Mutant: Year Zero
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So, not all is 100% rosy in MYZ land. I’m starting to see a leeetle bit of an issue creeping up regarding how the game handles social conflicts — and a lack of PvP support for that.

Fighting-fighting is no problem and seems to work well: there’s an initiative based on a generally physical stat (Agility, although it’s also abstracted into mental quickness), and when you’re attacked you can elect to Defend, which is just like attacking but it eats up your next activation. That’s fine, even standard.

But social conflicts! Urgh, dunno. You use Manipulate to get what you want, socially, and the terms are pretty explicit: on a success, they’ll do what you want in return for something, and if you do enough doubt damage (which harms Empathy) to break them, they’ll do it without needing anything. 

The problems are thus:

* There is no defense

and

* It still uses combat initiative

So basically the mutant with the highest Agility makes their first argument, and the target can’t do anything about it if the first go wins. 

As a matter of expedience and limited NPC agency, this is a fine solution. But do this between PCs and things can get weird. 

This same aesthetic/issue/whatever crops up with some of the mutations as well, and it’s almost worse because you don’t roll to make mutations succeed: they always succeed. So, a PC with telepathy can implant an idea in someone for a mutation point, and that’s that. There’s a lot of space to figure out what they do with that thought! It’s not mind control. But now what happens with a PC with telepathy does that with another PC? Same space, same room to decide what to do with that, but still. But still. 

So far it’s no big thing but I think it could become a thing.

Tropes and the comfort of the familiar

Playing Firefly this weekend and actually enjoying myself — I’m usually deathly allergic to license-based games — got me thinking about my very, very mixed feelings around the omnipresence of tropes in RPGs.

My feelings are so mixed that I’ve tried to write this post like 10 times and have argued myself out of all 10 positions! So here are some various mixed feelings, devoid of any particular argument for/against any of them:

* Tropes are lazy 
* Tropes are accessible
* Tropes are what’s wrong with gaming these days
* Tropes are what’s moving product these days
* Inverting tropes is a great source of creative ideas
* Inverting tropes is lazy
* Spending all our time faithfully executing the familiar squanders the vast possibilities of RPGs
* There’s no squandering, good grief, they’re just games
* RPGs will always be just games as long as we constrain ourselves to the vocabulary of other media, forever destined to be derivative
* I’m actually okay with the laziness; who the hell has time to create, learn or teach something truly new?
* The trope thing might just be where the $$$ is, but there are plenty of examples of non-trope-focused design and play happening (far-afield small press design, larp, etc.)
* I wonder what design looks like that makes no effort at all to model fiction that’s “like” what you find in other media? (Answer: probably something like The Clay That Woke)
* Like all good things, tropes can be used well and they can also be misused
* What does “misused” even mean when it comes to make-believe, you goofball?

This is what happens when I have an unexpected day at home with a sick, sleeping kid. Stupid brain!

Rarely have I bailed from a thread faster than Cam Banks’ amusing observation about the nerds who want to play a Mad Max game using rules that focus on all the wrong stuff. Ugh!

Although slagging on GURPS/Hero is always welcome ’round these parts.

IGRC
Great Texts

Companion thread to yesterday’s awwwesome (mostly) discussion about impenetrable RPG texts. Same rules as yesterday: let’s talk about the texts, and not whether we like the games or not.

So I have some thoughts on what goes into great RPG text. There are many thoughts like it, but these are mine. And what I’m gonna say is entirely descriptive and not at all intended to be prescriptive.

I think in the small press universe, Jason Morningstar​​​ has cornered the my market on extremely accessible game text. The introductory stuff is fast and makes it very clear up-front what you’re in for. The explanatory stuff is both graphically effective as well as clear and short without being overly terse. Night Witches for me set a really high bar on strong, clear, effective game text.

John Stavropoulos​​​ mentioned in the other thread the intersection of effective text and difficult games. So for me, the game that hits the intersection of maximum complexity and maximum clarity is luke crane​​​’s Burning Empires. Given the extraordinary layers of system at work, the text kicks ass. Strong layout and good form factor help, but this is my best example of deep, deep complexity being explained well, pulling me into the game’s premise, getting me prepared and excited. It’s even pretty good as an at-the-table reference.

A more recent text that I think worked well is Mutant: Year Zero. Yes yes it’s 250 pages (and OMG when did the indie crowd lose their ability to hold a book for more than 15 minutes?) but it makes its promises as early as the back page blurb, gives the players what they need when they need it, piles all the GM-specific stuff in the back. It’s just…very very well executed. The art works, the text is clear (and it’s translated I think), it’s pretty easy to reference but not perfect. But in the space of sorta-kinda mainstream-ish games I think it’s super solid.

Looking at my shelves got me thinking about the stuff that I like in a game text.

* The text makes a clear and attainable promise to me about the game experience. This is why I hate — hate — leading with game fiction (and why The Clay That Woke was very close to a dealbreaker for me): Spend enough years reading game books, and it’s clear that the actual at-the-table experience bears no resemblance to all that wonderful fiction. It just doesn’t. Not ever. 

* The material doesn’t intimidate me. Or, maybe presented more positively, the material is inviting and reassuring. Night Witches and Sagas of the Icelanders has a crapton of exotic stuff you need to get straight, but in both cases the texts have made it really accessible. The bullet lists of options and ideas that Jason uses in Night Witches are so choice; it’s nice to see that bullet lists have snuck their way into everyone’s heads as a great way to get lots of material into your head without feeling like you’re shoving lots of material into your head. But this is part of what’s killing me with Polaris: it’s not inviting, it makes no attempt to atomize down the stuff you need to know. It’s a big wall of lovely material that I know I won’t be able to replicate at the table. 

* Graphic design. Huge. Motobushido is a pretty complex text but it is clearly and beautifully presented — another example of a recent favorite. It’s many orders of magnitude more involved than, say, Curse the Darkness, but Curse has made no attempt at clear graphic presentation. Nor does Clay — heck, Clay goes out of its way to be inaccessible (single continuous column, no section breaks, headers that aren’t even in fucking English for crying out loud). In the case of Clay, the promise is really compelling and the TOC really does work to get you to the material you need to look up, so I’m sticking it out despite the text.

* I think the promise of the experience is much more compelling to me than getting me hyped on setting material. Like…I could feel disaster looming with Rogue Trader weeks out from first (and last) play. The game slathers on the color and the fluff but never, not ever, does it tell you what to expect the play experience to be like. Because the experience is going to be shit if you run RAW, or it’ll be whatever the hardworking GM makes it into from sheer willpower.

* The ability to use the text as a reference later. Huge. Nearly impossible to achieve while also making it a readable linear document and a teaching tool. Makes me think designers need (if they can manage it) to quarantine their reading, teaching and referencing playtesters.

So. Anyway. My $0.02. What are the texts that work really well for you, and why? (Bonus points for texts that work for games you don’t actually like or play.)

IGRC

Not everything I look at gets a close read, if anyone was curious. Recent titles that stopped me cold:

Polaris
Geasa
Forsooth!

Like…I can’t penetrate the text at all. Polaris is especially frustrating because it’s so well regarded and I want to know why! And I get bogged down in the flowery history text right up front and I quietly close the book. Again and again.

What are some titles that defeated you with their mighty meh?

Holy crap, my tolerance for the G+ Tabletop Roleplaying Games community was 5 days, I think. Many orders of magnitude shorter than my stint with rpg.net!

I like to think I’m capable of being inclusive but obviously I’m coming up short. Really short.

IGRC
Motobushido

I think I picked this up on a whim a while ago because Sophie Lagace mentioned it in a post, and I am a huge car-combat/gearhead nut from as far back as watching Damnation Alley. And I have some fondness for a good samurai story; Blossoms are Falling is still maybe the best implementation of Burning Wheel out there.

So this game! This game is bonkers. 

Motobushido proposes that in some very vague postwar future, you will belong to a gang of motorcycle-riding samurai. Why samurai? I don’t know and the game doesn’t offer an answer. On the surface it seems like an entirely stylistic choice, and it is, but it’s also an excellent bit of additional texture/weirdness atop a fully serviceable motorcycle gang RPG. It could have been just a great Sons of Anarchy RPG, but now it’s Sons of Anarchy where you’re constantly dueling one another with swords and making portentous quotes about the nature of fate.

The tl;dr of what’s to follow is this: quite mechanically involved, borrows from great ideas everywhere, relies on strong GMing to keep it moving.

Character and situation setup are great and very modern: you build your gang member out of three “codes,” split-value stats that rank from 0 to 6 (you divide 6 into two parts, one that rejects the code and one that embraces it — kind of Pendragon-ish, and another game that eludes me…Fading Suns maybe?) and that can remove you from the game if it ever drops below 0 or above 6 (straight outta Mouse Guard’s Nature stat). You choose a birth sign that gives you a bonus (and ties into one of your codes). You choose a Bike, which confers some bonuses and carries its own stats. You work out who serves at what rank in the gang: Leader, 2iC, regular member and recruit (these all have Japanese names that escape me at the moment), all of which confer special bonuses and mechanical tricks. You pick a martial style, defined by your weapon of choice (gun, sword, bow, spear, war fan!, etc.), all of which come with bonuses. It’s tricks upon tricks and I’m certain there are crazy-good synergies to be discovered.

The game sets up a relationship map, of sorts, right out of the gate: everyone takes turns talking about sacrifices they’ve made in service to their three Codes. Those little tidbits also become more little mechanical nuggets for use in some economic way down the road. You also write out maxims that describe your attitude toward your Codes. And little story-starters having to do with your hope, hate, love and doom. And and and.

Something I noticed about Motobushido is that literally every word you write down on your sheet has an economic implication. Interesting. Possibly overwhelming, too. Like…sometimes you just need a little room for the fiction to breathe on its own, you know? Your cloak color in Mouse Guard carries backstory and personality implications, for example – no need to apply stats or turn the cloak into a token. 

Oh right speaking of tokens: there’s an economy called Ki. It’s actual in-game chits you spend to do cool stuff with your bike and fighting style, and you replenish by playing out flashbacks and living up to your birth sign. 

Wheels within wheels within wheels. The gearhead in me adores all the mechanizing but the dramaturge is sort of horrified. Moving on!

First session, you do a scene about some crisis from your motorcycle club’s founding. You don’t play your own characters! Instead, you play one of the templates the game comes with. I like the idea of this but I’m having trouble feeling out how it plays. At some point, informed by this prequel scene, you work out the values, by-laws, taboos and other fictional tidbits of your Pack (i.e. your MC…oh god I just realized I have to spell out motorcycle club because the PbtA-heads will not understand). The Pack also comes with three of its own stats and this is one of my favorite recent-ish RPG things. I am loving games like Motobushido and Mutant: Year Zero where the players share this pool of resources, and as the resources change it informs the fiction. A cooperative economy? I don’t know. Needs a pithy name. Anyhoo, in Motobushido it works out that to do things with your Pack, you’re going to burn down your various economies (Morale, Sustenance, Operations). 

Going forward, play gets pushed around via alllll those mechanisms. As your Pack resources get depleted, you’ll be compelled to refill them. As you play out Duels – and because of the bushido bit in the title of the game, every damned thing is a Duel – you’re also eventually drawing Joker cards. As Jokers appear, the GM (sorry, Sensei) starts fucking with the Pack. When all four Jokers are pulled, awful shit rains down. There’s a kind of sense of injustice and resentfulness that sits under the surface of Sons of Anarchy that’s very nicely replicated here. It’s also deeply at odds with my understanding of the more resigned sense of honor (which can be impinged by taking “stains” for being dishonorable) and nihilism that the bushido side of the game brings. I hope that’s interesting and not just a conflict of themes.

Oh so I mentioned drawing cards and Jokers, yeah? Game runs off card draws. The Sensei has a deck, and the players share a deck. Card-counting is encouraged. Hand size is a big part of measuring raw ability in the game, and there are various tricks the players can use to increase hand size, swap cards, save cards and so on. One of the neatest: you can recruit a Faction – an in-fiction element like a strong NPC or organization – and use that Faction to save cards for later conflicts into which you can draw that Faction. Neat. Very card-specific, I think. But man, those Jokers get drawn and that’s basically an “MC now makes a hard move” type signal.

The game gives the Sensei enough little handles that running it looks easy enough: look for something troublesome in the relationship map, or an unresolved bit of history from the prologue or from someone’s sacrifices, or a really low Pack stat and run with it. The author himself says the game largely exists to rationalize the dueling — everything is a duel, every battle of wills as well as for-real battles of weapons – and that’s possibly very on-the-nose true for whole swaths of roleplaying anyway.

There are a few things that occur to me that I’d probably do ahead of actually playing this game:

* Big one is a fresh character sheet that explicitly lays out not just how you spend your various economies, but what feeds into what. The game has an interlocking level of complexity on par with, and maybe in excess of, Burning Wheel, and some sort of cheat sheet I think will be necessary.

* Tent cards for the bikes. Every bike choice is a big deal and your main bit of identity (even your mask type is undifferentiated within the Pack — your Bike and your weapon are the only ways you will stand out), and having a visual tent card (hog on the outside, stats on the inside) I think would be totally boss.

* Pick or create some interesting stretch of rural community, a la Charming from Sons of Anarchy, so you have a bunch of little towns to headquarter or terrorize in. Probably roughly populate it with obvious NPCs, like local sheriffs, rival gangs, etc.

* Read up on what some good traditional medieval Japanese character types there might be. There are passing references to geishas and tavern owners, there’s an option to have a headquartered Pack ruled by a Daimyo so one assumes there are perhaps other Daimyo out there, and so on. 

All the mechanical tidbits and economies are a dream for Gearhead Paul. The story hooks look solid. The actual backstory and rationale for the weird-ass world of Motobushido are nonexistent, and that makes me a little itchy. For whatever reason I always feel uncomfortable asking my players to come along for the ride when there’s so much disbelief to suspend.

Anyway, going onto the PLAY SOON shelf.