[Meta Gaming] Of Free Kriegspiel Roleplaying

Brought to you by a reflection on the Revenant’s Quill.

I sometimes feel very out of synch with the world, and the rest of the time I am asleep.

Half a lifetime ago, when D&D 3.0 was young and rules were in the ascension, I was running WFRP by throwing out everything but percentage odds based on character stats, and Victorian Age Vampire (a good half inch of book with two pages of actual rules in) on a single die hack.

When the OSR rolled around I was saying “yes yes, but people seem to like consistency in their fiction, so let us cleave a little closer to the rules”, a tendency which reached its height with the declaration that Fluff Ain’t Rules and what does not exist in system is not true.

But let’s look at the games I make, hmm? They are all, ultimately, a single activity to prompt and shape emergent fiction. Draw and arrange cards, or roll dice in particular combinations, to decide what happens: then tell us about it. (Or they are Bloodspell, which is as ever weird and ass-backwards: decide what you want to happen, then roll dice to see if you betray your own intent.)

In these circumstances there is no Referee, except in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to Elfland, as a legacy gesture to people who want there to be someone whose job it is to say “you succeed” or “you fail”.

There is a Host. An originating player who had the idea for the game, who brings the others together and welcomes them into their mind for a while. Those others need a spur to want things – sheer curiosity about the world does it sometimes, but sometimes people need a drive that compels them into the world, something which comes from the fiction but has mechanical teeth behind to lead into that “core gameplay loop.”

You know the one. To rise in society you need to gain levels; you gain levels by spending currency; you gaim currency from your adventures. Or: you awaken each night with a rising Hunger that must be quieted, whether you wish it or not, and the longer you leave it the lese control you will have.

And sometimes people sit there and say “well, what am I allowed to do?” – and my first instinctive answer was to highlight things in the fictive world with which they can interact, but at some point the journey brought me to a doorway beyond which were Moves, and Plays, and specific things you were allowed to do as your means of interacting with world.

I know why. I’ve heard the stories of players traumatised by bad hosts who don’t care if they’re having a good time. I’ve been numbed by the finite possibilities of a prepared and purchased experience. Those things lead to a refuge in rules as protection and aid.

Yet now: people are talking about playing the way I used to play. Which is, in the terms of the indie circles I now inhabit, rather old-fashioned. We are supposed to attack and dethrone the Master, and invite full co-operation in the play according to the intent of the absent designer.

Whisper it, but that ain’t how I roll, and it never has been. Designer Whomst? I get tired when I have to act as the spur to inert players, or when the calculation of fairness becomes too heavy, and those elements of Mastery I shun out of pure distaste. But as a foil to active players? Even if it makes me an authority, a monster in indie terms: how could I ever, ever tire of that?

Absolutely years and years ago I wrote a semi-sensate drunken ramble about how great my last Mage session had been, and it was run in exactly that spirit. I don’t think that post is still extant, but it was basically an excuse to quote this:

Sitting behind the screen, my notes heaped high with treasure for the virtuous few, it became clear that what I actually liked was telling stories in more or less real time: snaring bits of player conversation in order to make them flesh, confounding people, embroidering every act in an effort to simulate their worthy band at the highest possible resolution.

I’d been so terrified of the responsibility for another person’s enjoyment that I’d forgotten what happens when it works: you are inviting other people to inhabit your mind. What a strange use of oneself that is; strange, and rare.

Tycho: problematique, but he can’t half write.

What scares me, deters me, bars me, is a standing down from the sense of myself as designing something other people can run, of presenting a Game first and foremost. How long did Tekumel exist before it could be published and consumed? EXACTLY. That is what I need to remember.

Anyway, FKR feels like coming home.

[Game Dev] On Getting Knocked Down, and Getting Up Again

This post is brought to you by two things.

The first is the ongoing drip-drip-drip of “where are the rules for X in V5”, where X is dual-wielding or grappling or exactly how many Arms of Ahriman you can summon in a turn – granular, realism-concerned, justice-model stuff that V5 as a system doesn’t care about and (I thought) was pretty explicit about not caring about. But I guess gamers gonna game, and bring their assumptions about what a game needs with them.

The second is Olivia Hill being, as per, annoyingly smart and insightful about vocabulary. 

I am pretty hardline on having a clear, readable-at-a-glance indication of how a systemic element works – a flowchart, a boxout, an IF-AND-THEN sort of statement with very clear operators/decision points – because when I’m in the middle of playing I don’t want to allocate cognitive effort to parsing rules text. Gotta see it, it’s gotta make sense, I’ve gotta make the call. So I do like a pure-crunch summary of how something works.

But I also like and grok what Olivia is on about. The vocabulary a game uses states what it’s about, and that statement needs to carry forward into how it works. A separation between the authorial claim and the played experience is a failure of design. And that got me thinking. How would I write and describe some simple bits of RPG system, and what would that say about how the system worked and what it was for and what it was about?

So I’ve had a go at some atomic stuff – time measurement and conflict resolution. It was going to go into Bloodspell, but that ended up being a game that didn’t need conflict resolution of this sort (it’s much less about What Happens than it is How You Feel About It And Why It Happened That Way).

What do these systems say about what kind of game this might be?

TIME

Time is measured like this.

You have the Moment – that’s what’s happening right now. You live in the Moment. Life is a series of Moments. You can be given a Moment, you can take a Moment, you can have a Moment.

Then you have the Sesh. It’s what’s happening to you and your characters today. You’re playing this game, and something decisive should happen while you’re doing it so that your characters accomplish something while you’re playing.

Then you have the Mish. It’s what your characters are currently working toward; the long-term point of things. A Mish usually takes more than one Sesh to sort out. Think about organising a game: that’s a Mish. It takes a Sesh of planning and prepping, a Sesh (or at least a Moment) of furious instant messaging while you try to work out what day everyone’s free, and then a Sesh of actually playing.

AGGRO

Aggro can mean physical combat, intellectual debate, social strife – it’s anything where someone’s acting directly in opposition to someone else. Aggro is always a Moment in its own right.

Aggro is all about Knocks. You take your Knocks and you either keep going or you don’t. 

Take one Knock? That’s fine. You can keep going. You can come back from that.

Take two Knocks? That’s a problem. You’re Down. Whatever you’re trying to do will be harder, because you’re on a loser here.

Take three Knocks? That’s it. You’re Out. Out of action, out of commission, out of play until the Moment of Aggro is over.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU’RE DOWN

You’ve two choices.

Powering Through: If you Power Through, you can ignore the difficulty that comes from being Down. You’ll still be Out if you take another Knock, but you’re doing your best to look and act un-Knockable, and it might work.  BUT: Powering Through takes a lot out of you. You’re borrowing from tomorrow to handle today. If you Power Through a Moment of Aggro, you’ll start your next Moment of Aggro with one Knock to your name already. You can Power Through that one too, but the cost stacks, and you’ll enter your next Moment of Aggro already Down. Power Through that one, and you’re automatically Out next time a Moment of Aggro comes your way.

Calling For Backup: If you Call For Backup, you ask another player to take your Knock instead of you, and they can say yes or no. And you can keep on Calling For Backup, but they can always say no – especially if they’re already Down from taking your Knocks for you. If you Call For Backup too often, you might find all your mates are Out – or just not interested in dealing with your Aggro any more.

GETTING UP AGAIN

If you’re Down, you get back up again once the Moment of Aggro is over. It’s only temporary.

If you’re Out, you’ll need a bit more time. You start your next Moment of Aggro with two Knocks – so you’re already Down, and one Knock from going Out again – and you can’t Power Through that Moment either. If you make it through that Moment of Aggro, you start your next Moment with one Knock. If you make it through that one, you’re fine again.

[Game Dev] Hacking the WFB Magic System for Party Pools in Roleplaying

Blame Andrew (who runs Halfling Caravan, they make Beta Maxx, it’s pretty neat) for this one. He and I were chatting about Warhammer and its bucket-o-d6 appeal and I mentioned how utterly perfect the sixth edition WFB magic system is, and then I realised it could hack really nicely.

Let me explain why it’s perfect first. Firstly: the dice are the most important thing, not chains of hidden modifiers. There’s the occasional bonus or malus of 1 or 2 from a magic item or special rule but mostly it’s all about showing the target number, which you know going in. Secondly: the impact of character level is managed really well, because higher level characters can throw more dice at a problem, which means they’re more likely to cast the big spells and less likely to fail the little ones (i.e. to meet high and low target numbers). Thirdly: there’s a cap on the number of dice involved, which puts a stop to the weird probability loops you get in dice pool systems where throwing more dice makes you more likely to botch than succeed. Fourthly: players choose how many dice to bung at a particular spell, which also helps to manage that problem and also emphasises agency and resource management in a really elegant, direct way. Fifthly: Irresistible Force and Miscasts, on a double 6 and double 1 respectively, provide that same hit of raw fun chemical as the natural 20 and natural 1, but exist at either end of a bell curve in which the median result comes up far more often, and thus exist as the outliers they should be.

I joked that I should just hack that system for absolutely everything, but then I thought about it and realised it might actually work for party-based play. Let’s express it in terms of combat, since this is very much post-wargame design, but I’m pretty sure this hacks to any kind of collective activity pass/fail situation.

The party generates a pool of dice equal to 2 plus 1 per character level involved.

The referee generates a pool of dice equal to 2 plus 1 per character involved.

The encounter has a number attached to it, let’s call it Challenge Rating because I haven’t had enough coffee to think of anything more fun right now. (Gloss: different approaches may have different Challenge Ratings associated with them, in the same way that the spells you attempt to cast in a WFB turn have different casting values.)

The party can choose how many dice to throw at the encounter, up to a limit of the highest character level in the party plus 1. (Gloss: this can be finessed into particular approaches taken, as the highest level character is presumably leading the attack, so if it’s a wizard they’re casting a big spell while others run interference.)

If they beat the Challenge Rating, they win the encounter, unless the referee can match or exceed their roll with ref dice.

If they fail, they can try another approach, with a different character leading. (This character’s level will determine the maximum number of dice to be rolled, as well as setting the tone for the descriptions and so on.)

A double 6 is an automatic victory, ref dice be damned. A double 1 is an automatic failure which knocks a character out of action and leads to a roll on a Nasty Things Happen To You table.

It may help veterans of the RPG form to imagine that the party’s dice are divided between the characters in play, representing the characters lending each other assistance in the pursuit of a deathblow. An example may also be of value here.

aN exAmPlE

Khairan (level 4 wizard), Nivienne (level 2 monk) and Myra (level 1 priest) are fighting a terrible bosom monster or something.

They generate nine dice between them (two for turning up, plus one for each character level involved). Their ref has five dice (two for turning up, plus one for each character).

The terrible bosom monster has a Challenge Rating of 11.

Khairan can bung up to five dice at a problem, so he represents the nuclear option. Nivienne can bung up to three dice at a problem, so she has an average chance here. Myra can only bung two dice, so it’s highly unlikely that she’ll beat any bosoms by herself.

The party elects to let Nivienne take the first swing, in an attempt to dummy out some ref dice. Sadly, Nivienne’s player just misses, with a total of 10. Oh no! A +1 against bosom monsters would make all the difference here.

Khairan’s player throws four dice, because they might just need that third attempt after all, and scores a total of 12. The referee giggles inanely and flings all five of their dice, because they don’t expect Myra to achieve much of anything. The ref’s dice show a pair of sixes and that’s enough all by itself.

It’s all on Myra. And because we’re rolling this example out live, there isn’t one of those contrived endings where the babiest character gets a double six and wins the day. It’s a four and a two and the round is a wash.

No bosoms are punched, immolated or… what does a baby priestess even do to a bosom? The tempo for the description is set, though: Nivienne can’t land a decisive blow, Khairan’s efforts are met by some quivering defence, Myra is clearly overcome by the whole business.

Further Observations on Challenge Ratings

Another great thing about the WFB magic system is how setting the right casting value for a spell makes it seem more or less routine. Take Invocation of Nehek, the baseline spell of the Necromancy lore. Its casting value of 3 means that for a level 2 Necromancer, only a Miscast will result in failure. On literally any other outcome of a three dice roll, this extremely routine act of sorcery will succeed. At the other end, the Curse of Years, a devastating bit of offensive wizardry, requires an 11. Our level 2 Necromancer can take a shot at it with their three dice, but the law of averages is doing a lot of heavy lifting in the attempt. Such is entirely befitting of a spell which will probably wipe out a whole regiment if it’s allowed to go through. By careful consideration of the minimum and maximum values required, ‘brackets’ of Challenge Rating can emerge in which characters of a given level are more or less likely to succeed. A 5-11 range was normal for WFB spells: only the most necessary of incantations or spectacular of maledictions fell outside this scale range.

Equipment should provide small bonuses and maluses, or allow for the generation or banking of dice. Such things make all the difference, as with this party who are one die shy of everyone being able to work at full efficiency. Character type could allow for an additional ‘free’ die in particular situations, such as combat or stealth or acquisition of lore.

[Game Dev] Notes Toward Unlocking The Tomb Through Bunging Dice At It

Been knocking these around on Twitter, for the bants, but it’s probably a good idea to cement them on here so I have a version I can find when I eventually decide what to do with them.

What follows is an expansion of ‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To Elfland’, which I originally built as a zero-conflict exploration-pillar OSR-ish kind of thing. (Gotta write dev notes for that.) The challenge there, the mechanical loop, is a pretty straightforward d20 + S, where S is a stat-representing bonus or malus, and the option of rolling 2d20 and picking the best or worst for advantage/disadvantage. (There’s a 2d10 variant for magic, but that’s not entirely germane here.) That’s compared to a target number representing how much Trouble your character is in, and failure/poor choices escalate the Trouble into the next bracket.

Now. To put conflict back in, and to give the referee the investment that comes with rolling a mathematics rock, I added a d10 to the Trouble. (Why the d10? It’s the freakish eldritch die, the non-Platonic solid, the one that works for opposition or strangeness, on an instinctive level.) A random factor representing Aggro, the contribution made by a background character opposing the PC. That gives us T + d10 vs. S + d20.

I also wanted, for reasons, to shift the core loop from single character actions to combined efforts: two specific characters putting their efforts together. Now we’re looking at T + d10 vs. (S1 + d20) + (S2 + d20), which is SUMS. That’s more SUMS than anyone should have to do every single time their characters do anything.

OK, the problem with transcribing Twitter threads is that the context is missing, so let me provide a bit of that now. What STARTED this off was Della King’s thread on D&D, target numbers, and rolling low, which interested me because I absolutely do not like “roll low” as a concept (high numbers should always be good things) but I absolutely agree that the fuzziness of D&D’s calculations – bonuses for stats and gear and circumstances and all that flimflam atop a roll – create an outcome where the average player is rolling a die and looking pleadingly at the referee for confirmation of what it even means, UNLESS it’s a 20 at which point there is a sudden certainty. The Natural 20 is the best possible roll, therefore the best possible thing should happen. Noobs, muggles and normies intuit this with the same ease that they do “high numbers are good” and that is why we have the mildly detestable “I rolled a nat 20 so verisimilitude and tone and consistency and precedent can SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP” meme. Which I don’t like. But I like why it happens. I like that certainty of knowing that you done rolled a good roll. And I like collapsing the play down to knowing that what you’ve rolled is good or bad, where the die in your hand is the most significant determiner, because it makes the tactile action of rolling feel important. And people like rolling. Rolling dice dispenses the Good Brain Chemical. So that’s context. Now, back to the mechanics.

So then I thought about putting the other Platonic Solids back into the hands of the players, corresponding to aspects or stats or traits of their characters. It works very well in Savage Worlds, and lends itself very well to the idea of hyperspecialised characters who need to team up and cover for each others’ weaknesses or combine their strengths, which, for reasons, is the territory I’m currently interested in exploring. Let’s say characters have five Elements which directly correspond to a die type. Let’s say that choosing the right combination of characters to attempt a task is the most important thing about the play at hand – not how good your equipment is, but who you team up with, who is prepared to take a risk with you. NOW the core mechanic looks like this: T + d10 vs. dX + dY.

That looks good. The players’ dice rolls are the most important thing, and high numbers are always good. The referee maintains control over difficulty through the ability to set Trouble as they choose, but still gets to make a roll and get some of that good brain chemical for themselves (and the flat d10 for antagonistic forces lets Trouble + Aggro fall within a predictable range, also good for setting difficulties). I’m not sure how swingy the rolls will be if there are regular d20 + d4 pairings falling, but avoiding those could well be part of the play, for reasons.

Reasons here being that I’ve read the first two of the Locked Tomb trilogy lately, and have been thinking about gamifying it after the nice lady who runs HyveMynd posted her idea for five stats and two characters per player. Pairs of characters joining up to overcome a challenge is a core element of the fiction being emulated there; so are unusual team-ups outside of the usual pairing, when the challenges escalate later in the narrative.

It’s not quite cooked yet – I still need to retro-engineer Muir’s counter game that separated and balanced the styles of necromancy involved (or just ask her about it, but she’s immensely busy and a bit famous, and my lane is over here), and get over this weird itch I have to depict the lyctoral megatheorem as a variant on the Tree of Life (or indulge it to the bitter end). But this works for the core, I think. It does what it needs to do.

[Meta Gaming] M. A. R. Barker, ‘Create a Religion in your Spare Time for Fun and Profit’

Some time ago, Kent spent some time talking up this essay by the author/engineer/creator of Tékumel as being exemplary and inspiring stuff for the GM interested in establishing their own campaign world. Relevant to my interests though it assuredly is (and I’ll get around to building worlds once I’ve blown the dust off my practical at-the-table GMing skills, as it’s all for naught if one’s running a boring and directionless game), it’s taken quite a while to get around to reading it.

Continue reading “[Meta Gaming] M. A. R. Barker, ‘Create a Religion in your Spare Time for Fun and Profit’”