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Tabletop RPGs

Never go in against a Sicilian

Over the years, I’ve played a ton of games where the PCs had hit points and didn’t need them. It took me a long time to figure out why that was a problem.

If the PCs in an RPG have hit points — used here to mean “a stat which determines whether a character is alive or dead” — and the actual game being played with that RPG at the table doesn’t include a real chance that PCs can die, it’s the wrong RPG for that game.

I think of that mismatch like this: Is death on the line, or isn’t it? If it’s not, we should play something else; if it is, then cool.

(The words “death on the line” instantly cause this scene from The Princess Bride (paid link) to replay in my head.)

Emulation and mismatches

In my experience, this mismatch happens most often with games intended to emulate a licensed property, since they’re necessarily more closely associated with a different medium for storytelling than other RPGs. But it also comes up with games that the group wants to feel like a TV show, or a movie, or a novel — media where the story is under someone’s control.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard is never going to get killed by a stray disruptor blast from Romulan #3. It just wouldn’t be good TV. So why do the PCs in Star Trek RPGs have hit points?[1]

If those hit points don’t mean anything, that’s a fundamental disconnect between what we say we’re doing at the table — playing a game where the PCs can die — and what we’re actually doing. The illusion of those hit points meaning something is wholly unsatisfying in play.[2]

The PTA question

When I hear “I want the game to feel like [a TV show],” a version of the Risus question[3] immediately pops into my head: “Why aren’t we playing this game with Primetime Adventures?”

PTA is designed, from the group up, to emulate TV shows. In play, it ticks along like a Swiss fucking watch, sublimely in sync with its stated design goals, as it does exactly what it says on the tin. Nothing needs to be ignored (like hit points) for the game to feel like a TV show, but it simultaneously and explicitly embraces the fact that it’s a roleplaying game. It’s brilliant.

In a PTA Star Trek game, no one has hit points. Picard only gets killed by a disruptor bolt if his player wants him to die (likely because it would feel right for the episode and for the show as a whole). The show isn’t about random character deaths, so neither is the RPG. Poof! Mismatch neatly avoided.

The older I get, the less willing I am to play RPGs where portions of the rules have to be ignored — whether overtly or covertly — to get them to work as desired.

[1] I’m using Star Trek as an example, but the same goes for Star Wars, Doctor Who, or [insert many, many things that have been translated into RPG form here].

[2] The knock-on problem is that there’s now a whole swath of the game that we probably don’t really need. What’s the whole combat system for if the PCs can’t die? Why is there a section about what to do when a PC dies?

[3] “Can Risus do this?” If Risus can do it, and do it as well as RPG X, do I really need RPG X?

Categories
Free RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs

Soylent Platinum

On the day the UK voted to leave the EU, which happened to be the day after I read a heartbreaking investigative piece on private prisons, I woke up thinking about corporate greed, economic collapse, the excesses of the rich, Donald Trump, and human awfulness. And I thought, “I should design a game about eating the rich.

A bit later, I thought, “No, I should design a game about the rich eating other people. Kind of like Soylent Green, except there’s no way the rich would eat poor people. So who would they eat?

Soylent Platinum is the result: a free RPG about the rich eating the famous.

Soylent Platinum is designed for 3-6 players, with no GM. Everyone plays an obscenely wealthy person bidding for the privilege of kidnapping, killing, and eating the most famous celebrity in the world — while destroying the global economy for their own benefit.

As social commentary, it’s a lot less subtle than The Thief, my previous free RPG. As a game, it’s short-form, and there’s a bit of one of my favorite roleplaying poems, Stoke-Birmingham 0-0, in its DNA. Like the other games I’ve designed, it started as an idea that wouldn’t let go of my brain until I sat down and turned it into a game.

Alongside Stoke (which features a conversation with rules about tone) and Soylent Green, Soylent Platinum’s inspirations were the films Antiviral and Hostel and the RPGs Dark Conspiracy (paid link) — mainly its proles — and Dog Eat Dog (which weaves discomfort into its mechanics). It took me about three hours to design and another three hours or so to assemble, polish, and proofread.

If you give Soylent Platinum a whirl, I’d love to hear who you ate, how it felt, and what you thought about the game.

Categories
Tabletop RPGs

Setting information is telling me about your character

Jack Shear’s blog, Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque, is always a great read (it’s been one of my RPG blog staples for years), but World-Building: When is Enough Too Much? is an especially good post.

It made me think of a scene in Game of the Year (paid link), where the GM uses the game session as an excuse to inflict his “exquisite storytelling” on the group while riding roughshod over what they actually want to do: play. It was painful to watch,[1] not the least because I’ve been there (I’d bet many — most? — gamers have), and I’ve been that guy.

My setting bible has its own lectern

Here’s Jack’s thesis:

I think I understand why people aren’t interested in page after page of fictional history and paragraph after paragraph of world-building: it’s the DM version of “let me tell you about my character” magnified without a sense or proportion or boundaries.

And, a bit further on, the stinger:

Dear DM: if you would roll your eyes at a five-page character back story that a player wants you to read, you should roll your eyes at your own expectation that the players will read five pages about the history of the Cult of Paradoxis and their war with the fire giants too.

That analogy is perfect. Once in a blue moon, I enjoy hearing at length about someone’s character, but blue moons are vanishingly fucking rare. And these days, reams of setting information turn me off at least as much as great walloping rulebooks thick enough to serve as body armor.

Some types of setting, or kinds of book, or mixes of the two, will require more words than others. But even a beefy, lengthy chapter on the world can be long without being long-winded.

But for fuck’s sake, if Time Corps — one of the settings in the superb GURPS Time Travel (paid link) — can frame an entire, enormously compelling time-travel campaign in just 13 pages, how many pages does the average campaign setting write-up really need?

Concision is king. I wish more gaming books used the absolute minimum number of words necessary to convey setting information.

[1] Not the movie — I enjoyed it. But oh man, that scene.

Categories
Tabletop RPGs

Two handy S. John Ross game evaluation metrics

Game designer S. John Ross recently posted two game design tidbits — more aimed at RPG evaluation than design, but applicable to either — that are just too good not to share.

RRIP is — as I see it — a quick-and-dirty way to assess a game’s crunchiness, and the Videogame Rule is an axiom which takes no prisoners.

RRIP

Here’s S. John’s definition of RRIP[1]:

RRIP stands for Ratings Referenced In Play. The idea is, when I’m staring down the barrel of an all-new game, pondering if I want to learn it, one of the things I want to see is a filled-in character sheet, to get a feel for what it implies.

I do this too, but I’ve never considered formalizing it. For me, it’s more of a sniff test. “Dude, there’s a LOT of shit on this character sheet. I’m out!”

He takes it a step further:

The RRIP is a simple count of the number of values specified on that sheet. So, in most games, that means things like stats, skill-levels and power-levels.

His example connects that count with the “referenced in play” portion of the first quote:

He’s got a gun!” has a RRIP value of zero, but “He’s got a gun with a Range of Short, 6+1 Ammo, a Reload Speed of d8 and a Cover Penetration Power of 9!” would add 4 to the RRIP

That’s a useful metric, and one that I can pretty easily put into practice. Here’s a stab at it.

Two characters enter

I grabbed my current Savage Worlds character, a speleo-herepotlogist in my group’s Day After Ragnarok (paid link) game, and gave his character sheet the RRIP treatment. For context, he’s had 7 advances, which makes him more mechanically complex than a starting character, but he also doesn’t carry a huge amount of gear (since the Crown provides mission-specific gear). Total RRIP score: 46.

For comparison purposes, I grabbed my character from my online group’s first tremulus campaign. For context, he was a psychic medium and I think he earned at least one advance. Total RRIP score: 19.

As a back-of-the-napkin metric, I really like RRIP. Both games shook out higher than I’d expected, but the gulf between their RRIP scores says a lot about the difference between Savage Worlds and tremulus.

The Videogame Rule

S. John’s Videogame Rule is short and pithy:

Any challenge or obstacle that could be GMed by a machine isn’t good enough for tabletop.

Whoa. That’s like Czege Principle-brutal! But I find myself nodding, because when I want to play a video game, I go play a video game. I play tabletop RPGs for different reasons, and in search of different experiences. I like it.

S. John uses G+ a bit differently than most folks, leaving comments disabled on most of his posts. I can’t tell him there how much I enjoy his posts, especially stuff like this, but I can say it here — thanks, S. John!

[1] And he’s right, it is fun to say!

Categories
D&D Old school Story games Tabletop RPGs

Jason Pitre’s RPG design worksheet

Jason Pitre‘s RPG design worksheet is a nifty tool. It’s available as a free, form-fillable PDF.

Each section gives you a number of points to assign to elements of your design, forcing you to 1) prioritize, 2) acknowledge design goals that are present/absent, and 3) think about game design more broadly.

Here’s Jason on the underlying premise:

The basic principle underlying this little tool is the idea of limited resources. Designers need to account for the amount of complexity associated with their designs, and to prioritize the elements they find most important for the desired play experience.

That’s handy! The flipside is also handy: Jason posted a filled-out example sheet for D&D 4th Edition (paid link), and if I knew nothing about 4e and looked at only the worksheet, I’d be able to tell that it’s not a game that’s likely to interest me.

Jason’s approach reminds me of the Power 19, a set of game design questions, which I associate with The Forge. Those 19 questions are a fantastically useful tool.

The Power 19, in turn, reminded me of Jeff Rients‘ excellent 20 questions for your RPG setting, which is aimed at D&D. I didn’t realize that Necropraxis had done a related version, and that one also looks neat: 20 Quick Questions: Rules.

If you’re designing a game, a setting, or a D&D-alike, these are great places to start.

Categories
Free RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs

Storylike

After posting The Thief, the fourth game I designed, I started thinking about the third, Storylike. I designed Storylike for my daughter, Lark, for New Game Day 2014, and we played it with my wife, Alysia, and our friend Jaben.

I came away thinking it probably needed some work, but a year later I haven’t done that work. So why not put it out there?

I’d probably design it differently now, but in cleaning it up to publish I realized that that’s not a bad thing — Storylike reflects what I wanted out if it in 2014. It’s a snapshot, and a playable one; we had fun playing it. I might tweak it someday, I might not.

My design goals for Storylike were:

  • Create an RPG for my daughter, age four, that plays quickly enough for her attention span but which includes some traditional RPG trappings. There are dice, you roll them to see what happens, you have “hit points” (sort of), and the game has a “strong GM” role. It plays in about 30 minutes.
  • Use as many of the standard polyhedrals as possible, as she’d just bought a set of her own. (Storylike uses d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12).
  • Make it easy to tell which dice are which on the character sheet, since she was still working on her numbers at the time.
  • No math, just compare results, because addition doesn’t come easily to her yet. Every roll is one die vs. one die, high die wins (players win ties).
  • Encourage creative thinking, teamwork, and perseverance. Storylike does this through Talents, which require creativity to apply; dice odds, which incentivize helping; and Problems, which anyone can have and which need to be overcome.
  • Assume the GM can improvise a short game on the spot, and don’t provide advice for doing so. The GM was me, so for good or ill the game assumes I know what I want to do with it.
  • Fit the whole thing on one page. It’s two pages if you count the character sheet.

The odds of success also tell you quite a bit about the game:

These odds incentivize players to help each other (which increases your roll to the next die type) and to try to use their abilities (d4 is the “I don’t have that” default, and gives the worst odds), but the odds are always tilted in the players’ favor thanks to players winning ties. The possibility of failure exists, but it’s not rampant; that felt about right for my kiddo.

My favorite things about Storylike are Problems, Hidden Talents, and the visual character sheet. You can tell that the latter wasn’t designed by an artist, and that I created it in Word. Anyone with a drop of design talent could sexy it up in just a few minutes.

I like Problems because they’re so flexible. They can be injuries, sure, but they can also be conditions like Afraid, Embarrassed, or Dazed. Problems were inspired by stress and consequences in Fate, but they distill that combination of tracks and aspects down to a single mechanic for the sake of simplicity. Hidden Talents are similarly flexible, and they also signal that characters should develop during play.

If you try out Storylike, I’d love hear what you think of it. Enjoy!

Categories
Free RPGs Solo RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs

The Thief

I hadn’t planned to enter the 200 Word RPG Challenge, but then an idea popped into my head, followed closely by another, and one spilled out of me.

The Thief is a solitaire RPG that takes a few minutes to play. You need a handful of coins and possibly something to write on.

The Thief was inspired by the TV series The Wire and the video game Papers, Please; the Prince Valiant RPG, which uses coin-tossing; and current events. It’s not what the title makes it sound like it might be, but it’s not subtle about what it actually is.

I love nanogames, roleplaying poems, whatever you want to call them — short-form games, as a form, are fascinating. To date, my favorite is Stoke-Birmingham 0-0, in which you play the most boring people possible with the most boring lives possible and, over the course of (if memory serves) fifteen minutes, attempt to say absolutely nothing of interest. It’s hilarious.

200 words is a brutal constraint. I struggled to strike a balance between brevity, clarity, and the tone I was after. It required multiple drafts to get it down to 200 words, which was a surprisingly enjoyable process — I dig creativity with constraints. (And I played it conservative and counted the title, byline, and copyright language against my 200.)

The Thief took me about five hours to produce: one hour for the first draft, another to find the woodcut and header font, and three hours to rewrite, redesign, playtest, and proofread. The mechanics went through several iterations, three of which I playtested, until I found the mix I wanted. For about five minutes, the game took an abrupt dogleg and was about time travel, but it didn’t take me long to see that that wasn’t right for it.

I played the final version before submitting it to the challenge, and it did what I wanted it to. If you try it, I hope you get something out of it.

Categories
Free RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs

Signal Lost, my Game Chef 2013 submission

I’ve done a bit of design work in the tabletop RPG industry, and like most gamers I’ve started and abandoned game designs over the years, but today marks only the second time I’ve designed a complete RPG and shared it with others.

After enjoying my experience with RPG Geek’s 24-hour RPG design contest in 2012, during which I designed my first complete RPG, Eaten Away, I was intrigued when I heard about Game Chef 2013. I also hoped I wouldn’t get an idea for a game, because I didn’t think I’d be able to finish anything, but that’s not how ideas work, is it? Of course I got an idea I couldn’t ignore.

Signal Lost is a story game about exploring the Distant Star, a deep-space survey vessel that has gone dark, and facing an alien terror. Here’s a direct download link: Signal Lost RTF file.

Here’s the cover:

Categories
Free RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs

Eaten Away, a 24-hour RPG

I created my first complete RPG, Eaten Away, for the 2012 RPG Geek 24-Hour RPG Contest. It’s a pickup game of zombie horror, no prep required.

I designed Eaten Away on October 15, 2012. After waking up at 4:00 a.m. with a splitting headache, I got the idea for what became the Attrition System at 7:00 a.m. while I was drinking my morning coffee. My first thought was, “Hey, this is pretty neat.” My second thought was, “Shit, my 24 hours just started . . .”

I fleshed it out, decided it was perfect for a zombie horror game — which would also save me some time by sidestepping the need for setting material — and did most of the conceptualization in the car that morning. From idea to playable game, Eaten Away took me about 13 hours to create.

Its inspirations include the countdown clock in John Wick’s Shotgun Diaries, the core mechanic in James V. West’s free RPG The Pool, the toolkit approach to setting creation in Eden Studios’ All Flesh Must Be Eaten, and the construction of free-form dice pools in Margaret Weis Productions’ Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, as well as the safe house concept and narrative arc in the video game Left 4 Dead. The setting and theme were inspired by a range of zombie movies and fiction, but especially by The Walking Dead — both the comic and the TV show, in slightly different ways.

If that sounds appealing, you can download it as a free PDF.