19 March, 2018

Neither here, nor there

Edges are mystically powerful. The transition between open plains and dense forest, the coastline between land and sea, the wizard's tower between the earth and the sky. The places unable to be clearly defined as neither one thing or another make a natural home for energies in flux, for the transformation of things.

The realms of the Dark Places have laws of their own... these may follow the laws of the physical realm, an internally consistent dream rules, a paradigm matching an ancient set of mythical lore, or something else entirely. Magic can often be woven in these realms, but only if it follows the laws of the realm. The most powerful mystics learn to bridge realms with stable wormholes... much like a wizards tower connecting the earth and the sky. Within such wormholes, the wizard's belief sets the reality; these places exist outside time and space, they are sanctum sanctorum. Within a wormhole, a wizard may create subrealms according to their whim. Such realms might be connected like the rooms in a house, with doors and corridors joining them (often for the comfort of outsider visitors more than any requirement for the creating wizard), other wizards may allow the subconscious chaos of dream logic to connect a surreal landscape of subrealms.

There are very few wizards powerful enough to make them, and even then wormholes need a pair of stable realms to connect to. If either collapses, the wormhole, and any subrealms within it are also collapsed.

18 March, 2018

Tweaking the fiddly bits

I've got a couple of hundred regular readers here, based on my daily viewer stats, even if I assume a percentage of them are just bots that trawl through pages and hit the pageview counter. The vast majority of you are silent, but a few of you provide 'likes' and '+1s', and some offer me interesting ideas or queries in comments and reshares. To those people, I'm grateful.

Today though, a bit more about my generic version of The Law (the project with the working title of SNAFU). There are quite a few ideas that didn't make it into the core rules for The Law, and a few design decisions under the surface which led to after effects and surface elements tbat might require a bit of unpacking.

Benj Davis has brought up the concept of converting the Rank die to a generic format. Because I've been working with the background concepts so deeply over recent years, I didn't realise how strongly it appeared intertwined with the heirarchical structure of the Department of Law. The essence of the Rank die was drawn from the Name die in John Harper's Agon RPG, where the original idea reflected a blend of fame, arete, and heroic closeness to divinity. I retained the idea that this was the core die used in pretty much every die roll, but it made sense in my game to link it across to a character's rank as an agent.

This will never function as a "generic" system. I admit that there are types of games where the mechanisms of play will be a bit too much of a stretch from the intended conventions of a specified genre. But renaming this specific die to something more appropriate to the intended genre would be hard. A steampunk criminal interpretation might see the 'ranks' increase through levels of 'urchin'/'light-finger'/'schemer'/'racketeer'/'mastermind'... a magical interpretation might see 'ranks' of 'novice'/'disciple'/'adept'/'master'/'oracle'... these are just spur of the moment ideas, and I'd probably give a lot more thought to logical progressions in a final product.

One of the rules that got cut from the base book for The Law, was the idea of different departments within the agency. There were either going to be four or six departments during iterations of the idea. Four would directly correspond to the attributes (physical = SWAT team, social = Undercover, mental = Investigation, paranormal = PSI division), six would have combined a pair of attributes to get it's divisions (phy+soc, phy+men, phy+para, soc+men, soc+para, men+para). When characters were doing something specifically relating to the purview of a given department, they'd roll their department die instead of their general rank die. The idea was ultimately abandoned, because choice of abilities helped define characters in this way, and it felt like it was overcomplicating an otherwise elegant system. It will probably come back in a players guide as an optional rule, where department rank counts as an advantage die that is only added under specific circumstances. These departments could easily be substituted for generic occupations in other settings (swap out 'SWAT team' for 'warrior', or 'PSI division' for 'wizard', etc.) Specific dice like this would be raised independently of the rank die, and while the rank die has the overall rule that it may never be the highest (or equal highest) die until a attribute reaches d12, these division advantage dice would be linked to a specific attribute, and never be able to exceed it's die level.

I've been toying with similar ideas for schools of magic and elemental affinities in the Familiar branch of the game.

Long story short... consider what the game is about, what kind of organisation or community the characters work within. The game isn't really designed for loners. The Rank die reflects the overall power, notoriety, and accomplishments of the individual within that community. But always remember that a Rank die is limited by the attribute dice, and a higher rank die brings bigger threats to the table. It was deliberately designed as a two-edged sword to prevent it becoming too overpowered in the game.

Another thing to consider when adapting the rule system would be the choice of abilities available to the characters. A 'drive' skill wouldn't be important to a medieval game, a 'wilderness survival' skill wouldn't see a lot of use in urban fantasy.

I like the idea of at least five skills or abilities per category, and preferably a number around ten. That's probably a throwback to Cyberpunk2020 and the Storyteller System, but it feels nice. I've also tried to make sure a couple of skills in each category are a bit more exclusive by limiting their choice to characters who meet certain attribute minimums (typically d8 in an attribute opens these up)... while also providing a couple of skills that have the potential to be upgraded to an advanced form. The whole point is to maintain a general consistency, while adding a bit of diversity where I felt the core concepts were lacking. Although it doesn't appear in The Law, a 'music' skill developed for a specific genre of game might break down into specialised forms for a variety of instruments, musical styles, or composition.

16 March, 2018

Boiling down the Essence

I'm working on the essence of The Law, because a few people have said that they like the system and would be interested in seeing it adapted to urban fantasy, standard fantsy, or even sword-&-sorcery. It's a sturdy enough core, not particularly wedded to the setting except through a couple of character abilities, and the investigation mechanisms (which could fairly easily be adapted to quest mechanisms).

So the aim would be to produce a little 8 page booklet, or maybe a couple of pocketmods that boil down the essence of the rules. I previously described it as the SRD of The Law, but now I'm just calling it SNAFU which basically links it back to its roots in my game FUBAR.   

15 March, 2018

Mortals and Immortals

Another interesting post amongst the mini zeitgeist I'm currently working in can be found at the Pits Perilous blog by Olde House Rules (find the post here). It delves into the idea of long lived characters such as elves, and to a lesser extent dwarves, compared to traditionally shorter lived races such as humans.

The article can instantly be seen as analogous to my dilemma of using player character spirits and familiars who run the gamut from a infant spritelings couple of months old through to immortal forces of nature for whom the entirety of recorded history has been the blink of an eye.

It proposes an elegant solution, where all races reach maturity at much the same pace, then diverge once adulthood is attained. I've proposed similar ideas in the past, where human genetics sees cell degradation gradually accelerate (thus causing aging), while the cell degradation of other races occurs at differing rates (thus accounting for their varied lifespans while seeing basic maturity manifest at roughly the same age). But for spirit beings, who have chronologically been "alive" for exponentially different timeframes, this doesn't really cut it.

I guess it goes back to the concept of what experience is. I've already decided that experience does not equate to age, but rather is proportional to the activity of the individual, and the risks they have taken. Existing in the real world is a risky activity, but it provides knowledge and power about maintaining an ongoing existence. Observing the world from up close may also provide knowledge, but it's less visceral, so the accumulation of data is a slower process. Observing from afar is safer still, but only really grants macroscopic data of the widest trends. It then seems easy for us to tie a rate of spiritual aging, to the closeness of that spirit to reality. Those who manifest in "meat-space" age and develop at the rate of the mortals. Those who linger in the penumbral periphery might age at a fraction of that rate (for argument, lets say a tenth)... here they exist on the edge of a mortal's vision, they can observe but not interact. Those who exist in deeper planes may be able to observe the penumbra, but they cannot see anything of the material-plane/"meatspace" beyond its ripples through the spirit realms (to continue the analogy, such beings might age at a hundredth of the mortal rate). Beings further detached from reality start to lose their point of reference to mortals, they need to fracture their essence to create avatars capable of drawing closer to the mortal realm, or spawn angels, demigods and other lesser spirits to act as intermediaries (such beings would age at a thousandth of the mortal rate, or slower still if they existed even further from the physical).

If an average mortal lifespan is 70-100 years, we suddenly have commonly encountered spirits capable of living several centuries to a millenium... distant spirits capable of living several millennia... and alien beings observing on the edge of reality who could easily watch ice ages come and go. But the longer the lifespan, the more alien and exotic they are, and the less they are able to meaningfully interact with the mortal world. There's the balance.

Similarly, we get periods of activity or periods of slumber/torpor/inactivity. I'm seeing a lot of spirits functioning in the Dark Places as drones. As such, they perform a simple duty in the spirit realm that supports the structure of the mortal realm, but it is when they break from this drone activity that things get interesting. These are the stories we tell. Most characters will have a few years of meaningful experiences to draw on, the youngest ones might be in contact with an Akashic record, or retain  fragmentary knowledge from the greater spirit who spawned them.

I like where this is heading, but there's more work to do.

13 March, 2018

Balance and Imbalance.

Yesterday's post got a bit of feedback, and that's great. It's also interesting to see parallel discussions emerging on various Facebook groups today. I don't know whether it's my superpower of "Tapping the Zeitgeist" at work again, or if those people starting the discussions were prompted by reading my blog. Either way, there's some good thoughts out there and I'd love to engage the area more deeply.

One of the great points raised, came from Joseph Teller...

"The questions in design you need to ask yourself is, does Age=Experience or does Activity=Experience?"

It's an awesome question that isn't really addressed in a lot of games.

I'll address it with some instances I've seen over the years. It was probably about four years ago when I joined up with the fledgling Clans of Elgardt LARP. During tbe first couple of months there were teething problems, including a "gold = XP" system akin to the early days of D&D. A policy was established where teams could pool their gold tnen withdraw it for upgrades. I saw a number of teams at this time, who had numerous characters contributing, with the same one or two "leaders" getting first serve of the gold after every session. This led to charismatic or intimidating players getting the best characters in the game. This was exacerbated by the way these large teams would get most of the game's rewards due to sheer weight of numbers. When called out on this, these privileged players claimed that since they had the best characters, they contributed more, and it was only fair that they got more rewards...a self fulfilling prophecy which rapidly led to more extreme imbalance as the games went by.

This is clearly something I want to avoid.

Let's go back further, 15-20 years ago, to the turn of the millennium. I was playing and running the various Minds Eye Theatre (MET) LARPs, under the umbrella of the global Camarilla organisation. Based on the Storyteller System from White Wolf, the MET games streamlined things and made politics and social intrigue the driving factors in the narrative. This came at the expense of other parts of the game (such as the combat system which was notoriously terrible), but produced a distinct style of play. The Camarilla organisation applied it's own meta-rule framework around the MET core, giving richer background interaction for players to drive storyline, and allowing players who had done service for the game in the real world to gain advantages within the fictional world. For example, a player who ran games for a year or two might be rewarded with characters who started play with higher rank or more XP. A player who sacrificed their character for the good of a wider story involving other characters might be offered an exclusive character type to play next. Chatacters would gain XP for turning up, filing a report for the organisers, and maybe for making a bit of extra effort like wearing a costume or engaging other players in their stories...that's about it. One character might have been created two years ago, but if they weren't regularly attending games, a new character might match them in XP after a few sessions. Similarly, a boosted character started by a prestigious player might have the edge initially, but they'd have to regularly play to maintain that edge. Yes, there were people who abused the system, and yes, it wasn't perfect...but it was aiming at turning the hobby into something more commumal.

This is closer to what I'm after.

Neither of these really specifically addresses my concerns. But they hold clues to what I do and don't want. So, I'll look at some of those Facebook posts.
This screen-capture from gets really close to what I'm aiming for when it comes to asymmetrical play.

So does this one. 

I want characters of different power levels, but I want everyone to be able to contribute relatively equally to the game narrative. I want ancient characters, who have shaped empires and history, to stumble when they encounter a smart phone while the young cyberpunk street urchin has no trouble at all with the phone but gets utter.y lost in the catacombs under the city because they have no idea what happened more than 20 years ago (except the revisionist history they've seen in movies... "but in the movie, there was a secret passage here").

So a lot of it boils down to what power actually is in the game.

It reminds me of Cyberpunk 2020... why would you play a Solo or a Media, when you could play a Corporate who could relatively easily hire either of these types when the need arises, letting them take the risk so you don't have to??... because those who take the risks are the ones involved in more interesting stories, and taking risks brings experience.

I know this isn't for everyone, but I like games where there is enough risk that the end of a character's story is alway a few steps and a couple of die rolls away. The d20/OSR level zero and level one characters who could die at a moments notice against a giant rat don't have enough agency for me. The characters beyond level 10 wno are basically gods among the mortal world bore me, especially when combat ends up with six whiffs for every strike, and each strike literally tzkes away no more than 5% of an opponent's hit points... I came here for story, not for rolling dice and looking up tables for two hours. Levels four to seven are the sweet spot for me in that style of play, a few good hits are dangerous, characters start picking up some of the fun quirky abilities, and the world opens up. No character is more than twice as powerful as any other, and a decent DM/GM/Referee can create a range of situations where the less powerful characters still have a chance to shine. Beyond that, I'm happy to retire a character and work my way through that sweet spot again and again.

12 March, 2018

Unbalanced Asymmetry

The grizzled veteran partnered with the new recruit...the master and their apprentice...the immortal wizard, the elf who has lived for centuries, the dwarf only slightly younger, and the hobbits barely out of their adolescence.

We've all encountered the stories where characters are not equals, yet it remains the default state of the table that everyone is "equal". I've certainly encountered long term games where characters are killed off, and then any new characters are introduced at base level. I'm similarly aware of campaign play in Ars Magica or Pendragon, where a single story can continue over the turning of decades and  generations. But the default is still the "equal" party across most gaming. Personally, I think the potential dynamics of young and old characters offers an added level to a story.

I'm thinking of a system where characters start the game at various levels. Those who are young are still filled with dynamism and wonder, they may not have much experience, but they can quickly adapt and learn new things...those who are old have become set in their ways, alien in their thinking, and laden with ennui, they struggle to asassimilate new knowledge and techniques. In The Law we might be looking at the difference between a fresh academy graduate, and a veteran "with three days to retirement". In Familiar (or "the unnamed denizens of the Dark Places" project, which may or may not end up different), this might be the difference between a freshly spawned digital sprite and an ancient primordial entity who has maintained an aspect of fundamental reality since the dawn of time. Vampire: the Masquerade tried to do something like this in a few of the sourcebooks designed to address the "elders" of the setting. But the Vampire way of addressing the concept was messy and inelegant. One of the much discussed issues in Vampire (and all games in the Storyteller System) is the way element costs at character generation vary compared to the systems used in play to increase those elements, and then you've got freebie points that work in a different way again. This basically means you can create a character designed to be a "builder", who might seem sub-optimal at the start of play, but once experience points (XP) are added after a few games such a character can shoot ahead of everyone else in raw ability despite earning the same XP. The "Elder" addendum to which I'm referring just makes this more unbalanced by further  modifying the XP expenditure and tacking on extra freebie points. But it kind of goes in the direction I need; I can see that it was aiming the right way, but didn't quite hit the mark for me.

I guess my biggest gripe with the system presented is the fact there are already two subsystems at play with a disconnect between them, and this tacks on a third subsystem without addressing the discrepancy between the first two.

The experience system in The Law is basically derived from Mordheim. It has a track of checkboxes, and some of those checkboxes are bold. Every time a bold checkbox is reached, a character gains an upgrade; but as the boxes are marked, tbose bold boxes get gradually further apart. Mordheim addresses the issue of asymmetrical power levels by simply giving the team leader higher stats, but automatically checking off 20 boxes... therefore instantly making future upgrades for tbe leader harder to achieve regularly. Team lieutenants have slightly upgraded stats, but check off 8 boxes. Another factor comes into play with various costs to recruit team members, but that makes sense for a skirmish miniatures game. The balance in Mordheim isn't perfect, but it's also aiming in the right direction for me. It also has the implicit idea that not all characters are expected to survive the session. 

So I'm up in the air again.

I'm really tempted to use a semi-random allocation system again. Such a system might use d4, d6, and d8, with allocation categories including the number of XP checkboxes already marked off (and associated advantages gained), the number of special contacts and other advantages gained (which are usually acquired through roleplaying and narrative rather than mechanistic XP), and the final category would be the number of penalties a character has picked up over the years (which would be like the sacrifices in the regular game, where better rolls equal less problems). Such a system deliberately promotes differences in characters, while adding depth to tnose characters who do have a few stories in their background.

Still thinking though.

11 March, 2018


I've got this nasty habit of overanalysing things.

I come up with a concept, then I tinker with it... I add bits to it... I work out how those new bits have modified the core... then modify them or add new bits until the whole thing is a Frakenstein mess that ends up getting stripped back to a raw foundation again. Sometimes the new iteration is back at the starting point, and sometimes it's a very different beast... at which point I analyse the differences to see what fulfils my goals better. It's an ongoing cycle.

I shared my intention for a Dark Places character generation system, with 3 fragments determined by rolling a bunch of dice then allocating the results between different columns of a table. I've been working on this concept within the context of generating characters who would use the same system and be vaguely comparable in power to the Agents in The Law. This basically means attributes with an average starting score of d6, four defenses, four to seven abilities (where every ability less than seven contributes an extra defense), and four advantages (where The Law sees these starting advantages manifest as bonus equipment requisitioned from the department, while these new characters would gain spiritual/magical powers).

The Law uses a vague lifepath system, building characters through their childhood, adolescence, then time in the Law academy; each step adding elements to the character. But my thoughts about how to modify Steve Dee's Relics have influenced my character creation ideas for this new system. The Dark Places are filled with spirits manifested through various means, some might be lingering souls or echoes of a mortal's influence in the world, others might be primordial entities manifested from the very soulstuff of the cosmos. These aren't the narrowly defined agents who've been through a specific process of education and indoctrination, they are outsiders in every sense of the word. It almost feels easier to define what they are not, rather than trying to define what they are (and in certain iterations of the design process, this definition by exception is exactly what I tried to do), but I've previously expressed my disdain for the "design by exception" school of thought through the idea that it's always cleaner to define basic rulings that cover everything that can be, rather than continually developing rules for specifics that might be.

That basically means I'm trying to develop a system that can basically handle a huge variety of concepts, while honing outcomes toward certain more likely results. Maybe a fool's errand...? At this stage the only thing going through my head is that there needs to be a focal point, a funnel that channels the various character concepts to a singularity of purpose before allowing them to go their separate ways again.

In a tribal society, this might be a rite of passage. A variety of people are valued in the tribe, diversity of skills and abilities is important for communal survival, but to be considered an adult, a specific set of tasks needs to be accomplished.

In The Law, this function is served by the academy.  Maybe the denizens of the Dark Places have become self aware through a distinct awakening process, this also helps with the idea that some denizen spirits might only be a few months old, while others have lived millennia. Before the awakening, they were simply cogs in a grand cosmic machine, after the awakening the adventures begin.

One of my versions of this character generation system saw the equivalent of race providing base attributes (and an ability/skill), the equivalent of occupation provided more skills (and an advantage), and the characters age provided a range of advantages (along with some abilities/skills)... then a few bonus points could be applied anywhere to round out the character. It felt close, but not quite there. Adding this awakening catalyst might help.

...anyway, back to the overanalysing.