Archive for the ‘Role-Playing Games’ Category
I have been watching the shit out of Fringe, since I found out it was on Amazon Video and seasons 1 – 4 are free for Prime members. (I haven’t seen season 5 of Fringe yet; I’ll reward myself after we’ve finished moving in and I’ve sent the next Technocracy project to editing with that.)
With every season, the setting changes. Man, does it change. I love it, but it means my occasional Twitter comments about stating up the characters from a Technocratic lens is…problematic.
So, let’s pick a point. Say, early second season-ish.
First, the framework: everything you see that cannot be explained as some form of Inspired Science. People who would say “Walter’s an Etherite!” misunderstand that Inspired Science appears pretty much like magic to the ignorant Masses. That Clarke quote about sufficiently advanced technology and all that…
Second, the conflict: that means that all sides on the Fringe conflict are effectively Technocratic, just with different goals and ideals. This is not a Technocracy vs Traditions fight, but a Technocracy A vs Technocracy B fight.
Third, the scale: these organizations aren’t global conspiracies with millions of people; they’re pretty much small Amalgams waging their own agenda and being their own leadership. And because of that, we’re not going to play hard on the Methodologies part of the Conventions — it’s enough to just cast them in one, I think, since this is a smaller scale (though, they can still be useful lens).
Fourth, the scale (part deux): some of the characters are clearly street-level, and a few get cosmic (and pay dearly for that). Keep that in mind.
Given those three things as the framework for Fringe, here’s a stab at early season 2 characters:
Walter Bishop is clearly, to me, a Progenitor. But not just any Progenitor — he’s a fucking Marauder with at least Life 4 and Dimensional Science 3 (and pretty much every other Sphere, even a little taste of Time). If you want to get really weird, because of the nature of his Quiet, he has both Dimensional Science and Spirit, as separate Spheres.
That he could also fit in Iteration X & Void Engineers is telling, but I see him first as foremost as a Progenitor — particularly a Pharmacoepoist — and just that sort of Enlightened mind who absorbed what others were doing (notably William Bell) by working with them.
(Someone on Twitter suggested that the entire Fringe Division is just a manifestation of his Quiet. Man, that’s a fucked and tasty idea! But for this, we should assume that’s not true if only because I want to geek on the other characters.)
Peter Bishop…where to begin. Well, let’s cast him as a Mind/Entropy Syndicate agent. If he’s a Unionist, there isn’t another place to put him, but casting him as one of the seedier, lower-level Syndicate peeps is a decent fit. (Also, he doesn’t realize that he has a high Time sphere. But, you know, spoilers.) He also has a low level, constant emanation of Dimensional Science Paradox, since he isn’t suppose to be here.
(Someone also suggested that he might be a Dimensional Science or Time Paradox spirit, who possibly doesn’t know he is — also a fucked and tasty idea!)
Olivia Dunham is our tragic NWO spook who was forcefully Enlightened as a child and then made to forget it with a powerful Mind effect. She’s the street-level Operative who is whip-smart.
Of course, to get to the interesting bits, I have to skip forward to later in the series. That she has a decent Forces rating is an accidental side-effect of her being imbued with Dimensional Science and Correspondence. Also, her seeming immunity to Paradox is very intriguing.
Nina Sharpe is also clearly Syndicate, a strange blend of Disbursements and Financiers. Her arm is proof that William Bell is Iteration X, and that’s she’s Enlightened enough to not reject it. She also has a higher Mind rating than you think…
William Bell is totally a Void Engineer, with an Iteration X background. “Physics is a bitch.” I’m going to give Bell less Life than Walter, if only because they worked on Cortexiphan together and Walter seemed the Life type. Bell totally has a high Dimensional Science rating, and has some weird Forces stuff. (And going beyond that would be moving away from season 2.)
David Robert Jones is the closest thing the setting has to a Technocratic Nephandus. And given that he works to twist Olivia’s mind and emotional state, and that he had dark plans for the world, it makes sense. I wouldn’t necessarily peg him in a given Convention, though — it doesn’t play by their rules.
Astrid is also NWO, a junior agent, but she’s more badass than people think, with her constant use of Data and Entropy rotes that lead the others to discover things.
The Observers are…well, for the moment, they’re almost like Time spirits with a mysterious agenda.
So, given that time frame, what am I missing? What are you thoughts? No going beyond season 2 though, please!
See Convention Book: N.W.O. book for more on Data
The skill of game design is not the same as the skill of game writing. However, these two skills get compressed together for two reasons:
- Writing is how we communicate design to people we aren’t talking with in the moment
- Companies pay for the end result of a design: written execution. (And often by the word)
However, we need to recognize that these are different skills in order to understand the strengths and weaknesses of you and the people you work with. So let’s unpack them:
- Crafting mechanical beats
- Creating functional game currencies and economies
- Watching player reactions and tuning the in-play language
- Creating various options that are compelling to choose and to use
- Making series of non-optimal choices, tension points, and other elements that get people engaged in the game
- Noting down best practices, advice, etc. gained from playing and discussing the game
…and so on.
- Clearly explaining rules, options, advice, best practices, etc.
- Conveying a sense of confidence to the reader
- Organizing thoughts in ways the reader needs for firm understanding
- Injecting strong, engaging language to inspire the reader to want the game’s promised experience
…and so on.
(This is also the difference between development and editing in RPGland: developing is effectively editing and verifying design and high-level book organization; editing is lower-level book organization, line editing, etc.)
This is important not just because some people have strengths in one and deficient in the other, but also because very few people are good at both simultaneously. That’s why design-writing should be separate from making revisions prior to submitting a draft to the developer or editor. To do this is to engage the two different skills at different phases, and that lends strength to the end result.
Time is the currency of opportunity. This is true in life and in games, and lately I’ve had some small thoughts regarding this.
In life, the act of saying yes to something that takes your time is also the act of saying no to other opportunities. Of course, new freelancers will trip on this and say yes to things they can’t truly commit to, but overall time is your currency for opportunity. We see this in small-scale ways (choosing between dinner with friends in town or going to your regular game night), in medium-scale ways (picking between two job offers or two major contracts when you only have one), and in large-scale ways (deciding whether or not to be a parent).
In games and stories, this philosophy is useful for creating drama and consequence. The classic is the superhero “save the person you care about or that busload of orphan nuns.” In games, we highlight this tension by creating mechanics that promise the chance of getting both results, though the likelihood that you’ll get only one (and the risk of getting neither.) Great mechanics for this can be found in the various *World games (like Dungeon World, Apocalypse World, etc.) and its predecessor Otherkind Dice.
Fundamentally, this is where skill rolls for observational/informational tasks can become interesting: does this task cost you an opportunity? And that is where tension lies. If there is no cost, then such things are free. And basic human psychology tells us something key: we don’t really value things that are free. So let’s make such things cost.
But this isn’t just an “indie” thing. Most games have this built it as a function of, well, linear time and turn-taking. When you do an action of some sort of Pathfinder, you’re doing that action to the exclusion of similar actions. Which spell are you going to cast right now: the one that buffs your friends or whacks a foe? Do you do the attack that is riskier but with a better payoff, or the attack more likely to hit but not as strong an effect?
So, when we’re designing systems, let’s not just look at binary success/failure, but at relative cost. Let us engage emotionally with the moment because we’re risking the most basic currency we all have: time.
 I think at this point, Dungeon World has more mindshare than Apocalypse World does, at least outside of indieland. Which is, at least to me, an interesting and important observation about our communities.
During the spring Nerdly Beach Party in 2009, we committed a ritual known as “Ryan Macklin’s Drunken Midnight Game” — something that happens on the Saturday night of the party which may or may not involve being drunk or playing a game. But it always involves being around a fire, because it’s damned cold along the Central Californian coast that time of night.
That year, after a bunch of us were talking about how we love Unknown Armies, I started a freeform game, one whose rules I made up on the spot. No one knew what they were in for (which made it feel appropriately Unknown Armies), including me. This ended up being a diceless, GM-less scene-framing game with a tight focus. I decided it was interesting enough to me to warrant writing it up as a two-page game. The two-page constraint make me tight about some stuff.
Yesterday, I suddenly remembered having made it. I present to you Murderous Character Ballad.
Since this was back in 2009, I was pretty useless at layout. This was done up with Word. If I feel a bug, I might redo it, but otherwise it is what it is: a window in the past. I don’t know if it would actually work as a game today, as something written up — perhaps it can only exist as an experience that no one truly understands. Maybe then the game is something you don’t share with others textually, but only experientially? This is getting meta. Read it because swearing in rules is funny, or something.
Of course, as I keep fucking around with an Unknown Armies & Hellblazer-inspired Fiasco playset, I’m wondering if the Murder Question should be part of that process.
 A crucial component to a midnight campfire game, I’ve learned the hard way.
I’ve been toying with Psychopaths & Phylacteries off and on over the last few months. I’ve been happy with some of the character creation ideas, but not really with the overall engine.
I realized that because for the social footprint I want P&P to slot into, I like Dungeon World’s engine. So, for the moment, I’m fucking with P&P as a Dungeon World hack. And that’s lead me to seriously ponder what’s core to a *Word game, and what’s just common trappings people dig. Here’s the thing: there are people who have been hacking this system for longer than I have, so maybe I’m missing something.
Player moves: moves are key, definitely, but in a loose way. Player moves can be broken down into “[fictional trigger, player-narrated] [mechanical execution] [hard choices, sometimes] [fictional result, player-narrated or GM-narrated]” (I already wrote about this structure long ago.) This is the Otherkind dice mechanic, well refined.
GM moves: these are necessary to the structure of the current games, but I wonder how well it’ll map to a light-hearted game. And this is where I wonder if I like DW, but it’s not necessarily the right fit.
Some smart people have broken down GM moves, including John Harper and Jonathan Walton (who apparently wrote a bit I can’t quickly find about how the first step into a *W hack is to look at what the GM’s moves should model).
The GM not rolling dice: I don’t see this as inherent to the system, though it’s important that the GM never roll for moves. But then, Adam & Sage saw that too, as they shifted monster damage to die rolls.
Playbooks: Here’s where I may diverge from common thought — playbacks aren’t core to the experience. They’re a (if done well) decently presented package of character creation choices, current and future abilities, system-rewarded motivations, and shit like hit points. That they’re all separate, like the playbooks in AW or the classes in DW, is actually a setting component, not a system one.
Advancement: Advancement may not be inherently core, but it’s important to the P&P concept. And if you remove that, you end up with static characters, so perhaps the fundamental idea is core, just its execution may widely vary.
No rerolling: I’m not sure if this is core. It certainly reinforces flavors that Apocalypse World wants to push, and Dungeon World uses it to strong effect, but I wouldn’t say that this is a required element of the engine. That said, if you put any ability to reroll in, you seriously need to examine all of your math and reward choices.
I feel like maybe I’m missing something else. What do you think?