouble generating appropriate content on the fly.

However, the second time I ran Geiger Counter at GenCon, the game was a scheduled event (unlike the first, pick-up playtest at the Games On Demand booth), and it was advertised as being based on Roanoke, Clint Krause’s early colonial Carolina setting for Wushu. What happened? Well, honestly, I felt like Roanoke served as a kind of “style sheet” for the game. The monster was still a bit amorphous in nature (it was ghostly, corrupting, and also moved the earth around), but the characters and the setting seemed much more rock-solid than in previous playtests because everyone was on the same page, using the same type of setting and color elements, all drawn from the kind of things that Clint described in Roanoke (even if some of the players were not familiar with Clint’s work).

So there’s my inspiration: In a Wicked Age plus Roanoke. Oh, plus the Story Games Names Book, whose influence will become clear shortly.

With that in mind, I started thinking about what a “style sheet” for Geiger Counter might look like. Robert Ahrens said he wants giant sharks in the playtest I ran on Wednesday night, so I tried to make a giant shark style sheet. I first thought about the kinds of creative elements I needed players to come up with during a game of Geiger Counter. The ones I came up with were:

  • a setting,
  • character types,
  • character names,
  • trait dice (for the characters),
  • advantage dice (gained during play),
  • menace dice (describing threats to the characters),
  • locations,
  • epilogues (false endings when the monster seems to be defeated).

So here’s the style sheet I came up with, drawn from Jaws, Jaws 2, Deep Blue Sea, and my own imagination.


  • Settings: small beach town, Caribbean resort, remote fishing village, aquarium, SeaWorld, marine research facility, desalination plant, navy seal training base, illegal fishing boat (whaling ship, poachers), arctic research icebreaker, coast guard rescue ship, merchant marine vessel, modern pirate / smuggling vessel, military submarine, multi-million dollar underwater resort.
  • Character Types: local law enforcement officer, medical examiner, local politician, young innocent, professional shark hunter, marine biologist, dolphin / orca trainer, novice fisherman, professional fisherman, local hooligan, coast guard officer, scuba diver, wealthy yacht owner, water skier, real estate developer, scientist / researcher, shark wrangler, venture capitalist, corporate lawyer / inspector, former navy seal, ship captain, blue-collar sailor, concerned hotel employee, concerned mother, teenage son/daughter of any of the above.
  • Character Names: I’m gonna leave this to the Names Book.
  • Trait/Advantage Dice: Trait and advantage dice come in several general varieties…
    • Personal Attributes: excellent swimmer, shark attack surviver, etc.
    • Valuable Knowledge: shark specialist, chief geneticist on giant shark project, I know these waters, etc.
    • Tools: chum, fishing pole, harpoon, flotation barrel, shark-proof cage, hypodermic spear, pressurized air tank, rifle, gasoline tank, radio, etc.
    • Relationships: to any other characters.
    • Secondary Characters: sailors, policemen, junior researchers, etc. that the player controls.
    • Dark Secrets: head of the giant shark project, self-destructive Captain Ahab obsession, will doom you all to ensure my own survival, etc.
  • Menace Dice: three tons, teeth the size of your hand, hyper-intelligent, plays with its food, high risk of drowning, there’s a squall blowing, the engine’s dead, we’re sinking.
  • Locations: the beach, the docks, the open ocean, the listing boat with no one left alive, the shark tank, the cafe, the island, the record room, the fishing boat, the ice shelf, the hotel lobby, the pier, the lifeguard station, the coast guard ship, the rescue helicopter, your cabin, the main deck, the pilothouse, the foremast, the starboard side, underwater, the shark-proof cage.
  • Epilogues: I left this part blank, because I was running out of time, figuring most of these would be based on the events of play.

In the next post (since I need a part 3 now, after testing it out last night), I want to talk about how this worked in play and what I’m taking from it.

Style Sheets: Part 1

2008 Feb 28

Something struck me yesterday and now I have a massive two-part post I have to make about it. Here’s the first part.

I’ve been thinking about how setting and tone are conveyed by game texts ever since I started messing with In a Wicked Age. Traditionally, Forge-influenced indie games have conveyed setting and tone through short descriptive passages, since we don’t generally have 100 pages to spend describing setting elements and communicating flavor. The text of Polaris is a great example, where Ben has those elaborate, beautifully written passages at the beginning that explain Utmost North in very mythic tones. You could read those out loud to your playgroup (and you do, in some cases, as ritual passages), and get everyone on the same page. The Mountain Witch takes a somewhat different approach, though, with shorter descriptive pieces and a greater reliance on the players’ background in samurai tropes and tragic narratives. And Dogs in the Vineyard takes yet another approach, using a conversation voice to describe how society functions in frontier towns, more of a social science approach than a mythic one. Still, these are all variations on the same general approach.

In a Wicked Age approaches the communication of setting in an innovative fashion. Like Polaris it uses short phrases written by the author of the game, which the text tells players to directly incorporate into the play experience, giving the author, in effect, more of a direct voice in the play of groups they may have no direct contact with. However, where Polaris‘ ritual phrases are invoked to help structure play and conflict resolution, the oracle entries in Wicked Age are interpreted by the players to create the characters and situations at the core of play. In a general sense, in Polaris, Ben’s words guide how the game is played, while in Wicked Age, Vincent’s words guide what the game is about.

The issue of author-audience relationship is really interesting to me. How do game designers help groups come up with dynamic and appropriate setting elements, characters, situations, and color? The system stuff gets talked about the most, I think, in terms of creating fuctional player interactions and group decision making, but the latter has generally not been the focus of Forge theory or the stuff that has come after it. Most Forge-influenced indie game designers seem to think that elements of play are more likely to engage and excite players if the players themselves have a direct hand in creating them. However, game designers themselves often have strong ideas about the kinds of elements that are appropriate or best for their game. This is in some ways like The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast (a.k.a. the idea the story simultaneously belongs to the players, “their story,” and the GM, who “tells the story”), where it’s difficult to have creative elements that are chosen both by the game designer and the play group. If you go with the designer’s elements, the play group might not engage with them, but if you go with the players’ elements, created on the spur of the moment, they might flop or just be less appropriate for this particular game or situation.

In a Wicked Age gives us one potential compromise. The setting elements are totally Vincent’s (or whoever created the oracle you’re using), but the players decide how they are implemented in play, what’s important, what’s not, etc. But there’s another approach that I’m thinking about: creating style sheets for roleplaying sessions or campaigns.

I know about style sheets mostly from doing web layout using CSS (cascading style sheets), but I’m sure they’re used in all sorts of writing, graphic design, computer programming, and many other technical fields. The basic idea is to create a standard set of rules to provide a fixed set of constraints within a seemingly limitless environment. For example, say I want to create a series of headings that are all bold, size 3, underlined, and blinking red (because I like ugly headings). Normally, I would have to program each of those tags in separately, like:

[b][text size=”3″ color=”red”][u][blink]THIS IS A HEADING[/blink][/u][/text][/b]

But I could create a heading style in a separate file, called a “style sheet,” and only list all those tags once, in that file. Then, if I wanted to code the heading, I could just do something like:

[h1 style=”ugly”]THIS IS A HEADING[/h1]

And I started wondering why that same principle couldn’t be applied to creative elements within roleplaying. Like, can we create a style sheet for play, such that normal player contributions become the equivalent of bold, size 3, underlined, blinking red text? So that player input is instantly transformed to be appropriate and dynamic within the game and social environment of the playgroup? I suspect that we can.

More soon.

New Metro Map

2008 Feb 26

Eric and Eben really want me to run Transantiago for Story Games Boston eventually, so I’m working on a new playtest draft and sketched out a new map, based on the one I did for When the Forms Exhaust Their Variety.


The Time & Place for Criticism

2008 Feb 21

Crossposted from this monster thread on Story Games.

I think one of the prominent issues in the awkward adolescence of indie roleplaying is “when and where is the best place for criticism to happen?” In my mind, if criticism happens after the game has already had several hundred copies printed, that’s far too late. Revisions and addendum and the like are all great, but not as good as having the criticism happen before games get commercially released. However, when people are not writing or designing their games in public, or when open playtests have only moderate participation, it’s really hard for that to happen, yeah? I can think of a couple of really cool games in playtest right now, Anna’s Thou Art But A Warrior and Brennan’s How We Came To Live Here, and it seems like they’ve only got a few folks actively involved in playing and offering criticism before the games get declared “done” and go to layout and commercial release.

Honestly, that’s where the tragedy is for me, not that criticism doesn’t happen after games released (because then it’s almost too late), but that people aren’t taking it upon themselves to offer criticism before mistakes or oversights become harder to fix. For my money, I’d rather be involved in and see more criticism at that stage in the game.

The Face of Angels

2008 Feb 21

Story Games Boston played Clinton’s The Face of Angels last night. It was fucking boss. Definitely what Rising Stars promised it would be and then failed to deliver: a small community of everyday people growing up with super-powers, slowly shifting from small-town problems to world-altering problems. And the system feels relatively unique and refreshing. Characters have no traits at all, hardly, and play is structured around “doing” stuff rather than “being” stuff, which is a design tactic that I’m a big fan of.

Face of Angels is now on the top of my list of “great games not available in print.” Everyone should go play it right now. The only confusing bits were some relatively minor issues of “who gets to narrate what when,” but I’m not sure if that was us being confused, the text being unclear, or Clinton doing that thing where he’s intentionally vague about less important stuff so that player groups can do whatever feels best. I’ll have to read the game myself later (Adam Flynn was running it) to get a better grasp of things.

Draft of a Playtest Draft

2008 Feb 20

I’ve always been a “design in public” kind of guy. I know I always like seeing what other people are up to, even when it’s ugly and unfinished. It gives me a sense of them as real people instead of “Game Design Guru!” And I’m as real as they come, so here’s the oogly moogly that I have so far (PDF), even thought it’s pretty much just the oracle and the guidelines for using it. Everything else is completely unfinished, especially the bravo cards. I bet Stranger Things looks something like this right now ;P

Projects Inform Projects

2008 Feb 20

So here I am, working on the “Ultrametal Quickstart” version of 108 Bravos. I’ve finished an oracle based on the first ten chapters of the Water Margin, I’ve got the rules for using the oracle drafted out, I’ve made character cards for the three bravos that appear in the first ten chapters, I’ve drafted up guidelines for playing bravos, other PCs, and NPCs, I’m working on some GM guidelines for how to frame scenes, and the only problem is… I’m unsure about the dice mechanics from In a Wicked Age, which is a serious problem. Most likely, I haven’t played the game enough to really get them, so that’s probably my next step. But if, in the end, they don’t do what I need, then I’m at a crossroads.

108 Bravos already doesn’t use the We Owe List, Particular Strengths, character creation rules, or Oracle guidelines from In a Wicked Age. If I end up not using the conflict resolution or Exhaustion & Injury rules, then 108 Bravos really stops being a supplement and becomes a full-on hack, a completely different game with some shared characteristics. That would also mean that I need to do a lot more playtesting, because I’m not leaning against Vincent’s hard work anymore. And that, in turn, probably means not having the game ready by GenCon, except maybe as an ashcan draft that I playtest with people there. And that’s all fine, and kinda par for the course. I keep starting these projects that are supposed to be quick-and-easy modifications of other people’s games (Vesperteen, Lions on the Precipice, Geiger Counter, Last Days of Old Macao, Gridiron Gods, Mwaantaangaand) and they end up becoming full-on games. Sigh.

But then Adam Flynn and Dev just posted that they’re interested in playing Geiger Counter again. And I’m thinking, “Well, here’s a game that I’ve already playtested a bunch, including last year at GenCon, and it’s much further along in the process, so maybe I could shift gears a bit until I figure out what to do about 108 Bravos.” And I pick up the most current draft, which is a printed out version of what’s posted on this site, but with black notes scribbled all over it in pen. And the problem that was really vexing me when I stopped playtesting Geiger Counter was how to present setting, how to get people to recreate the feel of The Mummy or Aliens or Scream or Jaws or Jurassic Park or Twister on the fly. And… thanks to In a Wicked Age and Oracles, I now know how to do that.

It’s really nice when things build on each other like that.

Now the only problem is that I’ve got rights to the cover image of 108 Bravos for one year. And if I don’t have GenCon to give away free copies at, then I may have to rethink my distribution scheme. Maybe I could give them away at Dreamation, next January? Hmm. In any case, time to play In a Wicked Age a whole bunch (or, better yet, play 108 Bravos with the mechanics from In a Wicked Age) to see if it works for me.