Sunday, 19 February 2017

Per Plunum: a game of making do

The premises of the Great Enchanter occupy a prominent, yet not fashionable, location in a moderately well-trafficked part of the town. The Great Enchanter's name is not bandied about on the lips of the vulgar, but thanks, in no small part, to the aid of certain mnemonic incantations, a general awareness of their presence and location permeates the populace, so that anyone in need of magical aid might find themselves wandering uncertaintly in that direction. The large brass plaque prominently fixed on the ancient, stout oaken door displays the name of the Great Enchanter in letters that are just large enough to bespeak confidence, yet not so large as to appear desperate; fancy enough to convey a hint of wonder, yet not so gaudy as to seem frivolous.

The Great Enchanter's door opens upon a modest reception room, with fine claw-footed wooden chairs where a customer may await attention. Reassuringly respectable landscapes hang upon the neat wallpaper; reassuringly mystical books and orbs line shelves behind the heavy wooden counter; a fine balance is struck between allaying the qualms of the hesitant first-time visitor, and delicately suggesting the proprietor's bona fides.

The customer is politely ushered into a consultation room.

For this client, a modest and businesslike office with little sign of arcane learning but the names of the gold-lettered tomes that line the shelves, a faint scent of incense and the ornate carvings on several locked cupboards. A plain blue rug keeps their feet from echoing on the wooden floorboards of the office. Sunlight streams through the windows, supported by the steady light of several lamps to give the atmosphere of any pleasant morning call. They take a seat in a comfortable armchair by the fire, and enjoy light refreshments while the Enchanter, or perhaps one of their assistants, clad in the garb of any respectable professional, delicately elicits from them the nature of their difficulty and - even more delicately - the depth of their purse.

For that client, a dim chamber redolent of magical learning, lit by the multicoloured flickering of myriad fat, dribbling candles. Shelves of gold-lettered tomes fill one wall; elsewhere heaps of mysterious paraphernalia threaten to flood from several open cupboards. Feet echo on the rune-etched floorboards of the chamber, and scrolls of strange Boreal writing hang from the walls. The heady scent of incense and less identifiable things waft through the air. Two chairs, swathed in cloths woven with mysterious symbols, are huddled by a fire over which a bronze cauldron bubbles with sweet-smelling liquid. A tray of exotic sweetmeats and spiced wine are placed in the outstretched claws of a gargoyle, while the Enchanter, or perhaps one of their assistants, garbed in outlandish outfits, interrogates them on the nature of their difficulty and - somewhat indirectly - the depth of their purse.

On the rare occasions that two clients visit in quick succession, they are often kept waiting. This is not, as they are informed, because the Great Enchanter must update their records, or meditate to clear their mind of distractions, or realign the lunar resonances of the chamber, but because locking or unlocking the cupboards, moving the rug, dispersing the scent of incense or dragging that wretched gargoyle in and out of the corner cupboard - to say nothing of changing outfits - are quite time-consuming. You'd know. It's your job.

It's a tough life being an apprentice. And the magical business isn't exactly booming.

Now, for the first time in weeks, someone has come to seek the aid of the Great Enchanter whose name is prominently displayed upon the brass plate outside your office! Fortune, or at least the ability to pay off the more pressing of your debts, beckons!

But the Great Enchanter is not there.

Incapacitated in a magical mishap? Drunk? Struck down with Dancing Fever? Engaged in a scandalous liaison at a weekend villa which you are strongly and sorcerously abdjured from interrupting? Dead? Just plain feckless?

But you really, really need the money.

And so you, the stout-hearted apprentices of the mage, must spring to the task for which your studies have in no way prepared you.

Don't panic!

It's not all bad. After all, you have spent months, perhaps years in the service of the Great Enchanter, who selected you for your undeniable arcane potential, and certainly not because you were cheap, found sleeping rough in the outhouse after running away from home, nearby and in need of a shilling when an old school rival showed up with a new apprentice, the child of a particularly persistent yet remote relative, hired as a bootboy but insist on calling yourself an apprentice, or you just wouldn't stop pestering them.

You know:

  1. How to pack a very heavy rucksack really efficiently so you can carry all the mage's stuff as well as your own
  2. Basic self-defence
  3. How to evade a variety of adversaries
  4. The fundamentals of business, as filtered through the idiosyncrasies of your mage
  5. A little bit about theoretical magic
  6. An assortment of minor incantations, mostly used for domestic chores and tiresome tasks the mage refuses to undertake.

You also know two genuine spells, which fall into one of the following categories:

  1. The mage taught you this in a rare moment of determination, due to an urgent need to get something done, reluctance to risk taking part in a particular ritual, a brief flash of pedagogical responsibility, a drunken haze or an attempt to show up a rival. It is useful, perhaps impressive, though difficult to perform.
  2. You learned this spell without the mage's sanction; perhaps you stole down to peruse a heavy tome of ancient wisdom, or accidentally broke a precious globe containing an imp who taught you the spell in thanks for its freedom, or peered through a crack in the floorboards and watched the mage conjuring. It is a potent, illicit spell which you had best not perform openly. You're pretty sure the chances of horrible death are quite low.

And of course, you have your own personal merits, (in)competencies and capabilities.

But more importantly, you really, really need the money.

Yes sir, madam, the Great Enchanter will take care of that right away.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Skills as described vs. skills as used

So I was visiting Dan and Arthur over the holidays, and we had many conversations about roleplaying, of course. One of them eventually pottered around to musing on skill interpretation. Or, to be a little uncharitable, skill misinterpretation.

Here, as usual, "skill" means an aspect of an RPG's mechanics which determine your competence in a specific field of activity. In some cases things we would normally consider to be Attributes or Statistics or something work in a way similar enough that we can also consider them here. White Wolf's dots, for example, are basically the same whether they're in an Attribute or a... whatever you call the other things, I forget.

Let's take as read for this article that a skill has four components: a Name, an optional Fluff, a Description, and an Application. The Name is literally the name of the skill ("Ignite Fish"). The Fluff is a bit of flavour text which some games include. The Description is the section of the rules which explains what the skill is, and may give specific mechanical subsystems, special uses, examples and so on; descriptions may be very mechanical or largely narrative.

Finally, the Application is simply the way a given set of players actually uses the skill in their games. This does not necessarily correspond to any of the above.

Gamer Nostalgia and Game Choices

This post was prompted by an old Adventuring Party episode, which seems fitting (although less old than I thought it was when I first wrote this).

The premise was, basically, "are gamers too nostalgic? where is all the new stuff?" and based on a listener question. The group discussed this at length and with enthusiasm, and eventually settled mostly on "no" and "everywhere, on Kickstarter and stuff". While an interesting discussion, I felt like it didn't quite get to grips with things. I spent a lot of it on the tangent of thinking about why people tend to substantially gravitate towards the same handful of older games - D&D, World of Darkness, Traveller and Star Wars. Why isn't there a large market share for new shiny games?

(and yes, one of the answers is "it's questionable how much those should be considered old")

Most of my discussion will focus on D&D because I've played that.

Inertia

I think a large part of this can be attributed to general inertia. Humans are, for the most part, inclined to stick with what they're already doing, and some of the social issues around gaming specifically interact with that.

Conservatism is the basic point. Once you've got a game that does X, why learn another one? This tendency is intensified by the group-based nature of gaming. To play, you need to get a group of 3-6 people to agree on a game; it's not something you can just do yourself. For many people this means persuading their existing group (or one of just a couple of groups) to try the new system. In some groups, people are all willing to experiment with new games - it depends a lot on what the group is for, I suppose. There are game groups which are (explicitly or tacitly) about relaxing and socialising, and an old familiar system fits the bill well.

There are other factors which play in here. A group of laid-back players with an evangelical GM may be perfectly happy to have their choice of game driven by the GM's enthusiasms. Some groups are pretty stable, others are highly changeable depending on what game is currently being played; the latter are perhaps easier to crack into with a new game.

The social contract, or rather a social contract, reinforces this conservatism. When you do persuade them, if some people are reluctant in the first place because they don't see the point of changing from [game that does something similar], this tends to weigh against them changing their mind. If they've given it something approaching a fair chance, and still don't really buy into it, the social contract pushes towards going back to Old Game. That's down to the dynamics of things like how we approach favours and agreements - there's generally an unspoken sense that if Jane agrees to try MegaSpaceWhizz and doesn't care for it, you'll go back to Traveller.

Worse, if you've tried something and it wasn't a great success, there's a fairly strong pressure to never try it again.

This is particularly significant when you think that Old Game is probably played with the ease of long practice; people are comfortable with the rules and expectations and the kind of characters they can be. A first session of New Game, or even first few sessions, will be full of explanations and rules checking and mistakes, and people finding out they can't do something they want to.

It's also common for there to be a long and painful chargen process, not least because you normally have 1 copy of the rules and nobody knows them so you have to share. It's a very straightforward system, but I can make a Call of Cthulhu character without consulting the rules at all (okay, yes, I don't remember the exact list of skills or their base percentages, but I can remember many and I can certainly allocate all my points to stack above base). New Game will almost always seem painful, clumsy and slow in comparison.

Of course, New Game may also have cool and exciting aspects, like new character concepts and new powers and finding out you can do something very cool, but these tend to occur after you've already bought into it. How much this applies depends a lot on how much people already know about the game, the type of game, and how the GM presents it. A tie-in game or one that draws very strongly on specific tropes known to the players may strongly spark their imagination. On the downside, if players are not familiar with those tropes, it's a much harder sell.

To make things personal for a minute, I am really quite bad at pop culture. Luckily I'm pretty easygoing about this stuff, because I usually don't really know the tropes for games people want to run. My mates are also very good at quickly giving me the basic tools I need to pretend I know what I'm doing.* I am, however, quite familiar with a lot of D&D content because before I even got near it, I'd read plenty of generic fantasy, I played some D&D games and absorbed a lot of the setting and tropes. If you want me to play a new game inspired by Popular Zeitgeist Thing, I can almost guarantee I know nothing about it.

* Although I do have a tendency to interpret all settings as basically Call of Cthulhu

I don't want to paint this as a negative thing. People stick with old games they enjoy because they already enjoy them. Most gamers I know have a stack of ideas saved up for next time they get to run something - they're already excited with possibilities for doing more of the games they're already running. There isn't necessarily any need for something new.

First gamer advantage

The old games that people come back to get that for a reason. They normally do something well. There are other old games which are obscure or forgotten.

This is actually much more complicated than the standard "first mover advantage". It's not just about economics, though I'm sure that's an issue.

Old games had the huge advantage of an untapped well of sources to draw on. This is no longer true for any but the most specific of games. This may be a factor unique to games, as RPGs are a relatively derivative genre.

This meant D&D was able to draw on a huge range of fantasy, including swords and sorcery, weird, technofantasy, gothic, fairy tales and mythology, when establishing its setting and tone. This allowed it the great benefit of being flexible and adaptable; even if a GM chooses to run in an existing setting, individual elements can be highlighted, muted, subverted or ignored altogether, flavouring the in-game reality accordingly. Something as simple as tweaking the amount of background politics and treachery can shift a setting from "bickering city-states full of backstabbing nobles heedless of the evils around them" to "loose alliance of city-states keeping the torch of human civilisation lit in the face of darkness". It does tend towards a high-magic interpretation of the swords and sorcery end, but it hits enough notes from many of the others that it feels right. It covers Generic Fantastical well enough that it's a perfectly viable game to use for it. Anyone else coming into the scene now has to do something more specific, and thus more limited.

Well, they don't have to. They can try to create another Generic Fantastical game. It's an astonishingly difficult challenge, though, because there is already a game for that and it's very, very well-established, well-known, well-supported and widely-played. Trying to persuade people to swap out their well-worn-in game for one that seems mostly quite similar is a massive undertaking, because people have a lot of traction with their existing one and need a very strong reason to change. A vast mechanical improvement might do it, and this is what game publishers try to offer with new editions. The problem for a rival publisher is that in most cases you won't be able to offer anything too similar - copyrighted monsters, magic, setting details and so on. So you're asking people to change to either a game that's a bit like what they already do perfectly well, or a (hopefully) polished ripoff of the game they already play. And for the latter, even if it's better, people do tend to instinctively dislike ripoffs.

The cases I think you can sort of count as successes here are things like GURPS versions of particular genres, and this generally seems to work because people are fans of the system and want to run their favourite genres in it. But GURPS is, in its own way, one of the Elder Games. You can't make the new GURPS, although FATE is a similar beast.

The older, vaguely generic games are generally broad enough that they support a wide range of playstyles, preferences, tones and subgenres. This means you can use the same system, and much of the same content, to do different things. Part of the reason people don't seek out a new game to do XYZ based on newish sources is that they don't need to: they can often adapt an Elder Game that's in the right area, adding new content or throwing some out to produce the game they want. You can put content from The Witcher straight into a D&D game. You can grab ideas from modern sci-fi and insert them into Traveller.

D&D (and Vampire, and Traveller) also got to grab a lot of ideas from around the cultural sphere and be the first game that incorporates them. They've had a lot of time both to raid literature and film, and to evolve their own ideas. This just leaves slightly less breathing space for newer games. There's already a beholder, a mind flayer, a mimic, a gibbering mouther... a clan of occult vampires, a sect of highly religious vampires, vampires who want to tear down the secretive vampire social order. A lot of the cool ideas have already been used. You need new ones.

And, to be honest - older games got away with more. They were there first, and they got away with throwing together rag-tag bundles of whatever different people thought was cool with minimal explanation. Supplements and expansions threw in even more stuff that might count as part of D&D or Vampire or Star Wars. Over time, edges have been smoothed, weirdness has been explained away in various ways, and this stuff has taken on the mantle of making sense because That's Just How It Is. Your exciting new game doesn't get that leeway. It's competing with other games that seem to have coherent settings. If people decide it's a random set of what you thought was cool and makes no real sense, it's unlikely to succeed.

Limitations

One of the challenges facing newer games is that because old games are often so broad, they have to define themselves substantially by exclusion. It's very hard to create a broader game, or a substantially different mix of game elements that can't already be homebrewed by a GM, if everything conceivable is already part of the setting.

To take a D&D example, if you want to create a fantasy game that's postapocalyptic (maybe based on Shannara or something), you can just play D&D: there's the refuse of previous civilisations everywhere, there's a fair amount of technological elements. If you want to create a Gothic fantasy game, that's Ravenloft, but you can also do a Gothic-skinned pulp fantasy game by running D&D with lots of ghosts, skeletons, curses, hags, witches, shadows and vampires. If you want to create a folklore-based fantasy game, you can run D&D with a lot of fey and constructs and less in the way of dungeons.

Probably none of those are quite what you meant, but for a lot of players they'll scratch the flavour itch. Basically, the difficulty is you can't say "it's like Dungeons and Dragons, but with fey/post-apocalypticism/vampires" because those things are already in Dungeons and Dragons. And similarly, Vampire already incorporates almost any conceivable type of vampire and can be tweaked to run a wide variety of vampire subgenres.

What your new game needs to do is be more restrictive: it only has fey and fairy tales, or it only has Gothic elements; it specifically excludes orcs and elves and flesh golems and half the D&D PC archetypes and so on. This allows it to have a strong and distinctive flavour, but it's a harder sell, I think. Not least because quite a few players will think "sure, or I could run that by eliding a bunch of stuff from D&D".

Often what distinguishes fantasy, say, is not just the setting details, but the tone and the flavour of the world. But this tends to melt away in the face of a fairly generic setting, because D&D doesn't rely on any particular tone or flavour. Traveller can be a hard-boiled mercantile game, or a swashbuckling pirate game, or a heroic saving-the-Imperium game. Vampire can probably be a game of personal horror if you're determined, but it's more likely to be either Vampires Investigate or Vampire Buffy, let's be honest.

Common knowledge

What's more, this breadth is very welcoming to new players. A new player won't grasp the vast details of any D&D setting, but they don't have to - having some knowledge of some fantasy is a very good start. Almost everyone knows that elves are graceful and noble, orcs are monsters that you fight, and mysterious people in robes send you on quests. Of course, there's a lot of room for confusion if you've seen Lord of the Rings and you're supposed to be playing Fafrd and the Grey Mouser, but you can work that out in play based on what everyone else does - and importantly, deciding which of those stories you're playing is more down to the GM than to the game itself, which has room for both.

In other words, even if you aren't quite right in your assumptions about the game, it's likely that you can make some in the first place. This is not necessarily the case in newer games, which try to contrast by having novel content which prospective players aren't familiar with. If a player needs to do homework before they can meaningfully join a game, the barrier to entry is high. I know some games, like White Wolf, got a lot of buy-in while expecting players to embrace a lot of their very convoluted ideas, but it's rooted in popular conceptions, and it's notable that the weirder and more experimental games have been much less successful.

I own several newer games with their own unique settings and worlds. I haven't played any of them. I haven't had the energy to read through it all. The sole exception here are the Warhammer 40,000 line, and they are Elder Games by dint of their huge existing fanbase and canon.

Mechanics

The Elder Games tend to be quite robust: they have been played a great deal, and thus through weight of numbers and through market share they tend to have rigorous playtesting. They tend to be good at what they're doing. Their systems don't suit everyone, but they tend to work well at what they're trying to do. They have rules for everything they need. They have a broad array of tools for GMs, from antagonists to hazards to setting details. There are lots of people playing them who talk about them at length on the internet, as well as critics, which makes it relatively easy to check up on possible weirdness (how does this interact with that?) or gauge which elements will work well in your campaign. For example, if you want to know which D&D classes or GURPS advantages might end up causing problems for your specific game concept, it's likely someone somewhere has talked about it already.

Evolution

The Elder Games have been around for a long time, and there are certainly very old-established aspects to them. D&D isn't going to stop having classes or levels, for example, because there's a point at which it wouldn't feel like the same game any more. However, Elder Games have been able to reinvent themselves to suit changes in the market. Editions of D&D are quite different from each other. You can do quite a few different things without ever leaving D&D.

If you want a quick, brutal and gritty dungeon-bashing temple-raiding experience, you can play the earlier editions. If you want a fairly tactical experience focused on combat choices with powerful PCs, you can play 4th edition. If you want a much looser adventuring experience with powerful and often bizarre PCs, with a lot of player control, you can play 3rd edition. If you want something fairly smooth and simple but with survivability that supports long-term play, you can play 5th edition.

More generally, this means they have responded to changing tastes and preferences from the player base, and that means they haven't been left behind as you might expect from an older product. Sure, younger players may not be enthused for AD&D, but that's okay because they can play the new edition instead. Because there's an awful lot of continuity between editions (in terms of expectations, setting, monsters, magic and so on) it's relatively easy for players to transition between them both permanently and temporarily. Older players can shift to a new edition to join a group of younger players; younger players who started on 5th edition can get a rough handle on a 3rd edition campaign. For the most part it's still much easier to switching to a completely different game.

To a reasonable extent, some of those Elder Games are also New Shiny Games. They have the easy comfort of familiarity, together with the exciting promise of nicer rulesets, new cool stuff, and maybe even That Thing You Always Wanted.

New Game Blues

So having thrown out all that in explanation of the strengths of older games, what about the challenges for newer games?

Licensing

For the most part, as I said, RPGs are a quite derivative medium. They are an opportunity to participate in a story that's like that story you enjoyed. That means they usually draw on other sources - perhaps heavily mixed up and chopped about, but still.

The Adventuring Party mentioned games based on newer stories. I think one of the chief difficulties here is probably licensing. If you really want to publish a game that's very much like Space Captain Smith or Winds of Khalakovo, and that players will know is based on them, you probably need to license the property so as to reuse names (and preferably stick a big "The Space Captain Smith Roleplaying Game!" on the front). This was not true of many older games, since they were able to draw on stories that were both out of copyright (especially as it was much less absurb in those days) and widely known. The works of many pulp authors that inspired D&D were no longer in copyright, and many vampire stories had the same benefit. Of course, the games were substantially influenced by much newer works (we all know White Wolf's ideas of vampires draws heavily on Anne Rice, though not always directly) but the game could lean on the out-of-copyright stuff explicitly for familiarity value.

Licensing is expensive, especially for the kind of popular new hits that are likely to have a large potential audience. A good designer may be able to take an obscure subgenre and see the potential for a brilliant RPG, but Harry Potter is frankly going to get more copies sold. Not only is this a problem in an industry with poor margins, and a particular problem for a small underfunded company trying to create the next hit, but there's the permanent risk of losing the license. With that, you lose all your hard work and the future sales potential. After all, if you can create a game people are playing decades later, there's the potential for a substantial trickle-in income, further supplements (hopefully with a lower baseline cost now that the initial work is done), growing the playerbase and so on. All that helps to fund more work, improve the game and create a virtuous cycle.

Statistics

I think sheer numbers are a non-trivial part of the problem for new games. A high proportion of potential players are already playing Old Game that is at least superficially similar. As a GM, you have an idea for a campaign. It's probably easier to pitch your campaign as one run using Old Game which some people play, than New Game which nobody plays yet.

If I want to run something that's roughly a fantasy game, I'll probably run it in D&D. Investigative and low-combat? Call of Cthulhu. Turned up to 11 and fairly gritty? Warhammer 40,000. Modernish and not particularly gritty? World of Darkness. Not because those are the absolute best games to run those things in, but because they work, people are familiar with them and it requires minimal extra effort beyond convincing people the campaign would be fun at all.

Longevity

I think there's genuinely also an extent to which Elder Games are good at providing long-term entertainment, through a mixture of factors including the same flexibility and breadth I mentioned earlier.

Will your game provide long-term entertainment, or exhaust its possibilities quickly? Mission-style games or "thing of the week" can feel more like the latter. Long-term games tend to have some inbuilt progression, often a mechanical one of growing power that ties into escalating challenges. D&D isn't just fun because you can get XP and become more powerful, but because that progression allows you to move onto newer and greater challenges. Moreover, long-term play with the same groups of characters allows for greater investment and depth as characters develop over the course of play through choices, new bits of backstory and characterisation.

To take another example here, my current Planescape character has been fleshed out a lot over two years of play. Beginning as the simple concept of "Gap Yah student, but an elf" he's developed specific relationships with the rest of the party, long-term goals which clash with those of some party members, a homeland that has grown from a simple name to a relatively detailed society, actually grown up a bit, and seen his throwaway National Service background (as a ranger, he has favoured enemies) manifest in radical changes of persona when faced with abberations. In a game with much shorter arcs, this just wouldn't have happened.

In the Pathfinder campaign I was recently playing, there's a huge difference between punching an orc at low levels, and at high levels watching the frontline fighter get battered to a near-pulp by an abyssal monstrosity before striding over and using a single high-level spell to restore him to full hit points. Retreating from arrows, versus clearing a whole chamber with a storm of fire. Summoning a triceratops to trample enemies into the ground. Transforming into a gigantic elemental to breach the castle walls.

I'm honestly not very sure what the newer games are like that might be trying to do a similar thing. The new games I've tried are mostly indie things that expect one-off play. FATE supports gradual changes of character through tweaks to their Aspects, which I could see working. However, it also felt to me (in my very, very limited experience) as though the game would get samey over time.

As I said, people I know tend to have ideas for the campaigns they'd like to run next. But this is much easier in a broad game where you can do a lot of different things. If a game is designed for quite a narrow pool of experiences, it may well serve them very well, but it's also less likely that you'll want to keep playing it. And if you don't, you're no longer part of the current audience, which makes it that much less likely that this game is a Big New Thing Everyone is Playing.

Market Share

Market share for all media has splintered over the past decades. There is more of everything available, it's easier to find out about, and easier to find other people with similar interests.

When I was at school, people talked about The Programme that was on TV last night. This was easy. There were a handful of channels, very few programmes people our age might watch (between parents, mealtimes, homework etc.), and live broadcast only. If you had any interest in that sort of thing, you watched the show that was roughly the sort of thing you wanted. So everyone watched Thundercats, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles and, to a lesser extent, Buffy. To a lesser extent because by that point, media was already shifting so there was much more choice of what to watch. You didn't have to watch Buffy because you could watch... some other programme instead, that did something similar but in a way you enjoyed more.

There are more books published every year. While finding a book that's exactly what you want isn't necessarily easy, it's more likely now that that book exists at all. People are spread more thinly, even people with quite similar tastes. They read different books, and so Jane A isn't particularly interested in Cyber-Regency Black Ops: the RPG because she's been reading a grittier set of books about Regency spies with more violence and less kissing. This doesn't mean she wouldn't like the game, it's just less likely she'll immediately find it appealing or even hear about it.

I suspect the similar interest thing also helps to create self-reinforcing bubbles. If you can readily seek out other people who want to play Old Games I Like, because you live in a large city or similar, you may just not really encounter newer games.


So there we go, usual unfiltered ramblings about why it's hard for new games to take over the world, hope it was interesting.

Friday, 27 January 2017

The Hive Mind 3: copying combat

So, having carefully stolen the the skill spheres system and the serious injury model how can I steal Necromunda's combat system and make it my own?

To recap, the melée combat system works like this:

  • You each have a Weapon Skill stat
  • You each have an Attacks stat
  • You roll dice equal to your Attacks and pick the highest
  • Opponents with a parry (mostly due to a sword) can make you reroll one die
  • You subtract 1s
  • You add +1 for any additional 6s
  • You add your WS to this number
  • You compare totals
  • On a tie, the highest Initiative stat wins
  • You can roll to wound once for each point of difference (minimum 1)

I'm actually wondering whether you couldn't extrapolate this to other resolution mechanics, given a different statline. And there will definitely be a different statline.

Off the top of my head, for purposes of experimenting, I'm going to propose something like this:

  • Might - governs physical brawn and toughness
  • Agility - governs nimbleness, dexterity and reaction
  • Intellect - governs memory, logic, reason and knowledge
  • Charisma - governs social graces, plausibility, charm, leadership
  • Weaponry - weapon use
  • Stealth - sneaking, disguise, camouflage and sleight-of-hand
  • Persuasion - influencing others
  • Athletics - physical feats
  • Lore - all learning

Lore could be broken down further, but I'm not convinced it needs to be. There's certainly some characters (and real-life people) who are experts in science but not history, or history but not politics, or whatever. But given there's one skill for using all weapons, and one skill for all interpersonal interactions, I'm not sure we need more. Obviously this will depend on the kind of game - in a magical system you might not want learning and magic to be all tied up together, even though that's the most common model.

The first four are stats, the remainder are skills (and I'm going to use the "skill" term here even though that means something different in Necromunda). Basically, all opposed tasks would be resolving using a Stat Dicepool + Skill Modifier roll. The stat determines how many dice you roll, both making a higher stat more reliable and slightly increasing its maximum potential, but you're all human and there aren't vast differences in your raw potential. That difference comes from skills, which represent actual experience and training in a particular task. Someone with a lot of training in weapon use can still get reliable results, even if they're physically outclassed. On the other hand, that burly thug might just overwhelm you with brute force and luck, because the range possible on a die is similar to the range of possible skill levels.

These will usually be combined in particular ways, but occasionally something different crops up. For example, you might easily use Intellect + W for forensics on a murder scene, or Charisma + W when regaling people with exploits of derring-do. Persuasion can be readily used with Might (physical intimidation or showing off), Agility (ditto), Intellect (reasoned discourse and argumentation, whether true or not) or Charisma (charming, beguiling and befuddling). Intellect + Stealth would help plan ways to disguise or hide an object, as well as tracking down what's hidden already. Stealth + Charisma is used for impersonation.

Having an argument? Roll Intellect + Persuasion if you're debating, or Charisma + Persuasion if you're relying on force of personality. The low-Persuasion mook might just flummox you with a killer question you just can't quite formulate the answer to by rolling a 6. Or you might land a series of lethal QEDs that shut her down completely, because you roll 3, 4, 5=best and you're adding a 4 and she only rolled a 3+2.

Parries could be generalised to a set of equipment or abilities that let you gain a similar benefit. A particular debating trick might allow you to "parry" a Charisma roll by undermining the other party or throwing them off balance with unexpected gambits. In a high-tech setting, a piece of cyberware might allow hackers to parry intrusion attempts and the efforts of security systems. Wizards might "parry" in a magical duel by expending a specific spell component, while specific charms might allow anyone to parry magical attacks.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Hive Mind 2: playing with ability pools

So I was looting Necromunda for ideas. Let's see what else could be done with the skill pools system.

As a reminder, the original ability pools are: Agility, Combat, Ferocity, Muscle, Shooting, Stealth, Techno.

Although the ideal option is probably to flesh this out into a vaguely similar gritty sci-fi setting that isn't focused purely on combat, I think I'll actually try to replicate D&D instead. That's because moving from wargame to combat-heavy game is easier than directly to lowish-combat game.

Sword and Sorcery

So here I'm going to try and throw together a set of special abilities that broadly cover the sorts of things you might expect from a fantasy adventure game, substituting for classes.

The first thing I note is that of the seven Necromunda pools, two are directly tied to raw physical ability mostly as it applies to melée combat, one is a mixture of combat and dexterity, one is a sort of willpower thing that includes toughness and scariness and more melée combat, and one is shooting. That seems excessive in an RPG.

I suggest the following seven pools to begin with, assuming a pretty straightforward dungeoneering approach to the game:

  • Agility skills are about grace and reflexes
  • Might skills are about physical power
  • Zeal skills cover willpower, drive and encouragement
  • Stealth skills are about secrecy and concealment
  • Smite skills unleash destructive magic
  • Conjure skills summon helpful spirits
  • Enchant skills beguile and influence minds

Agility

  • Catfall - you can easily maintain balance, halve the distance fallen when determining affects of a fall, and don't land prone unless you want to
  • Dodge - you can burn your next action to make a save against an attack or hazard you've detected, moving up to 2m if you succeed
  • Reflexes - you double your initiative and are never taken Off-Guard by traps or ambushes
  • Light Fingers - you can reroll a failed Prestidigitation roll (pickpocketing, lockpicking, manipulating small objects, planting, palming, card tricks)
  • Spring Up - you can stand from prone without using an action
  • Quick Draw - once per round, you can draw or stash an item without spending an action

Muscle

  • Sprint - you triple your speed when you run, rather than doubling it
  • Hurl - if you win a combat, you can trade all your hits to shove your opponent 1d6+hits in feet and knock them prone. Larger enemies halve the distance once per size category, rounding down; if it reaches 0 this ability cannot be used
  • Tireless - you treat armour and baggage as one step lighter when determining movement and fatigue
  • Steel Jaw - you gain a +2 bonus to resist stunning and knockdowns
  • Iron Thews - you treat weapons and shields as one category lighter when determining wielding rules
  • Demolition - you deal +1 additional damage to objects and constructs, and can reroll a failed Bend Bars Lift Gates attempt.

This set may be a little opaque in the absence of rules. The idea is that our Muscly hero can use these rules to dual-wield full-sized weaponry, or carry oversized weapons, or run around with a tower shield and so on. Tireless is supposed to let them avoid speed penalties, swimming and climbing penalties, or penalties for sleeping in armour.

Zeal

  • Vicious Reputation - you gain a +1 bonus to intimidate or overawe, including Fear and Retreat tests you inflict, but suffer a -2 penalty to befriend or win over NPCs.
  • Nerves of Steel - you may reroll failed Pinning and Retreat tests.
  • True Grit - you can make a Will test to subtract 1 from a wounding roll against you, to a minimum of 1.
  • Iron Focus - you may reroll failed tests to avoid distraction, and exhaustion tests when concentrating for long periods, including overwatch and standoffs.
  • Rallying Cry - you can spend your action calling reassurance to nearby comrades or silently reassuring an adjacent ally. All affected allies can immediately roll to escape one morale effect, such as Pinning or Fear.
  • All Out - you can throw yourself wholeheartedly into your actions, increasing your potential, but leaving you vulnerable to error. When you do so, increase your margin of success or failure by 1.

Stealth

  • Ambush - you can use a single action to attempt a Hide roll and ready an action
  • Blend In - when hiding, sneaking or disguised, double the effective distance when testing whether other characters notice you or pick you out in a crowd
  • Act Natural - you have advantage on rolls to maintain a disguise if you're blending into a group or have recently observed the type of person you're disguised as, unless you do something drastically out of character
  • Backstab - you strike with advantage if you attack when hidden
  • Soft Footed - you can move at full speed while sneaking
  • Slink - you can move through small spaces at full speed and without stealth penalties

Smite

  • Havoc - you gesture and the ground erupts violently, blasting everyone nearby
  • Dragonsbreath - flames gush from your palms in a blazing arc
  • Lance - blazing light sears a single target
  • Fellblade - a glowing weapon manifests in your hand
  • Banestorm - mystical energies wrack your chosen spot until you bid them cease
  • Whirlwind - a spiral of air moves at your command, hurling foes and obstacles aside

Conjure

  • Guardian - the spirit intervenes to protect its ward from danger
  • Veil - the spirit cloaks its ward to conceal it from sight
  • Steed - the spirit carries its ward swiftly along
  • Healer - the spirit tends the wounds of its ward
  • Servant - the spirit fetches, carries, labours and cleans as requested
  • Mantle - the spirit infuses its ward with power

Enchant

  • Beguile - you charm and manipulate the target into doing as you wish
  • Pacify - you lull a target into distraction, slumber or a deep trance
  • Mesmerize - you transfix a target with your gaze, and attempt to command them
  • Hallucination - you confuse the target with misleading illusions
  • Disguise - you warp perceptions with a magical veil that disguises reality
  • Bewitch - you reach deep into the target's mind, sensing or influencing their memories and feelings

So, let's see. Our classic brute hero would gain access to the Muscle and Zeal pools. A thief would have Agility and Stealth. A hardy cleric might have Conjure and Muscle, while a demagogue might have Enchant and Zeal. A wizard or wrathful priest would have Smite and Conjure. This is only a very basic attempt at the model, but I think it kind of works.

Politomunda: the city-world

So we've got massive grimdark cities, and you're a bunch of, let us say, questionably-moralled individuals who are trying to get by. Each of the Houses has its own particular philosophies, genetic lineages, education systems and resources that leave their members tending towards similar abilities.

I'm going to suggest Reflex, Combat, Zeal, Stealth, Tech, Face, Instinct, Wits. Remember that these skills are not the basic mechanics for interacting with the world; they are pools of special abilities that replace things like class powers.

  • Speed skills are about reactions and movement.
  • Combat skills provide benefits and options when attacking or defending.
  • Zeal skills cover willpower, drive and encouragement
  • Stealth skills are about secrecy and concealment
  • Tech skills cover interaction with technology
  • Face skills apply to social interactions
  • Connections skills cover society and street smarts
  • Wits skills involve knowledge, understanding and perception

The specific bonuses and penalties below are arbitrary, since there's no system here!

Speed

  • Catfall - you halve the distance fallen when determining affects of a fall, and don't land prone unless you want to
  • Dodge - you can burn your next action to make a save against an attack or hazard you've detected, 6+ on 1d6, moving up to 2m if you succeed
  • Sprint - you triple your speed when you run, rather than doubling it
  • Quick Draw - once per round, you can draw or stash a handheld item without spending an action
  • Reflexes - you double your initiative in any standoff and can't be surprised
  • Ease of Practice - when performing Extended Actions for which you are trained, you reduce the time required by one-quarter

Combat

  • Interference - enemies don't benefit from strength of numbers against you
  • Pinpoint Strike - you can reroll an attack's hit location once per round, accepting the second result
  • Turn Aside Blow - you can parry without a parrying weapon, or take the best of two results with a parrying weapon
  • Snap Attack - you can treat your movement as one category less when determining attack penalties, but suffer a -1 penalty and cannot use sights
  • Duck and Dive - instead of taking a Pinning test, you can fall prone if this would give you cover from the attacker
  • Suppressing Attack - roll no damage on a hit, but inflict two Pinning rolls (ranged) or Retreat rolls (melée)

Zeal

  • Vicious Reputation - you gain a +1 bonus to intimidate or overawe, but suffer a -2 penalty to befriend or win over NPCs.
  • Nerves of Steel - you may reroll failed Pinning and Retreat tests.
  • True Grit - you can make a Will test to subtract 1 from a wounding roll against you, to a minimum of 1.
  • Laser Focus - you may reroll failed tests to avoid distraction, and exhaustion tests when concentrating for long periods, including overwatch and standoffs.
  • Rallying Cry - you can spend your action calling reassurance to nearby comrades or silently reassuring an adjacent ally. All affected allies can immediately roll to escape one morale effect, such as Pinning or Fear.
  • All Out - you can throw yourself wholeheartedly into your actions, increasing your potential, but leaving you vulnerable to error. When you do so, increase your margin of success or failure by 1.

Stealth

  • Ambush - the character can use a single action to attempt a Hide roll and ready an action
  • Blend In - when the character is hiding, sneaking or disguised, double the effective distance when testing whether other characters notice them. When hacking, systems and sysadmins treat their activities as one rank less suspicious than normal
  • Method Actor - when disguised, the character treats their cover identity and cover story as true for the purposes of psychology and lie-detection
  • Light Fingers - the character can reroll a failed Prestidigitation roll (pickpocketing, manipulating small objects, planting, palming, card tricks)
  • Trackless - when attempting to track, trace or identify the character, treat time elapsed as one step higher (minute, hour, day, week, month, year)
  • Uniform - providing the character is dressed appropriately, their presence in a location is considered one rank less suspicious than normal.

This section assumes the existence of a set of infiltration mechanics, rather more elaborate than the classic single-roll Stealth/Disguise-type mechanics, which feature:

  • Ranks of suspicion for presence and activities in an area
  • Ranks of security for particular zones
  • A general system for determining whether people notice you and what they notice about you

I might try to rough this out at some point, it seems useful.

Tech

  • Percussive Maintenance - the character can attempt a short-term fix as a single action, but the results are unreliable
  • Changelog - the character always has a chance to notice hacks and modifications without actively searching, and rolls twice when searching.

Tech is hard to do without actually building the systems for doing tech stuff, because it needs to interact usefully with those.

Face

  • Read Intention - the character can roll [stat] to gauge what a partner hopes to get out of a social interaction
  • No Hard Feelings - when the character bargains, strikes a deal, persuades or influences an NPC, they can reduce any negative change in attitude by one rank with a successful [stat] roll. If they used Intimidation, the roll is at a penalty
  • One of the Guys - the character can use an extended action to roll [stat] with a non-hostile group. If successful, they're treated as a Peer for social rolls until they fail a roll or do anything that antagonises them
  • Afterthought - when the character amicably gets information from a source, within 1 week they can think of one additional question. They roll as normal; if successful, the source contacts them spontaneously to provide related information. The GM decides how and when the information arrives.
  • My Pleasure - when the character strikes a bargain or seeks a favour from an NPC, if they roll [very good] the NPC feels as though the character has done them a favour.
  • Between These Four Walls - when the character seeks information or antagonises an NPC, as long as the outcome is amicable, their sources are reluctant to report the incident. The chances of raising suspicion are reduced, and it is one step more difficult than usual for others to find out that the character was making enquiries.

Connections

  • Find the Core - when observing a conversation or interaction, the character can roll [some stat] to understand the social dynamics between the parties
  • Know a Guy - the character can roll [stat] once per day to tap a contact with a necessary skill at [level] or higher. The result determines the time it will take (minutes, hours or days) and/or the level of the contact's skill.
  • Social Butterfly - the character can roll [stat] once per day to tap a contact with connections to an organisation or public figure. The result determines the degree of separation and/or the time it will take (minutes, hours or days).
  • Name Dropper - the character can attempt to sway an NPC by mentioning their contacts. This requires a [stat] roll, but grants a bonus on subsequent rolls. On a botched roll, the NPC is antagonised and subsequent rolls are penalised. In either case, it is one step easier for others to learn about the interaction.
  • Middleman - the character can play two NPCs off against each other, either immediately (with a penalty) or as an extended action. The NPCs must be Amiable or worse in their mutual relationship. Roll [stat] against each NPC's [discernment stat]; the character can repeat this, but each subsequent set of rolls must gain [better result] or the attempt fails as the NPCs realise what is happening. The accumulated bonus can be applied to one interaction with each NPC, and overrides their limiters for Common Sense and Professionalism.

I envision that this game would have mechanics for organisations and social connections. Perhaps there are degrees of separation, which determine your influence over NPCs and ability to interact with (or infiltrate) their organisations.

It will be much easier to interact with large, public organisations and much harder to interact with small, private and illegal organisations. Similarly, it's easy to tap a contact who slightly knows a media personality, and hard to tap anyone who's close to a criminal, let alone anyone whose real identity is unknown.

The reason for this complexity is basically that I think it makes the Face character both deeper and more distinctive. If anyone can do social magic then being the Face is a matter of quantity rather than quality, which is somewhat less interesting than other roles which have distinct and unique capabilities. Secondly, it makes it less powerful: it's easy for social systems to end up being a sort of binary, where a low roll means you achieve nothing and a high roll lets you win over a paranoid criminal you've never met before. I'm not claiming I can write a game that fixes social skills, I'm just saying this imaginary game could attempt this kind of mechanic. It's less social combat and more a framework for establishing and tracking the difficulty and scope of social interactions.

In the last example, assume that an NPC has some kind of basic behaviour limiters. There's a point where common sense kicks in, and a point where professionalism kicks in (and probably at least one for self-preservation) so that it's very hard to push NPCs into unrealistic behaviour with simple social interaction. Maybe it's something approaching a Wisdom save, and the more inappropriate or self-destructive the action, the easier it is to resist. In the case of Middeman, the PC can try to work up antagonism between NPCs so that they forget themselves and act rashly.

Wits

  • Rapid Recollection - the character can make a Knowledge test to recall or recognise omething without spending an action
  • Spider Sense - the character halves distances when testing to detect hidden or sneaking characters, tails and anyone watching them
  • Weakness in Numbers - enemies don't benefit from strength of numbers against the character
  • Skim - if the character succeed on a roll to research or analyse information, they halve the time required
  • Erudition - they character's ability to grasp new information means they never count as untrained in intellectual tasks, including conversation
  • Expertise - when the character draws on their training, knowledge and education they can use [stat] in place of [stat] for a social roll

Okay, I'm not going to claim this is an amazing new revolutionary game or anything, but I feel like I can see the shape of an acceptable game emerging here. Everyone gets the basic game mechanics for Doing Stuff, then they choose an archetype that draws on a subset of the talent pools; these pools let them select specific special abilities that let them do things the other characters can't.

You could push these up to more impressive effects, depending on the style of game you want. This is generally easiest with combat, which we're used to having be quite mechanical, and hardest with social/magic/technology skills where you kind of need a robust subsystem in place for your special abilities to work with. It's hard to devise special social mechanics if everything's basically left for the GM to interpret anyway, because the whole point is that the Face (for example) lets you do things the other characters cannot. I could have made these more mind-controlly, but that's a specific genre. And then you start getting into issues of "what if the character uses these on a powerful NPC" issue, because the ability to influence any NPC is extremely potent in a way that combat mechanics aren't usually allowed to be.

In general, though, you could easily use this structure to build in things like:

  • Attacking multiple enemies at once
  • Charming an NPC so well that they spontaneously act in your favour later (like a one-use aftereffect)
  • Becoming practically invisible when you hide

I'm going to stop there for now, I feel like this bit is done, and I'm not up for actually writing (another) game right now...

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Magic Scales

So at some point I had an idea for a different kind of magic/power system, and basically just wanted to scribble it down while I remembered. I'm certain that someone has already thought of this for an existing game; I just haven't come across it yet so I don't know where.

The immediate inspiration was reading some White Wolf stuff, which to my mind has a real problem with powers. Basically, they want you to have supernatural powers that sound really cool (and which, in game fiction, are really cool). Unfortunately, they also want to make those same powers very specific in their mechanical capabilities.

There are different possible interpretations of this. A generous reading is that, although White Wolf want to enthuse readers and fill their mind with possibilities, they're concerned that vague rules would leave the Storyteller to create mechanics each time a power was used; the narrow capabilities are designed to lighten the load for STs and avoid balance issues. A harsher reading is that White Wolf aren't very good at matching mechanics to fluff, and are violently averse to giving players access to tools that might derail the Storyteller's beautiful plot; giving them very very specific tools ensures the Storyteller knows exactly what their capabilities are and can overrule requests for a broader interpretation.

Given that utterly broken powers have been a mainstay of the White Wolf experience from its inception, through its history, to the present day, and many of the powers are so oddly-written that the Storyteller still has to make arbitrary rulings on what's allowed, I'm going to have to plump for the latter.

There are a couple of downsides to this mixture. One is that players can be confused and disappointed when (for example) the power that they think allows them to overwhelm enemies with raw terror can be used exclusively to make them run away from you. The other is that you have to pay attention to what's possible, and some things that seem equivalent may be impossible because the designer didn't think about it, and there may be odd gaps in your supernatural arsenal.

My idea is basically the complete opposite of this ("complete opposite" is not a helpful description, and probably straight-up wrong) a very different approach to this.

So the White Wolf tack can basically be seen as permissive mechanics: You Can Do This. I've seen (somewhere) a more quantitative mechanics: You Can Do X Amount of This. I've seen narrative-quantitative approaches: You Can Roll Dice and Fluff the Result as This.

Insofar as I can classify it at all, I think this approach is more like narrative-dramatic. Essentially it's based on You Can Overcome These Challenges. Powers don't have any mechanical specifics at all; you simply choose a type of thing you can do, and decide how useful that ability is. Does it occasionally save you from mild inconvenience, or regularly allow you to achieve goals that would otherwise be beyond you?

  • Trivial. The magic is nominal, or cosmetic, and of virtually no practical use (although it may be cool). Maybe you can change the colour of small items, create tiny illusions in your palm, create sparks,
  • Convenient. The magic allows you to achieve something you could have done anyway, but sometimes saves you effort or time. For example, copying a document, flipping a light switch from a few feet away, reheating meals, making noises, cleaning objects, or giving someone an electric jolt instead of a pinch.
  • Useful. The magic is a significant and regular asset that makes your life easier. For example, keeping your devices powered without charging (or even without batteries), locating an object you want within a room, protecting you from mild injury, telekinetically preparing meals while you watch TV, helping you win on the races, distracting an annoying person, providing a weapon, opening doors without the key, getting favours, or completing a task much faster than normal.
  • Impressive. The magic provides major benefits or allows you to overcome substantial problems. For example, summoning a lost item, surviving dangerous situations, finding a person, learning hidden truths, getting into a secure area, providing a potent weapon, travelling great distances quickly, speaking new languages, removing physical barriers, or altering a person's opinion.

Note that the scale of your ability is absolute, even if you use it in different circumstances. If you have Convenient Electrokinesis and use it to turn on lights with your mind and therefore look cool, you cannot use this to turn off the forcefield using the switch on the other side of your prison barrier. Why? because that would be Impressive. It's up to you and the GM to establish why it isn't possible, if you care. In this case, clearly the barrier interferes with your mental powers.

Friday, 13 January 2017

A fleeting insight

As I was deliberately not trying to write anything for the blog tonight, I glanced at my site, and then thought someone somewhere might appreciate a tiny glimpse behind the scenes (I know, I am terribly enigmatic)

For certain parsings of "terribly"...

Right now there are 72 draft posts in my profile. Some of these are not really drafts at all, just a few lines of something I wanted to remember. Some of them will never go anywhere. Quite a few are something I'd vaguely like to develop further but keep getting distracted.

Mostly what happens is one of the following:

  • I read, listen to or discuss something that provokes thought, leading me to start writing a new post rather than finish an old one
  • I begin working on a post, have a tangential thought and explore that instead
  • I begin working on a post, go to do a little research, and end up writing a completely different post
  • In extreme cases, I start writing a post, go to get the link for a post where I previously said something relevant, and either remember that I meant to write a follow-up post or have a new idea inspired by the thing I wrote before

And to be fair, several of the posts there are things like entire campaign settings that are not necessarily well-served by being a blogpost.

Alarmingly, I recently embarked on a concerted effort to cut back that pile, by either finishing posts or discarding them. That's where seven of the last ten posts came from. Unfortunately I have rather a butterfly brain, so my drafts folders tend to replenish themselves just as fast as my scenario seeds list and my reading pile.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Fractal Mythos Knowledge

I had some thoughts about the Call of Cthulhu Cthulhu Mythos skill while listening to some podcast or other - I can't remember which one now. Possibly RPPR. You can read a tome about Hastur and suddenly know about Ithaqqua. Or you can sometimes know about byakhees, and sometimes not. It's weird.

An idea came to me that you could introduce a fractal approach to Mythos skills (and indeed others, but let's stick with Mythos for now). This would be a tweak specifically for games where there's quite a lot of Mythos going on, and particularly suitable for long-term campaigns focused on a subset of the Mythos but including elements from other factions.

As it's Call of Cthulhu specific I've posted it on my Call of Cthulhu blog. But feel free to comment there or here as suits you.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

On the elusiveness of upbeat actual play

I have a massive heap of downloaded podcasts, but somehow I wanted something different. Perhaps it's because nearly 300 of the nearly 1000 podcasts in my folder are by the RPPR crowd, whose games are often entertaining but also tend to be grim and downbeat (yes, in most cases the group are clearly enjoying themselves hugely, but the actual events are rarely cheerful). And a lot of the rest are non-fiction from the BBC, quite a lot of which is also not very cheerful.

I decided to head out and look again for podcasts that might suit me. The criteria this time:

  • Not Call of Cthulhu. I have plenty of that, and it's rare to find a single episode that's not grim, however lightly it's presented. I enjoy it enough to both listen and play, but I'm depressive - I very much don't need a diet of all bad things happening all the time.
  • Still going. I've no wish to get into the archives of a podcast that only hit nine episodes. Been there, done that.
  • Not stuff that is as or even more depressing than Call of Cthulhu. I found some recommendation threads, and found myself staring at lists of sessions about Apocalypse World (no, never, under any circumstances*) or Monsterhearts (also no**), or You Are A Horrible Person And Bad Things Happen To You Which You Can't Control***.
  • Lucid. There's quite a few podcasts that received praise, but which are also described as people getting increasingly drunk and silly. People getting drunk are boring. If I'm listening to a gaming podcast, it's because I want to hear the game. There's a few podcasts I listen to where people do sometimes drink, and whenever it's noticeable it always detracts from the experience of that episode.

* It's technically possible to do post-apocalyptic narratives that aren't about how horrible human beings are, but from everything I can tell this game is designed to do exactly the opposite. And given most proudly-labelled "Post-Apocalyptic!" stuff I've encountered is about selfishness, human failings, pointless violence, manly manhood and rape, I will give that a flying pass.

** So from what I can tell, this is a game about being horrible teenagers, except you're also actually monsters I think? You lost me at "being horrible". That does not seem an enjoyable premise for an, well, for anything at all actually.

*** I know this isn't a real game, but I've seen quite a few games described which seem like they could neatly be summed up in this basket. I do not understand the fascination of indie gamers with this premise.

I found a few leads. It's striking just how many of them are actually "3-6 improv comedians play some games" rather than "some people play some games". I am somewhat wary of these, because I'm suspicious that either a) the podcast is part of a marketing exercise rather than just a hobby; or b) people whose main hobby is theatricals will make the podcast about them and their performance rather than the game - but I'm willing to give it a shot.

I'm also trying to find podcasts that aren't American. I mean, nothing against Americans, but I have plenty of American gaming podcasts. It's hard though, because that's never an available search term.

I am struggling to come up with a useful way to explain "upbeat" versus "downbeat". Downer endings are obviously downbeat. But I also don't want traumatic and grim things happening to the PCs. I don't want choices with no option that isn't horrible. I don't really the backstory to be framed around lots of bad stuff that happened to people.

I appreciate this is relatively difficult, because RPGs are generally built around challenge, and because a lot of the types of challenge you can offer a group of 3-6 players are extrinsic and based on open conflict. And most RPGs are quite reactive, usually reacting to bad things that have happened. And of course, quite a lot of roleplayers (like quite a lot of people in general) genuinely like dark grittiness and murders and gratuitous violence and so on.

Stuff I noticed

So, some exasperations of this time!

Archives. People are going to come to your podcast and want to listen to your archives. Why do you make it so difficult? Quite a few sites just have, for example, a "podcast" tag which they put on all those episodes. But - what with half of them being improv groups - the same sites also often host two (or, in extreme cases, fifteen) other podcasts of no relevance whatsoever to me. Or the group plays six rotating campaigns, four of which I don't want to listen to. Or they play a hundred different mini-campaigns. It's really, really useful to tag and mark and group podcast episodes in useful ways, so that people can find the stuff they're actually looking for.

Fun fact: if it's a pain to trawl through your archive, people stop, like I did.

I would like to draw your attention to the massive tag cloud to my right to help people sort through my stuff.

Filenames, yet again

Also, I know I've talked about podcast file names a lot, but why stop now? Normally I don't call people out for this bullshit but hello Rusty Quill! You seemed so promising, being British and everything (although improv, so...) but your website is a pain and so is your naming convention. The webpage has an unnecessarily large banner and puts the "older posts" option in an unusual place, so I didn't spot it until late in the day. Now, you get kudos for having your entire podcast archive in the RSS feed - and extra kudos for having different feeds for each podcast! Good on yous.

But what sort of person looks at a file they're saving for public release and concludes that "207829424-rustyquill-1-rqg-0-metacast-character.mp3" is a good name?

Okay, first off, breathing room. If you're going to number things (and you should) do not start with single digits, because this means computers will sort things called 1 next to things called 10. This is basic, basic stuff, guys. I'm going to venture a guess that if you do improv you probably have arts degrees and didn't study much computing (nothing wrong with that!) but sort order isn't complicated so I feel you should have thought of this.

But secondly, what is this 207829424 about? What does that mean? Is it relevant to the audience, at all? No? Then don't include it! Because, and I appreciate this may not happen to everyone, when I scroll through files on my player, all I will see on the screen for several seconds is a string of numbers. I don't know what that is. If I listen to your podcast a lot I might realise it's yours, but it could also be a random podcast from somewhere else (the BBC inexplicably does this sometimes). Just begin the filename with something identifiable so I know what I'm looking at.

In fact, for particular exasperation, my phone will only show the first twenty-odd characters of a filename in music player, which means I won't be able to tell your episodes apart. They'll all be "STRINGOFNUMBERS-rustyqui". Does that seem helpful?

To be fair, I've checked again and they change their filenames partway through the archive. You know, you could go back and change the older ones too.

Here's a list of stuff I am currently planning to try out, and will try to comment on later:

  • Rusty Quill
  • She's a Super Geek
  • Shark Bone
  • In Sanity We Trust
  • One Shot Podcast

Why so Cthulhu?

So here's something Dan said to me over the extended gaming weekend that was my New Year:

"I'm surprised just how into Call of Cthulhu you are."

And that got me thinking. Why am I so keen on Call of Cthulhu? Or, to take a step back, am I especially keen on Call of Cthulhu? And if so, why and in what way?

A suuuper quick precis of my gaming history. Fighting Fantasy gamebooks aside, I first encountered the concept around the age of 12 when I was on holiday in the states and bought a copy of Dragon magazine. Over ten years later I started running D&D 4th edition for some librarians, and a few months later was finally invited to try out a tabletop RPG. Since then I've played a few White Wolf one-shots, quite a bit of D&D, various random one-shots and playtests, some Warhammer 40K, and a moderate amount of Call of Cthulhu. I've also listened to podcasts of and read the rulebooks for a few other systems, like Traveller.

I've run one short campaign, which was D&D 4th edition and based around adapting existing scenarios. I've written a scenario for 40K that I haven't yet run, as well as a game about lizards. When I have ideas for future games, they are generally for Call of Cthulhu.

Call of Cthulhu is what I tend to default to, and I'm working this out as I go along. Broadly speaking, there are factors which tend to make me actively gravitate towards it, and there's also more passive reasons why I just find it a comfortable fit.

System

One of the things that I think Call of Cthulhu genuinely has going for it is the system. It is simple, reasonably robust, reasonably genre-appropriate, and broad. It takes almost no effort to understand the mechanics well enough to play ("this is a percentage, roll under it"), and not much more to memorise most of the rules. Character generation is quicker than most other games and choosing names frequently seems to be the bottleneck.

I enjoy games with much crunchier rules too - both Warhammer 40K and D&D are much more complex. But if I want to throw someone into a situation and just get on with it, or to start playing myself, Call of Cthulhu is the most straightforward option.

It's also flexible enough that you can use it as a rough approximation for a very wide range of settings. It doesn't handle all genres well (in particular, anything heroic tends to fall down on the combat, and it's not crunchy enough to be tactical) but you can use almost any setting. Modern day? Historical? Ancient world? Future? Traditional fantasy? Gothic? Cyberpunk? You just need to tweak the skill list to get something that's useable. I'm not saying it will be great - I'm saying it will do.

Puzzling

Call of Cthulhu is often used as an investigative game, and I find that tends to suit me. I am an inveterate prodder at game realities, and as a player I frequently find myself having to bite my tongue to avoid roleplaying a detective. I always want more information, to try out theories, to see what happens.

Call of Cthulhu has several advantages here. Firstly, it's often played explicitly as an investigative game where you are trying to puzzle out what happened, which makes it a great fit. Secondly, because it's usually quite an ambient experience rather than one where you're in constant peril, there is usually a lot of room for asking questions, testing out theories, and going to gather more information; while there are situations where "let's just try my idea" will get you killed, they're relatively few compared to a combat-focused game.

For what it's worth, my limited experience of White Wolf games was that they also offered a satisfying amount of room to play around with ideas and with in-game abilities in creative ways.

A third aspect is that the setting lends itself to quite thorough investigation, because the mysteries you're solving tend to be weird enough that eliminating the impossible isn't always a good idea... while fellow-gamers don't necessarily want to indulge quite as much as I often do, Call of Cthulhu tends to get them more onboard than many other games.

Source material

Obviously, Call of Cthulhu is broadly based on the work of HP Lovecraft and associated folks. I quite like these. I wouldn't go so far as to call myself an actual fan, honestly. There's plenty of problems with both Lovecraft's stories and those of other people. Lovecraft had a whole bunch of prejudices, and in a way his taste for short stories made it difficult to get into the work as deeply as novel authors allow. The related works are a very mixed bunch, divergent in genre (Clark Ashton Smith is a different beast from Howard, Derleth or Lumley, for example) and in focus. Some authors are keen to write genuine horror, which I flee from with alacrity.

Still, there's something in it which appeals to me. There are mysteries, and slow unfurling writing full of description (keen readers may have noticed my own verbose tendencies) and fantastical events. I like the old places, and the ancient tomes, and the peculiar people, which appeal to me far more than, say, reading about men with guns being manly.

Genre knowledge

Tying into the last point, I think one of the reasons Call of Cthulhu does genuinely appeal to me more than many other games is that I have a much better grasp of it. It's one of the few games where I actually know the source material, in many cases better than everyone else I'm playing with, and feel I have a good grasp of what I'm doing. This is because Call of Cthulhu is based on books.

To cut a long story uncharacteristically short, my family were never great TV watchers and we didn't even have a TV for most of my childhood. Between that and other factors, I just never got into TV. I could say that I was reading instead, or doing school clubs, both of which are true, but honestly I've just never developed the habit or skill of watching TV. In the pre-iPlayer days I was rarely organised enough to reliably watch a particular show. Nowadays I'm too skittish and sitting down to watch something for an hour feels like a huge investment of precious time - I prefer something that feels less passive.

The end result of all this is that I am, for a nerd as big as I am, spectacularly unversed in most of the mainstays of pop culture. I never watched Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, The X-Files, Xena, Ally McBeal, Twin Peaks, Seinfeld, Frasier, Law and Order, Saved by the Bell, Beverly Hills, The Fresh Prince, Byker Grove, Dawson's Creek, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Shield, The West Wing, any police procedural whatsoever, any soap whatsoever - I can't even compile this list without reference to Google because I don't even know what the shows are that I didn't see. I saw a handful of Futurama episodes at university, caught up with Firefly on DVD years later, and somehow managed to watch a good proportion of the episodes of mid-run Buffy. I did see quite a bit of Dr Who on video, and found the resurrection of the show disappointing enough that I lost interest years ago.

Similarly, I never really watched that many films, and the ones I did see tended to be fairly light-hearted and family-friendly. I did, however, read ferociously, mostly in the areas of nonfiction, fantasy and sci-fi.

And all this means I am equally spectacularly at sea in terms of the tropes of most of these things, which is a real problem because most role-playing games seem to either be specifically based on film and TV, or at the very least to be heavily influenced by them.

The RPGs I find easiest to grasp are Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer 40,000. I really don't think that's an accident. All three are primarily based on books (yes, even 40K - the game itself consists of books, which have fluff in them, and there's lots of tie-in books too). I am familiar with a lot of the stuff behind all three. Traveller I've still never played, but it feels like it could fit with the fairly dry and hard-but-not-annoyingly-philosophical tone of a lot of the books I read in my younger days.

Setting

In terms of actually playing in or running a game, Call of Cthulhu has another big advantage in that it's a real-world game. This it shares with World of Darkness, though that gameline massively dilutes its advantage with an incredibly complex layer of supernatural stuff.

When you're starting out as a player, you don't need to know very much specific. It helps if you have a rough idea how the period you're playing in works, but even that can be worked around. You do know how the real world works, and have a broad idea of how things like shopping, social interaction, law and order work - especially given some narrative wiggle-room. The weirdness of the setting is specifically an unexpected and alarming element which is disruptive to the PCs, so you're not actually required to know anything about that ahead of time.

For the GM, it's also a boon, because it's really easy to run. You can use real-world locations and history, and improvise rapidly based on actual facts you know about reality. It's easier and quicker to guess plausibly how a certain NPC might behave, or how a town might respond to some bizarre events, than it is to make a similar judgement about a fantasy world. You can use actual maps to decide where players can go, rather than having to invent new locations on the fly. Plus, the players can use their understanding of real history, science and so on to follow what's going on; they don't need to have read up on the metaphysics or magic laws of your setting, and have everything patiently explained to them "which your character would already know, of course".

GMing

I think this ties in to a more general point that I find Call of Cthulhu relatively easy to GM for.

I feel like I wouldn't even know where to start with a D&D campaign, and I'd have to invest a huge amount of effort to create a situation that might be playable in order to dangle it in front of potential players. And I'm sure any of the people I game with could run a better one. Maybe I just lack confidence. I certainly enjoy playing D&D, and I've actually got the broad strokes of a couple of worlds from my 4e campaign, but coming up with all the geographies and combat and faction motivations seems like a lot of hard work. And it must be said, so far everything I've suggested to the usual group has been met with absolute silence, so not a lot of encouragement over there.

Writing a single scenario for Call of Cthulhu is a relatively limited feat. Okay, okay, yes, I admit I personally end up putting preposterous amounts of work into writing really robust investigations over long periods. But the principle stands! You can come up with one idea, play around with it and see if it seems to have any meat on it. If so, you can flesh it out as a standalone scenario and then stop. There isn't the same expectation of presenting a long campaign that some other systems have. I think the absence of an XP system is one of the factors here; because doesn't offer the satisfaction of gradual increase in power and new exciting abilities, there's less expectation of long-term play.

Also, Call of Cthulhu is legendarily fond of prewritten adventures. I've only actually run a couple, but there's a widespread acceptance of them in the gaming community. You can GM by selecting, reading and running prewritten adventures, rather than writing all your own material.

If you do want to write scenarios, though, I think the "real world, but with weird elements" makes it really accessible. All you really need is one weird spin. I've got a huge list of ideas waiting to one day be scenariofied: they're inspired by things ranging from weird stories, to stories in a completely different genre, to purely mechanical challenges ("can you write a scenario where X?", to historical and political events, to slightly odd stuff that's happened to me in real life, to nursery rhymes, to advertising.

I've written an entire scenario based on a photo someone posted on Twitter. I think it's genuinely good.

I just don't have the extensive genre knowledge or game experience to comfortably write scenarios for most other systems. I'd want to play a hell of a lot more White Wolf, for example, before feeling I had even the slightest idea what to do with them.

Circumstantial

Finally, it's probably worth accepting that a fair bit of the reason is purely circumstantial.

My friends include several very experienced GMs who can easily run a long and satisfying D&D campaign. Since my own foray collapsed for timetabling reasons, there's been no reason for me to try. Those slots have enough D&D in them already and it's better than I'd do.

Besides the regular online gaming, most of my games consist of irregular weekends of board and roleplaying games. These are of uncertain duration, and it's unpredictable how many people are available - usually three, sometimes four, occasionally two (including me). Experience of trying to run D&D on a roughly similar model was very poor. However, these are good occasions to try a one-shot that lasts four to eight hours. Of the games available, everyone is reasonably keen on Call of Cthulhu so it makes sense to run that. We sometimes experiment with other one-shots, but there's not huge enthusiasm and of course it's a lot of upfront time investment learning a system.

Because I live a long way from my existing gaming groups, I have limited opportunities to play or run games, but plenty of opportunities to think and write about them. Call of Cthulhu lends itself well to this because it's focused on prewritten scenarios, and because most of the game content you need consists of NPCs and clue chains rather than combat. Writing up mysteries is, I think, more satisfying to do than writing up potential combat because you can put together a coherent whole situation, whereas with combat it's all hazy until the sword hits the goblin.

If I write a one-shot for Call of Cthulhu, I'm reasonably confident that at some point I'll be able to find players for it. That isn't the case for campaign pitches, as that requires a lot more investment from everyone and is competing for a very limited amount of weekly gaming space.

I have a suspicion that if I'd come into gaming via a different group of people, I'd be happily running around with White Wolf and a fistful of storygames.* I do like mechanics; I like crunchy games and simulationism and worlds I can poke. At the same time, I like satisfying narrative and tropes and acting and silly voices. I'm a big reader, I've done some acting, that could be me.

And if storygames didn't all seem to be so freaking miserable.


Now it could well be that if I decided to sit down and write up a load of D&D campaign notes, I'd be able to come up with something worthwhile. It's a tough first step though, and one I've never really felt the encouragement to try, because given my current gaming setup I'm not especially optimistic I'd ever get to use it. I mean, I like the idea of running another D&D campaign, but I also like the idea of being toned and muscular or writing a novel. So far, none of these seems likely.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Characterisation: Habituation and Instincts

So in my tireless quest for ways of modelling things, a couple of thoughts came to me that I wanted to throw out there. They're not inherently connected, but I feel like there's a similarity of ethos to them that means they might well end up in similar games. Which is to say, they both try to handle some quite complex individual differences by loosely categorising aspects of a character, in order to try and steer around detailed mechanics that I think would be not merely crunchy (nothing wrong with crunch), but fiddly.

These two ideas are (for want of any better shorthands) habituations and instincts.

Habituations

Anyone reading this blog has probably (either in real life or in debate, or quite possibly in someone's anecdotes about a rather annoying game) encountered situations where there seems to be a mismatch between what a character can do and what their background implies. The most prominent cases generally involve two characters.

In the false negative case, Archibald is either totally or surprisingly incompetent at a task that, given his background, ought to be commonplace. Alternatively, Archibald is basically ignorant of something that forms a normal part of his life. For example, Archibald may be a vet(erinarian) living in small-town Ohio who is nevertheless unable to drive, or (depending on the system) unable to handle any kind of difficult conditions - like driving quickly down country roads in the dark and rain, which he presumably does quite often. Perhaps he's a soldier who can't light a fire. A successful professional who knows nothing at all about the politics, legal system or etiquette of his home country (you'd think he must at least read a paper sometimes).

In the false positive case, Belinda is mechanically assumed to have knowledge and skills that aren't appropriate to her background. For example, Belinda may be a privately-educated interior designer from Chelsea who is nevertheless able to plug a gangster between the eyes at 50 yards, fly a helicopter and transform a dead grizzly into a delicious array of travel rations. Alternatively, she might be a member of an obscure sect of subsistence farmers in darkest Cornwall who shun technology, and yet have an extensive knowledge of current and international affairs, pop culture and society manners. Or, as many stories like to throw at us, she might be a middle-class American sent back in time to Victorian London, and somehow manage to convince everyone either that she's the new maid, or that she's Lady Veronica despite having the wrong accent and no idea what either of the roles involves.

The glaring contrast is usually where Archibald and Belinda turn up together. The successful lawyer who golfs with the mayor ends up being exactly as good at social etiquette and current affairs as the Zmulvian tribal warrior who only left Zmul a month ago and doesn't believe in electricity. A lawyer manages to carry out delicate negotiations between two proud Zmulvian queens. A hunter fails to build a campsite. A toff walks into an inner-city bar and manages to track down, speak to and buy a shipment of weapons from a gangland boss in a single night. A Glaswegian labourer from a tough estate infiltrates a high society dinner and holds everyone spellbound, but is completely unable to think where the party might buy some drugs.

Obviously these are relatively extreme cases, and most GMs will cut them some appropriate slack. I was just interested in possible alternatives.

One of the more interesting variants I'm aware of comes from Call of Cthulhu, which features both the Own Language and the Credit Rating skills. As an artefact of the ways these skills operate, if you follow Rules As Written (RAW), being of a higher social class is always an advantage and never a disadvantage.

For example, Own Language is based on the character's Education stat (okay, this isn't inherently tied to class, but there's a likely link to the final social class of the character). Being better educated makes you "better at English" in some nebulous way. Because of how the skill works, a more educated person will do better at any roll based on understanding, deciphering or using language. This makes a certain degree of sense if you imagine a Professor of Literature, or even an ex-Etonian Harvard graduate, painstakingly studying a Middle English document. On the other hand, these upper-class types are likely to struggle to follow the dialect speech of rural or working-class folks, which they're simply not used to; a working-class Investigator should have a distinct advantage here. Similarly, I've seen Own Language used (somewhere!) for mimicking the accents of locals to pass undetected. In this case, the toff and the cockney should have about equal difficulty putting on a Yorkshire accent.

Credit Rating is generally used to impress people, but it's very one-sided. Important people can use it to make sure other toffs accept them, to sweep past servants and to get ordinary folks to accept their authority. There's no corresponding way for working-class Investigators to demonstrate solidarity, let alone a mechanic for establishing whether the simple country folk distrust the sophisticated city-dwellers.

Basically, these skills operate as simple cumulative measures, whereas it would be fun if they could instead operate as spheres of competence: an investigator with a given background is comfortable and accepted in their own sphere, but in a different environment they find it more difficult to operate, and may need to interact in different ways. A duchess and a washerwoman find it difficult to chat, and either party is more likely to get what they want by taking a different approach - one more in tune with their social station.

How does it work?

I think the broad idea here is that during character creation (in whatever hypothetical game this is) you would select backgrounds along two axes. The first is socioeconomic, the second is about where you live; based on this combination, a character would be assumed to have basic competence in things that are expected aspects of that sort of life. These axes would probably not be independent, because different locations have different types of social roles.

For example, a character might be from an urban background; depending on whether they're working-class (probably "urban"), mid-to-upper middle-class (probably dignified as "metropolitan"), upper-class ("cosmopolitan") or off the grid entirely (homeless or in the black market), they'll have quite different sets of knowledge and skills. On the whole, though, they're used to the ways of the city. Maybe there's a niche for the bohemian in there, living a fringe lifestyle.

Another character may be rural. Here there's a whole slew of possibilities. Working-class labourer or farmhand. Subsistence farmer/hunter/gatherer (not so much in modern UK, but historical settings or many other countries). Professional farmer. Squire-type landowner. Middle-class professional who understands the country but doesn't do that stuff. Aristocrat who makes some policy decisions, but doesn't need to know how anything works and mostly socialises, writes and enjoys their hobbies.

The suburbs are simpler in most respects, partly because there's a lot less community in many of them due to commuting and lack of shops or facilities. As such there's simply less knowledge to have. However, there's still general patterns to how people act, and how they interact, as well as the ability to "read" the geography to help you get around (where will the only shop for miles around be? how can I get out of this bizarre labyrinth of streets with the same name?), sensing which people will have the information you want, and so on.

The idea is that this socioeconomic habituation determines which things are familiar and comfortable for you, and which are difficult.

For example, Abdul, Beata and Clara are investigating supernatural occurrences in a deprived area of Leeds. They want to ask the neighbours about anything strange that's happened; wander around a rough district at night; watch a few properties of interest without attracting attention; and obtain some illegal items. They'll also need to fend off the attention of the police, make enquiries at the city museum,

Abdul was brought up in the inner city by a single father. He knows how to walk and how to talk, even though his accent is Manchester rather than Leeds. He knows when and how to talk to the neighbours - which shops to ask in, which pubs, which people on the street, and how to approach them naturally so nobody thinks he's an undercover cop nor a would-be murderer. When a few teenagers are blocking the alley at 11pm, he knows the right posture and the right remark to be let through quietly, neither seeming like an entertaining victim nor a direct challenge. He knows the right clothes, posture and activities to fit in as locals just minding their own business while he stakes out a house. Law-abiding as he might be, he understands which kinds of people will know people who know people who can get you... things. This is, in a sense, his home turf.

Beata grew up in a lovely eight-bedroomed townhouse on the leafy north side (and a holiday home in Cornwall), and was attending opera from the age of six. She doesn't understand how things are done in deprived communities, though she might have other approaches to getting information. When the police pause to ask what their group is doing at this time of night, though, she knows exactly how confidently privileged people are mildly perplexed that the police are bothering them, yet supportive and friendly enough not to get their backs up. At the museum, she knows the right sort of things to say, and the knack to spotting the director strolling past and buttonholing him for some technical questions.

Clara is from a small farming village in East Anglia, and has never lived anywhere with more people than cows. She's slightly nervous of crowds and confused by the matey-yet-suspicious mindset of the poor urban residents. She's no idea how to talk to gangs of strangers or passing police, since at home both the hoodlums and the sole constable are well-known to her. She's comfortable talking to the cheery old squire and even the snooty local baron, but can't handle the rather cold manners of metropolitans. If it turns out one of the NPCs is from the countryside, though, she may well have a huge advantage in winning his confidence.

It's really just an extrapolation and modification of what GMs tend to do anyway. For example, I don't know any GMs who would routinely refuse to let characters buy an item from a shop - an apple, or something - unless you made a successful Bargain or Trade or whatever roll. We assume that characters can do this because it's so utterly routine. And yet... you could probably construct an argument that Lord Poshly Richington lives such a rarified life that he has literally never purchased anything. He has people who have people to do that for him. He certainly acquires items, but this is a matter of instructing his secretary to have one of the staff arrange for a tailor to visit, or visiting a jeweller's and telling the owner that the pearl-encrusted diamond coronet will do nicely. He does not queue, he is entirely unaware of prices, he does not carry money, he interacts with merchants simply by conceding that one or other of their wares is adequate. If he's trying to buy an apple from a shop like a normal person, he literally has no idea how to go about it. Nor does a hunter from a barter economy in a society without buildings. Nor does a clone worker from the Communion who has always been provided with exactly her entitlement of supplies by the Great Computer. Nor does a demon. Nor does a freshly-awakened AI. Nor does a member of the warrior-sect who dine in the queen's halls, use clothes and weapons provided for them, and only occasionally deign to demand food supplies from those of lower castes.

What about different cultural backgrounds? In some settings, both modern and historical, being a hunter-gatherer or professional warrior might be a genuine socioeconomic option that comes with specific types of knowledge that aren't simply about your job.

Alveras the Ranger grew up as a nomadic hunter-gatherer in the Great Woods. We should assume that she can, regardless of any specific mechanical skills, do everything that's a normal part of that life. She can identify common woodland creatures and plants (and is not alarmed by them); she can light a fire; she can find a small amount of edible (if tasteless) food; she knows how to get around in the woods; she can read the undergrowth and geology to locate water; she can blaze trails, leave and interpret warning signs. She is used to interacting with other nomads and knows the social rules of wandering life - how to talk to strangers, when to remain silent, what you can and can't interact with (like other people's traps or caches), common nomadic laws and traditions, etiquette, social structure and so on.

Now it may well be that during the game, the group needs to make a fire in a storm, or find water during a drought, or interact with nomads from another world. It would be perfectly reasonable for the GM to rule that Alveras does in fact need to make a roll, because her baseline everyday skills don't extend to these challenging circumstances unless she's invested points in them.

But when Alveras is just hanging around in a wood and wants to make a fire, or sharpen a knife, or grind some grain, or identify some uninspiring-but-edible plants - something she has done daily since she was a child - she should be able to.

Instincts

So this ties into my previous musings on how to handle morale issues, and looking for a relatively sleek way to model that. Science (pop science, at least) suggests there are three main emotional reactions to major stress or threat. When your ability to cope with a situation is overwhelemed, this is what you do.

This can basically be summed up as Fight, Flight or Freeze. I would want to have these as three game-mechanical instincts, which players choose between during character creation. There could be game-mechanical effects which trigger a specific one, but your personal Instinct is how you react to a general threat that overcomes your defences. For example, if you build up more Stress than your tolerance allows, or fail to resist an opponent's Intimidate attempt, this governs your reaction. Each instinct has advantages and disadvantages in different situations.

Note that this is about when you are basically overwhelmed by your emotions. There might be one or two different "steps" of Instinct, like Threatened and Overwhelmed. The first would mean you are driven by your Instinct but can still resist it, as when scared or under serious stress; the second would mean your Instincts have taken over, when you are terrified or stressed beyond your conscious control and your brain is desperate to escape the source of the stress.

Fight: You react aggressively, whether with fists or with words. You can fight and argue effectively, but this can leave you in danger. Moreover, your approach is aggressive and leaves little room for defence. This instinct is an advantage when you can overwhelm a threat or face down a challenge, but can leave you in serious danger and may get you in legal or social trouble.

Mechanically, this Instinct would probably materialise as something like this, although I'd prefer to leave this up to common sense:

  • You are compelled to escalate the current conflict - an argument either becomes heated or physical, depending on the setting and system and genre (in Office Politics, you might just be unprofessionally rude and risk disciplinary action). If you're shoving each other, you swing a punch. Maybe you draw a weapon.
  • You may not stop fighting until you win or regain control of yourself.
  • You can't take actions that aren't aggressive or supporting your aggression, only reactions (like dodging).
  • You suffer a penalty to defensive or rational actions, like placating someone, making a valid point in an argument, or blocking a punch.
  • You gain a bonus to aggressive actions, like intimidating, making a cutting (if unsophisticated) remark, or breaking a chair over somebody's head.
  • You don't have to do anything obviously stupid or suicidal, but you are driven to pursue the conflict if possible

Flight: You withdraw. This can manifest as yielding in an argument, or physically running from a stressful situation - whether that means hiding in the toilets or fleeing down the road. You can effectively escape and defend yourself to some degree, but you are heavily penalised at aggressive actions, or actions that don't directly help you get away from the situation. This instinct is an advantage in helping you avoid harm, but you might abandon allies, embarrass yourself, or end up trapped.

Mechanically, this might mean:

  • You must attempt to escape the conflict, whether physically or emotionally
  • You cannot make aggressive actions, although passing aggression might occur as part of your flight (for example, shoving someone out of the way to flee)
  • You gain a bonus to actions that contribute to your escape, such as placating, running, breaking past barriers or people, disavowing everything you care about, recanting, hiding and getting free.
  • You suffer a penalty on any actions that do not contribute to your escape, including noticing most things, including other enemies you haven't spotted yet.

Freeze: You choke up. You go quiet and let words wash over you, and your muscles don't want to move. You find it very difficult to take any actions at all, but you can instinctively defend yourself to some degree. This instinct can let you avoid stressors and dangers because you go unnoticed or because you don't seem like an interesting challenge. However, it can prevent you taking any active steps to improve your situation.

Mechanically, this might mean:

  • You must attempt to protect yourself until the threat passes.
  • You cannot take any actions.
  • You gain a bonus to reactions that protect you or contribute to making the threat go away, such as staying silent, looking non-threatening or nodding desperate agreement.
  • You suffer a penalty on any actions that do not contribute to this goal, even if they would increase your overall safety, for example by moving away from danger.