Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

Mapping with index cards, and Jedi Blackbird

John Aegard has produced some really cool stuff, including two resources that jumped out at me: Jedi Blackbird, a Star Wars hack of Lady Blackbird, and a collection of tips for running a Dungeon World one-shot.

Jedi Blackbird

Jedi Blackbird is more structured than its inspiration, but only a little. That’s a good thing: Lady Blackbird is brilliant, but I want a hack of it to do something more than just reskin the characters and call it a day. Jedi Blackbird does more.

It’s still every bit as delightfully brief: two pages of sparse background, one page of GMing notes, and the characters. Boom.

The added structure comes from the premise:

NOW, word has arrived from the distant Outer Rim that the renegade padawan ORDO VALLUS has established a holdfast on the junk world of KONDU. The Jedi Council has hastily dispatched three Jedi aboard the starship BLACKBIRD. Their mission: to bring Vallus back to the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, where he will stand trial.

Vallus has an agenda; it’s covered in the GMing notes. The PCs are on a mission, and on a specific planet, which fits well for Star Wars. But beyond that, things are wide open — there’s no plot to follow, no rails to ride. (JB tweaks more things about LB than just the setting and structure, too; those are also in John’s notes.)

I’ve already printed this out and added it to the folder full of zero-prep games that rides in my gaming bag.[1]

Index card mapping

I dig Dungeon World, and John’s tips for fitting a satisfying, emblematic DW experience into a typical four-hour convention event slot look good to me. But what really grabbed me was his mapping technique, which uses index cards.

Here’s why this sounds amazing:

The map will be a grid of index cards arranged where everyone can see. […] A map made of cards is super flexible and totally lets you earn your Draw Maps While Leaving Blanks merit badge. See, if you want to add a location between two other locations while you’re in the middle of play, you can just insert a card in between those two locations.

This turns the map into a pointcrawl, a variation on a hexcrawl that uses more abstract mapping and travel rules, on the fly.[2] Which is brilliant!

For a longer-term game, pin the cards to a corkboard or stick them to the table (or a portable surface) with poster putty (paid link). Or hell, just take a picture of the map and rebuild it for each session (until it gets large enough to need a more streamlined solution).

This is one of those mapping techniques I can’t believe I’ve never thought of using before. It has so many applications to different types of game, and it’s right up my alley.

[1] I suspect I’ll write a post about that folder before too long. I love zero-prep grab-and-go games!

[2] The pointcrawl series on Hill Cantons is a great look at this style of play.

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

The Pool looks like a simple, versatile gem

Just four pages long, The Pool is a free RPG designed by James V. West. It comes at “short and sweet” from a different place than, say, Risus (which I love), but occupies a similar space.

The Pool features clever character creation, suitable for any setting or genre:

Making a character is simple: just write a 50 word Story. Pretend you’re writing a book and this is the introduction of your main character

Once you’ve got a Story, you extract Traits from it and assign bonuses to them. (This feels a lot like Risus to me.) The core mechanic is brilliant in its simplicity:

Anyone can call for a die roll whenever a conflict is apparent or when someone wants to introduce a new conflict. Just broadly state your intention and roll.

To win a die roll, roll a 1 on any of the dice you cast. Ignore any other results. If you don’t roll a 1, you fail the roll.

Want better odds? Gamble dice from your Pool; they go away after you’ve used them, and don’t automatically refresh until next session.

If you succeed, you can either add a die to your Pool, in which case the GM narrates how you succeeded and you may not get exactly what you want (“Yes, but”), or make a Monologue of Victory. The MOV is where The Pool kicks into high gear for me:

Giving an MOV is like taking control of the game for a few moments. You can describe your character’s actions, the actions of those around him, and the outcome of those actions. You can even focus on less direct elements of the conflict such as what’s happening in the next room or who’s entering the scene.

This is a deeply collaborative, improvisational game, with narrative control passing back and forth through MOVs, and a great deal of control and agency in the hands of the players. I love all of those things.

James also designed a second game based on The Pool, The Questing Beast, about talking animals during the time of King Arthur.

The Pool isn’t new — it came out in 2001 — but it crossed my G+ stream the other day, and that got me thinking about it again. I haven’t played it, but it’s been recommended to me more than once, and it looks like it would be right up my alley.

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
Story games Tabletop RPGs

Action Movie World delivers

I’ve had the pleasure of playing two sessions of Ian WilliamsAction Movie World, and this game fucking delivers on every front.

It’s designed to play like a cheesy action movie made from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s, and it does exactly what it says on the tin. The two movies we’ve played were “Major Heat,” a low-budget cop movie starring Maj. Heat, and “Danger Force 2: More Dangerous,” an even lower-budget Predator-esque “Delta Force vs. aliens who look like Krang” flick. Both were a hoot.

Get to the chopper

AMW is a self-contained Powered by the Apocalypse game — all you need is this one book. At 120 pages, it’s a quick, fun read, but it’s not fluff: This is a solid, thorough, focused, and exceedingly good game.

What drew me to it was this excerpt from the foreword, which someone (I’ve forgotten who, sorry!) posted on G+. It’s one of the best summaries of a game I’ve ever read, and it’s an excellent litmus test. Does this sound fun?

This is a stupid roleplaying game. That’s not to say that there is not an examination of action movies going on within this book. It is to say that this examination probably shouldn’t be foremost in your mind as you settle down for a game. Just be dumb when you’re playing this. Dumb and loud and happy.

If so, and especially if you like movies like Commando, Total Recall, Bloodsport, Universal Soldier, or others in that vein, AMW will likely be right up your apple cart.

See you at the party, Richter

AMW plays out in about two hours, and — no surprise — works great as a one-shot. You play an actor playing a character[1], and choosing your actor is a lot of fun. When the movie title, and the niche within the broader genre into which it fits, start to come together at the table — collaboratively, of course — it all clicks into place, and you’re off and running.

But there’s an ongoing campaign option, too, and it sounds intriguing. You earn XP, but remember: You’re playing an actor. It’s the actor who earns it, not the characters she plays.

Want to play again? Spend that XP, pick a new genre, and play the same actor playing a new character in a new movie. (My group has also talked about doing this without retaining playbooks, so I might play Arnie in two movies, but as the Musclehead once and the Smartass another time, which also sounds fun.)

Don’t disturb my friend, he’s dead tired

The rules suggest actors who are a good match for each playbook, and the book is full of clever touches like this.

In every session, you choose a lead; the lead can’t die, and is the only one who can kill the movie’s Big Bad. Everyone else is expendable.

The Director (MC) gets movie-specific moves, as do the PCs. And every move I’ve seen, from the basic ones to the scripts we’ve used to the playbooks I’ve played, has been spot-on. This game knows exactly what it wants, and bends every word of its rules towards that end.

I could go on — and on — because there’s not a single sour note here, just well-executed cleverness that makes being loud and dumb and happy extremely easy at the table.

Action Movie World fucking rocks on toast.

[1] I assume you can also play an actor playing a dude disguised as another dude.[2]

[2] [Inception horn]

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

mr. gracie used to live here: a solitaire LARP

I’ve never heard of a solitaire LARP before, but that’s exactly what Caitlynn Belle‘s mr. gracie used to live here offers up. What a neat idea!

There’s a twist, too — and it sounds creepy as hell.

Based on the game’s introduction (“don’t read ahead”), and the excellent — spoiler-free — RPGGeek review that led me to it, this is one it’s best to go into blind.

Ingredients

I think just reading the setup will tell most folks whether or not this is going to be their jam:

you will need
– the rest of the pages from this game, printed out
– a pen
– a timer
– a flashlight
– thirty minutes uninterupted time in the dark of night
– an isolated, dark building to explore, preferably one that is unfamiliar
to you, and preferably one with plenty of odd ambient noises

So: a solitaire LARP played at night, by flashlight, in an otherwise empty building. Fuck. Yes.

I haven’t played it yet, and honestly I’m new enough to Seattle that I’m not sure where I’d go to play it — yet. But I’m so in.

This ticks all of my personal boxes for weird, experimental RPGs, and I don’t get too many chances to LARP.

Categories
Old school Story games Tabletop RPGs

M.A.R. Barker sometimes ran Tekumel games with just a d100 roll

Thanks to a G+ share, I found myself checking out a 2010 post on Hill Cantons about one of the ways that M.A.R. Barker ran his Tekumel campaign: M.A.R. Barker on Rules Lite.

The post is primarily a quote, so I won’t repost the whole thing here. Instead, here’s the business end, an excerpt of the excerpt[1]:

As my old friend, Dave Arneson, and I agreed, one simple die roll is all that one needs: failure or success. […] A low score on a D100 roll denotes success; a high score signifies failure. A middling score results in no effect, or an event that is inconclusive.

This quote comes from a Runequest-Con program book, long out of print. (Chris teased a follow-up, which appeared the next day; it’s also quite interesting: Empire of the Petal Throne, the “Gamist” Early Years.)

All you need is love (and percentile dice)

But I just want to zoom in on M.A.R. Barker’s system from the quote above — a system apparently also enjoyed, at least in a broadly similar form, by Dave Arneson. A system lighter than just about anything short of pure let’s-pretend — for crying out loud, it’s lighter than Risus (which I love), and Risus fits on a single sheet of paper.

What’s there is one die roll, and rough metric for success and failure. There’s no implied character differentiation, although another sentence or two could easily bake that in. There are no rules for doing specific things, and no real assumptions baked into the mechanics — other than that success or failure actually matter.

Because there is a die roll, and M.A.R. Barker also notes that “The players don’t really care, as long as the roll is honest.” A simple roll with a meaningful outcome is a super-distilled, narrative approach, and a fascinating one.

For years I’ve held that story games and old-school games have more in common than not. “Make one die roll, and then figure out what happens narratively” could just as easily describe the core mechanic of an indie RPG — and hey, in the mid-1970s, they were all indie RPGs.

I’ve played a small number of games with nearly this little in the way of mechanics, but I can’t recall ever playing one that combined such a simple system with old-school fantasy gaming. It sounds like a fun combination.

[1] Do you want inceptions? Because excerpting an excerpt is how you get inceptions.

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

What’s one unit of play for an RPG?

With RPGs, what counts as one unit of play? Or, basically, what is a single session of a roleplaying game?

Lately I’ve been playing The Beast, a single-player epistolary RPG that takes place over the course of sessions, each lasting 5-15 minutes, and it’s gotten me thinking more closely about units of play and the nature of RPGs in general.

On a concrete level, I log all my plays on RPGGeek, so I have to think frequently about whether some gaming thing I did counts for those purposes. But it’s also fun to think about in the abstract — and my thinking has changed over the years.

Contents: one play

To count as a session of play, my current thinking is that it must:

  1. Be discrete
  2. Not be crazy-short
  3. Involve roleplaying

So if I play a session of Savage Worlds that lasts four hours, and then play again a day later, but only for two hours, that’s two sessions. Even though the first session was twice as long as the second, the unit is the discrete time spent playing, regardless of length — provided it’s not crazy-short (which these sessions are not). And obviously Savage Worlds is a roleplaying game, so there we go.

Wibbly wobbly

Where things get interesting is on the fringes and in the liminal spaces. #1 isn’t too fuzzy, and really has no fringe: When the session ends, so does the unit of play.

Number two is a bit fuzzier, since “crazy-short” is obviously a subjective measure. Number three is fuzzier still, since any given roomful of gamers is reasonably unlikely to agree on a single definition of “roleplaying.” So let’s poke those two a bit.

Number two

Most of my gaming over the past few years has fallen into six broad time slots, session-wise:

  • 9 hours[1], when the weekly game ran really long
  • 6 hours, which was about normal back in Utah
  • 4 hours, like most Gen Con slots
  • 3 hours, my new normal in Seattle
  • 90 minutes, how long my online group plays
  • 5-15 minutes, for short-form games

I’d probably describe anything under 3 hours as a short session in conversation, and anything over 4 hours as a long session, but they’re all fundamentally sessions.

For me, only the last entry — the shortest — pushes up against the boundary of what I’d consider a play. My sessions of The Beast are short, but not the shortest I’ve played: My free RPG The Thief can be played to its conclusion in under 5 minutes. And at some point in my gaming career I’m going to play a game that takes 30 seconds, and I suspect I’d still consider that to be one play.

At any point on the time spectrum, the key is that meaningful gaming happens during the session. If I sat at my desk and made a character, that’s not a session. If we sat down to play D&D and, 10 minutes in, had to call it a night, that’s not a session.

The Beast and The Thief both define the unit of play in the rules — and that’s important, too: If the game designer says “This is a session,” I give them the benefit of the doubt.[2]

Number three

My initial list of criteria for what counts as a play is missing a few things — intentionally so:

  • A game master
  • More than one player
  • Any reference to the format of the game

Despite GM-less solitaire RPGs going back as far as the second-ever fantasy RPG, 1975’s Tunnels & Trolls, I’d be willing to bet there are gamers out there who don’t consider GM-less games, let alone solitaire games, “real” RPGs.

Throw in format, and the waters get even murkier. Is an epistolary game like The Beast an RPG? I think so, absolutely. How about a map game like The Quiet Year, where no one does any in-character roleplaying, or the fractal history RPG Microscope, where in-character play is optional and no one owns any elements of the game (in the sense of owning a PC, for example)? Ditto and ditto — but I’ve seen folks contend that those aren’t RPGs at all.

Like units of play, I place a lot of weight on what the game’s designer says about it. If she calls it an RPG, it’s an RPG.

But it doesn’t rhyme

Back in high school, one of my English teachers wrote this on the board:

Stay off the grass

He then asked us if that was a poem.

Duh, right? Of course not! It’s a lawn sign.

But what if a poet writes it and calls it a poem? Then yeah, it’s a poem. That was the closest we got to a definition of “poem” that the whole class could agree on.

Everything is personal

Alongside the designer’s intent, though, is the personal component: Do I think it’s an RPG? Because at the end of the day, I’m the one playing it and I get to decide what it is — for me. So do you, for you — so does everyone. (I’m not sure one trumps the other, intent or experience; RPGs are weird.)

That’s why, for example, I count collaborative setting creation as play: When we sit down to create a Dresden Files city, we’re making roleplaying choices and collaborating in ways that feel like play to me. There the collaborative element matters — whereas The Beast, defined as a solo RPG, necessarily doesn’t take that into account.

I have zero stake in what anyone else considers a play (or thinks about what I count as play), save as a philosophical question — it’s just an interesting question to think about. But it’s also a question that’s broadened my gaming horizons — and that I do care about.

[1] Somewhere in the past 30 years of gaming, I may have played a session that ran longer than 9 hours. Let’s just take “9 hours” to mean “a really long time.”

[2] Especially when it’s me.

Categories
PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

tremulus after two campaigns

I wrapped up a second campaign of tremulus, a Powered by the Apocalypse RPG of Lovecraftian horror by Sean Preston, this past Tuesday night. I’ve been meaning to write about tremulus for some time, because it’s a great game, it’s underrated, and I initially underrated it myself.

It’s basically “Call of Cthulhu by way of Apocalypse World,” which sounded like chocolate meets peanut butter to me when it popped up on Kickstarter back in 2012. After 19 sessions across two campaigns (one playing, one GMing), I’m ready to talk about it here on Yore.

First impression

My initial impression wasn’t favorable.

One of the things I love about being an avid RPGGeek[1] user is that when I want to know what I thought about a game four years ago, it’s easy to find out. Here’s what I said about it after one session:

I’ve played one session of tremulus, character creation plus an hour or so of play that was purely introductory. I can’t shake the sense that this isn’t a great implementation of Apocalypse World, but I’ll give it a more thorough shakedown as the campaign progresses.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement! My initial rating was a 7 out of 10, which was giving it the benefit of the doubt.

(Quoting myself seems insufferably pretentious, but I want to show how my thinking on tremulus changed over time, and it’s the easiest and most direct way to do that.)

Second impression

I stuck to my guns and gave it more thought as that campaign progressed, and things changed:

Several sessions in, I’m enjoying the game largely despite the system. It’s just not a particularly deft or interesting AW hack. There are some good bits, to be sure, but not as many as I’d like. The playbooks are mostly pretty boring and same-y, and I’d likely be having just as much fun with the same good group and a different system.

I enjoy PbtA games enough to like the core of what I’m getting here despite the fact that it’s surrounded with a fair amount of blah. The non-blah, for me, remains the Ebon Eaves playset aspect — that’s quite cool.

When I wrote that, I revised my rating downwards from a 7 to a 6.

It kept gnawing at me

But I couldn’t get that campaign out of my head, and it started to become clear to me that there was more there than I’d thought.

Months later, looking back on one of my favorite campaigns, I see that I’m conflicted about this game. Humdrum rules, but it’s fun to play. Do I wish the rules were more interesting? Yep. But Call of Cthulhu by way of Apocalypse World is pretty awesome.

New rating: 8.

Running tremulus

My online group enjoyed our first campaign, and I was itching to run an extended PbtA game, so we circled back to it with me in the GM’s chair. This showed me a whole different side of the game.

Yeah, there’s more in here that I love — the framework/thread/hazard tech is EXCELLENT. Doesn’t take long to pull together, dovetails beautifully with the playsets, and balances inspiration with prescriptive elements beautifully.

There are a lot more playbooks now, too, including many more with interesting features/rules — which were lacking in the core rules. The “tremulus ecosystem” has expanded into something very cool.

I love the “structured takeoff” provided by a playset + framework + playbooks. Lots of guidance, but no railroading or plotting things out. I see how the rules connect with that now, too, and overall I like the game a lot.

New rating: 9 out of 10. I’ve played 104 different RPGs as of this writing, and I rate 19 of them a 9 (and zero of them a 10).[2]

For me, this is a good example of how hard it is to assess an RPG without playing it. Which, you know, duh — but short of buying every book you ever see, you have to assess games you haven’t played.

My initial assessment of tremulus might have kept me from playing it, and I’d have missed out on a great game.

What I love about tremulus

The main thing I love is how it plays. I don’t do session prep, and when I GM I love sitting down at every session just like I was a player: not knowing what’s going to happen, and not having done any work between sessions. tremulus is fantastic for that.

It also delivers on what it promises: Lovecraftian horror with the trappings you expect from Call of Cthulhu, but all of the player agency, surprises, and not-plotting-things-out-in-advance you expect from a PbtA game.

tremulus also makes the clever choice to leave the amount of Lovecraft in your game up to you. By default, it assumes your group will be creating its own entities, cults, mysteries, and other setting elements in a Lovecraftian vein, rather than using deep ones, Yog-Sothoth, and all the rest. But if you’d prefer to play “straight CoC,” it supports that option as well.

The fourth biggie is the tremulus ecosystem. If you got into the game now, you’d have access to a wealth of playbooks, playsets, and other content that didn’t exist back when I first picked up the core book. The supplemental playbooks in particular are more interesting than the initial ones.

My group has played two playsets: Ebon Eaves, the peculiar town featured in the core book, and Frozen Wasteland, which is in the vein of At the Mountains of Madness (paid link). Both are excellent, and playsets are a huge part of what I love about tremulus.

Before you start in-character play, the players choose three options from the “What you think to be real” list and three from the “What weirdness you’ve heard” list about Ebon Eaves (or about whatever playset you’re using). Here’s the second list:

Those six choices (three from each list) produce two letter codes, like “ACG” or “BDE,” and those codes all have brief write-ups in the book. Every combination is unique, and quite different — two groups playing a tremulus game set in Ebon Eaves won’t play the same game unless they choose the exact same codes.

As a player, this approach produced the seeds of a town with several mysteries that were all spooky and creepy and interesting to poke at. As a GM, it gave me more than enough to chew on when setting up the game — which ties into another thing I love about tremulus.

To create the default setup (e.g., Ebon Eaves, an antarctic expedition), you prep only the questions that pop out at you — the starting point for the mysteries and weirdness, but no further. For example, in our Frozen Wastes game, one question was “Why is Professor Crawford so desperate to rediscover Hyperborea?” I didn’t know the answer until, through actual play, my players’ choices combined with my improvisation produced one.

All of that combines to facilitate Lovecraftian horror so well that as much as I love Call of Cthulhu, I’m pretty sure I’d reach for tremulus first.

Ia! Ia! tremulus fhtagn!

tremulus is a superb game.

It’s underrated, and it doesn’t get the attention I think it deserves. If “Call of Cthulhu + Apocalypse World” sounds appealing, I suspect you’ll like it.

[1] AKA the most useful RPG tool you’re not using.

[2] It’s also one of an even smaller number of games of which I own multiple copies. It’s got enough moving parts that I found it helpful to have two books on hand when running it.

Categories
Old school Story games Tabletop RPGs

The Lulu coupon code that keeps on giving

Lulu has all sorts of great RPG stuff, and I quite like shopping there. I never shop without first Googling whether or not they’re running a coupon, and you can almost always count on at least 15% off. Also nifty: Lulu coupons always come out of their end, not the publisher’s end.

Typically, they run a handful of deep discounts a year, usually Black Friday, Christmas, and at least one more. But since December 2015, one of the all-time best coupons they’ve ever offered has just . . . kept on working.

Make with the coupon already

So what is it, and what does it get you?

Free shipping completely eliminates Lulu’s Law from the equation, and 25% off is a fantastic discount. And unlike some of their past coupons, this one works over and over.[1]

What should I buy?

If you need recommendations, here are 80+ RPG products on Lulu that I like, mostly OSR and story games.

When does it expire?

Will it stop working tomorrow? Maybe! But probably not. In a month? Who knows! Has Lulu forgotten that LULURC is still working? Also maybe! But while it works, make the most of it.

[1] While writing this post, I checked how many times I’d used it. The answer frightened me so much that I peed a little.

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.