Posts Tagged ‘language in games’
As part of May of the Dead blog carnival put on by the Going Last Gaming Podcast, I’m going to wax about some horror thoughts. Long-time readers know that I loves me some horror gaming and have a lot of thoughts on it. Today, I want to dive into some thoughts on a hypothetical game system: what separates lowly monsters from truly horrible beings.
What notion I’ve come to is: the scariest of monsters are those that don’t miss.
Part of horror comes from a discrepancy between the protagonists’ competency and the Threat’s. Whether that Threat is Dracula, Azathoth, a Terminator, or other sight that causes nightmares in those whom encounter it, the core is that the Threat will win in a stand-up fight.
Oh, and yes, I so want to run a horror game that is about the first Terminator movie.
But many of our games don’t reflect that, at least not strictly speaking. Games often have the Threat roll to see if it hits, and there’s a good chance that it won’t. It’s reflected in our language: “the vampire attacks!”
Let’s fold, spindle and mutilate that. This means trying some experimental stuff with our games, namely (as the title says): Don’t Roll for the Horror. Start it off not with something as wishy-washy as “attacking,” but something more concrete:
The vampire jumps on you and rips your neck open with its fangs!
Now, the reason we tend to say “attack” is because we’re inviting the potential victim to respond, in no small part because the game system gives them that privilege. But by jumping right to what the Threat seeks to do with no softening, we’re doing two things:
- We’re changing the language used to respond. Horror as a theme is partly about rebelling against that which is more powerful than you. So instead of just saying “I defend” in response,” you’re saying “No! You don’t just rip my neck open!”
- We’re saying that if the Threat doesn’t succeed, it is entirely because of the protagonist’s action.
Those are both awesome things to me. So let’s look at how to rock that structure:
- The Threat does something. Something big. It doesn’t ask. It doesn’t try. It just plain does.
- A protagonist responds to push back, drawing the line in the sand and fighting the good fight.
- The protagonist rolls for that action. And just the protagonist. Not an opposed roll setup. You know how strong or dangerous this specific moment is, so set the difficulty accordingly.
Depending on the result (and the numbers involved will vary from game to game), the following happens:
- Fail by bad enough: the Threat fully succeeds. Someone is probably dead.
- Fail by some amount: the Threat doesn’t get what it wants, but you’re hurt in the process.
- Succeed by a small amount: give-and-take. You’re hurt, but so is the Threat.
- Succeed by a large amount: a moment of reversal, when the Threat is the one hurt or driven off.
Each of these is important. If we’re saying that a Threat might just straight up kill someone, the roll has to reflect that chance. Otherwise, we’re just lying in our descriptions, and everyone at the table will see through it. Tension is dropped. And the middle two reflects the notion of partial failure & success — horror thrives not on absolute moments but on small victories and setbacks. Finally, you need to give hope in the moment, which is where the last result lives.
If we’re doing away with rolling, this means we throw out the idea that the Threat might act slower than protagonists — you know, initiative. Horrific competence means Threats push first. The only time when that might be different is if the protagonists are aware of the current situation and somehow make themselves able to get the jump on the Threat, and even then that’s about chance rather than certainty.
After all, that’s how it often works in horror fiction.
Finally, since I bought up “getting hurt”…my favorite system for damage in any horror game comes from Unknown Armies. It’s easy to die, and you never know how many hit points you or anyone else has left. The GM rolls & keeps track of stuff in secret. While normally I hate secret rolls, I like it for damage in horror. It has two things going for it: one, you don’t have absolute certainty of how far you can push your character; two, and frankly far more important, it causes the table to rely on the hurt described rather than numbers. That’s very powerful mojo, because it’s language that makes a horror game really pop.
Again, this is about an idea of a new game system, but it wouldn’t take much to try some of these ideas in an existing one, as long as the game can support horror beats.
A word of note: this setup doesn’t do action-horror — at least, if it’s the sort of “action-horror” that is more action than horror. Which most are; it’s a fun subversion of classic horror construction, where competency is more at parity even if vulnerability is still vastly not.
To be fair, it’s not entirely hypothetical to me. I have notes about using this idea for a game system that uses my Emerging Threats Unit campaign frame, but it’s far from primetime.
[Edit 10-JAN-13: This is a rough draft of an article that's in the Cortex Plus Hackers Guide (with some side notes). So, if you're wondering what sort of cool stuff inside, here's a sample!]
In Cortex Plus Drama, Stress is how your characters deal with setbacks and defeat. It hits them in the moment when they lose a contest, and it stays as lasting consequences until they get some stress relief. Stress is a key piece of your Lead as you play, since you want to gain Stress in order to get your Growth pool. And because people dealing with Stress are interesting.
(This article also applies to hacking conditions in Lady Blackbird and similar games — in fact, it was in hacking Lady Blackbird last year that I stumbled across this idea.)
The five original Stress Traits—
Insecure—are perfect for a Drama about young adults finding their way in a world…and they happen to have superpowers. There are a lot of different forms of Stress your Drama game can take, and a few different ways you can change Stress in your game.
A Menu of Stress
Here are over thirty different Stress Traits. The meaning of most of these will be obvious. Some will make you stop and think. But it’s not for me to tell you what
Overconfident means. It’s for your Leads to tell us what they mean.
This is far from exhaustive, but it’s a good start to get you thinking.
What’s in a name?
The names you use for your Stress Traits will have a huge impact on your game. Choosing them wisely makes the difference between a good Drama and a fantastic one.
In supernatural horror, it makes sense to have an
Afraid Stress Trait. But the word “Afraid” doesn’t sound quite right for a game about mind-shattering knowledge and monsters made of tentacles and ichor.
Horrified has a much stronger ring to it. It that sort of game, saying you’re dealing with
d10 Horrified feels like it has more weight than
d10 Afraid, even if it seems like the exact same thing. Those sorts of words are more primal and are in keeping with the genre. Alternatively, using a word that allows for an added taste of competency under horror (for your “operatives against the supernatural” story), try
Unnerved. That suggests a different way to play out how your Leads handle the Stress.
Anytime you can see a word your characters would use in the fiction, that’s a signal that it could be a good Stress Trait. In a paramilitary drama,
Sloppy might be one you’re interested in adding, but the name sounds comical, downright goofy. If your Leads are meant to be sharp, strong individuals in extraordinary times, another word to use is
Undisciplined. You can imagine how the characters in this story would talk, and they would throw that word around at and about each other
Sometimes you need a little extra oomph to set something apart as a Stress Trait. In many settings,
Suspicious is fine. But in very conspiratorial Dramas, everyone already is (or had well better be). That would be like having
Breathing as Stress. To kick that up a notch for those stories, use
Sometimes the word fits exactly right, but you need to still note down what it means because of your genre. That’s okay, too! Say you’re setting up a Drama set in Louisiana, where humans live in a turbulent peace with other creatures of the night. It would make sense for Leads to have
Hungry. As long as everyone is on board with knowing that’s talking about people, not steak, you’re set.
Genre-specific Stress like Hacked might be better served in your game by using in-world slang.
R00t3d are along from our real world. What’s it called in yours?
Die Rating & Granularity
Most people playing Drama have a sense that
d6 Afraid doesn’t feel like
d12 Afraid. Sometimes, you’ll want to use different words for those different ratings. Do that by adding a little granularity to some of your Stress Traits.
To start with, pick an overall name for that Stress Trait, which you’ll use in rewriting any Distinctions or otherwise referring to it mechanically. Then come up with names for it for the
For a war drama game about paratroopers in WWII, you might want a bit more detail in Injured:
d6: Flesh Wound (Injured)
d8: Bleeding (Injured)
d10: Crippled (Injured)
d12: MEDIC! (Injured)
Or for our supernatural horror above, with “Horrified”:
d6: Unnerved (Horrified)
d8: Afraid (Horrified)
d10: Horrified (Horrified)
d12: Lost in Horror (Horrified)
It’s important to keep in mind that no matter what you call these, at no point does the name of a Stress Rating mean a Lead cannot act. The only time where a Lead cannot act significantly is after being Stressed Out. Your secret operative with
d12 MEDIC! and
d12 Lost in Horror can still fight the good fight and give it all for humanity.
If you do this, limit it to one or two Stress Traits rather than all five. That’s a lot of work for everyone to keep track of.
Changing Stress in your Game
Now that you have an idea of how to do different Stress, it’s really easy to change it. Once you’ve got all your Leads made, you have one last step. Come up with what five Stress Traits you’ll use (either the Gamemaster alone or as a group, though as a group is always better).
The Rule of Five
Stick with five Stress Traits. Too few and each one will come up too often. That’ll get boring. Too many and they won’t hit often enough to be interesting. Someone who is, for example,
Afraid constantly is a one-note character. Someone who only gets
Afraid once never shows us anything interesting about he or she deals with fear. You want Leads that are
Afraid sometimes, so they can play that out in different ways at different times.
If you want to break this rule, know that you’ll change how Stress feels.
Once you have your Stress, look at the Distinctions people have taken. Many key off of increasing or decreasing Stress Traits, either their own or others’. If a Lead has a Distinction that applies to a Stress you aren’t using, work with the group to decide how to rewrite that Distinction (or maybe decide that Distinction doesn’t fit the Drama either).
Different Stress for Different Leads
Once you know how to tweak Stress Traits for your game, it doesn’t take much to realize you can tweak them for each Lead. This can put even more personality into your Leads. You’re already coming up with what they believe in, who matters to them, and the notable things they can do. To say how they’re vulnerable, how they deal with setbacks and defeats, adds even more story mojo to your game.
Your Box of Traits
When coming up with your campaign, you have two choices: Playing with the Big Toy Box or Focusing the Pain.
Playing with the Big Toy Box lets everyone pick from any Stress Traits. This gives you all sorts of options to come up with interesting characters that you might not expect.
Focusing the Pain means narrow down the list of available Stress Traits down to between eight and twelve. This allows you to craft a more consistent theme in your game, while still allowing room for flexibility.
Neither one’s better than the other; it’s all about what you and your game need.
Once you know what Stress Traits are available to the Leads, you can come up with each one’s when doing the finishing touches. You have some other choices you can make here: Free for All, Common Stress, and Heritage Stress.
Free for All is simple. From the list of available Stress Traits, pick five that feel right for that Lead, that would be fun to see that Lead have to deal with. This is great if you want a looser drama, where Leads come from many different backgrounds and have very different roles in the story. You might even consider changing these as you play, possibly one per Tag Scene.
Common Stress is a little more involved, as you have to come up with two or three Stress Traits that everyone in the campaign should have, leaving the remaining ones open for a Free for All. This unification allows for a tighter story about characters that are similar. It’s a great way to explore how such characters still differ in that tight story space. In particular, a “humans versus supernatural menaces” or “military dramas” game will be will-served with a few common Stress Traits.
Heritage Stress is a variation on Common Stress, for specialized character types like different races or species, or characters with very different walks of life—whatever your Drama game decides are Heritages. A game with elves, dwarves, and humans might have all three with their own set of Common Stress Traits (and possibly even having some special Stress Traits the other races can’t take!). Likewise, a game where you have disciplined military or law enforcement personnel alongside untrained civilian scientists could be reflected in two different sets of Heritage Stress.
Stress In Action
Now that we know all sorts of ways to change Stress in our games, let’s take a look a few examples:
The Future Savior of Humanity
You’re a family like any other. You get up, go to school, get home, and fight against killer robots from the future. Your mother has been training you since birth to be a great leader of a future resistance, your “uncle” was sent back in time to aid you both, and your “cousin” a reprogrammed killer robot. Oh, and next week is show and tell!
- All Robots From The Future have the same Stress Traits:
Revealed. (The group decided that Robots should feel very similar and only have three Stress Traits.)
- All Humans have
Paranoidand any four other Stress Traits that Robots don’t have.
(Inspiration: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles)
No One Knows We Save The World
Back when the Bureau of Unnatural Containment was first formed, the world was in chaos. Germany was marching across the earth with Powers Unknowable. It’s been years since their defeat, both temporal and supernatural, but their dark legacy lives on in secret. The Bureau was shut down a few years ago, but evil continues to discover and wield Nazi magitech. So you and your pistol continue the Bureau’s good work in secret, one kept even from your husband and children.
- Everyone has:
Distracted(specifically by the Lead’s home life),
- Everyone choose two more from:
We Few, We Proud, We Brave Soldiers
Never before has something so grand been attempted by individual men and women. Taking Planet Haxith will be difficult without boots on the ground. Ion cannons will take out large dropships, but you three hundred will drop solo from high orbit in pods too small to be targeted, land, and make our beachhead. Our success depends entirely on you. Welcome to Fall Brigade.
- Everyone has the same six Stress Traits in the game:
Blissed(due to the combat drugs),
Hacked(their jumpsuits & other gear),
Injured(using die ratings & granularity),
- The group couldn’t choose which one to drop to make five, so they’re trying all six to see what happens. They’ll see if one should go away after the third session. They had five until someone suggested
Blissedand explained it.
Predators Alongside Prey
Vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and sorcerers, oh my! The world got a lot weirder a few years back when the vamps outed themselves and try to live among us, but life’s still more or less normal. At least, until that new guy came into town to reclaim his family’s lost estate. They say he’s trying to live “off the vein,” but I fear everything’s about to change.
- Vampires have:
- Werewolves have:
- Ghosts have:
Incorporeal. (They intentionally don’t have
- Sorcerers have:
- Normal humans must take:
Crippled(They’re much more delicate that everyone else),
- Of the remaining three Stress Traits, the group says “get your emo on!” Choose from:
The Mysterious Case Files
There have been thirteen instances of reality deviation in Manhattan in the last month alone. Naturally, this is a cause for concern. The local authorities can’t handle this. This is a case for you, the Luxmas Group. You have the expertise and resources to handle this before we have another Incursion. And Ms. Cranston…we have evidence that suggests your deceased husband is behind all this.
- Everyone has:
Distracted(specifically about something from their past),
Stumped(in an investigative Drama, this is a fun Stress)
- FBI-trained characters have:
Restrained(meaning dealing with bureaucratic red tape)
- Scientist characters have:
Obsessed(the Luxmas Group tends to recruit a certain sort of gifted individual)
- The remaining one to three Stress Traits are open.
Cortex Plus is pure elegance in its simplicity, and is currently my go-to when I start thinking about game tinkering. Naturally, I got some heavy duty time in when I was on the Leverage team, but I honestly didn’t get the full awesome of the system until after playing Smallville, playing Leverage with other people, hacking my own variants for Aethertide, my Mage: the Ascension-using-Cortex Plus homebrew, and talking with friends about other Cortex Plus hacks (including some which will be in the upcoming Cortex Plus Hackers Guide).
The magic that I’ve found in playing Cortex Plus — well, part of the magic, and the part I want to talk about — is how an action is formed. When you want to do something in a Cortex Plus game, and I’ll use Smallville & Leverage as examples, you assemble dice by explaining what you’re doing.
Smallville’s decisions are emo. When you do something like, say, saving your best friend’s bride to be from Dr. Freezoman at their wedding where you’re both best man and best superhero, you’re making these decisions
- Value: I’m doing this because “I believe in the power of Love“
- Relationships: I’m doing this for my best friend, Phil
- Power: Oh, and I’m doing this with my Power of Lightning, for I’m Lighting Rod Johnson, super-powered porn star.
I’m force to verbalize what might have been internal — either internal and aware or internal and unaware. I say “Love, because, dude, he’s fucking up my friend’s marriage, so that’s a d10,” “My best friend Phil, who I’m seriously jealous of, but can’t show it. That’s a d8.” and “LIGHTNING, YO! d10.” I justify not just to the GM or table, but to myself in a conscious way, what I’m doing. That’s power.
(Now, in this case I would probably challenge my relationship with Phil, because maybe I’m not as jealous of him as I once was, which is another point of decision in Smallville. Mojo there, too, but not worth unpacking in this post. You should just play it and find out.)
Smallville makes me articulate motivations even more than means. I could choose something else, like:
- Value: I’m doing this because “Villains need to be brought to Justice. Lethal Justice.” (d8)
- Relationships: I’m doing this to my archnemesis, Dr. Freezoman. (d12)
- Power: Still doing it with my Power of Lightning, because I’m a badass. (still a d10)
We see the same thing, my character shooting Dr. Freezoman with my lightning…rod. But we uncover more about who this person I’m playing is. And that’s mojo. Granted, with different dice, there are different little bits of tactical decision making going on, but that allows for context to either try to work in something unexpected for better dice (and have to justify it to keep that die) or to pick something weaker because it’s interesting.
If Smallville is “gut-punching emo porn,” Leverage is “competence porn.” What it asks me to describe is different. Let’s say I’m trying to get access to a secure vault. I’m all sexy cool thief-y spy person. Here’s what Leverage asks of me:
- Attribute: I’m doing this with my Vitality (d8)
- Role: I’m using my Grifter role (d10)
- Distinction: My “silver tongue” helps me (d8)
I’m describing how I’m endlessly talking my way to the vault by boring the guard to the point where he lets me in because he’s tired of hearing me talk and I seem trustworthy. Leverage is all about how I’m doing something, with a minor twist. Let’s see another way to look at it, if I’m trying to sneak in through the air ducts.
- Attribute: I’m doing this with my Agility (d10)
- Role: I’m using my Thief role (d8)
- Distinction: My “the walls are closing in” hinders me (d4, and a Plot Point for later)
Again, I’m describing what I’m doing, how I’m being competent. Leverage has a place, though, were I can also describe how elements of my character can get in my way — a choice I have with distinctions, as they aren’t set at a specific die rating. They either help for a d8, or hinders for a d4 and a Plot Point to use later. So I describe how I’ve being a badass, and if I have any sort of internal adversity tripping me up.
Same die system, radically different language being generated. That’s why I love hacking Cortex Plus — the die assembling part of the game is about describing what’s important to that game. The elements your characters can grab for dice are about what the game is interested in, which could be about how people feel, or how awesome they are, or their history (as in Lenny’s Highlander hack he’s tinkering with, where you assemble from Values, Bonds and Memories), or whatever.
I’ve been thinking about this because I’m not entirely happy with how I’m doing it with Aethertide. And I’ll be revising it soon.
You can see another take on this idea in Wushu – a game that causes you to describe fight scenes essentially as beats, with each beat giving a d6 to your roll (to a maximum of 6):
- I jump out of the way of the shuriken flying toward me (1 die),
- grab the fire hyrdant (1 die),
- throw it at a mook (1 die),
- jump off the railing (1 die),
- duck and roll to pick up my katana (1 die),
- and do a flying kick at the Big Bad (1 die).
I should now that I haven’t yet played Wushu. I wasn’t really interested in it until I started looking more deeply at Cortex Plus, because it didn’t seem to differentiate the characters, but I see how the beat descriptions force me to put more on the table than I might have if it wasn’t demanded of me. Maybe because I would feel it over-indulgent to describe that much if it wasn’t necessary for optimal awesome. Maybe because I wouldn’t think of all that because there’s other stuff going on in my head and those questions aren’t asked of me.
But of course I want all the dice I can get. I’m a fucking gamer playing an action-y game. Naturally I’m going to come up with that content. So Wushu does that well, and (again, from what I’ve seen and heard, not yet experiences) it takes the idea of grabbing dice to create an action sequence pretty damned well.
In short: having the mechanism of picking up dice cause decisions in and of themselves, and cause language to flow, is bad ass. More games should do that.
 My article in there is, in a sense, a whitepaper on how language choices affect setting. I’m looking forward to that coming out.
 Which is a thing I used to call “socialized awesome” — whenever everyone is equally and identically awesome, no one is.