Cultural Consultation

So y’all probably heard me talk a little about Misfortune, the code name/working title of my WIP game of the American West. It focuses on actual history and how it diverges from mythic Americana, which is how my nation’s history is generally understood. There are diverse communities of folks finding ways to work together; this is not a game of Cowboys and Indians.

I’m looking for folks who might be able to help look through my work on a variety of cultural fronts, but in particular I need advice on the indigenous/Native American/First Nations perspective. I’ve got years of research in on this material but I make mistakes same as anyone else. I make some assertions about the forces at play during this stretch of history that I want to make sure make sense (even if not comfortably) regardless of the heritage of the characters.

If you feel like you’ve got something to say on this topic, let’s talk privately. PbtA knowledge nice but not necessary. 

Thank you. Feel free to pass this along to folks you think might have something to say.

Star Wars Wednesdays

Second session of my Edge of the Empire but also the Force game is in the books. Still pretty fun. All the issues I had with FFG’s system are still there, although a few more years of small press indoctrination are showing themselves in my players and that’s satisfying.

* I’m really vexed that there’s not, like, an underlying principle to the system that I can rely on. Mostly this is because combat is intense, detailed and exceptions-based. If we just rolled the basic dice all the time it wouldn’t be bad! But there are these weird places where the macro narrative level and the micro combat level overlap in unexpected ways.

Example: in our session, I was trying to figure out what happens when personal combat weapons are used against vehicles. It’s kind of a signature starwarzy thing! What happens when you shoot a speeder? What happens if you light up a tramp freighter with a tripod-mounted heavy repeating blaster? I need to tear the book(s) apart because they haven’t really explained that. There are some rules on how hard/easy it is to hit things that are bigger than you, but I have no idea if the damage maps directly or what. Maybe it does; it doesn’t say otherwise.

But this would be so totally moot if I could credibly fall back to the macro narrative dice. This isn’t strictly an FFG problem; it’s kind of trad-wide.

The other place this crops up as weird (to me; the players don’t really care) is that those little perpendicular effects you can roll, Threat and Advantage, mean very different things when you’re in or out of bullet time. Inside combat, every little up/down is a resource to be cashed out. Because you’re throwing lots of dice and generating lots of them, coming up with a narrative twist on the action would be, as John Stavropoulos​​​​ described, like rolling an Act Under Fire 7-9 every time you roll. So inside combat you get a menu.

So in our session, they rolled one of those super weird combination effects: success with a threat and a Triumph. It was an Astrogation roll, so yeah they get to where they’re going, they arrive in a well hidden blind spot to observe the planet’s formidable automated defenses (the Triumph!)…but their hyperdrive is fried (the threat).

In bullet time, taking someone’s hyperdrive out is a crit! You gotta earn it! But in narrative time, well, it’s just a complication you need to deal with.

I get it. I even like it. But aesthetically it also bugs me, that having to move my head back and forth between resolution scales. Because there are two branching families of system fundamentals.

* My guiding principle that tech is basically frozen at 1981 has borne fruit! I told my players that, and they took to it really well. In fact while they were busy taking control of a droid-run repair ship, I thought one of the guard droids might cash in a couple advantage to make a radio call out to let home base know their ship was jumped. Oh nosiree, droids don’t have comms! If you want to make a ship to ship call, you need to use the ship’s radio! Excellent call, perfect aesthetics. It was a fun moment to have that put back in my lap.

* Most pleasing sign that my small press indoctrination proceeds apace: one player wants to know why it doesn’t matter at all how much light/dark Destiny remains at the end of the session. And realizing that having a big pool of them is sort of mechanically irrelevant, since you can’t use more than one at a time on any given roll. And then also realizing that if we just rolled the one, shit, let’s just both spend our one go every roll every time. Boring non-decision.

The fact there are multiple destiny points available for use isn’t quite as simple as that, but it’s also a pretty shallow economy. Give yourself a boost? Oooh I get a boost too!

* The morality stuff in Force and Destiny is actually pretty neat. It’s a robust economy for illustrating a force user’s climb or fall, and it actually works. Our force-using bandito is gonna fall fast, given all the lying and stealing that comes with the job of being a bandito. He’s also finally using his force powers (you don’t really have enough umph with a starting character, you’re generally better off just buying better skills), and converting dark side force into usable points, which causes both strain and conflict (and it’s conflicts that send you to the dark side).

What doesn’t really work is this whole idea of “triggered morality.” They tried mapping the triggered Obligation stuff from Edge of the Empire but, like Debt from Age of Rebellion, that kind of group-oriented mechanism doesn’t work unless the whole group is in. So my force-using bandito has the paired characteristics of caution and fear. Well, given his line of work, it’s pretty much always getting triggered. And that means doubling the amount by which his Morality stat goes up or down every session. Which is actually totes fine, since we might play this game once more before I set up another crawl (and hand out a few hundred XPs to escalate everyone).

So, it’s going okay. I can feel my excitement for the Star Wars setting waning a bit the further I get from TFA. But I’ve got a movie date with my daughter to see it in a couple weeks, so I’ll get juiced one more time!

The Church of MYZ
Frickin’ Furries Anthropomorphics

This is the next full-length Mutant: Year Zero game they’re doing. It’s about mutated animals. The Kickstarter launches on Thursday.

This might be where they lose me. God I hate furries EDIT: anthropomorphic animals that may or may not be cute. I hates it. But do I really? I like Mouse Guard and The Warren. I like Epyllion an awful lot, and that’s not only playing a critter, it’s basically playing My Little Pony. I have no specific objections to furry-leaning mutations in straight MYZ, like “beast man” and “amphibious” and such.

So I don’t know. I don’t know.

My gut says that yes, of course, I’m totally backing it. It’s a whole new self-enclosed campaign, new rules for running a group of rebels (probably a lot like how you run your Ark, yeah?). Don’t know if there will be another deck of cards or not, but I sure hope so. 

Anyway. Mutant wabbits. So torn.

It will come as no surprise to you, oh wizened masters of the word, that a book is a living thing…

Boardgaming Crossover Thoughts
The Cult of Emergence

I got the COIN game Liberty or Death this week.

Since I’m talking to my non-boardgaming collection, let me give a tiny bit of background. GMT’s COIN series is a really interesting, innovative take on classic wargaming. No hex-and-chit stacks, no stats. Play uses deterministic resolution based on your action choices: when you move this kind of unit into a space, this other kind of unit dies, or the morale of the area shifts favorably, or you shut down a road. Whatever. 

COIN games are, to my mind, the storygames of the war gaming scene. They focus on the narrative arc of the various factions at play — there are always four of them — and they don’t attempt to model the physics of a conflict at all. The goal of the design is to invoke the feeling of the factions: in Fire in the Lake, when you’re playing South Vietnam, you’re fast and vicious and poor, oh god so very poor. Desperate. You make deals you’d rather not have to. If you’re the United States, you don’t want to be in the game at all. You’d think that runs counter to, you know, playing the game, right? But every incentive points at getting the hell out of the game, shutting it down, making it stop. It’s perfect.

Same with Liberty or Death, which frames the American Revolution as an insurgency by the colonists against their British masters (the COunter INsurgents). But there are four factions, right? So the French are there to fuck with the British, and the Indians are there to push back against colonial expansion. Everyone has an agenda, and those agendas sometimes align and sometimes do not. You have to work with your frenemies.

COIN games aren’t stats-and-physics games, but they’re still pretty procedurally complex. So in addition to the rulebook, there’s always a “playbook” as well. This includes a lengthy example of play to show how all the various procedures work, as well as really thoughtful essays from the designer, the developer, the line’s creator, the designer of the game’s solitaire rules, and so on. Tons and tons of opinions about how the game works, but more importantly why it works that way.

I wish more RPGs took this approach.

There’s this thing that happened way-back when small press RPGs started really taking off, and that was to get all stoked about discovering emergent properties of play. I’ve experienced this, and it’s almost magical when it happens: watching Urban Shadows players gleefully racking up Corruption and then throttling way back only when they discover it’s probably too late to stop: cool! Watching conflicts spin out of your control in Dogs in the Vineyard because you wanted to win more than you wanted to not kill. Watching your beliefs evolve through play in Burning Wheel. 

So, yeah. It’s cool…when it happens. But the thing is, it doesn’t always happen. 

There came to be this phenomenon where players and fans worshiped the discovery feelings to such a degree that designers started trying to aim for that as a design goal. Well, that means leaving a lot of talk out of the rulebook: how the game was intended to be played (discover it for yourself!), how best to use the tools you’ve been given (discover it for yourself!), and so on.

For me, the latest example of this design approach is Fall of Magic. There are procedural things left undiscussed that, it turns out, aren’t legal or illegal. I mean there’s precious little “game” there at all anyway, right? So why not do just whatever with this beautiful box of stuff? I’m bugged to discover that rolling up the scroll and covering where you’ve been doesn’t actually mean, or imply, that you can’t go backward on pathways, or that “get the Magus to the Umbra” isn’t actually urgent. The book doesn’t give me enough information to discover this emergent property on its own. There’s no guarantee I’ll discover this (and I didn’t). 

Anyway, back to COIN! 

The COIN Playbook essays go exactly the opposite direction. The designer explains why the factions are designed the way they are — what feelings they’re trying to evoke, what decisions the game will present to you — so you’re fully informed going in. So, yeah, there are some unbridgeable differences between loosey-goosey storygames and (oh lordy) wargames. There are non-negotiable procedures that must be followed in a wargame, even a narrative one like COIN. There are victory conditions. But you know what? Those COIN essays don’t talk about “how to win.” They tell you how best to use the tools you’ve been given. And as a result, you’re far more likely to experience the intended emergent gameplay than if you have to stumble through the tools yourself.

Anyway, it’s a neat approach, I feel far more comfortable getting into the game, and I’d love to see more of this in RPGs (small press or otherwise). I don’t know that I ever see much formal talk like this, other than some of the material in the Adventure Burner for Burning Wheel. There’s a little of this in the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide, but the audience is designers, not players. Other end of the telescope. I can’t think of any others. I guess, traditionally, the “how best to use this” talk has come from the fans and players and shows up in the form of flame wars on community boards.


My big takeaway from last night’s inaugural Edge of the Empire but also the Force game is that character advancement is total dullsville. Literally everyone is already shopping new specializations even though they haven’t even gotten into their chosen specializations. Might be an unrealized expectation of baseline badassery they’re not getting right out of the gate. Dunno, speculating.

Otherwise, nice first session. Unremarkable system-wise. Very starwarzy this time around, and I have the players to thank for that (pick up a sketchy job in a bar, check. Run like hell from terrifying Imperial Force monsters, check). I feel great about cutting computers out of the setting. Felt some grim satisfaction pushing back against “I’m sure in the future they’ll have this gizmo/service/technology” with WELL ACTUALLY it’s a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Dreamation Planning

Burning Wheel event hammered out and ready to rock. “Four” spots available (per Jason Morningstar’s pro tip). Can’t believe it’s just a month away. I’m so stoked.

Come gape in awe at the massive historical research I’ve done that you’ll never actually see. Maybe you’ll feel it! #saracenfeels   #frankishfeels