Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Cheap Lovecraft knockoffs

I had a whimsical surge while getting an international flight, and thus I present the works of Lovecraft on a reduced budget (with apologies to I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue).

  • The Chemist
  • Azathoth - Gesundheit!
  • Beyond the Wall of the Back Garden
  • The Morning Call of Cthulhu
  • The Suitcase of Charles Dexter Ward
  • The Collar out of Space
  • The Curse of Pig
  • The Dairy of Alonzo Typer
  • The Train That Came to Sarnath
  • The Dreams in the Beach House
  • The Dunwich Haulier
  • Fax concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family
  • From Behind
  • The Haunter of the Park
  • Herbert West—Animator
  • In the Walls of Eric's
  • The Lurking Beer
  • Out of Ian's
  • Pickman’s Model Railway

This is actually more difficult than I envisioned, because so many of the titles are pretty mundane to begin with. There are some you could easily treat as low-budget puns (The Shadow over Innsmouth, for example; and indeed The Case of Charles Dexter Ward I only tweaked for clarification) but obviously people won't necessarily get what you're talking about...

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Warlocks, revisited

Quite a long time ago, I talked about tweaking D&D 5e warlocks to reduce the system issues with eldritch blast and grant them more flexibility as a class. I also mentioned that I'd prefer to make broader changes.

I am nothing if not inclined to suddenly drop things I've been working on in favour of immediate whims reliable, so I'm going to revisit this topic now.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Visitant: Hostile Takeover

The latest installment of terrible game fiction for my incomplete sci-fi hack of World of Darkness.

Francis sat in his office, idly tapping an executive toy with his paperknife. The chrome spheres swayed and clacked softly as he waited. Everything was prepared. There was a knock.

“Come in.” He laid the paperknife carefully on his desk, and straightened up.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Hawarden.”

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Cohesion and Numenera (again)

Hi, Numenera. Long time, no see! I actually haven't heard much about you for a year or so either. No, I didn't mean... well... it's just, y'know... nobody seems to be playing you? It's kind of sad now that I think about it.

So I was listening to Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice while running seven miles down a major road in the rain over a series of hills, as is my wont, and Michael Cule was talking about his attempts to get to grips with Numenera. They resembled my own so strongly that my heart went out to him, and indeed to the game, and it got me thinking again about why it is that I just couldn't get to grips with it.

The start of episode 23, and about 50 minutes into episode 24.

Numenera feels like fog; like the fragments of an intriguing dream you clutch at upon waking, trying and failing to reconstitute the fractured sensations into a meaningful whole. Or, more prosaically, like a bunch of pieces from different, but exquisite, jigsaws.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Lasers and Detectives and Being-Like

So a few weeks ago, I visited some friends and mentioned to them the deeply intriguing game Lasers and Feelings, which I'd come across on a podcast.

I actually won't link to the podcast, because although the game seemed fun, I found the podcast cringe-inducingly California-amdram-storygamerish and had to stop listening fairly soon, and it seems mean to link someone with that kind of recommendation.

In fact, weirdly, I've now tried listening to three different Actual Plays of Lasers and Feelings and couldn't stick with any of them. I don't remember the issue with the second; the third group were so fixated on the "Sexy" keyword that it got tiresome to listen to within a few minutes. I'm sure it's just a personal taste thing, they sounded like they were having a great time. I think it's partly that for me, a lot of amusement comes from playing silly tropes with a straight face, whereas a game where everyone is Sexy and people run around referring to that in-character and the actual plot features the Captain announcing that due to a terrible space-plague he has become *dun-dun-dah* Un-Sexy! ...is just too in-your face.

Anyway, I found the game enormous fun, as my alien doctor ran around trying to meet sexy humans and solve medical problems through sheer emotion. We had a fun pirate-themed plot and eventually crushed their plans to reverse time because, even though this would have vastly improved (and indeed, saved) the lives of thousands of people, it's always bad to change history in space opera because Morals You Guys.

The lightweight ruleset really appealed to me, and I started wondering what other genres might be amenable to this treatment. This led me to try and rough out a detective-themed game, which I'm going to call Monographs and Intuition.

The division is much like the one in Lasers and Feelings itself - Monographs represents academic knowledge, reasoning and induction based on evidence, whereas Intuition represents solving problems by understanding or manipulating emotions, as well as sheer inspiration. Recognising a tattoo, tracing origin of tobacco-ash or following the money would be Monographs; spotting a flash of guilt, encouraging someone to open up to you, or realising how social tensions might cause a spiral of murderous jealousy, would be Intuition. Let's assume that low is Intuition, and high is Monographs; you want to roll over Intuition, and under Monographs.

Then you'd just grab some archetypes. Something like this maybe?


Learned, Inscrutable, Two-Fisted, Mild-Mannered, Eccentric, Hard-Boiled


Police Officer, Private Eye, Dilettante, Bystander, Foreigner, Whippersnapper

So maybe Sherlock would be a Learned Dilettante with a 5 (Monographs). Miss Marple would be a Mild-Mannered Bystander on perhaps a 3. Poirot would be an Inscrutable Foreigner, on a 2-3. Sam Spade is a Hard-Boiled Private Eye on a 3-4. Why Didn't They Ask Evans? features two Whippersnappers, probably one Inscrutable and one Mild-Mannered from what I remember, with a 3 because honestly they're a bit rubbish at following clues but not that great at understanding people either.

But would it be a detective game?

One of the issues here is, how detectivish would this feel? As someone pointed out to me, this is basically the premise of The X-Files, but the playstyle might not be what's expected, particularly from players used to other investigative games like Call of Cthulhu. Those revolve around exploring scenarios that have been carefully designed by the GM with chains of evidence for the players to puzzle out using their characters' attributes; Lasers & Feelings is a very lightweight game with a ton of player agency and assumed most of the game is improvised.

As my much-lamented Los Diablos game was supposed to demonstrate, I don't think this is necessarily a problem. Investigative games traditionally rely on lots of pre-planning, but I don't particularly see why you can't have one that's mostly improvised around a core. The player agency is a completely different point, but again, I'm not sure it's a problem. What it's going to depend on is what the group considers to be "like a detective", and there are two axes here: the story and the game.

I don't think there will be any particular discrepancy between an improvised detective story and a pre-planned one. In fact, it's entirely possible that an improv game will end up more like a detective novel than one based on a prewritten clue chain. A series of weird rolls can lead to people missing or misinterpreting clues, or learning things the GM never expected; and of course they can simply go off on one and end up doing something utterly bizarre. In an improv game, the massive tangent can be incorporated into the plot; if the players think it's relevant, they can make it so. People working together to improvise a game that feels like a detective story around a loose plot should be at least as effective at doing so, as a group trying to create a detective story by confronting game-mechanical challenges that reveal or conceal parts of the plot.

The more important question is, what feels like "a detective game" to the players? And that's going to vary. I'm not sure whether it would actually need to be investigative or not.

A L&F-style game would basically involve improvising clues to fit around a rough plot. The players and DM would make up clues that seemed to make sense at the time. That sounds to me quite a lot like the Agatha Christie-esque style of stories, where most people are suspects most of the time and the crucial bit of evidence isn't always more convincing than the rest, hence Evil Voice.

That is mostly character-based mystery, though, which is a bit different from the likes of Sherlock Holmes or Sam Spade. It makes sense that you can sort of riff around in them, because that's basically what the authors do. But what if we want Sherlock? A lot of people do.

I like most of the original stories, but I must admit that like basically everything else involving Stephen Moffat, I have no time for the TV series.

I'm actually not sure whether Holmes stories are particularly investigative, though. At least, the experience of the reader is not one of carefully piecing together the puzzles and forming a logical understanding of the plot, which some other authors (like Agatha Christie) permit. In most of the stories, Holmes is constantly in possession of information that's kept from the reader, which means not only do we not know what conclusions he has drawn, but we are literally incapable of solving the mystery. So the audience isn't part of a slow process of logical investigation at all, they just encounter a series of baffling clues which Holmes eventually whips into a story by adding bits to form a coherent whole.

The question is, does is matter whether those connective bits that are added are a) devised by the GM and may or may not be found by the players; or b) stuff the players make up when they succeed at a roll? I think not.

Player mindsets

What we're running into here is the issue that people can have very different instincts and opinions about what it means to be Like X, whether that's Like A Detective Story or Like Sherlock Holmes, or even Like The Red-Headed League. I've talked about this before in terms of the Musketeers.

Player A says "this Sherlock Holmes game feels nothing like a Holmes story! I have to use my real world skills to put a bunch of in-character clues together, and I might get it wrong! To properly feel like Holmes I'd need a game where whatever deductions my character made were correct, then we'd get an outcome that really came close to being an improvised Holmesian narrative".

Player B says "this Sherlock Holmes game feels nothing like a Holmes story! I just have to roll my deduction skill, and then anything my character asserts becomes true in the game! To properly fell like Holmes, I'd need to be putting together real clues to a properly designed mystery, using real logic and deduction."

Broadly speaking, the schism here is whether you understand Like Sherlock Holmes to mean "this game guarantees that you will be able to do what Holmes does" or "this game challenges you to try to do what Holmes does".

Player A feels like Holmes by saying and doing things that look like what Holmes does and, like Holmes, having these be true parts of the story. Trying to second-guess the GM's attempt to build a mystery that is "exactly challenging enough" is basically a distraction from evoking that Holmesian atmosphere. It's sort of like being Sherlock Holmes in a play. You could say that the aesthetic trappings of Holmes are what provide that feeling.

Player B feels like Holmes by taking part in a mystery they know to have a solution, and patiently piecing together the clues. Being able to simply invent truths undermines that whole experience by trivialising it; there's little satisfaction in solving a mystery if you can simply declare victory, it's like playing a game with people you know are letting you win. The feeling of Being Holmes comes from doing in real life something that resembles what Holmes does in the stories, even though the reliance on player skill will naturally result in signficant differences from the inferences a genius detective can draw.

Both players want to feel like a great detective, but one player gets that from abstract mechanics that guarantee a great-detective-style outcome, and the other gets it from concrete systems that give them the chance to get closer to doing what great detectives do.

You can't please all of the people, etc.

On reflection, I suspect that the same thing probably applies to the other genres. I personally found Lasers and Feelings very satisfying, but other people might well find that they want to feel like they're really exploring strange new worlds, fending off Klingons and solving space-problems, and that being able to roll a 3+ on a die to succeed at stuff by handwavium doesn't feel like that. Those people might want a carefully-crafted pregen world to explore - and indeed I would probably also enjoy that, in fact that sounds exactly like something I'd enjoy.

I reckon that broadly speaking, you could probably apply the Lasers and Feelings template to just about any genre where the protagonists have the capacity to solve problems themselves, rather than being mostly passive. You just need to identify an axis that will provide a binary split you're mostly happy with. Regency Romance? Fours-in-Hand and Invitations. High Fantasy? Lores and Nobility, which balances knowledge of ancient times and subtle powers against selflessness and discipline. Swords-and-Sorcery? Well, eschewing the obvious, how about Thews and Deviltry, for an axis built on the balance between physical might and fearless cunning? Shounen manga about an exasperating teenager perpetually oblivious of the attentions of various (player character) women who protect him from supernatural peril? Study and Tsundere. Grimdark adventure in the Imperium of Man? That sounds like Zeal and Discipline for our Astartes game, Guile and Guts for our hive-gang adventures, Hubris and Acumen for our Rogue Traders, and perhaps Lockpicks and Cynicism for our cult-hunting Inquisitors.

Some of those might not work at all because I just made them all up. The point is, I suspect it's possible - providing the resulting playstyle is something that evokes the genre in an interesting way for you.

I should maybe also note what I carefully didn't do. I don't think any of the throwaway ideas above splits characters along a single axis, which is to say, two poles of the same idea. You want to be sure you're suggesting two different sets of problems the character is good at interacting with, which helps define the character while also avoiding restricting their approach to those problems.

I suppose a couple of those ideas sound a bit like that, but that's not my intention. Zeal and Discipline offers Zealous characters who solve problems by sheer enthusiasm (be those problems cowardly allies, overwhelming odds or the refusal of doors to open) as opposed to Disciplined characters who use analysis and practice. They can deal with many of the same problems, but their methods and the courses of action they actively pursue will differ.

Similarly, Guts and Guile is supposed to be about whether a character tends to take direct action and rely on resilience, or more indirect courses and rely on cunning.

But I mean, it's thirty seconds of work, you get what you pay for here.

The second thing is that you don't want stuff everyone does to be baked into the axes. It would be a relatively bad idea to have a Swords-and-Sorcery game divided into Battle and Sexytimes because, even though those are two cornerstones of the genre, they are completely different skillsets and can't really be applied to equivalent situations. All protagonists should be capable of both fighting enemies and seducing... okay, often also enemies. The point is, if you had a Battle character and a Sexytimes character then one would do all the fighting and one would do all the seducing, and it's really hard for either one to interact well with part of the core of the genre. In fact, there's a secondary problem, which is that having dice rolls for this stuff at all may be a bad idea. If you want people to fight and seduce in a really rules-light game, then assuming that everyone can do those things and the axes are about how they do them is probably better.

We ran into this a bit during Lasers and Feelings. I felt vaguely like I should be stealing an ID card to help infiltrate the pirate base, but there's no "stealing stuff" or "black ops" skill, so I assumed it would come off Lasers because it's practical, right? As was pointed out, there's no particular reason it couldn't come off Feelings if I used interpersonal skills to obtain a badge.