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Tales · from · my · Head

Like teenagers in the back seat, a clumsy fumbling in the hopes of ecstasy

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A list of things in the ol' idea bucket lately:

1) The Strain by GdT and Chuck Hogan, and it's horrible, creepy, unsexy (and thus sexy-as-hell) vampires and their shades of SARS, AIDS, and Influenza-inspired spread and the response thereto;
2) Pandemic, the most excellent (and now Origins-award-winning) cooperative boardgame about the out-of-control spread of 4 presumably horrible diseases and the dedicated scientists and specialists beating them back;
3) This damned head-cold I've had that has basically cleared up except for the lingering cough and related gobs of delightful phlegm;
4) The report of the second H1N1-related death in Alberta.

So! Here's a design doc for Centre for Disease Control: The RPG!

What is this game about?
-Playing the research scientists, doctors, and field agents who are set to task developing a cure for a rapidly mutating and deadly infection -- or into maintaining quarantine if no cure is to be found; think Outbreak.

How does it do that?
-Mechanics required: research, viral spread and mutation, quarantine, administration of the cure, media/government/etc. meddling (a good outbreak story -- like most disaster stories -- always has someone who wants to keep it a secret to prevent panic/buoy a political career).

What behaviours does it reward?
-This one is tricky. The game mechanics will probably revolve on a series of challenge->response scenes (eg: Challenge: The regional government won't allow quarantine because it's tourist season and they will lose millions; response: the players must try to outwit the regional government by appealing to the national government, the media, or by enforcing quarantine in some other way). Some sort of mechanism will need to be in place to help generate these challenges, and give the players the resources to combat them. With Great Powerstyle story arc? Geiger Counter-style challenge resource?

So, chew away at it! Let's see what we can brainstorm.
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So, a while back I started running the most recent edition of Pendragon, trying to crunch through the gigantic campaign. I have a group of people who dig on Arthurian legend, so it seemed like a good fit.

We ran into a few problems, however:

1) So many skills! And a lot of them never get used;
2) Not everyone digs intense property/estates/family management, but it's probably really beneficial to know who your character is related to and how well-off your estates are. Maybe it isn't that important, but it certainly seem that way;
3) Greatly not impressed by the mass combat system.

So, I'm thinking of trying to hack in into something a little simpler, while maintaining the parts we did like, namely the Character Traits and Passions.

So, here's my basic idea:
1) Get rid over everything except the Traits and Passions, and just make players roll those when appropriate, instead of using them to modify skills. That means that the scene will be about "Justice" or "Piety" or whatever, rather than those things just influencing "Sword";
2) Get the players who really dig the family-tree plotting to do up the whole works for everyone, letting the less-interested players off the hook;
3) Reduce the complex wealth/property management system to something easier, maybe the outcome of a single die; the characters' estates will be described based on their Traits (so a Pious one might have a cathedral, a Worldly one a renowned inn).

My other idea is to use a rules set more like Houses of the Blooded, but with a little more GM control, to ensure that the big expensive hardback campaign book stays relevant. That's got duels and family trees and estates and the like. Maybe hack in the Traits from Pendragon.

Anyone have any other suggestions?
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One of the things my girlfriend and I spend a lot of time talking about is where we get inspirations for our stories. What little elements of life inspire ideas, and then what mutations those ideas go through before they can be used.

So, last night I was thinking about using visuals to inspire an entire setting. I'm sure most of you have done this: you dream up one really cool image, either a place, a character, or an event, and then you build an entire setting -- and sometimes a narrative or game or both -- to create a place for that image to fit. And sometimes by the time you're done, the image has changed slightly, but hopefully for the better.

Here's what I've been looking at: in a lot of video games lately, characters have cool dangly props -- scarves, capes, long hair -- that move in interesting ways as the character navigates the environment. This is partly to show off the games' physics, but also it adds a sense of motion an movement, even when the character is static. Similarly, the "dungeonpunk" design aesthetic that many modern fantasy RPG artists have embraced involves lots of little hanging bits, be they amulets, scroll tubes, scarves (again) or other animated accessories. Wayne Reynolds and Steve Prescott spring particularly to my mind.

So, I started thinking "wouldn't it be cool if in my setting, everyone had lots of cool flowing layers and carried little gadgets and scroll tubes on their belts? What could a setting have that would cause that?"

What I came up with was a world where some particularly aggressive tree similar to the walking palm has overrun the world. The trees, possibly with malicious intent, are constantly shifting and crawling across the land, making any large-scale cultivation or civilization basically impossible. Instead, you have city-states that are walled off and protected from the trees, and adventurers that move between them. The adventurers all possess copies of a magical map that shows the few safe points in the world; the maps are artifacts of some past time, so they are a limited commodity. Since they need the maps at a moments notice, and must always carry them, they all have cool scroll tubes on their belts.

To make the setting one notch more hostile, I decided that the weather was also incredibly unpredictable, so you have storms and sudden temperature swings throughout. As anyone who does a lot of outdoor activities will tell you, layering is essential to keep dry and adjust to temperature, so all the heroes also wear multiple capes, cloaks, wraps, and the like. As an added benefit, the layers can be used to break the outline of the human form, and thus add to natural camouflage.

Further refinements to the idea were that the trees, the storms, and other elements of the hostile environment are all gods or spirits in an animistic sense, and are actively hostile to humans for any number of reasons. Humans have found safety by using the bodies of dead gods to build their cities on: major hills and rises, and sometimes lakes, are all remnants of other gods that have died. The maps that the heroes carry, I figured, show the relative distance between different dead gods, and the hostile gods don't mess with the dead gods out of either respect or fear. The gods thing also mean that the characters might carry amulets and charms which may be able to drive away hostile forces.

So, I have no game (if it's a game), I have no story (if it's a narrative form), but I have a setting that serves my visual desire of characters who wear layers of dangly bits.

Anyone else have a similar example to share?
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Wilderness of Mirrors, subtitled “A Better Spy-Playing Game”, is a roleplaying game by John Wick (7th Sea, Houses of the Blooded). Since spies are easy to drum up interest for, WoM was the chosen game for our first meeting of the new Story Games Calgary club.

Character creation for WoM is quick and simple. Character have 5 stats, each with a “codename” and a general description, which covers a broad area of espionage-type abilities. The stats are:
Saturn, Team Leader;
Mars, the Hitman;
Mercury, the Faceman;
Vulcan, the Fixer; and
Pluto, the Shade.

The game favours specialized characters over generalists, making it so that the higher ranks of a given stat are cheaper than the lower ones; once you get started on a given tree, it’s easier to climb higher. What that means is that it’s best if there’s some communication between players during character generation, to ensure that someone is specializing in each stat.

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So, prep on Embark! has provided a few interesting logistical challenges for a prep-hater like me.

Making up encounter tables is fairly easy, but then I realized that any given encounter might surprise me with its composition. When I run an adventure out of my head or the book, I generally prepare index cards with the necessary stats (initiative, hit points, attacks) for the PCs to beat them up, in case it comes to that. With encounter tables, I don't know what the PCs might encounter in any given encounter, so that means I have to do up index cards for -every- critter on my tables. So that's been taking some time. I've given a bit of thought to tracking down those printable perforated index cards, and then doing up the monster cards on the computer. It would be a fair bit quicker, and the end result would be more legible.

The other thing I've been doing is mapping and stocking dungeons. Since the "dungeons" of Embark! are actual in-game places -- kobold dens, bandit forts, haunted houses, it's been interesting trying to stock rooms with encounters. Think, for example, about a fancy country house in a pseudo-medieval setting. The lord and lady of the manor could be found anywhere, from the kitchens to the stables to away on business. The men-at-arms are going to be spread about the grounds, training, eating, on watch, hunting with the lord. The servants are the only people who will regularly be seen in the same place every day, but even they won't be in the scullery all night, necessarily.

So, for me, I have, at the very least, to do a double-stock: a day dungeon and a night dungeon, depending on when my PCs decide to poke around. Other things, I just have to leave to "plot magic"; for example, the wererat rogue who recently took over leadership of the biggest group of bandits in the Ravenroost will ALWAYS be found in his secret shrine, no matter when the PCs arrive, since it's dramatically appropriate for them to find him there. If they ask any of the bandits, however, or spy before running in, swords-swinging, then they will know that he leads raids, walks the walls, and has been carving himself a lute. This gives the illusion that he does other things, but still allows the dramatic reveal of a wererat in the midst of an unholy ritual, rather than a cagey bandit carving a gourd.
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OK, a brief hiatus from my (admittedly rather dull) review of the concepts behind experience point systems.

Let's talk about what I'm actually doing these days, game-wise.

So, our group is a bit crippled lately. Two of the guys are in shows (damned actors) and one just moved away, leaving us with a fairly small pool of reliable regulars. So, we have turned to the idea of one-on-one gaming to get our nerd-fix.

I came up with two ideas. The first was a solo game of Vampire: the Requiem in a made-up city of crime and blood called Nova City that was a cross between vampire private eye shows (Angel, Forever Knight), Raymond Chandler novels, and the gorier of Clive Barker's works. I'll detail that in a future post.

The second is called Embark! The Sandpoint Chronicles. At least it is in my head. It's a sandbox-style D&D 4e game, centering around a small coastal town called -- you guessed it -- Sandpoint.
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Level 1
51-56Bandits - 1d4x40xp per PC
01-051 Gnome Arcanist150xp
06-101 Doppelganger Sneak150xp
11-151 Human Guard150xp
16-231 Human Bandit125xp
24-301 Halfling Thief125xp
31-371 Gnome Skulk125xp
38-444 Human Rabble124xp
45-514 Halfling Stouts124xp
52-581 Halfling Slinger100xp
59-653 Human Rabble93xp
66-723 Halfling Stouts93xp
73-792 Human Rabble62xp
80-862 Halfling Stouts62xp
87-931Human Rabble31xp
94-001 Halfling Stout31xp
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1) Level-Based Systems

LB games are those in which after players have completed certain objectives as determined by the game or by the gamemaster (GM), their characters are assigned a specific number of XP, on a rated or ad hoc basis. After a character accumulates a sufficient of points -- as determined by the game -- that character "levels up", allowing access to new, usually more powerful abilities, or improvements to existing abilities.

The LB form is older -- and likely more dominant, given that the biggest game in the hobby, Dungeons & Dragons, is a LB system. LB systems often (thought not always) rely on character classes, another gameplay construct wherein a character will have access to a specific package of abilities, which are parceled out over time. Classes are designed to give each character a specific "role" in the character group, and often will have unique access to certain abilities which are key to that role, or to differentiate from other classes which function in a similar role. (NB: the role-mechanic is debated, but is concretely and explicitly part of the design of the fourth edition of D&D.)keep readingCollapse )
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Sorry for the long delay. I get busy and fail at blogging. Don't we all.

So, experience points. Anybody who has ever played an RPG is probably familiar with this mechanic, since 90% of them use some form of this mechanic. Basically, experience points (XP) are an abstraction meant to represent character growth and development in a variety of simple ways, and to serve as a shorthand for referring to the relative "power levels" of characters in more tactical games.keep readingCollapse )

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So, lately, I've been rattling around ideas regarding the use of flashbacks in games. I like the idea of flashbacks, and having recently seen how they are implemented in 3:16 has made me wonder about other potential uses.

Here's the original thought experiment:

The PCs are aged and experienced adventures, say level 30s with all the glitz and kickin' gear that implies (for convenience sake, I'll use D&D 4E terminology, because I assume most people are at least passingly familiar). They are all on a pilgrimage of some sort together (being as they are epic-level characters, maybe it's literally the road into the afterlife/into the west/into a new universe), and they decide to pass the time by telling stories.

So, then, each player takes a turn setting up a piece of their character's history. They pick a level of play, and set the stage, and then the gamemaster takes over and runs an adventure. The thing is, not everyone else's character was there, so everyone else has to crank out a character at that level (let's say the first story takes place at level 1), unless two characters knew each other back then.

Next session, another PC gets a chance to "tell the story". For convenience's sake, they have to use the next level of play, but, once the stage is set for the flashback, anyone can either make a new character, or introduce one of the characters from the previous session into this one.

So, the starting party (the 30th levels) are A, B, C, and D.

Session 1: A starts telling the others a tale of his first adventure, in the Marsh of Madness. He remembers like it was yesterday. With him were E, F, and G... So the other players stat up E, F, and G, ,the narrating player makes up his own character, A, at level 1, and the Marsh of Madness is played.

Session 2: B says "That was an excellent story. It reminds me of the time I fought the goblin overlord in the Howling Mine. It reminds me of that because I met G right after she left the Marsh of Madness, and helped her recover from that poisoning! So it was me, G, H, and I..." B makes a version of her character at level 2, and someone levels up G. The others make up H and I, two new level 2 characters.

Session 3: C's turn...

And so on.

Eventually, you would see the various tales of the characters and their background cast grow and evolve. You could revisit places, either with the same character or different ones (at level 20, D's party at the time went to the same Marsh of Madness, which was now populated by some kind of potent aberrations, but when they cleared it out, they also founded a village there. By the level 29 adventure, A goes back to wander his old haunts, and finds that there's now a city where he went on his first adventure. Nostalgic tear).

Obviously I've thought about this most in terms of D&D, because the level-based system makes it easy to think of "eras" of play, but there's no reason it wouldn't work with other games just as well (perhaps better). Pendragon springs to mind immediately as one example.
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