[Game Dev] On Mörk Borg, and Free Kriegspiel Vampire, and Bloodspell

Last week, I bought MÖRK BORG.

I did this a) to see what all the fuss was about, b) because since Prince reviewed it I suspected the Dying Earth game of my heart’s desire might be buried in it somewhere, but mostly c) since I needed to round up a distributor order or pay for postage and packaging.

Here is a brief opinion on Mörk Borg: I love an A5-ish rulebook that fits in the same sort of space as my tablet, i.e. in a bag I can actually carry without throwing my back out; the system seems functional with just enough clacky clacky number stones to satisfy people who don’t think they’re playing a game if they don’t roll dice every few minutes; I like the atmosphere but the aesthetic choices throw me in a lot of ways, in particular the typeface changes mid paragraph get on my nerves (Chris Onstad would like a word). Seems fast, random, lethal and kvlt.

Having read it I immediately scurried back to my notes for Black Sand / Red Sun (the OSR-ish skull-and-planet campaign setting I will use the moment I have a face to face group who might be into it) and realised a) I’d written a lot more than I thought I had and b) the system I’d written was extremely close to Mörk Borg. Parallel evolution, really.

And this made me think about systems, and what they’re for, and why so many of us think we have to start with a bespoke system. I rejoined the FKR Discords I used to lurk on and this is something that’s percolated out of those conversations. It’s to do with my weird pathway into RPGs and why I always end up with just enough rules for me, which always feels like not quite enough rules for a “proper game.”

I came in with Fighting Fantasy, which showed very well that 2d6 roll low or 2d6 + X roll high opposed was enough for muscular heroics, railroading your way through a pretend shlocky sword and sorcery film, and things like magic worked as direct hacks to an encounter or challenge. Costs came off your Stamina. Saves came off ever-depleting Luck. People like to sneer at FF and AFF because they were made for an audience of bright children but you know what, the thing works. It was classical fantasy roleplay without the layers of alienating cruft.

When I got into 200+ page rulebook, genre-emulating, grown-up trad RPGs they always ended up hacked down to that basic level of operation. Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer FRP were percentage chance to resolve task and a tracker for wounds or sanity. Vampire in all its forms was compare stat pools, roll a d10 each for a random factor, with four trackers to which costs and consequences might be applied.

By the time I started to engage with the rules as written, I was already a man – and crucially playing with people I didn’t see and speak to every day. In those circumstances I think a heftier rule set compensates for the lack of organically developed trust. And, as with wargaming, when strangers do not place trust in one another they must turn to the rules, and the rules become more elaborate as they have to govern more and more possible interactions…

I could lament this, but to do so is to lament human nature. Of course we are wary around people while we get to know them. And some people like the theatre of rules play, the point of the “game” enterprise for them is assembling known factors to eliminate randomness and overcome challenges. Personally I like board games for that sort of thing, to each hole the peg best fitted and so on, but I understand the desire to blend outcomes.

This, I suppose, is the point of using something recognisably D&D-shaped for a creative endeavour like Black Sand / Red Sun; that a natural “rules are for arbitration and play-shaping, not core gameplay in themselves” roleplayer like me can run it in something like Mörk Borg or the Black Hack and it shouldn’t take that much to scale it up to your dad’s D&D if you have the time and patience to grapple with it.

In the meantime, here’s something else that’s been living in my head rent free while I think about all this. I know I’m not the first person to consider this (Cavegirl’s version is in a similar lane) but again, parallel evolution is the name of the game here. Most people who have fun with V:tM end up boiling away at least some of its convolutions.

It’s Not Quite Free Kriegspiel Vampire, But…

PENELOPE GERMAINE ARMITAGE-STONELEIGH
Cryptographer ; Priestess
Marechal: Status, Domain; Adversaries
Blood Leech: Protean; Against Other Kindred; No Eating Mortals
Lasombra: Dominate, Potence, Obtenebration; No Reflection
Hunger _ _ _ _ _
Humanity _ _ _ _ _
Willpower _ _ _ _ _
Health _ _ _ _ _

Breaking that down, that’s:

CHARACTER NAME
Pre-mortem occupation / Post-mortem occupation (bonus to anything derived from these)
Coterie Type: a couple of advantages and a disadvantage afforded to the whole group
Predator Type: a Discipline (general area of magic powers), a personal advantage and prohibition
Clan: three Disciplines and a disadvantage shared among all members of the clan
And the rest is all trackers. 1-5 because the “three rounds and you’re done” style of contemporary Vampire doesn’t need to go longer.

Rather than each Discipline being a tower of little subsystems and mechanics, they work as general areas; Dominate is anything to do with hypnosis and direct mind control, Potence is anything to do with raw, superhuman strength; Obtenebration is anything to do with weaponising shadows; Protean is anything to do with shapeshifting.

Dice rolls are five d10 plus one for each relevant advantage plus one for teamwork minus one for each relevant disadvantage. The Beast may be Roused to add two more dice but increase Hunger by one.

Dice results are per V5 with Hunger swapping in as I really like the critical/messy critical/bestial failure outcome there. (They’re easier to show than tell, so if you’re not a V5 player, trust me.) Only players roll, against a static target number of successes required (per the back of the V5 ST screen, very useful), and players only roll when Hunger would be interesting. Failures accumulate damage to Willpower, Health or Humanity. Damage loops around from Superficial (/) to Aggravated (X) and if you fill up on Aggravated you’re stuffed.

Keep the core rules this light and I might actually be able to find space in my head for Resonance, Dyscracia and all the other stuff V5 introduces on top of its core loop. More situational advantages and disadvantages, essentially.

Bloodspell

Remember that?

I bring it up because a little while ago, someone said the nicest damn thing to me: they told me that they had bought my game, played my game, enjoyed playing my game, engaged with basically everything in it and it had worked, and would I like to see a drawing of the characters they made with it? And did I want to know that it was my fault they were into other RPGs now?

That’s all I wanted. To know someone bought it not just to “support me” but because they thought it would be good, and that they were proved right. To know that it had been played.

I suspect that’s what’s tilted me back around to roleplaying and making things for it again. I really want to get some sort of face to face group together so I can figure out how to tackle BS/RS without the additional load of Discord gaming. It’s fine for what it is, but it’s not a natural fit for me, and the work of adapting to the medium is going to detract from the learning-how-to-OSR.

[Game Dev] Notes toward Untitled Ghost Game

I keep thinking about a hypothetical new Wraith edition that goes back to a bedrock of ghost stories, i.e. stories about ghosts haunting people, and burns down “the lore”, or rather leaves it burned down as it was when the product line was cancelled. There was a huge explosion, the afterlife collapsed, everyone got kicked back into the barrier between life and death, and it’s presumably EXTREMELY dangerous to go anywhere else. That’s cool. Wraith doesn’t have to rebuild the old edifices. It has potential to move forward and become a post-mortem post-apocalypse: a storytelling game of survival and psychological horror.

The idea met with hostility from the Wraith people with whomst I discussed it, but I think it has legs and I want it to exist even if W:tO comes not in that form. (It probably won’t, because the White Wolf brand’s profitability rests on appealing to a fanbase which cannot allow anything to be thrown out, so we’re likely to get a soft reboot, like with the Week of Nightmares: details obscured, impact and “canonicity” maintained.)

Mechanically, I know V5’s Hunger mechanic making dice pools bigger or smaller and more or less dangerous in certain circumstances has really stuck with me as a system for horror play, but they need a twist away from how V5 uses them, because ghosts, surprisingly, aren’t vampires.

Ghosts are a located phenomenon: there’s never just a random ghost, there’s a haunted house or family or video tape. So, in this context of survival horror, ghosts need to be encouraged to be near people, places and things that make them more powerful, more able to resist that which threatens them. Wraith lands the concept with Fetters, but as with everything about Wraith it’s overwritten and blended in with a lot of other baggage from the V:tM engine it’s built on. There’s so much else there that the strength and clarity of the concept is lost.

Enter Walker, Twitter’s @ProfessorJust. I paraphrase their contributions thus:

The real question with any engine that maintains the conceit the players are the ghostly protagonists is: how does that narrative resemble a ghost story?

The best ghost stories don’t bring us closer to the nature of a ghost, as adversary or as agent. They are about the feeling of being haunted. So Wraith defines being a ghost as being haunted all the time. If you want to centre the ghost, you end up, I suspect, with the vengeful or protective dead, because that’s the actionable ghost, right? But that’s worlds away from Haunting of Hill House stuff.

I don’t think that’s a bad thing as long as it’s explicit.

V:tM isn’t Dracula, for all that it namechecks him straight from the get-go. Bloodspell isn’t quite La Morte Amoureuse, even though Clarimonde crops up in the Extended Edition, because Clarimonde is a rescued antagonist, a showing of how the script’s been flipped.

Likewise, Untitled Ghost Game isn’t gonna be The Woman In Black because that story isn’t about her, it’s about Mister Kipps discovering her. The literary touchstone, if there is one, is Fell — a piece of domestic haunting by Jenn Ashcroft which pushes the boundaries of ghost story into ghost POV.

I find myself thinking less and less in terms of literature when I’m working on WoD or post-WoD gameplay. The classics position the supernatural agent as antagonist, which is only playable if you’re really into RPGs as douchebag simulator and find victimising the living to be enjoyable play in its own right. Modern script-flippings generally focus on the state of being a supernatural entity — the horrid little shits in Lost Souls or the superpowered mopes of The Vampire Chronicles are deuteragonists at least, but they don’t do anything other than be what they are (because the stories are still about their impact on humanity). This is why Vampire always has to reach outside the vampire genre for its momentum — why it’s always vampire-as-gangster, vampire-as-conspiracy, vampire-as-medieval-warlord.

Wraith positions its protagonists as victims of ghostly oppression, which is fair enough, but reads as inert to me, it doesn’t achieve that momentum I was on about. This is why blowing up the underworld is a good decision, because movement away from something that’ll kill you. OR: I suppose the “goal” of Wraith is to transcend, to free your character from all this awful world-built bollocks by resolving their own living-person baggage, and all the Guilds and Legions and lore are sheer inertia, obstacles in the path of you doing that — but nerds being nerds, the world building becomes the point of the exercise, and character-focused “adventure design” takes a back seat.

Aside: Naked Metal, a very good blog which I wish I’d stumbled upon years ago, has a very good post about metaplots and why they need to die in a fire. Among the many true words spoken here is a quote from Dean Shomshak, former White Wolf staffer who seems to Get It.

Gods, I wanted to smack some of my fellow writers upside the head on some Vampire projects when they burbled on about the cool things they’d have Hardestadt do, or whoever. What were the PCs supposed to do?

Wraith has yet to present a clear, defined, satisfactory answer to that question. V5 does, but it’s buried midway through the book. Seriously, “what do we do in this game” is a sidebar about forty pages in. I’d go and look but I don’t want to stare that layout in the face when I’ve only had my breakfast half an hour ago. I need to do better than that. Front and centre, “this is what your characters are trying to achieve.”

Ghosts want to escape a fate worse than death, by punishing/protecting the living.

This is something I thought about when I did the Drives mechanic for Bloodspell. Wolfspell has a similar problem in that it presents a mechanic for being wolves, but there’s no thrust to it behind “solve an implied problem that somehow requires you to be a wolf, what am I, your dad?” and I wanted to get more oomph, more momentum in there. (I talk about “flow” and “momentum” a lot when I’m talking about rules, don’t I? That’ll need a post in its own right.)

Anyway, “What does your character want to do with forever?” was the big question in Bloodspell, the source of momentum in the play, and it’s relevant here too. I interpret post-Wraith, Untitled Ghost Game as it remains for now, through the “fate worse than death” angle, that staying out of not-Stygia and not-Oblivion is the goal.

This means I can’t just port Drives over. Drives are more character focused and about personal agenda, whereas the target genres here — psychological and survival horror — set the agenda and the player choice is located in tools and strategies to survive.

I may be able to hang the whole thing on pools to Punish and Protect, in classic “You have two stats” indie-game style. That works best as a pure game, but I’m not sure it has the right “stat your OC!” hook that actually makes people play games. People like to make Their Dude and that needs a little more detail than the bare minimum to hit the game’s concept. The answer may lie in types of ghostly activity – poltergeist, siren, possession. Which gives a WoD-style pool: add your “Objective” dice to your “Activity” dice. That’s your choosing tools and strategies of which you like the concept.

I definitely want the word “Haunt” on players’ lips a lot and I don’t think attaching it to “what you need to show on the dice” is the right way to go (people will just say “difficulty” or “target”). I also don’t want fussing about adding and subtracting from rolls or targets. One thing I’m very clear on is that players should be able to look at their dice and know how well they’ve done: none of that convoluted “I rolled a sixteen, plus this, minus that, did I remember all my modifiers, is that good enough mister dungeon master u_w_u?” toss on my watch.

So I think I need to introduce Haunt Dice too. You get to roll more dice if you’re somewhere you’re haunting. Not sure about swapping dice yet (I still think that’s cumbersome, and gets in the way of players learning their dice pools – because they have to factor in something different every time, there’s less room for familiarity to develop). If everything’s on a 1-5 scale that should keep the probability curve fairly sensible.

Time to sit on this for a while and see what boils away.

[Game Dev] On Wraith: the Oblivion and an Untitled Ghost Game

These thoughts are brought to you by a spirited attempt to play Wraith: the Oblivion last year. Not even run it – one of the Chrises who’s married into my old V:tM squad was kind enough to step up and give it the old college try, so I got to stat up the ghost of Bill Hall and Private Walker and sit on the other side of the screen for a change. Started well enough, but the sheer unrelenting misery of Stygia was not what any of us needed in times of pandemic and isolation, and we rapidly degenerated into what the other Chris insists on (accurately) calling Carry On Haunting. But it did leave me thinking: what would it take to make a Wraith game work for me?

A vampire is a dead person walking around being a predator, it eats blood so it can stay alive, that matters because eating blood is tricky in a society that frowns on that sort of behaviour and you have to do morally questionable things to stay alive, and that hooks you into the core “a beast I am lest a Beast I become” aspect. And almost every time you roll dice, the game reminds you of that by forcing in the Hunger dice and altering the consequences of the roll.

Wraith, as it currently exists, is an overdeveloped mess of guilds and legions and powers and conflicts and PvP gameplay without a core sense of what a session looks like, what the little characters we play do and why they do it and how the rules make sure it’s done. I’m sure everything it needs is in there but no edition of Wraith has successfully put that core loop explicitly front and centre; it always feels like a Vampire hack that hasn’t quite been thought through and pulled tight.

To me, a person who tried to learn Wraith by reading the books, there’s a huge amount of ink spilled on top down stuff – but apart from “join guild, get powers” it’s not immediately clear how this impacts at session level. Wraith seems more interested in its worldbuilding than in being played.

They got “what is a ghost” but didn’t follow it through. There isn’t the same almost… autonomic start-up process for a session there. Vampire, when in doubt, starts with feeding, because someone will be hungry, and feeding has consequences or is a platform for exposition, and “eat blood” is the central fact of vampire existence. I don’t see anything that concrete in Wraith – any such confident answer to “what shall we do tonight, Brain?” Something about “resist the Shadow” doesn’t click – it’s too passive, I think, or perhaps that “fuck with each other” gameplay loop doesn’t make for a functional table when the default for RPGs is that we play together. Maybe Spectres should actively wander through sessions more, make Oblivion a tactile threat that always needs to be worked around? Maybe Wraith should be run as, I don’t know, a storytelling game of survival and psychological horror?

I really like the guilds and if I had my druthers I’d lean more heavily on them as splats. What KIND of ghost you learn to be really matters and says a lot about your character and your goals in play, and it could be a choice. I feel the moral centre of Wraith is “you can choose to save yourself”, the work of resolving fetters and getting out of this awful existence should be the arc, and the act of choosing what kind of ghost you want to be feels like a good start to that.

I could see how a V5 hack might work, with dice swapping pools, but what to hook them off? Better pools near your Fetters, maybe – hammer home that sense of being tethered to a place, an object, a moment in time… Haunt Dice.

So yeah, I’m really hoping for Wraith 5 or whatever it gets called. But it has to be at least as iconoclastic as V5 is in terms of mechanics, and a lot more direct about how it plays and what makes it worth playing. In the meantime, I’m half tempted to knock up something that explores this same turf, because I very much doubt I’m going to get the Wraith I want. I won’t be able to use the cosmology, but the idea of an unstable and hostile underworld between Haunts might give me enough peril to hang the whole concept on. I don’t have a good name for this yet, so Untitled Ghost Game it is.

[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.